When you dry fire, you go through all the motions of firing your gun, including pulling the trigger, when there is no live ammunition in it.
Dry fire can be very beneficial, especially for new shooters. It can prevent the development of a flinch, or cure an existing one. Because it gets rid of the aversive stimuli of the shot going off, people who flinch often benefit greatly from intensive dry fire.
Dry fire is usually more convenient than going to the range. It is a boon to shooters on a limited budget, because it allows you to practice basic gun manipulations without spending money on ammunition. You can thus build up thousands of repetitions of attaining perfect sight alignment, a perfect trigger squeeze and a complete follow through, without the expense of firing thousands of rounds.
When you are ready to learn to work from the holster, dry fire allows you to learn and then to perfect a smooth, safe draw stroke without the danger of an accidental or negligent discharge while you are learning.
But there’s one nasty little drawback: dry fire is very dangerous.
Many, if not most, accidental shootings among good shooters are caused by someone dry firing in a dangerous manner — while distracted, or while overtired, or while failing to follow all the safety rules. My range buddy’s former high school sweetheart was killed in just that manner, shot through the head while she slept next to her 8-month-old baby. The young man who killed her was dry firing his new gun in the house across the street. Well, he thought he was dry firing, anyway. But it turned out his gun was loaded.
If you doubt that dry fire is dangerous, run a search for the words “negligent discharge” on any internet gun board, and see how many tragedies and near-tragedies happened while dry firing.
The nice thing is that dry firing can be done safely. It is not inherently safe, but it can be done safely. In order to be safe, there are specific rules you must follow, every single time, without exception.
Because dry fire is so dangerous, those who cannot or will not habitually follow the safety ritual should never dry fire at all. But those who are willing to learn and carefully follow the rules can dry fire in perfect safety.
The Four Universal Rules
Too many people become complacent and chuck the Four Rules out the window simply because they need to get some dry fire practice in. Foolish! The purpose of dry firing is to engrain certain physical habits into your memory — so deeply engrain them that your body will automatically behave that way under stress. You do not want to engrain poor safety habits. Dry firing without following the Four Rules is worse than not dry firing at all, because it accomplishes the exact opposite of its intended purpose.
Here are the Four Universal Rules and how they apply to dry fire:
Rule One, “All guns are always loaded,” means that the safety rules ALWAYS apply. You must always treat every firearm with the cautious respect you would give it if you knew for sure that it was loaded and able to fire. 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. All other safety rules follow from this one cardinal rule.
Some people apparently believe that merely checking to see the gun is unloaded means you can then treat it like a toy — that you can point it at your friends to pose for a picture, or at your training partners for disarming practice, or at a flimsy interior wall to check trigger function. That’s a foolish, foolish idea that kills a certain number of people every single year.
Rule Two, “Never point the gun at anything you are not willing to destroy,” simply states the logical consequence of Rule One. When you choose a direction for dry fire, you must choose a direction in which you would be willing to fire a loaded weapon. Don’t point it at your dog, at the big-screen TV you can’t afford to replace, at a friend, or at an heirloom vase. Point it at something that would result in only minor and acceptable property damage if the gun were loaded.
Please note that the word “willing,” as used or implied in the first two rules, does not mean that you really want to shoot a hole in your subflooring, or that you have a great and burning desire to blast that buckeful of dry sand from your safe backstop all over your bedroom carpet. It only means that you are aware that your other safety measures may fail, and that you are willing 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.
One of the reasons people dry fire is to learn Rule Three, “Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on target.” This rule needs to be contained not just in your thinking brain, but in your body’s physical response to holding the gun in your hand. It should take a conscious effort of will to put your finger on the trigger. You should never, ever, ever find your finger resting on the trigger or within the trigger guard when you didn’t consciously put it there. Keep your finger out of the trigger guard until your sights are on target.
What’s a target? A target is anywhere you have deliberately chosen as the best place for a bullet to land in a given situation. It can be a piece of paper, a criminal intruder, or a falling steel plate. It can 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 including disassembling the gun, 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,” is particularly important when dry firing. Because you are following Rule One, you know that the gun in your hand could be deadly. So you are not going to point it at a flimsy interior wall which you know would never stop a bullet, or at your own reflection in the bathroom mirror. You won’t dry fire at the TV. Instead, you’ll set up a useful target with a safe backstop.
If you cannot set up a safe backstop in your home, you must not dry fire there.
What are the steps to safe dry fire?
Below follows one safe dry fire ritual. It is a ritual because it must be done the same way every time. Doing it the same way every time means that this safe behavior will become habitual behavior. Such habitually safe behavior may help prevent a tragic goof if an interruption happens or your attention wanders.
Good habitual rituals like the one below can help build redundant layers of safety into your firearms handling skills.
- No interruptions! Turn the ringer off the phone and make sure the front door is locked and bolted. You don’t want any interruptions. If you are interrupted, start this ritual over from the very beginning, at step #1. Don’t just pick up where you think you left off.
- Unload your gun.
- Check that the gun is unloaded. Check by both sight (looking in) and feel. Lock it open, then run the end of your pinky into the empty chamber to be sure there’s a hole there. If you have a revolver, run your finger across the opening to each chamber in the cylinder. Count the empty holes to be sure you touched them all.
- Get all the ammunition 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.
- Choose a safe backstop. See suggestions for backstops here. If you cannot find a reliable backstop, you must not dry fire.
- Tape a target to your backstop. Do not dry fire directly at anything that will remain in the room all the time. Put a specific target there, and take it down when you are done.
- Check and double check, by sight and feel, that the gun is still unloaded. Guns are sneaky, and load themselves when no one is looking.
- Dry fire. Ten to fifteen minutes is all I can safely handle; after that my mind starts to wander. As soon as your mind wanders, stop immediately. That’s a sign that you are not paying attention to what you are doing, and is a prime red flag for safety.
- Take the target down immediately, before reloading the gun. Never leave the target up after reloading. That way you won’t be tempted to take “just one more shot” at it, forgetting that the gun is now loaded. Put the target away, out of sight, before you get the ammunition out of the other room and before you reload.
- Lock your gun out of reach, or get out of the room. Or both. You need to do this because you’ve just trained yourself that the gun won’t fire when the trigger is pulled. Stay out of the area until your conditioning to pull the trigger in that room has been replaced by conscious thought.
- When you do 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.