Buying in bulk is all the rage these days at the Utah County Sheriff's Office, at least where ammunition is concerned.
At a recent County Commission meeting, the department requested funds to buy 18-24 months worth of handgun and rifle ammo. The department isn't shooting more these days. In fact, it's shooting less. But there's a war going on, and with only so many bullets to go around, law enforcement agencies such as the Sheriff's Office are feeling the pinch.
Since ammunition manufacturers began diverting much of their wares to Iraq, the Sheriff's Office has found itself paying more for bullets and waiting longer to get them. While deputies on the street are in no danger of being forced to patrol with unloaded weapons, they are spending less time practicing a skill that must be constantly honed.
"Temporarily, short term, we're getting by. But if we had to continue to reduce the number of rounds we shot and the amount of qualifications and that sort of thing, certainly that would be an issue," said Sheriff's Office Sgt. Owen Shiverdecker, the office's range master. "It's like playing the piano or exercising. You've got to do it regularly and often if you're going to maintain the skills."
Before the war in Iraq began in 2003, deputies would shoot 300-500 rounds per training session, Shiverdecker said. But with so much uncertainty about the department's ability to resupply, that number has dropped to 200-300. Some types of training, such as night shooting and shooting while moving, have been cut back.
"If we're going to have them shoot on the street we certainly want them to be both safe and accurate," Shiverdecker said. "When you can't do that it's a little scary, a little frustrating."
The .223-caliber ammunition that many agencies, including the sheriff's office, use in their rifles is being increasingly sent overseas to the U.S. and Iraqi militaries. The .40-caliber ammo they use in their handguns is in high demand from the Iraqi national police force.
This leads to long waits for shipments that used to arrive in about a month. The ammunition order that the sheriff's office placed last November was not completed until June, Shiverdecker said. The .40-caliber bullets needed for deputies' handguns take about nine months to arrive, he said, and the .223-caliber rifle bullets may take as long as a year.
Capt. Steve Clark, who places the ammunition orders for the Orem Division of Public Safety, said the department's contract with its ammunition supplier now includes a caveat that .40- and .223-caliber bullets have a minimum wait time of 120-150 days.
"You used to be able to put in a purchase order and have it within 30 days or so," he said.
As the supply has gone down, the price has gone up. Cases of .40-caliber bullets that used to cost $124 now cost $148, Shiverdecker said, and he expects that price to exceed $160 next year. Rifle ammo has jumped more substantially, from $89 for a case of 500 .223-caliber bullets to $160. Brass, a critical component of bullets, has jumped in price as well, from about 34 cents a pound to as much as $1.70.
Many agencies have noticed the delays, but not everyone has had to cut back on training. Salem Police Chief Brad James said it takes longer to get the ammo his department needs, but nothing has been scaled back.
"Not as of yet," he said.
Saratoga Springs Police Chief Gary Hicken said his department hasn't cut back on training either. It hasn't had many delays yet, but expects that it will.
The ammunition shortage is a nationwide phenomenon. An ABC News story in August said departments across the United States are reporting reductions in training because of shortages and delays caused by the 1 billion bullets that troops training for action in Iraq and Afghanistan fire every year.
Ammunition manufacturers don't want to add more production lines because they don't know when the war will end, Shiverdecker said, so they produce what they can rather than add production capabilities that may not be needed in a few years.
For now, departments are trying to counter their recent woes by ordering ahead, anticipating the long delays they will face in 2008 and beyond. Shiverdecker said the Utah County Sheriff's Office has six months worth of ammunition on hand, enough to meet the training requirements.
"January 1 we should be buying ammo for 2008, but I really need to be ordering it now if I'm going to get it in 2008," Shiverdecker said. "We're hoping that there's some kind of draw down a little bit in the wars."
• Jeremy Duda can be reached at 344-2561 or firstname.lastname@example.org.