When it comes to guns and the fundamentals of marksmanship, some people will argue that grip is the most important. However, the vast majority of top-level shooters believe that knowing how to safely and skillfully manipulate a firearms’ trigger is of greater importance–I agree.
Maintaining proper trigger discipline is crucial to ensuring your safety and the safety of others, i.e., firearm safety, and proper trigger control is essential if you want to shoot fast and accurately.
In this guide, I take a deep dive into both areas. By the time you’re finished reading, you’ll have a better understanding of the topic than your average firearms instructor or shooter.
Let’s dive right in, starting with trigger discipline.
Note: While this guide revolves around the use of a semi-automatic pistol, the vast majority of the principles, concepts, and teaching points apply to both pistols and rifles.
What is Trigger Discipline?
Trigger discipline is the practice of keeping one’s trigger finger outside of the trigger guard of a firearm, normally along the frame above the trigger, parallel to the barrel, until ready to fire the gun.
Trigger discipline is so important it is one of the four cardinal rules of firearm safety:
Always keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
Modern guns do not fire until the trigger is pulled. Yet, accidental and negligent discharges occur more often than people think.
Why is this the case?
A lack of trigger discipline…
Finger on the Trigger
As the rule states, keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.
A person must ingrain this rule into their subconscious so that the action is automatic, i.e., a habit.
Proper trigger discipline is simple but not easy for many. Usually, problems happen because someone hasn’t handled a gun long enough to build confidence and good habits.
It takes practice and repetition to ingrain anything into one’s subconscious.
It’s important to fully understand what trigger discipline is and to consciously practice it every single time you hold a firearm, regardless if you are shooting or not.
Over time, you will build good habits and automatically keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to shoot.
When to Place Your Finger on the Trigger
So you already know to keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire. Trigger discipline also entails understanding when one should be ready to fire.
Let’s be more specific. You want to place your index finger on the trigger when a threat is imminent.
All your options have been weighed, and you believe an imminent threat exists, so you may need to fire.
As you draw and present your firearm to your target, you want to place your finger on the trigger once you’ve entered the imminent threat position. Too soon, and you risk the chance of breaking your shot early, too late, and you risk taking too much time to break your first shot.
The classic imminent threat position, considered by some as the “point of no return,” is when your firearm’s muzzle is pointing towards your target and your sights have entered the edge of your intended target zone, e.g., for a paper target, this might be the bottom edge of the paper.
(If you have to engage from a different position, for example shooting from retention at close range, the traditional imminent threat position does not apply but the concept of prepping your trigger when you feel an imminent threat exists still stands.)
Give Your Trigger Finger Something to Do
When a shooter isn’t about to shoot or isn’t firing, the shooter will usually rest their trigger finger (typically their index finger) alongside the frame of a gun above the trigger and parallel to the barrel–an example of good trigger discipline.
Some shooters will make physical contact with the frame of their gun using the pad of their trigger finger. Other shooters will keep their trigger finger completely extended, resting alongside the gun’s frame but without any contact.
I prefer having physical contact with the frame of my pistol. When I feel the frame with the pad of my trigger finger, I know, without a doubt, that my finger is not on my trigger or within the trigger guard. I know I’m maintaining proper trigger discipline.
In contrast, if one’s finger is extended and floating along the frame of a firearm, who knows what might happen under stress, e.g., one might accidentally clinch their shooting hand, and one’s finger might find its way into the trigger guard.
Having contact with the gun gives me that extra assurance that my trigger finger is exactly where it should be.
Now, let’s jump right into the topic of trigger control.
What is Trigger Control?
Trigger control refers to the act of moving the trigger and firing a gun without disturbing the sights.
It sounds simple, but how you pull the trigger of any firearm can make or break your shot. Even with your sights on target, the best grip, the best stance, and the best guns, it will all be a waste if you don’t have a good trigger pull.
You need to understand and practice many little details before you can develop the ‘perfect trigger pull.’
Let’s start with the purpose behind proper trigger control.
I mention “acceptable” because how you pull the trigger can depend on your ‘mission.’ If a target is close, speed is critical. We can accept more disturbance of our sights, and we do not need to be very precise with our trigger pull.
