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Dry-firing is the practice of pulling the trigger of a cocked firearm with no ammunition in the chamber. The lack of a loaded round results in an audible click as the hammer falls.
Some shooters never dry-fire. Others do it extensively. It is contradictory and quite confusing, especially if you’re a newcomer.
Learn the truth about dry-firing, whether it can damage your gun, and whether there are any situations where it’s safe to do so.
Myths and Reality
Older generations of gun owners and shooters may remember their parents or their guardians telling them never to dry-fire any firearm, under the threat of causing permanent damage to their guns.
However, you may have also heard about dry-fire practice, which recommends you should extensively practice your aiming, gripping, and trigger fundamentals with an empty firearm if shooting live ammunition is not possible.
Naturally, practicing dry-firing drills conflicts with the notion to avoid all dry-firing, bringing up the question: “Is it bad to dry fire a gun?” The answer is that it depends on your gun.
Virtually every firearm available today is either centerfire or rimfire. Checking whether your gun fires a centerfire or a rimfire cartridge is the first step to determine whether dry-firing your firearm is safe.
Centerfire vs Rimfire Guns
If you have a relatively modern centerfire gun, dry-firing is usually safe.
You can recognize whether a particular cartridge is centerfire by checking the case head (the bottom side of a cartridge). If you can find a primer (a circular metallic element) at the center of the case head, that cartridge is centerfire.
Centerfire firearms are usually safe to dry-fire. If there is no ammunition in the chamber of a centerfire gun, the firing pin will not hit anything, harmlessly stopping at the end of its travel by the pin stop. However, there are certain exceptions to this rule.
Specific centerfire firearms may feature firing pins made of relatively brittle materials, such as wrought iron, MIM steel, and other fragile metals.
Do not dry-fire these guns. The firing pin may break or shatter upon impact with the pin stop, potentially damaging your firearm permanently. Notable examples include the CZ 52 or the Beretta Pico.
Some older firearms, such as the Colt Single Action Army or revolvers patterned after it, are not safe to dry-fire due to a lack of safety or design elements keeping the firing pin in place.
For example, the SAA’s firing pin is mounted on the hammer and held in place with a retaining pin. Dry-firing your SAA can damage or break this retaining pin.
Do not dry-fire a rimfire gun under any circumstances! Due to their design, all rimfire guns are unsafe to dry-fire.
You can recognize rimfire ammunition by checking for two elements: the presence of a rim at the bottom of the case and the absence of a circular primer.
Common rimfire ammunition includes .22 Long Rifle, .22 Magnum, and .17 HMR. Rimfire ammunition features a small quantity of primer compound inside of the case, located inside the rim.
When firing, the firing pin strikes the rim, causing the priming compound (and, in turn, the gunpowder) to ignite. This design requires the firing pin to be located at the edge of a chamber instead of the center.
If there is no case in the chamber, the firing pin will strike the edge of the breech face, potentially leaving marks or signs of damage. Repeated dry-firing may render the gun unsafe to fire.
Some rimfire guns, such as the Ruger 10/22, may feature a safety device such as a firing pin stop pin. Such devices prevent the firing pin from hitting the chamber when dry-firing.
The purpose of these devices is to minimize the risk of damaging your firearm for incidental instances of dry-firing (e.g., pulling the trigger after running out of ammunition). Even if your gun possesses such a device, you should still avoid regularly dry-firing them, as these parts can wear out, sustain damage, and eventually fail.
How to Prevent Issues
It can be tempting to conclude that it’s safe to dry-fire a centerfire gun (as long as it’s relatively modern) and not safe to dry-fire a rimfire gun, then leave it at that.
However, it is critical to remember that dry-firing is never a factor in firearm design. In other words, you are not supposed to turn dry-firing into a regular practice; it just so happens that some guns do not sustain damage from it, while others can.
A better question than “is it bad to dry fire a gun?” could be “are there safe alternatives to dry-firing?” Fortunately, such alternatives do exist. Instead of dry-firing, you can purchase snap caps. A snap cap is an inert replica of a live cartridge, possessing identical dimensions. You can load snap caps in your magazines, they will chamber and extract, but they do not contain any primers or gunpowder.
A typical snap cap for centerfire guns features a fake primer mounted on a spring, intended to cushion the firing pin’s impact. Rimfire snap caps are typically constructed entirely out of hard plastic or aluminum.
Snap caps are usually painted in bright colors, such as blue or orange, making them easy to distinguish from live ammunition.
Dry-fire practice with a snap cap chambered offers two advantages:
- Prevents gun damage: A snap cap allows the firing pin to strike something when practicing dry-fire, eliminating the risk of damaging the firing pin or any other part of your gun.
- Ensures personal safety: A snap cap can also function as a dummy round, allowing you to practice manipulating your weapon safely and without using live ammunition. It is an essential tool for newbies looking to learn gun safety rules in a practical setting.
Be Safe, Be Responsible
Dry-firing is usually safe with centerfire guns and not recommended with rimfire guns. But the real takeaway is that snap caps eliminate any doubt.
Snap caps are inexpensive, designed explicitly for this purpose, and give you safety and peace of mind. They allow you to perform dry-firing drills with rimfires and older or fragile centerfire guns. But they are also an excellent tool for teaching or practicing weapon manipulation safely.
It is better to invest in a set of snap caps for every caliber you own than to risk damaging your firearms, especially if you intend to do regular dry-firing drills for practice.