Improving Your Shooting Skills Without Spending a Fortune on Ammo, by W. in Wisconsin

I am a retired IPSC, IDPA, Three Gun, Bowling pins, Trap, and Skeet competitive shooter. I have spent countless hours practicing in both dry fire and live fire sessions. I’ve competed at local, regional, and national levels. One of the most effective and the least costly methods I used for practice was dry firing [, also known as dry practice.] 

Dry firing is an excellent way to improve your marksmanship without expending expensive ammo. Don’t get me wrong there is nothing like live fire practice however dry fire drills can make live fire practice much more effective. The other benefit of dry fire is you don’t have to travel to the range to do it. You can do it at home. I used to dry fire in an unused office at work. My boss is open-minded!!

Dry firing in its simplest form is the repetitive activity of simulated firing of your gun by dropping the hammer on an empty chamber. At one time pulling the trigger on an empty chamber may have damaged a firearm. Not true with today firearms. I have dropped the hammer on the empty chamber of revolvers, auto pistols, shotguns, and rifles many thousands of times without problems. My IPSC guns have been dry fired too many times to count and still are 100 percent reliable. If you are worried about damage there are several types of dummy rounds (“Snap Caps”) on the market in many calibers that are designed to absorb the impact of the firing pin when the hammer is dropped. Snap caps also offer a good way to practice loading without handling live ammo.

Why dry fire? In my early days of competing in shooting sports I dry fired a half hour every night for more than a year. Dry fire practice did several things for my shooting ability.

  1. I became very familiar with the handling and feel of the firearms I was using to compete. In stressful situations familiarity helps prevent firearm operator error. Have you ever short stroked and jammed a pump shotgun? Can you clear a jamb under pressure without thinking?
  2. By switching the type of dry fire drills I was doing on a regular basis I built skill and familiarity in a variety of shooting situations. I’ll get into that more later on.
  3. I improved my ability to gain a proper sight picture quickly.
  4. My target to target transition improved greatly.
  5. My shooting confidence increased dramatically.
  6. I Built muscle memory, a key element to accurate and consistent shooting. Muscle memory also helps prevent operator error as mentioned in #1.
  7. My point shooting skills improved greatly. Point shooting is shooting by pointing the firearm in the direction of a target and not using the sights, typically a close quarters method. It takes some practice and muscle memory too point shoot effectively.

How to dry fire: Applies to Rifle, Pistol or shotgun shooting
First and foremost is safety. Is your gun unloaded? Check again! Remove all live ammunition from your dry fire practice room. Do not dry fire in a direction where people may be or where a bullet could go through creating a danger to someone. I always pointed toward the cement walls in my basement. When you are handling your firearm you should concentrate on a few of safety practices. 1. Keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot. This is a good practice anytime you handle a firearm. 2. Don’t ever point the gun in an unsafe direction. Yes, I know you made sure it isn’t loaded, without checking again are you so confident that your firearm isn’t loaded that you’d point it at yourself and pull the trigger? (Please don’t) Why chance it!  3. Be aware of where the muzzle of your firearm is pointed at all times. Everyone reacts to stress differently, good gun handling habits help ensure you won’t accidentally shoot someone.  

Dry Fire drills: What you do and for how long is up to you. I usually practiced for about a half hour at a time. This gave me enough time to warm up and get enough repetitions to make the practice drills worth while. Any duration of time is better than none. Keep a record of the types of drills you practice so you can repeat the drills again later. Doing a drill once and never again has no value. The following is a list of basic drills that can be used by anyone and are general gun handling skill builders.

Dry fire drills:

  1. Draw and fire from a holster. Use the holster you plan on carrying. Wear a jacket over the holster and practice how you will move your jacket to gain access to your holstered firearm. If your drawing hand is injured and you can’t use it now what do you do?
  2. Draw and fire off a table, out of a drawer or door of a cabinet.
  3. Start with an empty gun, load and fire ….. Use snap caps! You won’t believe how long this can take if you don’t practice it or are under stress. Use snap caps not live rounds to simulate loading your magazines.
  4. Draw from under a chair or car seat. Mix it up you will never know when or where you may need to access your firearm.
  5. Don’t limit any practice to just pistol, work with your rifle or shotgun.
  6. One handed and both hands. What happens if you have a broken right hand (or left) can you shoot with the other hand? Can you shoot one handed? Always try to use both hands as your main foundation for grip on the firearm and practice one handed and weak handed alternatives.
  7. Reloading – Tactical and dropped magazine. A tactical reload is when the expended magazine from your firearm is retained in your control during a reload. In IPSC we always dropped expended magazines on the ground. IPSC is a game and not the best practice for real life self defense. Practice retaining the expended magazine as part of your reloads. The one round left in a retained magazine could save your life later not to mention you don’t want to leave a magazine behind if you don’t have to. Also practice accessing magazines from where you store them on your body. Magazine pouches? Pockets? I put a snap cap in each magazine for practicing reloads. This helps protect the feed lips of the magazine and in single stack pistols is helps guide the magazine into the magazine well just as live ammo would.
  8. Practice clearing jambs. You can use a snap cap to simulate a jammed firearm or treat the gun as if jammed and clear it by working the action of the gun as you would expect to in the case of a real jamb.
  9. Use small targets as aiming points. In the Mel Gibson’s movie The Patriot the protagonist tells his sons to “Aim small, shoot small” when engaging a British patrol. What he meant was to pick a point of your target and aim at it, don’t aim at the whole target. The discipline of picking a point of aim a.k.a. “calling your shot” builds accuracy. If you practice this enough you will be able to aim at a target, shoot and without looking know where your bullets hit. It works!
  10. When using iron sights concentrate on seeing the front sight every time you pull the trigger. The biggest mistake many shooters make (besides jerking the trigger – more later) is pulling the trigger before they have a proper sight picture. If you see the front site when the gun goes off and have even close to proper sight alignment you will likely hit the target you are aiming at. I was working with one shooter who keep missing the target (in this case a deer) so after one of many missed shots I asked him what he saw just as he pulled the trigger, His response was blue sky! I told him then and kept reminding him all day to not pull the trigger unless he sees brown. He got the next deer he shot at. When asked he said he saw brown. If you don’t see the front site you will likely miss.

A note about Electronic Red Dot Sights: Red dots sights are a wonderful invention and can make shooting much easier. I strongly recommend learning to shoot properly and effectively with iron sites and not rely on red dots as your only sighting platform. Learning iron sights first will make you a better shooter and won’t leave you high and dry and guessing if your battery dies.   

  1. Trigger control. Of all shooting mechanics this is the hardest to learn and the most likely to make you miss what you are shooting at. Proper trigger pull is a combination of what part of your finger contacts the trigger and how you pull the trigger. I find that the centering the pad between the tip of my trigger finger and the first knuckle makes for the best finger position on the trigger. You want to be able to pull the trigger straight back toward the grip of the gun. Inserting your finger to far in the trigger guard causes the gun to move slightly because you are not pulling straight back on the trigger. A 1/16” shift in the gun can mean six inches or more on the target. When you pull the trigger you need to pull evenly from start to finish. The trigger should break unexpectedly, this is not the same as accidentally, squeeze, don’t jerk or yank the trigger. In other words pull slow and easy until the gun goes off. This takes some getting used to and will speed up with practice. If you practice this it is will become second nature and your shooting accuracy will improve greatly. One way to tell if your trigger pull is being done properly is to balance a coin on the barrel of the firearm you are using to dry fire and pull the trigger. The coin should stay put….yes even on a round barrel. You can practice this way if you like. If your gun is properly sited and your shots are consistently left, right, low or high of the point of aim there’s a good chance it is due to how you are pulling the trigger. If you are having this problem try different finger positions and or use the coin on the barrel to see if you are jerking the trigger. Stop and figure it out or you will install a bad habit and it will be hard to correct.
  2. Point shooting. One way to practice this is to look at the target, close your eyes then bring up your firearm and point it (eyes still closed) at the target. Open your eyes and look where your firearm is pointed. Is it on target? Developed muscle memory will put your point on target with out using the sights. Point shooting can be fast reaction shooting albeit not the most accurate.
  3. Shoot on the move. One thing that 10 years of IPSC taught me was how to shoot and walk (and sometime run) at the same time. Yes it can be done accurately however it takes a lot of practice. To do this you need to think of your upper body (roughly the waste or belt line and above) and below the waste as being on a swivel and independent of each other. Practice holding your sights on target while walking. Your lower body needs to work independent of your upper body to absorb the shock of foot falls and motion while keeping your upper body steady so as not to bounce your sights. It takes some practice and is easier than it sounds.

