Factory Ammunition Prices

By Alex Boughamer


When shopping for a rifle I consider many factors: caliber, features (safety, action, magazine, stock design and material, barrel length, extraction and feeding, etc), quality, price, ballistics, recoil, intended game, hunting conditions, ammo selection, ammo availability, and current rifles as well as ones that I will likely own someday. I do not have a lot of money at this point in my life, so I can not make multiple purchases.

In this case, my insurance company was kicking in most of the dough for the purchase of a single firearm because of a loss due to a fire. However, even if I did have loads of cash, I still would take all of these things into consideration. I will shop for things for years if the purchase is not immediately necessary, weighing and balancing the options.

Articles on Guns and Shooting Online have been helpful. I may have had more fun shopping for and reading articles comparing physics than I think I have had hunting and shooting. I think that is one of the reasons why Guns and Shooting Online is so popular . . . there is so much variation and so many choices.

I love working with numbers and I derive a lot of pleasure figuring out what would be best for different people's intended purposes with many things, not just rifles. I am not a reloader so another factor that I needed to consider is the cost of feeding the gun with factory ammo.

The books, magazines, and web sites that I have checked don't usually mention this aspect, but do mention that you should shoot and practice with your firearm. Chuck Hawks writes about certain cartridges being more expensive than others. He references the cost of .257 Weatherby Ammo in his article "Ultra-Long Range Rifles and Cartridges" in relation to whether it is actually worth the slightly increased MPBR (3.9%) in relation to the substantial increase in the cost of ammo (300%) over the 270 Winchester.

I decided that it would be interesting to gather some data, play with some numbers, and write an article so that others can compare this important factor when making a cartridge choice. So off to the store I went with clipboard in hand. I spent many hours recording data and getting a lot of strange looks from clerks while doing it. Chicks, for the most part, don't hang out in the ammo department so I didn't have to worry about damaging my dating potential.

This article and subsequent tables are intended to show the relative cost of factory ammunition, the popularity of certain cartridges, and what loads are generally available at a decent sized store. (I would like to see someone who reloads write an article on the cost of reloading different cartridges.) The data I compiled is from one specific area in the country at a specific time.

Being scientifically trained, I must tell you what this article is not. First it is not a scientific study of the price, selection, and availability of ammo across the United States, or even for the Pacific Northwest. My data is not statistically significant. I do not have the time or desire to collect data from hundreds of different stores.

My sample is from one of 4 stores that sell ammo in the town of Moscow, Idaho (pop. ~21,000). Moscow is located on the Washington border about 30 miles north of Lewiston, where Jack O'Connor made his home.

My results should, to some extent, show what calibers are available and popular, but it will be skewed to match the game located in this part of Idaho. Our game is large compared to most other parts of the lower 48, and the deer tend to be larger than those in most of the U.S. as well. We have whitetail, black-tail, mule deer, elk, moose, black bear, mountain lion, antelope, bighorn sheep, coyote, and turkey.

Notable non-game species include grizzly, wolves, wolverine and, believe it or not, mountain caribou. We have small game too, but at least in this area we don't have one of the favorite varmint specie: prairie dogs. It would be interesting to see the selection of factory ammo from a southern state where game tends to be smaller.

Second, this study is a representation of a slice of time with regard to prices. Prices will certainly change from area to area and over the course of time as cartridges become more or less popular, but this survey should be good for some time in a relative sense; that is, what cartridges are more expensive to shoot than others.

Third, my information comes primarily from the shelves of one store mostly in the fall of 2004 just before big game season. Being that my sample is limited, some brands and prices may reflect the relationship that vendor has with its suppliers. I think an explanation of that store is also in order to understand how it reflects in the prices. In following with the rating system that Chuck likes to use, I would rate this store a three star plus.

First I need to define what the five star rating system is in relation to stores selling firearms and ammo. I would give a store that has a limited amount of ammo and few ifs any firearms a rating of one star. These stores will not have anyone specifically designated to sell sporting goods. The selection would be small and they only carry a few of the most popular calibers.

The two star stores would include most department stores, Wal-Mart, etc. They have a better selection of firearms and ammo as well as accessories and probably someone designated to work in the sporting goods section. They will have at least a dozen rifles for sale but will not have a whole wall full. The sporting goods section will likely be only a small portion of their business.

