Never Dry Fire Your Bow
If you've ever been to the range, you've probably heard this multiple times, from multiple different people. There's a reason for that: it's one of the most important things you can do to stay safe at the range and on the hunt.
Commandment #2: NEVER DRY FIRE YOUR BOW.
Let's talk about dry firing---what it is, why it's bad, and what can happen when a bow is dry-fired.
Dry Firing a Bow: What It Is, Why It's Bad
Basically, the term "dry fire" refers to when a person draws without an arrow, and releases the bow string.
In-and-of-itself, that doesn't seem like such a bad thing, right? What's the difference whether the bow has an arrow in it or not?
Here's why a dry fire is bad, bad news:
When a bow is drawn with an arrow---that is, when you nock an arrow and pull the bow string back towards your face---the limbs of the bow store the energy of your draw. Then, when you release the bow string, that energy is transferred into the arrow, and the arrow is pushed forward. When a bow is drawn WITHOUT an arrow and the string is released, the energy that's stored in the limbs has nowhere to go, and the energy vibrates powerfully throughout the bow. The vibrations are so powerful, in fact, that can do moderate-to-severe damage to the bow, and if/when parts fly off the bow, they can do moderate-to-severe damage to the person using the bow (or even the people close to the person using the bow).
(It's interesting to note that when you nock and arrow and draw and then release an arrow, not all of the stored energy is transferred to the arrow---a small bit of it is transferred back to the bow, and that's why you feel the bow vibrating after you've released the arrow.)
A dry fire can result in cracking or splintering of the limbs, string breakage, and cams/other parts fracturing and flying through the air (and landing in your eye, and blinding you).
Here's a video of a dry fire, resulting in severe bow damage:
If you look, the guy in the video actually had an arrow, but he didn't nock it correctly---that is, he didn't attach the end of the arrow (the nock) to the draw string---so it was basically as though he were firing with no arrow at all.
Why this guy is drawing in his front yard is beyond me---that's his first mistake. His second mistake is obviously the dry fire, and look how that bow comes apart---you can literally see pieces flying everywhere.
Who knew a simple arrow would make such a difference?
Dry Firing a Recurve is Bad; Dry Firing a Compound Bow is Worse
Because compound bows are so powerful---the force of the draw is magnified by the lever system---the damage to a compound bow after a dry fire will be much, much worse than the damage to a recurve bow. Plus, because there are so many more parts to a compound bow---literally, there are more moving parts---those parts are more likely to break and scatter into the air. Broken parts that are scattered in the air are more likely to end up in your eye and blind you.
Honestly, the scariest part of a dry fire is not equipment damage. A bow is a bow, and you can always get another one. The scariest part is that the bow is very, very close to your eyes. Those aren't as easy to replace.
Here's the Weird Thing: Dry Fires Are Often Mistakes
"Cool! No problem," you may be saying. "Don't dry fire a bow. Got it."
After all, most people are pretty smart and they want to be safe: you tell them something is dangerous, and they'll refrain from doing it. But here's the rub:
Most dry fires aren't committed because the person is being a hot dog, or forgetful, or anything like that: most dry fires are made by mistake. The string slips. You sneeze. Or, as in the video we saw above, the arrow isn't correctly nocked when the bow string is drawn.
So, how do you minimize mistakes? As the Good Book says, "Be sober; be vigilant." Always be alert. Archery is very much about mindfulness---total awareness of your body and your bow and your target---and that applies to your actions on the line, and off it.
Dry Fires Are Frequently Made By People Who Have Never Held a Bow Before
THIS is a very frequent scenario: you and your wife have friends over for dinner (or whatever). You just got a new bow, and it's beautiful. Your friend says, "I heard you just got a new bow! I'd love to see it." So you go out to the garage / shed / wherever, and your friend grabs the bow. Before you can say, "Wait wait wait don't pull the string back," your friend has drawn and dry-fired the bow, blinding himself, and ruining your beautiful new bow.
OK, so that's a worst case scenario, but the first part of it---a newbie handling someone else's bow---is a very common way that dry fires occur. If you're showing off a new bow, do NOT let newbies handle it, and if you are going to hand it over, make sure you say beforehand, "Listen, there's this thing called a dry fire, and it's when..." etc etc etc.
Arrows That Are Too Light Can Result in Dry-Fire-Like Results
Here's an interesting fact that many archers overlook: if you're using arrows that are too light, that can mean that too much of the energy in the limbs is being transferred back to your bow instead of into the arrow. That can result in all of the problems I mentioned above, so be sure to check the weight of your arrows. I've written a few posts on how to choose arrows, but you should always check with the manufacturer's measurement tables, and follow up by asking the folks at your range or pro shop.
Last But Not Least---Social Stigma
Here's the most amazing thing about dry firing a bow: aside from the damage to equipment and the possible bodily harm the archer could experience, there is a social stigma to dry firing a bow that is also quite unpleasant. You'll be "that guy."
If you dry fire a bow at a range, chances are very strong you will have many people, all at once, saying to you "WOAH WOAH WOAH! What are you doing? Don't you know that dry firing a bow..." etc etc etc.
As a matter of fact, if you feel ignored at the range and you're not getting enough attention, dry fire a bow---you'll have a lot of eyes on you, right quick.
(I'm kidding. Never dry fire you bow.)
In other words, on top of all the danger of dry firing a bow, you'll look like a dummy.
Writing "Thou Shalt Nots"
I have to admit: writing the Commandments---the "Thou Shalt Nots" of archery---isn't much fun! I feel like I'm yelling at people. But, they're important, so I carry on!
Next Commandment: Don't Be a Tough Guy.