To Dummy, or not to Dummy

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Obviously I’m not asking the reader if they are a dummy. The topic of this article is about Dummies, Snap Caps, and other assorted types of simulated non firing ammunition. Dummies are an extremely important tool when used correctly. Unfortunately I don’t think they have the presence that they should in the shooting world of today, both for instructing purposes and functional. 

Instructing

An old time trick among any instructor when trying to cure a flinch is to load dummies in between live rounds without the student knowing which order the magazine is in. The student will fire the magazine with the same flinch with every shot. The live rounds won’t make a difference because the flinch is covered up by the overall movement of the firearm. However, upon the dummy being chambered, the student will execute the same flinch, but this time, it’ll be absolutely obvious what is going wrong because of the movement of the firearm without a shot being fired. This trick is timeless as well, because oftentimes experienced shooters will develop a bad flinch or aren’t executing the fundamentals as they should be. In addition to showing a shooter their flinch, dummies lend themselves extremely well to one of those also timeless of all shooting practices, dry firing. Despite every fancy class, snazzy accessory, or modern training aid, probably the best thing that any shooter can do to dramatically improve their fundamentals right now, is proper dry firing. Dummies aid in this, for reasons of functionality that are covered in the next paragraph. Another important point about dummies is that instructors can use them for demonstration purposes when talking about bullet nomenclature or identification between different types of ammunition. But why bother? Why not just use live ammunition for such a simple training aid? Well, some classrooms have strict rules on no live ammunition being allowed in the vicinity, to prevent negligent discharges, or for whatever reason. Maybe in addition to identification, the instructor wants to show students the process of loading, firing, unloading, extracting, ejecting as well. There are a variety of reasons of why an instructor wouldn’t be able to have live ammunition for a class.

A 5.56 dummy

A 5.56 dummy

This guy illustrates some of the points I’m trying to make, in addition to bringing up others.

Function

How many times have you cleaned your firearm or done some work on it where you wanted to check the feeding and ejecting? You’ve probably loaded up a magazine of five or so, inserted it into the firearm, and very carefully chambered every cartridge and ejected it, with your trigger finder placed closer to Mars than anywhere near the trigger guard? This is also happening in the comfort of your home, the absolute worst place for a negligent discharge to occur. From a safety stand point, as long as the firearm is pointed in a safe direction, with a sufficient backstop, and no trigger action is necessary, this is fine. From a functional standpoint, there isn’t much that could go wrong with the exception of the bullet being seated deeper in the cartridge every time it is chambered. The possibility of the round blowing up inside the chamber increases because the gunpowder doesn’t have the necessary dimensions sufficient to safely expand and start exerting pressure on the rear of bullet. Soldiers and Marines know to never load the same round more than a couple times because of this very risk, taking such measures as cleaning out their magazines every so often, and completely changing up the order of the rounds. Dummy rounds solve both situations very well because one, they’re never going to go off (Although that is never an excuse to not treat every firearm as if it were loaded), and two, no matter how much deeper seated the bullet becomes (to a certain point), it won’t matter or affect the loading and unloading of said dummy rounds. The other important point when it comes to function is that while actually dry firing, it is generally inadvisable to dry fire a firearm on an empty chamber. This especially goes for .22 LR firearms and older small arms that have become more susceptible to breakage over time. Gun designers work within certain parameters when designing their small arms. One of them is ensuring the firearm works with a round in the chamber, and accomplishing the task of striking the primer. They aren’t working with a stipulation of it being dry fired as a solid requirement (although of course, some firearms do have that from the design board). So as a result, the act of a firing pin falling on an empty chamber is putting stress on the mechanism that it isn’t primarily designed for, and this where the risk of breakage increases.

Using Magpul dummies to test a Remington 700.

