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How Dry-Fire Practice Can Make You a Better Shooter

Mention “dry-fire” as a must-do part of any defensive firearms training and you can almost hear a listener’s brain turning off and his eyes glazing over. If pushed to explain this lack of enthusiasm, sooner or later they’ll say, “It’s boring.” Well, yes, there’s definitely no sizzle to clicking an empty pistol at an improvised target or blank wall. Also, there aren’t any of the things that make live fire enjoyable: no loud noise, no recoil, no downrange results with which to congratulate (or criticize) yourself. No shooting the breeze with fellow handgunners about the great merits of your choice of gun and caliber. No discussion of shooting tips, nor any help in rationalizing your poor performance. Dull.

Two of the reasons offered for not dry-firing are that it can damage the gun (in particular, the firing pin/striker could break) and without live fire you don’t learn to control the recoil of the firearm. While there’s some truth to firing pin damage, with modern firearms this is only a remote possibility. One top shooter I know dry-fired his Glock about 80,000 times before the firing pin started to wear down. (It didn’t “break,” however.)

It’s true you don’t learn how to control the arm in live fire. But recoil control should supplement dry-fire. After all, if you can’t hit anything due to lack of trigger control, there’s little reason to shoot.

On the positive side, the strongest argument offered for dry-firing is cost savings. I’m not talking just about ammo here, although with today’s supply and demand situation that’s certainly a big one. There’s also the time and money spent for travel to and from the range, along with costs associated with using the range.

While most everyone agrees that dry-firing is the best way to learn trigger control, “boring” appears to trump everything. I’ve done both live- and dry-fire but, early on, most of my practice was live fire thanks to the U.S. Army and as a special agent with the U.S. Secret Service—along with a lot of free GI .45 ACP ammo. By adding reloading to 10,000 rounds of hardball, I spent my practice time at a range. I got better, but I also ingrained some bad habits that were masked by live-fire and bedevil me even now, some four decades later.

Dry-fire practice is invaluable in that you can focus on one thing at a time without the distractions of live fire. If you’re concerned about damaging your handgun—although, as mentioned earlier, most modern handguns will stand up to more dry-firing than most any of us will ever do—buy a dozen or so snap caps. These are inert, visibly marked dummy cartridges to cushion the firing pin strike. You want to buy at least a dozen, because more is always better, and you will certainly lose or misplace some. They’re great not just for dry-firing but also for gun manipulation drills such as malfunction clearing and mag changes.

As to where to start dry-fire practice, some basic questions arise, but the first order of business is safety; dry-fire does not also include “dumb-fire.” All of you know the “unloaded” handgun may well be the most dangerous gun. I have a general impression that accidental discharges happen more with “empty” rather than loaded guns. How many times have we all read or heard, “I didn’t think it was loaded,” right after the “bang”?

Anecdotally, I think that “dumb-fire” mostly destroys wall light switches, TV sets and full-length mirrors. (Mirrors get it when practicing draw-and-fire drills.) And yes, there have been fatalities.

So you must begin with a verified safe and empty handgun, ammo separate from the gun and preferably put in another room. Next, you need a location where you will not be interrupted by anyone. Once established, most of your “downrange” area must be able to stop an accidental live round.

Finally, have firm time limits that are not exceeded for any reason. If you then want to load up, do it in the location of your ammo—not in the dry-fire area. Wall switches, TV sets and full-length mirrors are most often nailed after formal practice, usually a case of “just one more.”
Begin with the most basic method, which requires only a safe and empty handgun and a wall for the Wall Drill, which means using a wall that is light-colored and is a backstop more than capable of stopping a bullet from penetrating or ricocheting. There is no target; the drill is simply to bring the gun up, align the sights and press the trigger, while observing the action of the sights as the sear releases. (George Harris, formerly of SIG Academy, is the one who dubbed this the Wall Drill.)

Here you learn trigger control, which is 90 percent of effective firearms shooting. You can see how your trigger press affects sight alignment, along with how you must maintain your sighting even after the sear releases. Jerk the trigger and the front sight dives or snaps to the side and down, out of the rear sight notch. Boring? Yes. Worse still, you have no good excuse for this, although blaming a too-heavy or rough trigger pull is common.

There are no simple tricks. Problem is, there’s no way to excuse what you see your sights do when you jerk rather than pull the trigger. Sure, you can rationalize and claim you really need the ubiquitous “trigger job,” but this excuse lasts only until get the work done and find your front sight still disappears when you pull (read: jerk/yank) the trigger.

You can have a change of pace by modifying the drill with an eraser-tipped lead pencil and a sheet of paper for the “pencil drill” or design your own. Hang your target such that your gun muzzle is almost touching it. When the pencil is launched, its tip will dimple or mark, forming a pattern of your efforts. WARNING: Do not fire the pencil at anyone or anything! Depending on the gun’s firing system, the pencil point will break skin.

Dry-fire a dozen or so times while paying attention to only one thing at a time. If you try to correct multiple errors, you can’t know which correction worked on a particular error. Start with observing how your trigger press affects sight alignment. By the way, if you’re not seeing this, you’re closing your eyes just as the sear releases.

Dry-fire practice is the foundation on which you build shooting skills. Did I say dry-fire is boring? Add this: It is also indispensable.

This article was originally published at Handguns Magazine.