When the Forks Rifle Club launched its youth shooting program for the season Oct. 10, the young shooters were able to step up to the firing line with .22 rifles, but organizers for a while thought they might have to resort to air rifles.
The reason: Tight ammo supplies, especially small calibers such as .22 cartridges.
"Pretty much nonexistent," is how Steve Martin describes .22 ammo. Martin, Emerado, N.D., is a longtime Forks Rifle Club member who helps coach the youth program. "If you find .22 ammo on the shelves, you're lucky. You can find high-powered and pistol ammo, (but) you might not be able to walk in that day and get it."
It took some scrambling, but Martin was able to scrounge up six bricks of .22 ammo -- 3,000 rounds -- for the youth shooting program. Another source said he'd donate a case of ammo, which will mean another 5,000 rounds.
"I've got enough for a week or two," Martin said. "Last year, we had six regular shooters and we went through four or five cases."
The ammo crunch facing the Forks Rifle Club program is just one example of the tight supplies that have been the norm since President Barack Obama was re-elected last November and the Sandy Hook shootings in December, when a gunman killed 20 children and six staff members at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The two events prompted buying sprees of guns and ammo that exceeded the industry's ability to keep up with the demand.
"Demand on semi-automatic guns and AR guns went through the roof like we've not seen," said Nick Marvin, manager of Streiff Sporting Goods near Warroad, Minn. "The industry hasn't been able to catch up with that yet. The demand far outpaced supply, and it eventually started trickling down to hunting rounds."
Despite popular belief, AR doesn't stand for "assault rifle" but instead refers to Armalite Rifle, the company that manufactured the rifles before selling the rights to Colt in 1959. AR today has become a generic term to describe the lightweight, semi-automatic rifles -- in the same way, for example, that most people refer to facial tissue as Kleenex -- regardless of the brand.
Marvin and other retailers across the region say supplies of most calibers are slowly improving but .22 ammo -- especially.22 LR (long rifle) cartridges -- remains a scarce commodity. And with the firearms deer seasons right around the corner in both Minnesota and North Dakota, Marvin said hunters should plan ahead to make sure the ammo they need for hunting is in stock.
"It's better than February, March and April, but it's still very tight," Marvin said. "The big thing we're trying to stress to our customers is it's going to be kind of tight across the board. The guy who buys a box of .30-06 ammo a week before season, I don't think any retailer is going to be able to say, 'Hey, that product is going to be there this year.'"
The question many people ask is why.22 ammo is being gobbled up and hoarded. No one has a definitive answer, aside from the fact that it's cheap and abundant.
Or, at least, used to be cheap and abundant. A brick of .22 ammo that might have cost $20 a few years ago can fetch $100 today.
"It's the cheapest ammo that people can stockpile or whatever you want to call it," Martin of the Forks Rifle Club said. "It's not that (manufacturers) aren't making it; it's just that people are grabbing it up. I was supposed to get 10 cases of (.22) ammo from a Friends of NRA grant, and I haven't seen that yet."
Brad Olson, a merchandise manager at the East Grand Forks Cabela's, said the store, like many other retailers, has implemented a limit on the amount of .22 ammo customers can buy on the rare occasions it's actually on the shelf.
At Cabela's, the limit, which only is in effect for .22 short, .22 LR and .22 Magnum ammo, is two 50-round boxes or one 100-round box, Olson said.
"Ammo inventory has greatly improved in all calibers," Olson said in an email, adding that .22 LR remains the ammo in greatest demand. "We are seeing .22LR arrive in our store every week but it is in limited supply and it sells very fast."
Marvin said Streiff Sporting Goods limits customers to five boxes of ammo per day, whether it's rifle or shotgun shells. He said the store initially put customers on a waiting list for .22 ammo, but the demand got out of hand.
"We get it, we put it out, and that's that," Marvin said. "I think the frustrating thing for some people, myself included, is gun safety, people trying to teach kids to shoot. They need it worse than the rest of us because they're the future of the sport."
Marvin said putting the limits in place is the only way supplies are going to improve.
"Buy what you need and the industry will catch up with itself," he said. "Reorders are tough for us. Our orders we placed a year ago, we have that, but if something sells out, that's been the tricky part."
Supplies of some ammo also have been tricky for law enforcement such as Minnesota conservation officers. According to 2nd Lt. David Schottenbauer, assistant training coordinator for the Department of Natural Resources' Enforcement Division in Little Falls, Minn., supplies of the .223 ammo officers carry while on duty haven't been a problem.
Not so for the less expensive ammo DNR Enforcement uses for training. Schottenbauer said the training ammo now being used was ordered two years ago, and there's no timetable for when the DNR will receive new supplies from orders it placed last December and again this past July.
"We've got approximately two to three years of ammo ordered but no time for when it will be here," Schottenbauer said. "It affects law enforcement as much as the private sector."
He said conservation officers have a responsibility to be accurate shooters; that means practice.
"In order for us to be accurate and for us to practice, we need ammo," Schottenbauer said. "It's a very important part of our job."
Schottenbauer said the crunch really hit after Sandy Hook, which also coincided with the time DNR Enforcement was making the transition from M14 .308 rifles to Smith and Wesson MP15X .223-caliber firearms.
"We've not only been trying to get ammo to practice with the new firearms for our division, but we've also ordered these guns and had to outfit them with specific parts to do our job, and everything pretty much shut down after Sandy Hook -- to the point where everything was on backorder," Schottenbauer said. "You couldn't get lube for the gun, you couldn't get a sling -- things you wouldn't think would be a problem.
"Anything that had gun on it, anything that had to do with firearms, it was to the point where you would call manufacturers to ask about the part, and the message would say 'We are so overwhelmed with calls, we'll get to you when we get to you.' It was pretty striking, and for a few months, it was pretty tough."
For hunters looking toward deer season, supplies of some calibers remain pretty tight. Aaron Riesen, a salesperson at Hunters Outlet in Thief River Falls, said ammo for .30-06 and .270 caliber rifles is in decent supply, along with larger calibers such as 7mm and .300.
Besides the obvious .22 shortage, he said, .243 and .308 calibers also are in tight supply, while .223 ammo seems to be getting better.
Marvin of Streiff's said he's optimistic the industry will catch up, perhaps as early as mid to late winter.
"It's getting easier, but it's not a situation where a consumer is going to be able to walk in the store and if it's not there, the retailer is going to be able to say, 'Hey, let me order it for you, I'll have it in six days,'" Marvin said. "It's just not going to happen."
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