I’ve told my students for many years that in developing good shooting, trigger control is “the heart of the machine.” That truth is not dependent upon shooting style. The man who popularized the use of the sights for defensive shooting in modern times, Colonel Jeff Cooper, emphasized a “controlled trigger press” as one of the key elements in being able to defend yourself in a gunfight. The man who re-popularized point shooting in modern times, Colonel Rex Applegate, made it clear that without trigger control, neither his technique nor anyone else’s was likely to work well. Both of the late colonels knew whereof they spoke.
If the aim is slightly off, you might get an eight-point hit on the target instead of a ten-point hit. But, if you jerk the trigger, you’ll miss the whole damn target. Your hands can be so stricken with “the shakes” that they tremble but the tremors won’t move the gun more than an inch by themselves. If you just let the sights tremble in the center mass of the target, and bring the trigger smoothly back until the shot breaks, you’ll pretty much hit what you’re aiming for.
The consensus of firearms instructors follows that of those legendary colonels, Applegate and Cooper. It is a matter of bringing the trigger rearward in a straight path, smoothly, without moving the muzzle off target, until the sear releases and the shot is fired. Sounds simple, doesn’t it?
Let me quote another of the great masters who is no longer with us, Ray Chapman, the man Col. Cooper dubbed The Maestro. Ray won over 200 shooting matches in his time, set some 20 world and national records (some of which still stand), and won the first World Championship in the discipline that later became known as IPSC. He was known to shoot coins off silhouette targets moving at 10 feet per second (fps) at 25 yards, using a carry pistol. Suffice to say that Ray Chapman knew how to pull a trigger. “It’s simple,” Chapman is famous for saying. “It just isn’t easy.”
Simple… because there are only a few things to remember—not easy… because we need to develop the discipline to bring all of those few things together at once, sometimes under stress, to be able to accomplish the perfect trigger pull that sends the bullet true to its intended point of impact.
We need to look at the most obvious thing first: the mechanics of trigger pull. But we’ll be able to do it better if we have also mastered certain important elements of grasp, and of stance. We’re talking about software – in this case, technique – to be sure, but hardware comes into it, too. The term “handgun,” after all, brings together two separate words: “hand” and “gun.” If the one doesn’t fit the other, the mechanical leverage required for optimum trigger control probably won’t be achieved. So, the manner in which the hand fits the gun is a definite concern, too.
The retraction of the trigger from its position at rest to the point where it trips the sear mechanism and unleashes the shot has to be smooth, even, and uninterrupted. It can not go in fits and starts. Different instructors have used different terms to describe the movement they’re looking for. Back at least to the 19th Century, marksmanship instructors taught to squeeze the trigger, because the word “pull” might be associated with a violent rearward movement. Wyatt Earp told his biographer Stuart Lake that in his many gunfights in the 1880s, he was always careful not to jerk his trigger. In the mid-20th Century, Col. Cooper popularized the term press the trigger, which is still widely used.
Personally, when I’m shooting for anything serious, I try to consciously think, “roll the trigger,” because it connotes that smooth, even, uninterrupted pressure we are all trying to achieve. Whatever the “trigger word,” no pun intended, the concept must be clear: we have to distribute the trigger pressure evenly, and let the instant of the shot come by surprise so we don’t anticipate it and move the gun, thus moving the shot’s point of impact.
For the most part, we want to avoid “trigger slap.” This means that the finger is coming off the trigger, and when it comes back for the next shot, it strikes the trigger with impact. This moves the gun and therefore moves the point of impact, resulting in a poor hit. I say we avoid it “for the most part” because there are a handful of people who can actually make it work. When shooting against the best in the world in speed matches that might be won by hundredths of a second, Rob Leatham and Todd Jarrett have both been known to fire with what might be called a “controlled trigger slap.” This is a grosser, simpler movement than a controlled press, and can be accomplished faster.
If it works for them, why won’t it work for us in most cases? Well, for one thing, they’re both multiple time world champions, and most of the rest of us aren’t. With schedules that often encompass 100,000 rounds per year live fire, they have trigger fingers that are educated to a level most of us can never hope to achieve. Moreover, Leatham for one is known to compete with a customized 1911 Springfield Armory pistol with a one-pound trigger pull, which means the trigger slap is a in essence a “light slap” that’s less likely to jerk the gun off target. The rest of us are unlikely to carry a gun with a trigger that light, and Leatham himself recommends against doing so.
A technique born in marksmanship that has been taught to many for combat is known as catching the link, or riding the link, catching the sear, etc. On a semi-automatic pistol, at least in single-action mode or with the Glock, XD, or M&P designs, it is not necessary for the trigger to return all the way forward to its at-rest position to fire the next shot. The trigger only needs to return far enough to deactivate the internal disconnector mechanism and engage the sear. This shortens the back and forth movement of the trigger in sequential fire. It also guarantees that the trigger finger will remain in contact with the trigger, eliminating “slap.”
