There's a chill in the evening air and daylight hours are waning. Many animals are beginning to fatten up for winter, and the deer rut is soon to kick in. Traditionally it's time to start sighting-in the sporting arms and get ready for the fall hunts.
This year, however, many hunters will have a hard time filling their chambers. A nationwide ammunition shortage is sure to impact hunters who shoot some of the most popular calibers.
Shotgun loads for shot and rifled slugs remain easy to find. But reflecting a national trend, availability of rifle and handgun ammunition in Pittsburgh area sporting goods stores is spotty and inconsistent. Many shelves are empty. A clerk at one local store, who asked that he and the retailer remain anonymous, said customers are going from store to store searching for common calibers and sometimes not finding them.
Keith Savage of Braverman Arms in Wilkinsburg put it this way: "It is unbelievably hard to get common stuff."
Long term, the national ammunition shortage began with record gun sales that started the week after President Barack Obama was elected to his first term. Apprehension over possible new gun laws spurred many gun owners to stock up on firearms and ammunition. A push for gun law reform early in Obama's second term further increased sales.
The current ammunition shortage began in January when increased sales of new high-performance firearms led to increased purchases of .22, 9mm and .380 cartridges for those guns. To meet that demand, manufacturers shifted away from producing popular hunting ammo that was well-stocked at the time, including .270, .30-06, .30-30 and .308. Now, as consumers seek hunting ammunition, manufacturers have used up their reserves and are struggling to catch up. Wholesalers can't supply the stores with what they need and shelves are conspicuously empty.
At the same time, some gun owners are hoarding ammunition, fearing another legislative push for gun law reform.
"It's several things happening at once," said Mike Bazinet of the Newtown, Connecticut-based National Shooting Sports Foundation, a gun and ammunition trade association. "We're now living in a time of just-in-time manufacturing. There's not as much flexibility in the supply system as there was several years ago. Manufacturers can't meet demand."
Hunters are now holding the short end of that stick. In January, the largest gun seller in the country, Wal-Mart, started rationing ammunition sales. Other retailers followed.
At the West Mifflin Wal-Mart, signs taped to shelves -- some completely empty -- caution customers that sales are limited to three boxes per customer per day. The nearby Dick's Sporting Goods limits the sale of rifle and pistol loads to three standard boxes or one bulk pack (200 rounds) per customer per day. Just up the street, Gander Mountain's rationing is less restrictive: 10 boxes including bulk packs per customer per day. The rationing is unevenly enforced -- some clerks will sell larger volumes.
"This has been going on for six months or longer. I'd say it's been a little bit of a snowball effect," said Savage, of Braverman Arms. "If they're lucky enough to find the caliber they need, guys are forced to use a different grain than what they're familiar with."
Braverman's shortages include the .270s, some .30-06 loads, .243 and .30-30. And like everyone else, Savage says he's chronically out of .22 long rifle cartridges. On all sales of rifle and pistol ammunition except .40 and .45 caliber, Braverman's limits customers to two boxes per customer per day (a third box of ammo is available with a gun sale).
Nationwide, prices are up but not substantially, said Bazinet. The same applies locally. Savage said when stores are lucky enough to get a big shipment of common hunting calibers, they often offer sales specials.
Last week Wal-Mart was selling a box of Remington Core-Lokt .30-06 Springfield 150 grain for $21.97. At Dick's the same box sold for $20.99, at Gander Mountain $19.99. Clerks at those stores said they didn't know when they'd be resupplied.
Bazinet said sighting in a new gun is likely to be expensive. Hunters may be forced to shorten practice time on the range, or pop off a quick three-shot grouping to confirm a sporting arm is still sighted in from last year.
But it's not all bad news for hunters. Although hunting ammo is hard to find and license sales are down, soaring gun sales -- many among non-hunters -- are boosting revenues for the state wildlife management agencies. In 2012, Pittman-Robertson Act excise taxes on the sale of guns and ammunition generated $487,998,107 nationwide, including $16,692,502 in Pennsylvania. Those revenues are likely to increase in 2013.
A National Shooting Sports Foundation report on the economic impact on the firearms and ammunition industry in 2012 found that nationwide guns sales generated an additional $2,503,904,614 in federal business tax revenue and $2,071,203,695 in state business taxes, for a total of $4,575,108,309.