Originally published in Concealed Carry Magazine, 2008.
“Is it Safe to Dry-Fire My Handgun?”
When people ask this question, they are almost invariably asking about the mechanical function of their firearms, not about the physical safety of human beings. But the lives of shooters and their loved ones are far more important than the mechanical life of even the most expensive firearm. To give a brief answer to the mechanical concern: most modern centerfire handguns will not be harmed by dry fire without snap caps. Check your owner’s manual or call the manufacturer if you’re unsure about your particular model. The related safety issue, too often ignored, requires a longer and more exact answer.
First, the unpopular truth: Dry fire is very dangerous. It is, by nature, a dangerous activity. Every year, far too many shooters embarrass or injure themselves or others while engaging in dry fire. An unlucky few even manage to kill someone. Those who suspect I’m overstating the danger are invited to run an online search for the phrase “negligent discharge” and note how many unpleasant stories from otherwise responsible shooters involve combining dry fire and complacent safety habits to create an embarrassingly noisy mistake. And simple embarrassment isn’t the worst that can happen.
Why Dry Fire, Then?
A depressing number of ND stories involve severed appendages, bloody leg wounds and dead loved ones. Of course on the internet, the discussions which follow often devolve into sometimes-amusing blame fests about the type of the firearm. But there’s nothing funny at all about lives being ruined by careless gun handling.
Despite the danger, dry fire remains popular because it can be incredibly beneficial. Practicing with an empty firearm allows a shooter to learn and then to perfect a smooth, safe draw stroke. This can be particularly important to people who carry in non-traditional holsters (pocket, ankle or purse carry), which even very permissive ranges often don’t allow.
Dry-fire practice can help shooters smooth out a trigger pull, overcome flinching, explore unconventional stances and learn important gun handling skills. Whether the difficulties are financial, legal, practical or simply a matter of convenience, dry-fire work often meets needs that simply cannot be met by live practice on a traditional range.
Dry fire is not inherently safe but it can be done safely. Dry-fire practice is done in the form of a ritual. It is a ritual because it must be done the same way every time. Doing it the same way every time may help prevent a tragic goof when tired or distracted and can build redundant layers of safety into your gun handling skills.
What can be practiced in dry fire? More than most casual shooters would believe!
Start by practicing a smooth, controlled trigger press with the sights continuously aligned on target. When you think you’ve got that basic trigger press mastered, place a penny flat atop the gun’s front sight. See if you can pull the trigger without causing the penny to fall to the ground.
Practice a good follow-through. Rather than immediately removing your finger as soon as the trigger is tripped, mentally count one-one-thousand, two-one-thousand before relaxing your finger or allowing the sights to waver. On the range, your goal will be to keep the trigger to the rear until your sights are re-aligned, which will eventually allow faster follow-up shots without flinching or yanking.
Wear the clothes you ordinarily wear (not ratty range grubbies), in the condition you normally wear them (everything tucked in as if you’re walking out the door), with the holster you generally use (not your competition speed rig). Can you get to your firearm smoothly and safely? How efficiently can you align the sights when drawing from deep concealment? Find out and then improve.
What is prohibited at your range? Moving while shooting? Shooting around barriers? Kneeling? Do all these things in dry-fire. Practice retreating from the target, shooting around obstacles or working the angles from your designated safe room. Every time you are tempted to grumble about something your range does not allow, take it as a challenge to figure out how you can effectively practice it in dry fire. No, it’s not necessarily as good as doing it live. But it’s a darn sight better than not doing it at all.
Try setting up a video camera to watch yourself draw. Do you have any wasted motion? Are your hands swooping up to the target or thrusting the gun straight toward it? Are you rearranging your hands at the last moment or did you get a good firing grip on the gun while it was still in the holster? Did you commit any safety violations, such as sweeping your non-dominant hand while reholstering? All of these are much easier to assess when you see them on video.
1. No interruptions! Turn the ringer off the phone and make sure the front door is locked. If you are interrupted, start again from the beginning rather than picking up where you think you left off.
2. Unload your gun.
3. Check that the gun is unloaded. Use both your eyes and your fingertips. Lock the action open and then run your pinky into the empty chamber to be sure it’s really empty. If you have a revolver, run your finger across each hole in the cylinder. Count the empty holes to be sure you touched them all.