It’s a strong technique, but it does come with a price. The bill comes due when you’re under extreme stress, and physical strength accelerates out of control while fine motor control goes down the crapper. The flexor muscles in your hand digits, including your trigger finger, are stronger than the extensor muscles. What I’ve seen again and again, even with top shooters, is that they try to “catch the link” — the pressure is on during really high-speed shooting — and the finger doesn’t come far enough forward to reset. Their finger is twitching on a trigger that doesn’t respond.
Other instructors have seen that, too. At a recent roundtable with top firearms instructors at the international conference of ILEETA, ace instructor and pistol champ Vince O’Neill explained that he had seen this syndrome so often, he got away from teaching “catching the link.” Several of his peers said the same.
Is there a middle ground? Yes! In 28 years of teaching for Lethal Force Institute, I came to recommend a “trigger weld” that didn’t depend on the subtle dexterity required to “catch the link.” That middle ground is this: The last shot has been fired. The slide has cycled. Let the trigger finger and the trigger come back forward, past the re-set point, until the trigger stops moving. Maintain trigger contact throughout, and when it stops moving forward, start bringing it to the rear again! The cessation of movement is something that you can feel even through fingers numbed by vasoconstricton in a high stress situation…it still eliminates trigger slap…and it guarantees that when you start pulling the trigger again, it will be a trigger that has reset, and will cause the gun to fire when you need it to!
Over the years, there was a lot of discussion with double-action revolvers about two-stage versus single-stage trigger pulls. The two-stage pull was essentially “trigger-cocking,” in which the index finger brought the double-action trigger slowly back until the shooter could feel the cylinder bringing the next chamber into alignment with the bore and the firing pin. Then, the shooter would use a second, careful press to break the shot.
A small minority of highly skilled shooters made that work for them in bulls-eye revolver shooting, a one-handed game that required precision hits in slow time frames. A somewhat larger minority of PPC shooters made it work with their revolvers, held in two hands and also with generous time allotments. These days, I don’t know of a single reputable instructor in the defensive side of shooting who teaches the two-stage double-action trigger pull.
Even in the old days, the winning double-action shooters for the most part shot single stage, that is, one smooth, even, uninterrupted from the first to the last instant of the trigger pull. It works at 50 yards, even works at a hundred yards, and it works faster than anything else at point-blank distance.
The reason is similar to the problem we saw with “catching the link” in autopistol shooting. The two-stage manipulation of the double-action trigger is very much a fine motor skill, and fine motor skill ability is the first thing you lose when you’re under stress. Even in conditions of calm, most of us have found that the straight-through pull helps the instant of the shot’s release to come by surprise. That’s important, because if we know when the shot is going to go, something in the subconscious yells “NOW!” and we tend to jerk the trigger and ruin the shot placement. Letting the exact instant of the intentional shot come as a surprise keeps that from happening, and keeps the shot toward the center of intended point of aim.
Back in the 1970’s, when I was in my 20’s and a young PPC shooter flush with victory after winning his first state championship, I experimented with the two-stage trigger pull on the gun I was shooting then, a Dan Wesson revolver that lent itself very well to that sort of trigger manipulation. So did the old-style Colt double-action revolver I’d started PPC with. Did it work? Sure. My first 580 score out of 600 on Match Five, the quintessential 60-shot, 7-to-50-yard stage of the 150 shot NRA PPC tournament course, was fired with a 6-inch Dan Wesson Model 15 fired with two-stage double-action. However, my first 590 out of 600 on the same course was fired with straight through double action. Live and learn…
To recap, the key to the mechanics of trigger pull whatever gun you’re firing are: smooth, straight back, uninterrupted. You can mix and match techniques. For instance, I’ll use a “controlled trigger slap” on the first target (only 15 feet away) in the “Five to Glock” stage at a Glock Shooting Sports Federation match. (For details, go to gssfonline.com.) But by the time I’m at the second target 30 feet away, I’ll be letting the trigger come all the way forward, but still keeping my index finger in contact with that trigger. At the farthest target, 75 feet way, if I’m feeling cool I might try to catch the link, but I’ll probably end up “going to fallback” and letting the trigger return all the way forward. Does that work? Each of us can only speak for ourselves. My last GSSF match was at Pensacola in 2009, and I used this trigger pull strategy to win the Major Sub class with an out of the box Glock 30 with standard 5.5-pound trigger, firing Remington-UMC .45 hardball. I used the same techniques to place second in the Master Stock division there. The bottom line is, each of us has to practice with different approaches to trigger pull mechanics, analyze them, and see what works best under pressure for the individual who is going to be firing the gun!
There’s a lot more than the index finger at work when you start pulling triggers. Grasp is important because human hands are sympathetic, and that impacts us in two ways. First, in just the firing hand that takes the “master grip,” when one finger starts moving the other fingers start moving. That gets compounded in a two-hand hold, because when one hand tightens its grasp the other hand sympathetically tightens with it. That is what caused all those accidental shootings when a cop tried to double-task and handcuff a suspect at gunpoint by himself, and accidentally shot the suspect. What happened was, when the one hand closed the handcuffs, the other hand closed with it, and caused the gun to fire.
