3 – Trigger Pull with Pistols
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Part 3. – Trigger Pull
There are 3 main components which go into making a great shot – Grip, Trigger Pull and Sight Alignment. Obtaining all 3 correctly at the same time is perhaps as elusive as finding an honest, well-meaning, genuine politician, but that won’t stop us from trying!
In this article we delve into mastery of one little finger and how much difference it can ultimately make in hitting your target. What is involved in proper trigger pull? What does ‘Snatching’ the Trigger mean? Crap, why did I just miss? What’s for lunch? With any luck, after reading through this and a good bit of practice, you should be able to answer the above and make it that one step closer to wherever you want to go. Oh, and what is for lunch?
Trigger – Without going into exhaustive detail, to fire a bullet, a firearm must ignite the primer housed in the back of the round. This is done by driving the firing pin into the primer with either a hammer or striker. When the firing pin hits the primer, the volatile explosives within ignite and flash into the brass casing which contains the propellant. The next step is pretty loud and obvious. To provide control over the release of the hammer or striker, they are held in place by a catch which is controlled by the trigger. Thus, the trigger releases the sear or catch, which in turn allows the hammer to move forward and contact the firing pin. – Relatively simple right?
Double / Single Action – Pulling the trigger to the rear can accomplish one or even two actions dependant upon the design of the firearm and its current state. As mentioned above we need to first lock the hammer/striker back and then release it to strike the firing pin. These are the two separate functions that define ‘double’ or ‘single’ action trigger pull. In the Beretta M9 (Fig 1), or Sig p226 (Fig 2), pulling the trigger when the hammer is not cocked (as shown) Will result in a long heavy pull as the firearm cocks the hammer then finally releases it “Double Action” – (DA). Both of these pistols will also allow the hammer to be separately locked on its own, by hand, or by racking the slide to the rear with a charged magazine. Once the hammer is cocked, pulling the trigger will result in a short, crisp pull which simply releases the hammer and fires the round “Single Action” – (SA). Other Pistol designs, such as the Colt SAA (Fig 3) or the Kimber 1911 TLE RLII (Fig 4) only have single action triggers. For these pistols the hammer MUST be separately cocked before the trigger is engaged to fire. Some revolvers are DA only, as the hammer can not be locked back. Check your manual if you are unsure to determine if your pistol of choice is double action only (DAO), SA/DA or single action only (SAO). This becomes important while shooting for accuracy as it is much easier to control a short crisp SA than a longer weightier DA.
Trigger Pull Weight – This is the maximum force (usually expressed in lbf.) that it takes to discharge a trigger. This can vary significantly from service weapons to custom ‘race’ guns that will have specialized triggers which require much less force to engage. One of the challenging aspects of shooting pistols is that the force required to “break” (fire) the trigger is usually much higher than the weight of the pistol itself. For example, a Sig p226 has a SA trigger pull of around 4.5 lbf and a DA trigger pull of approximately 10 lbf, whereas the pistol itself weights just over 2.5 lbs with a fully loaded magazine. Therefore, when pulling the trigger we exert much more force on the object (pistol) than the weight of that object making it very easy to move the pistol out of alignment when breaking the shot. Using 3 of the example pistols above (Beretta M9, Sig 226, Kimber 1911 .45) as well as a S&W M&P 9 a Colt AR 15 and Remington M24 (for rifle comparisons), and last but certainly not least, a custom STI 1911 competition .45 we obtain the following table (Table 1) which shows the approximate weight of triggers (on DA where available) vs. the weight of the firearm. (Weights can vary significantly, so these are representative or average or commonly accepted values)
As you can see, we have to get to the realm of rifles before we have triggers lighter than the firearm themselves. As a general rule of thumb, anything less than 3.5 to 4 lbf is considered too light for practical carry use, and 2.5 lb triggers are the far exception of the competition world. Anything under 2.5 lbs is probably the nicest trigger you will every shoot yourself with – i.e. an accident waiting to happen.
