Trigger Control: Essence of Accuracy

When trying to think up useful topics to write about, I sometimes run across things that keep popping up again and again, either during training classes, firearms competition or just in general firearms discussions. One such concern is from officers who want to be more accurate with their handguns. They may be successfully qualifying with their pistols, but they want to improve their ability to place rounds where they want at a specific spot on their target, such as head shots, or they just want to tighten up their hits so that they look more like groups than patterns.

I've discussed the fundamentals of marksmanship before, including having a solid stance, strong grip, proper sight alignment and smooth trigger control. When it's all said and done, the two things that matter most are the last two, sight alignment and trigger control. I'll be addressing sight alignment issues in a future column, but this month I want to talk about what I consider the real heart of the matter, trigger control.

Frankly, if you have the correct sight alignment and good trigger control, you can be hanging upside down from a chandelier and still get good hits. A good solid shooting stance can certainly help with controlling your gun during rapid fire, but real accuracy comes from understanding the importance of trigger control. Ray Chapman, the first world champion pistol shooter and founder of the Chapman Academy for firearms training, often said that the techniques for good shooting are simple, but they are not easy. For me, trigger manipulation is a classic example of that statement. Most people have heard that you squeeze the trigger rather than jerk or slap at it, and they figure that is all there is to it. Actual shooting reveals that smoothly manipulating the trigger is easier said than done. There are some surprisingly complex interrelations between your brain and your trigger finger. I see people struggle with accuracy because of this one issue more than any other. As with any physical activity, there is no substitute for trigger time at the range. But, I'd like to try to suggest a few things, as best as I can with the written word, that may help you the next time you are on the firing line.

Get A Firm Grip

A firm grip is like a solid foundation. Grip your pistol as hard as you can, not just with your gun hand, but your support hand as well. This is not so much about recoil control as it is about not causing unwanted movement of your gun when you fire it. When you flex your trigger finger, it should be moving completely independently from the rest of your hand. The human hand is designed mainly to work as a unit, not as independent digits. The way to keep all of your fingers from moving at once is to grip your pistol as hard as you can with everything except your trigger finger. Once the other fingers are contracted as much as possible, they can't move any more. Then your trigger finger can move completely independently from the other four. If you don't do this, your fingers move together sympathetically and you get what is usually referred to as milking the gun. It doesn't take much imagination to see where the term comes from, and that motion is undesirable because it usually causes your shots to go low and inside, meaning to the left for a right-handed shooter. Get a crush grip on the gun, so that only your trigger finger moves.

Trigger Finger Placement

For many years, we were taught to place the pad, or fingerprint, of our trigger finger on the trigger. That can work quite well for slow fire marksmanship competition, using guns with very light trigger pull weights. For the heavier trigger pull of the typical duty handgun, you want to get as close as you can to having the first joint of your trigger finger on the trigger. This not only gives you better leverage on the trigger, but also is more likely to produce a trigger pull that moves straight to the rear. Check this by making a tight fist as if gripping a pistol. Then, while looking down on your fist from the top, move your trigger finger as if pulling an imaginary trigger. If you look carefully, you'll see that the pad of your finger doesn't move straight toward the "V" at the web of your hand, but scribes a slight arc. It is more pronounced the more your finger bends. If you draw an imaginary line between that same "V" of your hand and the first joint of your finger, as you move your finger you'll probably find that it does move in a straight line. Any movement off that straight line is imparting movement to your gun. That is why not having "enough" finger on the trigger tends to push shots to the left and having the finger too far onto the trigger causes the shots to be pulled to the right, again, if you are right handed.

Maintain Trigger Movement

Once you decide to pull the trigger, presumably when the gun is properly aligned on your target, KEEP IT MOVING until the shot breaks. Don't try to stage the trigger. What typically happens is your brain sees that the sights are aligned, but still in motion from natural body movement. That movement may be from such things as muscle tension or the stress of a dangerous situation. In any case, your brain wants to see perfect sight alignment with your target, so it waits to give the go signal to your finger until the sights cross that point. When they do, you rush to complete the trigger squeeze to take advantage of that perfect alignment, and end up pulling the shot low or low left. Keep the trigger moving and let the exact instant of the shot breaking to be a surprise. Then let the trigger return to its full forward position and repeat the process. Trying to stop the forward movement of the trigger when you feel the reset, sometimes called catching the link or riding the sear, only encourages the trigger snatching that comes from seeing the perfect sight alignment. Besides, when you are in a dangerous situation and feeling the effects of a true case of body alarm reaction, your fine touch sensitivity will go right out the window and you aren’t likely to be able to feel that faint tick anyway. On some guns you can't feel it very well in any case. Again, it can work for competitive shooting, but it may well be a no-show in a real gunfight.

Trust Your Wobble Zone

As mentioned above, your gun will always be moving to one degree or another. No one, not even the best shooters who are at the top of their game, can hold a gun perfectly still while they are shooting. The best advice I can give you is to learn to trust your wobble zone. A good strong grip and proper sight alignment will have the gun lined up on the target. Keep it in that zone and smoothly squeeze the trigger. Your shots will be in a very tight group at your point of aim.

As I said before, if you try to anticipate when the sights will be lined up on an exact spot on the target, you'll snatch at the trigger and the shot will go low. We demonstrate that to our students by doing a couple of drills. One is called the Exemplar Drill. We have the student grip the gun and line up the sights. Then we put our hands over theirs, including their trigger finger on the trigger, and then pull the trigger for them. Since they have no control over when the shot will break, they can't jerk the gun off line. Those shots end up in a tight group around the point of aim. The second drill is called the Blind Swordsman. We have the student again line up the sights on the target, and, while maintaining that alignment, close their eyes and squeeze off the shot. Then they open their eyes, assess the hit and repeat the process. Because they can't see the sight alignment at the precise instant the shot breaks, they don't jerk at the trigger. Again, the shots usually end up in a tight group. In fact, many students find out that they shoot better with their eyes closed! Obviously, this is for training purposes only, but it clearly demonstrates that trying to overpower the natural movement of the gun does not create better accuracy, but rather the exact opposite. Trust your wobble zone!

The next time you get to the range, give these tips a try. You may be surprised at how well you can shoot if you understand that good trigger control is the very essence of good marksmanship.