Dry fire Practice
One of the most common questions I get as an instructor is “what should I practice at the range”. Seems a simple question, but it may be the most important one. Not everyone learns with the intention of improving, some are satisfied with familiarity. Most are concealed carry holders wanting to do so safely. A few want to learn to use their firearm in a fight, fewer still look past that. One hopes they move on to more training but that remains the exception. Time is probably the biggest hurdle, then cost, availability of good instructors, even a range they can use. It’s why my answer is a surprise to many, “only what you need to”, range time should be focused on those things you cannot do anywhere else. Everything else should be practiced dry. If you intend to improve you must practice “dry” or without ammunition far more than live fire. It’s true for pistols, rifles, shotguns, precision rifles, and everything else. This concept has been the main stay for practical self-defense training for thousands of years, long before there were firearms and it remains true today.
Repetition, Repetition and more Repetition
Manipulation skills are mastered through repetition. Once properly skilled it must be repeated to improve. Most of the things you will do with a firearm requiring manipulation do not require live fire, at least not all the time. Reloads, stoppage drills, stance, grip, position, presentation, aiming, bolt manipulation, loading, unloading, even movement. If recoil or accuracy is not a requirement it can be practiced without ammunition, or at least live ammunition. Most of these skills can be practiced with dummy rounds in your basement, living room, or other space. Add lasers and other training devices and you can even practice trigger manipulation in some cases. Some of the best training you can do with a precision rifle is dry. Generally it’s a far better way to practice these skills and lets you apply them on the range taking advantage of your limited time and availability. Add in things like 115 degree heat in the summer, or below zero winters and it becomes even more advantageous.
What do I need?
If you intend to improve the most critical thing is a serious and determined mindset. This is not play time, but focused practice time, take it seriously. Failing to practice dry with the proper mindset is precisely how people get injured or worse. That means you use the proper equipment, at the proper time, in the proper place, with as few distractions as possible. Think of it as study, or homework, what you cannot have is distractions. If you cannot practice without distractions than don’t practice or pick a better time. If you get distracted start all over again and check the area, failing to do so is what causes the vast majority of “shootings” with a firearm that is supposed to be unloaded.
Set up a practice space that provides all the room you need including proper lighting. Remove any live ammunition from that room, that floor where possible. Check your clothing, pockets, anything within reach to make sure no live ammunition can be introduced. Even “dry” your firearms remain real, so NEVER point it at anything other than a backstop, one that stops bullets if possible. All the basic rules apply, you never point your firearm at anything you are not prepared to destroy. Sounds counter intuitive since you are are “dry”, but it is a rule to live by. Follow all the rules and even if a stray live round gets introduced nothing tragic occurs outside a hole in the wall, maybe a broken mirror. In fact, mirrors are helpful, but make sure they are hung on a solid wall if you can. I suggest one dedicated to training, not the one in the bathroom or bedroom.
Equipment needs are determined by which firearm and what you are practicing. First on the list is some good dummy or practice rounds. Plastic rounds are the least costly, but can be problematic depending on the firearm. Some pistols will not eject them, rifles more so and I have had them get stuck. After a few rounds the plastic “rim” gets damaged and won’t work. Better rounds use plastic bullets and brass casings. Most of these will continue to work longer and will not fail to eject when the slide or bolt is run with some authority. All metal rounds can be the best, especially for rifles, just make sure they won’t damage your chamber. Several companies make them, they just tend to be more money. In generally they are worth the cost, but especially for precision rifles. If you reload you can make your own just make sure they are somehow CLEARLY marked so they don’t end up in a carry magazine or real ammunition is not mistaken for practice rounds. Shotgun shells are best when brass is used, the all plastic ones can work but most shotguns tear them up pretty quickly. If possible use those thar are high brass.
