Running the trigger may be the most important fundamental skill in operating a firearm. While the process of shooting is very simple in theory, the things we do to mess up the process complicate it. Of all the things that can cause problems in the process of firing a shot, none are probably as troublesome or persistent as the difficulties that one can encounter while actuating the trigger.
The basic technique for actuating a trigger is the surprise break. The word break in this context applies to the exact moment that the firing mechanism of the rifle actuates. In the case of the surprise break, simply apply uniform pressure on the trigger straight to the rear, gradually increasing pressure until the shot breaks at a random, undetermined point in time. Making the trigger break occur at a random time decreases the likelihood of the shooter reacting to the firing of the shot during the window that it is actually occurring, which would likely cause the shot to go astray. The shooter’s reaction, generically called a ‘flinch’, is more likely in an inexperienced shooter, but is a plague to all shooters given enough live fire or heavy recoil. That makes the surprise break a safe choice for shooters of all levels.
Adding a level of difficulty to the trigger control is what Jeff Cooper called the compressed surprise break. The idea is simply to reduce the window of time during which the shot would break, but that the exact point is still indeterminate. It’s hard to define the time window of a compressed surprised break but it’s probably safe to say that the maximum time would be under a second, and perhaps down to 0.25 to 0.15 on the minimum end.
Part of what makes trigger control a skill that requires frequent re-working is that people who shoot often enough get to know their guns well enough to anticipate the moment when their shot will break. This is why we also emphasize follow through, which is really a special name for simply paying attention and willfully restraining oneself from doing anything other than correctly executing the task of keeping the sights on target while actuating the trigger. As it becomes second nature for the shooter to instinctively predict the moment the will break, follow through becomes more and more important.
What exactly constitutes a command break? The only difference between a compressed surprise break and a command break is that a properly executed command break is confined to a specific, finite point in time.
Why bother with a command break when the compressed surprise break can be so quick? That’s a good question. Less than a quarter second seems like a reasonably small window of time to fire a shot. One reason for it is that if a target is presenting itself there’s no way of telling how long it might continue to do so. One practical reason for me is that I have found that working different aspects of a skill increases my competence in that skill. Trigger control is among the top skills that are pertinent to shooters, so it makes sense to pursue any potential for improvement. In a professional application a command break could make sense in coordinating with other personnel in the coordination of a task.
It was logical to me that I should be able to progress from easier to more challenging. Trigger control is a very perishable skill, so I spent some time making sure my surprise break was better than it had ever been. The Appleseed I went to helped with that, as I began with a small amount of perceptible movement on a large proportion of my dry trigger presses and ended with very few that showed any movement upon the trigger break. Some regular work at home polished things even more.
After that I started practicing perfect trigger presses with my eyes closed, so I could concentrate all my senses on the sensation of pressing the trigger. I did this in between holding exercises that were my primary practice that week. The holding exercises ended up factoring into my training in the command break.
When I finally started working on the command break in dry fire, it became clear that smoothly actuating the trigger on a certain point was not all that difficult. With the gun on a bipod and rear bag, I brought out my old friend the metronome, and set myself on a countdown to fire on a specific beat. I started at 60 beats per minute (BPM) and quickly and easily worked up to 240 BPM, which for those of you who are math wizzes, is a beat every quarter second. It was no problem to get the shot to break right on the click probably nine out of ten times.
As I was doing this I recalled that I’d made a connection between advanced trigger manipulation and follow through. If the technique of breaking the trigger at a finite moment in time isn’t all that difficult, then why is the command break a more difficult technique? A big part of it is very likely follow through. The holding exercises I’d been working on the week before were essentially a hyper exaggerated follow through- a minute of holding everything the same after the gun is dry fired. With than in mind, I gave myself a countdown of five to break the shot, and then maintained my attention on keeping everything exactly the same for a count of ten after the shot.
In live fire I tested my command break with a 10 round group. The position was bipod prone with a rear bag. I was using my old, mass-loaded 55 grain FMJ load that I put away in storage a few years back, as I’m still in the testing phase with my new load(s). It’s not a precise load, so bear with me. I began by shooting a 10 round control group using a surprise break. I followed immediately with a 10 round command break.
I used the metronome as a time reference for a countdown to fire with the speed at 60 beats per minute. Live fire was where it really dawned on me that the real difference between a command break and a compressed surprise break is that I had to refrain from applying any progressive pressure in anticipation of the point at which the shot is fired. I took up the trigger’s first stage at the beginning of the count and applied the full weight of the second stage to break the shot at the click of the metronome. On about a third of the shots I was a fraction of a second early or late, but most were right on.
Control Group (Surprise Break):
My control group was marginally better, but they were very close. The difference is probably within the margin of error for me and this rifle system. This was a good first try, although a careful, limited, and controlled attempt with a mildly recoiling rifle. The work that I’ve put into this technique so far has helped with my trigger technique in general. I will continue working on it.