20 years ago, Darren Newsom made himself a promise. By 2008, he would own his own business. The years came and went, and when 2008 arrived, Darren made the obvious decision to continue his work in an industry he’d spent more than two decades in: small arms ammunition. In 2008, Darren Newsom started up Bitterroot Valley Ammunition & Components, better known as BVAC. His timing couldn’t have been better. Nestled in a valley just south of Missoula amidst the mountains of Western Montana, BVAC began their mission to provide high quality and low priced ammunition and components to shooters and manufacturers alike.
We recently had the chance to sit down with Daren Newsom and discuss BVAC and the ammunition industry as a whole, as well as find out what new products and research BVAC is working on.
CTD: “Hi Darren, thanks for taking some time to talk with us.”
BVAC: “No problem.”
CTD: “I notice that you’ve got some extensive hunting experience. How does that experience help you in manufacturing ammunition?”
BVAC: “It helps because I get to use the rounds we develop and test them. I get to use them in all different scenarios. We take stuff up as far north as we can get, up by the Arctic Circle, and we take it down as far south as we can get. I think you’ve got to know what the ammunition is going to do in all different environments, especially a premium hunting round. You’ve got guys who are buying it for once in a lifetime hunts. I’ve been fortunate enough to go on some of these hunts and by going on them I’ve been able to test a lot of things. We’ve changed some things to adapt to different situations. We’ve worked with Speer and actually exclusively use one of their bullets that they don’t put in a line of ammo, we’re the only one who put it in a line of ammo.”
CTD: “Which bullet is that?”
BVAC: “That’s the Speer Grand Slam bullet. And they only offer that bullet as a component. Neither Speer nor Federal load that bullet but they allow us to load it. By working with them, we’ve been able to come up with our own Trophy Class line of ammunition. I’ve been on a lot of hunts with Speer to prove this bullet. They haven’t had to go back to the drawing board to improve anything because it’s worked really good, but if they did we’ve got that technology at our disposal.”
“You know, half of my crew on the loading end are all hunters. The guys who are building this premium line of ammunition are also using it. I think that’s a key deal. Our ammunition made by hunters for hunters. Our guys, October to November leave from the reloading press and head up into the mountains. These guys know that the next person that opens this box of this ammunition it might be a once of a lifetime bull elk they have in front of them, because they’ve been in that situation. They know that the last thing that you want to worry about is your ammunition going off. It’s hard enough to get the shot, but when you get the shot the last thing a hunter wants to worry about is his ammo. That’s where we kinda pride ourselves is we don’t want him ever to question the ammo. He can question his scope or his rifle or the conditions, but we never want him to have to question the ammo. Each round on our Trophy Class is one at a time hand inspected. It’s looked at individually, every round, before it goes into the box.”
CTD: “Let’s talk for a bit about the ammunition industry and the increased demand we’ve seen.
BVAC: “For the industry as a whole, I think we’re still in for high demand for some time. The way I still look at it for the next two or three years there’s going to be a shortage of ammunition. The key on ammunition is components. It doesn’t matter if you’re Federal or Winchester or Remington, if you’re building ammunition you need components and there’s a shortage of components right now and I don’t see it getting any better. I build for law enforcement and government too, and those sales are as strong now as they were two years ago. I see it still being a high demand item because there was such a shortage it will take a couple of years just to fill in what was sold and put away in somebody’s storage or their gun safe. There was a lot of ammunition that was just stored. Now what we’re seeing is that guys are getting out and shooting. The thing about ammunition is that once it’s shot you have to buy new, you have to buy more. People are out there shooting right now, the hoarding just isn’t going on there’s actually guys just getting out there and shooting also. I think we’ll see this for at least a couple of more years.”
“I’ve been in this industry since 1988, and I went through the early 90s, you know- the Clinton years, and I’ve never seen it like this. The Clinton years took a couple of years to recoup in the manufacturing end of it, and this is 10 times worse than that. Ammunition could be strong for the next 10 years. We went to the SHOT show, and I know in the meetings we had with the bigger companies they were 400% up on sales this year from last year, and last year was a record year. We’re a month into the year and their sales 400% increased over last year. That’s huge.”
CTD: “Do you see that number growing or shrinking?”