Three star stores are getting to the size where there is a considerable selection of both ammo and firearms and definitely someone (or more) working the counter. Most are sporting goods stores or hardware/sporting goods retailers. They sell a high volume of firearms, ammo, and accessories and the gun department takes up a sizable portion of the store.

Four star stores are the specialty hunting or hunting and fishing only stores. This is the place you go for expert advice from someone that has worked a good portion of his or her life in the industry. Their stock includes some relatively rare and high-end items as well as the popular lines.

Five-Star places are the super-stores that combine both high end products with high volume of sales. They are so big you couldn't throw a football across them. An example of this would be Sportsman's Warehouse.

The store from which I gathered information is a three star plus store. It has a large selection and a large department but it also sells housewares, clothing, shoes, and hardware. It has all of its rifle ammo out on an isle so that customers (and crazy people like me with a clipboard) can get to it themselves as well as several pallets of shotgun shells and .22 ammunition. It usually has 2 or 3 people working sporting goods at any given time. My guess is that it sells the most volume of firearms, ammo, and accessories in Moscow.

We also have a Wal-Mart (2-star), a specialty store (4-star), and a chain sporting good store that recently went out of business (2-star+). I included the latter because when I gathered most of the prices this store was still in business and in competition with the 3 star plus store that I primarily targeted.

Prices are generally not quite as low as Wal-Mart as they do not have the buying power the giant has, but they are pretty competitive overall. One of the things that surprised me was that they do not sell Weatherby ammo. I was told that they do not sell enough of it to make it worthwhile. They do sell lots of other ammo that I would think would be less popular than some of the better known Weatherby calibers. This may be a situation where it is not be worth ordering a small amount of stock from a different supplier.

The availability of factory ammunition is definitely something to check into before making a caliber choice in a firearm! I did go to the four-star specialty store in town and they only had two Weatherby calibers on the shelf (.340 Wby. and .338-378 Wby.). The prices of these two calibers are a reflection of a proprietary cartridge, and probably to a lessor extent because it is a different store.

The reason why there were only two caliber selections on the shelves is probably a combination of when I checked (April--a slow time of year for ammunition sales) and the fact that the owner was going through a divorce and wanted to have minimum "assets" just in case. So he probably didn't feel an urgent need to stock his shelves with ammo that didn't move very well and could be assessed against him.

That is probably another good reason why you should hide the cost of your firearms from your wife! Just in case! At the time of this writing that is the only Weatherby ammunition available in Moscow. I also returned to the original store (3 star plus) in April to get the price of 17 Mach 2 ammo, which was not available in the fall.

After collecting the data, I planned on plugging them into a spreadsheet to figure out what it costs each time a trigger is pulled. It was really easy to see what calibers were more expensive to shoot on both the cheap end and expensive end of the spectrum. In between it was a lot fuzzier.

To simplify things for a comparison, I borrowed a technique from Paleontology where fossils species are related (or indexed) to rock and time units by their first (lowest) occurrence in rock units. So I grouped the cartridge calibers into price range groups by their lowest occurring price per shot and by ignoring more expensive offerings in the same caliber. Those are usually loads that aren't extra hot and/or with standard/common/less heavily built bullets (often intended for CPX2 game).

There may be some exceptions as not every cartridge fits this profile. Some only have one offering chambered for a more heavily constructed bullet so it may appear more expensive than another caliber.

One problem I ran into was that Federal introduced a new name for the same line of cartridges (they changed the box). Federal Power Shok replaced Classic. The Classic was on sale at $1 less than the same cartridges in the Power Shok line. When the price for the Classic put a caliber into a lower price grouping I ignored it and went with the current line. Sometimes only the Classic version was available but I didn't tack on a dollar to the price. So before you get bent out of shape when you notice something doesn't line up right, it could be because of this.

Remember that this isn't really a scientific study, even though I made some rudimentary attempts to make it so. The price range selections are totally subjective and chosen either because they made a nice fit and spread the data well or to illustrate some differences.

Analyzing the results, I have made some interesting observations. The only real economical choice for lots of practice is the 22 LR, at between 2 and 5 cents per shot.

The cheapest big game rifle cartridge is the 30-30 Winchester. This can be added to the long list of why, with many its many other attributes (including decent range, mild recoil, and effective killing power), the 30-30 is so popular. It should be seriously considered when choosing a deer rifle. (See Chuck's article "Ideal Dear Cartridges" on the Rifle Cartridge Page.)

