We discuss effective trigger manipulation, recovery, and follow-through in this article. Effective trigger manipulation controls the trigger and presses it smoothly and effectively until the shot breaks. Recovery happens when you take a shot, the gun recoils, and then you bring the handgun sights back onto the target with the front sight crystal clear and with the trigger in the reset position ready for the next shot. Recovery is also the re-establishment of your shooting fundamentals. Follow-through is when you maintain sight alignment while following the front sight through the gun’s recoil phase. Effective trigger manipulation, recovery, and follow-through increase your shooting accuracy.
The Importance of Effective Trigger
We often have been told and taught that an effective trigger press is the most important variable affecting handgun shooting accuracy. All the other shooting fundamentals (stance, breath, sight picture, sight alignment, and grip) can be effectively in place but if the trigger press is incorrect your shooting accuracy will be affected.
There is much advice about how to press the trigger of a handgun. All of that advice can be summarized in four stages.
- Place the trigger finger properly on the trigger. The pad of the trigger finger should be placed so the trigger sits between the tip and the first knuckle. This position is the least likely to push or pull the sights off of the target during the trigger press (see more comments and graphic, below).
- Take-up of slack. This stage is also known as prepping the trigger. All triggers have some amount of slack that has to be taken out of the trigger before the gun will fire. The amount of slack varies depending on the handgun type (revolver or semi-automatic) and style (for example, single-action and double-action). As the trigger finger presses the trigger to the rear the slack is removed. Once the slack is removed the trigger is ready to break the shot.
- Press the trigger smoothly straight back to the rear. Pressing the trigger straight to the rear is very important. If the trigger is pressed incorrectly the muzzle can move which affects accuracy. Once the trigger is pressed and the shot breaks, then it is important to momentarily trap the trigger to the rear which eliminates movement created by rapidly removing the finger from the trigger during follow through.
- Releasing to the trigger reset point. As you recover from your first shot you reacquire your sight picture and realign your sights while focusing sharply on the front sight. You then release the trigger until you feel or hear a click. That click is the trigger’s reset point. When the trigger stops at the reset point you do not need to take the slack out again…it is already out and the trigger is ready to break a shot.
All of the above stages can be practiced at home with an empty handgun engaging in “dry practice.” Dry practice means that you practice different handgun drills with a “dry” (unloaded) handgun. Dry practice is a very effective way to refine your trigger manipulations skills.
Four Trigger Pull Errors Affecting Accuracy
Number 1: Jerking the Trigger
Jerking the trigger happens when a shooter sloppily engages the trigger. The pad of the finger may be placed incorrectly and the trigger is not pressed smoothly to the rear. The trigger needs to be pressed smoothly and consistently every time while learning how to shoot accurately.
Don’t stop the trigger press once the shot is fired (“the break”). Keep pressing the trigger until it reaches its intended stopping point then release the trigger to its reset point. Do not let the trigger go all the way forward unless you do not need to take another shot.
If you find that you are consistently shooting low-left on the target (or to the low-right if you’re left handed), and if you have verified that your sights are aligned properly, then it’s almost certain that you’re jerking the trigger.
Number 2: Anticipating the Shot or Recoil
If your shots are scattered on the target you might be anticipating the shot or recoil. There’s a very easy way to diagnose this. Have a friend or instructor load one dummy round or empty shell casing randomly into your magazine along with live rounds.
With the prepared magazine in your gun shoot at your target. At some point your gun will want a new cartridge but it will get either the dummy round or the empty casing. When the dummy round loads into the chamber what usually happens is the gun jerks downward because you are anticipating the shot and trying to force the gun to shoot. If you notice this problem you will need to slow down your trigger press and pay attention to engaging the trigger with a slow, even press.
When we recognize this issue with our students our lead instructor prepares a magazine as described above. He then uses his cell phone camera to record the student taking a shot. The downward motion of the anticipated shot is easily seen on the video.
