Avoid this dummy drill & how to turn it into a “smart” drill…

A few examples of dummy rounds

One of the most popular range drills is the “ball and dummy” drill.

The way it typically works is that someone loads your magazine with mostly live rounds and one dummy round…

With the expectation that, when you get to it, you’ll press the trigger and flinch to manage recoil that didn’t happen.

It’s a “gotcha!”

Sometimes, the simple fact that the instructor is telling the student that it’s a test to see if they flinch will create enough anticipatory stress to cause them to flinch.  This is especially the case with a powerful instructor and a less experienced shooter.  The power of suggestion of a good instructor is strong.

When it happens, everyone smiles or laughs…the instructor says, “don’t do that,” and the shooter feels a little burst of shame, embarrassment, confusion, a hit of cortisol, and in some cases, even a minor sympathetic response.

It’s a horrible drill for most shooters and you should do your best to avoid it until a very specific time in your training.


You may be saying, “Ox…but every Delta-SEAL-Ninja-SWAT instructor I’ve watched on YouTube and trained with has told us to do that drill—you better have some darn good proof to back that claim!”

I do.

First off, why does flinch happen?

Flinch happens when the brain tries to manage recoil.  It can be good or bad, but for 99% of shooters…maybe 99.99% of shooters, flinch is bad.

Flinch can be good in very rare occasions when shooters have it properly timed to happen after ignition to bring the sights back into alignment quicker…it can shave a few hundredths of a second off your splits.  Those few hundredths aren’t worth chasing after until you’ve exhausted SEVERAL other opportunities for improving speed.  I only include this because I know there are several of you .01%ers who are subscribers.

For the other 99.99% of shooters, the flinch happens pre-ignition and causes either low or low-left groups.

Flinch is a natural, normal response to repeatedly having an explosion happen 18” from your face.

It’s especially common among shooters who were introduced to guns with more recoil than they could handle before they had basic firearm manipulation figured out.

This happens for 2 reasons…

First is that when you’re just starting out shooting, everything is new and it can be a little overwhelming to remember stance, grip, sight alignment, sight picture, breathing, trigger press, and follow through.

Add to it a “surprise” break of the trigger and a gun that recoils enough to buck back at your face, a flash of fire, and a loud boom from inadequate newbie hearing protection, and it’s natural to get a little adrenal response.

And, it doesn’t help that a lot of complete jerks hand heavy recoiling guns to new shooters just to see how much the gun flops around when they shoot.

Experiences like this early on create strong, emotional, episodic memories that can QUICKLY get you to flinch in anticipation of recoil just like you’d flinch back from a hot stove after getting burned once or twice.

This conditioned response, once established, can keep coming back like a bad weed and haunt a shooter for the rest of their life unless it is effectively replaced or overwritten by a more effective conditioned response.

Ball and dummy drills just add fuel to the fire, strengthens the conditioned response of flinching by dumping cortisol & adrenaline, and makes it MORE difficult to kick the habit.  It makes shooting frustrating, not fun, and reduces the level of neurotransmitters in your brain that you need to learn skills that you want to be able to use under stress.

For new shooters, the key to keeping out of this rut is to start teaching with dry fire and the lowest recoiling platform you have access to until the shooter can handle and manipulate the gun safely and effectively without effort…THEN start moving up to bigger calibers and higher recoil.

The instant flinch enters the picture, it’s time to shift back to less recoil and more dry fire.

If you’re already in this roller coaster cycle of flinching/not flinching, I’ll tell you how to get out of it in a minute.

The second reason why shooters develop flinch is from doing too much live fire training.

The fact is, there is a mini concussive wave that hits your head every time you shoot a live fire round.  The bigger the recoil, the bigger the concussive wave.  A lot of people seem to be immune to this…but many people, especially those who have had multiple concussions, TBIs, chronic ear infections as a child, tubes in the ears as a child, tinnitus, or balance issues are affected by too much high recoil live fire–and high recoil is relative.  It’s not a matter of being tough or weak…it’s a neurological phenomenon.

Even if the concussion doesn’t bother your head, too much high recoil shooting can beat up your hands…especially with light and super-light pistols…and the brain’s natural response to pain that it anticipates is coming is to flinch.

This is something that I’ve talked with several top competitive shooters about “behind the scenes” and one of the reasons why so many shift to doing more and more dry fire training as they progress as a shooter…tens of thousands of rounds of live fire every year can be tough on the mind and body.

