Saving Money and Ammunition in Small Arms Training, by Jeff T.

Several factors have resulted higher prices and in shortages of ammunition. These include higher commodity prices, recent political developments with many people buying to prepare for uncertain availability as well as demand from the military for the ongoing war on terrorists. This storm of demand has resulted in very real shortages of many common calibers. Although the situation is easing in some ways it doesn’t require an above average IQ to realize this condition could reverse and quickly get much worse.

Developing skill in marksmanship and gun handling is not difficult but does require some training and regular practice. These skills are perishable if not carefully maintained. The following are some ideas that will help you save money and precious ammunition while still allowing you to train and practice these vital skills.

One practical idea is to invest in .22 Long Rifle (LR) caliber conversion kits that are available for many types of handguns and some rifles. As I write this .22 LR sells for about 3 cents per round versus 30 cents per round for many common centerfire calibers. Kits are made for Glock, H&K, SIGArms and Model 1911 pattern pistols. These kits typically allow you to use .22 LR rimfire ammunition instead of more expensive centerfire ammunition. They can cost from $150 and up. Manufacturers include: Advantage Arms, CMMG, Spike’s Tactical, Tactical Innovations Inc., and Ciener. For semi-automatic handguns these kits include a new barrel, slide and magazine. For the AR-15 style rifle they include a different bolt carrier group and magazine. You can also get a dedicated .22 LR upper receiver. Conversion to a new caliber is as simple as field stripping the gun and installing the new components.

There are advantages aside from the cost savings of ammunition. The gun typically uses the same manual of arms and the controls operate in the same manner. Consult your owner’s manual for specifics on each conversion. You are also able to shoot at facilities that might be closed if you were shooting the centerfire version. They also help the newest shooters transition from a mild shooting .22 LR caliber to something more potent.

In order to function reliably the kits need to be well and properly lubricated and use the correct ammunition. Some of the units have a specific brand or type of ammunition they prefer. I suggest you by small quantities and test them until you find a match. You should also acquire enough spare magazines especially those that hold more than ten rounds. Black Dog makes a reliable inexpensive high capacity magazine for the Atchisson and Ciener AR-15 conversions.

Another option to consider is using .38 Special ammunition in a .357 Magnum handgun or .44 Special ammunition in a 44 Magnum. While it doesn’t have nearly the savings that a .22 conversion has it does offer some savings. Be sure you clean your cylinder or chamber carefully. You could have trouble someday chambering the longer round if you don’t.

Another technique is to substitute dry firing for live firing for much of your practice. Dry firing is the act of utilizing your firearm for practice without any live ammunition. You begin with a firearm that you personally have carefully verified is completely unloaded. Next set up a target with a solid backstop in a convenient location. I have one I made from and old bullet resistant vest sandwiched between two pieces of thick plywood. Using this target I practice my grip, draw stroke, sight alignment, sight picture, movement off the line of attack and my trigger release. I can also use dummy ammunition to practice loading, unloading and malfunction drills.

Dry firing is a safe and effective way of maintaining your skills when you can’t afford or don’t have the ammunition available to practice with. The vast majority of competitive shooters in a wide variety of disciplines dry fire to hone their skills. Some years ago the South African Army was faced with an international arms embargo including ammunition. In response to the embargo they trained some new recruits using only dry firing. [When they eventually qualified with live ammunition,] these soldiers did as well or better than other troops did using traditional methods.

Dry firing allows you to practice when bad weather, lack of suitable shooting facilities or limited time would otherwise prevent you from practicing.

Safety is critical with dry firing. Never restart your practice routine after you stopped practicing without carefully ensuring you still have an unloaded gun. Never bring live ammunition into the same room where you do dry firing. Never allow an interruption to your practice routine without completely revisiting the condition of your firearm.

Please note: most .22 LR or other rimfire caliber firearms should not be dry fired. That is because by design the firing pin strikes the hard surface of the chamber. That can cause the firing pin to break.

Another key idea that can save you money and ammunition is to have a specific plan for your practice. I am amazed at what passes for “practice” with some people. If you don’t have a specific goal in mind as you fire each shot you are “plinking” you are not practicing anything. I love plinking but it won’t improve my skills.

