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August 17, 2007
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Ammo shortage squeezes police forces

P1 Editor's note: Be sure to read Dick Fairburn's article Surviving the ammo shortage from the July/August issue of The Police Marksman magazine.

Demand skyrockets partially due to wars; lack of bullets affects training
The Associated Press

Troops training for and fighting the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan are firing more than 1 billion bullets a year, contributing to ammunition shortages hitting police departments nationwide and preventing some officers from training with the weapons they carry on patrol.

An Associated Press review of dozens of police and sheriff’s departments found that many are struggling with delays of as long as a year for both handgun and rifle ammunition. And the shortages are resulting in prices as much as double what departments were paying just a year ago.

"There were warehouses full of it. Now, that isn't the case," said Al Aden, police chief in Pierre, S.D.

Departments in all parts of the country reported delays or reductions in training and, in at least one case, a proposal to use paint-ball guns in firing drills as a way to conserve real ammo.

Forgoing proper, repetitive weapons training comes with a price on the streets, police say, in diminished accuracy, quickness on the draw and basic decision-making skills.

"You are not going to be as sharp or as good, especially if an emergency situation comes up," said Sgt. James MacGillis, range master for the Milwaukee police. "The better-trained officer is the one that is less likely to use force."

Training needs drive demand

The pinch is blamed on a skyrocketing demand for ammunition that followed the start of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, driven by the training needs of a military at war, and, ironically, police departments raising their own practice regimens following the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. The increasingly voracious demand for copper and lead overseas, especially in China, has also been a factor.

The military is in no danger of running out because it gets the overwhelming majority of its ammunition from a dedicated plant outside Kansas City. But police are at the mercy of commercial manufacturers.

None of the departments surveyed by the AP said they had pulled guns off the street, and many departments reported no problems buying ammunition. But others told the AP they face higher prices and months-long delays.

In Oklahoma City, for example, officers cannot qualify with AR-15 rifles because the department does not have enough .223-caliber ammunition — a round similar to that fired by the military’s M-16 and M4 rifles. Last fall, an ammunition shortage forced the department to cancel qualification courses for several different guns.

"We’ve got to teach the officers how to use the weapon, and they’ve got to be able to go to the range and qualify with the weapon and show proficiency," said department spokesman Capt. Steve McCool. "And you can’t do that unless you have the rounds."

In Milwaukee, supplies of .40-caliber handgun bullets and .223-caliber rifle rounds have gotten so low the department has repeatedly dipped into its ammunition reserves.

Some weapons training has already been cut by 30 percent, and lessons on rifles have been altered to conserve bullets.

Advanced planning needed

Unlike troops in an active war zone, patrol officers rarely fire their weapons in the line of duty. Even then, an officer in a firefight isn’t likely to shoot more than a dozen rounds, said Asheville, N.C., police training officer Lt. Gary Gudac. That, he said, makes training with live ammunition for real-life situations — such as a vehicle stop — so essential.

"We spend a lot of money and time making sure the officers are able to shoot a moving target or shoot back into a vehicle," Gudac said. "Any time we have a deadly force encounter, one of the first things we pull is the officer's qualification records."

In Trenton, N.J., a lack of available ammunition led the city to give up plans to convert its force to .45-caliber handguns. Last year, the sheriff’s department in Bergen County, N.J., had to borrow 26,000 rounds of .40-caliber ammunition to complete twice-a-year training for officers.

"Now we’re planning at least a year and a half, even two years in advance," said Bergen County Detective David Macey, a firearms examiner.

In Phoenix, an order for .38-caliber rounds placed a year ago has yet to arrive, meaning no officer can currently qualify with a .38 Special revolver.

"We got creative in how we do in training," said Sgt. Bret Draughn, who supervises the department’s ammunition purchases. "We had to cut out extra practice sessions. We cut back in certain areas so we don't have to cut out mandatory training."

In Wyoming, the state leaned on its ammunition suppler earlier this year so every state trooper could qualify on the standard-issue AR-15 rifle, said Capt. Bill Morse. Rifle rounds scheduled to arrive in January did not show up until May, leading to a rush of troopers trying to qualify by the deadline.

"We didn't (initially) have enough ammunition to qualify everybody in the state," Morse said.

Few choices, officials say

In Indianapolis, police spokesman Lt. Jeff Duhamell said the department has enough ammunition for now, but is considering using paint balls during a two-week training course, during which recruits fire normally fire about 1,000 rounds each.

"It’s all based on the demands in Iraq," Duhamell said. "A lot of the companies are trying to keep up with the demands of the war and the demands of training police departments. The price increased too — went up 15 to 20 percent — and they were advising us ... to order as much as you can."

Higher prices are common. In Madison, Wis., police Sgt. Lauri Schwartz said the city spent $40,000 on ammunition in 2004, a figure that rose to $53,000 this year. The department is budgeting for prices 22 percent higher in 2008. In Arkansas, Fort Smith police now pay twice as much as they did last year for 500-round cases of .40-caliber ammunition.

"We really don't have a lot of choices," Cpl. Mikeal Bates said. "In our profession, we have to have it."

The Lake City Army Ammunition Plant in Independence, Mo., directly supplies the military with more than 80 percent of its small-arms ammunition. Production at the factory has more than tripled since 2002, rising from roughly 425 million rounds that year to 1.4 billion rounds in 2006, according to the Joint Munitions Command at the Rock Island Arsenal in Illinois.

Most of the rest of the military’s small-arms ammunition comes from Falls Church, Va.-based General Dynamics Corp., which relies partly on subcontractors — some of whom also supply police departments. Right now, their priority is filling the military’s orders, said Darren Newsom, general manager of The Hunting Shack in Stevensville, Mont., which ships 250,000 rounds a day as it supplies ammunition to 3,000 police departments nationwide.

"There's just a major shortage on ammo in the U.S. right now," he said, pointing to his current backorder for 2.5 million rounds of .223-caliber ammunition. "It's just terrible." 

Duration of high demand unknown

Police say the .223-caliber rifle round is generally the hardest to find. Even though rounds used by the military are not exactly the same as those sold to police, they are made from the same metals and often using the same equipment.

Alliant Techsystems Inc., which runs the Lake City plant for the Army, also produced more than 5 billion rounds for hunting and police use last year, making the Edina, Minn.-based company the country’s largest ammunition manufacturer. Spokesman Bryce Hallowell questioned whether the Iraq war had a direct effect on the ammunition available to police, but said there was no doubt that surging demand was affecting supply.

"We had looked at this and didn’t know if it was an anomaly or a long-term trend," Hallowell said. "We started running plants 24/7. Now we think it is long-term, so we're going to build more production capability."

That unrelenting demand for ammunition will continue to put a premium on planning ahead, said Maricopa County, Ariz., Sheriff Joe Arpaio, who so far has kept his department from experiencing any shortage-related problems.

"If we have a problem, I’ll go make an issue of it — if I have to go to Washington or the military,” Arpaio said. "That is a serious thing ... if you don't have the firepower to protect the public and yourself."

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