By Bob Campbell
Today many of us are caught in the middle of a cartridge shortage. Ammunition companies are running three shifts to keep up but the shortage is real and shows little signs of abating. There are many reasons. Not long ago one of my training classes fired 2,500 rounds in a single day. Other trainers are even busier. The police and military are training more than ever. IPSC, IDPA and Cowboy Action shooters fire more rounds than ever. There are more concealed carry permit holders and we have convinced these shooters that they need to practice to achieve proficiency. Good quality ammunition is difficult to come by. Panic buying and fear of repressive legislation is playing a part in the drama. Much of this means that those of us that use several thousand rounds of ammunition a year to keep the edge are considering severely curtailing our practice schedule.
Unfortunately my gun testing regimen has taken a hit and I am no longer able to spend several hundred rounds in testing new models—the loads are simply not available. A couple of resources have been invaluable in keeping the programs going. Black Hills Ammunition offers quality remanufactured ammunition. There is no brass turn in, Black Hills purchases fired brass and reloads the ammunition on the same machinery used for making new ammunition. The brass case is a renewable resource that may be reloaded many times. This ammunition is first class and offers comparable performance to factory new products from the same maker. I have also used the newly introduced steel case ammunition from Black Hills. These loads in particular have been welcome. They are inexpensive and give good performance.
Using .22 rimfire handguns for practice is another option. However, .22 caliber ammunition isn’t always easy to come by. The price has doubled and in the case of ammunition scalpers, trebled in some shops. Still it is comparatively affordable and .22s remain a fine option for practice. At some point we must proof and practice our centerfire revolvers, however, and in this climate ammunition resupply remains very much catch as catch can. With this in mind I have developed a program to allow shooters to stay in shape with the handgun and to maintain a basic level of practice. I have used dry fire techniques for many years to keep the edge. When done properly, dry fire allows a shooter to maintain the skills needed to quickly acquire the sights and to develop a good understanding of the sight picture and sight alignment and also trigger press. Even when ammunition was plentiful I often used dry fire to keep the edge.
Dry fire has the benefit of keeping the edge in handling the firearm without traveling to the range and without using expensive ammunition. Dry fire will not damage a modern quality firearm. Dry fire should not be practiced with a .22 revolver as the firing pin will contact the cylinder and eventually the firing pin or the cylinder will become worn. As for centerfire handguns the firing pin hits only air if there is no round in the chamber. If you wish, Lyman snap caps are inexpensive and offer an option. Using these dummy rounds allows the shooter to cushion the blow of the firing pin. The same may be done with empty cases in the .22 cylinder but care must be taken to double- and triple-check there are no live rounds under the hammer, and, indeed, no live ammunition anywhere near where you intend to dry fire.
As an exception to the rule, the modern self-loading .22 calibers from Ruger such as the Ruger .22/45 and Standard Model are just fine for dry fire practice. Dry fire practice offers many advantages. Among these advantages is enhancing familiarity with the handgun. If students have a single failing when coming to my training classes it is familiarity with the handgun. Learn to manipulate the controls including the magazine catch, safety and slide lock during dry fire practice. You may even practice malfunction clearance and the TAP-RACK-BANG clearance drill.
Be certain when dry firing that you maintain the proper grip and hold. Just because you are not actually firing do not let the grip become weak or you will do so in live fire as well. You will fight as you have trained. With a triple-checked unloaded firearm you may practice quickly presenting the firearm from the holster and to the target. Learning rapid sight acquisition is largely a matter of doing and you will be able to do so in dry fire practice before progressing to drawing and firing a loaded firearm on the range. You may practice the presentation, quickly acquiring the target, and the trigger press. After a few weeks of dry fire practice you will find your speed to the target and speed to a rapid first shot hit will have improved greatly. You will be more confident in your skills and you will be far less likely to make a mistake in manipulating the firearm. This is called muscle memory or unconscious competence and dry fire practice is the greatest skill builder you will have.
When you dry fire safety must be foremost. Be certain there is no live ammunition nearby. Triple check the firearm, checking the cylinder and all of the chambers of a revolver and checking the chamber and magazine well of the automatic.