I always practice dry with a holster or sling, it’s just safer. That way you are always in control of the firearm rather than setting it on a table or similar. This is critical if you have children or loved ones around. If it’s your carry gun use your EDC holster and magazine pouches, if not then a range holster, but if at all possible use a holster, it builds strong habits and keeps things much safer. For long guns have a safe place to set them if they are not slung on your person and use that space only during your practice. When done put it away, again this remains serious business so always treat them as loaded, even though they are loaded with dummy rounds. Sounds like a bit of overkill, but having investigated several “accidental” shootings over the years while people were “practicing” trust me it’s real. It remains one of the most frequent causes of “blue on blue” shootings. Failing to follow simple safety guidelines has resulted in serious injury and more than a few deaths.
What should I practice?
When it comes to pistols and carbines all of the manipulation skills are fair game. Loading, unloading, press checks, even trigger manipulation. Stoppage drills can be set up just like you learned at your class using dummy rounds. One trick is to remove the spring and follower from an old magazine and replace the base pad. That way you can perform both type 1 and 2 stoppage drills without having to reload your magazines. Since it will not lock open you can Tap, Rack and Access repeatedly without ejecting rounds. You can also lock the slide (or bolt) to the rear on a type 2 working the drill exactly as you would in the field. Works great on a pistol, even better on carbines. Tube fed shotguns are no different, loading, unloading, reloads off the side saddle, selecting slugs, even running the action on a pump shotgun. Can’t really simulate running a semi-auto dry, but you can do just about everything else. For hunting and precision bolt rifles you can still practice trigger press and follow through, and even bolt manipulation at various speeds.
You can work on your draw stroke and return to holster with the pistol using your EDC gun, equipment, and dress. Not only does it provide practice but works any kinks out of the gear, it’s a much better place to figure out you can’t get it back in the holster than on the range, or in a fight. On long guns you can work the various sling positions, getting in them, out of them, and returning them to your shoulder or at rest. Learning how to safely and efficiently bring your weapon of choice to bear and back to security is critical, practicing it dry provides all the time you need to work it out safely, quietly, and properly. You can use both your primary (long gun) and secondary to work out transitions. Carry two pistols, then you can do the same thing. In fact, this is the best place to work this out since there is typically lots going on at one time.
Sorting out gear is a great thing to do dry. Holsters, pouches, magazine carriers, load bearing vests, tactical gear, helmets, you name it. I spent hours working out my gear arrangement on my SWAT tactical vest, even used my helmet and respirator (gas mask). Every time something was added it was worked out dry first. You can deal with any critical gear complications dry and get a workout too. Can you access your pistol with your vest on, can you reach your pouch, does your helmet block your sighting system. During a transition does your sling get hung up on your handgun, or plate carrier, all of these things can be worked out better and more safely during dry practice first.
Movement and Positions
Precision rifle is a perfect example and maybe the best example for positions and movement between them. I set up a plastic barrel in my martial arts dojo / office and work all around it with my precision rifle and gear. You can to the same thing with a ladder, chair, or anything else you might think of. It allows you to figure out which bag to use, or not, sling positions, and just as importantly moving safely in and out of position. Throw in dummy rounds and you can add bolt manipulation, critical to competitions. For 3 gun or pistol competitors you can deal with footwork and timing. Maybe it’s just from wall to wall (like a barricade) but it gives you the time to work out the details quietly, safely and with as much speed and precision as you want.
Grab a blue gun, you can get them to match most anything these days and clear your house. Work out where you will go, how to gather the kids, how to escape, your communication. How to get from room to room, how long it takes and where the best points of cover and concealment are. Practice with your family, lots of it with one hand since you will probably have the other one around your kids. Where is it that you can see them and they cannot see you. You can even strategically place mirrors, vases, anything reflective so you can see the blind spots. Anyone entering your home, office, or workspace should do so at a distinct disadvantage.
Bottom Line – Practice Dry / Practice Live
Every top level competitor I’ve met practices as much or more dry as live. Maybe over years of practice they do less, seldom none. When new gear is added then almost always do. Many will practice in the hotel the night before day one. Few who want to excel at firearms use practices only at the range, it’s just too costly in time and money. It’s a great example for us mere mortals that just want to get better, has been for millennia. So practice, get to the range for sure, but get in some dry practice, the more you do the better you will be when everything is on the line, including your life.