On March 16, the Russian army advanced on Chernihiv, Bucha and Irpin, Ukraine – firing steel-cased ammunition from the military's AK rifles.
On the other side of the globe, a cargo ship carrying the same type of ammo from St. Petersburg docked in Philadelphia. A container with pallets of shrink-wrapped boxes slowly made its way to warehouses in Florida, South Carolina and Ohio and onto store shelves nationwide.
All Russian ammo was banned for import to the U.S. as of Sept. 7, 2021, but the cheap 7.62 x 39 mm bullets – favored by many Americans for target practice with semiautomatic rifles – kept flowing because of a State Department loophole allowing existing and pending import permits to stand. Russian brands such as Wolf, TulAmmo and Barnaul are easy to find at gun shops and U.S.-based online retailers.
The sanctions and the grandfathered Russian imports have split the top firearm lobbies and gun owners: Some take a hard-line Second Amendment view, some fall on the side of democratic support for Ukraine, some seem to be torn between the two.
The Biden administration announced the ban in August 2021 in reaction to the poisoning of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny the year before. The ban also came as intelligence agencies reported Russia amassing 100,000 troops at the Ukrainian border.
Once President Vladimir Putin attacked Ukraine in February, U.S. sanctions were extended to virtually every international piece of the Russian banking system.
Since 2014, when Russia invaded Crimea, the Treasury Department has sanctioned oligarchs close to Putin and arms manufacturers close to the government. TulAmmo is among the popular brands under scrutiny for purported ties to the Russian defense conglomerate Rostec, which has been sanctioned, and oligarchs such as Putin ally Igor Rotenberg.
A USA TODAY analysis of bills of lading data shows shipments from seven Russian munitions plants have arrived in the USA since September through 13 American ammunition importers. That totaled 8,000 metric tons – more than 400 million rounds – almost on pace with all of 2021.
The allure is obvious: the ammunition costs a fraction of domestic-made versions. Online retailers sell the Russian-made AK rounds for 34 cents apiece – whereas Texas-loaded brass rounds sell for close to a dollar.
Gun rights lobby is conflicted
The National Rifle Association decried the sanctions in September as an attack on the Second Amendment. But it broke with its traditional policy of broadly advocating for access to all foreign ammunition in a statement to USA TODAY.
“During an international conflict with Russian aggression at the center, the NRA – along with almost all American companies – is not prioritizing the protection of access to Russian goods,” spokeswoman Amy Hunter said.
Another gun rights group, Gun Owners of America, is fighting the “Biden Ammo Ban,” which it said will do little to crimp the Russian export economy, particularly compared with the massive energy exports flowing in pipelines to Europe and elsewhere. The group accused the president of hating gun owners.
Actions by the National Shooting Sports Foundation, which represents gun shops, manufacturers and importers, highlight the dichotomies. The group sent lobbyists to Capitol Hill last year to monitor the looming sanctions. It sought to help importers understand rules around “Form 6” permits to import Russian ammunition.
A bulletin sent to NSSF members Aug. 30 read, “It is NSSF’s understanding that approved Form 6’s will not be rescinded and Form 6’s already submitted will be approved until Sept. 7.” Those permits are good for two years.
Regulators declined to divulge how many permits were approved just before the deadline. Barnaul importer Charles Brown said on the floor of the NSSF annual trade show in January that when he heard the sanctions were coming, he “hammered in” a bevy of permit applications under the deadline.
Months later, after Russian troops flooded into Ukraine, the NSSF helped its members donate American-made brass ammunition to the Ukrainians. It connected ammunition companies with U.S. ammunition regulators at the Commerce Department and provided addresses for shipping to the Ukrainian military.
It reaped the benefits of public relations attention for that move, including a feature in Firearms News magazine in which NSSF spokesman Mark Oliva said his industry had answered Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy's “clarion call: ‘The fight is here; I need ammunition, not a ride.’ ”
Russian plants have military ties, obscure financing
Despite the sanctions responding to the Crimea invasion in 2014, U.S. importers maintained lucrative business contracts with manufacturers as long as they steered clear of Treasury’s sanction list, which identifies off-limits companies.
International business experts called into question the true Russian owners and government ties of many ammunition manufacturers because of the country’s opaque reporting requirements. Gun safety advocates said the presence of Russian manufacturers at trade shows such as the massive SHOT Show in Las Vegas prove the cozy industry ties.
“Too many American firearms companies will do anything to make a few extra bucks, even if that means continuing to do business with a Russian defense industry that has been fueling a tragedy in Ukraine since Putin invaded Crimea in 2014,” said John Feinblatt, president of Everytown for Gun Safety.
