Dry Fire: A Guide to Doing it Safely and Correctly

Dry fire practice commonly recommended activity for building up needed fundamental and mechanical skills with a firearm. Fundamentals of proper grip, stance, sight picture, and to some degree trigger press can all be trained dry (no live ammunition), at a cost of only time. Mechanics such as drawing, malfunction drills, speed reloads, and chamber checks can also be practiced at no cost in ammunition. However, we need to make sure such practice is properly developing these skills. Vince Lombardi put it best when he said “Practice does not make perfect. Only perfect practice makes perfect.”

dry fire indoor
Dry firing is a great way to build fundamental and mechanical skills with a firearm, when done safely and correctly. Practice makes permanent, but make sure your practice is perfect.

In the age of video phones, it is easy for us to video record our practice sessions. We can even record them in slow motion if needed, to make sure we are fully taking advantage of “perfect practice.” The goal of practicing is to start slow. As we practice each movement repeatedly, that slow movement becomes smooth, and over time smooth movement becomes fast. Drawing on another quote, this time from Bruce Lee, “Practice makes perfect. After a long time of practicing, our work will become natural, skillful, swift, and steady.”

The advantages of dry fire are clear, and yet there are three main issues I often encounter when examining someone’s dry fire practices.

dry fire filming with smartphone
You don’t need fancy devices to make sure your dry fire practice sessions are successful — just a smartphone to video your dry fire drills and a willingness to critically self-evaluate what you are doing.

Just Not Doing It

The first challenge is the simplest but maybe the hardest to overcome: just not doing it. Recognizing the need to work on skills is one thing, and going to a range to live fire has a great appeal, but devoting a portion of time on a regular schedule to dry fire can be a hard personal sell. One of the problems is that advocates of dry fire often have already established a steady routine and devotion to certain skills. For
instance, when I first started considering switching to an optic in my carry gun, I likely practiced drawing and presenting to the optic’s dot thousands of times. Many people hear such examples and think “When will I have the time to do that?” The good news is, if done consistently and regularly, a small amount of work can go a long way.

For instance, a good friend of mine does dry fire once a week, right after a regularly scheduled work meeting. Their practice is in groups of 10 repetitions including drawing, trigger presses, tap-rack malfunction clearances, and speed reloads all video-taped. They then watch the video with a willingness to be self-critical looking for any issues. The whole sequence including safety before and after (see below) takes less than 10 minutes and was an easy addition to their week.

Really, the goal is to just start, regardless of the time devoted. As you see progress, it will become easier to find more time. This also takes advantage of what is known as habit bundling, when you pair one activity with an already established activity that you already do. In the case of my friend, he pairs his dry fire practice with concluding a work meeting.

SIRT gun and reactive target
There are many products on the market allowing you to have more interactive practices without using your actual firearm including SIRT guns and laser reactive targets.

Perfect Practice

Coming after committing to a dry fire practice routine, the second challenge is not practicing perfectly. The most common mistake here is focusing on speed over technique. The overall goal of practice is to become proficient with handgun manipulation and use in a potential defensive encounter. In such an encounter, often the speed of successful action can spell the difference between success and failure.

Unfortunately, this can result in quickly developing speed over all other concerns in training. Thus, many people make their primary goal speed for speed’s sake. Being the fastest only counts if you are also successful in your action. In the words of Wyatt, “Fast is fine, but accuracy is final. You must learn to be slow in a hurry.” Whenever you first start a new skill, it is very tempting to try to be perfect at it. But with dry firing, the best thing you can do is to go slowly at first. Slow repetitions over time will allow you to become faster.

The best technique is to slowly practice each maneuver correctly. With each perfect repetition, the action will naturally become smoother and will develop into a set of movements that are just as fast, but much more technically accurate and successful. The goal should not initially be speed, but correct technique with no wasted movement. It can be a challenge to make yourself slow down, especially with actions you may already be used to. For example, when first practicing malfunction clearances (right hand dominant) dry I suggest people break the movements down into components such as:

  1. Withdraw the support hand from your two-handed grip while trying to not alter the direction of the gun’s muzzle significantly.
  2. Use the heel of the palm to firmly ‘tap’ the magazine.
  3. Place the support hand with a solid heel and four-finger grip across the back of the slide.
  4. Push the gun slightly to the right pointing the ejection port to the ground.
  5. Pull the slide directly backward.
  6. Release the slide fully once all the way back.
  7. Return the support hand to a solid grip.
slide manipulation
Slowing each manipulation of the firearm down to distinct separate movements may seem awkward at first, but it allows us to easily analyze what we are doing right and wrong.

Breaking down a ‘tap-rack’ drill into seven parts may feel awkward, but it also makes evaluating what you are doing on video easier and helps to identify areas that may easily be skipped (tapping the magazine or rolling the ejection port) that in some situations may be essential to successfully clearing a malfunction. Very quickly these seven steps will become smoother, moving to two to three steps, and as they become smooth, they will naturally occur fast as one smooth, perfect sequence of movements.