When is the Ball and Dummy drill “not dumb?”

There are 2 times…

First, is when a shooter has no problem at all with flinch and wants to practice malfunction drills.

It’s important that when you do this, if you or the shooter flinches, you completely ignore it and ONLY focus on the malfunction drill.  Every time you attach an emotional response to a flinch, it makes flinching a stronger conditioned response.

It’s similar to a kid or dog realizing that they get more attention when they act out, everyone knows you can’t reward bad behavior unless you want the bad behavior to continue, so you either ignore it or respond unemotionally.  Responding emotionally to a flinch is the equivalent of “rewarding” bad behavior by releasing neurotransmitters in the brain.

**NO instructor that I know does this to their students on purpose.  (I used to use this drill with students, but I didn’t know what I was doing.)  They simply haven’t had the opportunity to learn about how memories, skills, and conditioned responses are created and they’re using the best teaching methods that they know.  If you know of an instructor who uses ball and dummy drills, you might want to forward this to them.

Second is when you’re using ball & dummy drills to integrate dry fire and live fire.

Here’s what I mean…

Done incorrectly, the way most shooters do it, dry fire will create separate neural pathways for dry fire and live fire.

That means that you can do 1000 dry fire reps without flinching and pick up a gun and start flinching again within your first few shots.

You’ve got to convince the brain that there is only one neural pathway to use, regardless of whether you’re doing dry fire or live fire.

One way to do this is a variation on the ball and dummy drill…and if you’ve been on a lifelong roller coaster of flinching/not flinching, THIS is what you want to do on a regular basis to kick flinching to the curb for good.

The “dumb” ball and dummy drill is mostly live rounds with a couple random dummy rounds.

With the “smart” ball & dummy drill, you simply have someone load your magazine with mostly dummy rounds and 1-2 randomly placed live rounds, without knowing how many.  Have them insert the magazine and rack the slide.

Now, pick up your pistol, knowing that there’s a very high probability that you have a dummy round chambered, aim, and press the trigger as if you know there’s a dummy round in the chamber.

Just like your grip firmness and trigger press should be identical between dry fire and live fire, it should be identical regardless of whether you think there’s a dummy round or live round in the chamber.

Don’t give a flyin’ flip if you flinch, but let out a little “whoop!” or “YES!” if you press the trigger with rock solid sight alignment.

If it was a dummy round, then treat it like a malfunction…tap, rack, assess/press again.

If it was a live round and you treated it like it was going to be a dummy round, then you will have shot it without flinching!  Give yourself a pat on the back and keep going.

If you are still flinching, the next step is to switch to doing the drill with a heavier gun with a lighter load until you can overcome the conditioned response of flinching…and then work your way back up to your preferred gun/load.

This is an example of applying cutting edge advances in neuroscience to firearms training…and the end result is better performance in less time with less cost.  This brain based shooting approach, combined with accelerated learning techniques is the core of what we do.

It makes shooting less stressful, more fun, and high speed / high stress performance shoots through the roof.

If you haven’t done any of our training yet, and are ready to improve quicker and with less effort than your friends who just do live fire training, you need to check out 21 Day Alpha Shooter and Dry Fire Training Cards >HERE<

If you’ve been through 21 Day Alpha Shooter, you’ve got a couple of great advanced options…one is to go through our sub-second draw stroke course, Draw Stroke Mastery

The other is our shoot on the move course… the Praxis Dynamic Gunfighter training which you can learn more about >HERE<.

All of them are a dramatic departure from any other training you’ve seen or done before…and they’ll get you dramatically better results with less effort.

Who do you know who needs to read this?  A shooting buddy?  Past instructor?  Do them a favor and send them a link by email or social media.  They’ll be glad you did.

Questions?  Comments?  Stories about too much recoil too soon or ball and dummy drill horror stories?  Fire away by commenting below:


Please follow and share:
Pin Share


  • John Nielson

    Reply Reply April 4, 2024

    I took a friend to the range. ‘Pattering’ was similar to an improved cylinder shotgun.
    We did this drill with one mag of 11 snap caps and 4 live. The result could be covered with a 50 cent piece.
    He was ecstatic.
    For so long I’ve reversed the loadout (’cause that’s the way it’s done, don’t you know…).
    It only frustrates to point out what the person can already see, but instead help them do it right every time–oh, and by the way, you just nailed /another/ perfect shot.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply April 4, 2024

      That’s awesome, John!!! Great work.