But when we engage a target at a distance, let’s say beyond 15-yards, we need to have precise trigger control so that there is almost no disturbance of our sights.
Let’s discuss the principles needed to accomplish trigger control’s purpose.
I’m not a huge fan of techniques, but I’m a big proponent of adhering to proper principles.
Many people in the industry place too much focus on techniques and have endless debates over what technique is best.
Here’s the truth…
Technique is a matter of style.
We all have slightly different styles, i.e., techniques, because of different variables such as body size, musculature, the size of the gun we’re using, and the list continues.
The main point is that techniques differ, whereas principles are universal to all shooters.
Leverage is leverage; gravity is gravity, and friction is friction.
When it comes to optimal trigger control, two key principles must be followed–regardless of technique.
If you follow these principles, the technique you choose doesn’t really matter.
Principle #1: Isolating the Action of the Trigger Finger
The first principle is simple: only your trigger finger should move when breaking a shot.
Once again, simple, but not easy.
A good analogy to help you understand what we mean by moving only your trigger finger is to extend your arm out as if you were shooting and move your trigger finger as if you were telling someone to “come here.”
In doing so, you must be careful not to move or squeeze the rest of your fingers.
Ideally, you want to bend your finger from the second joint only.
When you want to gain speed, you will naturally start to move the third joint, i.e., knuckle, because it is almost impossible to isolate the third joint when shooting rapidly.
However, if we’re shooting faster, that generally means a target is closer and/or really big, so we can compromise isolating the trigger finger for more speed.
A good exercise to master the trigger finger’s isolation is to simulate your shooting grip with your strong hand, relaxing all of your fingers. Then, extend your trigger finger and start to move it back and forth from the second knuckle slowly.
Gradually pick up the speed and pay close attention to your other fingers as you do so. You want to avoid any sympathetic movement of your other fingers.
Another great exercise is to use grip trainers, such as IronMind Captain Crush. They come in different weights–find out what works best for you.
Use the grip trainer with both hands and try to move only your trigger finger. This exercise works the isolation of the trigger finger combined with maintaining consistent grip pressure. The idea is to keep your trigger finger relaxed while all of the other muscles of your hand are tight and firm.
This kinesthetic isolation is crucial to develop precise trigger control.
If you want to work on the first principle on the range, I recommend working on single-shot live-fire drills first to hyperfocus on moving only your trigger finger.
Principle #2: Straight to the Rear
The second principle deals with the direction of the actual trigger press, i.e., straight to the rear.
Some of you might be wondering how this is possible when our fingers bend in an arch.
The key is pulling a trigger straight back from a fully prepped trigger or near the point your trigger will break the shot if you are slapping or using the zipper pull technique–more on this below in the trigger manipulation section.
In doing so, you only need to be concerned with pulling your trigger straight back from a fully prepped trigger or nearing the point your trigger will break.
Next, keeping your finger flat on the trigger face will help to pull straight back.
Trigger control, in general, is mental control. There are different trigger manipulations that are techniques that need physical execution (which I cover below), but trigger control is entirely mental.
If you visualize pulling straight to the rear, you will eventually apply principle #2 effortlessly.
You’ve probably seen this popular image on the Internet where it says if you’ve hit left of your target, you had too little of your trigger finger on the trigger, whereas if you hit right, you had too much finger on the trigger.
What if I told you that isn’t necessarily true?
Regardless of where you place your finger on the trigger, you will be successful and hit your target if you visualize a straight-back pull.
Here’s a video I created about the principle that goes into more detail.
Two exercises will help you achieve a straight to the rear trigger press.
First, use your shooting hand and simulate holding a pistol with your trigger finger extended. Next, use a pencil or pen and place it on the web of your shooting hand. Then try to move the pencil or pen straight back with your trigger finger–avoiding any sideways movement.
The more you can keep your finger straight from your second knuckle, the better the results will be.
The moment that you curve your finger, you will likely start pulling your shots to one side, ruining the effect of the straight back trigger pull.
The next exercise is to visualize moving your trigger finger in the same way you would if you wanted to touch your nose or tell someone to “come here” with your finger.
The visualization will trigger your subconscious mind, and you are more likely to achieve your desired result.
