DRY FIRING AND HANDGUN SAFETY
In this chapter, we’re taking a look at dry firing, a technique used for decades to practice your shooting skills (and improve them) without needing to spend money on range time and ammunition.
Dry firing isn’t only free, though – it’s also safe and easy, provided you do it correctly.
Before we dive into how you can (and should) use dry firing to advance your handgun skills, we need to properly establish the safety aspect of the technique. And to do that, we need to start with the core rules of gun safety for handling firearms of any type.
HANDGUN SAFETY – THE CORE RULES OF GUN SAFETY
If you’re a new gun owner or still approaching your first firearm purchase, then you should know this section of Handguns 101 is easily the most important.
These are the core rules of gun safety, regardless of whether you’re sticking to handguns or expanding to the use of other firearms.
If you’re a long-time gun owner, you should already know these rules. However, human memory is an infallible thing, so we encourage you not to skip this section of the course. As with everything related to guns and their use, it’s always worth reminding ourselves of what we’ve already learned.
And while there are many, many other important gun safety rules, these are the most important – the Golden Rules, if you will.
1. Always keep your gun pointed in a safe direction. This means never have the muzzle aimed toward anything you do not intend to shoot. Keep things like ricochet and the fact bullets can potentially pierce through walls and ceilings in mind as well.
2. Your firearm should be unloaded when not in use. This one actually has a pretty big exception we’ll cover after listing all the rules, but as a beginner especially, consider it a steadfast rule that shouldn’t be broken. Load your handgun at the range and unload it again before leaving.
3. Treat every firearm as if it were loaded. Even if you just unloaded it yourself and know for a fact there aren’t any cartridges chambered or otherwise contained in your handgun, act as if it were fully loaded and ready to fire. When passing your handgun to someone else, or someone else is handing you a firearm, immediately open the action and make sure it’s unloaded. If someone is passing a firearm to you, perform this check even if they already did the same right before handing it over.
4. Always keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to fire – and don’t rely on your handgun’s safety mechanisms. This boils down to always treating your firearm as if it could fire at any time. And not only are the safety mechanisms mechanical devices that could malfunction, but you could also mistakenly think it’s engaged when it’s actually off.
5. Know what your target is and be aware of what’s behind it. This kind of builds onto the first rule by forcing you to think about what you’re aiming at and intending to shoot. Once you pull that trigger, you lose all control over where the bullet goes and what it strikes. Even if you’re using hollow points, there’s always the risk your shot will over-penetrate by passing through your target and hitting whatever (or whomever) is behind it. A good rule of thumb is to bear in mind the distance your bullet will travel if you miss or your shot ricochets.
6. Understand how your handgun works. You should learn its basic parts and their function, including how to safely load and unload it. This ties in with the next rule.
7. Always make sure your handgun is safe to operate. The better you know how all of its parts work, the better you’re able to assess whether it’s in a safe operating condition before and during use. To aid in this, you should regularly clean your handgun, store it properly and safely, and have it professionally serviced at least as often as the manufacturer prescribes.
8. Never make any alterations or modifications to your handgun. Besides being illegal (depending on the type of alterations and modifications in question), you could compromise the firearm’s integrity as well as void the warranty. If you want to have your handgun modified with an extra safety feature (or features), for example, consult a professional gunsmith who can advise you on the proper procedure and handle the modification on your behalf.
9. Only use the correct ammunition. Most modern handguns will have the correct ammunition type stamped onto the barrel for easy reference. It only takes one cartridge of the wrong caliber to destroy your handgun and cause serious injury to yourself and potentially those nearby. You should also store your ammunition correctly to prevent damage, which can have the same effect. Make it a habit to inspect each cartridge as you charge (load) your magazine.
10. If your handgun fails to fire, hold your firing position for several seconds (30 seconds is a good rule of thumb). After a safe amount of time elapses, lower your firearm so it’s pointed in a safe direction before opening the action, unloading, and disposing of the cartridge in a safe manner.
11. Always wear eye and ear protection as appropriate. Especially in enclosed spaces (like an indoor range) and where multiple firearms are being used (like an outdoor range), the sound of guns firing can cause hearing damage. Firearms can also emit hot gases and small debris, which can lead to eye injuries as well.
12. Never use your weapon after consuming any substances that are likely to impair your normal mental and physical capacity, such as alcohol and medication. This doesn’t only apply to firing your handgun, but to loading, unloading, and cleaning it as well.
PRACTICE AMMUNITION AND DEFENSE AMMUNITION
The one exception to rule #2 is a handgun used for self-defense should not be regularly loaded and unloaded, other than for cleaning and dry fire practice.
There are several reasons for this, the most obvious being if you need to draw and use your self-defense handgun, you likely don’t have enough time to load it and chamber the first round. When seconds count, the police are “only” minutes away.
But perhaps the most important reason you shouldn’t be loading and unloading your self-defense handgun is that cycling rounds that have been chambered degrades the primer and can lead to malfunction.
