Training When You Can’t Get to the Range: The Importance of Dry Fire Practice

What do you do when ammo prices go through the roof, it’s hard to find, or you simply don’t have time to pack up everything and drive to the range? How do you keep your skills up? After all, shooting is a perishable skill—don’t use it and you’ll lose it. The best way to keep up your skills when you can’t live fire is dry fire.

In a nutshell, dry fire is where you practice just about every firearms skill except poking holes through paper, because you don’t use live ammo—EVER. Why did I shout at you just now? Because while gun safety is always important, it’s especially important during dry fire training because you will not be at a range. The traditional range safety features such as a berm, backstop, and ballistic walls are absent. All the mechanisms and barriers designed to trap flying bullets and brass won’t be there, so if you accidentally let a live round into your gun and pull the trigger, something really bad is likely to happen. So don’t do it.

Before you start dry fire practice:

  1. Identify a safe place for practice. It can be a concrete wall or some other cover barrier that will stop potential unintended rounds, just in case.
  2. Unload the firearm completely, including the chamber and magazine. The gun needs to be completely clear and empty.
  3. Remove all ammunition from the room—every single round. Leave nothing to chance.
  4. Follow all the gun safety rules all the time.

Now that you have a safe place to practice, what can you work on?

Dry Fire Training — Sight alignment

Rule of thumb: it’s hard to hit your target if your gun is pointed in the wrong direction. While that seems obvious, the challenge is understanding what good sight alignment looks like, especially for new or inexperienced shooters. I see this all the time in my pistol classes. And I can tell you why it happens. Too many instructors will talk about focusing on the front sight, which is important, but they leave off how important the rear sight is. Be sure all the sights align. Otherwise, you’re guaranteed to miss the target.

handgun sight alignment - rear sights of pistol in hand
Practice sight alignment until your gun naturally comes up correctly in front of your face.

Practice this skill by first establishing the sight picture with the rear sight and front sight lined up, so you have a baseline for success. Then practice bringing the gun up from the low or high ready position and lining up the sights quickly. Increase the speed as you gain more confidence to improve your consistency and establish muscle memory.

Trigger Press

We’ve heard it many times before: if you aim correctly, you should hit your target if you pull the trigger without moving the gun. It sounds so simple. And in concept it is. However, the other phrase we’ve heard many times before is it’s easier said than done. We learned in the last paragraph how important it is to align your sights. Now let’s talk about how to keep them in line when we shoot.

The last point of contact you have with the gun before it goes bang is the trigger. Your finger and the trigger need to work together seamlessly. The challenge we have is that fingers work in an arc while triggers work in a straight line. How do we make them play well together?

The Brass Drill is a great way to ensure you aren’t moving the gun when pressing the trigger.

We could do a whole separate article on trigger finger placement, and perhaps one day we will, but for now let’s just say that no matter where you put your finger on the trigger, it needs to keep the gun aligned all the way through the trigger press, so the gun doesn’t move right before it goes bang.

Work on this by racking the slide to reset the trigger, raising the gun into shooting position, placing a spent casing or dummy round on the nose of the slide, and pressing the trigger. Did the brass or dummy round wiggle, move, or fall off? If so, try it again until nothing moves, even the slightest. If you can get the gun to not move in dry fire, chances are it won’t move under live fire.


You do keep a spare magazine with you at all times, right? Of course, you do, because you’re a responsible gun owner and concealed carrier. Will you need the extra ammo in a gunfight? Probably not. But you might. More likely, the spare magazine will come in handy in case of a malfunction where you have to strip the primary magazine out, it skitters across the floor because you dropped it in the heat of battle, and you need a replacement ASAP. Grab the spare from the mag pouch and get back to business.

Making this magazine transition is a practiced skill. If you’ve never done it before, you don’t realize how hard it is. It seems easy, but it’s not. After all, how hard can it be to insert a magazine? We do it every time we need more ammo. Normally, it’s not hard, but what about under pressure, with sweaty palms and bullets flying around you? Now tell me how easy it is.

Walther PK 380 with spare magazine loaded with A-Zoom snap caps for dry fire training
Set up reload drills with dummy rounds or snap caps such as these .380 snappers from A-Zoom.

Reloading needs to be smooth as silk. You don’t have time to learn how to manipulate your gun in the middle of a gunfight. You should know it already. It should be second nature. So, how do you practice reloading?

You’ll need two magazines, one empty and the other with one dummy round or snap cap—NOT live ammo. We took those out of the room when we started, and they aren’t coming back until we’re done. Dummy rounds or snap caps substitute for live ammo but are inert. They just go click, not bang when the trigger is pulled. Load one dummy round or snap cap into the top of the spare magazine and put the spare magazine in your mag pouch. Insert the empty magazine into the gun and lock back the slide to simulate that it’s empty because you shot your last round.

package of A-Zoom 380 Auto Snap Caps for dry fire practice
A-Zoom makes excellent snap caps for a variety of pistol calibers.

Slowly at first, practice thumbing the magazine release, letting the empty magazine drop free, and grab the spare magazine from the mag pouch with your support hand. Insert the spare magazine with the dummy round at the top, and either thumb the slide lock so it closes or rack it home. Now eject the magazine and reset for another session. As you get better at reloads, increase the speed. Remember, in a real gunfight, you need to move fast. Your life may depend on it.

Draws and Re-holstering

You can be the greatest shooter in the world, able to stack rounds on top of each other from distance, but none of that matters if you can’t get the gun out of the holster and into the fight. Remember, your gun will be hidden because it’s concealed. (Please don’t tell me you’re not open carrying. I don’t want to have to call you out over that.) To access your gun, you’ll need to clear your cover garment, grab your gun, extract it from its holster, and bring it up to bear on the threat. That’s a very involved process that needs to be accomplished quickly.

To practice this critical skill set, set your clothing up as you would if you were carrying in public, complete with any seasonal cover garments such as jackets or t-shirts. You want your practice to be as realistic as possible. Place your unloaded gun inside the holster and stand normally. Don’t try to game the system by standing with your arms bowed out like you’re ready to fight. In real life, you won’t be that ready. Instead, you’ll probably be startled by the situation and have to react from a casual stance, so do that in training.

As before, start this exercise slowly and methodically to build up muscle memory. Clear the cover garment. Grip the gun. Pull the gun out of the holster. Bring it up to high ready, and press out, aligning the sights the way you practice earlier. After a few reps, increase your speed. Do it until it’s second nature.

Pro tip: While it’s important to draw the gun quickly, put it back into the holster slowly. Nobody ever won a gunfight by being the quickest back to the holster. Quickest out of the holster, yes. Back into the holster, no.

Dry Fire Practice 

There is no excuse for not practicing. Sure, ammo is expensive, and finding range time can be tough, but you can spend a few minutes each day working on these fundamental skills. You’ll make yourself a safer and more skilled gun owner and concealed carrier through dry fire. It’s like working out. We all know we should do it, but how much time do we spend at the gym? If you’re like most of us, not enough. But you need to. And you need to dry fire practice regularly, too.

David Workman is an avid gun guy, a contributing writer to several major gun publications, and the author of Absolute Authority. A logophile since way back, Workman is a quickdraw punslinger and NRA RSO and Certified Pistol Instructor. He helps train new shooters on basic handgun skills and CCW requirements and is a strong advocate for training as much as practicable. "Real-world shootouts don't happen at a box range."

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