The paradox of the handgun: Handguns are relatively weak weapons that are extremely difficult to shoot with precision. Yet in the United States the handgun is the primary player in the lion’s share of serious social interactions involving firearms. The United States did not invent the handgun, but it can be pretty successfully argued that the handgun’s design was “perfected” here. When a law enforcement officer has to defend themselves or the public against a criminal aggressor, odds are that they are doing so with the handgun that’s been issued to them. When a home owner wakes up to the sound of their door being kicked in, the odds are pretty good that they will reach for a handgun. When two dudes bust through the front door of a store wearing their t-shirts up over their face the store owner who fights back is likely doing so with a handgun. Elite military and law enforcement units who have access to weapons that can level entire buildings will obsess over the minutia of handguns that just poke little holes in things…because, handgun.
We love our handguns!
Unfortunately that love does not necessarily translate into knowing how to use them well. Even people that the general public thinks of as “trained” shooters are often not very well trained. Police officers are a good example of this. There are certainly some very progressive firearms training programs out there in law enforcement, but they are the exception rather than the rule. Often police training with firearms is minimal at best and qualifications take place on a B27 target. Note that this target was originally intended for shooting at 50 yards, but it is typically used at less than 25 yards in most LE qualifications…and even then there are a number of officers who struggle to qualify when the scoring zone of the target would only represent the vital organs of a dude as big as Andre the Giant.
I find that there are a lot of myths and misconceptions about using a handgun well…especially in regards to the most fundamental aspect of making shots with a handgun: Trigger control.
The trigger pull is the bedrock fundamental of using a handgun with any level of precision. You can have the most awkward grip in the world while using a pistol that has absolutely no sights and still put shots more or less where you want them if you can successfully press the trigger without disrupting the alignment of the gun on the target. If, however, you get everything else absolutely perfect and screw up the trigger pull, you ain’t hittin’ spit. Given that trigger control is the key to using a handgun well, you’d figure that it would be a well understood topic.
Again: When we press the trigger we are trying to operate the firing mechanism of the handgun without disrupting the alignment of the weapon with the target. How we think about performing this manipulation often sets us up for success or failure at the task. Kinesthetic concepts are difficult to communicate through text or even verbal interaction, so I find that using mental references most of us are familiar with helps.
Pedals and Triggers
Think about driving your car. If you smash the accelerator of your car to the floor in one violent motion, what happens? The engine RPM’s spike and assuming you’re driving something with more guts than a Prius you will feel the weight of the car shift to the rear and the car will basically lurch off the line. If you are a male I guarantee that at some point you’ve launched a car from a stop light…and if you’re female I guarantee you have been a passenger when a male launched a car from a stoplight. (This is a go-to mating ritual for the adolescent male)
In the clip you can see the weight shift manifested in the front wheels of the dragster leaving the ground. Most vehicles don’t have the power to actually levitate the front wheels, but it does demonstrate the weight shift that happens when you stomp the accelerator. If you aren’t driving on your learner’s permit I’m willing to bet that you have had to stomp the brakes on at least a couple of occasions and you’ve felt the precise opposite reaction…the weight shifts forward radically and anything you have unsecured in the car goes flying towards the front.
Note the language I’m using: Smash. Stomp. I’m trying to communicate the concept of basically attacking the pedal in one violent motion. You don’t do this in a car unless you are a lunatic because it’s uncomfortable and it makes the vehicle more difficult to control. When you learned to drive you learned to press the gas and brake pedals with a progressive, consistent motion to keep the car from lurching and to maintain control of the vehicle. (And to keep from bouncing your passenger’s faces on parts of the car’s interior) You have learned over time that you can press the pedals very quickly while still using a progressive, consistent motion to get immediate results.
A handgun works very similarly. If you attack the trigger with one sudden spike of force, you introduce all kinds of instability to the situation. Often the force intended to be delivered with the trigger finger ends up in a tensing of the entire hand, applying considerable torque on the gun as you try to fire the round. Even the force applied through the trigger finger alone can create lateral pressure that will drive the weapon off target.
