Does Dry Fire Matter?

If you’ve been into shooting for a bit, you have probably heard about the importance of dry firing your weapon. If you haven’t, you’re about to. I’ve been shooting for over 30 years and found the results from this impromptu study of dry fire training both fascinating and informative. There is no end to education in this field.

Before delving into this study, I should explain what dry fire is. Dry fire is practicing the fundamentals of shooting: stance, grip, breathing, trigger control, sight picture, and sight alignment without ammunition in the firearm. This should be done in a safe environment with all ammunition separate and away from the firearm. Always verify the firearm is empty through visual (checking chamber(s) and mag well) and tactile (putting a finger in chamber(s) and mag well) inspection. I recommend using a hard barrier such as brick, body armor, or similar hard material that can stop the caliber of weapon in the event there is a failure. I also suggest using snap caps or a dry fire aid for immediate feedback. Both of those offer a non-live cartridge to put in the chamber for practice. This helps protect your firing pin, especially with rimfire firearms.

This study hoped to answer a variety of asked and unasked questions: What is the benefit of dry fire? Does the weapon used during practice matter versus the weapon used under live fire? Are there diminishing returns based on the level of the shooter? Many interesting points were made in this study and will continue to be made as we continue collecting data.

Sample Group and Targets

For this experiment, I and three co-workers volunteered as tributes. A huge thank you is owed to them for being my guinea pigs. Luckily, they didn’t complain much as it was an opportunity to improve their shooting. The four shooters ranged in shooting experience from a couple of years with no competition experience to extensive shooting experience. All were active law enforcement with between two and eight years of experience.

List of participants for dry fire study with weapons platform and law enforcement experience.
List of participants for dry fire study with weapons platform and law enforcement experience.

The participants used their assigned duty firearms. Two of the participants used optics while the other two used iron sights for the test. Shooters 1 and 2 used a personal Glock 17 with Holosun SCS while Shooter 3 used a Glock 17. Shooter 4 used a Glock 19.

This course of fire used a modified FBI-IP target. There are numerous similar targets available if you wish to measure your own performance. NRA Bullseye pistol targets are an excellent option but only go to a 7-ring for scoring while the target used for this study expanded to a 4-ring for scoring. We wanted a numerical score assigned to each shot in a larger grouping versus it being scored simply as a “miss” (zero points).

The Study and Course of Fire

We met up on a day off where our schedules allowed and I explained the course of fire to the participants. The course of fire consists of 30 rounds. This qualification, while limited in scope, was selected because it focused on shooting fundamentals while scoring measurable accuracy with the shooter under some time pressure. The course of fire is as follows:

1st String:  10 rounds from draw at 25 yards with par time of 4 minutes

2nd String: Five rounds from draw at 15 yard with par time of 15 seconds (string is repeated a second time for total of 10 rounds)

3rd String: Five rounds from draw at 15 yard with par time of 10 seconds (string is repeated a second time for total of 10 rounds)

A perfect score is 300 points while a passing score is 200 points. A shooter must shoot 240 or higher to qualify as an instructor if taking the FBI Instructor course.

After shooting the first course of fire, the shooters exchanged firearms (optic for non-optic and non-optic for optic) to obtain a second score with or without optic. The shooters were then instructed to complete a minimum of 50 quality repetitions of dry fire per day. This dry fire needed to be quality over quantity and proper fundamentals were stressed. Participants were allowed to exceed the minimum of 50 repetitions or split the minimum required into sets of 10, 25, or any other combination thereof. We held daily accountability check-ins amongst us to ensure everyone was following through. After two weeks, participants returned and shot the qualification again following the same procedure. Shooters began with their respective issued firearm and then swapped to the opposite of their normal firearm (optic or irons).

Initial Qualification

Participants lined up on the 25-yard line and, unfortunately, many of us were in a rush even with the exceptional time. Several of the shooters shot well under the time limit and finished in under two minutes. Precision and proper application of fundamentals are important in the first string. We ran the remainder of the qualification with everyone managing to fire all of their rounds within the time constraints.

Shooters 1 (me) and 2, shooting with optics, scored the highest versus those without optics. Ironically, we were the only two to pass the qual. We then swapped handguns and immediate results were notable. I recently switched to an optic on a handgun and observed my score increase slightly with iron sights (283 to 286). I attribute the difference to a couple of things: cold versus warmed-up shooting and my level of comfort on a platform I had tens of thousands of rounds versus one (handgun optic) that I had barely one thousand rounds through.

