Why dry fire? Why not just live fire to train instead? When should you live fire instead of dry fire? I get asked this questions by people interesting in shooting all the time, it doesn’t matter if you shoot USPSA, IDPA, if you are a LEO, or a person carrying a concealed firearm and you want to be proficient with your weapon.
Dry fire is where 99% of your improvements and skill building will come from, live fire just confirms it. I can’t afford to only live fire, and I don’t think my wrists, elbows, shoulders and hands would be able to handle the amount of live fire necessary to become nationally competitive. I have been dry firing for about 10 years now, but only recently since coming back to the sport did I make a change on how I dry fired. I was very accuracy focused coming from my LEO career, but my speed is lacking. For years I only focused on the trigger press, and it has gotten me to A class, but to continue on I need to work on manipulations, transitions and movement. If you don’t have them both Ben Stoeger’s Dry-Fire Training: For the Practical Pistol Shooter, and Steve Anderson’s Refinement and Repetition, Dry-fire Drills for Dramatic Improvement should be required reading.
The most important part about being able to shoot a firearm quickly and accurately is to be able to see an acceptable or perfect sight picture and break the shot without disturbing the sights.
When I say a perfect sight picture I mean that the front sight is perfectly aligned in the rear sight notch and the top of the front sight is lined up level with the top of the rear sight. “Equal height, equal light”. This is mostly needed for low probability targets such as partials, small steel, and far targets. This also depends on your skill level on pressing the trigger, the worse you are at pressing the trigger the more you need a perfect sight picture as you still won’t hit exactly where you are aiming.
An acceptable sight picture is one that is not perfectly aligned but will still generate an acceptable hit. So the front sight may be out of alignment, but as long as you can press the trigger without disturbing the sight picture, the shot will go where it needs to. In the picture you can see the rear sight isn’t centered on the target but the front sight is. This will still generate an A-zone hit at closer ranges. For me I can have a sight picture like this out to about 10 yards and still hit A’s.
So how do you develop the trigger control to not disturb the sight alignment and picture? Simple answer is dry fire. One of the dry fire drills I continue to do and will continue until I can’t physically shoot anymore is the wall drill. Find a blank wall with no target, I like to be within several inches of the blank wall to ensure the only thing I can focus on is the sights. Press the trigger, did the sights move at all? If they did you need to keep practicing it. Practice being able to rapidly press the trigger to the rear and not effect the sights. When you can press the trigger to the rear each and every time with out moving the sights you are ahead of the curve. Then practice it strong hand only, weak hand only. I don’t reset the trigger, my finger moves forward and back quickly a controlled slap. If you are just going to the reset every time, you are probably going too slow.
Grip comes into play with this. There are many schools of thought on grip. For years it was taught 60 percent of your grip pressure comes from the support hand and 40 percent is your strong hand. But please tell me how you can calculate 60%? Another school of thought is to grip the gun as hard as you can with your support hand and grip a bit less with your strong hand. I tend to fall into the second school of thought. I need my strong hand to be relaxed enough that I can manipulate the trigger while isolating the movement to only my trigger finger. If I grip too tightly with the strong hand, I will not be able to move the finger fast and keep it from affecting the other fingers which can then move also and affect the sight picture and alignment. Also if I grip too strongly with the strong hand, I can get trigger freeze when trying to shoot fast as the finger will try to stay to the rear and pin the trigger back.
Grip strength is important and the stronger your hands and arms are, the less effort it takes to grip hard. Think of it this way, if you have a maximum grip strength of 50 pounds of crush, and you grip 40 pounds when you shoot you are exerting almost all of your strength. If you can crush 150 pounds, to apply 40 pounds of grip strength to the gun is nothing, but if you can apply 100 pounds of crush grip with the support hand you have a better, stronger grip than the person with less strength. And with a strong support hand grip, if you manipulate the trigger poorly it will hold the gun steadier and you will have less deviation from the perfect sight picture because the gun can’t move from it being locked into your grip.
