I am what you might call a “fan” of dry practice. I’ve written articles about it, extolled its virtues to my friends, and engaged in quite a lot of it. In 2019 I set out to do ten minutes of dry practice per day for the entire year. I did it, and I spent a little over 62 hours dry practicing, mostly with my EDC firearm.
Caveats Up Front
There are a couple of things you should keep in mind before dry practicing. I want to hit these first thing.
Dry Practice Safety is Imperative! Safety precautions in dry practice are at least as important as they are in live fire. Some of them are even more important (in my opinion) because you are intentionally “firing” your gun in areas not optimized for live fire. I wrote written a very comprehensive article on dry practice safety that I strongly recommend you go read. Still, I have to cover some of it here.
1. Bullet-safe backstop. This is absolutely, 100% non-negotiable: you have to have a backstop that will stop bullets. Even if you live in the middle of nowhere, a bullet could still find its way to an unintended target. Stacks of books (the face of the cover, not the spine), large potted plants (the soil in the pot), purpose-made buckets of sand, or body armor all count as bullet-safe backstops.
Never for one second forget the potential consequences of a negligent discharge. Find something that will contain a bullet and use it.
2. Develop a ritual. Anecdotally, a lot of dry-practice accidents happen when someone decides to get in “just one more” rep, forgetting that they have reloaded. Dry practice isn’t something I casually undertake, so I developed a ritual for minimizing the chance of this happening. I do it at roughly the same time each day:
- Unload in my bedroom.
- Go outside and clear my gun again.
- Perform dry practice.
- Come back and eat breakfast before reloading my handgun.
- When I reload I say, out loud to myself, “my gun is loaded.”
This may seem silly to the uninitiated, but it creates a mindset. When I am dry practicing, it keeps me focused. I’m not out there hanging out, checking my phone, listening to music, or thinking about what I’m going to do for lunch.
I’m out there working. I’m working on improving my skill.
The ritual helps me get into that mindset. More importantly, it helps me leave that mindset behind.
Because dry practice ONLY happens under a specific set of circumstances, it is unlikely that I’ll absentmindedly pull my gun and “dry” fire at my TV with a live round.
3. Clear out. If possible, have someone else clear you out. Clear your gun in a separate location. I clear out in the bedroom and dry practice outside. Double-check to make sure you gun, magazine pouches, and pockets are ammunition-free when you get to your dry practice location. If at all possible have someone else clear you out.
4. Use snap caps, not dummy rounds. Either will protect your gun. You can fire most modern handguns without damage, but if you’re doing enough dry practice that it makes a difference in your skill then it probably makes a difference to your firearm. They will also be necessary for practicing reloads and malfunctions.
I like A-Zoom Snap Caps because they come in red, orange, and blue and they last a long, long time. There is no way to mistake a live round for a snap cap. I don’t like dummy rounds for this reason. Though their weight is closer to that of real ammunition, they also look like real ammunition.
Every. Single. Rep. Counts. This is a big one, so I’ll say it again:
EVERY SINGLE REP COUNTS!
Each time you perform an action, your brain records that action. It time-stamps it in a phenomenon called recency-of-experience. The more recently it was performed, the closer that action is to the “top of the stack” of skills your brain retrieves from. If you put in a good rep, your brain has the good, high-fidelity rep to refer back to the next time you need that action. If that action is presenting your handgun, you’re in good shape.
If you put in a crappy rep, though, then you’ve just reinforced a bad skill by giving your brain a bad copy of that skill. A bad rep isn’t a just a bad rep. It works against you in two ways:
A bad rep is a good rep lost, and a reinforcement of bad technique. If you do fifty reps, half good, half bad, your brain is going to myelinate two pathways, and there’s going to be a 50/50 chance of getting the “good” skill when you really need it.
It’s imperative to make every single repetition a good one. This is why I limited my own dry practice to ten minutes a day- the amount of time I found that I could maintain intense focus and keep my mind from wandering.
This also means that training is necessary before you start dry practicing. If you have no training, you don’t know you’re doing. Potentially, all of your reps are bad. If you have training, you need someone to watch you do a few reps occasionally.