  • George Harris

    Reply Reply March 11, 2024

    Don’t forget the Inoculation Drills that we have discussed previously which have worked successfully thousands of times in overcoming the Self Preservation Response, as I call it, in satisfying the Amygdala’s response to noise and movement in the visual field.
    It’s simple and easy, plus it works!
    Keep up the good work! I always enjoy reading your posts!
    George Harris

    • John Nielson

      Reply Reply April 4, 2024

      Can you point me to extended descriptions of the drill?

  • rod vanzeller

    Reply Reply August 19, 2023

    In my experience the more dry fire the less flinch in live fire.
    I think what happens is you create a habit of not flinching.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply August 25, 2023

      This is more involved than most realize, but you’ve got the big picture nailed!

      If someone starts with live fire, develops a flinch, and then does dry fire to get rid of the flinch, it may or may not help depending on how they do the dry fire.

      If done wrong, which is normal, people will develop a separate neural pathway for dry fire than for live fire and they work they do in dry fire won’t transfer over to live fire.

      If it’s done correctly, the work done in dry fire will transfer to live fire.

      Flinch, at it’s core, is the physical output of an emotional response of prior conditioning to the bang and recoil of live fire.

      If a shooter is at their mental capacity when the gun goes off and they miss because of poor fundamentals, it creates a negative association in the brain that creates future flinch. Lots of things go into it…performance, hand pain, ear pain, pressure wave on the eyeball, pressure wave on the forehead, pressure wave on the cheekbone, ego, past experiences, and pre-conceived associations of shooting from friends and media. All of these can increase the chances of a flinch developing.

      When a shooter learns the fundamentals with dry fire and/or airsoft in a low-threat, low volume, low recoil environment, the chances of them succeeding early and often when they finally shoot live fire is very, very high. The association with live fire is immediately positive and they are much less likely to develop a negative association that causes flinch.

  • Clint Simon

    Reply Reply March 19, 2023

    I do a similar thing. If they start flinching, I calmly explain to not care if the gun goes off or not. If they need more help I put a couple rounds in a revolver and keep explaining to not care if the gun goes off or not. Another thing is I have them dry fire a double action only or double action revolver. Slowly pulling that long trigger pull they don’t know when the trigger will break and helps them from flinching. Also the Sert pistol, the air soft that I turned into a lazer pistol and the lazer cartriges that you put into the chamber that flash a lazer onto the target, they all work great with students. (and I use them to practice too) And Ox I always like your training and tips.

  • Hector Carmenate

    Reply Reply January 24, 2022

    I got one question, what would be the maximum quantity of real ammo to be a smart dummy drill training in for example a magazine of 15 capacity?

    • Ox

      Reply Reply January 24, 2022

      Good question. I wouldn’t suggest filling an entire 15 round magazine…you probably don’t need that many snap caps and the more snap caps you use between pickups, the more likely you are to lose some.

      I like using 4-5 snap caps at a time and 1-2 live rounds…then pick up the snap caps and reload.

  • Ronald Domingue

    Reply Reply February 5, 2021

    One thing not discussed about the drill is that, very often, the student has no idea of what they are doing wrong. They don’t “see” any of the errors they are committing. You tell them, they dry fire, but there is little, if any, improvement.

    Additionally, even good instructors can’t always catch multiple errors. A “Ball and Dummy” will reveal that, for instance, the students are tightening their grip as they press the trigger in addition to ‘pushing’ or ‘heeling’ the gun. Can’t always catch that in live fire.

    Sometimes it takes multiple repetitions for the student to ‘see’ their flinch.

    I NEVER make fun of the student and strive to make it a positive experience with no embarrassment. It is a ‘teaching moment.

    Furthermore, I point out to the student that I, and many other experienced shooters, still flinch occasionally, that it is common, and just something to work on rather than be embarrassed by it.

    With gentle and constructive coaching, I find that my students make excellent progress towards improving, if not, mastering the flinch.

    One exception is that, if towards the end of a training session, the student begins to flinch, it could likely be fatigue. So we do a few dry fires and stop.

  • Alex

    Reply Reply November 6, 2019

    How long does it take to only use one neural pathway? Do you have to do the smart drill alot? Or do you pick it up pretty quick?

    • Ox

      Reply Reply November 6, 2019

      I’ve got to get into a little brain science to answer your question.

      The short answer is that it depends on the speed and stress level you intend to use the new neural pathway at.

