Dec. 17—Kyle Cahill grew up with guns.
"I've been shooting since I was eight," said the 39-year-old Palmer resident.
Raised in Alaska, Cahill is an avid hunter. He served for years in the military and is now part of the state's Air National Guard. He views it as a part of that service to stay proficient with firearms, something he calls "a perishable skill."
But that's gotten harder recently. Alaska, like much of the country, is in the midst of a drastic ammunition shortage. Though the shortage has eased slightly in the past few months, nearly every kind of cartridge is harder to come by than it was before the pandemic hit in 2020. If you can find them at all.
What the shortage means for Alaskans is bare shelves in sporting goods stores, price gouging on secondary markets, hunters going into the field with just a few cartridges, fewer rounds fired at ranges by professionals and hobbyists alike, and uncertainty about when or if the situation will revert to the way things were.
The Anchorage Daily News asked readers to describe their experiences with the ammo shortage. Cahill was one of several dozen who responded. On a recent weekday afternoon, he was target-shooting with pistols at an indoor range in Palmer. The facility had the feel of a locker room for a beer-league hockey team, with old-timers grinning and chitchatting about their weapons as spent shell casings rolled below the mismatched furniture.
Cahill tries to put in range time every week, partly to keep sharp for his Guard duties but also out of sheer affinity for ballistics.
"I love shooting, I love the physics behind it. I love the psychology behind it," he said. "When you're behind a gun you have to control yourself. Being hungry affects how I shoot. Being sad affects how I shoot."
Range regulars here have modified their shooting habits. The concussive reports of the handguns are spaced further apart, more deliberate and measured.
"No longer are we dropping full magazines of ammunition," Cahill said. "We adapted to be able to shoot conservatively."
Some may see such modifications as a minor inconvenience for consumers, or a market correction from panic buying and fear-mongering that have driven gun sales to record highs in the last two years. But for many Alaskans close to firearms, whether because of ideology, vocation or to harvest their food, the shortages are changing people's relationships to guns.
"It's just crazy as crazy can be"
There is no one plain reason why it's been harder to get ammo. Instead, there are several contributing factors for the shortages Alaskans have felt acutely in the last two years.
A massive increase in the number of gun sales has coincided with national instability. The pandemic, racial justice protests, the presidential election and its aftermath are all cited as reasons. According to to background check data submitted to the FBI, gun purchases rose steeply during 2020 and 2021, driven largely by first-time buyers, according to industry estimates.
Remington, the country's oldest firearms company and a major manufacturer of high-quality ammunition, went through bankruptcy, shutting plants and laying off workers in 2020 just as consumer demands were hitting a plateau. The company's assets were purchased by Vista Outdoor, and it has manufacturing plants running at full capacity, although a huge backlog exists.
This fall, State Department sanctions barred ammunition imports from Russia. The country's low-quality rounds could be bought cheaply in bulk, which had served as a relief valve when American-made rounds were scarce.
"Manufacturers ramp us as fast as they can, but as long as people are buying and hoarding this stuff out of fear, it just compounds the issue," said Dave Squier, a firearms instructor in Anchorage who has had trouble procuring enough handgun ammunition for the classes he teaches.
Squier said that while he is starting to see a little bit more regularity in the supply of calibers like 9mm and .223, which are popular among hard-core and high-volume shooters, prices have increased significantly.
"What we're really hurting for is hunting ammunition," said Kent Harrington, general manager of VF Grace, a wholesale supplier that acts as a middleman for ammunition shipments for stores across Alaska.
"There's no shortage of ammunition," Harrington chuckled, explaining that vast quantities are piled in people's closets, garages and gun safes, just not on the store shelves where most consumers are used to purchasing it.
Frustrated at not being able to buy ammunition online or in stores, more people have tried getting into reloading, the practice of assembling cartridges from the base components. That, in turn, has created a bigger demand for things like gunpowder, primers and brass casings than suppliers can satisfy.
"It's just crazy as crazy can be," Harrington said.
Compared to 2019 — the last relatively normal year for his business — in 2020 his company's gunpowder orders went up by 750%. So far this year, they've tripled.
There's a relatively limited set of options for getting ammunition into Alaska. Officially designated a "hazardous material," it comes with restrictions on transportation, particularly along overland routes through Canada. Options for bulk shipments are primarily cargo ships, where freight space is already booked up.
"It's much easier down south. You can put it in a truck and drive it down the road," Squier said. "The barges are already full with our normal supplies of food and things we need to operate."
Flying in substantial quantities is also restrictive and costly, he said.
"Not a lot of relief out there in the supply chain," Squier said.
"It has definitely affected how much people shoot"
The supply shortages cut across all varieties of ammunition, from shotgun shells for skeet shooting to the low-velocity .22 rounds used for training by the Anchorage Biathlon Club.
"I know we'll run out before the season is over," said Deana Watson, the club's secretary.
Watson was bundled up against the cold at Kincaid Park in Anchorage on a recent afternoon as teenage biathletes practiced firing from the prone position at targets 50 meters downrange.
"Last winter, like (during) COVID, we were in super, super short supply," Watson said as whizzing bullets plinked targets with the flat clang of pebbles striking an empty tin can. "We're gonna end up in the same situation this winter."
