In the last ammo crisis, revolver shooters were largely spared the carnage. While prices did increase, 38 Special and 357 Magnum ammo remained readily available for the duration. Not so this time around, where gun stores are showing bare shelves and online retailers are charging $1.90 a round for FMJ. Why is 38 Special so hard to find?
The first problem is a demand problem. According to NSSF’s final tally, approximately 8.4 million first time gun owners entered the market in 2020. When they came in, they brought an unprecedented demand for guns and ammo, as well as some interesting purchasing habits. There was a surge in demand for 1) pump-action shotguns and 2) revolvers. If we take a wild guess that even 10ish percent of the new gun owners bought a 38/357 wheelgun, that’s 800,000 people. If each one of those people bought 100 rounds of ammo, that’s 80 million rounds of 38 Special that didn’t need to exist before 2020.
To further understand why 38 Special is so hard to find, we need to look at how ammo is made. The big companies like Federal, Winchester, or Magtech/S&B have dedicated lines to make high-demand rounds such as 223 Remington or 9mm. All those machines do is make those rounds, and they’re not easy to convert over to different cartridges. Lower demand cartridges (like 38 Special) are made on different machines that can be switched from one caliber to another with a bit more ease. Those machines have to make everything else, so one week they could be making hunting rounds and the next week 38 Special JHP for personal protection. Plus, they can also be converted to make 9mm…you get the idea, right? Increased demand for everything and the same or reduced capacity?
Plus, the last piece of the puzzle: the small pistol primer. 38 Special takes small pistol primers, the exact same kind that, you guessed it, 9mm takes. So the final clue in why 38 Special is so hard to find is that: primer diversion. If I’m Winchester and I’m trying to allocate my primers, everything is going to fill my monster back-order of 9mm ammo, and if I can squeeze out a few million rounds of 38 while I’m at it, that’s nice. Otherwise it’s make 9mm all day all the time, baby.
Like the entire ammo crisis, the issue isn’t complicated. 38 Special is hard to find because of supply and demand. It’s just we’ve need seen this kind of demand before.