Looking for ammo in Whatcom County? Good luck

Gauging the Demand for Ammo

The gun business was different for Donnie Kesselring before President Obama’s reelection. From Kesselring’s Gun Shop, about 20 minutes south of Bellingham on Old Highway 99, Donnie sells another box of ammo to a customer. The box is one of a few left.


Based on his 40 years of experience selling firearms and ammunition, Donnie said every election year drives ammo and gun sales. Since the last presidential election, there’s been a panic in the ammo market like he has never seen.

When a Democrat is elected president, Donnie said firearm owners flock to the sporting goods stores and purchase as much ammunition as they can. Obama’s re-election is no different, except that the sales aren’t slowing.

From Donnie’s experience, ammunition hoarding typically last four to six months after an election. In month eight of Obama’s second term, not much has changed.

“Gun people are way more secure when there’s a Republican in office,” Donnie said. “I hear people come in and say ‘I don’t feel like I want to shoot the ammo I have because I don’t know if I’ll be able to replace it,’” Donnie said.

Cascade Cartridges Inc., based on the Washington-Idaho border town of Lewiston, is one of the shop’s ammunition manufacturers. The company makes 8.5 million rounds of ammo each day, but is 2.5 billion rounds on back order, Donnie said. That’s working with machines running 24 hours a day, seven days a week, that don’t turn off unless there’s a break down, he added.

Price increases generally range between two and four percent, though Cascade Cartridges Inc. also increased its price on center-fire ammo by 15 percent, Donnie said. It’s the largest price increase he has ever seen.

Self-defense ammunition seem to be the hottest items on the shelf, Donnie said. Self-defense rounds typically differ in their size. They are typically center-fire rounds, which are projected from a firearm when the firing pin strikes their center, allowing them to be bigger and stronger.

Common self-defense rounds include the 9 mm, .38, .40, .45. But even the “plinker” .22 round, which is not center-fire, is being swept off the shelves.

Before the hoarding began, the shop would have about 200 to 300 cases of .22 ammunition in stock at all times, Donnie said.

“Now there’s no inventory at all,” he said.

Twenty-two caliber ammunition isn’t usually used for self-defense but it is so common that it has a wide consumer base, Donnie said.

Like many other sporting goods stores, Kesselring’s limits the amount of ammunition each customer can purchase, though the shop is resupplied on a daily basis. For example, .22 caliber ammo is limited to one carton per person, Donnie said. (Each carton contains 500 rounds.) Different limits apply to different calibers, depending on their availability, he said.

At Yeager’s Sporting Goods, in Bellingham, customers are limited to one box of ammunition per caliber.

Two separate customers will come into Yeager’s within minutes of each other, looking for a resupply on ammo. Carlos Perez, an employee in Yeager’s gun department, assists them from behind a glass counter filled with handguns.

“Any nine?”

“You’re lucky, it just came in an hour ago.”

Sometimes Yeager’s will have a few cases of 9 mm in the back. About 5,000 to 10,000 rounds of any popular ammunition type will be gone in a day or two, Perez said – despite the store’s two-box limit on handgun ammo and five-box limit on rifle ammo, which varies between 20 and 50 rounds.

“You got any .22?”

“Not today.”

The customers leave the store almost as quickly as they arrived.

Before working at Yeager’s, Perez was at another sporting goods store, Wholesale Sports, in Burlington. After the Sandy Hook Elementary shootings last December, Wholesale Sports went from having a couple hundred assault rifles on their shelves, to none, he said. Between himself and five other employees, he would sell 12 to 15 assault rifles a day.

Whether it’s a shooting or a new legislation, the fear drives firearm owners into a frenzy, buying as much ammo as possible, he said.

For Becky Eastwood, having a few thousand rounds at home is enough to keep her happy, although now she only has a few hundred.

At the Plantation Rifle Range, down Samish Way, Eastwood squares off with a paper target 75 meters down her firing lane. Her .22 Smith & Wesson has a red dot sight fitted on top. After each POP from the pistol, she leans to the right with her feet planted and peers through a tripod-mounted scope to see where her shots are hitting.

A year ago, the Bellingham woman wouldn’t touch a gun, let alone fire one. After some suspicious characters began “casing” her and her husband’s business – essentially looking for things to steal – she took the Women’s Handgun Class at the Plantation.

It took two of the range employees to guide her through the steps of firing a handgun before she could let the first bullet fly, she said.

Now she is addicted to shooting her two handguns and is a member of a local shooting league and the National Rifle Association.

Before coming to the Plantation she managed to pick up some .22 ammo at Yeager’s.

“Every so often you go around all the stores in this area and sometimes you’re lucky and sometimes you’re not – most the time you’re not,” she said with a laugh behind her purple-rimmed ballistic glasses.

Eastwood has experienced back orders on ammunition since December with no expected date to receive it.

The ammunition shortage is also effecting the chain stores throughout the country. The entire chain of Big 5 Sporting Goods stores has limited their (sometimes repetitive) customers to three boxes of ammunition per caliber per person – if a box contains more than 200 rounds, they are limited to one.

The same three-box limit on handgun and rifle ammunition goes for gun owners waiting in front of Walmart’s gun department too.

The recent addition to sporting goods stores in Bellingham, Sports Authority, doesn’t carry ammo.

Cabela’s, in Tulalip, doesn’t limit the ammunition customers can purchase (unless it’s .22), but is still frequently low on all handgun ammunition.

To conserve ammo, Eastwood keeps up her accuracy and focus by practicing with an airsoft gun.

Another method of reducing consumption is to “dry fire” (that is going through the motions of firing a weapon without actually loading any ammo) said Brian Urban, a civilian contractor from Whatcom County. Urban believes having 1,000 rounds of ammunition for each weapon is not too much.

But the response from the ammo manufacturers is too little too late, Urban said.

“You can’t build a church on Easter Sunday,” he said.

Urban is one of a few contractors in the county. He is a certified Master Trainer who specializes in teaching paramilitaries, special operations units and civilians around the world in a variety of combat techniques, from small-arms training to martial arts through his business, Urban Solutions and Tactics.

As a trainer, Urban has the advantage of receiving ammo through special agreements with the manufacturers. Though he is not personally affected, the ammo scarcity is adding a new demographic to the firearm business by pushing fence-sitters into owning firearms.

Much of the new demographic is younger and is designated as “the big three,” Urban said: “preppers,” video-gamers and zombie hunters. TV shows and all manner of shoot ‘em up video games are spreading and are influencing a younger audience into purchasing firearms, Urban said.

“We are reaching out to youth like never before in the firearm business,” he said. “Those wannabes are where the market is.”

On a national scale, the big three make up about 40 percent of the sales in firearms, ammo and equipment, Urban said.

The customers aren’t the only thing changing in the firearm business. The Washington State Department of Licensing records show that between January and September of 2012, licensed firearm dealers varied between five and one. Since October, 2012, the number of licensed dealers increased steadily to 15 in August, 2013. There are 874 dealers statewide.

Ammunition manufacturers predict it will be six months to a year when ammunition will actually stay on the shelf, Perez said.

Whether gun owners are purchasing ammo to fend off criminals, to stay ahead of hoarders or to prepare for the apocalypse, the motive is often fear.

“I think a lot of it has to do with insecurity of the government,” Donnie Kesselring said. “It’s hard to say what happens if we get another Democrat president.”

(“Gauging the Demand for Ammo” is an unpublished piece I wrote for a feature writing class during the summer. I have posted it here for you all to enjoy.)


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