The common magnum cartridges tended to be 10 to 30 cents more expensive per shot than the common standard cartridges. Two of the surprise exceptions were the .223 WSSM and .243 WSSM sneaking into two of the lower priced standard cartridge groups. Note, however, that both the .220 Swift and .243 Winchester are grouped 30 cents per shot cheaper (with equal or better performance) than their WSSM cousins.

By nature of the way I grouped the cartridges it appears that the .300 WSM is the same price to shoot as the .300 Win. Mag. That may be true for the cheapest cartridges offered, but when you look at all of the options, the .300 Win. Mag. has more offerings at a lower price than the .300 WSM and that also holds true with same bullet. For example, the 180 Federal Nosler Partition load in .300 Win. Mag. throws one quarter less out of the barrel each time you pull the trigger than the same bullet in .300 WSM.


2-4 - A fun day of shooting and your wallet feels the same.

.22 LR standard and high velocity cartridges

5-9 - Start pulling out your piggy bank.

.22 LR hyper velocity cartridges
.22 Short
.22 CB Long
.22 LR #12 shot

10-14 - Turn the piggy bank upside down and start shaking if you are shooting for a good part of the day.

.17 Mach 2
.22 Magnum

15-19 - Maybe you should open the piggy bank if you are doing a lot of plinking.

.17 HMR

20-49 - Best price range if you like shooting centerfires, but the wallet is noticeably lighter.

.223 Rem.
.30 Carbine

50-59 - Not too bad for economical centerfires, but you might want start pricing reloading equipment if you shoot a lot.

.22 Hornet
.222 Rem.

60-69 - For deer, a Winchester Model 94 or Marlin 336 + .30-30 = economical gun + lots of practice + good killing power, what could be better?

.22-250
.220 Swift
7.62x39 Soviet
.25-20
.30-30

70-79 - Affordable, sensible big game cartridges.

.243 Win.
6mm Rem.
.260 Rem.
.270 Win.
7mm Mauser
.308 Win.
.30-06
.32 Win. Spec.
.35 Rem.

80-84 - Gentle on the wallet and the shoulder.

.25-06
6.5x55 Swede
7mm-08
.280 Rem.
.300 Savage
.303 British

85-89 - Raid your kids' piggy bank when they aren't looking.

8mm Mauser
.223 WSSM
.250 Savage
.257 Roberts

90-94 - "Hey Honey, where did you put my reloading catalog?"

.243 WSSM
.257 Roberts +P
.260 Rem
.30-40 Krag

95-99 - A common magnum at under a dollar, no wonder its popular!

7mm Rem. Mag.

$1.00-1.09 - A buck a pop starts to make you think.

.270 WSM
7mm WSM
.300 WSM
.300 Win. Mag.
.45-70

$1.10-1.19 - Extra trips to the ATM.

.25-35
.264 Win. Mag.
.32-20
.444 Marlin

$1.20-1.29 - You might want to set up your shooting bench next to an ATM . . . On second thought that might be bad advice!

6.5 Rem. Mag.
.284 Win.
7mm STW
.338 Win. Mag.
.35 Whelen
.375 Win
.375 H&H Mag.
.450 Marlin

$1.30-1.49 - Hurt the shoulder and the bank account!

.356 Win.
.358 Win.
.350 Rem. Mag.

$1.50-1.74 - Ever consider a mortgage when you are getting ready for hunting season?

7mm Rem. SAUM
7mm RUM
.300 Rem. SAUM
.300 RUM
.38-55
.405 Win.
.44-40

$1.75-1.99 - Gotta feel sorry for these poor rifles, bet they don't get to see a lot of daylight!

.348 Win.
.38-40
(Common Weatherby calibers inc. .240, .257, .270, 7mm, .300 Magnums. -Ed.)

$2.00-$2.99 Two words: Dust collectors.

.338 RUM
.340 Wby.

$3.00-$3.99 Didn't find anything for this expensive group, but I am sure that there are some cartridges that should be here.

(Specialty ammo for unusual or obsolete calibers would fit this category. -Ed.)

$4.00 and Up: One word pun: "Ouch."

.338-378 Wby.
.416 Rem. Mag.
.416 Rigby
(Also .30-378 Wby, .378 Wby, .416 Wby, .460 Wby. and most big bore cartridges for double rifles. -Ed.)




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Copyright 2005 by Alex Boughamer. All rights reserved.



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