In case the recent ammo crisis hasn't made it clear to you, shooting can be an expensive hobby. Shooting can be an even more expensive sport. Shooting can be a valuable investment in personal safety. But we can only invest what we have, and most of us do not have unlimited funds. Whatever your purposes are for keeping and bearing arms, developing skill in their use is important. Some skills, like a smooth trigger press or recoil management, require live firing. But many important, and often overlooked, skills can be developed without firing a single shot.
Yes, we are talking about 'Dry Fire'.
Post anything about that subject on any firearms forum and sit back to watch the fireworks. Opinions range from "best thing since sliced bread" to "fastest way to damage your gun" with plenty of testosterone fueled invective to spice up the thread. (And usually get the thread closed in short order...)
Before we get into possible benefits of dry fire, let's talk about safety.
Rule number 1: Treat every gun as though it is loaded.
Dry fire requires an unloaded gun. So, before you undertake any dry fire practice, unload your gun. For revolvers, open the cylinder and eject all the rounds in it. For semi-auto, remove the magazine first, and then rack the slide to eject the round in the chamber.
Is your gun empty? Please check it again.
Are you sure your gun is empty? Please check it again, again.
"Are you sure the gun is empty?"
Now gather up all those rounds, put them in a container (baggie, original box, ashtray, but not your pocket!) and put that container in another room away from where you are practicing. Make sure there are no live rounds of any caliber in the room where you do your dry fire practice.
Next, consider using snap caps during your dry fire practice. Opinions differ greatly on the merits of snap caps. Some feel that putting any kind of cartridge in the gun creates the opportunity to make a mistake with a live round. That's a big part of the reason for putting the live rounds in another room. Others feel that empty dry fire has the potential to damage the gun. Rimfire guns (22LR for example) have a reputation for being vulnerable to damage from empty dry fire. Some striker-fired guns have the potential to be damaged when the striker bottoms out without hitting a primer. Other guns are not damaged by empty dry fire.
Springfield Armory makes the XD series of semi-auto pistols. This line requires an empty dry fire during disassembly to release the slide. They make the XDm series which does not require empty dry fire. So, you can't tell by the manufacturer alone whether your gun will be damaged. It may be necessary to violate one of the most important rules of manhood and read the manual. Yes, I know, that's almost as bad as asking for directions, but sometimes a guy's gotta do what a guy's gotta do.
Unless you know that your gun is not vulnerable (or to avoid the previously mentioned violation), snap caps are very inexpensive insurance. (See how lucky you ladies are? Not having to worry about that kind of thing...)
For you bottom feeders (semi-auto shooters) out there, you might consider practicing over a queen or king sized bed. Otherwise you'll be scrambling around your living room floor looking for ejected snap caps. Yes, this is the voice of bitter experience.
OK, so we have a gun that is either empty or full of snap caps. What can we do with it? Here's a partial list of skills that can be practiced with dry fire:
- Speed draw
- Offhand draw
- Draw from concealment
- One handed reloads with either hand
- Simple malfunction clearing (tap rack assess)
- Complex malfunction clearing (strip magazine rack several times reload rack assess)
- One handed malfunction clearing with either hand
- Stances (standing, off hand, kneeling, prone, on back)
- Developing clear sight picture / alignment
- Manual of arms for new handgun (or old handgun that has not been used in a while)
This article is not intended to provide specific drills for each of these skills.
However, there are some common considerations that apply to many of them.
First, find a competent training reference (book, video, YouTube, human) and learn how the skill is supposed to be performed. Practice does not make perfect. Practice makes permanent. So make sure you practice doing the skills correctly.
Second, slow down. Slow down a lot. Before you try to see how fast you can move, walk through the specific skill very slowly, step by step, to see how each movement feels when done carefully and correctly. If possible, practice in front of a mirror so you can see yourself performing the skill. Practice each movement separately when first developing the skill. Once you feel you have each movement working basically correctly, put them together, still in slow motion.
After several very-slow-motion sequences, start to speed up a little. Try to execute the skill as smoothly as you can. Slow is smooth, smooth is fast. Gradually increase the speed until you are going as fast as you can smoothly perform the skill.
When you are first learning a skill, my suggestion is to avoid measuring times. For me, having a very slow time on a skill is discouraging. Once I develop the skill to some reasonable level, I will start measuring times. Others thrive on competition and challenge themselves at all times. Regardless, at some point, you should start measuring your time on any skill that must be performed quickly. You need an objective measure of progress when developing a new skill or to check on an older skill that has not been practiced recently.
Not all of us have the funds to invest in fancy, competition quality shot timers with all the bells and whistles. But many of us have cell phones, Droids or iPads, which can run free downloaded apps. I have the free IPSC Shot Timer app on my Droid. There are lots of others available, both free and small price options. On the app, the sound pickup sensitivity can be adjusted low so that dry fire actions like racking a slide or even the dry fire click are sufficient to trigger a time stamp.
After a sequence, you can review the split times between actions loud enough to be caught by the app. This can help identify which movement in the skill is slowing you down. Go back and practice just that movement slowly and build speed back up gradually.
How long should you practice? Some references suggest as little as 10-15 minutes per session and use multiple sessions per day for reinforcement. Different people have different attention spans for learning. Most people overestimate their attention span. During dry fire practice (or any kind of practice with a handgun) you want to maintain your focus on what you are doing. If you find yourself starting to think about something else while you are practicing, you've probably exceeded your attention span. I find that 30 minutes is plenty.
Some people suggest dry fire practice while watching TV. I would not recommend that. Although I have done it, I don't do so any more. The purpose of practice is to develop a certain skill. Focusing on that skill during practice will accomplish that purpose. Being distracted by the TV makes it easy for you to practice incorrect techniques that are somehow easier. Perhaps from your seated position you neglect to drive forward into your stance. By practicing incorrectly, you develop bad habits that can be hard to break later.
Make sure you practice the skills that you don't do very well. Sounds obvious, but many of us want to perform the skills we do well so that our times will make us feel better. That can be a good thing sometimes for confidence building. But the more difficult, awkward, slow skills are the ones that need the most work. How quickly and reliably can you draw from a retention holster using your weak hand only?
Now that you have finished your dry fire practice session, you should reload your gun. Go to the other room where you stored your rounds. The action of moving to another room helps reinforce in your memory that you are done with dry fire practice and minimizes the chance of a negligent discharge. Yes, to my shame, this is also the voice of bitter experience.
Safe, structured dry fire practice enables you to develop skills that may be difficult or impossible to practice at many ranges. The cost of dry fire practice amounts to a set of snap caps and the time spent practicing. The benefits are many: confidence, expertise, self-esteem, private time, and perhaps a skill that could save your life.
Be safe and keep your powder dry!
Jeff White is a fairly new shooter, since 2011. He has published articles on Firearms Talk Forum and XD Forum. He is an IDPA Safety Officer and shoots Marksman in SSP, ESP, CDP and SSR.