Chinese restrictions, Ukraine war crimp U.S. gunpowder supply

Chinese restrictions, Ukraine war crimp U.S. gunpowder supply


Russia and Ukraine were firing up to 60,000 artillery shells a day at one point in their war, and the daily average was roughly 12,000 shells during this spring’s lull in U.S.-backed supplies to Ukraine.

The result has been a global shortage of gunpowder, which is beginning to affect prices for private U.S. consumers.

Alliant Powder, which has supplied smokeless powder to private consumers to reload their ammunition, has suspended sales and canceled outstanding orders, AmmoLand reported.



Sam Gabbert, owner of Oklahoma dealer SGAmmo, said a price tick for 9 mm Luger is a leading indicator of broader price rises, though exactly what’s to come is difficult to say.

Mr. Gabbert issued an online warning this year, saying he was told of the looming gunpowder crunch at a Las Vegas convention.

“From the best of my understanding, it is both a tightening of supply of nitrocellulose and a shift in manufacturing more the nitro available into powder for military ordnance, rather than small caliber (sporting) type ammo,” Mr. Gabbert told The Washington Times in an email.

Some gun forum denizens suggested he was trying to gin up more business, but others said they had begun to feel the pinch.

Lawrence Keane, senior vice president at the National Shooting Sports Foundation, said the issues are on the supply and demand sides.

Global conflicts, particularly the Russia-Ukraine war, have spiked demand for gunpowder, but the U.S. has limited capacity to produce explosive nitrocellulose and gunpowder.

Some reports say that China, a major global supplier of nitrocellulose, has restricted shipments to the U.S.

The result is several “pinch points” that limit what the U.S. can produce.

“Gunpowder for ammunition is ubiquitous across calibers. So if you’re using a small caliber hunting rifle, the same gunpowder is used for a shell that goes in a tank or a 155 mm howitzer, that we’re seeing used in greater numbers in the Ukraine and Israel conflicts,” said Fred Ferguson, vice president of public affairs at Vista Outdoor, a heavyweight in the ammunition market.

“So when those theaters are using more gunpowder, we’re seeing shortages happen in other parts of the ammunition supply chain, including, for us, on the commercial and law enforcement side,” Mr. Ferguson said.

He said plenty of ammunition is still available to the commercial market but prices are increasing.

The global pinch has gone largely under the radar in the U.S. but has been headline-making news in Europe. French President Emmanuel Macron raised the issue in March at a gathering of Ukraine’s allies.

“Powder is really what’s lacking today,” he said, according to Agence France-Presse. 

Sen. James E. Risch, Idaho Republican, and Rep. Tom Emmer, Minnesota Republican, have written legislation to urge the Biden administration to find a way to shore up the U.S. supply chain.

Mr. Keane said he wants lawmakers to keep up pressure even after the global demand settles.

“It’s a challenge currently because of the demand, but when it returns to the status quo when the war in Ukraine resolves one way or another, and personally, I hope the Ukrainians prevail, but that’s to be determined, will Congress’ interest in this continue, and what’s the long-term answer from a national security point of view?” he asked.

He pointed to lessons from the onset of the pandemic when the crisis exposed supply chain issues on masks and medicines.

“We can’t be dependent on foreign sources, particularly for something that’s critical,” Mr. Keane said.

The issue is gaining traction.

Retired Army Maj. Gen. James Marks, in a piece for BreakingDefense.com, warned of China’s new dominance in nitrocellulose production and its ability to help Russia arm itself in its war with Ukraine.

“Control of nitrocellulose production could shape the geo-military landscape well into the future, and the US is now playing catch up. Action is needed as quickly as legislation can be passed,” he said.

Mr. Ferguson said the legislative efforts of Mr. Risch and Mr. Emmer are encouraging.

“A stronger supply chain for nitrocellulose, it’s going to support the defense industry, of course, but that’s going to have down-market benefits to companies like ours in the commercial sector,” he said.

Mr. Gabbert, the ammunition dealer, said consumers aren’t feeling much of a squeeze right now because this is usually a slow time of year for purchases.

“My prediction is that it will take time or a substantial increase in demand to shift prices up substantially across the board at this point,” he said.

Mr. Keane said the government must make decisions about the industry and what risks it is willing to take.

“We have high demand now because of the war, but does that make economic sense when that surge in demand returns to more normal levels?” he said.

Building another nitrocellulose facility has high barriers, and a private firm could be reluctant to pursue the opportunity without assurances about a customer base. Mr. Keane said one answer would be another government-owned, contractor-run facility.

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