As readers here know, I’ve spent a lot of time dry practicing this year. As readers might not know, I’m a huge fan of dry practice. I don’t necessary enjoy doing it, but I absolutely enjoy the results it produces. I’m definitely not the only one.
Just about every serious competitive shooter will tell you they dry practice. Special operations personnel dry practice. Cops that are really, really good with their duty weapons dry practice. Dry practice WORKS. But that’s not what I’m here to talk about.
Unfortunately, dry practice is also inherently risky. In fact, I think it might be more risky than a range session. Today I’m going to deep-dive into dry practice safety. I’m going to discuss why it’s so potentially dangerous without appropriate safety measures and fail-safes in place. I’m also going to list some safeties and fail-safes. I don’t expect everyone to implement all of these (to be honest, I don’t expect many people to read this), but I hope they give you something to think about.
Dry Practice Safety Risk Factors
Why is dry practice so risky? There are several factors that contribute to this risk. I place major emphasis on it because of where I live: in an apartment building in a suburb of a major city. Your risk factors may be different. I encourage you to make your own assessment and tailor your mitigations appropriately. Let’s take a look at some potential risk factors.
Dry Practice Happens in Areas Not Optimized for Live Fire: By nature, dry-practice rarely happens on the live-fire range. If I take the time to go to the range and pay my expensive range fee, I’m going to shoot! We dry practice largely because, for a variety of reasons, we can’t all get to the range as often as we’d like. Perhaps we dry practice because we can work skills that our range doesn’t support. . . or explicitly disallows. Dry practice is a way to develop and maintain skills in a non-range environment.
This means that we are handling firearms in an environment that is not optimized for live fire. The consequences of a discharge run the entire gamut here, from having your neighbor call the cops (and in my case, building management), to damaging your own hearing and/or eyesight, all the way to killing another human being. Putting mitigations in place to minimize this risk is ABSOLUTELY IMPERATIVE!
Population Density & Likelihood of Shooting Another Human: This exists on a spectrum. If you live alone on a 500-acre plot surrounded by mountains, the likelihood of a negligent discharge hitting someone else is probably very remote. My situation exists at the opposite end of the spectrum. I live in an apartment building with several hundred units. People are always coming and going outside. In my situation this risk factor is very, very high.
Dry Practice With Carry Gun vs. Competition Gun/Range Toy: If you are conducting your dry practice with your carry/home defense gun, there is probably more inherent risk of a negligent discharge than if you are practicing with a competition gun or range toy. There are a couple reasons for this.
First, your carry gun is loaded. This means that you must handle live ammunition in correlation with every dry practice session. There is a greater than 0% chance that some live ammunition will be overlooked when unloading your gun, spare magazine(s), etc. The only negligent discharge I’ve ever witnessed in real life was the result of a live magazine being overlooked in a magazine pouch. Fortunately no one was hurt, but someone did lose a job over this incident.
Secondly, a carry/defense gun will be reloaded after the session ends. Anecdotally (I have zero statistics to back this up) this is when most dry practice accidents happen: the shooter loads up, forgets, then decides to get “just one more rep” in. If you dry practice with a gun that just sits in the safe and is rarely loaded, there is probably less risk involved in dry practicing.
I once had such a situation; when I was working as a gun-carrying contractor overseas, I was issued a Glock 17. I didn’t carry a G17 on a daily basis at home, but I owned one. It sat in the safe, clear of ammunition except when I took it to the range. To stay sharp for my next deployment I dry-practiced with it daily. Because it was rarely loaded I had much less anxiety about dry practicing with it. Be aware, this “lower” risk goes up substantially after you’ve taken that gun to the range or shot a competition. This lower risk category is also not an excuse for being careless in your mitigations.
Mitigating Dry Practice Safety Risks
There are two categories of safety protocols for avoiding disaster when dry practicing. The first minimizes the risk that you will discharge a live round. This category is further broken down into steps taken before dry practicing, and steps taken during the session and after it ends. The second category of protocols attempts to minimize the damage done if a round is discharged. Because my risk, as assessed by the factors above, is very high I spend a lot of time thinking about this.
Minimizing the Risk of a Discharge, Part I
Let’s talk about what we can do to minimize the chances of firing a live round. This first set of mitigations applies before the dry-practice session begins. I will address a second set of mitigations later in the post.
Unload/Reload Your Firearm in a Separate Room/Area. This ensures there is no ammo “out and about” in the dry practice area. I have a specific area in my apartment where I dry practice. This area is special and I will address it later. I also have a dedicated area where I unload and reload my firearm: on my kitchen counter. There is plenty of light in this area and it is as physically separate from my dry-practice area as I can get in my home. Keeping these two areas separate also ensures that, at an absolute minimum, I have to physically move from one area to another before reloading my gun.
Unload Magazines, Magazine Pouches, Pockets, Etc. when you setup for a dry practice session, remove AND ACCOUNT FOR all live ammunition. Remove it from the firearm. Make sure to check your magazine pouches for stray rounds that might have popped out of the mag but are still in the pouch. If you pocket-carry a magazine, speedloader, or Speed Strip, check your pockets. Then double check all that stuff.
Get a Second Opinion if Possible. If my girlfriend is home, I always have her check my gun, magazines, and snap caps before I begin my session. She isn’t always home when I dry practice, but if I can have this control measure I’ll take it, even if only for some of my sessions.
