Dry Practice Safety Deep Dive

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.

Dry Practice Safety 1

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.

Dry Practice Safety

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.”

14 thoughts on “Dry Practice Safety Deep Dive”

  1. Thanks for the tips. I implemented most of the rules you had mentioned from one of your previous articles on LG. I also purchased a SIRT pistol and two weighted magazines. This is a big up front cost, but one that is well worth it in the long run. For those unfamiliar, a SIRT is essentially a weighted dummy gun with a trigger system which provides feedback by emitting a laser whenever pressure is applied to a the trigger and then firing a second laser whenever the trigger “breaks.” I keep my other weapons in stored in other rooms away from the SIRT when I am practicing to foster good habits. While the SIRT is not a 100% perfect replacement for dry practice with an actual firearm, it is a very good simmulation. I especially like the fact that you do not have to cycle the slide each time you press the trigger, conveying one of the main benefits of dry practice with a revolver. Additionally, for me, the convenience of not having to reconfigure my pistol for dry practice means I practice more and more consistently.

    1. Andrew,
      I’ve tried the SIRT pistol. I have a couple problems with the SIRT that make it less than desirable. The first is that the slide doesn’t work. I can’t do malfunction drills or reloads as I would with a live pistol. The other big problem that I have is the laser. It is cool to see where your shot lands, but I find my eyes always looking at the target to see where the shot hit. This causes me to always look from sights to target then have to reacquire the sights.
      Like you said – it does have a ton of benefits and I’m not knocking anyone that uses it. I just find that it’s not for me.

      1. Agreed as to the slide not working. If they could make a realistic working slide, that would be sweet.

        As to the laser, it has been my experience as well that the first laser can be distracting. On mine there is a switch to disable it which I have done. When the second laser emits it usually lands right at the top of my front sight and thus, for me at least, is not distracting.

        Thanks again for these dry practice articles. I have implemented many of the ides and procedures you have brought up in this and other articles.

        1. Another (much, much more expensive) option is the Cool Fire Trainer. I have little experience with it, but Mike Seeklander absolutely loves his. It does have all the slide-function abilities, as well as YOUR trigger, YOUR sights, etc, and you get felt recoil. Not to mention, it probably makes dry practice a little more engaging. The price is intimidating, so I haven’t jumped into one.

  2. First training I got on speed loading at Ye Olde Armored Car Company, we used dummy rounds that were handloaded brass and real bullets. The instructor used Sharpie or something to change the color of the rounds but the weight was the same. Personally, I don’t know how to hand load, but it seemed like a good idea if you do.

  3. Mention is made of making one’s own dummy rounds. Eons ago, a few years after the earth cooled, I had what was even at that time an old box of U.S. military M41 Ball ammo. Then an idea worthy of Wiley Coyote.

    I used an inertial bullet puller to separate the 130 gr FMJ RN bullets from all 50 cases ( I also weighed the individual powder charge for several rounds for later use ). Removing the decapping pin, I resized, ‘reloaded’ those cases with 125 jacketed bullets over their original powder charge, and shot them up, saving the brass. Ran all of them through the sizing and decapping die only, and tumble cleaned ’em until they could pass dress inspection.

    Took 12 of those cases (so I still have 38 spares) and used blue Permatex RTV gasket sealer to fill the primer pocket and a bit into the casing. Allowed the sealer to dry for a few days, then trimmed to the face of the case head. The into the bullet seating die to seat and crimp the 130 grain M41 ball projectile. Voila, 12 practice dummies. When I pop open the cylinder, I see nice brass cases, but with BLUE primers.

    So far none of those dummy rounds have gone off . . .

    1. I don’t discount this technique at all. In fact, I’d love to use these. In my current situation, I just can’t be comfortable seeing brass or nickel in the chamber(s). It I were just a little bit less urban (and I will be someday!) I would definitely move to true dummies.

      1. Totally understand your thought process. I get where you’re coming from. I’m in about an urban a situation as one can get.

        With semi autos, I use those zoom caps given the nature of how autoloaders are set up. There is no practical way to make sure every case is a dummy without looking.

        But @ 90% of my dry fire is with a K-frame .357, and it’s the double action trigger discipline that it rules the roost here. What these dummies make me do, require me to do, is to check, double check, and check again.

        The live ammo is emptied adjacent to the safe ( there’s only the two of us, and all the handguns in the safe are loaded ) My dry fire area is in my basement cave. I load the dummies, and check every one to make sure I see blue RTV. Any time the gun is out of my hand for even a brief moment, the cylinder is popped out and I check for that blue RTV. Since I have been on too many ranges where the phuqueup phairy came to visit (God bless III-A body armor), this tends to reinforce the notion of avoiding complacency – at least for me it does.

  4. I’ve a set of .38 Special Snap Caps but you’ve convinced me to get some .45 acp so I can practice safely with the 1911.

  5. Good info on the safety stuff.

    TOM story: A guy I know (we won’t worry about who) had a practice of keeping his work gun loaded and hanging on the belt in the bedroom when off duty—no worries about unauthorized people messing with it at the time. So, he gets a new holster, and to break it in and adapt to the slightly different draw stroke, he wisely unloaded the weapon, left all the magazines in another room, and proceeded to do some draw-and-dry-fire work with it. His normal procedure was to finish the practice, reload the gun, hang it back up, and do something else for a while to break the dry-fire mindset. This time our hero, for whatever reason, got finished, reloaded the gun, but left the belt on. Absent mindedly, as he was walking through the living room, he picked an ornament hanging on the patio door as a target, drew, and [didn’t] take a ‘dry’ shot. I–er, he–got a new patio door out of the deal. And hit the ornament dead center.
    How many mistakes here? Ace

    1. Ace, thanks for sharing the story about your, um, friend. Glad nobody got hurt and I appreciate you giving us the chance to learn from the example. Hopefully the ornament wasn’t a favorite of the Mrs, or you . . . um, your friend would have been in double trouble!

      I recall a night about a decade ago when a good friend called with a panicked question about the effective range of a .40 caliber slug after it went through a toilet paper holder, some sheetrock, and some stucco. I’m not the sharpest knife in the drawer, but I could tell it wasn’t just a random thought experiment . . .

      RULE 1!

    2. Ace,
      I will echo Mike – I really do appreciate you sharing that with us. There are definitely some lessons-learned in there, and there are probably way more of these stories out there than we’ll ever hear. Thanks for the lesson,
      Justin

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