Ammo shortage leaves Alaska businesses shooting blanks

There’s no doubt about it — Alaskans like their guns. But there’s only so much you can do with a gun without bullets.

This past year, those have been harder than ever to come by.

A shelf with a few bozes of ammo
KOMU News via Creative Commons

Alaska and the rest of the U.S. are deep in an ammunition shortage, likely due to a confluence of current events and production setbacks.

It’s impacted businesses like Brenda Trefren’s. She runs the firearms training company Majority Arms out of Sterling.

“If we don’t have ammo, we don’t have students,” she said. “So it’s pretty serious for us.”

People following the firearm industry, like Michael Modrell, said the shortage has a lot to do with the unrest of the last year. 

Modrell manages Soldotna Ammo Supply on K-Beach Road. He said gun stores saw spikes in gun and ammo sales when COVID-19 first came to the U.S. last March.

But that uptick was pretty minor in Alaska. He said more people came in to get guns and ammunition during the Black Lives Matter protests in the Lower 48. That happened again before the November election.

There’s always an uptick in firearm and ammo sales around elections. But this one was next level — and bipartisan.

“I knew people who got into guns because they assumed Trump was going to win and they felt their side was going to be further marginalized,” Modrell said. “And then other people bought guns because they thought Trump might not win, and if a Democrat won it would be harder for them to get guns and ammo.”

Modrell said the rush slowed after the election. But smaller political changes, too, can trigger sales.

Like this spring, when President Joe Biden nominated a gun control advocate to the top role in the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives. Even a law change in another state, like California, might send people in.

“We hear a lot of conversations here,” Modrell said. “This place kind of works like someone coming in to talk to a bartender. It’s almost always political.”

It’s a vicious cycle, too, since people are more likely to go buy more ammo when shelves are short.

“The toilet paper thing all over again,” he said.

Another snag has come from the chain of production. That was especially true in the early days of the pandemic, as manufacturers shut down or adjusted their operations to be COVID-safe.

Now, a lot of the bigger companies are back to business as usual. But there are still other parts of the process that may be on hold — including something as benign as the plastic inserts that go inside the ammunition boxes.

“Everything kind of gets backed up to wherever the slowest producer is,” Modrell said.

Trefren said she’s seen more ammunition malfunctions than usual. That makes her think companies are trying to churn out as much ammo as they can as quickly as they can.

The whole thing has made things harder on her business. She said she’s had to pare down her classes.

“We’ve taken our ladies class from 350 rounds to 200 rounds,” she said. “Which has been a challenge because you really need to shoot those rounds to get comfortable and confident with your firearm.”

Soldotna Ammo has limited sales to five boxes per customer.

“I think at this point, we have about $2 million on backorder,” Modrell said. “We have orders we’ve had in place since the beginning of the year, or last year. And then we’ve had some vendors that have completely canceled our order. They stopped selling to vendors. They’re only selling on the consumer sites, because they can’t keep up with their own demand.”

He said that’s especially hard up here, since a lot of companies don’t ship to Alaska. 

It’s impossible to know when the shortage will cease. Modrell said the closest he’s seen to a shortage like this was after 9/11.

“But for the most part, everybody who was panic buying then were people who already owned guns or who were already kind of into that lifestyle,” he said.

This time, a lot of customers are new gun owners, mostly buying firearms for self defense.

Treffen said she’s heard things are supposed to level out by November or December.

For now, students are bringing their own ammo to her classes. They might have to get to the store early in the morning or camp outside to get it.

“With me living in Nikiski, it’s hard for me to get to town all the time,” she said. “So my students are really taking good care of me and grabbing me ammo when they can.”

That ammo will have to do for now. There’s not much shooting that can happen without it.

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