One thing I’ve noticed is “drift” in the way I’ve done certain things; that is over time a small technique morphs slightly into something else. Again, you need to know what you’re doing before you begin, and not matter how good you are you need someone checking up on you occasionally.
You don’t need a whole lot of “stuff” to start dry practicing. If you’re really in a hurry to begin you don’t really need anything but a bullet-safe backstop. There are a few things that will help make your session a bit more productive, though.
As I mentioned before, you’ll need at least 10 snap caps (with only five you’re going to spend a significant chunk of your ten minutes picking them up and reloading them).
You’ll also need a target.
Fortunately, 1/3-scale print-at-home IDPA targets are widely available. You don’t have to use IDPA targets, they’re just what I happen to like.
A bullet-safe backstop, snap caps, and targets are the only thing you really need. But there are some other things that are helpful. A shot timer is immensely helpful if you’re trying to improve times. You can set it to a par time and work your draw or reload or whatever. It’s not quite the same as timing live fire, but it’s worlds ahead of intuition about how fast your draw was.
There are also a number of cool “toys” that make dry practice more interesting. I have two of these at home that I am currently reviewing. One is the MantisX system, which tracks the motion of your firearm and provides actionable feedback.
The other is the Coolfire Trainer, a drop-in, CO2-powered barrel that cycles your slide, provides some recoil, and resets your trigger. This makes dry-practice massively more interesting and fun, but is also very expensive.
Tools like these are very cool but don’t fall into the trap of thinking you need them.
Why Dry Practice?
During my personal dry practice challenge, I actually received more flak than I ever expected. There was a lot of ribbing and the occasional question along the lines of, “what’s the point of all this dry practice?”
The most frustrating thing to me, though, were some of the comments like, “great group! That dry practice is paying off!” My ability to shoot a group with a pistol was already pretty decent, and I didn’t spend a lot of time dry practicing the shooting of groups. So what was the point of all that dry practice?
Myelin, Myelin, Myelin
Most importantly, dry practice is about reinforcing skills in your brain. The more often you perform a skill, the more important your brain perceives that skill to be. It makes the skill more easily accessible by adding myelin (a fatty substance that sheaths neurons) to the pathways that enable that skill.
Over time some of these highly trained skills can become so heavily myelinated that you literally cannot forget them. This point is called “mastery” and after having achieved it you will never degrade beyond a certain point. John Hearne once told me that this point is around 80% of your peak skill level.
Mastery only occurs over long periods of time, though. I don’t mean time spent practicing the skill, but the time spent practicing spaced over weeks, months, and years.
There are probably guys out there that go to a two-week, high round-count class every year but never really exhibit big leaps and bounds in performance. That’s because these short bursts of high-intensity training are just a cram session. To achieve mastery, you have to study every night, for a long, long time.
Even if there was no such thing as “mastery,” daily training has its own reward: recency-of-experience.
Recency-of-experience describes how recently you’ve performed a skill and is a very important factors in determining how readily your brain will retrieve that skill under stress.
Think about it like this: if you practiced drawing your pistol two dozen times this morning, and your buddy practiced drawing his sometime back in November. If this afternoon you both need that skill, for whom will this skill be most readily available?
Recency-of-experience is massively important in “stress-proofing” your abilities.
All skills degrade under extreme stress, but the more recent your experience is, the smaller the degradation. The same goes for mastery; the higher you are on the ladder toward mastery, the smaller the degree of degradation. These are massive benefits! But there’s more!
Finally, you’ve probably heard of Hick’s law. In layman’s terms it says that the more choices you have for performing a given action (releasing the slide with a sling-shot grasp, an overhand grasp, or hitting the slide release, for instance) the longer it will take you to make that decision under stress.
There is truth in Hick’s law. Fortunately, you can completely give yourself a pass from Hick’s law by achieving a high level of skill through daily, or near-daily, practice. Among the highly competent (and certainly those who have achieve mastery) Hick’s law is essentially null and void.
Dry Practice, not “Dry Fire”
Now, at some point, you’ve doubtlessly noticed that I call it “dry practice” rather than “dry fire.” I generally like to be as precise as possible in my terminology. In this case, I like the latitude that the looser “practice” affords.
This gets to one of the other big reasons to dry practice: the ability to practice skillsets that are inaccessible on most or all ranges.