Trigger Job – Also known as trigger work, this covers a multitude of different gun smithing operations to improve the action of the trigger. These improvements include: making the trigger travel smoother, making the break point crisp and more defined and (primarily) reducing the trigger pull weight. All of these are completed to reduce the challenge of achieving an accurate shot. One can certainly practice and perfect all the skills required to shoot extremely well without any modifications and given the number of factors to consider when looking into any type of gun smith work one should develop the skills first and then move forward with an understanding of what they want changed.
Reset – To fire fast and accurate consecutive shots one should reduce unnecessary movements and keep everything as similar as possible shot to shot. A good way to do this is to keep the finger lying on the trigger between each round. Most people have a tendency to remove the finger from the trigger entirely and then SLAP it back on to fire… not the best habit to get into. Instead, try the following: take your unloaded pistol and double check that it is unloaded. Go ahead and check one more time just for good measure. Then load any snap caps if you have them and cock the pistol, point it in a safe direction and pull the trigger to the rear. While keeping the trigger pressed all the way in, re-cock the firearm and then slowly loosen the trigger out. You should notice a distinct physical ‘click’ in the trigger – you may even hear it dependent upon your pistol – this is the sear resetting inside the pistol. At this point you do not need to loosen the trigger to fire the next shot so pull the trigger back in (still pointing in a safe direction) and release the hammer. If you have snap caps you can continue this exercise to develop a feel for the reset position of your trigger. By only releasing the trigger to this point between each shot you will achieve a more uniform trigger position which should help increase your performance.
Now let us delve into the plethora of intricacies… (I really just wanted to use the word Plethora somewhere)
Trigger finger contact –
Our fingers are designed to do a whole bunch of wonderful things: Pick noses, prod Pillsbury-Dough-Boy tummies, get hit with hammers and inform other drivers of our opinion on their vehicle operating skills, but they are certainly NOT designed to pull directly backward with a constant force in a straight line. This is quite a shame as that is exactly what we need them to do to impress our buddies at the range. As we learnt in (Table 1) above, the weight of a pistol is usually significantly less than the force we will be applying to it. Therefore, if we do not pull the trigger directly backward then we will be moving the pistol around and causing divergence at the last second before we send hot lead down range. To give us the best chance of obtaining rearward pull we need to align the finger so the geometry of the knuckles works with us rather than against us. (Fig 5) diagrams the most common ‘first time shooter’ grip where the knuckle or even past the knuckle is place on the trigger. This is also seen visually in (Fig 6). Incorrect finger placement like this will certainly cause a push to the side and a movement of the POI. (Fig 5), (Fig 7) and (Fig 8) indicate correct finger placement with the trigger at the top of the swirls in the fingerprint or opposite the white bed of the finger nail. Some shooters will use a finger contact which is right into the edge of the first knuckle (Fig 5) which provides more leverage and makes it easier to shoot DA. This placement is falling out of popularity but is still useful on heavy triggers or if you don’t have the strongest of fingers.
Trigger Pull and cross angle force –
To understand the dynamics of trigger pull we must first study the movement of the finger as it bends. The finger itself is composed of 3 consecutive bones (Phalanges), attached with the third knuckle to the metacarpal bone within the hand. Each knuckle in the finger will allow the bone above it (closer to the tip of the finger) to rotate, however they are accustomed to acting together and bending as one. Once one starts taking a close look at what happens when the knuckles bend (Fig 9) it becomes quickly apparent that the pad (fingerprint) subscribes a complex arc which has lateral as well as back and forward components. These lateral forces will put undesired side force on the trigger and push the pistol off target when the trigger is pulled so the ultimate goal is to isolate and remove all but the rear pull from the finger movement. Looking closely at (Fig 9) one can see that the leftward slide of the 2nd knuckle (Rotating on the 3rd knuckle in the hand) adds the greatest extent of the lateral divergence, so it is on the positioning of this 2nd knuckle that we shall pay the most attention. Furthermore, we require a solution which will reduce any unwanted forces from moving the 1st knuckle as well.
Now that we have seen what a mess of angles and force vectors a typical finger bend includes, we must understand that the pistol acts like a bar with a center of rotation located along the grip. Any force applied laterally on the trigger will rotate the bore out of line. (Fig 10) shows how this relationship affects accuracy – notice that a small deviation at the trigger will cause a larger deviation at the muzzle.