Use Snap Caps† That Are Visually Different Than Ammunition. I insist on using A-Zoom snap caps. They aren’t perfect – their weight isn’t quite the same. Believe it or not, this makes the slide on my 1911 feel a little different, and they perform a little differently in revolver speedloaders. I’d rather use true dummy rounds made from actual cases and bullets. However, I don’t like the idea of getting used to seeing brass- or silver-colored cases in my gun while dry practicing. I like the “warm/fuzzy” of seeing a red case in the chamber and magazines and KNOWING I don’t have a live round.
Minimizing the Impact of a Discharge
When engaging in dry practice, regardless of what safety precautions we’ve taken to this point, we accept some small amount of risk of a negligent discharge. The following safety procedures will help you mitigate the risk to other humans if the unthinkable occurs.
Have a bullet-safe backstop. You need to have a backstop that you know will stop a bullet. Period. In researching bullet-safe backstops I was surprised to find that a LOT of people feel it is unnecessary. I ran across several forum threads with people asking about dry practice backstops. A few of the most thoughtless replies are directly quoted below:
“Just to clarify, what is your definition of ‘dry practice’?”
“I’m lost…what are you dry firing with to need a backstop?”
“If your that unsure of your “gun handling at home”, I’d save your practice until you have a berm (at the range) in front of you.”
“I think you may be missing the key point of dry fire.”
“Just do what I do. Take the bullets out of the gun. Stick you finger in the chamber. No bullet? Start dry firing.”
I sincerely hope that none of those commenters live in my building or your neighborhoods. I revert back to the Firearms Safety Rules. We may be bending them by dry practicing, but we’re certainly not discarding them.
I don’t know that I can give the definitive, all-encompassing answer of what is and isn’t a bullet-safe backstop. My backstop is an interior wall, on the other side of which is a utility closet. A bullet would have to pass through the interior wall, a furnace, and the exterior wall, which is wrapped on three sides with a brick veneer. I’m comfortable that this will stop one 9mm or .38 round.
I could recite a bunch of other things you can put in your house that will stop a bullet. I admit that if I did, they’d all be lifted directly from this article on the Cornered Cat. If you don’t have a bullet-safe wall, check it out; it has some good ideas. And if you have ideas of your own, feel free to post them in the comments.
Minimizing the Risk of a Discharge, Part II
Let’s talk about what we can do to minimize the chances of firing a live round during and after the dry-practice session.
Have a dedicated dry practice location. As I mentioned earlier, I have a dedicated dry practice location. I completely eschew the old advice you used to read in magazines/still read on forums to “snap in on your TV set.” The reason I only dry practice in a certain spot is I don’t want to build a habit of drawing my carry gun all over my house. I don’t want to build a habit of pulling the trigger while watching TV. . . because I don’t want to pull out my loaded gun (which is frequently on my person at home) and shoot at the TV.
For me, the only time it is acceptable to dry practice is when I am in my dry practice location. The foremost consideration in selecting this location (other than a bullet-safe backstop): you should minimize the chances others (or pets) will walk in front of you. You probably shouldn’t dry practice down a hall if there is a chance your spouse or kids could pop out of a doorway.
You can make this location even better by choosing a space that you don’t normally traffic or occupy. This is difficult to do in my current home (it is a very small apartment). In the last place I lived, my bed was against the wall. Before dry practicing I would pull the bed away from the wall, and do most of my dry practice work in that spot. I loved this spot; it wasn’t a location I would “just happen to be in” with a loaded gun. This spot could also be as simple as going into your basement or attic if you aren’t normally in there. Moving a piece of furniture is a pain, but it has a secondary effect. . .
Have a definitive END of the session. Once the session is over, it should be OVER – no “just one more.” Pushing your bed back against the wall is a great way to signal to your brain that the session is over. Going back upstairs from the basement is another great way. Yet another way (if you are space-limited, like I am) is to verbalize that the session is over. “I am finished dry practicing,” reinforces the fact that you are finished.
Don’t leave your targets up/out. If your targets are always up, and you spend a lot of time dry practicing at them, you’re priming your brain to draw when you see them. Though I consider myself a pretty mindful person, I don’t discount the phenomenon of “priming” and I don’t believe I’m immune to its effects. The target becomes the stimulus, drawing become the response. It takes very little effort to hang my target(s) before a session, and take them down afterward. I have a few targets that I use for dry practice. A small piece of tape at the top holds them to the wall, and survives several re-uses.
Do something else before you reload your firearm. When the sessions ends don’t immediately grab your ammo, load up, and holster the gun. Here’s what I do. I lock the slide or open the cylinder. I take the gun to the kitchen and set it down on the counter in my unloading/reloading area. Then I go do something else. I start a load of laundry, read a bit, sit down with my girl for a few minutes, or wash my hands and eat a sandwich. The idea here is to create some mental space between “dry practice mode” and carrying a live weapon. Keeping your live ammunition in another location also reinforces this. Even if I have to immediately load up, I’m not doing it in my dry practice space where I’m primed to draw the gun and pull the trigger.
The Bottom Line
Everything we do with firearms imposes some risk to self, and to others. You are responsibly – legally, financially, and ethically – for every single round that leaves your muzzle, whether you intended to fire or not. If you dry practice, do so safely!
†Yes, I think using snap caps is important, especially if you’re dry practicing a lot. I’m going to steal something John Hearne told me: “if you’re dry practicing enough that it makes a difference [in your abilities], it [using snap caps] probably matters.”