Dry Firing a Bow – What Happens and Why Is It Bad?

Written By Ron Parker 

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A snap, a twang, probably a curse word. Even if you haven’t dry fired a bow yourself, you’ve likely seen this sequence of events play out if you practice on the range in the off season. 

Dry fires are a common occurrence among archers, and not just noobies either. Even the most experienced bowhunters can suffer an accidental dry fire every now and then.

Unfortunately, for how easy it is, dry firing is one of the most dangerous mistakes you can make with a bow. Luckily, you can protect yourself and those around you by learning the archery principles involved in dry firing and the safety measures you should take to prevent it.

What Is Dry Firing A Bow?

Dry Firing A Bow

Seeing as bows involve neither water nor fire, the term “dry firing” can be a little confusing. It’s a simple concept, though. Basically, dry firing occurs when you shoot your bow without having an arrow nocked in it. In other words, you draw the bowstring back and then release it without an arrow.

Now, this could simply be because you don’t know the consequences of dry firing, or maybe a child got ahold of the bow and just pulled the string back. However, for experienced bowhunters, dry firing usually happens due to some other unforeseen error.

For example, you may not have nocked the arrow properly. You’ve probably seen this many times if it hasn’t happened to you personally. Someone releases the bowstring and it jumps forward, but the arrow remains exactly where it was, jutting behind the string. Usually there’s a loud twang as the bowstring vibrates back and forth against the arrow.

Other causes of dry firing include an arrow with a missing, damaged or poorly designed nock. The nock is the part of an arrow that connects to the bowstring.

In this case, the arrow won’t be correctly nocked, but you may not even realize it.

Similarly, using an arrow that’s too light for your bow’s draw weight can lead to dry firing. The arrow won’t be able to absorb enough energy from the bowstring, which can be the equivalent of shooting the bow without any arrow at all.

Why Is Dry Firing A Bow Bad?

Dry firing a bow is dangerous. This is true for any bow, but it’s especially relevant in the case of high-powered compound bows and crossbows.

Best case scenario, dry firing your bow will weaken the structural integrity of the bow and make it more likely to break, warp or have functional problems in the future. More likely, it will actually damage the bow right then, ranging from warps to fracture to full-on snaps.

Worst case scenario, dry firing your bow will hurt you or someone around you. You hold your bow pretty close to your face, so if it snaps or splinters, pieces could fly into your eye. Even if it’s just the string that snaps, it could whip your face or another part of your body causing injury. And if you have a hunting buddy nearby, all of this could happen to them as well.

What Happens When You Dry Fire A Bow?

First, think about what happens when you normally fire a bow. Consider how fast and how hard the arrow flies. That speed represents the incredible amount of energy stored in the limbs of the bow when you bend them by drawing the bowstring. 

When you release the bowstring, the limbs snap back, transferring all that stored energy into the string and then the arrow. But if there’s no arrow, where does all that energy go?

As a kid, you probably dry fired one of your toy bows at one point and noticed how much the bowstring vibrated. That’s where all the energy goes. And not just the bowstring, either. The entire bow will absorb all that energy, which you’ll normally feel in the form of intense vibration sometimes to the point of shaking. It’s so powerful, you’ll probably even feel that vibration rattling the bones in your arm. Bows are made of tough, flexible material, but they aren’t designed to handle that kind of vibration. This is why they can warp, splinter or even shatter.

Check out this video of a guy dry firing a bow. 

How About A Dry Fired Crossbow?

Dry Firing a crossbow vs compound bow. The same principles of dry firing apply to crossbows. In fact, dry firing a crossbow can potentially be even more dangerous because crossbows tend to be more powerful than vertical bows.

RELATED: Best Crossbows Under $500

Furthermore, accidentally dry firing your crossbow is arguably a lot easier to do. That’s because you don’t necessarily nock bolts the same way you do arrows. They don’t hook onto the bowstring. Rather, they just sit on the rail. As a result, it’s easier to load them incorrectly.

Plus, cocking a crossbow is hard. Even if you have a cocking device, it takes a little while, and if you’re using a stirrup, it’s a lot of work. 

To avoid doing this out in the woods where they might make noise, most crossbow hunters cock their crossbows at home or at their truck before they walk to the tree stand. In other words, they spend much of the hunt just sitting there without a bolt, their crossbow ready to be dry fired. 

Dry firing can also occur if you don't learn how to uncock a crossbow correctly. Be sure to take the time to learn and pay careful attention when decocking a crossbow.

For this reason, most crossbows include safeties and anti-dry-fire mechanisms. Still, accidents can happen when shooting a crossbow, so preventive measures and proper crossbow maintenance are key.

How About Dry Firing A Compound Bow?

Like with crossbows, dry firing a compound bow is highly dangerous, in part due to its increased power. The advanced cam systems allow you to store more energy in the bow’s limbs with the same amount—or even less—force on the draw. That means that much more energy radiating through the bow’s limbs and riser if you shoot it without an arrow.

However, dry firing a compound bow vs recurve is even more dangerous for another reason: it has a lot of parts. In addition to limbs, a riser and a bowstring, compound bows have numerous buss and timing cables, not to mention the cams. Plus, as a bowhunter, you most likely have a lot of accessories attached to your bow like a bow sight, stabilizers and a quiver.

These parts are especially susceptible to damage or splintering from dry firing. Parts like the cams are small and fragile, so they can easily shatter, sending bits of plastic and tiny screws flying towards your eyes. The bowstring or the cables can snap with a lot of energy and whip back, striking you in the face or other vulnerable body parts.

Even if the bow itself doesn’t break or splinter, you can damage your accessories, especially the attachment mechanisms. Intricate levers for attaching quivers or sights don’t hold up well to the vibrations of dry firing. You might not notice right away, but eventually these mechanisms can break down as a result of a previous dry fire. 