So, how does the above movement translate when we are on the trigger? In regards to actual figure dynamics, (Fig 11) demonstrates the most commonly encountered error for right handed shooters who are trying for correct trigger placement but not achieving a correct pull. Whether they misplace the trigger too far towards the tip or not, they often still have a leftward slide in the 2nd knuckle, which pushes the finger and trigger to the left. Alternatively, if they bed the trigger into the first knuckle or if they bend excessively with the first knuckle as they pull back, they may find they are dragging the trigger to the right as in (Fig 12).
The correct orientation and movement of the trigger finger can be seen in (Fig 13). Here the shooter ensures that there is no leftward drive by actually bringing the 2nd knuckle slightly outward as the finger is drawn back. To ensure that the placement and force on the trigger are linear, the 1st knuckle is STRAITENED rather than bent. This, or slight variations (every finger is different size/ shape – so you may need to modify slightly) will provide the best trigger pull possible.
Follow Through –
A golf swing starts with the club above the head and terminates with the golf club having fully rotated past the tee back past the head. While it is technically correct that we could do whatever we wish with the swing once the ball has been hit, it is best if we have an end goal well beyond this point to ensure we are lined up and moving correctly at that key moment. The latter part of the swing that occurs after the ball makes the magical ‘ping!’ is called ‘follow through’ and is just as important as everything that came before. Don’t get me wrong, this example was not given to show that I am proficient at golf. In fact, I am likely the world’s worst golfer and provide a significant danger to anyone on the course within 360 deg and 30 ft., but the example holds.
If we plan to continue the trigger pull well past the break point and until the trigger comes to rest, we are more likely to ensure a smooth direct force and minimize any divergence due to pushing or pulling the trigger off-line. This focus on the end point ensures we do not start to think about the result of the shot before the break occurs allowing us to maintain concentration on the fingers movement. Therefore, one must ensure they do not allow their mind the freedom to think about what they have hit, how they have shot or who their favorite Telletubby is until after they are done. In practicing this, like focus on the front sight, many people find it helpful to mentally repeat ‘all the way’ or ‘follow through’ to them selves continually as they draw back the trigger. This helpful mantra maintains concentration until one becomes accustomed to the feel of good follow through and can repeat each shot without consciously creating mental focus.
Flinch / snatching the trigger –
The last time someone threw an object at your head I’d wager you didn’t think “Gosh-geewillikers, that object’s current direction and velocity will provide a potential physical hazard to my ocular lobes. It would be in my best interest to close the small ocular membranes and strengthen my physical rigidity by tightening the following muscle groups…” Instead you flinched. You body performed an involuntary action in response to stimuli. Shooting creates very much the same reaction both consciously and subconsciously. You expect a shocking action to enter your sensory perception and you react. Don’t feel too bad. Every single shooter out there, even the one with gold around their necks will have some form of flinch, ours are just evident beyond a micrometers scale.
The flinch reaction creates 3 primary physical differences as we near the end of the shot. First, we expect a large force to drive the pistol upwards. We counter this by driving or jerking the hands and pistol downwards to balance it out. What really happens is we start to drive the pistol down early, the front sight takes a dive and we break the shot low. I’ve personally seen new and nervous shooters put rounds 3-4 ft low on a target 5ft away! In reality, the well positioned grip in article one will reduce recoil significantly and we should let the body absorb the shot and naturally return the pistol into position without effort. The second gift of a flinch is an anticipation of danger which causes one to rush to complete the action of shooting. You slowly draw the trigger back then suddenly yard on that sucker as hard as you can. This uncontrolled ‘Snatching’ of the trigger will add deflection – most commonly to the left for RH shooters as discussed above. Finally, due to wariness and the previous concussive wave we will constrict all of our muscles in defense. This sudden tightening will cause small changes all over the body which will move the torso, arms, neck etc. While this is not often overly significant with pistols, once you start shooting large caliber rifles which have a tendency to punish you it can make all the difference at 600 yds.