BVAC: “Well, I don’t see it shrinking at all. I don’t know how much more it can grow because even the bigger companies are telling me “We might be 400% ahead of last year, but we can never deliver that much.” I don’t think it’s going to shrink, but I think we’re about maxed out on what everybody can do, so I can’t see the growth getting that much bigger. I haven’t heard of any new big manufacturer coming into the market to help out the demand, and I know the bigger companies are maxed out. None of them are looking at building new plants or anything like that because everybody just wants to weather this storm and just not be into debt when this does end. If it ends. With nobody expanding big time I think the demand is going to be there for quite a while.
CTD: “Do you think we might see some industry expansion if the demand doesn’t die down? Because you mention that you don’t see it shrinking.”
BVAC: “Well, I see it in companies our size. You know, the smaller businesses I can see expanding. I’ve been to the bigger companies, you’re talking for the bigger companies spending millions and millions of dollars. A company my size, you can spend a million dollars and expand pretty good. We’ve already expanded; we built a new plant. I’m looking at probably expanding again next year. I want to do it at a scale where we don’t get way ahead of ourselves. I think you’re going to see small businesses expand and get into the market. That’s why we came up with our own Trophy Class ammo. When the shelves are bare we want to get ammo to the hunters. That’s one thing we’ve been able to do in the last two years. We’ve been able to actually get the product to the consumers. We’ve been able to get it onto the shelves when a lot of people haven’t been able to.”
CTD: “We’ve noticed shortages in certain calibers that seem like they would not see a high demand, such as .30-30, .380, .45 Colt, etc. Why is that?”
BVAC: “What I’ve seen with .380, because it’s the same way when I go to get brass, .380 and 9mm are usually run on the same production line, so if there’s a big demand for 9mm they don’t switch it to .380. What I’ve been able to do is go into some companies and make the demand for .380 as important as the demand for 9mm, and sometimes by doing that you’ve got to offer to pay them the same amount you would 9mm brass. Even though there’s less cost in making .380, their production time is worth more to them. So, the case with the bigger manufacturers is that they’re making the hot items such as 9mm, .40, .45, and not able to switch their machines. We can do a machine switch in 3 hours. For Federal or Winchester to do a machine switch, they may be talking 3 days. Right now I think they’re 9 months back ordered on 9, .40, and .45 right now so .380 is one of the last items they’re looking to make.”
CTD: “You mention the cost of production time and the brass and components selling for more money. Is that part of the increased costs we’re seeing in .380?”
BVAC: “Yes, that’s why you see an increase. Obviously .380 ammunition costs less on the commodities side as far as raw materials to build than 9mm, yet you see .380 sometimes costing twice as much as 9mm if not more. Well, the reason for that is that you have to pay for the production time and I’ve had to do that to get brass and to get bullets. I’ve had to pay more than I would have to pay for 9mm. That’s exactly why you’re seeing .380 go up is you’re paying for production time, you’re paying for guys to switch their machines over and they lose the 9mm business and you’ve got to pay for that.”
CTD: “Talking a bit more about the components, I know that a lot of people like myself have noticed that primers are very difficult to find, and when they are available it’s at a substantial price increase. Tell me a bit about what’s going on behind the scenes.”
BVAC: “Well, BVAC has been in a good position because we’re the master component distributer for ATK, and you know ATK owns Federal and Speer and CCI, and we’re their master distributer for components so we’re at the top of the food chain there. But you have to call in every resource you have. We back up our CCI primers with Winchester primers. I pool all my resources. We’re one of the main suppliers, so I haven’t had a problem getting primers at all or getting certain brass. The thing with the larger manufacturers – let’s use primers as an example. They can always make more primers than they can ever make ammo. So, if they make 5 million primers a day at CCI, their capacity of ammunition might only be 4 million, so they always have an extra million primers a day. It’s always like that with any manufacturer; the primers have always exceeded the production of ammunition. So, thus they need a market they can move the primers in. With CCI, I’m their avenue that they move them through. They might send me 10 million primers a month and I decide how I distribute it. Do I use 1 million for my own manufacturing and split up the other 9 million amongst other manufacturers? That’s what we try to do because I like to keep all the other manufacturers making ammo too because that way BVAC can support the whole market. We support them with components.
