I was sitting here in my office. It was hot, too hot to do any of the range work I needed to do, so I was working on some articles that would be due in a few weeks. It would be a nice change to get them in ahead of deadline and keep Herr Zaidle from having to send me another nastygram (I got one anyway; shucks). I was contemplating just the right way to get some deeply philosophical thought recorded in cyberspace when I heard a "pop" from the den.
My son-in-law, Wacy Taylor, and my daughter, Allison, were sitting in the den watching TV. Wacy had his Model 66 Smith and Wesson .357 Magnum and was doing some dry-fire practice. The "pop" wasnt very loud and I thought Wacy had put a primer in a cartridge case and popped it, trying to frighten Allie or me.
Then I looked around the corner to see Wacy sitting on the couch, white as a freshly bleached sheet, with a look of sheer terror on his face. He said, "Oh, my God, Steve, I am sooo sorry! Oh, my God! Oh, my God!"
Sorry, Wacy, but it has to be told: You see, Wacy was dry-firing while watching TV. He removed the ammo from his revolver, laid it on a TV tray next to him, and began snapping the gun, aiming at a mounted pheasant flying up the wall above the TV. Somewhere, somehow, the gun got reloaded and the pheasant became the victim of an accidental discharge (AD).
The bullet went through the wall of the den, into the bathroom, and out through the bathroom ceiling, lodging somewhere between there and the roof. I must say, however, it was a danged fine shot. Wacy hit the pheasants head dead center.
I must also point out that the gun was pointed in a direction where no people were in danger.
Size 6 plastic drywall anchors make inexpensive and effective .22 rimfire snap caps. Photos: DON ZAIDLE
I gathered the headless remains of my pheasant from the floor, and now use it for tying trout and panfish flies.
Dry-firing is the best practice you can do for learning how to control the trigger and sights. Snapping the gun on an empty chamber while keeping the sights perfectly aligned will show any little flinch, tick, or bobble. If you do not have a perfect let-off, the sights move. Simple. You should, assuming the sights will allow it, be able to set a coin on top of the front sight and snap the gun without dislodging the coin. I used to do this for hours on end when I was first trying to learn to shoot a handgun.
A small bit of plastic (in this case cut from a milk jug lid) wedged into the rear of the slide on this 1911 acts as a shock absorber/hammer block to facilitate worry-free dry-fire practice.
The--THE--most important thing to remember when dry-firing is to remove the ammunition from the vicinity while you practice. Unload the gun, take the ammunition to another room, preferably put it in the gun safe or a drawer, then return to your practice in the other room. When you are finished, go get the ammo, reload the gun, and put it up. Do not do any dry-firing when ammunition is within your reach. Period.
Not all guns should be dry-fired. My Grandpa LaMascus always told me that a .22 could not be dry-fired because the firing pin would indent the rear of the barrel and cause the gun to fail to feed or fail to fire. I personally had never seen this until just recently.
A few months ago, I received Brownings superb little 1911-22. It is an exact replica of the 1911 .45 ACP that has been the epitome of the personal defense gun for the last hundred years, except that it is lighter and about 3/4 the size of the original.
Many older and better quality rimfire guns, such as this vintage High Standard "Sport King," feature round, machined firing pins, which are better suited for dry-fire practice.
I shot the gun, a lot, and was truly enamored with it. It shot very well, and I thought (and still think) that it would make a perfect "kit gun." It rode on my belt with almost no weight at all, and was small enough that it would have fit in the bottom of a tackle box with room to spare.
When I had pretty much finished my range work with the gun I decided to find out what the actual trigger pull was. I took the gun into my office, removed all the ammo, put it up, and started testing the trigger pull with my Lyman electronic trigger pull gauge. In all, I pulled the trigger about a dozen times with the gun empty.
When I was finished, I reloaded the gun and went out to shoot it again. When I pulled back the slide to chamber a round, the gun jammed. I tried time after time to chamber a round and it simply would not function. I checked the magazine and it looked fine. I checked everything I could think of. No soap.
Recessed cylinder chambers on this older Smith & Wesson model 17 help prevent dry-fire damage. Note the powder buildup in the recesses--the only drawback to this design. This model also has a round, inertia firing pin.
I was cleaning the gun for the third time when I noticed the bright mark in the metal on the rear of the barrel. On closer inspection, I found that the firing pin had peened the chamber face. Some of the metal displaced by the firing pin had intruded into the chamber, preventing the cartridge from chambering.