Although I am listing safety last, it is the first element whenever handling firearms and must be attended to before, during, and after dry fire sessions. Although many instructors may alter or add some spin to the four rules of firearms safety, they are almost universally presented at least in spirit. The NSSF presents them as follows:

  1. Always keep firearm pointed in a safe direction.
  2. Treat all guns as though they are loaded.
  3. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
  4. Always be sure of your target and what’s beyond it.

I often shorten these to a general “don’t do dumb things with a firearm.” One problem with dry fire is that it often involves making sure a gun is unloaded before practicing. Due to this step, many people then proceed to no longer follow the four rules. Unfortunately, we are easily distracted and all it takes, even if following the rules, is an interruption at the wrong time for disaster to strike.

Bore lasers
There are also products allowing you to make your dry fire practice sessions more interactive, but remember the inherent risks in using your personal defensive firearm in such sessions.

One of my fellow instructors, also a police officer, used to fill out the negligent discharge reports for his department and commonly encountered dry fire sessions that resulted in a live fire discharge. As we often say in our classes, “The two loudest noises you’ll ever hear are a gun that goes click when you expect a bang, and a gun that goes bang when you expect a click.” The most common cause of such
accidents is being interrupted when finishing up and reloading the gun for regular duty use. In its simplest form, it goes something like this:

  1. The person finishes dry firing and is returning a loaded magazine into the gun.
  2. Right after reloading something interrupts them, such as a phone call, a knock on the door, a family member needing help.
  3. After the interruption, they return to the gun and try to remember what they were doing.
  4. Unfortunately, the memory of dry firing is well encoded in memory, the act of finishing was interrupted and may not have been as well encoded.
  5. They return to dry fire, the last thing they easily remember doing, to the sound of a “Bang.”

As long as the other four rules are still being applied this likely means embarrassment and a need to repair a barrier that can stop a bullet. However, such incidents can result in much worse outcomes including shooting through soft barriers and hitting a family member. (I am familiar with a very similar incident resulting in the death of a beloved wife.) Almost 50% of negligent discharges happen in the home and most of these are a direct result of failing to follow the four rules or failing to take dry fire safety seriously.

Presented below are the rules I created for use at Indy Arms Company’s training for maintaining safety when dry fire practicing. Copy it, paste it into your own document, print it, share it, and use it. Maximize your gains with using dry fire while making sure you never have a negligent discharge by fully following these rules.

Safety Rules for Dry Fire Practice

Dry fire is the act of manipulating a firearm with; 1) No Ammunition in the Firearm, 2) No Ammunition in any magazines used, and 3) No Ammunition in the room you will be training in. If there is any possible way a live round could be chambered in the gun, you are not doing dry fire. Even with a verified cleared weapon you should still follow the Four Rules of Firearm Safety:

  1. Always treat every firearm as though it is loaded.
  2. Always keep the muzzle pointed in a safe direction.
  3. Keep your finger outside the trigger guard until ready to shoot.
  4. Always be sure of your target and what is in front of it and behind it.

Safety Rules for Dry Fire

  1. Eliminate all distractions when dry fire training and only do dry fire when you are well rested, alert, and not altered by drugs or other substances.
  2. Lock and remove all ammo from your weapon and the area where you’re training. (We suggest establishing a permanent dry fire area that ammo is never allowed in.)
  3. After visually and physically confirming that your weapon, magazine, pockets, pouches, mag holders, etc. are empty of live rounds, audibly state (to yourself) that you’ve confirmed that your weapon and magazines are unloaded and that there are no live rounds. Saying it out loud is key to making sure you encode the actions into your longer-term memory.
  4. Use dedicated dry fire targets with a backstop that can safely absorb negligent discharges.
  5. If your concentration is interrupted at any point, go through steps 1-4 before continuing.
  6. When you decide you’re done dry fire training, don’t do ANY more. The transition from dry fire to live fire is when most training negligent discharges happen. The mind must have a clear transition from “real gun, real ammo” to “dry fire” and back to “real gun, real ammo.”
  7. When you are done dry firing, audibly say, “I am done dry firing” at least three times. This sounds silly, but you absolutely cannot switch back into dry fire mode for “one more shot” and this little refrain is designed to help you reinforce the message to your brain that training is done.

If there are ANY distractions, STOP. Be extra careful when finished with your dry fire session if distractions are around, sometimes people forget that they have loaded a live round back into the gun and they will do just one more dry fire drill. This is how they accidentally shoot their ΤV set. Again, it is very important to not allow any live ammo in the practice area and/or room.

Joel Nadler is the Training Director at Indy Arms Company in Indianapolis and co-owner of Tactical Training Associates.  He writes for several gun-focused publications and is an avid supporter of the right to self-sufficiency, including self-defense. Formerly a full professor, he has a Ph.D. in Psychology and now works as a senior consultant living on a horse ranch in rural Indiana.  Feel free to follow him on Instagram @TacticalPhD.

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