So what should you do, especially if you’re going to use the dry firing method to advance your skill level?
Have two separate sets of ammunition. One set is for defensive use and the other set – which should be stored separately and clearly marked – is for practicing within the range. This is especially easy if you stick to using hollow points, even though full metal jacket rounds are cheaper for using at the range.
Here’s what to do:
1. If your handgun is currently loaded with defense ammunition and you need to unload it for cleaning and/or dry firing, eject the magazine and store it with your other defense ammunition. Then eject the chambered round and store it with your practice ammunition. Remember to charge the defense magazine with one new cartridge from your defense ammunition storage.
2. If your handgun is currently loaded with defense ammunition and you need to unload it because you’re heading to the range for live-fire practice, eject the magazine and store it with your other defense ammunition. Then load a magazine that’s been charged and stored with your practice ammunition, leaving the chambered round in place. The chambered round can be used as your first shot.
3. If your handgun is currently loaded with practice ammunition and you need to unload it for cleaning, dry firing, and/or to load defense ammunition, follow the same instructions as in point 1 above. The only difference is you can cycle the chambered round by charging your practice magazine with it, which is then stored with your other practice ammunition.
When you visit the range, you may as well fire all of the practice ammunition you have loaded. This way, you can clean your handgun again before reloading with your defense ammunition.
These steps also ensure your defense ammunition is far less likely to cause a misfire (if the gun fails to fire) when you need to use your handgun for that exact purpose – self-defense.
With that out of the way, let’s dive into dry firing!
WHAT IS DRY FIRING?
Dry firing is a technique where you practice firing your handgun while it’s unloaded, i.e. without any ammunition. It’s most commonly practiced at home, which helps eliminate the distractions encountered at the range. These distractions include the sound of other firearms (as well as your own) discharging, reciprocating slides, and ammunition shells being ejected.
By eliminating these and other potential distractions by practicing dry firing at home, you’re creating an environment where you can focus on your technique. Distractions pull your focus away and can lead to bad habits creeping in through muscle memory.
This is not to say you can’t or shouldn’t practice dry firing at the range as well. Nor should dry firing replace live firing at the range. In fact, dry firing should be a supplemental practice method that compliments your live-fire practice sessions at the range.
At the end of this chapter, we’ll discuss how you can combine the two by bringing dry fire practice into the range as well.
Moving on, dry firing can be practiced with almost any firearm, not just handguns. However, you should be aware dry firing with any rimfire weapon will damage your firing pin and ultimately result in an expensive replacement. There are some exceptions, but as a general rule, never practice dry firing with a rimfire gun.
You also shouldn’t practice dry firing with older models. Revolvers that have a firing pin attached to their hammer should also not be used for dry firing. Modern semi-automatic pistols and revolvers that have a transfer bar and hammer block are safe to use, however.
DRY FIRING SAFETY RULES
Just because there’s no ammunition involved, doesn’t mean you can neglect any of the gun safety rules covered in the previous sections. All of these rules continue to stand 100%. Remember: rule #3 dictates that you treat all firearms with the assumption they’re loaded, even if you unloaded (and confirmed) the gun yourself.
This section can serve as a safety checklist you should go through every time you practice dry firing. You can copy this section (or grab it from our posted article on the American Gun Association blog), print it out, and keep it at hand for easy reference.
1. Have a designated dry firing area where you will practice exclusively.
2. The only time you practice dry firing somewhere other than in your designated area is if you practice dry firing at the range.
3. A safe designated dry firing area is one capable of stopping a bullet if you accidentally fire your handgun with a live round chambered. An exterior wall made of brick is a good example.
4. Use a designated dry firing target. This could be a commercial target, one you’ve hand-drawn, or one you’ve printed off the internet. If you’re using dry firing gear, such as Laser Ammo, the manufacturers typically have designated targets designed to work with their product (for example a Personal Electronic Target).
5. Your designated dry firing target is for use while practicing with the dry firing technique only. Don’t use a target that’s identical or very similar to the targets used at your firing range. This helps you mentally segregate dry firing practice from live firing training.
6. If you have a body-armor vest, use it as a backstop behind your target. This serves as an additional safety method in case you accidentally fire a live round during dry firing practice.
7. Before entering your designated dry firing area, unload and clear your handgun. The magazine (or speedloader if you use one) should be removed, chambered rounds ejected, and your pockets free of ammunition. Remember to keep your practice ammunition and your defense ammunition separate from each other and clearly labeled.
8. After entering your designated dry firing area, clear your handgun a second time. It’s always better to err on the side of caution.
9. Many gun safety experts recommend keeping the action open when your handgun is unloaded. Whether you do so or not, using a chamber flag (which generally retail at about $11) will serve as a visual reminder your gun is unloaded and safe to use for dry firing. If you do use a chamber flag, store it in your designated dry firing area so you can insert it after clearing your handgun the second time.