“I think some of the smaller companies that don’t make primers just have to plan. We’ve planned ahead 2 years on our primer orders. I’ve got my orders in for 2 years for primers, so that keeps me at the top of the list for two years. That’s the biggest thing is just getting primers.”
CTD: “So if there is this surplus of primers, help me understand. The shortage on the retail level for reloaders… is that simply from hoarding?”
BVAC: “The shortage on primers right now is on the retail level just because the primers that are coming out are all going to manufacturers.”
CTD: “So it’s not necessarily that there’s any hoarding going on, it’s just that they don’t trickle down? The primers never make it to the retail level?”
BVAC: “Exactly. I’ve got OEMs, manufacturers, that we sell primers to that will pay the commercial price to get the primers. So you’ve got manufacturers willing to pay commercial prices for the primers, thus the commercial market never sees them.”
CTD: “Or when we do, we see the increased price.”
BVAC: “Correct. Because, they look at it and say “This manufacturer going to give me $25 per thousand primers. Well, what will the retail guy give me?” That’s why you start seeing primers for $30 – $35 per thousand, when you see them at all. We keep the primer cost down for other manufacturers, and then we don’t allow them to sell the primers we sell them. I won’t sell another manufacturer primers to resell, they have to put them into ammunition. The biggest reason for that is pricing. If I give them the best price possible to manufacture ammunition and then they just take the primer and mark it up 100% and sell the primer, that’s not the purpose for us selling them primers.”
CTD: “So you’re actively trying to help prevent all the price gouging we’ve seen in the market.”
BVAC: “Exactly, that’s exactly what we’re trying to do. There’s a lot of that going on. And some of it is justified. You guys for example have pay more for certain items just to get them, just for the availability sometimes you have to pay more, so obviously you have to charge more for them.”
CTD: “And then there’s .380 like you mention, where the cost of production has actually gone up.”
BVAC: “Correct. One thing I can tell you that we’ve been able to do is that we actually just did a price decrease at the first of the year because I was able to increase our manufacturing capacity and reduce our costs of labor, so I was able to adjust pricing. You’re not seeing that with many companies right now; you’re not seeing anybody decrease the price of ammo. I’m trying to stay ahead of the curve, and I want to keep people shooting. If we don’t have people out there shooting, the ammo industry is going to hurt like every other industry. But if I can keep it affordable and keep guys shooting, the market’s going to be strong. That’s part of why I re-manufacture ammunition. If guys can’t afford to shoot, they’re not going to shoot. Then you’re going to have the hoarding. Well, the hoarding in my opinion is good for the short term. But if they don’t go out and shoot it, it’s only a short term deal. You’re only going to sell them enough ammo until they get their stockpile up. Well, I want to make it affordable enough so that these guys can go out and shoot the ammunition and purchase more.”
CTD: “What new developments can we look forward to seeing from BVAC?”
BVAC: “Well, we’re working, we’re putting in our own test lab so we can actually tweak loads to different guns as gun manufacturers come out with new guns and new models. There’s a lot of new stuff coming out on the component end. There are some new powders coming out that you can get higher velocities with less pressure. There are powders coming out that will burn a lot cleaner. There is a new line of lead free primers coming out so we’re looking at a line of lead free ammunition. The key with lead free ammunition, and we’re going to be working on it this year, is to produce a lead free round that will not only works the same as a lead round but will also cost the same. That’s been the key with the lead free rounds; the cost has been so expensive that people can’t afford it. We’re working with some bullet manufacturers and with primer manufacturers to make the costs affordable so that you can afford it. There are a lot of indoor ranges that require lead free ammunition, the problem is not many people can afford the ammunition. One thing we’re going to come out with this year is a re-manufactured lead free round to keep the costs down. We’re looking to offer that with you guys.”
CTD: “Yeah, we get a lot of requests for that. Many training centers now require lead free frangible ammunition, and if you go and look on the market to buy 1,000 rounds of lead free frangible ammunition, the price is just astronomical.”