That’s the worst side of the problem, seen on the street, that’s called “sympathetic response” or “interlimb response.” It was quantified many years ago by Dr. Roger Enoka, the first physiologist to really take a look at the problem from a scientific perspective.
For decades before that, seen particularly from the single-hand side, it had been known to marksmanship instructors as “milking.” That is, when the index finger pulls on the trigger quickly, the other fingers tighten in response, like milking a cow’s udder. That tends to pull the gun down low and left- for a right-handed shooter, and low and right for a southpaw, and the shot follows the pull.
The way to stop sympathetic tightening is simple. It’s one of the few shortcuts there is in the trigger-pulling business. Hold the gun with maximum force with every part of the hand except the trigger finger, which is “disarticulated” to work separately. Now, when the trigger finger tightens on the trigger, the other fingers can’t sympathetically tighten more and pull the gun off target, because they’re already as tight as they can get! And if the support hand is likewise tight with maximum force, it can’t pull the gun hand off target, either. Yes, I know…that’s not what you read on the internet or in the old time marksmanship manuals. Just try it, and see for yourself. Enough said.
For a single shot, you can be standing on one foot like a stork, or hanging upside down from a chandelier, and achieve perfect trigger control. However, if you have to fire more shots than one under time constraints, the more urgency you feel the more likely you are to jerk the trigger. A strong stance will bring the gun back on target faster, reducing that sense of urgency. Also, remember, jerked shots are often caused by a subconscious sense that “the recoil is going to hit me now, so I’ll counter it first,” causing a convulsive jerk. If you’re in a strong stance that puts the upper body weight forward into the gun and minimizes balance disruption from rearward recoil thrust, you’re less likely to have to deal with that. You can execute a strong body-forward stance from Weaver, Modified Weaver, or Isosceles two-handed, and for that matter, in one-handed shooting.
The fit of the gun to the hand is worth a 3,000-word article or more in itself, but the quick distillation is, the barrel needs to be in line with the long bones of the forearm while still allowing the finger to find its “sweet spot” on the trigger. The key element is “trigger reach,” measured from the center of the web of the hand in line with the barrel to the part of the finger that centers on the trigger. If the trigger reach is too short, the right-handed shooter will tend to pull right, and if it’s too long, will tend to push the shot left – vice versa for southpaws.
Where is that sweet spot? The lighter and shorter the trigger pull, the farther out it can be on the trigger finger. Old teaching held that the tip of the finger, or the pad of the fingertip (best described as where the whorl of your fingerprint is centered) would be more sensitive. Sensitivity is nice, but in fast shooting, leverage is more important. Contacting the trigger finger with the distal joint of the trigger finger at the palmar crease of the joint gives an amazing increase in leverage. Try it and see. “Leverage is power, and power controls.” In their winning years, such great champions as Ray Chapman and John Shaw recommended going deep onto the trigger. Double action revolver masters called that part of the trigger finger “the power crease.” They called it that for a reason…hint, hint. Again, give it a try before you decide! This trigger finger placement will improve your shooting more dramatically if you have a very light gun and/or a gun with a heavier trigger pull.
The Exemplar Drill
I’m trying here to verbally describe a felt sensation, and an adult lifetime of writing has taught me that this is close to futile. I can only compare it to trying to draw a map of infinite space: I honestly don’t think it can be done. Trigger pull is about the feel of the thing, and the only way to really show someone how something feels is to let them feel it.
In accordance with that, for years I’ve incorporated into my teaching something I call the Exemplar Drill. The student stands on the firing line, aiming his or her gun at the target. The instructor puts his hand over the student’s. The student is responsible for holding the sights on target and keeping a firm grasp on the handgun, and then puts his finger on the trigger and lets that finger relax and “go dead.” The instructor’s finger pulls the student’s finger and trigger back. Six shots is enough to “turn on the light bulb.”
Then, the instructor and the student both work the trigger at the same time. The student’s finger is on the trigger, and the instructor’s finger is on the student’s finger. They pull the trigger together for, say, six more rounds.
Finally, the shooter “flies solo with the instructor on board.” That is, the instructor just lightly touches the student’s trigger finger with his own, while the student does the actual “trigger-pulling.”
Until you’ve done this exercise with a bunch of people, you won’t believe what a quick fix it is for bad trigger control techniques. You can almost see the light bulb come on over the student’s head. “So, THAT’S what a good trigger pull should feel like?!?!?!”
I learned it circa 1980 from Ray Chapman. Chapman told me he learned it in the Marine Corps. History shows us that the USMC was using this teaching technique with the pistol in the 1920s. Sometimes, really cool stuff gets buried, and turns into “lost secrets” which are very much worth recovering.
I’m already over my allotted space here. Fortunately, you’re not out of time to try these techniques and, if they work for you, incorporate them into your shooting repertoire. The trigger is the heart of the beast. As soon as you control it, you control the whole damn rest of this shooting thing.