Training

With new Marines or even civilian shooters, I used to pick up spent brass and insert it into magazines interspaced between live rounds, to simulate a stoppage or half hearted double feed. The idea was to see what the student would do under conditions of a simulated malfunction. This was great for a limited amount of purposes, but what does that same student do when encountering a misfire? The spent brass won’t chamber, so you are not getting the full spectrum of simulated malfunctions that you can train for. For shooters that are training to fight, as opposed to competition shooters, what really separates the men from the boys is the amount of time spent getting a gun back into the fight. Getting shot at, while at times can be the most exhilarating thing in the world, makes training programs put a very real emphasis on returning fire. Because getting that gun back up and running could just make the difference between being surviving and not doing so hot. One of my platoon sergeants put this very eloquently in that “Sometimes the only thing that counts in a gunfight is having one more rifle than the other side on the line”. The M249 SAW has been infamously notorious for the sheer amount of malfunctions and jams that occur, even when properly taken care of. However, because of that, we train for it, and to watch an experienced Infantry Marine run a SAW under adverse conditions and getting it back into action within seconds is a thing of beauty. It has been said that amateurs train until they get it right, but professionals train until they get it wrong, or fail. Small arms are tools, just like any other. To say that your weapon system isn’t going to jam, isn’t going to malfunction, isn’t going to quit running, is to completely set yourself up for failure. Proper training doesn’t account for if something bad happens, but when something bad happens. With that being said, dummies can provide us with ample opportunities to train to this standard of dealing with failure, how to mitigate it when it happens, and how to get back into action. In addition, if used in conjunction with each other, dummies and spent cartridges, an instructor has the ability to create a malfunction rich environment where the student can really get into the murky and dirty details of dealing with both kinds of malfunctions. Even the ability to incorporate malfunctions into an entire course of fire, by interspacing both types throughout all the magazines a shooter has, make different students load out their buddies magazines differently, that way real coincidence and realism can occur.

I filled up the interior of the shell with hot glue, to give it weight, and to allow for the firing pin to strike something when it hits.

I filled up the interior of the shell with hot glue, to give it weight, and to allow for the firing pin to strike something when it hits.

Dummybullet.com has an excellent description of how they use them and how they recommend using them, to which I’ll copy some of what he put out on his site. I bought a couple of their products, and although I like them, I wish they were made in different colors because the things look exactly like live rounds if you don’t examine them closely.

Without a doubt, the most frequently asked question I get on Dummybullet.com is about dry firing. Is it safe? Will it damage my pistol or rifle? No – but. The manufacturers of most every modern firearm say that dry firing will not hurt firearms internal parts. Mainly the firing pin, and the firing pin spring, if so equipped. This is not true of rim fire firearms. It is not recommended to dry fire a rim fire weapon because the firing pin can actually strike the corner of the chamber wall. This can cause damage to the firing pin and the chamber. In a center fire weapon the most common firing pin systems are either free floating (the firing pin is struck by a hammer and in many cases does not involve a spring), is fixed to the hammer (some revolvers have the firing pin attached to the face of the hammer with a pin) or striker fired (the firing pin is driven forward by a spring and not actually hit by a hammer).

The reason why some feel that it is a bad idea to dry fire a gun is that the firing pin can over travel if it is not stopped by something – mainly the primer. This over travel is thought to cause stress on the firing pin and spring. And this was particularly true with older firing arms when metallurgy was not what it is today, but the firing pin on older firearms had a life cycle and would have worn out eventually anyway, whether it was striking a live primer or not. Modern firing pins have a life cycle as well, but it is much, much longer. Firing pins can withstand thousands of cycles before they wear out or break. Military weapons have firing pins that are made to withstand the thousands and thousands of dry fires that recruits put them through. A modern firing pin does not need a cushioned or “soft” landing. It will eventually wear to the point that it needs to be replaced if put to enough use. Live fire or dry fire.

Nobody can say that dry firing will definitely harm your gun. Likewise, nobody can say that, without question, dry firing is completely safe to any firearm. My advice, when asked, is always the same. If it is an older firearm where parts may be difficult or impossible to find, do not dry fire it. Actually I wouldn’t fire it all!  If it is a modern firearm and you want to learn or practice shooting fundamentals with a conservative amount of dry fires, go ahead, and use an empty chamber or a dummy round. If you are planning on making a career out of dry firing, buy a set of ‘snap-caps’ and feel better with the thought that your firing pin is receiving a spring loaded landing.

