Q&A: Dry Fire

Would firing an unloaded pistol make noise? I have a character who is expected to carry his gun at his workplace provided it is holstered and unloaded until needed, purportedly for “scaring off wild animals”. (The owner of the graveyard secretly deals with vampires and werewolves at his home nearby, and wants his employees to be able to defend themselves if something goes wrong.) My character is attacked by a vampire, and panics, forgetting to load his gun before shooting.

So, on the first question, yes, firearms will make noise when dry fired. Also, “dry fire,” the correct term for pulling the trigger on an empty chamber. The gun itself may be loaded, but if there’s nothing in the chamber, the weapon cannot fire.

The vast majority of firearms either operate off of a hammer or striker system. In both cases you have a firing pin, which is a small metal rod which connects to the back of the bullet’s shell casing.

In the case of a hammer-fired weapon, there’s a (usually external) hammer which is cocked, and pulling the trigger releases that, striking the firing pin, which then connects with the bullet.

Striker fire pistols do not have a hammer. A striker rod drawn back, and then released forward into the firing pin. With striker fired weapons, the firing pin may be a fused component of the striker itself. (There’s no reason to have a separate component, and the “pin,” is just a protruding nub on the striker.)

This isn’t going to apply to everything. Some crude open bolt designs and slam fire weapons have simple nubs fused onto the back of their bolt, and I’ve even seen a carpentry nail used as a firing pin in a zip gun design.

Dry firing a cocked handgun will produce an audible click. However, now we need to talk about single action and double action.

The simplest explanation is that with a single-action weapon, pulling the trigger will not cock the hammer (or striker.) With a double action weapon, pulling the trigger will cock the hammer or striker before releasing it.

When you’re looking at single action revolvers, this means the gun can be fired once, before you need to recock it manually. With a double action revolver you can choose to manually cock the weapon, but you can fire again without needing to do so. (Note that on the vast majority of revolvers, the act of cocking the hammer is what rotates the cylinder, so in both cases, the weapon will chamber a fresh round as part of the mechanical process.)

Single and double action semi-automatics are a little different. If a single action semi-automatic’s hammer is down, the weapon cannot be fired. (This can act as an additional safety, though it should not replace proper safety management.) However, even a single action semi-automatic weapon can be fired multiple times in rapid succession. This is because the act of cycling and loading a fresh round will also recock the hammer (or striker.) A single action semi-auto can be viewed as having an extra safety feature that prevents a single shot, but will not prevent multiple follow-up shots.

Double action weapons can be fired regardless of the hammer (or striker) position by pulling the trigger. Pulling the trigger on a dropped hammer will take slightly more force than on one that is cocked. This is because you’re having to “lift the hammer” with your trigger finger in addition to simply releasing it. This is why you will sometime see a shooter manually cock a double action handgun. They’re lightening the trigger weight, and potentially improving their accuracy.

Most modern revolvers are double action (though some modern single action revolvers exist for sporting and hunting applications.) With semi-automatic handguns, it’s a much more varied mix. There are people who prefer single action semi-autos, because the extra safety element.

It’s also worth noting that some double action handguns (mostly striker fired ones), will not recock after firing. Maintaining a heavier double action pull on every shot. This is not especially popular among people who know their guns, though some inexperienced gun buyers will pick these up because the design is marketed as, “safer.” “You’re less likely to fire the gun accidentally.” Even though there are better mechanical solutions, long before we get to the topic of trigger discipline.

The irony here is, you’ve probably heard the sound of dry firing a pistol. This is something that gets used frequently in TV, video games, movies, and other visual media.

Mechanically, it doesn’t happen exactly the way you sometimes see it presented. On fully automatic weapons, you’re not likely to get a burst of clicks, because without blowback from a bullet, there’s no way to cycle the bolt, and no way to recock the firing pin (unless it’s manually.) On a single action pistol, you’re not going to hear a second click if you pull the trigger again, because the hammer’s down. On double action weapons, you hear multiple clicks if the user tries to pull the trigger repeatedly on an empty chamber.

In the case of a single action pistol, there is some mechanical noise involved in pulling the trigger while the hammer is down, but if the gun is properly maintained, it will be quite faint. Similarly, if you have a pistol where the safety disconnects the trigger assembly there will be a little noise, but not much. (I can’t really estimate exactly what you’d hear, because it’s specific to the internal mechanical design.)

Now, having gotten past all of that, the guy who operates the graveyard is a dick, and they’re going to get their employees killed, drawing more attention to what’s going on.

So, always store your firearms unloaded. Keep the ammunition away from it, in a cool and dry place.

For some applications, you should keep your firearm unloaded until you’re ready to use it. This includes varmint control and hunting. In both cases, the risk of an accidental discharge seriously outweighs the need to have the weapon ready to fire at a moment’s notice.

For combat applications, you’re going to need to keep the weapon loaded in any situation where you may need it at a moment’s notice. The weapon should be carried on safe, with the hammer down. With semi-automatics, the weapon should probably be carried with an empty chamber, though that is a little negotiable depending on the exact nature of the threat (and the specific model of handgun.)

It’s also worth noting that not all handguns have manual safeties. This applies to both semi-automatics, and even some revolvers. The major takeaway here is to research the technical details of any specific firearm you intend to use in your writing.

So, it is entirely plausible that your character would keep their weapon unloaded, because they expected they’d use it to deal with a rabid animal. It’s also entirely plausible they’d panic in the moment and completely forget to load their gun. The only problem with all of this is that if they’re getting jumped by a vampire, they’re not getting out of that situation. Similar situation with a werewolf. If something goes wrong, the employee on the spot is toast.

This digs into a whole thing about having credible villains, but if your werewolf or vampire can’t eliminate an (effectively) unarmed human, it creates huge problems for world building. So, we’re back to the point where the character’s boss is basically hanging them out to die.

Again with world building, “normally,” you’d need specialized ammo to deal with either werewolves or vampires, and handing out silver bullets would tip off nearly anyone that something’s not quite right about this job. Just arming them in the first place would raise some eyebrows.

Some of this is par for the course when we’re talking about urban fantasy. The entire structure is supernatural elements hidden behind mundane façades. So, the entire idea that someone who operates a graveyard is actually doing business with monsters is, absolutely par for the course. The idea that he’d take steps to protect his employees from retaliation makes sense. However, the point that stands out is that lead rounds probably wouldn’t do much to stop a supernatural attacker. If the goal is for someone else to intervene and save your character, then you don’t need the empty gun. There might be a thematic elements I’m unaware of, but independently, the gun raises many questions.

I hope that’s helpful for you.

-Starke

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