Australian Munitions, operator of the Mulwala Explosives factory on the NSW-Victoria border, have faced the usual COVID 19-related issues along with multiple manufacturing industries. Unfortunately the repercussions for shooters who reload their own ammunition have been significant, just obtaining ADI powders over the past 12-18 months being ‘nigh impossible’ according to recent postings on their own website. As Senior Correspondent Rod Pascoe reports, these deficiencies come despite Australian Munitions’ pledge the factory continues to run at maximum capacity, supplying as much propellant to the market as possible.
In a series of posts on the ADI website in March and April, the company attempted to explain how the challenges of producing powder during the pandemic is not just about keeping the disease out of the facility and managing staff movements across a border that’s opening and closing at the drop of a hat, but dealing with the flow-on effects of supply and demand.
Under normal circumstances Australian Munitions keeps propellant stock on hand so their distributors, OSA and Winchester Australia, can place orders at any time. But there have been times when some orders have exceeded the stock available and deliveries have been delayed for a number of internal and external factors – more on that later. Over the past 12 months and as far back as mid-2019 for some propellants, ADI admits they “haven’t been keeping up with demand from the market.”
The amount of propellant the facility can produce has an upper limit and there’s a limit on the amount of explosive products it can store on-site once produced. While ‘popular’ propellants are made several times a year, the less popular powders are made only every one or two years or so. Combine this with the length of time it takes to manufacture a single batch of any type of propellant – roughly six months – and a sudden increases in market demand can affect availability. And, according to ADI, the pandemic led to a higher than normal demand for powder: “In 2020 the level of demand was so unprecedented we required an additional 40 per cent of our typical annual volumes to maintain adequate supply.”
While stories of panic buying and stockpiling of goods like toilet paper and pasta appeared on the nightly news, it seems a similar thing was going on across the domestic firearms industry. I can attest to that and while I didn’t panic-buy, I did ensure I’d enough components to keep me busy during any potential extended lock-down. And I wasn’t alone as the ADI news post stated: “. . . resulted in a level of demand for our products we haven’t experienced in at least six years.”
Because of the lead time needed to plan and produce a batch of powder, ADI have implement some new strategies with OSA and Winchester Australia to better predict market demand, which must be difficult without a crystal ball. As I understand it, distributors are asking retailers to anticipate their future requirements which in turn gives distributors an estimate of overall demand on which Australian Munitions can manage its production schedule.
Earlier I mentioned the internal and external factors that have led to powder delivery delays. An issue not necessarily a fault of COVID itself – and one that’s plagued the industry for some time – is distribution of propellant around the country as well as between, and within, the states and territories. One of the news stories on ADI’s website explains the rules and regulations involving transportation of dangerous goods from manufacture to end user.
This makes for interesting reading and helps explain how storage and transportation requirements vary from state-to-state and to quote a piece directly from that article: “For example, Western Australia has restrictions on who can legally move propellant around within the state and is limited to a list of ‘authorised’ carriers as dictated by WA Police.” Further: “Deliveries occur approximately three times per year, however steps are being taken to increase this number. The additional cost of moving dangerous goods to WA, combined with the difficulties in moving it around the state, make it the hardest location in Australia to manage distribution effectively.”
By releasing these news items, Australian Munitions has taken the brave step of confronting the ongoing manufacturing, storage and distribution issues surrounding their products. I say brave because Australian Munitions and parent company Thales have not normally been forthcoming with information and doubtless it’s harder to front-up when it’s not necessarily ‘good’ news.
People like to know what’s going on and Australian Munitions should realise that not communicating vital and timely information leaves individuals to speculate. As they admit in their own web post: “This isn’t some big conspiracy designed to short-change our Australian customers and, contrary to the rumours we hear all the time, no, we don’t ship propellant offshore to the USA to the detriment of Australian hand-loaders.”
There’s also been a bit of a shake-up in production and packaging of the AR and Benchmark series of rifle powders in that some are being released in different-sized bottles and others are not being manufactured at all this year. The so-called ‘popular’ rifle powders AR2206(H), AR2208, AR2209 and AR2213SC which are produced routinely and regularly haven’t been affected by any change, these propellants still available in both 1kg and 4kg bottles and produced continually throughout the year.
While AR2217 is outside the popular range it’s still made several times a year but will only be offered in 4kg bottles in 2021 as will AR2225 and AR2218. Benchmark 1 and AR2205 propellants will not be manufactured this year but there is stock of AR2205 for OSA and Winchester to access as required. AR2207, AR2219, Benchmark 2 and Benchmark 8208 will continue to be produced in 2021 but only in 1kg bottles for the foreseeable future.
Problems developing and producing the APS range of pistol and shotgun powders has been an ongoing concern from the start, this despite the up-beat press release of December 2017 trumpeting the achievements and future expectations of the new government-funded propellant plant. It reads in part: “Australian Munitions is excited to introduce the first of our new single-based flake Australian Pistol Shotgun (APS) propellants. It has been manufactured from the new Mulwala propellant facility for use in the civilian market – ADI World Class Powders APS350 and APS450. These new APS products will become available in Australian dealerships for you to try from March 2018. It’s an exciting time to be an ADI customer!”
But in less than four years of the initial euphoria there’s a very different story. The September 2018 issue of Australian Shooter ran the story of the rebuilding of the Mulwala Explosives Factory from its 1940s technology to a modern, environmentally friendly, safe and efficient facility, part of that transition being to manufacture new propellants to replace the AP and AS pistol and shotgun range of powders. This is because the AS and AP powders were a double-based formulation containing both nitrocellulose and nitroglycerine chemistry, so it was decided the new plant produce only single-based powder containing just the nitrocellulose component.
The new range of powders therefore had to be produced from scratch using the single-base technology. Initially APS 350 and APS 450 would replace AS30 and AP/S50 and more recently APS950 was being made to replace AP100 (AP70 was to be replaced by APS650 but this product never made it to fruition). The delayed release of the full range of APS powders didn’t go down well with shooters who were quickly running out of AP and AS stockpiles. But worse news was to follow and after releasing the first bottles of the APS range in 2018, production of these has come to a standstill and development of APS650 has also ground to a halt. Needless to say this came as very disappointing news to shooters who reload their pistol and shotgun ammunition.
In the business of manufacturing propellent, ‘keeping your powder dry’ is more than just a saying. Apparently the unusual weather patterns of late 2020 and early 2021 played a major part in ADI’s decision that was to prove the final nail in the coffin for APS products. According to an earlier post on ADI’s website, when there’s high humidity or it’s wetter and colder, it’s not possible to make these propellants as the individual propellant grains effectively absorb moisture which has to be expelled to achieve the correct burn rate. The popular Trail Boss product is also caught up in this situation and, as such, it too is unlikely to be produced this year, although research is ongoing to find a way of manufacturing a replacement for this powder.
And a final word from Australian Munitions: “We would like to assure you the factory continues to run at maximum capacity, 24 hours a day, and we’re supplying as much propellant to the market as possible. In fact, any difficulty in accessing our propellants is due to unprecedented demand and not a reduction in manufacturing or supply to the Australia market.” We await developments.