We have firearms in our classes that have had nothing done to them except dry firing for going on 2 years now. Hundreds, if not nearing a thousand, dry fires on an empty chamber have yet to wear out or break a firing pin.

The “dummy” rounds sold by Dummybullet.com are great for function testing, cycling, magazine changes and loading, competitive shooting drills, stoppage drills, and just plain weapons familiarity. I would not go onto say, however, that they are a replacement for ‘snap-caps’. Both have their place. ‘Snap-Caps’ can’t do what INERT real component rounds can do, mainly accurately duplicate the weight, size, and realistic profile of a cartridge.  And real component INERT rounds cannot provide the level of mental ‘comfort’ that ‘snap-Caps’ can when you simply want to dry fire your weapon.  

These are actually made of aluminum, but they aren't up to snuff in my opinion.

These are actually made of aluminum, but they aren’t up to snuff in my opinion.

Discussion of dummies on the market

I originally started out with actual, non metallic snap caps and using them to instruct with. There isn’t anything very wrong with them at all, and I still use them. However, I’ve since switched to using unprimed metallic rounds with bullets loaded in them. Primarily the reason is realism. The polymer dummies just don’t behave like the reloaded dummies do, because of their weight and dimensions. They don’t eject like a misfired round would, and they don’t affect the weight of the magazine like a metallic dummy would. Big deal you say, a couple grains isn’t going to make the difference. Absolutely true, but if I’m using multiple dummy cartridges to simulate those training malfunctions, I want that magazine to be as similar to a fully loaded magazine as possible, and I can’t get that with the polymer cases. In addition I’ve noticed that the polymer cases are starting to get nicks and cuts on the polymer where the brass dummies wouldn’t. Of course metallic dummies also look exactly like the real thing, so how do we alleviate that? Well, we could use all steel cases and only use brass cased live ammunition as one example. I’ve been experimenting with cerakoting the actual bullets with bright colors. Pink on mine because my local gunshop didn’t have bright orange and Pink was the next brightest color. This not only helps in discerning live from dummy (which should be the biggest priority when dealing with metallic dummies), but it also aids in picking them up from the ground after their use. Something I found out the hard way when using dark purple colored snap caps from A Zoom. Drilling holes in the case help in identification as well. As for the empty primer being struck on a metallic dummy, I’m still working through that. There’s a tutorial online about making a complex system of springs and washers in the effort to make a homemade snap cap. But I don’t have the time or patience to mess with 30 or 40 tiny springs and tubes. Instead, I’ve been using a hot glue gun, inserted into the empty space where the primer would be, and filling up the entire empty case up with glue that quickly hardens, then topping off the primer. In this manner I’ve created a soft area where the firing pin will strike, instead of it going off into space and beginning that risk I mentioned earlier. This also adds weight to the case, which aids in that realism I also talked about. Whether or not this works, I’ll find out, but it seems to work well for now.



Miles V

Former Infantry Marine, and currently studying at Indiana University. I’ve written for Small Arms Review and Small Arms Defense Journal, and have had a teenie tiny photo that appeared in GQ. Specifically, I’m very interested in small arms history, development, and Military/LE usage within the Middle East, and Central Asia.

If you want to reach out, let me know about an error I’ve made, something I can add to the post, or just talk guns and how much Grunts love naps, hit me up at miles@tfb.tv


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  • Griz

    Nicely worded, but a simple “Snap caps are good , M’kay”. Would have worked well.

  • Will

    ABSOLUTELY SHOULD BE KEPT AND USED!!!!
    Heck, some of my best friends are dummies.

  • Bill

    Inert training rounds should come with every firearms sold and would promote safety probably more than a .65 cent cable lock. I don’t have the concern about dry-firing, but their value in training simple but critical tasks like loading, unloading (yeah, gotta unload the CHAMBER also), reloads, immediate actions, and the ball and dummy drill described is huge. I wouldn’t consider teaching a basic class without first covering most if not all of the manual-of-arms for the given weapon with inert ammo.

