The term “dry-fire” doesn’t mean a fire sparked in dry conditions, but it’s definitely a hot experience and something to avoid in archery. It means shooting a bow without an arrow nocked on the bowstring. It can damage the bow and injure the archer.
What Happens in a Dry-Fire?
Understanding the danger of dry-firing a bow requires studying the mechanics of shooting a bow. To launch an arrow, archers use muscles to draw the bowstring, which rolls cables through cams to bend the bow’s limbs. The force stored in the limbs depends on the draw weight.
When the archer releases the bowstring, the limbs spring back into place, converting the limb’s stored power into kinetic energy to propel the arrow into flight. When everything works smoothly, you hear a mild twang as the bowstring releases, feel a slight vibration in your bow hand, and watch your arrow zip downrange.
What happens if there’s no arrow to absorb all that energy? It can’t go anywhere except back into the bow, which isn’t designed to absorb such power. When the energy stays in the bow, shock waves blast through every inch of the bow’s moving parts. This brutal release of energy is loud and potentially dangerous. It can damage the cams and limbs, loosen screws, snap the bowstring, and send parts flying.
How Much Damage?
Bow technicians describe dry-fires as explosions. Most dry-firings damage the bow, especially compound bows,because they have more moving parts than recurves and longbows. But with any bow, the higher its draw weight, the greater its potential for damage.
“Today’s bows are tough, so they rarely cause significant injury to shooters, but the cams usually bend,” said Jim Smith, owner of Extreme Performance Archery in Bozeman, Montana. “Depending on the bow’s design, the draw stop can hit the limb and crack it when dry-fired.”
What are the Safety Concerns?
Dry-firing a bow is frightening. That powerful energy release roars through the bow and into the archer’s muscles, which can cause aches and bruises. When at full draw, the bow is also near the eyes. If the bowstring snaps or pieces break off the bow, it can injure or even blind an eye. The projectiles can also hurt people nearby.
What to do Next
If a bow is dry-fired, don’t shoot it again until a professional inspects it. “Take it to a pro shop. They have the tools and expertise to fix it,” Smith said. “The bow will usually live through a dry-fire without parts flying off and hurting you, but if you draw the bow after it’s been damaged, you’re looking for trouble.”
Even if the bow looks fine, it’s probably not. “On some bows there’s a thin spot in the cam where the string hooks on, and feeds it to go around. That’s kind of a crumple zone,” Smith said. “That’s where a cam will bend. Sometimes it’s so slight that you won’t notice it unless you’re trained to notice it.”
Take the bow to an archery shop. Don’t be embarrassed. Be honest so the technician knows how to assess the damage and make repairs. The tech can also check with the manufacturer to see if the warranty covers the damage. Even if you bought the bow at that shop, the manufacturer determines whether to cover the repairs.
Preventing a Dry-Fire
A dry-fire can happen to anyone, but most happen while inexperienced people handle the bow.
“Don’t let your buddy draw it back,” Smith said. “Drawing a bow uses muscles you don’t use unless you’re an archer. If people don’t know how to a shoot a bow, they’ll pull it really hard, but lack the muscles to control it. The string slips out of their fingers and dry-fires.”
Don’t leave archery gear where people can pick it up. If someone has never shot a bow, they probably have no idea they shouldn’t dry-fire it.
Even so, dry-fires can happen other ways, such as using arrows that are too light or too short, or have loose or damaged nocks. Always inspect your nocks as you load your arrows, and have a pro shop cut your arrows to ensure they’re the correct length.
Bows can also suffer a derailing, which resembles a dry-fire. That can happen when a twig or other object gets caught in the bowstring or cable, causing it to shred the string or make it roll off the cam. Derailments can cause much the same damage as a dry-fire.
The best way to prevent a dry-fire is to stay vigilant and practice safety. Inspect your bow, arrows and accessories while practicing. Follow your shooting steps. And always handle your gear with care and respect, which includes telling friends and family members not to touch.
Dry-fires can be startling and expensive, but they’re almost always preventable.