A Maine hunter loads his rifle at first light in the Maine woods near Northeast Carry as he prepares to hunt for a bull moose in 2006. Credit: Bridget Brown / BDN

The upland bird and migratory waterfowl hunting seasons are in full swing in Maine and we’re only three weeks away from the start of deer season.

But something important is missing from the equation: ammunition.

Nationwide shortages of shotgun shells and rifle cartridges have left shelves bare in gun shops and sporting goods stores, forcing hunters to carefully use their on-hand supply as they search for reinforcements in stores and online during what is typically one of the busiest times of the season.

“It’s very, very difficult. We’ve really been fighting this for a long time,” said Old Town Trading Post owner Dave Lorenz, who is bombarded daily with customer inquiries about ammunition availability.

“The system is virtually 100 percent allocation, which means you can’t order it,” Lorenz said. He pointed to different commodities such as trucks, tires, mattresses and refrigerators that also remain in short supply. “There just isn’t any product.”

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic last year led to shutdowns at munitions factories, resulting in a drastic reduction in the amount of gun ammunition available across the United States. Then in July 2020, Remington Outdoor Company, which owned a sizable share of the ammunition market, went out of business.

“From a consumer standpoint, what’s different is we don’t have the inventory to rely on that we had last year,” Lorenz said in explaining why things are worse this hunting season.

Ever since, distributors and retailers have been working to acquire stock. Their efforts have been met with frustration and disappointment.

“It’s the same old bad news everybody’s got,” said Ralph McLeod, owner of Buyers Guns in Holden.

“When you get 100 people walking through the door and 90 of them are looking for ammunition and there’s nothing in their caliber, it’s a lot of their time wasted,” he said.

While manufacturing is reportedly increasing, the current production isn’t relieving the shortage retailers are experiencing.

Byron Dill, owner of Dill’s Outdoors in Bangor, has a hard time accepting the unavailability of ammo.

“The companies say that they’re manufacturing more ammo and running at full capacity. That’s great, fine and dandy, but shops should have ammo to sell,” Dill said. “I don’t understand where the ammo is going.”

The acute shortage is magnified at this important time of year for hunters in Maine. Bear season is winding down, while the grouse, turkey, duck and goose seasons are in full swing.

Moose hunting continues next week, with deer season set to begin on Oct. 23 with Youth Deer Day.

The ammunition for the firearms most often used to hunt those species is among the most difficult to find.

“It’s bird season. The market should be full of No. 6 and 7 1/2 [shot], 2 3/4-inch, 12 gauge, 20 gauge and .410 [shells], but there’s nothing out there,” Dill said, noting that he would normally be buying six to eight cases of that ammunition every couple of weeks in the fall.

“Right now, I’ve got zero birdshot on my shelves,” he said.

Deer hunting ammunition in some of the most-used calibers — .30-06, .310, .30-30, .243 and .270 — is especially scarce.

“Those are the mainstream ones that are really in hot demand right now,” said Lorenz, who said even the most popular round can’t be found.

“If you did a quick online search for a box of .30-06, I don’t believe you’d find a box in the country,” he said.

Neither shops nor customers can afford to be picky when ammunition does arrive. Anything in a desired caliber, regardless of the manufacturer, is preferable to no bullets at all.

“Obviously people looking for a specific type of ammo within a category, that’s not going to happen,” Lorenz said.

That’s not to say there isn’t some ammunition to be had. It just doesn’t happen to be the calibers used for rifle hunting.

Lorenz said 9-millimeter and .556 handgun bullets often used for recreational shooting are in good supply and Old Town Trading Post often has .45-70 or .22-250 rounds.

The result is no ammunition for shooters and no income for the retailers, who said they count on those sales for a significant chunk of their revenue.

For sportsmen who like to reload their own ammo — putting the primer in the shell, adding gunpowder in the core and capping it with the bullet — components can be hard to come by and are expensive when they are available.

Zac Greenier of Hampden, the captain of the Trident Armory Shooting Team and a member of the Hampden Rifle and Pistol Club, loads his own rounds because of his high volume of shooting.

“It has still been very bleak to find components,” Greenier said. “I typically shoot around 20,000 rounds a year in competition and practice.”

For 1,000 primers, which ignite the powder when struck by the firing pin, he is paying nearly $100. Two or three years ago, the same quantity would have been $30.

And shooters can’t get most of the needed items locally. Instead, they go online.

“I have various apps that run constantly in the background and notify me when components become available,” Greenier said.

But if he doesn’t purchase the items within one minute, they are gone.

As hunters and shooters wait for manufacturers to reestablish the ammunition supply, most are handling the shortage well.

Lorenz encourages his customers to call ahead and ask about availability on any given day. Sometimes a small shipment may have arrived.

“I really value our customers because they’ve been great,” said Dill, who opened Dill’s Outdoors only three months before the COVID-19 pandemic hit. “I just appreciate people being patient and having the understanding that we’re doing the best we can do.”

A previous version of this story incorrectly identified the 5.56 round, which is often used in AR-15 rifles.

Pete Warner

Pete graduated from Bangor High School in 1980 and earned a B.S. in Journalism (Advertising) from the University of Maine in 1986. He grew up fishing at his family's camp on Sebago Lake but didn't take...