There are pros and cons to everything. The thing is, the pros and cons aren’t fixed. They change with context. Consider dry fire practice for instance. Ask any individual who is at least semi serious about shooting about how to improve and they will tell you that dry fire is the secret sauce to improvement. I’m no exception to that. I’ve been saying the same thing for years because there are a lot of benefits, or pros, to dry fire practice. However, there are some drawbacks to dry fire practice. The most common cons involved ingraining bad habits that result from practicing incorrectly. How much something like that is a drawback depends on one’s current skill level. As one improves, one also learns how to practice better and minimize the drawbacks, but everyone develops training scars in some way, shape, or form at some point or another.
What does this have to do with dry fire aids? Nothing, yet everything. I used dry fire as an example to illustrate that even a practice that is touted as the secret sauce isn’t immune to having drawbacks. That’s important because I often find myself debating the merits of dry fire aids, such as, but not limited to the MantisX, BlackbeardX, CoolFire Training system, or SIRT pistols, with others on social media. Typically, the person I am engaged with in debate has taken a stance that all dry fire aids short of a pistol and timer are trash and completely worthless since some world class shooter pointed out a particular aid’s shortcomings. Like most things in life, dry fire aids aren’t entirely good or entirely bad. Each has its own benefits and drawbacks which are dependent on context. This means that when somebody asks, “Is such and such dry fire aid worth it?” The answer is most often, “It depends.” Perhaps taking a look at the dry fire aids I’ve used and considering their merits along with their shortcomings will provide some insight if certain aids are acceptable for you.
Dry fire practice simply can not be done with a firearm. Okay, I’ll admit that’s not entirely true. Some aspects of dry fire practice can be done with blue guns (a solid plastic mold of a pistol that instructors use as an instructional aid), SIRT guns, or AirSoft guns and we will touch upon those later in this post. However, folks who are learning about or getting started with dry fire practice are looking into it because they want to get better with a firearm they already have. As such, they already have the most essential and elementary dry fire aid they need: a cleared firearm. With a cleared firearm, one can practice drawing it from a holster or mounting it with or without a sling. One can also practice presenting it, establishing an adequate sight picture, and work on their grip. Assuming dry firing won’t damage the firearm, then one can also use the cleared firearm to improve their trigger control. There is a lot a person can practice with just their cleared firearm without having to purchase anything else.
However, a cleared firearm alone can only get one so far with dry fire practice. At some point a person is going to need some way to measure time or apply time pressure to their practice. Some of the aids we will cover in this post can be used to measure time and apply time pressure, but a shot timer, that can also be used on the range for live fire practice and training, is easily argued to be the most beneficial and essential investments one can make. As such, I will strongly suggest investing in a shot timer prior to any additional aids with possibly the exception of targets or a book only because a decent shot timer has a price tag of $100-$300 that often brings about a little hesitation especially from novices.
What does one look for in a shot timer? For the purposes of dry fire, a good shot timer will have a randomized delayed start and par time features. Since a shot timer is also good for live fire practice, it should also have the ability to record split times. All of these features are commonly found in a modern shot timer, but I mention them because traditional stopwatches and timers lack those features. There are many viable shot timers to consider, here are a few to look at:
- ProTimer from Competition Electronics which is the one I see most often used by instructors
- Club Timer III from PACT which is the one I started with years ago
- Commander from AMG Lab which is the one I use now and most often see used at local and major matches
- KST1000 from Kestrel which seems to be the latest hotness
Alternatively, one can make due with using the Dry Practice Drill app on their iOS or Android device instead of a shot timer for dry fire practice until they see enough value in a shot timer and are ready to make the investment.
A cleared gun and a shot timer (or the Dry Practice Drill app) are the essentials for effective dry practice. This combination allows the practitioner to work on and develop all of their marksmanship and practical shooting skills with the exception of recoil management without having to fire a single round of ammunition. It is by and large the most cost effective way to improve and the reason why dry fire is touted as the secret sauce by high level and world class shooters. Nothing else is required or necessary, but that doesn’t mean other dry fire aids are useless and without merits.
Books and Other Paper Products
In terms of bang for the buck, a book or two on dry fire is the way to go in my opinion. My top recommendation for folks who are brand new to dry fire practice is Dry Fire Primer by Annette Evans. It’s a short read that helps folks do it right or at least do it better. Remember what I said about training scars and ingraining bad habits through dry fire (which is also possible with live fire)? This book does a great job at minimizing that.
A couple of other books that I suggest are Practical Shooting Training and Adaptive Rifle by Ben Stoeger and Joel Park. These two books provide a lot of information that helps in planning practice sessions and regimens based on one’s current skill level including drills. Practical Shooting Training is focused on pistols while Adaptive Rifle, as the name implies, is focused on rifles.