Shooter 2 also recently switched to a handgun optic from iron sights and noted there wasn’t a significant difference in his scores between the optic and iron scores (259 and 257, respectively). Shooters 3 and 4, who started initially with no optic, saw substantial increases in their scores with 58 and 70 point increases, respectively. Those shooters said the dot gave them immediate feedback at longer distances if their sights were off or they “threw” a shot during the first string due to poor grip, trigger control, etc.

Final Qualification

We met up two weeks later and followed the same course of fire as before. While the initial dataset was fascinating, the second course of fire had us scratching our heads for a minute. Shooters saw profound changes for the better in their scores while some (including myself) saw little change or even a decrease in performance.

I saw virtually no change in my scores with an optic. I initially shot a 283 and went to a 282, a negligible change. With iron sights, my score dropped from 286 to 270. While still respectable, I was disappointed by the poor performance for what I expected. So why the lack of improvement? I attribute it to two things.

bullseye target showing bullet impact holes
Author’s (Shooter 1) final target shooting a Glock 17 with optic. The final score was 282.

First is the amount of time dedicated to a single platform. During my two weeks of dry fire, I focused solely on practicing with my optic and shied away from my iron sight pistol. Skills are perishable and not training with a weapons platform will see your peak scores drop to a level you can maintain and remain consistent at a “maintenance” level of practice. You will not remain at your peak levels though.

Second, there is a point in a shooter’s abilities that the law of diminishing returns steps in and becomes omnipresent. Effectively, newer shooters will see significant increases in their scores as they improve on consistency with their fundamentals. Eventually, an experienced shooter at the peak of their abilities will need to work the same amount of time to see substantially fewer increases in their scores. Shooter 2’s scores were somewhat similar to this as they showed an increase in both categories (two points and 16 points for optics and irons, respectively) but nothing near as substantial as Shooters 3 and 4.

Shooters 3 and 4 reaped benefits from their dry fire practice. Both of them passed the qual with iron sights and Shooter 3 saw a 23-point increase with Shooter 4 getting a 104-point increase. When pistols were swapped for optics though, Shooter 3’s score dropped 32 points from their initial score. Nevertheless, it was closer to their final iron sight score. Shooter 4’s score dropped somewhat. Both shooters commented on how they were not as acquainted with the red dot pistols now because they practiced the previous two weeks with iron sights only. Their comments echoed what Shooter 2 and I felt when we shot on iron sights.

dry fire final score comparisons
Final score comparisons between initial qualification and final qualification. Asterisk denotes the weapon the shooter conducted dry fire drills on.


The initial set of results gave some solid feedback for us. We all agreed to continue the daily dryfire practice over at least one more month to see how our scores change (hopefully a follow-up article will materialize from that information). The FBI Qual was a solid metric for this test and we’ll continue to use it for consistency. A consistent standard to measure against will provide feedback to see if you’re improving and identify deficient areas.

This study is limited to analyzing red dot performance against iron sights as it doesn’t target areas the red dot excels at — speed and distance. The data and our experience illustrated an important aspect of shooting performance — you must train on the platform you use. Cross-training on other weapons is beneficial for diversity of experience but not to the detriment of your primary weapon. In our data set, shooters saw increases in their scores when using the weapon they practiced on. Conversely, their scores didn’t see improvement when changing to another platform.

The final takeaway from this study is proof of a long-standing mantra within the industry —- optics, lasers, or other accessories are not a crutch for poor fundamentals. A competent shooter has mastered the fundamentals and can apply them regardless of what they put on or in their firearm. By no means am I against optics, lasers, or other accessories. On the contrary, I advocate for them as an aid to improve your capabilities, but only as long as you have mastered the fundamentals.

So what is the benefit to dry fire practice?

The benefit is undoubtedly measurable. Shooters at their peak will never hurt their skills by practicing it routinely. As I write this article, I’ve taken several breaks to get a few quality reps in. Repetition strengthens and confirms your actions and I abide by that policy. For newer shooters, ensure you’re not just cranking through reps to say “I did 100!” 25 quality repetitions will have more benefit in building good fundamentals than 100 repetitions with poor grip, sight alignment, or trigger control. From an investment standpoint, if I said you could get a 10% increase in two weeks at no cost to you, would you take it? Of course! Dry fire offers that benefit with little to no cost while optics will only add to that benefit if trained and practice on.

Focus on the fundamentals, make your reps count, and be safe. Happy dry firing!

Tom Stilson began his career in firearms in 2012 working the counter for a gun store. He progressed to conducting fine and collectible firearms appraisals before becoming the firearms compliance merchant for a major outdoor retailer. In 2015, he entered into public service and began his law enforcement career. Tom has worked for urban and rural agencies and obtained certifications as a firearms instructor, field trainer, and in special weapons and tactics. He enjoys time on his backyard range if he's not spending it with family or spreading his passion for firearms and law enforcement.

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