Police seek way around costly ammo


Different kinds of ammunition are displayed.

CHARLES ROOP/Special to The Sun
Published: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 21, 2008 at 12:16 a.m.

Rising costs and ongoing wars in Afghanistan and Iraq are taking a toll on U.S. law enforcement agencies and the way officers train with guns.

Officers have seen a jump in prices and a decline in the availability of bullets that they routinely use when training with firearms.

The situation hasn't reached the level of a shortage, according to Alachua County officers.

But as police agencies try to tighten their budgets, it does have them reconsidering how they conduct training exercises and with what equipment they train.

The Alachua County Sheriff's Office and the Gainesville Police Department are both looking at how often guns with live ammunition are used in training and considering different types of weapons that use such things as plastic bullets or a form of paintballs.

"We are looking at some other options that deal with some of the less lethal type ammunitions and some other factors with training systems," said Alachua County Sheriff's Sgt. Ed Bennett of the agency's training bureau.

With costs rising, law enforcement agencies are having to take a closer look at when and how they use traditional bullets.

A case of 500 rounds that cost $169 a year ago has increased to about $189, said Gainesville Police Lt. Brian Helmerson, commander of the agency's Operational Skills Unit and Advanced Law Enforcement Rifle Team. And police officers can annually use about 60,000 bullets in training sessions with handguns, 30,000 to 40,000 bullets in rifle practice.

Helmerson said law enforcement agencies also have been forced to wait weeks for their orders or accept different brands of bullets than they would normally order because the military and their needs take priority with distributors.

There are different factors impacting bullet prices and availability. But part of the problem can be blamed on demand from the military, local officers agree.

"The main (explanation) we get from the distributors is the war has taken up a lot of the manufacturers' efforts," Helmerson said.

Bennett said, "What was explained by our vendors is it definitely is a supply and demand issue. Some of it does have to do with the war."

Another problem is the cost of the metals in bullets, such as copper and brass, Bennett said.

"The cost of raw materials has gone up significantly. Therefore they have to pass it on to the consumer, which is us. Especially in the last three years," he said.

To handle the costs, the agencies won't be cutting back on officers' training. They may, however, try to get more inventive with how they train.

"In order to be proficient with a handgun, you need to continually practice. If we don't practice and we're not accurate, then we become a liability if we don't hit our target and hit someone or something else. We are liable because we didn't properly train," Helmerson said, in explaining the need for continued training with live ammunition.

Maintaining state certification with a weapon also means officers must have a certain amount and type of firearm training.

And more officers locally will need more training with semiautomatic rifles as agencies try to get more of their police force armed with those types of guns. The push is part of an effort to match the type of weapons officers are seeing on the streets and in criminals' hands.

But training supervisors are trying new approaches that allow officers to shoot less while still getting needed training, both Bennett and Helmerson said.

"We come up with more creative courses to train well but not shoot more," Helmerson said.

For example, officers might be given a certain number of bullets to shoot at a series of bowling pins instead of a cardboard silhouette of a person. The exercise uses less bullets and still teaches the firearms skills an officer needs.

Different kinds of bullets and weapons may help officers meet the need for training without opting for traditional ammunition. However, the cost of some new types of ammunition remains high.

Gainesville Police and the Sheriff's Office are looking at the option of training with guns that look like regular firearms but fire different types of ammunition such as rubber or plastic pellets or bullets similar to paintballs.

A past problem with using those types of guns and ammunition for training has been whether they're similar enough to metal bullets.

Officers need to know what it will feel like to use traditional ammunition in a real-life setting.

Bennett said the alternative bullets have "grown up" from their predecessors and provide officers with an experience similar to firing traditional bullets.

But both Helmerson and Bennett said officers still need training with the ammunition and guns they're armed with on the streets, regardless of the costs.

"It functions similar but you don't have the true recoil effect, the loud noise, the muzzle flash. There are some differences," Bennett said.

Helmerson said, "Nothing can substitute for the real thing."

Lise Fisher can be reached at 352-374-5092 or fisherl@gvillesun.com.

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