Though the club has grown the last few years, enthusiasm wanes when participants can't get ahold of ammo to practice with. When supplies run low, athletes shoot less during training, or do dry-fire exercises and save bullets for competition. Families text one another if someone gets a lead on where to buy a brick of the right rounds. Overall, Watson said, it dampens morale for the sport.
"It has definitely affected how much people shoot," said Zechariah Meyer, executive director of the Birchwood Recreation and Shooting Park at the northern edge of Anchorage. "You're a little more reserved when you can't find ammo as easily."
There's still plenty of ammunition out there, Meyer said, but particularly for the gun enthusiasts who use the range heavily and cycle through large numbers of rounds, people are putting more time, money and effort into tracking down supplies.
"Nowadays you hear someone unload a machine gun and you think, 'Oh man, that was expensive,'" Meyer said.
"It's affecting things in a big way"
Hunters across Alaska are desperate for the right bullets. Dozens of readers across the state, from Klawok to Kasilof, Kodiak to Ketchikan, Fairbanks to Mekoryuk, shared stories of not being able to find ammunition in the calibers they need to hunt moose, caribou, deer and other animals for food. Others said they were running too low to sight hunting rifles going into this season.
"This year I had almost nothing to hunt with!" wrote Thomas James from Klawok. "Come opening day I had three bullets between my two rifles. With a bit of luck I was able to bring home the bacon but now I'm bullet-less!"
"I haven't been able to buy ammo here for almost two years," said Todd Bergman, who lives in Sitka and hunts deer in the islands of Southeast each fall. "I basically gave up."
There are four stores that sell ammunition in Sitka, Bergman said, and the shelves in all of them are practically bare. One recently had a single box of .308 cartridges, but at $65 it was about triple the normal price.
Remote communities at the tail-end of Alaska's supply chain face even more constraints sourcing modest volumes of ammunition than do big-box stores along the Railbelt. Bergman worked in the Bush before settling in Sitka and said close friends in Aniak and New Stuyahok went into hunting season with just a handful of big-game cartridges.
"The biggest thing is you do things differently," Bergman said. Hunting with his son this fall, the two of them stayed side by side and shared a deer rifle to conserve rounds.
One modest bright spot in this current ammunition squeeze is that compared to the last time there were comparable supply shortages, many rural stores took steps to ensure local hunters could count on finding rounds for subsistence.
"If it comes available, we buy all we can so the villages are able to get it," said Bill Matthews, head of the distribution center for the Alaska Native Industries Cooperative Association, which supplies 40 stores in some of Western Alaska's most remote communities. "A lot of the villages would like to get more."
For Bergman in Sitka, the years-long scarcity has changed family rhythms. They don't take .22s on camping trips to give kids in the family practice plinking, since the cartridges have been so hard to find. One of his adult sons learned to hunt with a bow.
"I got crossbow certified two years ago," Bergman said.
"I think it's affecting things in a big way."
"I'll never run short till the day I die"
One of biggest factors sustaining the ammo deficit is hoarding and profiteering. Like a wildfire hot enough to make its own weather patterns, the frenzy over scarce ammo has a self-propelling dynamic that has led many to just buy whatever they can if it's available, independent of need.
While many Alaskans have long valued preparedness and self-sufficiency, many people contacted for this story point to private ammunition stockpiles as one reason it has become so hard to find ammo.
After a close friend passed away, Anchorage resident Gino Daly acquired a cache of firearms, reloading supplies and ammunition the man had amassed. Even as he has tried to gradually liquidate, at 67 years old the passionate hunter and outdoorsman said it's a bigger arsenal than he could use up in a lifetime.
"I'll never run short till the day I die," Daly said. "The shortage has not affected me at all."
As the inheritor of a modest munitions depot, Daly's situation is unique. But ammunition hoards in Alaska are not. For evidence, you need only look at Anchorage auction houses, which routinely handle estates that include thousands and thousands of rounds of ammo broken down into small lots and sold off at prices driven up by eager bidders.
"I would say 90 percent of my ammo is private," said Jeremy Smith, who earlier this year opened The Arms Room, a gun store in North Pole. The vast majority of the ammunition he buys, stocks and resells is from individuals, in part because it is so difficult and costly to get cartridges from manufacturers shipped and trucked into the Interior.
Earlier in the year, he bought 50,000 rounds from a soldier moving out of state from the nearby military base. Even with purchasing limits, all of it sold in two hours.
What irks Smith the most, though, is the voracious secondary market, where opportunistic buyers are snatching up whatever ammunition they can, then reselling it at jacked-up prices.
"That's a shitty thing to do," he said.
He's seen it with individuals who buy what little inventory he has, only to find it popping up in online exchanges or social media markets immediately afterward, like a man who stocked up on reloading supplies only to flip them days later at a trade show for several times the price.
"Half the (products) he had on his table was stuff he bought in my shop," Smith said.
For Cahill, the guardsman in Palmer, there is a social responsibility that is part and parcel of owning firearms, a civic-mindedness that makes room for others in the shooting community. Hoarding and profiteering, in his perspective, occur at the direct expense of others.
"Whenever you go and buy a stockpile of ammunition," Cahill said, "what happens when you have a young guy or woman who wants to shoot and they can't find ammunition? Or a hunter?"
In his mind, the accelerating shift amid the ammunition shortage is from guns as a tool to something fetishized.
"There's not a shooting culture anymore, there's an owner culture," Cahill said.
Daily News photojournalist Emily Messner contributed reporting to this story.