If you want to hit anything, you need to approach the trigger pull the same way you would approach quickly decelerating your car without throwing the contents of the cabin against the windshield. Progressive, consistent pressure continually applied until you’ve fired the shot. Think of the difference between squeezing a marshmallow between your fingers and smashing one flat with a mallet.
The Perfect Trigger Press
One of the best ways to learn a proper trigger press is to take your unloaded pistol and balance an empty case on the front sight and learn to press the trigger to the rear using that progressive, consistent pressure without knocking the case off the front sight. Note that the goal here is not to see how slowly you can pull the trigger. You want to learn to aggressively apply that progressive, consistent pressure in a compressed time frame. When performing this drill you will very quickly learn that having the “slack” or “takeup” out of the trigger is key to getting a good trigger press in a compressed time frame.
Grip It Good
When you start to practice aggressively applying this progressive, consistent force to the handgun you will also find out the value of a solid grip. The harder you grip the gun, the more aggressively you can work the trigger without disrupting the sights. There are a lot of grip strength ratios thrown out there about how much pressure to apply with your strong hand and how much to apply with the weak hand, but I have a much simpler prescription that doesn’t require math: Grip the gun with your strong hand as hard as you possibly can…with all the force you can muster. Then dial back the amount of pressure you are applying until the gun is no longer shaking. Then do the same with your weak hand. Viola! There’s how much force you should be using to grip the gun.
You will likely find this uncomfortable at first. When I release my grip on the pistol the minute details of the handgun’s grip are often embedded into my skin. Sometimes you can see the manufacturer’s logo temporarily impressed into my hand. You may not be able to generate that much force, but the important thing is that you’re deliberately and aggressively gripping the gun to give maximum stability as you apply pressure to the trigger. Time and practice will help you learn to isolate the movement of your trigger finger from the rest of your hand.
New shooters are often taught that the gun should “surprise” them when it goes off because it helps prevent anticipation. Anticipation is trying to manage the recoil of the pistol before the weapon has actually fired. Anticipation is not the same thing as “jerking the trigger”, or attacking the trigger as one violent action as mentioned above. Anticipation is a separate phenomenon that often follows attacking the trigger with new and intermediate level shooters because in their mind the whole thing is happening….NOW! They see the sights momentarily aligned and think NOW! and violently attack the trigger and attempt to mitigate recoil all at the same time, pulling shots way off of the intended target. To remedy this, instructors often teach a very slow application of pressure to the trigger so that the shooter doesn’t know when, exactly, the gun is going to go off. This is the much discussed “surprise break” and it’s fine as a demonstration tool for a new shooter, but it is not an optimal method for operating the trigger.
Often the slow approach to the trigger press creates more problems than it solves because you’re actually building suspense in the mind of the shooter. “Not yet, not yet, not yet, oh it’s close, ohit’ssoclose, OMGOMGOMG NOW!” and they throw a shot even worse than before.
Teaching a progressive, consistent application of force through the entire trigger pull with no stops tends to do a good job of mitigating the severity of anticipation (very few shooters are entirely immune to anticipation…the very skilled shooter only anticipates a little where a newbie misses by feet) while allowing for excellent speed. I find that people who are taught the surprise break methodology are fine when they are shooting at a comfortable pace but the wheels come off once they’re required to perform to a demanding standard on a timer.
The Click of Fail
To fire more than one shot we have to reset the trigger, releasing the trigger to travel forward enough to re-engage the firing mechanism of the handgun. On a double action revolver resetting the trigger means letting the trigger come all the way forward again so you can fire the next shot. On most semi-automatic pistols it means letting the trigger move to a little beyond the reset point and then very quickly removing whatever slack is left so the next shot can be fired.
Unfortunately a lot of people get the reset wrong. Invariably when I’m on the range with Glock shooters I will encounter what I call The Click of Fail. The shooter will fire their pistol and then pin the trigger to the rear of the gun as the weapon cycles, waiting to reset until the gun has settled again. Then they will slowly let the trigger back out to the reset and fire the next shot. Usually the trigger reset is done more slowly than the actual trigger pull. That means I hear something like:
The results on target are usually pretty ugly.