There are several other books on this topic that are worth reading, but based on what I’ve read the combination of Evan’s book with one of or both of Stoeger’s and Park’s provides just about everything one needs in combination with the essentials mentioned in the previous section to go from getting started with dry fire to well on their journey to marksmanship mastery with one exception: targets.
Targets are the last paper product that I will mention in this post and I will do so briefly because it’s a thread that I don’t want to pull on and unravel for the sake of brevity. There are a lot of targets to pick from and different target designs have, as you might have already guessed, benefits and drawbacks. Yes, pros and cons are a recurring theme. Some target designs are better for working on improving accuracy, others are better for developing speed, and then there are photorealistic targets that provide realism. Regardless of the targets used it is important scale targets down (or use scaled targets) in order to simulate distance during dry fire. For every foot of distance available in the “Dry Fire Dojo”, a term I stole from Memphis Beech who stole it from someone I can’t remember, we can simulate one yard of distance using ⅓ scale or two yards of distance using ⅙ scale. I like to use scaled down IDPA, IPSC, and USPSA targets which I purchase from Ben Stoeger’s Pro Shop since I frequently participate in competitive matches. However, there are plenty of printable targets available like those found at the ConcealedCarry.com website.
I think it is prudent to invest in a couple of books, like the ones mentioned in this section, and some scaled targets prior to investing in any other additional aids like the ones we will cover in the next section.
It’s no secret that I make use of dry fire aids like the Mantis X, the Mantis Blackbeard X, and the CoolFire Trainer system, which have individual reviews published on this blog. I also happen to have affiliate relationships with the manufacturers of these products which is sometimes a point of contention in the debates I have about these products since those relationships yield revenue which funds this blog. However, the debates aren’t limited to only these products. At any rate, there are many different dry fire aids that are available in the market which can assist in various ways, such as, but not limited to, scoring, measurement, mechanically resetting the trigger, simulating recoil, providing skills, issuing challenges, gamification, or adding a social aspect to training. None of these additions are necessary, but they can be helpful. Let’s look at some.
Let’s start with the Mantis X which is the first dry fire aid that I used. The Mantis X is a sensor that is attached to a firearm and measures movement during dry fire practice. It is used in conjunction with an app that provides several different drills. The movement data from the sensor is used to score the quality and speed of the shots “fired” in the drills. The Mantis X also provides virtual training courses which are composed of a series of drills with specific goals. Successful completion of the training courses are rewarded with a patch that is physically mailed to the user. The app also provides a social aspect so one can compare their practice against friends.
I’ll refer folks to the review on the Mantis X for more details on the system, but let’s turn our focus to the benefits of the system. The physical rewards from courses, which is a form of gamification, and the social features can motivate folks to get better and actually practice. The drills give folks something to practice while the training courses can function as a training plan folks may not know how to build for themselves yet. The measurement of movement from the sensor is an objective measurement folks can use to discern the quality of their shots which is nearly impossible to do until a person learns how to read their sights and call their shots. Even if they know how to call their shots, the measurement can be used to confirm the accuracy of their shot calling. Historical data can be used to track and see progress which helps keep folks motivated.
There are some drawbacks to using the Mantis X. The primary disadvantage, in my opinion, is that the immediate objective feedback makes it easy for a person to focus on the outcome, a good score on the app, rather than the process of the drill being practiced. Process focus is essential to effective practice and for improvement. Another drawback is that at some point the sensor won’t be able to keep up with the practitioner and will start giving false positive readings. An example of this is low scores on high speed draws or transitions when a good trigger press breaks at the same moment when the muzzle is properly aligned with the target. When this starts happening, the user may start slowing down in order to get better scores. At that point, the aid starts holding back progress and the practitioner may not be immediately aware of what’s happening. These are a couple of the reasons why I tell folks that the value of Mantis X is inversely proportional to the level of one’s skill.
The Blackbeard X provides essentially the same features as the Mantis X specifically for the AR-15 platform, but it also adds a laser (although it can be purchased without a laser) and mechanical device that resets the trigger. Because the Blackbeard X is specifically for the AR-15 platform, it enables rifle specific drills and training courses in the app. Furthermore, it includes the benefits and drawbacks of the Mantis X in addition to some that are specific to the Blackbeard. Once again, I’ll refer folks to the previously published review of the Blackbeard X for a deeper look at it.
The laser included with the Blackbeard X provides instantaneous point of impact feedback. In and of itself, I don’t see a lot of value in it. In fact, I see mostly drawbacks to it as it has the same potential side effect of focusing the practitioner on the outcome. I’d argue that the side effect is even more egregious than the Mantis X because the feedback comes at the speed of light. Furthermore, point of impact feedback can also inadvertently lead a practitioner to develop the habit of visual racing when working with traditional iron sights which is the rapid shifting of visual focus from the aiming focal point to the impact focal point and back. The risk of developing a visual racing habit is significantly lower when training with a target focus using iron sights. The only tangible positive benefit for using a laser I can think of is that it can be used in conjunction with other products like the Mantis Laser Academy, Strikeman, or LaserHIT which provide scoring assistance which provides yet another form of performance measurement on dry fire drills, but also results in an additional expense.