10. Your dry firing session should last a maximum of 15 uninterrupted minutes per day. If an unavoidable interruption occurs, end the session, deal with the interruption, then start again or call it a day.
11. Have a designated dry firing time slot of 20 to 30 minutes, with the extra time used for clearing and reloading your handgun. This slot can fit anywhere in your daily schedule where you will not have any anticipated distractions. Ideally, try to keep your time slot consistent from one session to the next.
12. At the end of your dry firing session, tell yourself: “This session is now over. No more practice for today.” Do so out loud and repeat it several times before leaving your designated dry firing area.
13. After leaving your designated dry firing area, you may choose to take time to clean your handgun, depending on how recently you’ve done so. Finish cleaning your handgun before reloading, to avoid multiple reload/unload cycles in a day.
14. Once you’re 100% in the mindset that your dry firing session is over for the day and you left your designated area, you can proceed to reload your handgun. After doing so, tell yourself out loud: “This weapon is now loaded. No more practice for today.” This helps mentally cement the fact the session is over and prevents “maybe just one more shot…” thinking, which leads to accidents.
15. Once your handgun is loaded, store it safely. If you’re not practicing everyday carry (concealed or otherwise), you should only store your home defense firearm while loaded. Any other firearms you use should be stored unloaded.
HOW TO USE DRY FIRING TO ADVANCE YOUR SKILLS
Dry firing helps supplement live-fire training and practice in five areas, only three of which we were able to cover in our online blog post.
Trigger control is a common problem for new gun users. Focus on how the slack takes up, the trigger breaks and resets, and how all of this affects your aim. Your sights should still be 100% on target after you hear the “click.”
To make this easier, you can balance a small coin (a penny is a good choice) on the front sight. The coin will fall if your trigger control is off.
Alternatively, there are commercial products such as the MantisX Firearm Training System that attach to your firearm’s accessory rail and link to an app via Bluetooth. Using this kind of system, you can get real-time performance evaluation to help identify problem areas.
Drawing is an incredibly important skill to master, whether your primary use of a handgun is for self-defense or not. There are three basic steps to drawing: the draw action, presentation, and firing.
While dry firing, especially as a handgun novice, start slowly by practicing the techniques taught at the live training you’re attending. Focus on your grip, draw action, presentation, and aim. This helps develop muscle memory of the correct technique.
As you improve over time, start increasing your pace. The muscle memory will continue to build to the point where the correct technique – practiced often enough in dry firing and live firing sessions alike – becomes second-nature.
Dry firing sessions are only going to help you practice and perfect your reloading technique if you do one of two things: remove the spring and follower from a spare magazine, which you store in your designated dry firing area and never charge, or purchase and use a training magazine, such as the appropriately named DryFireMag.
If you have either of these tools at your disposal, you can include reloading practice in your dry firing sessions.
As a new gun user especially, flinching in reaction to recoil can be a common issue.
While dry firing won’t be able to teach you recoil recovery, the muscle memory you’re building up will be of firing without recoil. As a result, you’ll likely find (over time) you no longer flinch in anticipation of recoil during live fire training and practice.
When practicing dry firing, practice firing from different positions. Switching between positions – like sitting, standing, kneeling, and prone – will make you a more rounded shooter.
If you’re able, set up some form of cover for yourself so you can practice engaging your target from behind it.
A word of caution, though – this is best left for when you’ve been using the dry firing technique consistently over an extended period of time. Trying to learn better trigger control, for example, while also changing positions too often, will get in the way of identifying and correcting the smaller mistakes.
DRY FIRING AT THE RANGE
As promised, to end the chapter, we’re going to talk about how you can bring dry fire training into the range.
Some instructors encourage doing so, as it helps you become more comfortable using your handgun while others are live firing. The noise – which could otherwise be a potential distraction – becomes part of your training, getting you used to the sound of firearms discharging.
This way, you’re also less likely to have your concentration thrown off by the sound of your own handgun’s discharge.
A great technique to use is to start your range time with a dry firing session. This helps reassure you of technique and correct any small mistakes that come up while you’re getting used to the noise.
After your dry firing session is over (it can be shorter than your sessions at home, but never longer), switch to live fire. Your muscle memory has been jogged and the noise of firearms discharging should no longer be as much of an issue, so you’ll likely find your aim has improved somewhat – even if you just finished your first ever dry firing session.
Then end your day at the range with another 10 minutes of dry firing. Switch straight from live fire to dry fire. This will help you better identify and correct any mistakes you’re still making while firing live ammunition.
Once you’re done, you can spend some time cleaning your handgun (if you haven’t done so recently) and, if you everyday carry, reload with your defense ammunition.
Now that you have a better understanding of gun safety and how dry firing can be used to effectively supplement your live-fire training, it’s time to move on to Chapter 3, where we discuss the defensive shooting.