Bad practice makes for bad habits!
When you perform dry fire drills your focus should be on accuracy and consistency of movement for a given drill. In other words do the drill the say way every time. Do practice more than one type of drill on a regular basis. Doing the same drill every day, day after day will limit you and make other activities with a firearm feel awkward. Try to get comfortable doing many types of drills. Practice your drills in a way that best represents what conditions may occur in your situation. Having the ability to draw from a holster and hit a target in ¾ of a second probably doesn’t have a real life practical application unless of course you are planning a gun fight at the OK Corral. Pulling a gun from a drawer quickly and safely does.
Live Fire Practice:
Because ammo is very expensive I recommend having a plan worked out prior to going to the range to practice. More than any other type of practice it is easiest to practice bad habits while doing live fire drills. I pick two or three areas where I need practice and work on these exclusively. I also recommend setting a limit to how much ammo you will use during a given practice. I usually limited serious practice to 200 rounds. This may seem like a lot to some and not enough to others. I found that by the time I reached 200 rounds I was starting to tire out. Be aware of how your body is reacting. Fatigue may not be the same as feeling tired and might show up as diminished ability to accurately hit the target. When competing I was well conditioned for shooting and fired thousands of rounds annually and still would tire after a couple hundred rounds. Your fatigue point may be a lot fewer rounds or a lot more. Be aware of what your body is telling you. I guarantee that if you are tired you are wasting ammo and possibly practicing bad habits. Frequent trips to the range are better than long stays. Also take breaks between shooting drills, it will help you stay focused and get the most out of your ammo. Quality not quantity!  

A few things to try at the live fire range:
1. Shoot in low light conditions – do your sights work? What does the muzzle flash do to your vision? Low or no light adds a whole new dimension to shooting.
2. Try shooting with you rifle turned on its side. My AR hits 12” high and 12” right at 100 yards when I do this. When shot normally it is dead on.
3. Aim small, shoot small – Thanks, Mel!
4. Shoot your rifle or shotgun left handed (my left hand is my weak hand, I’m right handed) or right if you are a lefty. This is very awkward for most people.
5, Shoot pistol with your weak hand
6. Shoot pistols at longer ranges, 25 – 50 yards, doing so forces the need for good sight picture and trigger control if you want to hit anything. Aim small, shoot small.
7. Don’t just shoot .22 rimfire because it’s less expensive. If you don’t at least know what to expect from your centerfire rifle, pistol, and shotgun you are in for a surprise just when you don’t need it. Shoot at least a little of each when you live fire practice.

One final point on live fire practice; never practice without eye and ear protection. Using protection may not be real world if you have to defend yourself however not using it to practice has two dangers. 1. You could lose your eye sight and or damage your hearing. I know many IPSC shooters who have bullet fragments imbedded in various parts of their bodies from fragment bounce back. It can happen any time in any shooting situation. I’ve personally had cuts on my hands, face, and legs from fragment bounce back. I know of one guy who got hit square in the chest by a 12 gauge slug that bounced back off a steel target, fortunately it had lost most of its energy although it did bring him to his knees. Okay, enough war stories. Eyes and ear drums don’t grow back. Use protection! Finally, you can acquire a bad flinch, a bad habit built in when you shoot without ear protection. The flinch comes when you anticipate and react to the really loud and painful noise that you know will happen as soon as you pull the trigger. I was helping a shooter who was complaining that he couldn’t hit a thing with his 7mm Magnum deer rifle. I set him up at the range and told him to take a shot down range. He got set up and was getting ready to take aim when I stopped him. He wasn’t wearing any protection. I asked if he always practiced that way to which he responded yes. I had him put on glasses and ear muffs, his flinch went away immediately and he was back on target, not to mention happy that the problem wasn’t his rifle.


Gun reliability and maintenance:
A few years back I was shooting on the pistol range of a local gun club. I couldn’t help but notice the guy next to me take a shot with his Glock then bang the back of the slide on the loading bench then take another shot. Curiosity got the best of me so I asked him what he was doing. He explained that his gun kept jamming and wouldn’t go into battery (slide fully closed). On closer inspection the gun was so filthy and dry (no oil) that I was surprised it worked at all. Nice firearm, poor maintenance. Would you bet your life on a gun in that condition? A tight M1911 that dirty probably would have stopped running. A good cleaning and some much needed oil and that guy would have had a fully functioning gun that I bet would have run flawlessly. If competitive shooting teaches you one thing it’s the limitations of your firearms. I’ve spent many hours scrubbing guns before a match. Keep it clean and oiled.

Gun oil:  Don’t use WD-40 to lube your firearms. WD-40 evaporates and leaves little to no lubricating film, at least not enough to keep a firearm running under extreme conditions. Have you ever shot your firearms in 10 below zero temperatures, extreme heat or dusty conditions? I use FP-10 gun oil for all of my firearms. I’ve used this oil in below zero weather and dusty ranges and as long as I didn’t let it dry out it never failed me. Some oils will thicken in cold weather which can cause malfunctions.