Dry practice gives you all sorts of opportunities to engage in skills that you don’t get to work very often. I don’t have a range anywhere near me that lets me practice in reduced-, low-, or no-light conditions. My range won’t let me do one-hand only manipulations, like reloads, because of some of the weird ways you have to manipulate a loaded gun when practicing these skills. Neither does my indoor range (and probably yours) allow forward or rearward movement, turning drills, lateral movement, etc.
Some of your ranges probably won’t even let you draw from the holster. Even if they do, I can’t hit the range before I walk out the door every day…but I can dry practice.
Drawing from the holster is an absolutely critical skill for anyone interested in modern, concealed-carry self-defense.
If you can’t do this at the range, does that mean you just don’t do it? If you can do it at the range, does that mean you only do it for the hour or so a month you go to the range?
No, and welcome to the first major benefit of dry practice: you can work on these skills almost any time and anywhere that you have a bullet-safe backstop.
Finally, there’s the expense.
There is considerable cost involved with going to the range, even on a less frequent basis. There’s the cost of ammunition, range fees, targets, and more. Maybe you amortized those through an annual membership (or purchasing property), but those costs don’t completely go away.
Some of us (myself included) simply can’t go to the range every day, but want to maintain recency-of-experience, build myelin, and work skills we can’t work on the range. Fortunately, dry practice is here to let us do that. Let’s talk briefly about structuring a dry practice session.
Theory, Practice, and Putting it Together
I’ve mentioned John Hearne earlier in this article. John is a federal law enforcement officer, FLETC firearms instructor, Rangemaster instructor, and expert on human learning. I’ve been blessed to have some amazing conversions with John, and he literally helped shape my entire philosophy around dry practice.
One of the most important things John told me was how to prioritize skills. I prioritize dry practicing skills based on two criteria:
- How difficult/complex the skill is
- How likely that skill will be needed.
Let’s look at those two criteria.
Some skills are easy to quantify with a likelihood. If you use your firearm, there is a 100% you will have to get it out of the holster. After that, there is a lesser chance you will have to fire it.
Working our way down there is a smaller chance still that you will have to clear a malfunction, and an even smaller chance still that you will have to reload. Some of these likelihoods get infinitesimally small, like reloading, weak-handed, in the dark.
The skills that are the most likely should get most of your training time, but we also shouldn’t overlook extremely complex skills.
Clearing a double-feed malfunction is an extremely complex skill, with many discrete steps. It is also pretty unlikely. While I wouldn’t spend more than 5% or so of my time practicing it, it does need to be practiced. Even if you only lightly myelinate that pathway, you at least give your brain an “index card” to reference, should you need it.
I break my skills up into Primary skills and secondary skills. My primary skills are the draw and trigger manipulation. This sounds simple, but consider the sub-skills that go into the draw:
- Clearing concealment
- Acquiring a correct grasp
- Drawing and presenting the gun to the target
- Sight alignment/picture
- Post-engagement sequence and recovering my firearm safely to the holster, etc.
I also practice my draw from a variety of positions such as while walking, seated, prone, supine, in my car with my seatbelt on, etc. Drawing is a very complex skill, and very high-likelihood skill. My two primary skills get at least 50% of my training time.
Secondary skills include everything else such as reloading, SHO/WHO reloading, malfunctions, SHO/WHO malfunctions, handheld light use ICW a handgun, approaching/using barricades, etc.
All of these skills get some attention, but combined get less than 50% of my primary skills.
The Bottom Line
Dry practice is an extremely valuable training tool. Like Rodney Dangerfield, dry practice don’t get no respect, or at least not the respect it deserves. It’s almost always referred to as a “second-best” option.
Personally, I think dry practice is probably more valuable than live-fire. If I can put in a thousand reps of draw and trigger press before I got to the range, I’ll get more out of fifty rounds than most people will get out of 350.
If you read many of my dry practice reports from last year, you’ll run across references to “doing the work” or “working.” Dry practice isn’t fun. Sometimes its boring. Sometimes it flat-out sucks. But committing to dry practice is not meant to be fun; it’s meant to make you better.
Get in there, find your mental workspace, and get to work. I guarantee you won’t regret it.