So far this year I’ve probably shot somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 rounds or so. About 100 of them were tied up in load development. A good number of the rest were spent working on improving precision (diagnosing a lack of precision) in bipod prone. In comparison to how much I shot last year during the same time period, 500 rounds is a lot, perhaps not as much as I would like or how much it would take to improve at the rate I would like.
If there is one thing that I think has been missing during that time, it would be a more substantive dry fire routine. So far the only thing I have done this year in live fire that I could not have accomplished with dry fire was testing loads, experiments to improve precision, and working on recoil control. Come to think of it, those were the primary things I’ve been working on. Aside from that, the rest of my skill set has been left alone for the most part.
As I have gained experience as a shooter I have become more convinced than ever of the necessity of a strong dry fire regimen. Live fire, and the recoil that accompanies it, can be corrosive to the fine skills necessary to shoot a rifle well. Even while I have not had what I would consider a strong dry fire routine lately, I have started working ball and dummy into my regular range routine, which means that anywhere from 50% to 80% of my shots at the range are clicks rather than booms. I believe that the ratio of dry fire to live fire should be way more than that.
Dry fire trains not only the foundational elements of shooting- position, natural point of aim, sight alignment, sight picture, trigger control, breathing, follow through, etc., but it also trains the mind and body that pressing the trigger doesn’t have to be loud, concussive, or even painful. Pressing the trigger can be relearned to be an innocuous event.
For a shooter, having a flinch is par for the course. Even if there’s no obvious flinch, there are things we do, such as tensing of the shoulder that interfere with optimum operation of the rifle. There are things we can do to mitigate the flinch, but it’s always something to watch for.
Dry fire does not carry any negative messages to the subconscious- no blast and no recoil (and no money being sent out the muzzle). There’s only information there. What you see during dry fire can teach you a lot. It trains you to call your shot. It will tell you what is happening when you press the trigger, whether you trigger press upsets the rifle’s alignment, or if your position suddenly relaxes and shifts the rifle at the moment the trigger breaks. You can see exactly what the accuracy of your hold is in any position.
Dry fire has been my main tool to work on shooting with improvised support. I look at furniture as training props. Couches, tables, chairs, coffee tables, shelves, corners of walls all make convenient things to use as support in the absence of rocks, trees, fences, cars, and all the things we might make use of in the field. Initially it can be a slow process to figure out how to conform the body, and a shooting position, that will allow for the most accurate use of the support surface. After a bit of practice, and trial and error, things start falling into place much more quickly.
Something that makes dry fire fun for me is that it doesn’t matter how accurate your rifle is. I consider my rifle, scope, ammo, accessories, and myself to be components of a total system. The one component of the system that I know I can improve the quality of, for free, for sure, is me. That means that the system is being upgraded over time regardless of how much money I can, or more likely in my case, cannot, afford to put into it. This also means that when (not if) I can afford to significantly upgrade the hardware end of it I won’t be as much of a weak link.
In my experience benefits of dry fire are somewhat nullified by going to the range and loading up. I may not be the brightest bulb in the knife drawer, but I know that loading the rifle will change the experience of pressing the trigger just a smidge. There’s a way to bring the benefits of dry fire into live fire. It’s something I like to call ball and dummy. If you’re wondering how you might be able to fool yourself at the range, click on the “dummy” link above.
The uncertainty of whether there actually is a live round in the chamber, and the relatively low probability, 20%-50%, that the gun will go bang, imports the feeling from dry fire into live fire. Conceptually, ball and dummy seems like a chore, or something that should be reserved for those rare times when you wonder if you are wimpy enough to be flinching (whisper: “The answer is yes.”). In reality though, it’s not really a chore at all, unless you’re on such a compressed timetable to get a predetermined number of rounds downrange in a limited amount of time, e.g., load testing.
Ball and dummy has several side benefits. Not only do you still get to manipulate a round through the action, but you also get to practice a failure to fire clearance. Since the density of rounds actually shot in your practice time is reduced, the value of each round fired is increased. Not only are you training yourself in terms of probability to train down the flinch, but also in terms of how much it actually hurts. Consider that 20 rounds from a .308 in a day shouldn’t hurt, but that 60-80 just might.
I have found that because I have made ball and dummy a range staple, I need to keep a fresh batch of dummies in the bag. After getting repeatedly worked through the action and landing on the ground, the dummies turn into something that you don’t want to put back into the rifle. Also, if you are stinky, and thereby are forced to go to the range yourself and load your own dummies without looking, a dinged up dummy round will be easily discernible from your live ammo. If you cull brass, you might set aside some purposefully to make dummy rounds with.
In addition to ball and dummy, I find it helpful to dry fire several times prior to, and in between strings of fire. It refreshes the mind and brings into play all of the things that you have been working on. It seems silly, or like a waste of time at first, but range time is best measured by quality and not quantity.
My evaluation of my shooting work so far this year is that the lack of sufficient dry fire has made the live fire that I have done far less meaningful than it could have been. I have been told, and I believe, that live fire should really only be a test of what is worked on in dry fire. Dry fire is like the roots of a tree or the foundation of a building. Because it is not as significant to the senses it may seem less important, but a tree without roots, or a building without some kind of foundation won’t stand. A shooting regimen without structure is just as meaningless. Marksmanship practice that only occurs on the range is, for those of us with families and jobs, is very unlikely to produce improvement. Furthermore, range practice without integration of dry fire can fail to bring to bear, to a degree, the benefits that are gained from dry fire.