This was a pre-production gun. I informed Browning of this defect, but I do not know what they did about it.
The moral: Find out if it is okay to dry-fire your weapon before you start, not after the gun is damaged. This is almost exclusive to rimfire cartridges, but some centerfire weapons should not be dry-fired.
Most guns that have inertia firing pins are safe to dry-fire, but not all of them, and "safe" is a relative term in that stress damage from dry-firing can be cumulative in some designs and not manifest immediately.
For example, the 1911 inertia firing pin is quite robust, but repeated hammering of the pin on an empty chamber transfers all of the energy to the pin and its retractor spring--energy normally expended in deforming the primer. The result is over-compression of the spring and shock stress on the firing pin.
Free-floating firing pins are rare in handguns. In fact, I cannot recall ever seeing one. You see them mostly in semi-auto rifles such as AR-15 and AK-47 variants. These pins are not restrained in any way and literally "rattle around" inside the bolt pin tunnel. The pin will protrude from the bolt face under gravity, and "jump out" slightly under inertia when the bolt slams home under the impetus of the recoil spring, causing the pin to slightly dimple the primer of the chambered round without igniting it.
Free-floating pins are typically very light weight and usually stamped, and thus lack sufficient mass to retain enough momentum to ignite the primer with bolt-travel inertial alone. If you are unaware of this quirk, finding an indented primer in a chambered but unfired round can be perplexing if not downright worrisome.
Wherever you find them, its best to not dry-fire guns with free-floating pins on an empty chamber.
Some rimfire guns are more forgiving than others due to the design of the firing pin or striker and chamber face.
Rimfire firing pins come in two basic flavors: flat and round. Round pins are most common on higher quality and older guns--of which the latter are often higher quality than newer versions of the same model. Its largely a matter of manufacturers looking to cut production costs by using stamped rather than forged or machined parts, hence stamped and thus flat, rectangular pins.
The smooth edges of a round, machined, rimfire firing-pin head is less likely to damage the chamber face (or itself) than are the sharp, square edges of stamped pins. Note it is less likely, not guaranteed.
A recessed chamber face is another feature common to better quality and older rimfire models, and goes far to prevent firing pin damage. A recessed chamber face is primarily intended to surround the head of a .22 cartridge and thus reinforce the thin rim metal. Manufacturers determined this is not really necessary for the low gas pressures of rimfire ammunition, so abandoned this costly machining step to produce flat-faced chambers.
When present, that same chamber face recess provides a buffer zone for the firing pin, so long as its protrusion from the bolt face is not greater than the depth of the recess.
The combination of a round firing pin and recessed chamber face provides near-optimum protection against dry-fire pin damage in a rimfire gun. A flat, rectangular pin and flat chamber face is the worst combination.
If your gun is not dry-fire safe, devices called "snap caps" allow dry-fire without fear of damage. Snap caps are made for most of the common rifle calibers and shotgun gauges.
Snap caps are merely devices that cushion the blow of the firing pin in the same way it is cushioned by a live primer. They come in several different forms, from spring-loaded gadgets to simple plastic casts. Pachmayr makes snap caps for .22 rimfires.
Purchasing multiple snap caps to load up the chambers of a rimfire revolver can get rather pricey. A cheap but effective alternative is as near as the hardware store. Size 6 plastic drywall anchors are just about right to fit most .22 rimfire chambers. A handful costs only a couple of bucks. Since brands differ slightly in shape and overall size, you might have to shave a bit off the sides to get a proper fit if your hardware merchant does not stock the exact size.
Along the same lines, a simple hammer block/shock absorber placed between the hammer and firing pin of compatible firearms eliminates the need for snap caps. I cut a small plastic rectangle from a milk jug lid and wedge it into the rear of the slide on a 1911, then dry-fire to hearts content without worries. Obviously, this doesnt work with hammerless and striker-fire guns.
Snap caps also make great training aids for handgun shooters. Used as duds and loaded into the magazine along with live ammo, snap caps give the shooter and CHL holder a way to practice gun-clearing drills without having to handload dummy rounds, and the snap caps are easy to differentiate from the live ammo.
Dry-fire practice is one of the most useful things going for the shooter. If done correctly, it is safe. If done incorrectly, it can be deadly.
Just learn from my pheasants second demise, and keep the ammo as far away as possible while dry-firing.