You should plan each session carefully. For a handgun you should execute a series of basic drills. Shooting one, two or three shots (mix it up) at relatively close range under some time pressure. The basics include the presentation or draw stroke, sight alignment, sight picture and a compressed surprised break of the trigger. You should keep a training diary and take notes on your performance. If you have the basic skills mastered you can add additional elements such as movement, malfunction drills, retention position shooting and using your non-dominant hand. Firing 30-50 shots within a careful plan is far better than shooting 100+ shots without any particular plan. Here is a short handgun example:

  1. At 3 yards, draw and fire two shots center mass, time shooter
  2. At 5 yards, draw and fire two shots and each of two targets, time shooter
  3. At 5 yards, draw and fire Mozambique (two to the body – one to the head) at each of two targets, time shooter
  4. At 7 yards, draw and fire two shoots at each of two targets, time shooter
  5. At 10 yards, draw, move to kneeling cover and fire two shots, repeat

Each session should also include a scenario or story based problem you must solve. An example might be the following. You are sleeping in bed when you hear the noise of breaking glass. You begin the scenario from the prone position. Your sidearm is unloaded and placed two steps away. You must “get out of bed” and find your flashlight. Next find and load your pistol. Finally, find the target and engage with two shots. If that sounds too easy use your imagination and make it harder.

Rifle practice should always include some time using realistic field positions such as prone, sitting or braced. You won’t find any nice stable shooting benches out in the wild. Don’t become overly reliant on a bench for support during your practice. However you might be able to find and use a shooting stick in the field.

Reloading is another way to save money and provide additional practice ammunition. You may be able to save 30 – 40% by doing the job yourself. Reloading is a specific skill and requires some knowledge, preparation, special tools and most importantly attention to detail. The process reuses fired cartridge cases or “brass”. The brass is returned to its original size (length and shape) by means of a die and press. A new primer, powder and bullet are added in successive steps. The NRA offers a specific class in reloading which I recommend. There are also various manuals and videos available from the bullet and powder manufacturers. Make sure you do your homework before you start reloading. Primers are the weakest link in the reloading supply chain. Stock up on the most common types. There are many quality suppliers of all types of reloading supplies and tools on the Internet.

Field expedient training aids can also save you money and make your ammunition budget go further. Paper grocery bags can be carefully dissected to make silhouette targets. Bingo daubers can be used to mark shots on target. Another trick is to cut a small random sized hole in your target. The object is to shoot thru the hole and not touch the surrounding paper. It is a serious test of your trigger control and saves on targets.

Another area to conserve ammunition is when zeroing a weapon. You should always try and bore sight the gun before you fire a shot. With an bolt-action rifle (or any AR-15/Stoner family rifle) you can remove the bolt (or bolt carrier assembly) and sandbag the gun to your bench or lock it in a vise. Next look down the bore and adjust your sights and or scope to the point of impact you see from the barrel. You can also use a bore sighting fixture or laser designator. Always make sure your scope is accepting adjustments. Once you start shooting you may need to ask for help from a excellent shooter to speed the process. In the long run that may save you money and ammunition. Scope adjustments should be made in one dimension at a time. Most quality scopes today adjust in ¼ minute clicks. Each “click” moves the impact ¼ inch at 100 yards. So if you are off by 3 inches you should move the sight 12 clicks. Do not try to “creep up” on the desired point of impact while shooting between each adjustment.

Paintball, Airsoft and Simunitions offer opportunities to engage real live moving and reactive targets without using any real ammunition. I strongly recommend people get some experience with these tools. You can find paintball fields in most areas of the country. At these locations you can rent the guns and buy the paintballs and participate in some outstanding force on force activity. Airsoft guns and pellets can be found at many retail outlets. These guns can be fragile. You typically get what you pay for. With the proper safety precautions you can conduct your own practice just about anywhere including your living room! Simunitions are a proprietary marking cartridge technology. They use a conversion kit and special ammunition. Access to this technology has been limited to Law Enforcement and the ammunition is expensive but if you ever get a chance to work with it don’t hesitate. It is very realistic training.

One more safety rant: Be very cautious picking up any dropped ammunition while practicing especially when there are other shooters present. I have seen too many cases of people putting the wrong caliber ammunition into a gun with spectacular results. It is false economy.