The Column, No. 92:

The Ammunition Shortage

By Randy Wakeman

Radford Plant
The U.S. Army's Radford Plant.

There has been a lot of chatter about the ammunition shortage, accompanied by claims of government conspiracies and the usual speculations. The actual situation is far more boring.

The key component in ammunition is nitrocellulose, used in everything from ping-pong balls to ink and wood coatings. It is used to coat guitars and in nail polish. In small quantities, crude nitrocellulose (gun cotton) can be made at home. Dow Chemical writes:

“Nitrocellulose is an excellent cellulose derivative and is also known as cellulose nitrate. WALSRODER™ Nitrocellulose and WALSRODER™ NC-Chips are predominantly used as binders in printing inks and wood coatings, but also in a wide variety of other coatings applications. Dow offers various product forms and viscosities of nitrocellulose under the WALSRODER™ Nitrocellulose brand.”

However, there are very few manufacturers of industrial or munitions grade nitrocellulose. Radford is the heart of the U.S. ammunition industrial base. All the U.S. armed services are dependent on the products that come from the plant; not just the U.S. Army, which owns the facility.

The Radford plant (depicted above) is a unique facility. It alone among the 14 existing plants of the U.S. ammunition-producing industrial base has an acid-concentrator facility that produces the nitric and sulphuric acids, which when combined with cellulose in a one-of-a-kind facility at Radford, make nitrocellulose, the essential ingredient for all propellants and explosives used throughout the U.S. Army's ammunition industrial base.

Chemical plants are extremely expensive to build and generally work at a fixed output. As best as I can discern, most are at full production levels and in times past, that has resulted in an ample supply with generally a surplus of product in warehouses. Over the years, when there has been a spike in demand, it has just shrunk preexisting inventory levels with no noticeable impact on the consumer.

The Obama administration changed all that, creating an unprecedented demand for firearms and ammunition lasting for an unprecedented length of time. A one or two spike in consumption would, perhaps, have been largely unnoticed. However, the current ammo shortage started in 2008 and now, six years later, is finally subsiding. The situation isn't helped by the American consumer who normally buys a few boxes of ammo. As soon as we can't get it, we want pallets of it. Whether Hostess Twinkies or shotshells, if we can't get it, then we really want it, and lots of it.

Ammo manufacturers have production capacities and can hardly build new plants and make huge expenditures in capital equipment, only to be forced to mothball them a couple of years later. Therefore, they juggle production schedules and try to please the most people they can. It means that while the most popular .30-06 or .308 loads aren't a problem, if you want factory ammo for the “323 Super-Snorter” you're out of luck. .22 Long Rifle rimfire is a large number in sales units, but a low profit market segment. You can get .22 rimfire, but not always the bulk plinking ammo many people want.

The ammo shortage is a combination of Obama-created drama, fixed output of nitrocellulose and the hoarding and overbuying proclivities of the consumer. These have combined to create the shortage and lengthen its duration. The best available version of the truth is that most of the high drama is over, while traditional availability is about 1-1/2 years away.

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