The demand for guns, bullets and ammunition in Montana has caused a record surge in FBI firearm background checks in the state and has retailers and manufacturers overwhelmed and shocked.
Ted Beardsley, the owner of Empire Arms and Ammunition in Manhattan, Montana, pauses for a moment when asked if he's seen an big increase in gun and ammo sales in 2020.
"That's an understatement," Beardsley said. "It's been absolutely insane. On Friday the 13th of March we saw a very odd uptick that afternoon. Then, starting Saturday March 14th, it has been absolutely non-stop since. The first three or four months were absolute insanity."
Beardsley said wholesalers across the country can't keep up with demand that retailers like him are seeing.
"It's on a national scale," he said. "I normally have about 75 handguns in the case and I'm down to two. I just can't get 'em from wholesalers."
Customers are looking for "anything defensive," including defensive shotguns.
"One wholesaler of mine has only had one defensive shotgun come available in 9 months," Beardsley said.
He's close to Interstate 90, and he believes people are Googling "gun shops near me" as they drive down the highway. He's had customers from other states tell him they can't get any guns or ammo where they're from so they're now searching in Montana.
"There's been days where I get 50-100 calls asking if we have ammo," he said. "We're about three-and-a-half miles out of the population hub, so I understand people wanting to call ahead before they come out, but it can be kind of infuriating."
It's gotten to the point where even hearing-protection and gun-cleaning supplies are being wiped out.
"It's just unprecedented," he said. "It's a crazy perfect storm of COVID shutdowns and the election."
According to the FBI's National Instant Criminal Background Check System database, there have been 155,604 firearm background checks conducted in Montana through Nov. 30 of 2020. That's a record, and a big jump from the 115,823 seen in all of 2019. The previous record was 137,830 in 2013.
Frankie Brown, an owner at Rim Rock Bullets in Polson, says his company has 10 million bullets on backorder right now.
"Last year at this time it was 2 million," he said. "We're five times busier this year. It's COVID. Everyone's panicking, and then right after the elections we were four times to eight times busier than usual. The day after the election our Internet sales jumped."
Buyers are coming from "every state in the Union," he said, even though they don't do a whole lot of advertising.
"In 2019 we would ship orders out in 3-5 days, now we're at five and a half weeks on shipping," he explained. "We're getting bulk orders, anywhere from 3,000 to 10,000 pieces, with some ordering 20,000 to 30,000 once in a while. That's not including contracts and commercial accounts."
The company only makes the projectiles that go into ammunition. They sell everything from .22 caliber to .50 caliber. Everything is popular right now, he added, including .9mm bullets to .45 Long Colt.
Rim Rock Bullets has been in business nearly 16 years and sells to ammunition manufacturers in Montana and elsewhere.
"Some of them went from only ordering 50,000 pieces a month to ordering 150,000 pieces a month," Brown said. "Some companies have standing orders for 1 million a month and they've tripled that."
The surge in demand has pushed his staff to the limit.
"I have 25 employees right now and I could use 15 more," he said. "I've been trying to hire 15 spots all year but everyone's getting paid to sit on the couch."
Brown said elections always bring a surge in demand.
"This happens every four years," he said. "A lot of it was the pandemic and the election. This one was just different."
Todd Coutts is the owner of Third Street Pawn in Missoula, which has been around for 29 years. He said gun sales have spiked 50% to 60% this year.
"Yes, gun sales are very strong," Coutts explained. "Really it's both the pandemic and the election. They were strong before the election, then that kinda supercharged it."
He said people are looking for all types of guns, from pistols to rifles. The surge this year isn't without precedent, he noted.
"Other elections have caused a spike," he said. "We had a little spike when Obama was elected. Every time a Democrat gets elected we see a spike."
A survey published in late August from the National Shooting Sports Foundation, the firearms industry trade association, found that nearly 5 million Americans purchased a firearm for the very first time in 2020. Retailers reported that over 40% of sales where conducted to buyers who had never previously owned a firearm.
Beardsley, the owner of the gun and ammo shop in Manhattan, offered his opinion on why Americans are rushing to stockpile guns and ammo.
"I think when you look back at the initial COVID, the fear of rioting and the idea of 'defund the police', then anybody who's got some ability to have some cognitive thought is thinking 'if we want to allow rioting and we're not going to punish that,' that has the potential to mean smaller police forces," he said. "And that's kind of clicking with a lot of folks. They're realizing they may not have the ability to call the police, so it's going to come down to yourself."