Many of the brands, including Barnaul, market their product to appear like surplus ammo from the Soviet era, even though it is newly manufactured. Barnaul sells olive drab “spam cans” of 700-round packages sealed in tin canisters “ideal for long term airtight storage” and labeled in Russian Cyrillic lettering.
When the Conflict Armament Research group in the U.K. analyzed nearly 5,000 rounds of small-arms ammunition recovered in Ukraine since 2014 in battle-torn Donetsk and Luhansk, it found a majority of those rounds were produced in five Russian plants. Barnaul Cartridge Plant was the No. 1 provider; Tula and Vympel also were named.
An importer in Florida received its shipments of ammo in February from the Amursk Cartridge Plant – Vympel, according to shipping records analyzed by USA TODAY. On its website, the Amursk factory boasts it is a government-backed facility named strategically important by the Russian Federation and a “key element of the country’s defense system in terms of providing the army with the most modern samples of ammunition.”
Same ammo fired on the battlefield for sale here
Russian-manufactured ammunition has been sold at an increasing rate since 2014, according to Small Arms Analytics, which analyzes trade data. Importers brought in 765 million units – empty and filled cartridges – of technically legal Russian munitions in 2020 and 862 million through the end of last year.
Russia has been by far the largest supplier of imported rounds to the USA and by some industry estimates has provided up to 10% of all ammunition here. Americans buy roughly 10 billion rounds of ammunition annually, according to the NSSF.
U.S. import data due out in May will begin to show the impacts of the sanctions on the ammunition market. Forecasters at Small Arms Analytics anticipate the data will show that other Eastern European countries such as the Czech Republic and Serbia increased their output to fill the void.
That leaves American gun owners and gun store operators options in deciding whether to continue snapping up the cheap ammunition from Russia.
Shooters should opt to pay a little more to avoid supporting Russia, said Bill Brown, an importer for Reno-based Battle Born Munitions. He said he sold off his inventory, left permits unfilled and cut off Russian contracts.
“Why are you supporting the Russian war machine? Do you feel comfortable selling Russian-made military ammunition that’s fueling and funding the atrocities in Ukraine?” Brown said. “When you pay your 30 cents for a round, 28 of it goes back to Mother Russia. There’s no way you can contest that.”
NSSF spokesman Oliva disagrees, contending that any ammunition on store shelves was bought and paid for months before Russia became a global pariah.
“We want our members to stay in business, but companies can make their own value-based decisions, and that’s evident by the companies making donations to Ukraine,” Oliva said in an interview. “We focus on what the law says and don’t take a position on the sanctions.”
Gun enthusiasts are conflicted, said Brandon Herrera, a Texas-based YouTube expert on AK firearms with nearly 2 million subscribers. He said he worries the sanctions will do more harm to American consumers than Putin.
“I think a lot of the gun community is with Ukraine and against the occupation,” Herrera said, noting the war has played out in his video channel’s comments section between global supporters of Russia and of Ukraine.
“If you’re an average person deciding not to buy this ammo and you’re out to protest Russia,” he said, “you need to remember the difference between Russian citizens and the actions of Putin.”
Brandon Herrera, a Texas-based YouTube expert on AK firearms, posted this YouTube video analyzing the ban on Russian ammunition when the sanctions were announced in August.
Importers face sanctions, banking freeze, duty
The complex and shifting sanction environment has made business tough for importers that specialize in Russian ammunition, said Charles Brown, the supplier who said he “hammered in” his permit applications to beat the sanctions. Brown owns Ohio-based MKS Supply, a U.S. supplier of Barnaul ammunition.
Records show MKS has imported 650 tons of Russian ammunition since September – about 9% of the total imported. The State Department’s two-year loophole for permit holders means Brown could legally continue importing Russian ammunition – if he could clear all the banking, shipping and economic hurdles.
He said the U.S. government’s blocks on Russian banking mean he could not wire money for his new orders. The Biden administration's revocation of “most-favored nation” status for Russia added an extra duty on many imports – 30% for things like ammunition, plywood and caviar.
His March shipment may have been his last, Brown said.
“It’s complicated,” he said. “Personally, yeah, we’re resistant to the sanctions, it affects our business. But now you get into deeper questions: Should Russia be sanctioned? How do you feel about the war? We’re a business that imports from Russia, but everything happening in Ukraine is vile and disgusting.”
Brown’s bottom line is that consumers should be free to make their own purchasing decisions.
“That’s what makes us Americans, it’s a personal choice and some would be happy to purchase from a sanctioned company and some may not,” he said. “A lot of these sanctions are hurting U.S. companies more than the Russians.”
Contributing: Brett Murphy
This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Russian ammo ban loophole keeps it in US, splits gun groups on Ukraine