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Ammo Personal Defense

How Dry-Fire Practice Can Make You a Better Shooter

by Walt Rauch   |  August 12th, 2013 9

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.

  • Jon

    Enjoyed your article and agree on all points. Dry firing is cheap and a great way to reinforce your muscle memory. But, let’s be serious, besides from actual shooting live rounds which is the next best practice for increasing your skill.

    If we must stick with “dry firing” to increase our skills, then I would suggest investing in the SIRT gun. (I have no relations to them, so this is not an advertisement)

    Yes, you would have to pay to get it, not sure what it’s going for. But, here’s the thing about SIRT that is cool. It tracks whether it was a good squeeze or not.

    This is important, because once you bored with just standing in front of the wall and shooting a target, chances are you’ll probably go on to other things like walking and shooting at your target on the wall or a moving partner.

    Without the SIRT it would be hard to know if it was a good squeeze (push or whatever) while in that engagement of dry fire and I’m not talking one shot. Do rapid fire, the SIRT will tell you if you’re squeezing correctly.

    If you want to see some other implementation of this go here

    Again, great insights on such a lost art. Tony Robbins had used dry firing methods combined with Neuro Linguist Programming in the past to teach the U.S. Army recruits.

  • Conrad Gabbard

    Couple that dry-firing with Laserlite cartridges and their illiminating target for building skill on actually hitting what you’re shooting at – in your own home. It’s all good!

  • Rightway1208

    Laser training is the cure to all the negatives in the article with the exception of recoil control (which really isn’t something that needs “cured”). Read more at

  • bhaskie357

    When I first started shooting handguns, I was having a terrible time with my trigger control. An experienced instructor told me that practicing with snap-caps is the best way to learn safety, reloading skills, and trigger control.

    After quite some time practicing with the snap-caps, I would head to the range, and mix in some snap-caps in with my live fire ammo in the cylinder. I cannot tell you how much this has improved my shooting.

    I still have a lot of room for improvement, but using procedures such as you’ve described in this article have made me much better at manipulation and firing my .357 mag revolver. Thanks for the tips!

  • Nick the Enforcer

    good tips.

  • Jay

    I just completed a 4-day Front Sight Defensive Handgun class. They
    stress dry practice heavily for improving skill and accuracy. Notice
    they use the term “dry practice” instead of “dry fire” to definitively
    distinguish from any relationship to firing. The dry practice term conditions the mind to a safer practice session.

  • Marc

    There’s a great way to take the “boring” out of dry fire practice by using a laser cartridge (LaserLyte, SIRT etc.) and shot tracking software like the Accufiresystems Shooting Range Simulator. This software allows all sorts of training modes to keep things interesting, but most importantly it shows you where every shot went with pinpoint accuracy and you can use your own gun. There are some video’s on the website ( ) that show pretty clearly how this works. I’ve tried it and it really makes things fun. Another big plus is you can shoot thousands of rounds for pennies on the dollar compared to real live fire time.

  • daniel casher

    Laserlyte makes a great little cartridge for all of the popular calibers that you insert into the chamber and you can shoot thousands of shots and the laser will mark where your shot landed. It is a great learning tool and has made my shooting skill much better. It makes dry fire practice much more fun and instructional. You can find the Laserlyte training cartridge on Amazon for all the popular calibers.

  • paul

    I like to place a dime on top of the slide just behind the front sight to practice trigger pull. Any jerk and dime falls off. Makes for smooth trigger control

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