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Big shortage of little bullets: Alaskans line up to buy .22 ammo

Sean Doogan
A sign at Fred Meyer notifies customers of limits for ammunition purchases on Wednesday. There has been a shortage of .22 ammo nationwide. Loren Holmes photo

While an ammunition shortage may be easing across much of the nation, Alaskans are still having a hard time finding .22-caliber ammunition, one of the smallest common rifle and gun cartridges. In fact, if you aren’t at the sporting goods store or gun shop when it opens in the morning, you might have a better chance of encountering Bigfoot roaming the aisles than of finding ammunition for your .22-caliber weapon.

It is a shortage that has been years in the making and has hampered gun enthusiasts, recreational and competitive shooters. It has led to daily lines of people standing outside Anchorage stores like Cabela's and Sportsman's Warehouse, waiting for the doors to open so they can get to the freshly stocked ammunition.

About 20 people lined up at the Sportsman's Warehouse store on the Old Seward Highway one recent Tuesday morning. Many had gotten there a half hour before the place opened, hoping to get their hands on one of the 30 boxes of .22-caliber cartridges that would be available that day. Once the store opened, they made a mad dash to the gun counter, where waiting employees -- without saying a word -- simply handed each a 500-round box. Within 10 minutes it was over. All the .22 ammo had been sold.

The scene was similar the following day at Cabela's and plays out regularly across Alaska.

There are many theories about why the once-easy-to-find .22-caliber ammunition is now so hard to locate. It hasn't always been that way. The most popular cartridge shot in the U.S. and the cornerstone of shooting sports including collegiate and Olympic biathlon as well as riflery the .22 shell was once as common as a Canada goose in the Last Frontier.  But that all changed about three years ago. Why?

"Nobody has been able to explain that, because it was readily available for all of my life," Anchorage shooter Everett Walton said.

According to the National Shooting Sports Foundation -- the trade association for the U.S. firearms and ammunition industries -- the .22-caliber shortage is due to a combination of factors, including demand outstripping the manufacturers ability to supply the cartridges, and people hoarding hard-to-get rounds. The NSSF said that .22-caliber ammunition is the most popular of all cartridge types in the U.S. because it is cheap and the guns that shoot it are favored.

Gun sales are on the rise in the U.S. April saw the second-highest gun sales ever recorded, according to the NSSF. More people shooting .22-caliber ammunition means more demand. That means there is less to go around as manufacturers scramble to increase their capacity to make more.

But the NSSF said many people are confused as to why they can't find their favorite ammunition.

"There are a lot of wild stories," said NSSF public affairs director Mike Bazinet. "One story we've heard anecdotally is that the government is buying up all the ammo. That is not true. Government purchases have gone down over last three years."

Bazinet said the .22-caliber shortage is easing up in the Lower 48, and the rounds can be found from Texas to Connecticut. But in Alaska, the ammunition is still hard to find and even harder to buy.

Some are buying it up and hoarding it, or re-selling boxes of .22-caliber ammo for a profit on websites like Alaska's List. Stores that do get the cartridges can't keep them on the shelves. Most have limited the number of boxes any one person can buy in an effort to keep ammo available.

"We are just as frustrated as our customers because we want to supply the customers with what they want," said Steve Batsch, store director for Fred Meyer on Northern Lights Boulevard in Anchorage.

The .22-caliber cartridges are popular among people who want to teach their children how to shoot.  It is small and has little kick when fired. It's also popular for targeting small game like snowshoe hares, grouse and ptarmigan. But .22-caliber is also the round of choice for shooting competitions, including the biathlon -- a combination of Nordic skiing and shooting. Anchorage has a budding biathlon community and the .22-caliber shortage could affect its growth, according Zach Hall, head coach of Alaska Biathlon, a group of about 14 elite-level skiers and shooters. Hall said his group has been waiting eight months for a bulk delivery of the ammunition, and some members had gotten creative in finding ways around the shortage.

"Everybody has been scrambling to locate ammunition," Hall said. "It has gotten to the point that when people have family coming up from Lower 48, they ask them to bring ammunition with them."

The NSSF said it expects the rush on .22-caliber cartridges to lessen as the summer progresses, and that most of the shortages these days are regional problems with hoarding. But how that will play out in Alaska is anyone's guess.

Jeff Patterson stopped by Cabela's on his way to work on Wednesday morning; the store didn't have any that day. Patterson said he has been looking for two years, without success, for .22-caliber cartridges to teach his three kids gun safety and how to hunt.

"It's kind of worthless to have a .22 rifle and not have any ammunition for it," Patterson said.

Contact Sean Doogan at sean(at)alaskadispatch.com.