Trigger Control

Note to the (highly intelligent) reader:

What follows is an insanely long article.  I considered breaking it up into parts, but I was just too lazy.  Proceed at your own risk.


Note to the (less intelligent) reader:

There’s lots of pictures!!!


One of the most critical elements to firing precisely and accurately is correct trigger control.  If your hold was rock steady and your sight picture perfect, a buggered up trigger jerk would ruin the whole thing (what a cool name for a band: “Buggered Up Trigger Jerk”!!!).  On the other hand, good trigger control can make your shooting look good if some of the other components are still “works in progress”.

What are the components of good trigger control?  Essentially the trigger needs to be actuated without disturbing the sight picture.  To do this, the trigger needs to be pressed 1.)  Smoothly, 2.)  Straight to the rear, and 3.)  Without moving any other part of the firearm. 

Let’s start with the placement of the finger on the trigger.  This placement is so crucial that I use it to determine how every other part of my firing side arm gets placed.  I like the center of the pad of my index finger to be on the trigger in most situations.   

There are some great shooters who use the tip of the finger to contact the trigger.  The tip of the finger does make for a more tactile interaction between finger and trigger, which generally is good.  It also increases the perceived weight of the trigger.  It also seems slower to me.  These are tradeoffs that you’ll have to consider.   

I would generally not consider using any part of my trigger finger behind the center of the pad to press the trigger unless I was not strong enough to actuate the trigger without straining using my normal technique.  Obviously, you get more leverage to pull by using the joint.  If you think about it, the joint, being somewhat like a hook, isn’t really capable of “pressing”, but can only pull.  It’s a subtle difference (I’ll explain more later).  Looking at the way the finger works, it would seem that the center of the pad is the best way to ensure that the trigger moves straight back. 

Here’s how the position of the trigger finger influences your ability to press the trigger straight back.  Hold your trigger finger up.  Now flex and extend it.  The movement describes an arc.  Where we place that arc will determine which way the trigger is moved.  If the trigger finger is not in far enough, the trigger press will be at the top of the arc, causing the trigger to be moved toward your support side.  In the following photos my right index finger is the trigger finger, while my left simulates the trigger:


If your finger is too far in, the trigger press will be near the bottom of the arc, which will pull the rifle toward your firing side:



The correct placement will put the portion of the arc of movement that is the most straight to the rear at the trigger break:


If you now move your finger in front of you and simulate the motion of using the tip of your finger, you’ll notice that the movement of the distal interphalangeal joints (the joints between the most distant three sections of finger bones) is minimized and the primary movement comes from the “popping knuckle” (metacarpalphalangeal joint) and allows for a pretty nice straight back motion.


Please note the important difference between this and the first photo (finger not in far enough) and the above photo of a tip trigger press, in that although in both cases the tip of the finger is touching the trigger, the position of the hand in the tip trigger press is farther forward. 

There’s another crucial element to the placement of the trigger finger.  It must not cause any other part of the rifle to move (because that would be detrimental to your precision and accuracy).  The means to this end is that the only part of the rifle that your trigger finger touches is the trigger.  If your finger is touching the stock, it will likely be inducing sideways movement at exactly the wrong time- when it’s too late for you to correct it.  Don’t just assume that you’re doing it right; you need to be deliberate and purposeful if you want to get it right, so check it and fix it if necessary.


See the entire trigger finger in contact with the stock? This is called “Draggin’ Wood”, and is BAD!!!

Now the rest of the finger is well clear of the stock, and that’s good. Yes, I see that the camera is focused on the ocular lens cover instead of my finger. Thanks for pointing that out. Guess I’ll stick to my day job!

Now that we’ve gotten the placement of our trigger fingers correct, there’s another step to check to ensure that our trigger manipulation is not moving the rifle.  The trigger finger needs to move completely independently of the rest of the firing hand.  There cannot be any sympathetic movement of the other fingers or the thumb as the trigger finger presses the trigger.  I believe that a pistol is easier to learn this aspect of trigger control with, because the firing hand is the primary interface with that weapon; if your grip changes it will show up bigtime.

The way you grip the pistol grip with your firing hand can affect your ability to keep the trigger press independent.  Moving your thumb to the same side as the rest of your fingers can reduce its tendency to oppose the trigger finger.

Another option for thumb placement is on the rear of the pistol grip, directly behind the trigger.  Although this thumb position is not guaranteed to neutralize the thumb’s ability to oppose the trigger finger, if it’s straight behind the trigger finger at least the direction of opposition is neutral.

A final consideration before we even think about firing is the actual trigger press.  I use the word “press” because that word evokes a finer, more tactile motion than do the words “pull” or “squeeze”, both of which subconsciously suggest to you to use more muscle groups than you should be.  Semantics aside, the trigger should be actuated by pressing it straight to the rear.  This is a little more tricky to get right than you might think.

