Bullets are flying off the shelves

There’s a bull market for bullets.

Stacks of ammo, once piled high at gun shops across America, have dwindled. Prices paid by consumers for much-sought-after Winchester .380-caliber handgun bullets have doubled. At weekend gun shows, trailers loaded with boxes of ammunition are drained within hours.

Budget-pressed police departments, which can’t be caught short, have increased their orders just to be safe, and the U.S. military, fighting two wars, has seen its need for bullets quadruple in recent years.

Bullets are in demand as the nation’s appetite for firearms has soared. U.S. gun sales are up since the 2008 presidential election, during which the National Rifle Assn. poured millions of dollars into advertisements suggesting that Democrat Barack Obama would move to restrict gun sales if elected.


Sacramento businessman Strati Vourakis, 29, has been looking to get ammo for his semiautomatic Glock handgun for months. But prices have been too high, he said. “Everything’s in short supply, and everything that’s in is so expensive.”

Like others, Vourakis says he fears that ammo sales may soon be restricted with Obama in the White House.

“The entire administration has a terrible record when it comes to gun rights,” he said. “They’re always trying to restrict guns in some way -- especially here in California.”

Graphic designer Tak Shimada, 37, of Torrance, has been trying to track down bullets for his 9-millimeter handgun all summer.

“Buying 9-millimeter used to be like finding Coca-Cola,” he said. “It’s not like that now.”

Both guns and ammo are in demand, but it is the bullets that are in short supply -- and bullet factories are running around the clock to meet demand.

“Nobody has ever seen this kind of demand before,” said Lawrence Keane, senior vice president and general counsel of the National Shooting Sports Foundation Inc., which represents the largest ammo suppliers in the country. “Right now, the plants are operating full-bore to get the product on the shelf.”

The foundation estimates that there will be about 2 billion more American-made bullets produced this year over 2008’s 7.5 billion. But customers wouldn’t know it by the empty spaces on gun store shelves.

At the Los Angeles Gun Club downtown, a shooting range and ammo store, customers are limited to buying four boxes of ammo a visit.

In the 20 years he’s owned the club, it’s the first time Elias Yidonoy Jr. has made such a policy. He doesn’t like it, but if it’s not enforced, the club would be out of bullets -- and Yidonoy would be out of business.

“We can’t stock enough bullets,” he said. “As soon as we put them out, they’re gone.”

New gun owners tend to buy more ammo, Yidonoy said. “Most of the time they buy more than they’ll ever need,” he said.

Doug Cole, 35, a home theater installer in Northern California, is in the market for bullets and has been to five stores looking. “You count yourself pretty lucky when you find ammo. It’s not an easy thing to find.”

He bought a .45-caliber handgun shortly after the 2008 election, saying he was concerned that with Democrats controlling Congress and the White House, gun control may be ahead.

“I got caught up in the rush,” he said. “I saw how many people were buying up guns and ammunition and got worried. The threat of not being able to get one was enough for me.”

From January through July, gun sales increased 22% over the same period last year. The nationwide boom can be traced back to last year’s political campaign, said Peter Hamm, communications director for the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence in Washington.

The NRA raised fears that Obama would “take people’s guns away,” he said.

Hamm points to an NRA website launched during the campaign,, as an example. Its headline says, “Obama would be the most anti-gun president in American history.”

NRA spokeswoman Rachel Parsons said the organization paid several million dollars in advertising. But, she added, it didn’t take much coaxing for Americans to be uneasy about Obama’s gun stance.

“People are always worried about more gun control, and that’s what this administration represents. Just look at how many people went out and bought guns and ammo right after the election,” Parsons said.

In California, there have been about 60,000 more guns sold in the first seven months of this year than the same period in 2008 -- a 26% jump, according to the state attorney general’s office.

With that came the rush for bullets.

“The line for ammo always forms first and lasts the longest,” said Tracy Olcott, vice president for Crossroads of the West Gun Shows, which holds about 20 shows a year in Southern California.

Olcott said one ammo dealer she knows came to a recent show with three tractor-trailer trucks filled with ammunition. By the time he left, he piled a few leftovers into a pickup truck.

Although consumers are a driving force behind the shortage, the military has eaten into the supply chain as well.

U.S. military demand for small-arms ammunition has almost quadrupled this decade, increasing to 1.6 billion rounds from 462 million, according to Cheryl Irwin, a Defense Department spokeswoman.

Military ammo used to be supplied exclusively by the Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Mo. But as consumption grew, the military was forced to turn to other suppliers to fill demand.

Amid the shortage, gun shop owners say they’re scrounging for bullets.

Richard Moore orders ammunition every year for Magnum Range Inc., his gun shop and shooting range in San Bernardino. This year, he placed an order for 1 million rounds from his wholesaler. As of recently, he had received fewer than 150,000 rounds.

“Orders used to get filled in matters of weeks, if not days,” Moore said. “Now we’re talking months and years. It’s crazy to think how far we’ve come.”

Some large metropolitan police departments, including the Los Angeles Police Department, reported few shortages. The Riverside Police Department, however, said its ammo order used to be filled in a couple of months. Now it takes 10 months to a year. And the bill went from about $75,000 to $90,000 -- a 20% jump.

“It’s taking longer and longer to get, so we order sooner and in larger quantity to compensate,” said Lt. Vance Hardin, who orders ammo for Riverside’s police force.

Remington Arms Co., Alliant Techsystems Inc. and Winchester Ammunition say they are doing all they can to meet demand. All three companies declined to say just how much more ammunition they are producing this year.

Cheaper Than Dirt, an online and catalog sporting goods dealer, has also seen its best months in ammunition sales this year. The company has done $20 million in ammunition sales alone, about 30% more than last year, said Chief Executive Michael Tenny.

At one point, the company was selling .380-caliber handgun ammo for about $50 a box. Usually one sells for about $12.

“Ammunition is like gasoline -- it’s a commodity,” he said. “When supply is hard to get ahold of, prices go up. That’s where we are now.”