Constant Speed and Minimal Effort
Two concepts support the proper execution of the two principles I discussed. The concepts are just as important as the principles to proper trigger control.
The first concept deals with the speed of the actual press. And again, we are talking about the actual press to break the shot–for our purposes, you shouldn’t care how fast you remove slack or how fast you prep your trigger.
The key is having constant speed.
If you start your trigger pull at 4 mph, you should finish your pull at 4 mph.
Many people get ‘excited.’ They may start with a 4 mph trigger pull but then end up breaking the shot with a 25 mph pull. In doing so, shooters generate an impulse, i.e., slap or jerk, that will affect accuracy.
The proper trigger pull moves like the piston of a car engine, i.e., smooth, constant speed.
The second concept deals with the amount of effort needed to break a shot. How much effort is needed to pull a trigger?
The answer is simple–just enough.
If you have a 6-pound trigger, you only need 6.01 pounds of pressure to break the shot. Now, we can’t be so precise with the actual weight needed, but the point is that you’d need only slightly more pressure than six pounds to fire.
Many shooters use too much effort. For example, their pull may be 25-pounds when all they really need is 6 pounds.
Where do you think that extra energy goes?
The energy will transfer to the frame of your gun, which can then affect your proper sight alignment resulting in an inaccurate shot.
The challenging part is that you need to have a stiff and firm grip, but your trigger manipulations should be gentle–similar to the effort used to click a mouse or type on a keyboard.
Constant speed combined with minimal effort will help isolate your trigger finger and help with your straight back pull.
Stages of the Trigger Pull
Trigger discipline and trigger control are primarily mental.
I’ll discuss the technical execution and physical control of a trigger using different trigger manipulations, but first, I want to briefly talk about the stages of a trigger so that you will understand the terminology I use.
I divide trigger pull into four major stages:
Pre-travel: The trigger’s movement from the trigger’s initial starting position until the sear moves, causing a gun to fire. The terms take-up (also call trigger slack), the wall, and creep are all a part of pretravel. Take-up refers to any ‘positive’ movement of the trigger that does not cause the sear to move and does not engage the mainspring. The wall is the point where the trigger action first engages the resistance of the sear. Creep is any ‘positive’ movement of the trigger that does cause the sear to move and does engage the mainspring.
Break: The point of the trigger action where the sear releases the hammer (or the striker, depending on the type of action). This is the stage where your gun goes bang.
Over-travel: Any ‘positive’ movement of the trigger after the break.
Reset: The ‘negative’ movement (i.e., the trigger moves away from you) of the trigger to the point that the trigger re-engages the sear (or the striker, depending on the type of action), and the gun can be fired again.
Take note that handgun trigger actions vary, i.e., single-action, double-action, DA/SA, striker, etc., so some terms above may only apply to specific types of actions.
Now that we’ve defined different stages of a trigger let’s talk about different trigger manipulations.
Four Trigger Manipulations
Throughout my journey, I’ve learned four different trigger manipulations.
Perhaps you’ve learned only one, and you might be wondering why there are so many different types of trigger pulls.
Depending on the size of a target, the distance to a target, and your shooting ability, certain trigger manipulations might work better than others.
Keep in mind, some of the best shooters in the world will use one trigger manipulation for every kind of shot or situation, so don’t think that what I’m about to dive into is set in stone.
Also, the trigger manipulations apply to practical shooting in self-defense situations and in competition. Extreme long-range shooters or bullseye shooters may use different techniques.
Use the knowledge below as you see fit. Test them all out and see what works best for you. Each trigger manipulation works if you follow the two principles we already discussed.
Slapping refers to a quick trigger pull where you make contact with your trigger at its initial position and continue to pull the trigger straight to the rear, passed take-up, the wall, any creep, and beyond the break to any over-travel. After firing, one will reset their trigger and continue the same steps if follow-up shots are needed.
Generally speaking, slapping is a trigger manipulation used at close distances–let’s say, 1 to 3-yards–where speed is more important than precision. Because you’re close to the target, precise aim is not required. You can still be very accurate and hit center mass while slapping if you are close.
(Take note, these are just range estimations to help illustrate potential use cases for each type of trigger pull.)
