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.