On the other hand, I see little to no drawback from the mechanical trigger reset capabilities of the Blackbeard X. I might go so far as to say that the mechanical trigger reset is all benefit and almost no drawback. With the benefit being, having the ability to get an actual trigger press while conducting multi-shot dry fire drills which is a shortcoming of dry fire since the action on semi-automatic firearms can’t be mechanically cycled during dry fire practice. That means that on subsequent shots in the same drill one will get nothing but a dead trigger or double action trigger pulls on double-action/single-action pistols.
Those looking for the benefits of mechanical trigger resets without all of the other benefits and drawbacks of the Mantis X may want to consider the plain old Blackbeard or a DryFireMag. Unfortunately, the list of supported firearms by mechanical trigger reset dry fire aids is limited and there are many more unsupported firearms than there are supported ones.
An alternative to pure mechanical trigger reset aids one may consider investing in is the CoolFire Trainer system which mechanically resets the trigger and also cycles the action. This has the added benefit of simulating recoil as a result of the reciprocating mass which provides the opportunity to also work on recoil management in a dry fire setting. Like the other aids we have talked about, this aid isn’t perfect either. One drawback is that CO2 is required for operation which is consumable. Even though CO2 refills are relatively inexpensive, especially when compared to ammunition, it is an additional cost. Another drawback is that the recoil profile from the CO2 driven cycling is different from the recoil profile than one’s preferred ammunition for the weapon. That means the amount of muzzle rise, the feel of the recoil, and the cyclic rate of the slide is different which can lead to developing a grip with pressure that is inconsistent with the pressure that one needs in order to run their pistol optimally with live ammunition.
SIRT pistols, blue guns, and AirSoft each have their own benefits and drawbacks as well. I won’t enumerate each one individually as this post is already long enough, but I will say that I personally see these tools to be more beneficial as instructional aids rather than dry fire aids. The main drawback that I see to these is that the trigger on these tools is very different. Even when the tool is a replica of one’s defensive or competition tool, this holds true. This limits what we can do in terms of improving trigger control and the grip we use with the actual gun.
I want to mention a few other options that I haven’t personally tried, but my friend Matt Little (Greybeard Actual) has with great success.
The first is a virtual reality application for the Oculus Quest called AceXr that he has been beta testing. He believes this will be a game changer for dry fire practice, but also notes it has its own limitations, most notably the lack of recoil. However, the application does force you to track the sights after each simulated virtual shot fired and from target to target. Additionally, it provides immediate feed for accuracy and speed. Having not tried it myself, I speculate it is plausible to get similar results using one’s own gun combined with the CoolFire system and the MantisX. That said, this is something that I would like to try as simulators have proven to be valuable training tools in many contexts from combatives to flight simulation.
Last but not least are the YouTube videos made for dry fire practice Matt Little mentioned on his recent Dry Fire Aids blog post where he specifically mentions the videos made by Dry Fire King available through a paid subscription. The biggest benefits I see to these videos is not having not having to set up scaled targets for drills and having access to longer courses of fire for dry fire practice. Those who travel frequently may conceivably be able to get adequate dry fire practice away from their home Dry Fire Dojo.
I should have probably said this sooner in the post or maybe even opened with it rather than waiting until the closing of this post, but I’ll say it now. One of the tenets of effective dry fire practice is to create a memory of the feeling of correct technique as that is something that will be seeking to recreate either consciously or subconsciously when shooting a firearm. To achieve this it is important to be present in dry fire practice while focused on the process. We are building intimate familiarity with the gun and indexes in practice through as many correct repetitions as possible. Many of the drawbacks of additional tools either place limitations on how familiar we can become with the firearm or add noise that makes it harder to achieve maximum familiarity. I suspect this is why many world class shooters frown on additional dry fire aids. However, being aware of the drawbacks and using training techniques like chunking can help us realize when an aid is no longer of value to us and minimize the training scars (or atleast identify them) we may create using them. When in doubt, go back to the essentials and work with the basics – the “keep it simple stupid” notion came about for a reason.
The majority of folks who read this will never be world class shooters. I’d wager more than a large portion of readers have no desire of being a world class shooter either. However, I think it is safe to assume those who have read this far have a desire to improve their marksmanship and become better shooters. Dry fire practice, done well, is the most cost effective way to improve. I believe it is foolish to consider additional dry fire aids as worthless trash and believe it is also foolish to consider any dry fire aid as a panacea or silver bullet to unlock mastery. Each tool has pros and cons. Whether or not the pros surpass the cons depends entirely on one’s individual goals and current skill level. Exploiting an aid to reach the next level of skill is worth consideration. Sure, using a tool may result in training scars, but training scars are part of the learning process that can’t be avoided entirely. Whether or not a particular tool is worth it is only something one can decide for themselves.