BVAC: “You’re right, we sell a lot of lead free frangible ammunition to training facilities, and I think you’re going to see the whole market kind of shift that way eventually. The EPA and OSHA come in to the ranges, and you’ve got places like California that are going to a completely lead free rifle round. That’s one thing we’re working on now too with Barnes bullets is a lead free rifle round for California. You can’t hunt in California with a lead bullet. In the next couple of months we’re going to have some lead free hunting rounds available to anyone, but the big push has been for California. And we’re going to test it in the field, you know, take it on a couple of hunts and see how it performs.”
CTD: “I want to back track just a minute here. You mentioned powders and dirty ammunition talking about some developments and such. We’ve seen a lot of dirty ammunition, smoky ammunition that is foul smelling and such. What’s the cause of all of this dirty stinky ammunition coming on the market during the ammo shortage?”
BVAC: “Well, the dirtiest round you’re going to see is in a pistol round when you shoot a lead bullet. A lot of the cowboy action stuff and revolver bullets have a lead bullet and you’re actually burning the back of the bullet when it’s fired. We see a lot of lead actually being burnt, and that’s where a lot of the smoke is the lead being vaporized off of the back of the bullet. Also there are some powders out there that are just some dirty powders and that’s one thing we’re working on is trying to get some clean burning powders. There are powders out there now with flash suppressors to keep the flash down and what keeps the flash down also keeps you from basically burning the bullet. But the big reason is that there is also a lot of surplus powder out there that has been the only thing available to a lot of companies.
CTD: “So it is related to the component shortage?”
BVAC: “Yes. When somebody can’t get the powder that should be used for their cartridge, they have to use a powder that isn’t supposed to be used for that particular round. Thus, you get a lot dirtier round. I mean we’ve seen it on the lead rounds. It’s almost impossible right now to sell a .38 wad cutter that you’re not going to see the smoke without going to a completely jacketed round. By switching to some different powders and using a harder cast bullet you can cut it down. The last thing you want to do is have some guy shooting your ammo standing next to another guy with a smoke cloud no one can see through. And that’s some testing we do. We have a range getting built right now where we can go in and shoot and it will detect how much smoke is actually generated in there. We’ll actually set up a lane where we can see if it’s going to fill the entire room up with smoke.”
“Ideally you want to get away from leaded rounds, but in a market like now that’s not the cheapest round to make. I think it’s going to be huge if we can come up with a lead free round that is affordable, because you eliminate all of that. I mean, you can eliminate it all right now, it’s just that the cost of eliminating it isn’t justified. I think this is a price driven deal right now. If you have a competitive good priced ammunition in stock you’re going to sell everything you can make, and that’s the case with us right now. We’re doing 300,000 rounds a day and every day that entire production is sold. A lot of it is quality, but it’s also pricing. I mean, you can’t make the best ammunition in the world and sell it at the cheapest price. That just doesn’t happen, but we can build really good ammo at affordable pricing and sell it. Reloaded is a really good alternative right now if it’s done right and that’s why we’re specializing in it.”
CTD: “You’ve touched on your re-manufactured products which use once fired brass. We often have customers ask about the once-fired brass, and they are obviously concerned about quality and reliability. Tell me a little more about your re-manufactured cartridges and the process you use in conditioning and preparing the brass.”
BVAC: “A lot of people don’t realize that once fired brass is actually more reliable than newly manufactured brass. With newly manufactured brass, there can be flaws in the metal, weak points, cracks or creases that aren’t visible or easily detectable. With new brass, there are often flaws that are revealed when it is first fired. Once the brass has been fired, you can see discoloration, shiny spots, cracks and deformations and discard that brass. We start by sorting and sizing all of the brass that comes in. Any brass that has flaws or is damaged is discarded. What’s left is the good brass, and of course we still thoroughly clean that; we polish it, size it, and test it. We actually have a machine that injects high pressure air into the brass case to check for flaws and leaks. By going through reconditioning we can actually improve the brass and make it better than newly manufactured brass.”
CTD: “That’s great. And with the reconditioned once-fired brass, you’re able to reduce the cost of manufacturing even more and pass that savings on to the consumers, to the shooters.”
CTD: “Well Darren, I believe that’s all I’ve got. I appreciate the time you’ve given us, and the insights you’ve provided into the ammunition industry. I know our customers will appreciate the efforts you put into manufacturing low-cost high-quality ammunition.”