|Armed drugs gangs are expanding their operations from cities into provincial towns, police chiefs have revealed.|
Dealers are deserting urban districts because drug markets have reached saturation point.
Towns such as Nuneaton, Rugby and Bolton have become targets for the gangs and figures for reported gun crime indicate that localised turf wars are under way.
Keith Bristow, the head of gun crime for the Association of Chief Police Officers, told The Sunday Telegraph: "Eighteen months ago, two thirds of all gun crimes occurred in the major cities - London, Birmingham and Manchester.
Now that figure is around fifty per cent. We are seeing organised drug gangs taking over new markets, and guns are facilitating the move - they are the tools of their trade."
Mr Bristow, the deputy chief constable of Warwickshire Police, said there had been a "natural move" by gangs from Birmingham to Coventry to smaller surrounding towns.
He said: "While gangs from the cities use guns to take over new markets, local dealers are using them to protect their territory."
Home Office figures show that gun crime declined by five per cent in London in 2004-05, but rose by 33 per cent in Essex, 47 per cent in Cambridgeshire and 54 per cent in Kent.
Gun offences fell by one per cent in Greater Manchester during the same period but rose fourfold in Lancashire.
They fell six per cent in the West Midlands but doubled in the West Mercia force area, which covers rural Shropshire, Herefordshire and Worcestershire.
There was also a small rise in the Thames Valley police area, covering Berkshire, Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire.
Victims there include Mary-Ann Leneghan, a 16-year-old murdered by a south London drug dealer who had extended his business to Reading.
One senior barrister, who has defended gangland suspects for almost 20 years, said: "Drug dealers are leaving London and moving down the Thames Corridor in particular.
It's all to do with territory - there's too much competition for dealers in the cities now. All my cases used to be in major cities, but now I am all over the place."
Petra Maxwell, a spokesman for the charity Drugscope, said: "There are only a certain amount of people in one place who will take drugs, no matter how little a gram costs. If consumers from cities are saturated, dealers will have to turn elsewhere."
Home Office figures show that there were 107,000 drugs seizures in 2004. Cocaine finds were up by 14 per cent, heroin up six per cent and crack up three per cent. Cannabis and ecstasy seizures were down.