Pull Squeeze Press
Pulling, squeezing, and pressing.  Words have specific meanings, and suggest specific things to your subconscious.  Which one do you think best lends itself to precision?

A good way to learn to press the trigger straight to the rear is to get into a firing position and get a sight picture.  Press the trigger and hold it to the rear.  Don’t release it until we’re completely done here.  Notice what happened with your sight picture when you pressed the trigger.  Now push your trigger finger toward your support side while maintaining contact with the trigger.  This should cause your sights to move in that direction.  Now pull your trigger finger toward your support side, still in contact with the trigger.  Your sights moved in that direction.  Now move your trigger back and forth in a slow left and right oscillation.  Gradually reduce the oscillation until finally you cannot visually perceive any movement of the sights.  Now relax and consciously burn that kinesthetic information into your brain, body, and nervous system.  Now you can release the trigger, repeat, and do some careful dry fire to reinforce your learning.

Now you have the basic structural elements of trigger control.  Let’s cover the technique of actually pressing it.  Most triggers have some slack to take up before the sear/striker interface is within the feel of your finger.  Sometimes this “take up” is part of the trigger design.  In these cases the trigger would be a 2-stage trigger, with the take up or slack being the 1st stage.  In other cases, like a standard AR trigger or a 1911, the tolerances are a little more “forgiving” and there’s just some play in the system.  This take up should prime the sensitivity of your finger.  You shouldn’t be using much force, just enough, and be smooth.  If you have a good single stage trigger like my Sako 75, there won’t be any perceptible take up.  You have to know ahead of time to be ready for the imminent trigger break.

When there’s no more take up left in your trigger, and your intention is still to fire the weapon, continue pressing, adding additional pressure smoothly until the shot breaks.  The key here is to be smooth.  You don’t need to immediately send 13 lbs. of pressure to the trigger if your trigger breaks at 2 lbs.  The idea is to start at nothing and gradually increase the pressure until the shot breaks.

Ideally it should come as a surprise to you when the gun fires.  This is called a “surprise break”.  The reason for the surprise break is that it’s very difficult to suppress the body’s natural tendency to flinch when it know that something loud and painful is imminent.  The surprise break ensures that it doesn’t know exactly when to flinch, which allows your body to remain still as the bullet exits.  To achieve a surprise break, apply pressure to the trigger gradually so that the trigger will break within a window of time that is fairly short, but not specifically defined.  Think 3-5 seconds.

After the shot breaks continue to press the trigger to the rear.  This is part of what is called “follow through”.  I hear a lot that releasing the trigger early disturbs the rifle as the bullet is still in the barrel.  I don’t believe this because of the speed that the bullet is traveling at, but I believe that the failure to manifest the intent to hold the trigger back can lead to an erratic trigger press.  Either way, the effect is that your shot goes wild.  So be steady with the press, and hold the trigger to the rear after the shot goes.  Hold it long enough to see the recoil cycle has completed.

If you’re using a semi-auto, keep your finger in contact to the trigger unless you have accomplished your mission and are completely finished with your string of fire.  Keep the trigger finger in contact, and release the trigger just enough to let it reset.  You should hear a click which is the resetting of the trigger mechanism.  Then you can take up the slack, if any, and press again, if necessary.  Letting the finger off the trigger, especially in a jerky manner, is called “booger flicking” (yes vulgar, I know; I didn’t name it) and is not conducive to shooting precisely.

As you gain the ability to press the trigger smoothly, you’ll want to decrease the time it takes you to do so.  You can smoothly actuate the trigger in under a second.  This is called a “compressed surprise break”.  The idea is that you still don’t know when the trigger is going to break, but the window of time is smaller.  In reducing the time that you’re pressing the trigger, YOU CANNOT COMPROMISE YOUR SMOOTHNESS!!!

There are a few analogies that may help your mental imagery of how this a faster trigger technique can be just as smooth.  The first is that the trigger break is like moving a bowling ball from a height to the ground.  Simply dropping the ball on the ground would be analogous to jerking the trigger like you did before I saved you by writing this article (that was pretty nice of me, huh?).  Rolling the ball down a very gentle slope would be like a nice, smooth trigger press.  There’s not an impact, but the ball makes it down smoothly over a period of several seconds.  What if we increased the slope?  The ball would travel more quickly, but still not have an impact.  This is your compressed surprise break.

Another analogy is that pressing the trigger is similar to releasing the clutch on a manual transmission car.  Think way back to last month when you were learning how to drive.  How many times did you kill it by letting the clutch out too fast?  That’s like jerking the trigger.  Soon you learned to let the clutch out ridiculously slowly, which ensured that the car didn’t die.  If you did it smooth, then the car didn’t jerk.  This was a “surprise” because you finally managed not to stall the car (like a “surprise break”, okay not funny, sorry).  Later, when you started driving like an idiot teenager, you learned that you could let the clutch out faster, and if everything was working smoothly together, the car wouldn’t die.  It’s not a perfect analogy, because the car is more forgiving for lack of smoothness than a rifle.  Maybe we can say that your driving test examiner has a full cup of hot coffee.

