Gun Ammo: The New Cash?

Jun 06, 2014 at 12:01 PM ET

When a man in rural upstate New York recently had central air-conditioning installed in his home, he offered an unusual method of payment for the job.

“The owner said, ‘My father just passed away and left me some guns and ammunition,'” recalls a 63-year-old electrician named Richard, who offered only his first name. “The guy gave me 3,000 rounds of 9-mm ammunition.” The bullets are worth around $900. “After that, I added it to my business card that I accept cash or bartered items.”

Richard isn’t alone. A new bartering economy in which ammo, not cash, is the preferred currency has been gaining ground, especially online. Websites like ArmsList and SpokaneGunTrade brand themselves as firearms-driven marketplaces where you can get a pool cleaned for a collection of ammo clips and a plumber will unclog your toilet in exchange for 9-mm or .40-caliber bullets. Similar ads have popped up on Craigslist. And boutique bartering pages have also surfaced on Facebook, some of which offer to trade guns for ammo.

Bartering in general is a rapid growth industry in the U.S., according to the International Reciprocal Trade Association, which estimates that the tit-for-tat economy has risen by a whopping $12 billion a year over the past three decades. But bartering for ammo is particularly popular among the survival set, who are stockpiling bullets along with canned food in case of an apocalypse.

“If a financial crisis hits and fuel skyrockets and trucks can’t travel, the grocery stores will get empty and people will start to freak out,” says Richard. “A can of beans will cost $1,000. But if you have something else to trade, like another item of food or bullets, that is something you can use to survive.”

“Cash is not king,” says Larry Miller, a 48-year-old handyman from Winchester, Virginia, who is trying to unload pool equipment for bullets online. “Cash has become worthless, and that’s why you have a lot of people stockpiling. It’s not hard to find somebody who has 10,000 rounds.”

King believes people in the U.S. are hoarding bullets right now because of the skyrocketing price of ammo. Over the past five years, .22-caliber long-range rifle rounds and 9-mm pistol ammo, to cite just two popular options, have tripled in price.

So what can one buy with bullets? Almost anything imaginable, from vintage Tonka trucks to a Chronicles of Narnia castle to services like a doctor’s checkup.

Big-ticket items can also be bought or bartered with ammo. A search turned up ads for automobilesa quarter horse and even a downpayment on a piece of property in Bedford, Virginia.

According to the U.S. Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives, such exchanges are perfectly legal. “If people are using ammunition to barter or get things with it we wouldn’t regulate that unless they were prevented from getting ammunition or firearms in the first place,” says ATF Special Agent Tim Graden.

Some states, however, have restrictions on shipping and purchasing ammunition. In New York, for instance, only licensed dealers can buy ammo, while Massachusetts bars ammunition sales. And in Washington, D.C., there are no sales of guns or bullets at all.

But most firearms laws don’t impede battering for even high-caliber or exotic ammunition. A 40-year-old man named Mark from Louisville, Kentucky, is hawking his $900 adult tricycle online. He’s hoping to get 50,000 armor-piercing bullets, which are heavily regulated. “That is what the government wants you not to have,” says Mark. “That’s how we do it in Kentucky.”

While we found scores of ads all over Craigslist offering ammo in exchange for goods and services, a company spokeswoman says in a statement that bartering with bullets, amongst other items, is “forbidden.”