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NEWPORT NEWS, Va. -- The rising cost of ammunition and a shortage of bullets, caused by wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, are starting to put the squeeze on firearms training by local police.
Officials are adamant that they won't cut back on the training, but they say it's becoming increasingly difficult to buy ammunition.
The price of ammunition has almost doubled in less than a year. A standard box of 50 .45-caliber bullets has risen from $10 to $17.50 in eight months, according to the A&P Arms gun shop on West Mercury Boulevard in Hampton.
The rising costs of lead, copper and brass - used to make ammunition - and the U.S. military's increasing demand for small-caliber ammunition have made bullets more expensive and in some cases harder to get.
"It's become a real headache," said Lt. Sam Wulfeck, a firearms specialist with the Williamsburg police.
"The delivery times are a real problem. We are having to schedule firearms training for when we know we have the ammunition. It creates a real big issue."
Wulfeck said local citizens had helped out by supplying surplus ammunition to the force.
The shortage has also led to police officers practicing at sites other than the department's range at Waller Mill Reservoir. Lead bullets are banned at the range for environmental reasons.
But cheaper ammunition containing lead can be fired at other ranges. "The cost of lead-free ammunition has gone through the roof," Wulfeck said. "There are citizens who have allowed us to use their facilities to train on."
He said people also donated old and unwanted shells to the police.
"We do anything to help with the costs, but this has had an impact. We would love to train more than we do at the moment."
Newport News Police Department spokesman Lou Thurston said the department made one large purchase of ammunition a year.
"The last was in May of 2007. There will be an order placed sometime after the new fiscal year (July 1)."
"We have not reduced any firearms training," Thurston said. But "we have noticed a dramatic increase in the cost for ammunition. Also, the time from order to delivery has increased. The order placed in May of 2007 was delivered in September of 2007."
Thurston thinks that ammunition prices nearly doubled over the past two years and that the increases have had an effect.
Ammunition cost Newport News police $77,676.80 in 2007. That was significantly more than the only figure available for 2006, when the department paid $10,839.95 for ammunition over a six-month period.
"We are working through the issues," Thurston said. "At this point, the safety of the community in Newport News has not been compromised by the cost or availability of ammunition."
Firing practice takes place every week at the Newport News department's range at Fort Eustis.
Range master Perry Bartels said 15 officers would use 3,000 rounds on the range in the qualification process, which includes a warm-up and practice session before the test.
"I'm glad I'm not paying for it," he said.
"The city feels the impact more than we do. Firearms training is obviously necessary, and it's something they need to find the money for. It's not something they can skimp on. The basic skills are what we want to maintain. There's no point showing them advanced techniques," Bartels said.
Like others in the area, he said it was taking longer to get ammunition delivered.
"We have to make sure we order it in advance, and if it looks like we are going to fall a little bit short, we have to make sure we are careful how we use our supply."
The police try to do open-range days to allow officers to shoot twice a month, when they supply much of the ammunition they use. "We typically will give them a box a year, which isn't much," Bartels said.
He said police officers never got enough time on the range. "It's the one skill they will probably use the least throughout their career, but the one time they do need it, it's absolutely critical. If you don't do it right, you don't get a second chance."
Poquoson Police Chief Cliff Bowen also said ammunition was becoming increasingly difficult to order.
"It's not so much the cost as the availability because of the war," he said.
"We have to get our order in because it takes so much longer than before. There has been some additional cost, but we have been able to cover it."
Bowen said the supply of ammunition could affect training if the department didn't get its order in early enough.
"We are having to get our order in now in time for training that takes place in October."
Middlesex Sheriff Guy L. Abbott said his department also was finding ammunition hard to come by.
"It's getting hard to get hold of because of the war," he said.
"We have quality training to stay up to state codes.
"We don't cut back on vests or seat belts - we don't intend to cut back on firearms training."
The Hampton Police Division and Gloucester Sheriff's Office are still using ammunition under long-term bulk contracts and won't have to buy ammunition this year.
Hampton police spent just $2,000 on ammunition in 2006 and $46,000 in 2007, spokeswoman Allison Good said. But the figure reflected when orders were placed, rather than the rising cost.
Good said the department was still subject to a state contract that regulated prices.
BY THE NUMBERS
The approximate cost of ammunition for Newport News police in 2007, up from $10,839.95 over a six-month period in '06*
The cost for ammunition for Hampton police in 2007, up from $2,000 in 2006
The cost for a standard box of 50 .45-caliber bullets, up from $10 a box eight months ago
The number of rounds of ammunition used by 15 Newport News officers on the firing range during qualification
* The only figure available for 2006