Detachable box magazines:
I’m betting there is more than one prepper out there who has a pile of shiny, new magazines still in the original wrapper put away for a rainy day. (Note: Some people call magazines clips). I highly recommend taking every new magazine to the range at least once and loading it full and shooting until empty. I recently returned three new hi-capacity Glock 23 magazines to the seller because none of them would work in my gun. I also have two new 20 round AR magazines that won’t work in my rifle. One of these days I’ll try giving them a tune up. Shiny and new doesn’t guarantee function. Don’t forget to clean your magazines. Grit and moisture inside a magazine can cause malfunction and failure. Most magazines have a removable base plate that slides out releasing the spring retainer plate, spring, and follower. Use a soft brush or cloth to clean the inside of the magazine body being careful not to bend the magazine body or feed lips in the process. Wipe any grease, dirt or grim off the spring and follower. Do not oil any part of your magazines. Oil will attract dirt and dust and is not needed for function.

Gun embellishments and other fancy stuff:
When I first started shooting IPSC the game was basically an equipment race. From fancy fast draw holsters to custom tuned extended high capacity magazines and everything in between. This stuff is fine for fun and games but I personally stay away from it on my SHTF firearms. The more stuff you have hanging on your gun the more there is to go wrong or impede the function of the gun or shooter. Not to mention a good prosecuting attorney can turn a fancied up gun into a murder with premeditation weapon even if it was used in self defense. Keep it simple!

Recoil compensators:
Several of my competition guns have recoil compensators. A recoil compensator is a machined part that is attached to the end of a rifle or pistol barrel and has grooves cut to redirect the exhaust gasses from the burnt powder upwards helping counter act muzzle rise during recoil. Compensators do make shooting easier however they do have some negatives. 1. They are extremely loud and often redirect the noise back towards the shooter. 2. In the right conditions such as shooting with your gun barrel along a wall or through a port hole can force the gasses back in your face. Even with safety glasses it burns your eyes.

Sighting systems:
Everyone has their own preferences when it comes to sights for their firearms. IPSC is hard on equipment and quickly separates what will hold up and what won’t. Sights are often a matter of opinion and personal preference. For that reason I will not attempt to tell you good from bad however I will tell you what I prefer. My personal SHTF firearms are set up as follows:

AR -15 – Flat top with EoTech (red dot) with quick detachable mount and alternative rear flip up peep sight with standard AR fixed front sight. My sights don’t co-witness although I wish they did. (Co-witness means you can use the iron sights while looking through the EoTech. This would save having to remove the EoTech if it stops working.

M1911 Pistol –  the rear sight is a BoMar adjustable rear site and the front a dovetailed blade with fiber optic. Some might say the adjustable BoMar is too fragile however it hasn’t failed me after many thousands of rounds.  IPSC is an action sport where firearms can be exposed to bangs, dings and dents. Make sure your dovetailed sights are staked so they can’t work loose. Note: my front sight still works even if the fiber optic breaks and falls out.

A note on fiber optic sights: I’ve broken many fiber optics rods that were mounted on my sights. If I didn’t bang the sight it broke from repetitive use. Best to have plenty extra fiber rod on hand or use a site that doesn’t have the fiber optic feature.

Shotgun (semi-auto and pump) – My semi-auto is a Winchester SuperX2 Tactical that has a Picatinny rear sight rail (V-notch rail) with an optional flip up buckhorn sight for more pinpoint work and a fiber optic front bead. The sights still work even if the fiber optic is knocked out. My pump (a Remington Model 870) has a factory stock, a white-painted front bead and a vented rib with a groove in the rear receiver. If it is not broken, don’t fix it.

I would have Tritium sights on all my SHTF firearms if I could afford it.

Laser and red dot sights – Personally these are not for me. I once shot a night match with my EoTech (Lighted Red dot sight) against a laser sited AR. I smoked the laser sighted rifle because I could acquire the target and fire so much faster. The laser shooter spent too much time looking for and positioning the dot on the target. Practice serves me better than a laser sight. My 2 cents.

A few shooting facts I learned in competitive shooting
1. No less than three tenths of a second is typically how long it takes for the average person to start to react to a situation.  
2. Muscle memory starts to set in after about 1,000 repetitions.
3, If you pull the trigger on a live round and your gun makes a funny poof sound, then stop! You may have a squib load. A squib is a light or no powder load that doesn’t have enough power to push the bullet out of the barrel. Shooting another round without clearing a squibbed bullet will blow up your gun and hurt you. I’ve had squibs and was lucky to never have blown up a gun.
4. Limp-wrist shooting can cause your semi auto pistol to jamb. Limp-wrist shooting is when you don’t lock (hold rigid) your wrist allowing the pistol muzzle to flip up in excess under recoil. The excess muzzle flip counteracts slide momentum which in turn limits the distance the slide needs to travel to properly eject the spent shell casing. When this happens the case hangs up and gets caught in the gun instead of ejecting clear. Not real common but it does happen.

Happy and safe practicing, hope you don’t need it!