The majority of the time a flinch and trigger ‘whack’ will put rounds Low-Left for RH shooters and Low-Right for LH shooters. If your trigger pull is decent, you will see the round go Low. These are of course rules of thumb and exceptions exist, so go back and break down each shot you wish to improve – how was your grip? How were your sights? What did your finger do? Grab some snap caps and find out! (Fig 14) shows a simplified analysis of the most common errors and there are many other targets like this with much offer a more complicated break down. This target assumes that your grip and sight alignment are correct and your problem appears during or just before breaking the shot.
One of my favorite lines to tell people is: Don’t ever SHOOT the pistol – Just PULL the trigger. Shooting is Loud, it is Dynamic, it involves Flash and Pressure and a Concussive experience. Launching a bullet or putting a hole in a target requires significant force and many people have pictures in their find from movies of heroes flinging the gun hand into each shot, or the mental experience of throwing something forward. These all translates to odd energetic injections by the shooter, as the person subconsciously tries to throw or ‘will’ the bullet forward. So DON’T shoot. Pulling the trigger is nothing. It requires the minimum of effort and is one case where less really is more. If people remove themselves from mentally punching holes down range and instead being the conscious operators of a trigger mechanism their performance usually jumps quickly and significantly as they reduce their flinch and expectation. – this is not to say that shooting can’t be dynamic, that you can not be running and rolling and gunning all at once, but someone who is running AND concentration on correct trigger operation will perform better.
Snap Caps –
One of the best ways to develop proper technique with a trigger is to use ‘snap caps’ or dummy rounds. These can be found at most firearms supply stores in nearly every caliber out there – many I’ve never even heard of. While these can be cheaply made by getting a friend who reloads to pop bullets into some spent brass then sticking cut down pencil erasers in the primer holes, I shy away from this as it can be easier to mistake real and dummy rounds when they look so alike. Even if you mark them with a sharpie it’s not a mistake I’d ever wish to make.
Dummy rounds can be used in two ways. The first is to load up entirely with them to conduct ‘dry fire’ drills. You can do this in the comfort of your own home, even with your rubber ducky while taking a bath if you wish, but I suggest doing this training in your basement (if you have one) as it adds an element of safety. Dry fire drills can be as complicated as double feed clearance, moving pistol draws from cover and force on force drills or they can simply be trigger practice. For the purpose of this article we will keep it simple. Pick an object across the room. Something you can align the sights to, but something light enough in color that you can clearly see the alignment of your front and rear sights (a light switch usually works quite well). Obtain the proper grip, align the sights and slowly break the trigger. You will likely see some movement of the front sight when the trigger goes and this will give you some idea of what you may be doing wrong. The second way to use Snap Caps is to have a friend load up a magazine/magazines for you with a random assorted mix of dummy and live rounds. You can even have him load the magazine into the pistol to ensure you will have no inkling of what you are about to get. This is the best way to determine the extent of, and train to reduce a flinch. Ensure that you concentrate on keeping your eyes open each shot and try to see what the front sight will do when the trigger breaks. For the first while you may see this take an aggressive dive south, which is the flinching reaction we discussed above. Dry firing and mixed firing will give you a good feel of a proper soft shot with no excessive movement. Once you get the feel for this, shoot every single round as if it were a Snap Cap and you should be pleasantly surprised at the result. Some shooters will use the ‘wobbly brass’ test. They place a spent brass casing on the slide of the pistol up near the front sight and try to break the trigger without knocking the brass off. This works quite well however I shy away from this as the brass usually covers your view of the front sight. If you are looking at the front sight while practicing trigger pull you will get the advantage of practicing sight alignment and focus at the same time. Furthermore you should be able to watch the direction the front sight moves in when you break your shot and use that information to diagnose the specifics of your trigger pull.
You will never do too much dry fire practice. Some of the best shooters in the world today by choice, or because of the distance they live from their range, do MOST of their practice dry.