    Two caveats:
    For safety purposes I want my inerts to be IMMEDIATELY identifiable visibly, and NOT resemble live rounds, reducing the possibility that a live round be mistaken for inert.
    In my experience, inert rounds made entirely of plastic tend to have a short life span because their rims get chewed off by extractors. I don’t really care about the rounds, but I definitely do care about fragments and shards of plastic working it’s way into the the action of a duty gun. Eventually the all-plastic rounds fail to extract, and the pistols/rifles need to be detail-stripped and flushed of any remains,

    • ostiariusalpha

      ^ This. Including a few aluminum snap caps with the purchased gun would be exponentially more beneficial than the worthless lock. Professionally manufactured snap caps never resemble live ammunition either.

    • Definitely. I was aghast at the way snap caps shed shards.

    • nadnerbus

      Yeah, the Azoom aluminum caps are the best. I have cycled my 5.56 caps thousands of times through an AR and a mini14, and they have gotten very chewed up around the rim and “bullet,” but they continue to function.

      My friend got the plastic snap caps, and they broke within a month or two. Just not viable for a semi-auto action.

  • DevilDog58

    Honest question: couldn’t you just use an already fired casing with the used primer in it and no gun powder and a new bullet hand loaded for the same purpose? I know my Ruger Blackhawk comes with literature that says it has a “transfer bar” that raises and cushions the impact of the firing pin with no damage resulting. But that’s a SA and I’m asking about using the above “dummy” round in a 9mm or 39 Super semi-auto.

    • anon

      they don’t feed right without that round phallic goodness to guide it into the bangholio.

      also closing a slide on a casing is supposedly bad on the extractor claw

      • DevilDog58

        OK, I’ll keep that in mind. Thanks a lot for the help.

    • nadnerbus

      That’s pretty much what the dummy rounds in the article pictures are, so I don’t see why not.

      Two downsides though. They will be harder to distinguish between live ammo with a simple brass check, and the bullet may become seated deeper and deeper with repeated use. With no powder in the case, there isn’t really any limit to how far the bullet can be shoved back.

      • DevilDog58

        Well, that’s all preventable; I’ll paint the rounds themselves so I can tell at a glance they’re dummies and then I’ll just set my reloading die so it only seats the round to a certain depth. Thanks for the help.

        • Paladin

          The problem with setback is not so much the initial seating depth, but the fact that the bullet can be seated slightly farther back every time the round is chambered, though this is really only a concern in semi-auto actions. I would imagine that a bit of epoxy in the case mouth could solve the issue, though I would be careful not to get any on the reloading dies.

          • DevilDog58

            Good point I had never thought of. Thanks for the input, buddy.

  • M T

    Once had the “bright” idea to take a “deprimed brass case + bullet” snap cap and stuff it with salt, then top off the primer pocket with hot glue. The idea was to pack the case tightly so that during double feed practice on an AR the case wouldn’t dent or cause bullet setback, due to the salt inside acting as reinforcement. Well, I went to chamber that round, pulled the trigger, and then tried to rack the charging handle. Round was stuck like crazy. Either the salt I shoved in there, or the chambering / firing action, expanded the case in all the wrong places. Couldn’t even mortar the thing. Ended up wrapping some poster board around the tip of a screw driver and, from the bottom of the upper receiver, prying the BCG away from the chamber. The modified snap cap came with it, thankfully. Will never do that again. Double feed practice will chew up the snap caps, but guess I’ll just have to keep buying new ones.

  • iksnilol

    Get money, spend money, no money, looking like a dummy.

    In all seriousness, I like dummy rounds.

  • “The polymer dummies just don’t behave like the reloaded dummies do” They also don’t look like live rounds and that’s a good thing when you’re doing exercises or activities where live fire should not be happening.

  • Jas

    Dummies are dangerous. In firearms safety there is not substitute for an empty chamber, checked either visually or with a finger.
    During my practical shotgun training (in England) dummies were absolutely forbidden. The ARIA (Always Remembered Instructor’s Advice) was: Guns grow bullets, dummies kill.
    Lo and behold, two years later, while working as a range officer at the end of a shooting day, some dummy, worrying about his firing pin breaking, placed a dummy in the chamber and pulled the trigger. Fortunately he was pointing the gun in a safe direction and I was wearing my hearing protectors.