Relaxation of the rest of your body is also important. If everything in your body is tensed up, then you will not be able to move and manipulate the gun at a high speed. Rolling the shoulders forward, or camming the support hand forward and tensing up the support hand wrist can help with the muzzle rise, but is mostly unnecessary. It can also cause issues with the joints and tendons in your wrists and arms over time. Just put the hands on the gun, and get good 360 degree coverage, grip hard and relax everything else.
To confirm that your grip is working you have to test it in live fire. Don’t try to control the recoil, let the recoil happen. Yes, there will be muzzle rise, but as long as the sights track consistently and you watch the sights the gun will tell you when to press the trigger as the sight picture will be acceptable for the shot you have to make. Watch the sights, if the gun tracks up and to the left each time you shoot, but then the sights fall back into alignment it is doing what it is supposed to. If the front sight dips down when the gun returns to battery, then try a lighter recoil spring, if the front sight is high try a heavier recoil spring. If the front sight is left or right of the notch play with how much grip you apply which each hand. Once you have figured it out, that is your grip and you perfect it in dry fire.
A great drill to check this is the Bill drill at multiple different distances as to be able to shoot it quickly and accurately is to see the sights track. If you are not making par times and it is not all A’s, why? Is your grip off? Did you press the trigger incorrectly? Did you not watch the sights and wait for an acceptable sight picture before breaking the shot?
The biggest area that live fire helps me is with is accepting recoil. I don’t believe in “recoil control”, I just let the gun recoil and the sights track and I shoot again when the sights tell me to. My body has a startle response and it is not a big fan of loud noises in front of my face or things flying towards my face. Think about it, when the gun goes off, it makes a loud bang and the slide moves to the rear at high speed. I have a phobia of things touching my eyes, I even have problems putting in eye drops. I love being able to see, so to protect my eyes when things come toward them they shut. So I shoot weekly to condition my eyes to stay open and watch the sights, which I can’t do in dry fire where it is easy to keep them open.
Some people have a pre-ignition push or flinch where they will push the gun to try to control the recoil before it happens. This is easy to see if you load random dummy rounds into the gun, the front sight will dive down or down and left when they press the trigger. If you don’t have dummy rounds, just load a magazine, chamber a round and remove the magazine. Fire the first round, and then dry fire the second shot. They will quickly see what they are doing if they are watching the sights as they should.
I have a flinch when I shoot strong and weak hand only, where I will push the gun low and left or right depending on which hand I am shooting with. I practice the trigger presses and transitions in dry fire and then live fire to condition myself to remove the flinch. I shoot groups at a fairly quick pace and try to speed it up while still shooting a tight group, I just have to condition myself to let the recoil happen. I am aware that it is happening and can call the bad shots. This is not to say, that I am completely missing the target when I do it, out to 15 yards they are still A-zone hits, but I can feel it and see it on the sights.
In live fire I do allow myself misses and D zone hits, but only if I am pushing myself past what I am comfortable with. I know that I can shoot a Blake Drill in 2.0 seconds and in dry fire do it even faster. I have to push myself in live fire by discovering what type of sight picture or sight focus I need to get A’s at a faster speed. Can I get away with just having a target focus and just see the slide of the gun blurry in my vision and still get the acceptable hits, or do I need to focus more on the sights? I know from doing this drill that at 5 yards, I can focus on the target and just index the gun. If I try the same at 7 or 10 yards more C zone hits will start happening, so I have to start focusing on the sights and learn how sloppy the alignment can be and still get acceptable hits.
In short, dry fire is the building blocks to becoming a better shooter, if you do it and do it right your performance will improve exponentially. Then the live fire just refines what you do in dry fire with the recoil added. Dry fire is the foundation of everything, build a strong foundation and you will succeed. Perfect your draw, trigger press, reloads, transitions and movement in dry fire and you will be 90% of the way there.
Rob Leatham once said about dry fire, “Champions come from the basement.”
*Hopefully all of this makes sense, I am not an author and I am better at speaking than writing. This all was done quickly, and off the cuff with no notes. I may revisit this in the future and clean some of it up, but I doubt it. -Jon