Shooting during the Natural Respiratory Pause –
When one is trying to shoot accurately they should break the shot during their natural respiratory pause. I can hear you now: “You want me to do what with a neural repository?” Fortunately the concept is easier than it sounds. When we are breathing (which happens to be quite often if we want to stay alive) we will be in one of three states: Inhaling – drawing air into our lungs, Exhaling – breathing out or Resting between breaths. When one is calm and sedentary, this naturally occurring pause may even last a few seconds between each breath. On the other hand, when one is excited or panicked this pause disappears entirely as one adopts the SUCK AIR NOW method of keeping themselves oxygenated. Unfortunately breathing causes quite a lot of movement throughout the body and can throw ones accuracy off if it is not taken into account. Therefore, once we have proper sight alignment, controlling our breathing will reduce imparted movement on the pistol before we fire. (Fig 16) shows a common breathing cycle followed by two ways to fire in a controlled fashion. The first and more popular is firing with empty lungs during the pause between breaths. The key here is not to rush the shot, but to break it before one feels the need to inhale. If you were to hold your breath indefinitely the increasing lack of oxygen will diminish your vision, cause minor muscle vibration and eventually dump your butt on the ground as you pass out (clearly not ideal!). The second shown method is to release only a portion of the air and then relax the lungs so you are not breathing in or out. During this ‘enforced’ pause you should also break the shot before you feel the need to breathe again. I suggest utilizing the empty lung technique as it is easy to learn and the body is quite used to the idea. Either way pick one way and stick with it…
Keep in mind that while it is all well and good to focus on the breathing to such an extent, this technique is viable primarily with prepared aimed shots. If you are fighting off the Mongol hoards while dancing the nut cracker ballet it will be difficult if not impossible to control your breathing in any manner. So – get physically fit and shoot the best you can with what you’ve got. Good luck with the ballet.
Trigger Safety –
Regardless of the number or types of safety on any given firearm, keeping your finger off the trigger except when engaging a target will go a long way to enjoying the seniors discount menu one day. Make this an engrained action by ensuring you follow it even when conducting unloaded drills. Furthermore, one should avoid situations that can result in accidental trigger contact – a primary example of which is trying to catch a dropped gun. Most modern firearms are built so that they will not discharge a round even when dropped on the ground with the safety off; however the natural human reaction to try to catch something you have fumbled is almost undeniable. This is another firearms cardinal safety rule – NEVER TRY TO CATCH A FALLING GUN – Many people have ended up with more holes than they had at the beginning of the day trying to do so.
SUMMARY or WHAT DID WE LEARN? –
- Don’t shoot the pistol, instead just operate the trigger
- LOW POI is anticipation / flinch, LEFT POI (for right handed people) is trigger push
- Touch the trigger at the top of the loop in your finger print – or opposite the white bed of your finger nail
- Trigger weight ~ 6+ lbs, Pistol weight ~ 3 lbs
- Practice with Snap Caps at home – triple check (Hell, quadruple check!) there is no live ammo around or in firearm and aim in a safe direct ALWAYS (eg. toward basement wall)
- Practice with Snap Caps loaded randomly together with Live ammo at the range
- Trigger – Slow, straight back, follow through
- Oh Yes, El Guapo, you have a Plethora of Pinatas!
- Practice keeping finger off the trigger at all times except when firing
- Practice both double and single action shooting if possible.
- Safety IS important
- Always treat every Firearm as if it were loaded
- Never point any Firearm at anything you do not wish to destroy
- Keep finger straight and off the trigger until you intend to fire
- Know your target AND what is beyond it
- HAVE FUN!
TIP of the Day –
HIPPY THE HIPPO says – Somewhere, someone has designed a rail mount for a peach… but that doesn’t mean you need one on your carbine.
If you havent already, go check out the following for further reading on pistol shooting skills:
1- Holding the Pistol (https://canadianshooter.wordpress.com/holding-the-pistol/)
2 – Sight Alignment with Pistols (https://canadianshooter.wordpress.com/2-sight-alignment-with-pistols/)
To learn more about Canadian Shooter and a little about hippos check out:
All Photographs by Bob McKerrell (www.bobmckerrell.com) – Thanks Bob!
All Drawings, Diagrams and Words by Mike C.
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