Number 3: Trigger Control
When a shot is fired that moment is often referred to as the “trigger break.” It is important to maintain pressure on the trigger to ensure it is at its natural stopping point. When the trigger is back as far as it can go then you begin to release it until you hear or feel a click. That click is the sound or feel of the trigger resetting.
The trigger reset happens as follows. When the handgun is fired the trigger remains depressed to the rear as a round leaves the gun and the slide cycles. To fire additional shots the shooter releases the trigger just far enough to hear and feel a “click.” That click is the trigger resetting in preparation for the next shot(s).
When the click is heard or felt the trigger is once again pressed to the rear and the next shot breaks. Developing the skill to recognize the reset point reduces shooting error because there is less chance to introduce error to your trigger press. You must learn where the reset point is on your gun.
Number 4: Finger Placement on the Trigger
The advice we have received over our many years of training is that the pad of the trigger finger should be placed properly on the trigger. If the trigger is too far forward on the pad—almost at the tip—your hits will be to the left of the target. If the trigger is closer to the first joint of the trigger finger then your hits will be to the right of the target. You can increase your shooting accuracy by making adjustments to where the trigger rests on the pad of your trigger finger.
Interestingly, there are some shooters who place the trigger on the first knuckle joint and shoot accurately. However, we advise new shooters to use the pad of their trigger finger.
The image below illustrates the proper placement of the trigger finger on the trigger.
Trigger Reset Controversy
The trigger-reset method described above requires fine motor skills. Fine motor skills deteriorate under stress. The testimony of people involved in lethal encounters validate this. These people, who were often trained to use the trigger reset method, admit that they did not employ the trigger resetting technique in a gun fight. Instead, they reverted to a technique known in the firearms training community as “rolling the trigger” (also known as slapping the trigger or free-flowing trigger press). Rolling the trigger is considered a flawed technique by some firearms instructors.
However, under stress, the trigger reset method requires fine motor skills. Under stress a shooter will subconsciously revert to a simpler technique that doesn’t require fully-functioning fine motor skills. That simpler technique is rolling the trigger. If rolling the trigger is the body’s response to stress in a lethal encounter and if we are supposed to train like we are going to fight, it seems reasonable to teach the rolling trigger technique to students with intermediate to advanced firearms skills who carry a concealed firearm because they could conceivably need to engage an attacker.
The free-flowing or rolling trigger technique keeps the trigger finger in motion during live fire. With the rolling trigger method, the shooter pulls the trigger straight to the rear and then quickly releases the trigger so it returns to its original position thereby bypassing the trigger reset position. The trigger finger may not come off the trigger, but if it does it is not a problem. What is important according to people who favor the rolling trigger method is that the trigger finger stays in motion by flowing naturally from the front to back.
Advocates of the rolling trigger method believe that shooters can shoot as effectively as those who use the trigger reset method. Our experience as firearms instructors, however, shows that novice shooters cannot use the rolling trigger technique effectively. This is why we teach the trigger reset method to our beginner students.
Trigger Actions, Trigger Travel Distance,
and Trigger Finger Movement
The action of the trigger and the distance that a trigger needs to travel before a shot breaks can affect shooting accuracy. The way in which the trigger finger engages the trigger also has an effect on shooting accuracy.
Some guns have a single action (SA) trigger. This means that the trigger only does one thing. When pressed it releases the gun’s hammer. Other guns have a double-action (DA) trigger which means that the trigger does two things: it cocks the hammer and releases the hammer. Still other guns are double action/single action (DA/SA) which means that to take the first shot the gun’s hammer must be manually cocked (for example, a Springfield Armory 1911). Once cocked, the trigger releases it. When the slide recycles it automatically cocks the hammer and then the trigger works in single action. Finally, there is the “safe action” trigger. This is a striker-fired design with no hammer. Each trigger press fires the gun (for example, Glock handguns).