RELATED: Best Arrow Rests

What To Do If You Dry Fire Your Bow 

what happens when you dry fire a compound bow

First and foremost, you should never use a bow if it’s been dry fired. If the bow doesn’t splinter, shatter or break, you might not realize it’s damaged. 

Nevertheless, it could have small fractures. When you fire the bow again, even if it isn’t a dry fire, it might not be able to withstand the stress of normal use anymore. The fracture could open up and lead to a full-blown shatter or splinter. 

Therefore, your first step if you dry fire your bow should be to check for these small fractures. 

Look over the limbs and riser, gliding your fingertips smoothly across the surfaces to see if you feel any hairline cracks. 

Be sure to inspect bows made of wood extra closely for cracks or stress points.

It’s also worth inspecting the bowstring, and in the case of a compound bow or crossbow, the various moving parts and mechanisms. Look for anything that looks like a crack or chip, regardless of how small. If you notice a fracture, you’ll have to take the bow to a professional to get it repaired and tuned, or purchase a new bow if it isn’t fixable. 

Unfortunately, even if your self-inspection comes up clean, there could still be internal structural damage that’s invisible to the naked eye. Just like a fracture, this weakens the bow’s ability to withstand the normal stresses and forces involved in regular firing. It could still shatter from a normal shot and hurt you or someone else.

As a result, you should always take your bow to an archery shop or professional bowyer to inspect the bow after a dry fire. It doesn’t matter how undamaged or unaffected it appears.

What To Do If Someone Else Dry Fires Your Bow?

If you hunt with a club, loan out your bow to friends or family members, or borrow bows from other hunters, it’s possible someone else could dry fire your bow. Plus, while you should of course be practicing weapons safety at home, clever children may sometimes find your bow and dry fire it without even knowing what they’re doing.

In these cases, the procedures and precautions are the same. The only problem is, how do you know someone has dry fired it?

You don’t need to go get a professional bow inspection every time you loan out or borrow a bow. However, you should definitely give it a good looking-over yourself. Besides hairline fractures, warps and cracks, pay close attention to the cams. A bent or buckled cam is a good sign of a dry fire and a dangerous problem in and of itself.

Get in a good habit of inspecting any bow you use that was previously used by someone else.

How To Avoid Accidentally Dry Firing A Bow

While kids or other non-archers just goofing around may purposefully dry fire a bow because they don’t understand the risks, experienced bowhunters usually dry fire their bows by accident. To avoid this, practice good bowhunter safety, including the following measures.

RELATED: Proper Archery Form

Inspect Your Bowstring

Always inspect your bowstring before each use. Never use a bow if the bowstring is worn or frayed. If the bowstring were to break at full draw, that would be a dry fire and it could damage your bow.

A bowstring can become worn from repeatedly carrying a bow by the string. It can also be damaged by brush or even a slight nick from a broadhead.

Inspect Your Arrows or Bolts

Dry fires are often the result of bad nockings on your arrows. For example, a weakened or damaged nock may instead splinter when you release it, letting the bowstring pass along the shaft of the arrow. Verify that your arrows are healthy and undamaged, especially the nocks.

Do Not Draw Your Bow Unless You Plan to Fire

Some bowhunters develop a kind of tic where they unconsciously draw their bow, usually only part way, and then slowly let the arrow back down. If you’ve gotten in this habit, make a point to stop. These are the moments when you release the bow incorrectly.

Some archers that choose a recurve bow shoot with their fingers. It is very easy for the bowstring to slip out of the fingers, resulting in a dry fire.

Anytime you fire your bow, you should be conscious of what you're doing and do it deliberately.

If You Are Using An Archery Release, Keep Your Finger Away From The Trigger

We have seen many dry fires happen because someone draws back a bow using a bow release and accidentally hits the trigger with their finger.

Treat a bow at full draw like you treat a firearm. Your finger should not be able to come in contact with the trigger until you are ready to fire.

Match Your Arrows to Your Bow

You should use the appropriately weighted arrows for your bow’s draw weight. Most arrows will list this, stating which types of bows they work for (recurve, compound, etc.) as well as a range of draw weight (eg, 40-65 lbs).

Make Sure Anyone Else Who Uses Your Bow Understands Dry Firing

If you’re teaching your kids or a friend or other family member how to shoot, the dry firing principles outlined in this article should be one of the first lessons you give them. Before you ever let them nock an arrow and draw the bow.

Inspect Your Cams

Cams are another big source of dry firing. You should make sure they aren’t bent or warped, as this could cause a “derailment,” which is basically when the bowstring comes off the cams and transfers energy through the bow incorrectly as a result.

However, it’s important to note that cams don’t have to be damaged to suffer a derailment. Instead, it can happen just because something gets stuck in them. This is especially true for hunters who carry their bows through the woods where dirt, leaves and twigs could get caught between the cams and the bowstring or other mechanisms. 

Before and after each hunt, check your cams to make sure they’re clean and free of debris and always store your bow in a top rated bow case when transporting.

Always Use A Bow That Is Fitted To You

Your bow should fit you and your shooting style. For instance, if you are right handed, you should try and shoot a right handed bow.

That can become an issue if you are right handed, but left eye dominant, known as cross dominance.

Click here for a guide to determining if you should shoot a right or left handed bow.

Final Thoughts

Dry firing is one of the most common bowhunting mistakes, but it’s also one of the most dangerous. By understanding what causes dry fires and how to prevent them, you can keep yourself and those close to you safe while still enjoying your time in the tree stand.

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Ron Parker

Ron is an archery instructor and expert bow hunter that lives with his wife and kids in central Ohio. When he is not teaching archery or in the woods bow hunting deer, he is writing informative articles for DeerHuntingGuide.net.

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