My target is always set upon a thick wall or a bookshelf, something that will beyond any question stop a bullet if I make that terrible mistake. I have not made that mistake but some have. As long as the backstop is present and you have followed other safety rules all that will happen is that your ears will be ringing and you will have perforated a few books on the bookshelf or pocked a crater in the cement wall. Remember, there are three safety rules you must follow and a fourth that is a very good one and which is becoming standard operating procedure nationwide. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are going to fire. Not when you think you will fire but when you are actually going to fire. The next rule is to never point the firearms at anything you would not wish to see destroyed. This is also called muzzle discipline. The next rule is that all guns are always loaded no matter how often you have checked them. So, we are bending the rule in dry fire—but we have a backstop and the only proper way to dry fire is to triple check the firearm and also be certain of the location of anyone in the home and never dry fire toward their position, which brings us to the next rule. The final rule applies particularly to dry fire but also to live fire on the range. Be certain of the back stop. Be certain that whatever you are aiming at in dry fire is capable of stopping the bullet. If you are actually firing, be certain of the backstop. Be certain there is no possibility of ricochet.
When practicing dry fire you may simply aim at a target and practice the correct sight picture and sight alignment along with trigger press until you are pressing the trigger and the hammer falls—or the striker breaks—without undue motion in the sights. Keep the cadence of fire at about what you are capable of in live fire, firing, acquiring the sights and allowing the trigger to reset. If you practice more than an hour at a time you will become tired and the time spent in dry fire drills will be counterproductive. Most of us may easily tolerate a fifteen minute practice every day but thirty minutes every two days is probably best. You will be surprised at how quickly your manipulation skills grow. Even when you have the time and ammunition to travel to the range, these dry fire practice sessions are a great help in building skill.
After practicing the basics you should move to practicing with concealed carry skills. Practice with the gear you will carry on your daily routine. You just may find that the gear you are deploying isn’t as fast and secure as you thought it was. On the other hand, if you have purchased quality gear such as the Swaprig tuckable or one of the Hopps custom holsters, then you will become brilliantly fast. Practice sweeping the covering garment away and drawing from concealed carry in one smooth movement. The hand sweeps to the gun, scoops the pistol out of the holster and you move to the target acquisition in one smooth movement.
Practice loading and unloading the firearm with snap caps or safety cartridges. If you are one that has believed in keeping a self-loader chamber empty or keeping the magazine out of the pistol at home—then you may be deluding yourself.
Trying a few speed runs with the chamber empty will emphasize the manipulative skills that you need to master this mode of readiness. You may decide that increased vigilance and chamber loaded carry is a better choice, or you may discover that perhaps the revolver would be a better choice for you. Practice carrying the gun in the normal concealed carry manner and perhaps practice drawing the triple-checked, unloaded firearm from inside a vehicle as if you were dealing with a carjacking attempt.
A personal shortcoming has been using the handgun with the weak hand. It is mostly a matter of muscle memory but an old injury also intrudes at times. When you have practiced the repetitions in dry fire with the weak hand then perhaps you will find it much easier to manipulate the firearm with the weak hand and also to use it effectively. It will seem strange at first using the handgun with the wrong hand but after time and effort spent in dry fire practice you will find that you are far more capable than simply attempting a live fire exercise without any dry fire effort.
When utilizing time in dry fire practice too many students simply manipulate the trigger while keeping the sights steady. This is important, but other skills are also potentially lifesaving in scope. A shortcoming of many of my students attending concealed carry classes is that they are not completely familiar with the gun’s controls. They should have a good grasp of how to quickly load and unload the handgun and how to manipulate the safety and slide lock. Dry fire practice will give you this edge.
Practice racking the slide, using the slide lock, and dropping a spent magazine and reloading with a magazine loaded with dummy cartridges. Dry fire isn’t just dry firing, it is dry practice and learning to manipulate the handgun without hesitation and without fumbling is important.
If you use a magazine carrier, practice drawing from the carrier. Practice using a speed loader if you are a revolver shooter. It is always a good idea to practice the presentation from concealed carry and drawing into the firing stance and acquiring the target with the rig you will carry. Don’t do anything other than initial practice with an inexpensive fabric rig. These holsters are fine for beginning practice but move to a superior concealment holster and practice from it as you build skills.
When all is said and done dry fire practice is also recommended when you are striving to become a good defensive handgunner. In today’s economy and times of shortage you are also looking to be ever more careful with training ammunition and to invest your time in dry fire exercises.