Quite often, when I’m discussing dry fire practice, some body will ask, in one form or another, the question, “Will dry fire damage my gun?” In those same conversations, some folks will chime in with a definitive yes or no depending on what they have heard and read over the years. One of those two binary answers is correct. The other answer is wrong. The thing is there is a problem with this question because the correct answer may lead the inquirer to assume dry fire is a bad practice and the wrong answer may result in unintentional damage to a firearm. I believe the better question is, “To what degree will dry fire damage this particular firearm?” Let’s explore that.
All firearms are mechanical devices designed to direct a projectile in a specific direction carrying energy derived from pressure that is the result of a combustion process. So at the core, the mechanical device is designed to contain an explosion and direct the pressure that results from that so that a projectile is propelled out of the barrel without causing injury to the operator assuming normal operating procedures are applied. Like all mechanical devices, proper operation results in predictable wear and tear. Improper operation may result in immediate catastrophic failure rendering the device inoperable and potentially causing injury. No matter how we slice it, operation of a mechanical device results in some degree of damage to the device ranging from acceptable to undesirable.
Dry firing a firearm, that is working the action without using live ammunition, is a form of operation that falls somewhere in that range. Where it falls in that range depends on the firearm being dry fired. In terms of dry fire and generally speaking, we can apply two labels to a firearm in order to get a good idea of what degree of damage we can expect from dry firing a firearm. The first label is either rimfire or centerfire. The second is modern or antique.
The rimfire or centerfire label is assigned based on the cartridge the firearm is chambered for. In my opinion, this is the more important of the two labels as dry fire is far more likely to cause damage that will render a firearm inoperable to firearms that are chambered rimfire cartridges. Almost every single manual for firearms chambered for rimfire cartridges contains several warnings against dry fire with an occasional exception for a function check after a routine cleaning. The reason for this, as far as I understand it, has to do with the cartridge design. More precisely with how a firearm starts the ignition sequence for rimfire cartridges.
As implied by the name, rimfire cartridges contain primer compound along the rim of the brass case. In order to start the ignition sequence, the firing pin indents the rim of the cartridge which is secured against either the back of the cylinder or a revolver or the back of the barrel on a pistol (or rifle). The brass rim and the primer compound act as a cushion between the firing pin and the hard metal that the firing pin would strike without a cartridge present (as would be the case during dry fire). Repeated contact of the firing pin against the hard metal without a cushion can result in damage to the firing pin over time. As a result, the rule of thumb is to not dry fire firearms chambered for rimfire cartridges.
Firearms chambered for centerfire cartridges, for the most part, are a different story. In the case of centerfire cartridges, the primers are seated in the center of the back of the case. When a cartridge is missing and the firearm is cycled, the firing pin doesn’t strike anything as it is centered over the empty chamber. Granted the forward motion of the firing pin (or striker) does eventually come to a stop. The mechanism used to stop the forward motion depends on the firearm’s design and in some cases it is still a result of hard metal on hard metal contact. However, the motion is not stopped when the tip of the firing pin makes hard contact with hard metal like is the case with most rimfire chambered firearms. How resilient the firing pin components of a centerfire chambered firearm are against wear and tear from dry fire are then dependent on the design and the materials the firearm is manufactured from. This brings us to the second label.
The modern or antique label has more to do with manufacturing technology advancements than anything else. Modern day knowledge of metallurgy, ability to produce metals, and techniques to work with those metals has dramatically improved the durability of mechanical components. Combining that with firearm design improvements we end up with firearms that are expected to, and often, have longer serviceable life spans. Meaning that wear and tear on modern firearms is more predictable when compared with wear and tear on antique firearms. That’s not to say that dry firing a modern firearm won’t ever result in a breakage. Rather a breakage due to material imperfections or material durability is more likely in an antique firearm. Hence, I have a second rule of thumb regarding antique firearms: avoid dry firing them.
Putting the two labels together we get the following results:
|Should I Dry Fire?||Antique Firearm||Modern Firearm|
|Rimfire Firearm||Double Nope||Nope|
|Centerfire Firearm||Nope||Go for it|
In other words, dry firing anything other than a modern centerfire firearm is most likely a bad idea because the wear and tear will either be hard to predict or will be predictably bad. On the other hand, dry firing a modern centerfire firearm is for the most part okay as the wear and tear will be predictably negligible. That doesn’t mean that endless dry fire will not eventually cause enough wear and tear to require repair or replacement. However, the amount of dry fire required to reach that extent is far more than most of us have to concern ourselves with. The exception here might be a dedicated high level competitor who dry fires a firearm like it’s a full time job every single day. This is important because dry fire practice, with a modern centerfire firearm, is a very cost effective way to improve practical marksmanship skills.