What you don’t know can hurt you

Lately I have seen a lot of discussion about the details of best practices when handling weapons on various internet fora. Some of the discussions have been quite enlightening. Others…not so much. I thought it would be useful to give my perspective on some of these issues perhaps as food for thought and further (hopefully intelligent) discussion.

Let’s start by facing the cold hard reality that makes these discussions important: People have accidents with firearms. Just in the last week I’ve met two people who relatively recently experienced an unintentional discharge with a firearm. Let’s just look at the last several days in the headlines: A man experienced an unintentional discharge at an Easter Mass service, a police officer in Indianapolis was injured when his sidearm was unintentionally discharged into his own leg, and a police officer in Florida was killed when another officer unintentionally discharged his weapon while attempting to unload it. These things happen, and more regularly than we might like to admit.

Whether we are carrying a weapon for self defense, duty, or in pursuit of recreation like hunting or competition the thing we are holding is a lethal weapon capable of killing or maiming in the blink of an eye. The way we handle lethal weapons matters. The details of what we do, of what we ingrain into our handling habits (or fail to ingrain, as the case may be) could literally make the difference between life and death in a critical moment.

One of the big problems I have with the discussions I’ve seen so far on trigger finger discipline is that a couple of fundamental questions seem to be left out of the discussion…so I will pose them now:

Do you know when your finger is on the trigger of your firearm? Is the point at which your finger touches the trigger the result of a conscious decision? 

I ask these questions because in my experience the answer to both questions is a firm “No” quite a lot of the time. I base that on watching by this point thousands of people on the range and in other areas of life handling weapons…and based on what I know about myself, too. To quote myself from an article I wrote sometime back:

“My friend Todd Green is a big photography nerd and he likes to take pictures when he’s taking a class.He sent a series of pictures of me performing a draw from the class I did with Robert Vogel and noted that in one of them my finger was on the trigger of my Glock 34 before the pistol was in my eyeline. The pistol was pointed at the berm and if it went off in that position the bullet probably still would have hit the silhouette downrange and so some would doubtlessly wonder why I would be concerned. I’m concerned because at that moment I didn’t intend to have my finger on the trigger. With the stress of the clock and an audience, I was doing something I didn’t even notice.”

In my own experience I have found that video tape and pictures of what I’m doing on the range often highlight things I do not notice in the moment with the weapon in my hand. When I’m teaching or observing others I usually pick up things they are doing that they don’t realize either. The value of an intelligent outside observer cannot be overestimated when it comes to improving your practices or making you aware of what you are actually doing…especially when safety matters are involved.

Note that when I saw the pictures from Todd I didn’t immediately begin to reason why it wasn’t dangerous for my finger to be on the trigger when it was…my exact response to him was:

Damn…I need to work on that.”

Why? Because any time a finger is on the trigger without a conscious decision to have it there at that exact moment in time is a problem. My finger is pretty standard issue human trigger finger attached to a pretty standard human being subject to all the faults and foibles attendant to the species. There’s nothing special about my trigger finger or the person it’s attached to that makes a bad outcome impossible.

The chances of a bad outcomes increase the more you handle firearms around people. Usually when there is a loaded gun in my hand it’s in the relatively safe environment of the range. There’s a berm or a backstop in front of me capable of holding a round and all I have to do is keep the muzzle from breaking a 180 and I’m OK. I don’t often find myself with a gun in my hand in the 360 degree environment of the real world where “safe direction” is often really just “the safest direction I can find at the moment” and where the stuff that catches bullets is either very expensive or bleeds. Based on that, some would argue that my worry about the moment in time where my finger touched the trigger in the draw stroke is overblown…but I disagree.

What you don’t know can hurt you…and others.

I’m not going to get into the details of when, exactly, you should be touching the trigger during your draw or presentation to a target. I’m not going to get sucked into a debate about what “competition” guy X does vs. what “tactical” guy Y teaches…although I will parenthetically remind everybody that a lot of “competition” and “tactical” guys have had unintentional discharges due to a blend of human nature, stress, and the pursuit of speed.

I’m simply going to pose this thought: Whenever your finger is touching the trigger of a firearm, it should be the result of a conscious decision to have it there at that exact moment. If it isn’t…and experience and a basic understanding of human nature tells me that for a lot of people in many situations it most certainly isn’t…then there is work to be done.

18 thoughts on “What you don’t know can hurt you”

  1. Guns are made for your finger to naturally find the trigger. It’s good ergonomic design. With this in mind I’d like to suggest that the finger is consciously OFF the trigger. I personally favor the finger straight and touching the frame. One explanation I like is this uses the opposing muscles used to pull the trigger.

    1. It is a good post. And in a a time where ‘pre/half-cocked’ striker fired pistols are so prevelant, I wonder if it’s also a supporting argument for true double-action triggers?

  2. One of the best post I´ve read. You always react as you are trained, but… are you training correctly ?

    Thanks again for the post. It is most usefull for coaching in any activity of life!

  3. That “I Fucking Shot Myself” video is one of the reasons I don’t believe in appendix carry. If he’d been carrying AIWB, he wouldn’t have been standing up cursing at himself; he would have been on the ground bleeding to death from a blown-out femoral artery.
    Sorry. I get on this soapbox a lot, but Mr. Murphy visits all of us sooner or later.

