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Guns, Ammo Shortage Causes Shifts in Buying Trends

The year 2020 presented a perfect storm for a firearm and ammo shortage.

To start, election years always see a spike in demand for firearms and ammunition.

Modded AR-15s
The threat of tighter gun legislation often causes consumers to stock up on ARs in election years.

Then we experienced a worldwide pandemic which led to shortages of all kinds of products, with guns and ammo being no exception.

The pandemic drove up demand while simultaneously making it harder for manufacturers to meet the surge.

Topping off an already extraordinary year, a series of protests and riots over the summer months of 2020 rocked the nation, further increasing demand for self-defense-style guns and ammo.

Home Defense Glock G19 Light
Defense style guns, like the Glock 17, were incredibly popular.

Combined, this led to 2020 setting record firearms sales.

Gun sales aside, did consumers flock to different guns or ammo to meet their needs? Were any other facets of the industry impacted by the radical year that was 2020?

Keep reading to see what we unearthed.

Table of Contents


Millions Become Gun Owners in 2020

The FBI ran over 39 million background checks, almost 40% more than in 2019.

The NSSF estimated that out of the 39 million checks ran, 5 million of those were for first-time purchasers.

That said, even previous gun owners who already owned firearms tried to stock up, particularly on ammunition.

Lots of Ammo
Gun owners stocked up in 2020.

And there’s no end in sight. Manufacturers are still falling well behind normal production.

Some even experienced all but shutdowns due to coronavirus precautions.

Even those still in shop haven’t matched normal production rates, let alone the current, much higher demand.

The Canik TP9SFX is a Turkish import.

It’s not U.S.-centered either. Basically, every country in the world is experiencing the same issue. There are virtually no imports coming in to provide relief.

After all, if guns and ammo are selling out in their own countries, manufacturers have no incentive to deal with the hassle of sending products abroad.

With all of this in mind, we at Pew Pew Tactical talked to some gun shops and manufacturers to see if the shortage led to shifts in the sort of firearms and ammo people are looking for.

Are people turning to alternative arms to meet their needs?

Bow and archery target
Is this the next phase of self-defense?

In short, we learned the answer was both yes…and no.

In the beginning, when ammo and arms began drying up, there were more noticeable trends in demand.

Early on, there was a shift to rimfire ammo and guns.

Notoriously more affordable than their centerfire counterparts, consumers flocked to brick-and-mortar stores and online gun shops to grab what they could of rimfire guns and rounds once centerfire was nowhere to be found.

Rimfire vs Centerfire Cartridges
Rimfire vs centerfire cartridges

Ultimately, rimfire supplies were exhausted.

In the fall, consumers moved to shotguns. While shotguns are usually better sellers in hunting months anyway, the fall of 2020 saw these firearms exhausted by Christmas too.

Rob Gates, VP of Sales and Marketing for Savage Arms, said the company experienced a “tremendous turkey season” during a December media event. Gates said numbers were up double digits as more gun owners took the field.

Multiple Shotguns with Optics
Shotguns picked up in the latter parts of 2020.

While 9mm and 5.56 caliber firearms were among the first to sell out when the shortage began, consumers have better luck finding polymer guns chambered in these rounds now.

Polymer is easier, quicker, and cheaper to manufacture, so polymer gun makers can churn these out at a higher rate. That said, it’s not as easy to buy as is it once was.

In many shops, guns like these still sell out quickly.

Glock G17 and G19 Gen 4
The Glock G17 and G19 are both polymer guns that flew off shelves.

Even guns chambered for other common, but slightly less so, calibers like .308 and .45 ACP sell out fast, making them tough to find.

But in comparison to ammunition, guns are a piece of cake.

These days, both .22 LR and 12-gauge, previously two of the easiest to find cartridges, rarely appear on shelves.

Savage’s Gates weighed in that rimfire experienced a resurgence in 2020.

In response, many shooters look for more unusual things in hopes of finding anything available.

Firearms Alternatives

But according to the sources we talked to, this achieves mixed results, especially at this point in the shortage.

Like guns, shops are getting more 9mm and 5.56 than other calibers, but they’re selling out as soon as they hit the shelves.

Even for stores that cap the amount of ammo one can buy, inventory typically sells out within just a few hours, if that.

Just because someone works behind a gun store counter they’re not automatically experts. Do ask questions but take what is said with a grain of salt.
Pre-COVID, obviously.

More unusual rounds find their way onto shelves and tend to stay, but it’s the guns themselves that are hard to get.

For example, the gun store owners I talked to said they had lots of .38 Special and Norma caliber available. But there was hardly a surplus of guns in those calibers even before the shortage.

Left to right: 6mm Norma BR, 6×47 Lapua, 243 Winchester, 6.5 Grendel, 6.5×47 Lapua, 6.5 Creedmoor 120 A-MAX, 6.5 Creedmoor 142 SMK, 260 Remington, and 308 Winchester
Left to right: 6mm Norma BR, 6×47 Lapua, 243 Winchester, 6.5 Grendel, 6.5×47 Lapua, 6.5 Creedmoor 120 A-MAX, 6.5 Creedmoor 142 SMK, 260 Remington, and 308 Winchester

When you can get your hands on ammo, it doesn’t come cheap either.

But don’t blame your gun shop for that. It’s the manufacturers.

Shops currently pay exorbitant prices just to stock ammo. As one of the shop owners I talked to put it, “They’re pricing it like Maine Lobster: market price.”

PSA AK74 Ammo Pile

It’s hard to hold it against the manufacturers, though.

While there are conspiracy theories about ammo companies like Hornady and Federal stockpiling ammo in warehouses to artificially create a shortage, the reality is ammo is going almost directly from the manufacturing line to shipping trucks.  