Resetting the trigger is something we have to do before we can fire the next shot. That’s it, folks. It does absolutely nothing for us apart from that. There is absolutely no reason to reset the trigger in a slow and deliberate manner because it doesn’t mean a damn thing to actually firing the next shot. It’s like going to the airport. You don’t want to be in the airport, you just have to deal with that horrible place so you can get to your destination. Nobody wants to hang around the airport unless they are so lonely that they look forward to having TSA “agents” fondle their genitals. Belaboring the reset is even worse than hanging around the airport because there’s absolutely no chance of even a cheap thrill.
Learn to reset the trigger as the gun is cycling/recoiling. Doing so gives you more time to work the trigger properly and deliver the next shot with more precision. Waiting until the gun comes back to rest to reset the trigger and THEN trying to pull the trigger often contributes to attacking the trigger and anticipation, especially when a timer is involved.
I know there are some instructors out there who actively teach a slow reset of the trigger, but those people are wrong. Nobody shoots like that in any endeavor where time is of the essence, be that a competitive environment or a gunfight. I’m not in favor of teaching techniques that fall apart when the timer comes out or bullets start flying.
This is certainly not a comprehensive treatise on every important aspect of trigger control, but it hits most of the high notes and I’d imagine it’s about the upper limit of how much the average person can read on the topic in a single sitting without going blind. What are some myths and misconceptions you’ve encountered about trigger control? Let me know in the comments.
Good article. I had always been taught to pin the trigger (a term I hadn’t heard of until just now. I thought it was called “riding the reset”?) as an essential component of good follow-through and I still do it during slow fire if I’m going for group size at distance, but it’s a hard habit to break (still trying) when it comes to shooting quickly.
Terminology is definitely confusing on subjects like this.
B27’s are still used? I know in NJ LE qualifications are on the FBI Q target only. Here in CO the retired LE qualification course is shot on a IPSC target. I haven’t seen a B27 used since the 1980s.
Indeed they are. A number of departments in Virginia use the B27 as their qual targets.
tim this is the best instruction on the trigger i have ever read thank you for your information i own about ninety books and you are the most true and accurate john rickhoff [email protected]
Thank you! That’s quite a compliment.
I’ve read in several places that Rob Leatham “slaps” the trigger.
I’ve tried to emulate that technique but it doesn’t work for me as I need to feel the trigger throughout the cycle.
Is it just through brute strength of the forearms that makes it work?
(B class USPSA)
I’ve never been up close with TGO when he’s shooting, but I’ve seen video footage and to me it does look like he’s basically “slapping” the trigger at least a significant percentage of the time. I cannot speak for him, but I’ll give you my thoughts on it:
1. Rob has grip strength that is exceptional. All of the top male shooters have an extremely strong grip and they are imparting incredible amounts of force into the grip of the gun…enough so that if they’re applying significant force to the trigger the gun doesn’t squirm around in their hands as a result.
2. Rob has been at this a while. He’s been a top level competitor for most of my lifetime to this point. Someone who has put in that much time and effort over decades is going to have capabilities that vastly exceed what mere mortals can do with a gun in their hand.
I think it’s likely a blend of exceptional physical strength, millions upon millions of repetitions in practice and in competition, natural talent, and mindset about what he’s doing that produces the results he’s getting. When I measure my performance on target and on the timer I cannot get good results with the guns I carry attempting to mimic the trigger technique I’ve seen him use on video. (Namely coming completely off the trigger and whacking through the whole pull…takeup and all…in one quick motion) I drive rounds off target and anticipate badly.
I’ve had the opportunity to chat in depth with a number of shooters and I’ve found that each of them got to where they are at in different ways and have developed approaches that work for them. I think the development is likely the most important explanation for their success rather than the technique they adapted to their situation.
To sort of give you some idea of what I’m talking about, someone I shoot with fairly regularly (and who shoots much better than I do, typically…He’s a FAST coin holder) expressed appreciation one time for showing him how to be much faster on the draw. He watched me draw and saw that I tended to raise my shoulders as I drew to get the gun into my eye line sooner. He started doing this too and it improved his performance.
I had absolutely no clue what he was talking about because I never spent an iota of my time on how my shoulders move. It was something that just happened as a result of the way I thought about my goals on the draw.