  4. In my work as a range officer at a large municipal range, I can separate the good shooters from the (far more numerous) other shooter by watching that booger hook on the bang switch all the time or just when needed.
    Counseling rarely helps.

  5. I recently had a humbling experience. At a recent sanctioned match they had a left hand only stage that required a transition between shooting positions. The SO gave me a finger call (not “in” the trigger guard but not within the new IDPA rules). And guess what he was correct. My brain is well trained to maintain proper finger position when using my right (strong) hand but that training clearly hasn’t fully transferred. It was an excellent learning experience.

  6. Tim, great post (as usual)!

    I have something to share… I carry a Glock 26, appendix carry and I have no fear of shooting myself when I draw. I’m also not going to have a negligent discharge in church, the grocery store or anywhere else for that matter. I carry without a round in the chamber. I realize it takes timmmmmmmmmmmeeeeeeeeeee to chamber a round. I always carry where legal, including in the privacy of my own home. I carry a reliable pistol with reliable self defense ammo and I practice regularly.
    I always handle my pistol as if it’s loaded…

    1. Trogdor – I’m not trying to troll you, but I am really interested to know why you would carry a gun that you are not 100% comfortable with?
      Don’t get me wrong, I’m a glocker – I’ve carried one (in many different flavours) since 1995.
      But back to my question – there are so many different (and awesome) pistols out there with longer, heavier and deliberate triggers, or manual safeties… And there are always revolvers!
      I’ve carried all sorts of handguns, but any gun that I was not totally comfortable with I got rid of – fast!

  7. No one really stressed that a lot of u’s happen to people who “consider” themselves “experts”. The more comfortable someone is at being around weapons the greater the chance of an accident.It’s like driving a car the more comfortable we get behind the wheel the more lax we become. I have been around and have handled firearms for over 40 years and have been lucky I have never has a UD. Each time I pick up a gun I “try” and get “on alert”. Been lucky so far I guess.

  8. Yes, yeah, and f#*%’in ‘eh!
    As easy as it may be for me to post this glib response, it’s not so much when it actually comes to being 100% (and I mean 100%) aware, all the time, of where my trigger finger is at any given time when I’m gripping a gun. Thanks for the reminder to be ever so diligent, and not let my human stupidity, full of distractions and brain farts, get in the way of being totally responsible for my death dealing machine.

  9. Here is the problem with relying on your trigger finger to keep you from having a negligent discharge-all humans are hard-wired to close their hand into a fist without thought when startled bad enough. When that happens, your trigger finger will make contact with the trigger. As a L.E. trainer I have seen this happen with my own eyes. Once during force on force training an unarmed suspect jumped into sight at close range. The officer was so startled he fired his training gun without any conscious thought. The second time was at an actual shooting. The first officer recognized the threat and fired at the suspect. The second officer didn’t see the threat, but was so startled at the sound of gun fire that he fired twice. I had a chance to interview that officer and he doesn’t even remember touching the trigger-that is how powerful the startle reflex is. If you are aware of the startle reflex, you take rule 2 serious-Never point your gun at any thing you are not willing to shoot. ALWAYS have it pointed away from people (even suspects) until you have clearly made the decision to shoot, THEN point it at them.

    1. The points you made are all signs of lack of training or personnel who are not capable of adapting to the job they are assigned.

  10. The “I shot myself” video is one of the most important ones out there. When it came out, many people criticized the shooter because “he makes the rest of look bad”. My position is that his video did us a great service, in the same manner that aircraft accident reviews serve all pilots (and their passengers). Sharing mistakes, especially ones that make us look bad, is crucial.

    The gun control movement had several positive side effects (unintended, I’m sure). One is that it forced gunnies to develop improved gun handling procedures, and made us intensely aware of the safety issues. Another is that the number of casual, untrained shooters dropped.

    Now the numbers are picking up again–and this time we know what we’re doing. Still, the numbers are picking up again, and that means people who are less serious about guns and gun safety than the die hards are going to increase in number, resulting in a higher accident rate.

    seans, yes, these are all “signs of lack of training”, that’s the point. The problem is that casual civilian shooters are unlikely to get the detailed training and coaching they need to develop the right skills. They simply will not or cannot spend enough range time to learn better. We have to make this kind of training ubiquitous.

    Again, the “I shot myself” video is illustrative: his holster design made it easier to put finger on trigger–unless you drew the weapon perfectly in the manner required for that holster, which is a retention holster. As I recall, from discussions at the time, he wasn’t even aware that his finger covered the trigger for a brief moment while he drew; by the time his eyes were on the sights, his finger was typically in the right place.

    To dismiss the problem with “not enough training” misses the point. We’re still learning how to do training right, especially as guns come back up as a mass market commodity.

    The question isn’t how do we criticize dorks who shoot themselves, the question is “How do we train them, early enough, quickly enough, cheaply enough, to avoid these kinds of errors?”

    For this reason, I think “Keep booger hook off bangswitch” is part of the problem. Unless we are extraordinarily careful (as most humans are not, too bad, deal with it) we are going to become complacent because when we’re aware of it, we think our hook is off switch. We may not realize that for 50 milliseconds, as we draw, it is.

  11. This will be the last time, I promise…Dorito haze yourself everytime you do that. Then, there is the pain of a pierced pallet to deal with in addition to the self admonishment.

    Because: ouch.

  12. Post would have been better with original video than the musical for those who don’t have its frame of reference. Also reference “I shot myself – one year later”.

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