Treatise on Dryfire Alternatives

By Kjell Rosenberg MD, Rangemaster, USCCA, NRA instructor.

The dedicated student of firearms has always recognized the value of dryfire. The utilization of ammunition-free training provides us with something very few can manage otherwise: recency of training. One of the things we’ve learned in the golden age of training is that recency trumps volume in terms of skill retention. I would much rather see someone shoot 50 rounds once a month and dry practice for 10 minutes a day than see them shoot 2000 rounds divided up into 2 or 3 weekends a year with no dryfire in between.
As the ammo shortage continues, more and more shooters are looking into dry fire or ammunition alternatives to train with. Which is a good thing and I hope to see it continue once ammunition is widely available again. One of the problems and possibly the reason most people don’t dry fire is that it’s just not super fun. It feels more like work than range time. So, we see people looking into ammunition alternatives rather than true dry practice. The two most common dry fire alternatives that I see people talking about are Lasers and .22LR conversion kits or .22LR firearms.
All of these training methods have use and value, but just as any other tool they excel at certain jobs and not at others. As with any methodology it is important to design practice around what one hopes to achieve when the situation is real. Whenever you train or buy gear you should be asking: which valuable skill set am I hoping to improve and what are the downsides of this technique or item.

Let’s first talk about dry fire and its pros and cons.

1. Pros of Dryfire
a. No ammunition is required.
b. It can be done at home.
c. It can highlight trigger errors and help to remove flinch.
d. Most handgun mechanics do not require live ammunition; magazine changes, draw stroke, trigger press and more can be practiced free of cost utilizing safe dryfire techniques.
e. There is usually no one to show off for so we can practice good technique and efficiency rather than doing mag dumps at close range (you know its true)

2. Cons of Dryfire
a. It does not allow practice of recoil management.
b. There is no confirmation of shot placement. We assume we hit the target if our front sight doesn’t move with a good trigger press. But assumptions can be wrong.
c. Target transitions are affected by recoil which is not part of dryfire.
d. If you are not deliberate about maintaining grip and body mechanics in recoilless practice, there is a temptation to relax those components which can have a negative impact when shooting live ammo.

Using Dry practice as the gold standard for training with ammunition other than your “baseline” caliber we will look at Lasers and .22LR as replacements for training.

As an instructor, I have found the use of SIRT pistols to be invaluable. It allows me to demonstrate things which would not be safe to do with a real gun. It allows students to see how my trigger cycle works as it alternates between trigger prepping and trigger pressing. It allows training of certain techniques where, as an instructor, I can watch when the student preps or presses the trigger. I have found it especially useful in decision making drills and practicing in a 360-degree training environment.

Having said that, I rarely use the laser gun to simply practice with. Lets make our pros and cons list for it.

1. Pros of SIRT pistols and Laser ammo
a. It provides a sight picture/trigger cycle confirmation with a POI (point of impact) that dryfire does not provide.
b. It’s fun. No doubt. Its fun to get feedback and there are a lot of fun training programs that can be used in combination with lasers. There’s nothing wrong with good safe fun in training. Things that are fun are approached with more interest and more frequently. If you need the extra motivation to train then a laser might be good for you.
c. To demonstrate techniques and tactics to others who benefit from seeing when I prep or press my trigger and other techniques which can be safely demonstrated with a laser but not live ammo.
d. To evaluate decision making processes of those you are instructing.

2. Cons of Lasers.
a. Cost. It may be cheaper than ammo to buy the necessary equipment, but its more expensive than dry practice with a gun you already have.
b. The trigger is different from your carry gun. Trigger control on a laser may not result in trigger control for your firearm.
c. There is no recoil so all the same issues associated with no recoil in dryfire also apply to Lasers.
d. No recoil mean no trigger reset. So you have to reset the single action or striker fired trigger manually just as you do in dryfire if you are using laser ammo instead of a SIRT.
e. There is a temptation to walk the laser onto the target rather than using the sights. This develops bad habits which can negatively affect live fire shooting.
f. People who train almost exclusively with laser guns have a tendency to become lax in their safety habits. We have seen this phenomenon regularly in videos shared from programs that use lasers and dummy guns exclusively in training. The subconscious knowledge that you can’t actually put a bullet in someone seems to be correlated with a laxity in safety habits unless the practitioner also trains regularly with live ammo or is consciously practicing good safety habits.
g. All of these things added together with people who do not also train with live guns add up to an inappropriately high confidence in the person’s skill set and increased risk of accidents.

My opinion after observing and using Lasers in training is that they have a very useful but narrow range of utility compared to dryfire. For everyday practice, I think that a safe dryfire activity achieves the same goals, may decrease risk, and costs less than laser guns. For certain activities, a laser absolutely enhances the learning experience but these activities typically involve a student and instructor, not simply dry practice in the basement.

Ok, so now lets discuss using .22LR as a cheaper alternative to 9mm or 5.56 or whatever other more powerful/more expensive caliber you are replacing with it. Please understand if your “normal” caliber is .22LR, meaning that if you are not using it as an alternate, this article is not meant for you. If you are a beginner and need to use .22LR to walk before you run, this article is not meant for you.

1. Pros of using .22LR as a cheaper alternative
a. It is cheaper than your standard caliber, like dryfire.
b. Like dryfire, the decreased recoil can help train out a flinch.
c. It provides a sight picture and trigger cycle confirmation which dryfire does not.
d. Its more fun than dryfire.
e. Having a POI allows the instructor or shooter to make corrections to the trigger cycle or grip based on this feedback.
f. It has more recoil than a laser. While the recoil is less than say a 9mm, it still reminds the shooter that muzzle flip, grip and body mechanics are a thing.

2. Cons of .22LR
a. .22LR is more expensive than dry practice.
b. The recoil is not significant so practice with the “normal” caliber is also required to prefect grip and recoil management. It is easy to get a little lazy since it is easier to control.
c. It requires the purchase of additional equipment in terms of conversion kits or alternative firearms.

Overall, I don’t recommend the use of .22LR as a training alternative for dry practice unless it is in the context of a course or qualification that requires you to put holes in paper. There really isn’t much you can accomplish by dropping down to .22LR that you cannot equally accomplish with dry practice. However, it is fun and as we discussed above: there is nothing wrong having a fun time with your training if it’s done safely. But I would not feel obligated to spend the extra money to practice with .22LR instead of dry practice and the intermittent use of your primary caliber to remind you that recoil is a thing and must be managed.

To end this article, lets review the purpose of training with our primary calibers. We train with live ammo for only two reasons. First, to verify what we think dry practice has taught us. This is done alone or at a class. If our live fire doesn’t live up to the accuracy expectations set by dry fire, then we can recognize our errors and correct them on the range. We then reinforce the learning with, wait for it, more dry practice.
The second reason we train with live ammo is to understand and master recoil. Its very difficult appreciate how recoil will affect your grip and vice-versa without experiencing it. Recoil management is a vital component of follow through and follow through is vital to speed. You may think you can shoot super-duper fast but until you have proven that you can do it with live ammo and recoil, you don’t know if you can actually do it. The same goes for accuracy.

In conclusion, if you already have a carry gun, it is most likely not cost effective for you to get an ammunition alternative to use in place of dry fire. But if you want to have a little fun and don’t allow yourself to get lazy on grip and lifestyle safety, then Lasers and .22LR are an acceptable alternative and may provide additional benefits in very specific circumstances. Whichever you choose, do it frequently for best results.

Copyright February 5, 2021 by Kjell Rosenberg

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