When slapping the trigger, one can do so very fast or at a more controlled speed. When I refer to slapping, I am pulling the trigger fast. If I do so with more control, I refer to this trigger pull as rolling or the zipper pull.
Rolling / Zipper Pull
Rolling, or the zipper pull as I define it, is a trigger manipulation I learned from former SWAT member and 3-Gun national champion Joe Farewell.
It is the same as slapping with one key difference–one is more controlled with their speed and effort than when slapping. Shooters typically use it between 3 and 7 yards but ultimately varies based on a shooter’s skill level.
Constant speed is a must if you want to be successful with rolling–this is why I like to refer to this trigger manipulation as the zipper pull, too.
When you zip something open or closed, you will typically maintain the same controlled speed while doing so.
Reset and Prep
Reset and prep is by far the most popular and most used trigger manipulation. I learned most of the intricate details about it from World Champion shooter, JJ Racaza.
If slapping and rolling cover 1 to 7-yards, reset and prep work best from 7 to 15-yards.
Again, don’t get caught up in the distance estimations. The ideal distance for each type of trigger pull will ultimately vary from shooter to shooter.
Also, reset and prep can and does work well at close distances and can be used at further distances.
With this trigger manipulation, you want to start with your finger on your trigger and bring it all the way to the wall-ideally past any creep. When you are ready to shoot, you will break the shot, pass any over-travel, and immediately reset your trigger, returning to your starting position, i.e., a fully prepped trigger or at the wall.
It’s a popular trigger pull because it strikes a good balance between speed and accuracy at various distances.
If you have never shot from a fully prepped trigger, doing so should dramatically improve your accuracy.
Staging is something I was doing naturally, but I didn’t know until Tactical Performance Center’s Rossen Hristov taught it to me.
Staging is primarily used when accuracy and precision are required, and speed is of lower priority. For example, if you need to shoot a tiny target and/or you are shooting from further distances.
Sticking with our range estimations, one might say that staging is best for shooting targets beyond 15 yards.
When staging, you want to start with a fully prepped trigger, similar to resetting and prepping.
The major difference is that you will start by applying only 80% of the effort needed to break your shot. Doing so requires you to intimately know your trigger, i.e., how much pressure is needed to make it go bang.
Once you’re confident your sights are on target and ready to break the shot, you’ll complete the trigger press with the last 20% of pressure.
Using the staging process can help you make the most precise shots you can, improving your accuracy.
If you want more details and some footage of the different trigger manipulations, make sure to check out the video at the beginning of this section.
Trigger Control Challenges and Misconceptions
Now that you understand trigger discipline and trigger control, I want to cover a few challenges and misconceptions.
Jerking the Trigger
In my experience, one of the biggest challenges a shooter will face is learning not to jerk the trigger.
By jerking or abruptly slapping the trigger, a shooter creates a sudden spike of energy that causes a lot of instability. The shooter often ends up tensing his or her entire hand by jerking, effectively twisting the firearm as you fire the round. By itself, the force applied through the trigger finger can be enough to drive the weapon off target.
To ensure accurate shots, it’s important to heed the principles I discussed above:
- Only the trigger finger should move
- Straight to the rear
A great dry-fire practice exercise you can do to work the two principles while monitoring for instability is to use an empty case and balance it on your front sight. Do repetitions of a consistent, straight to the rear trigger press without knocking the case off of the front sight.
The goal of this exercise is NOT to go slow–you won’t be pulling the trigger slowly in a real gunfight or a match. Instead, you want to learn how to go as fast as possible without disturbing your sights, causing the case to fall. To do this, you will need to follow the principles.
Another great exercise that will help you avoid jerking the trigger while working the two trigger control principles is to aim and shoot your firearm at a 1-inch pastie about 1 to 3-yards away.
But, you will be doing so with only your firing hand and holding the pistol only with the web of your hand, thumb, and the first knuckle of your trigger finger.
Here is a video I made demonstrating the one-finger trigger press drill. Make sure to start dry and build confidence and comfort with the grip before going live.
Also, it’s a good idea to load one bullet in the chamber for safety, then remove your magazine so that you can shoot only 1-shot at a time. When you are ready and used to the exercise, you can keep your magazine in to fire multiple shots without reloading.