There is no paradox concerning handguns. As firearms authority Chuck Taylor once wrote (to the best of my memory) “The handgun is the modern version of the Roman short sword….meant to deal with problems just beyond arms’ reach.”
I really enjoyed this piece, covers all the key aspects that I’ve found to improve my shooting in very easy to understand, effective language. Thanks. I found that one other thing helped my trigger control indirectly, and that was when I changed my focus on how I was gripping the gun, from being a lateral squeeze (hands pushing in against each other) to being an opposing push / pull between firing and support hand. Keeping the grip pressures in line with the bore helped me keep the trigger movement in line with the bore as well, so I didn’t push laterally as much with my trigger finger as I pulled the trigger.
A push-pull tension induced between the strong and weak hands is often found to be beneficial by a number of shooters. It also helps keep the hands locked together as the gun recoils.
Interesting. Front Sight is really big on “trigger trapping”. I have to say it did seem to improve our accuracy on static target shooting. I don’t shoot IPSC/IDPA so I don’t know how good or bad it would be in a rapid fire situation.
Tim, great article. Can you speak a little more on trigger follow through? Should you pin the trigger all the way back and then reset during recoil? Or are you saying that resetting during the recoil doesn’t allow for that?
My conception of “pinning” the trigger means holding the trigger fully to the rear until the gun has settled from recoil. This is not a useful technique, in my opinion. Follow through is about making sure that the bullet we’re firing is out of the barrel and on the way to the target before we start moving the gun. Some people get in a hurry and attempt to manage the recoil of the weapon before the bullet has left the barrel…classic anticipation. Some will actually pull the gun up before the bullet has left the barrel…often referred to as “heeling”. I press the trigger as far rear-ward as it will move (most triggers have a little over travel built into them) and as the gun is in recoil I will reset the trigger.
Once the projectile is out of the barrel…and this happens before the slide of a semi-automatic cycles, at least if the pistol does not have some severe mechanical defect…there is nothing more we can do about that shot. It’s gone. Now we need to prepare for the next one.
Recoil can be used to help reset the firing mechanism. On a Glock pistol just relaxing the trigger finger while the gun moves in recoil is usually enough to allow the trigger to move far enough forward to reset. On some pistols with a longer reset (like my LEM equipped P30) you may actually need to deliberately move your trigger finger to bring the gun to full reset. Each individual handgun is a little bit different due to the limitations of manufacturing tolerances, differences in spring tensions, etc and it takes some experimentation to get used to what you need to do for the reset on the particular specimen you are shooting.
Makes sense, thanks!
I have to disagree in part, not in entirety, with your point about the “click of failure.” As you aptly pointed out, in particular with Glock shooters (decently long and very *positive* reset), you will hear something like Bang….clickBang…etc. “The results on target are usually pretty ugly.” I disagree that this is ‘usually’ the case, but this is my experience vs yours, but more importantly you never explained *why* this phenomena is related to the slow reset. I think what you may be seeing is entry level shooters who are simply poor at manipulating the trigger anyways, and the reset time has nothing to do with it. You stated earlier to the effect that “some instructors teach this…and they are *wrong.*” I completely disagree here. Again, you did not (in my opinion, of course) adequately provide for why this was wrong, let alone why it is taught. I’ll offer an explanation to you of why I teach it *for beginning level students.* Most people when starting out (and these are basically the only people I teach this to) at the moment of discharge will completely disengage their finger from the trigger, often bringing it right out onto the frame ala “Rule 3” — I usually commend this saying “you have the right mindset on safety here, but we’re actively shooting the gun so I want to show you a different way of doing that.” For this person, it is too early, I think, to teach an active reset, such as catching the link. That is something that can be taught later, when they’ve gotten over the idea that, yes, the gun is going to recoil; don’t worry about it. It is far easier to take that person after a few dozen rounds of the slow reset and say “okay, now I want you to do exactly what you were doing before, but this time let the trigger go out faster.” And faster, and faster, and faster, until we are at the point where I can introduce ideas like catching the link.
Anyways, those are my thoughts, would love to hear what you think about that.
I’ve been shooting regularly for over 60 years and never thought about reset. To me it has always been something that is automatic.
Comments are closed.