| TOMBSTONE, Ariz
TOMBSTONE, Ariz Gunslinger Bob Krueger blasts away at his outlaw rivals at a tourist show in this storied Old West town, although rising ammo costs may force him to choose his shots.
Krueger and his gnarly band of pistoleros are among millions of shooters, hunters and even lawmen across the United States feeling the pinch as sky-high metals prices and demand from wars abroad are driving up the price of bullets.
Ammo prices for many popular guns have more than tripled in the last three years, driven in large part by surging demand for metals in rapidly industrializing China.
As the Asian giant becomes wealthier, millions of tons of copper, lead and zinc, which are also used to make bullets and brass shell-casings, are being snapped up.
Shooters, gun dealers and sheriffs say the impact has been further aggravated by competition for limited ammo stocks with the U.S. military, currently fighting wars on two fronts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Everybody is feeling it," said Krueger, a Stetson wearing cowboy whose show blasts through hundreds of rounds of blank ammo each week at Six Gun City in Tombstone.
"If things get bad enough, we may all just get one bullet each," he said, to laughter from his grizzled buddies.
HUNTING FOR AMMO
Dealers complain that the cost of rifle ammunition has doubled and even tripled in the past two years, with similar increases for some hand gun ammunition.
Lynn Kartchner, a gun shop owner in nearby Douglas, Arizona, says he now pays $250 for a case of 1,000 rounds of assault rifle ammunition, up from $80 two years ago, while a box of popular 9 mm shells has jumped to $17 from $10.
"Price rises have been accompanied by scarcity for certain kinds of ammo," Kartchner told Reuters in his shop, which is packed with rifles, pistols and shooting paraphernalia.
"There isn't as much variety, and a lot of people snap up whatever they can get their hands on," he added.
Increased costs and competition for ammo is also being born by police forces across the United States, among them the sheriff's department in Cochise County on the Arizona-Mexico border, which faces incursions from armed smugglers and even bandits from south of the line.
Last year the department faced a four-month delay acquiring rifle cartridges and had to dip into ammo reserves, rousing the concern of Sheriff Larry Dever.
"We do face people in this environment down here who are heavily armed, sometimes with higher capacity armaments than we carry," Dever said.
"The last thing we want do is find ourselves in a situation where we are not training sufficiently so that (deputies) can maintain those very important proficiencies," he added.
Demand for metals is tipped to stay strong in China for the next decade.
Cowboy shows and lawmen aside, high ammo prices are being shouldered by millions of target shooters and hunters across the United States, many of them working people on a limited budget.
"If you have three of four children, and they all go out on a hunting trip, the cost of ammo can be a bit of a burden," said Luis Hernandez, a keen deer, bird and varmint hunter from Douglas.
To keep costs low, many hobby shooters are now scouring gun shows, gun shops and the Internet in search of cheap ammunition, which some then buy in bulk and hoard against further price rises.
Others either shoot less, switch to smaller caliber ammunition such as .22 which is cheaper, or are increasingly turning to reloading their old shell cases.
"The main saving is in the brass casing, which is the most expensive part," said Hernandez, who reckons on saving up to $20 on a box of some premium rifle cartridges by reloading.
Other shooters and dealers are holding out hope that ammunition manufacturers will develop cheaper alternatives.
"High cost drives innovation," said Kartchner. "There has been some interest in plastic or aluminum cartridge cases in the past, so I'm hopeful they will come up with something. We'll just have to see."
(Reporting by Tim Gaynor; Additional reporting by Ed Stoddard; Editing by Eddie Evans)