In doing both of these exercises, as long as your aim is on point, you will notice that you’ll be more successful if you start by having a fully prepped trigger, i.e., you start your trigger pull from the wall.
Another challenge for many shooters is to maintain a consistent, hard grip on their guns.
Our focus is on trigger discipline and trigger control, but when it comes to trigger control, having a good, firm grip will allow you to be more aggressive with your trigger without disrupting your sight alignment. You want to grip the firearm hard to give maximum stability as you apply pressure to the trigger.
A lot of people throw random percentages out. For example, use 70% pressure with your support hand and 30% with your firing hand.
Here’s an easier method to understand how much pressure is needed, which I regularly hear from the world’s best shooters.
Grip the gun as hard as you can with both hands without disturbing your sights. If your gun begins to shake, you should decrease the amount of pressure. If you have trouble moving your trigger finger quickly, then slightly decrease the pressure with your shooting hand, but still, crush down with your support hand.
As you shoot, remind yourself to have a really firm grip. With practice, you will be able to isolate the movement of your trigger finger from the rest of your hand while maintaining a solid pistol grip.
One exercise that can help maintain a consistent firm grip is to use the grip trainer we discussed above. Hold it with both hands as if you were holding a pistol, and squeeze the grip trainer completely with both hands, excluding your trigger finger. Hold the position for at least a minute.
Now that we’ve covered some common challenges let’s move on to some widespread misconceptions.
Trigger Finger Placement
I already touched on this above when talking about principle #2–straight to the rear.
For practical shooting, your trigger finger placement is not as important as you might think. As long as you pull the trigger straight back, adhering to all other principles and concepts, and assuming your grip and aim are correct, you will achieve the desired result.
We all have different-sized hands and fingers, and we use different-sized firearms.
The part of my finger that rests on my trigger face will be different from many of you. It’s to be accepted.
The key is having a straight pull back, regardless of your finger placement.
Now, it’s important to understand that based on your hand, finger, and gun size, there might be a specific trigger finger placement that lends itself to an easier straight to the rear pull.
However, it isn’t necessary. As long as you visualize a straight-back pull and practice, you honestly can achieve a good trigger pull.
One thing to consider is the space between your trigger finger and the frame of your gun, as seen in the image above. Typically, shooters have a little space in between.
If there is no space, as seen on the right, there is a chance that you will push your shots to the left (as a right handed shooter) or right (as a left handed shooter) with your trigger finger.
No Surprise Breaks
You may have heard the phrase “surprise break.”
Often, instructors teach their students to pull the trigger slowly, so they don’t know exactly when the gun will fire. This is called a “surprise break,” and while it’s nice for beginners who are learning to avoid shot or recoil anticipation (which is different from jerking the trigger), it’s not the best way to operate the trigger.
In my experience, people who are taught the surprise break approach are fine when shooting at a comfortable pace, but they struggle when they have to perform under pressure and when shooting multiple shots.
The slower surprise break approach to the trigger press tends to cause more problems than they resolve because you are actually building suspense in the shooter’s mind.
Instead, applying pressure consistently to the trigger in a controlled fashion with minimal effort remains effective in mitigating the severity of anticipation while maintaining excellent speed.
Stop Pinning the Trigger
Many instructors teach their students to pin their triggers to the rear after each shot.
To take follow-up shots, we need to reset the trigger after each break, i.e., we need to release the trigger to travel forward enough to re-engage the gun’s firing mechanism.
Honestly, in the practical shooting world (we aren’t talking long-range shooting or bullseye shooting), there is absolutely no reason to reset the trigger slowly and deliberately because it does nothing to actually fire the next shot.
Learn to reset your trigger while your gun is in recoil. It gives you more time to work the trigger correctly and deliver the next shot more accurately.
Waiting until the gun comes to rest to reset the trigger and then trying to pull the trigger often leads to jerking and anticipating the next shot, especially when a timer is involved or other stress factors.
Some instructors actively teach a slow reset of the trigger, but those people should stop. Nobody shoots like that in any endeavor where time is of the essence, be that a competitive environment or life-or-death situation.
Hopefully, this guide has taught you something new and triggers you to get out there and put your newfound knowledge to practice.
I’d love to hear your thoughts. Make sure to let me know what you think in the comments section below!