Now that you know how to operate a trigger, let’s talk about what a good trigger feels like.  The classic description is that of a glass rod breaking.  There are also common adjectives, like crisp and clean.  The idea is that you don’t want there to be any movement of the trigger that is perceptible to you until the rifle just fires.  Perceptible movement occurs when the sear engagement surface can be felt as it disengages, and is known as “creep”.  Creep feels like a bunch of false starts before the big “bang”.  Creep gets into your subconscious and tells it to get ready for an imminent bang and accompanying recoil.  That means that creep is BAD!  The most important quality of a good trigger is that it be creep free regardless of its weight.  A light, creepy trigger is not a good trigger.

There is a type of creep that some shooters don’t mind.  Creep that is steady and smooth, though still perceptible as movement, results in what is called a “roll through” trigger.  In a rifle it feels like a light, short, double action revolver type feel.  The reason that this type of creep is not that bad is that it still doesn’t tell you when to flinch.  My M1A has a trigger like this and I shoot fine with it.

As far as weight, it’s largely a matter of personal preference.  I think that an exceptionally hard trigger pull (maybe > 12 lbs) will make it very difficult to keep from moving the rifle while actuating the trigger.  If you play a shooting game, it may dictate the minimum weight, and being a gamer you’ll probably pay a lot of money to make sure that it’s right at the minimum.  Otherwise, a good range is probably 2-4 lbs. for a rifle.  It’s hard to go wrong with a nice 3 lb. trigger as long as you’re used to it.  If you’re used to a double action revolver and firing a 3 lb. trigger for the first time, it may be too light.  Be careful.  Remember Rule #3: Keep your finger off the trigger until your sights are on the target and you’re ready to fire.

As important as trigger control is, I don’t think it’s always a good idea to think about it when firing.  You should do a lot of work (tons) on it in dry fire, and some in live fire, but I think it can be distracting and ultimately detract from your shooting focus.  More on this later.

Thank you for enduring this painfully long, but incredibly insightful article on trigger control.  If you have any pearls of wisdom that I did not cover, feel free to comment.


17 thoughts on “Trigger Control

  1. great article. I shoot black powder and have been working on stance,right hand hold, head position and breathing and this adds to my follow through technique. I had it partly right but there ae some good points there. thanks

  2. Interesting article – can’t wait to try some of these ideas. Your style of writing is informative and at the same time entertaining. One minor typo – “Letting the finger of the trigger, especially in a jerky manner,” Did you mean to write “off” instead of “of”?

  3. Great article. Thank you for the advice, much appreciated.This will help a lot with my shooting and also help gain more experience.

  4. As a beginner shooter this has shown me that I’m doing most things wrong. Which is great! It is better to learn the right way the first time, than having to unlearn bad habits, thanks for the article.

    • It is good to start out with good habits. I find that I keep tweaking things along the way as I notice that they need tweaking. My advice would be to not let your curiosity diminish as you begin to gain experience and proficiency. My advice may be worth what it cost you…

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  6. Thanks for writing this. You did a great job of explaining both how to execute a good trigger press, and the various terms involved.

    I’ll do my best to put it all to work this afternoon when I sight in my new red dot scope on my newly built AR.

    Thanks again!

  7. I just installed new TIMNEY triggers on my two Remington Mod 700s (.3006 & .223) and find your information helps me to potentially be as good as my equipment. Thanks for a very informative article and the “clutch” example is good to remember in the trigger pull process when live game is in harms way!

    • Michael,

      Thanks for the kind words. Timneys have a reputation for being great triggers, and Remingtons tend to be pretty solid. Good luck in your shooting endeavors.

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  9. a childhood accident left me with my right index finger that wont bend in the middle (the tip will bend). The finger isnt perfect straight, it has a slight bend to it. Is there any way i can achieve proper trigger control using my index finger? Some guns im not able to pull the trigger at all and im forced to use my middle finger. Can you use the middle finger effectively for good trigger control? I combat this mostly by having light triggers in my guns, anything much over 4 lbs i tend to push my shots off target

    • Scott,

      I’m really sorry I took so damn long to reply. I tend to check emails on my phone at about 0455 or so, and promptly forget about them while I’m getting ready for work.

      So, what I think is that your target doesn’t care if you use an ‘orthodox’ technique or if you find something else that can put the bullet in the right spot. The primary requirements are that you can pull the trigger straight to the rear, and that you don’t disturb your acceptable sight picture as you pull (or squeeze or press or massage or etc.).

      The middle finger technique has been used by some good shooters. I don’t really consider it the optimum solution for great trigger control, but that may be because I haven’t used it to the point of becoming skilled with it. I would give it a try if I were you.

      Does the requirement for a lighter trigger cause problems for you? If not, it’s a bonafide excuse to find a good trigger anyway.

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