      If you’re calm, cool, and collected, you can switch from a long-established neural pathway to a completely new one instantly.

      As you increase speed or stress levels, you’ll shift from being able to think your way through the technique to executing the dominant neural pathway that’s coded in the cerebellum, basal ganglia, and motor cortex.

      The speed and stress level at which your brain switches over from doing the new technique to the old technique will change over time.

      The more reps you have over time with the new technique, the more likely that it will be the technique that fires.

      And you’ll get to where it is the technique (neural pathway) that fires, regardless of the speed or stress level.

      • Alex

        Reply Reply November 7, 2019

        And you says yes when you shoot the dummy round and don’t move the sights. Then do the clearing drill. Right?

        • Ox

          Reply Reply November 7, 2019

          There are a couple different thoughts on that.

          One is that any time your gun goes click but not bang, you should tap-rack-assess. It works, but I do not subscribe to that.

          It’s great if you’re deliberately practicing tap-rack-assess, but just muddles the water when you’re using snap caps to integrate dry fire & live fire or overwrite the neural pathway that was causing you to flinch.

          If it’s natural, effortless, and already ingrained to tap-rack-assess, then it’s a different story…that’s awesome and keep doing it because it won’t muddle things or add to the complexity of the drill.

          The other way to approach it is to just focus on pressing the trigger without disturbing sight/muzzle alignment. You can rack the slide between reps or you can have a training partner rack the slide for you between reps.


  • Greg Smith

    Reply Reply November 6, 2019

    Hey Ox,

    It just occurred to me; what is the expected neuro-response after you’ve trained and trained using ear protection, then you have to draw for real (without hearing protection) and fire several rounds? Is there going to be a major unexpected flinch?


    • Ox

      Reply Reply November 6, 2019

      That’s a great question.

      That can happen, but for the most part, it doesn’t.

      There is a process in the brain called, “auditory exclusion” that happens in life or death situations. The mid-brain filters out more of some types of sensory input to the cortex and lets more of other input through. It’s very common to not hear any of your shots, hear them in an incredibly muffled way, or not “hear” them until the memory has formed and your brain has added them back in.

      This happens in less-than-life or death situations as well…like hunting. It’s pretty common for hunters to shoot an animal without hearing protection and without any impact on hearing. In general, the more calm you get with hunting, the less audio exclusion you experience. As someone who ends up drawing my pistol and shooting varmints fairly regularly, I can tell you that for me personally, it’s hit or miss but the impact on hearing is always considerably less than when my hearing protection is jostled out of place when a practice round is fired.

  • Tom Adams

    Reply Reply September 17, 2019

    I quit using the ball and dummy for newbies for the reasons you stated plus the fact they always know it’s coming and change their behavior. Most students load their own mags so when I do it they know the drill’s coming – or I have to be real sneaky about it. I’ll try your reverse approach and try not to react to the inevitable flinch. But I really wanted to pile on to your comments about beginning with low recoil and working up. I like to start em on .22LR version of a 92FS or CZ75 with Kadet upper. Then move them to a light crisp Langdon M9 or Custom Shop Shadow and finally to standard commercial versions before using their firearm of choice. They develop good trigger habits very quickly. I also advocate both your dry fire techniques and use of the SIRT. The latter seems to bring em along faster in pure trigger discipline which is really good for those who want to compete in static paper disciplines. Yours takes longer but they get more that’s needed for self defense and quicker than the SIRT. The SIRT can do the same but beginners spend too much time trying to make sure the dot’s where they want and get frustrated when they’re not yet perfect. Stay in the fight – you’re doing God’s work!

  • Stan Lake

    Reply Reply September 13, 2019

    I had a slightly different way of overcoming flinching and that was to just not care. Sure, I knew there was going to be a big blast of smoke and flame, that the front end of the gun was going to jump, that it was going to make a loud report but that was all directed away from me, not towards me so I just thought “so what?” When I stopped caring about the distracting noise and kick that really didn’t hurt me I stopped flinching.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply September 13, 2019

      That’s perfect! That’s what I was referring to here, “Don’t give a flyin’ flip if you flinch, but let out a little “whoop!” or “YES!” if you press the trigger with rock solid sight alignment.”

      The emotional episodic memory of past recoil is one of the big reasons why people flinch and “deadening” emotions by not caring and other, more precise techniques, will take care of it for many shooters.

Leave A Response

* Denotes Required Field