4. Remove all ammunition. Get it out of the room and out of sight. I even go so far as to lock the door to the room where the ammunition is kept so that it takes several deliberate steps to get the ammunition back together with the gun.
5. Choose a safe backstop. A backstop is anything that will reliably stop a bullet from the most powerful load that your gun is capable of firing. Never dry-fire without a solid backstop.
6. Place a target in front of your backstop. To avoid a “just one more” mishap, do not dry-fire directly at anything that will remain in the room. Use a target that will be taken down when you are done.
7. Double-check that the gun is still unloaded.
8. Mental shift to practice. Say to yourself, “This is practice. I have checked and double-checked the gun. Ammunition is not present. This is only practice.” Say it out loud, and if you find yourself wondering if it’s really true, go back and check again.
9. Dry fire. Ten to 15 minutes is as much dry-fire practice as most people can safely handle. If your mind begins to wander, stop immediately. That’s a sign that you are not paying attention to what you are doing — an important red flag.
10. Take the target down immediately — before leaving the room and before reloading the gun. Never leave the target up after you are done practicing. As you take the target down, say aloud, “Practice is over. No more dry fire. Practice is over.” This helps you make the important mental shift back to the real world and prevents the infamous “just one more” mishap.
11. Put your gun in the safe or if you are unwilling to lock your defense gun away for an hour or two, at least get yourself out of the practice room. Stay out of that area until your conditioning to pull the trigger there has been replaced by conscious thought.
12. Reload out loud. When do you reload the gun, say aloud, “This gun is loaded. It will fire if I pull the trigger. This gun is loaded.” Say it three times and say it out loud. This allows you to think, speak and hear that the gun is no longer in dry-fire condition.
And here’s the bottom line: Dry fire is by nature a dangerous activity, but it can also be tremendously beneficial when shooters ingrain good shooting techniques by regular practice within a safe dry-fire ritual.
Dry Fire and the Four Rules
Some say that dry fire always violates the Four Rules of safe gun handling. Does it? Not by my lights.
Rule One: All guns are always loaded.
This first and most essential rule of gun safety teaches us that the safety rules always apply, no matter what you intend to happen when you pull the trigger. When you follow this rule, even after you have just checked to see that your gun is unloaded, you still never do anything with it that you would not be willing to do with a loaded gun.
Rule Two: Never point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy.
As it applies to dry fire, this means you must choose a reasonable direction for practice. Do not aim at your dog, at your best friend, at a family heirloom or at anything else you cannot replace. In the worst-case scenario — an unintentional discharge — the worst consequence should be minor property damage and a little embarrassment.
• Please note that the word willing, as used or implied in the first two rules, does not mean that you really want to destroy the expensive Kevlar vest you hung on the study wall or that you have a burning desire to blow a bucketful of dry sand to smithereens in your bedroom. It simply means that you are aware your other safety measures may fail and that you are OK to sacrifice these things if you make a mistake. It means you reasonably believe that only minor property damage — not physical or emotional tragedy — will result if you err.
Rule Three: Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target.
What’s a target? A target is anywhere you have deliberately chosen as the best place for a bullet to land. It can be a piece of paper, a criminal intruder or a falling steel plate. It can also be a particular spot on the living room floor, a thick stack of phone books or a painting hung on a basement wall. The important thing is that the target is deliberately chosen. Never put your finger on the trigger for dry fire or for any other reason until you have deliberately chosen the best place for a bullet to land in that situation.
Rule Four: Be sure of your target and what is beyond it.
This rule means that you are not going to dry-fire at a flimsy interior wall you know would never stop a bullet or at your own reflection in the bathroom mirror while your baby sleeps in the room beyond. You won’t aim at a flat-screen TV or at any other object with dubious bullet-stopping potential. Instead, you’ll set up a backstop which definitely would stop a bullet if one somehow sneaks into the gun you intended to dry-fire. If you cannot set up a safe backstop in your home, you must not dry-fire there.
[ The safe dry fire ritual presented in this article was heavily adapted from a ritual created by William Burris, firearms instructor at the Pierce County Sheriff s Department near Tacoma, Washington. The author first learned of it through a class given by Marty and Gila Hayes at the Firearms Academy of Seattle, www.firearmsacademy.com]