Trigger Travel Distance
The distance the trigger has to move to break a shot also has an effect on shooting accuracy. If the distance is long that introduces the possibility of trigger press error. If the distance is too short that introduces the possibility of negligent discharges (the gun firing unexpectedly).
Trigger Finger Movement
One of the principles of effective trigger manipulation is that the trigger finger must press the trigger without disturbing other parts of the hand. What often happens with untrained shooters is that as their trigger finger presses the trigger their hand overly squeezes the handgun which introduces error.
The Importance of Concentration
Concentrating on the trigger press while shooting is an important skill. It requires self-discipline. When we are shooting for accuracy we recite to ourselves “trigger, trigger, trigger” as we press the trigger. Of course, this is when we are engaged in precise shooting at paper and metal targets. As we do this it burns that fine motor skill into the synapses in our brains and, God forbid, should we find ourselves in a gun fight we should be able to manipulate the trigger effectively.
Trigger control is a perishable skill. It must be practiced and mastered so it can be applied without conscious thought. Frequent training and practice will help shooters to properly control the trigger. Fortunately, trigger control can be practiced using “dry practice” (using an unloaded gun). However, live fire training is necessary to master recoil control, which is important for combative shooting.
Recovery and Follow-Through
Many shooters and instructors claim that follow-through is the act of bringing the front sights back onto the target to get another sight picture after a shot is fired. Some firearms experts believe that definition is wrong. The correct term for bringing the handgun back on target to reacquire a sight picture and sight alignment is called recovery, not follow-through. Recovery is necessary if you need to fire more than one shot.
Follow-through is maintaining proper alignment of the sights until the bullet leaves the barrel. We learned about a way to teach follow-through that was developed by Todd Kennedy and described by Todd Green (http://pistol-training.com/archives/2989). The technique requires the shooter to focus on the front sight as the recoil lifts the gun.
According to Kennedy and Green, if you see the front sight lift as the bullet leaves the barrel you’ve done all the follow-through you need to do. At that point there is nothing more you can do to affect the shot. Kennedy says that focusing on the front sight as the gun recoils provides the following feedback to the shooter:
- If you see the sight lift you’ve called your shot. Wherever that sight was when it started to move, that’s where your bullet hole is.
- If you see the sight lift you know your eyes are open when the gun discharges.
- If you are watching for sight lift, you will see the front sight shift before breaking a bad shot. This may give you time to fix the error. If not, at least you know your shot went bad and know you need to fire another.
- If you’re not aware of the front sight lifting you know you were off your sight as the shot fired.
- By watching for the front sight to lift you’re beginning the process of sight tracking.
Recovery and follow-through are important. It is important to understand the true definition of both terms so that you can shoot multiple shots accurately.
This article concludes our four part series on shooting fundamentals. Part 1 focused on stance. Part 2 discussed the importance of a proper grip. Part 3 explored sight picture and sight alignment. Part 4 focused on trigger manipulation and follow-through.
Mastering shooting fundamentals requires training with skilled and knowledgeable instructors. Mastering these fundamentals requires substantial dry practice and some live fire practice, especially if you intend to carry a concealed handgun legally.
Even if your handgun is only for home defense you still need to shoot accurately to stop a deadly force encounter in your home.
Get trained. Stay proficient.
Remember, in a gun fight you will revert to the level of skill you developed from training. If you do not have effective firearms skills you will likely be unable to defend yourself effectively.
Our Next Article
In the near future we will posting an article about the importance of physical conditioning and strength training for those who carry a concealed handgun. Being strong and in good shape, no matter how old you are, is important for winning a gun fight.
Sometimes a gun is not needed for self-defense. You may find yourself in a situation where you need to engage in unarmed close quarters combat. If you found yourself in this kind of situation would you prevail?
In the next article we will also discuss a fighting system that we believe is the most effective close quarters combat fighting system (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu). We will also discuss two other fighting systems that compliment Jiu Jitsu…Muay Thai and Judo.