“It takes months to train people. You got to train people to make ammunition that takes time. You got to get the raw materials. On top of that all, we’re dealing with a pandemic,” Jason Vanderbrink, the President of Federal, CCI, Speer, and Remington explained in a video message.

Like so many companies right now, ammo manufacturers are just trying to stay afloat.

Gun Gear & Gadgets

It’s not just firearms and ammo, though. Periphery gear – like apparel, targets, and cleaning supplies — has also seen an increase in interest.

For example, one gun shop owner reported that duck hunting clothing wasn’t available to stock until after the season had already ended.

Must Have Hunting Gear Deer Gear
Hunting accessories are on the rise.

Vista Outdoor – who represents Blackhawk, Bushnell, Hoppe’s, and Uncle Mike’s — reported a 19% increase in hunting and shooting accessories from Q2 2019 to 2020.

“More accessories are being purchased to support participation. Categories such as gun cleaning kits, slings, hunting scopes, eyes, and ear protection…,” Vista Outdoor CEO Chris Metz said in a November 2020 Earnings Conference Call.

Putting on Eye and Ear Protection
Eye and ear protection were also heavily purchased in 2020.

Fortunately, many gun shops are getting a little bit of relief from a couple of areas.

For one, there has been a slight bump in people coming into shops to sell their firearms, especially in the form of firearm collections. This allows shops to stock some firearms.

Shop owners said customers, in this case, are looking to sell in anticipation of legal regulations on firearms, or they face financial difficulties due to the pandemic.

45 Colt Guns and Ammo

There’s also a subset who sell pieces of their collection because they see an opportunity to make some cash in the shortage.

In a first, some shops are even beginning to accept secondhand sales of ammo to aid in stock. So far, though, they don’t see much of it.

Demand for maintenance services, like cleaning and repairs, has also increased relative to past years.

According to the shop owners, this has been the real saving grace, helping them make ends meet in a rough economic climate.

Use your cleaning brush pushing from the rear of the shotgun forward
Cleaning and maintenance services are also seeing more action.


Unfortunately, we don’t know when the shortage will end. Ammo makers initially projected a return to stock in summer 2020, but that projected date seems questionable as spring yields to summer.

Inceptor 10mm 90 grain ARX frangibles and a trio of 10mm handguns. Matches made in frangible heaven.
It’s unclear when stock will return to normal.

The rollout of COVID vaccines could see a shift in demand, bringing more stock to shelves. Though a normalized inventory won’t immediately appear, a return to normalcy may allow manufacturers to catch up while, simultaneously, demand decreases.

Time will tell, though.

So how have you handled the ammo and firearm shortage? Let us know in the comments. For more on how COVID impacted the gun industry, see Gun Sales Pre and Post COVID or for ideas on firearm alternatives, check out the Best Gun Alternatives.

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5 Leave a Reply

  • Commenter Avatar

    I have seen more ammo this week in stores than anytime in the past year. I am actually hopeful that things are getting better.

    April 22, 2021 6:12 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Andrew J Hodges

    I work for a not small online retailer that sells, among other things, guns and ammo. Total sales for 2020 were more than double our projections and we have beat expectations EVERY DAY of 2021 so far. You don't double sales for a year during a shortage, demand is WAAY up.

    April 22, 2021 1:00 pm
  • Commenter Avatar
    Brent W.

    I work for a wholesale company that imports many things from overseas and purchases a great deal of domestic products. Every step of the transportation network is completely bogged down. Pre-pandemic, ocean shippers were begging for people to fill their shipping capacity, and one South Korean ocean line went out of business. Once products arrived in the US, there were plenty of truck cabs, trailers, container chassis, and train cars to move the products in bulk, containers or pallets.

    Now the situation is completely changed. Shippers are moving as much as they can, but demand is way up. If you look at truck miles traveled in the US in 2020 for example, while passenger vehicle miles dropped enormously during the lockdowns, there was such a jump in truck miles that total vehicle miles traveled in the US barely dropped. Shipping prices are up 40%-50%, if you can even get a shipper to accept your freight. Especially ocean shippers used to absorb lots of charges into their rates, waiving them completely, but now all of that is tacked on separately and there are no waivers (stuff most folks have never heard of, like Alameda Corridor Charges, or Bunker and Low-sulfur price increases, and the jaw-dropping Peak Season Surcharge when businesses great and small are bringing over stock for the holiday season).

    So that's part of the problem, too. Lead, copper, powder, brass, all have to be acquired and moved to the ammo factories, then turned into ammo and shipped back out. But there are not enough trucks & drivers to meet the demand of all markets. If a driver got infected and had to isolate, they often could not be replaced. Now think about the effect if a railroad engineer is out for 10 days and an entire freight train is delayed. If any raw materials for ammo are coming from overseas, add weeks more delay and significant cost increases. This is also why you have things like duck hunting gear not arriving in stores until the season has passed. Even domestic manufacturers were probably behind because exposed workers were stuck in isolation, but lots of gear was probably completed and sitting at the shipping dock, waiting on a truck or rail carrier to pick it up.

    I really don't expect these problems to start to resolve until after the 2021 holiday season. They still are going on now, and nobody knows if this has caused a permanent shift in consumer purchasing habits. We may have to wait even longer, until the logistics tail of the economy is expanded to match demand.

    April 21, 2021 5:31 pm
    • Commenter Avatar
      Diego Martin Fernandez

      Thank you for the info. It makes sense. Kind of you to spend time writing such a detailed, well thought out comment. Much appreciated!

      April 21, 2021 6:33 pm
      • Commenter Avatar

        Megan, thank you for such an informative article. I really enjoy the content at PewPew tactical. Keep up the great work!

        April 21, 2021 6:58 pm
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