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Reflexive Trigger Snapping: Stop It!

When you step back and consider the situation, there is almost a ridiculous amount of misconception, misunderstanding, and mythology surrounding firearms and how to handle them.  Depending on your level of training and experience, you may or may not be well-equipped to wade through the mire of Bravo Sierra that permeates the gun culture.

Having been in this game for three decades now, I could probably fill a book with strange and outlandish myths and, I’m sorry, stupid things I’ve heard about shooting, carrying, and storing firearms.  Come to think of it, that might be a good topic for my next book, but back to the topic.

I’m sure there is plenty of blame or culpability to go around on this subject, but from my experience, the U.S. Military is one of the worst offenders. Reflexive trigger snapping, as in pressing the trigger when there is no desire to actually fire said weapon, goes back as far as modern memory can comprehend.  I’d go so far as to say that trigger-snapping goes back to the original cartridge firing rifles and sidearms.    

Consider the 1873 Colt Single Action Army revolver.   In order to load or unload the gun the hammer had to be partially cocked, thus allowing the cylinder to spin freely.  After the loading/unloading process, the only way to put the hammer back to rest is to completely cock it and then release it.  Men, being the creatures that they are, would just cock the hammer and then reflexively snap the trigger to release it.  No big deal, the chamber is empty.  That is, until the chamber is not empty.

When I became a U.S. Marine so many moons ago, the clearing barrel mentality was in full force and young recruits were taught to point their rifles into the clearing barrel, draw back the bolt of the M-16, release it, remove the safety and snap the trigger, then lock the bolt back and turn the gun in.   Similarly, the M1911 was cleared by removing the magazine, racking the slide, snapping the hammer, locking the slide and turning the gun in.  Why?

Institutional Stupidity

A rational and thoughtful person might look at the clearing barrel steps and say “What purpose does pressing the trigger have?”  First off, when you are a Private, you don’t question the order you are given; you just follow orders.   Secondly, and unfortunately, when that Private becomes a Sergeant, he’s been conditioned to simply do what he’s been doing for years; after all the procedure is written in a manual somewhere and we follow procedure to the letter.

This is where “institutional stupidity” raises its ugly head.  Actions are repeated, instructions are reiterated over and over for years until no one actually knows why we do what we do or for what purpose.  “That’s the way we’ve always done it,” is a favorite fallback or copout.

Supporting Myth with Misinformation

When challenged regarding the whole trigger snapping issue, yhe argument has been made that, when the gun is unloaded, the hammer/sear spring needs to be at rest in order to “prolong its useful life” or “prevent undo spring wear.”    Therefore it is indeed proper to snap the trigger after the gun in cleared.   To answer this question I sought out the opinion of an expert in the firearms manufacturing field: Bill Wilson, founder of Wilson Combat and Master Gunsmith.

In all my years building and carrying firearms I’ve had one single coil spring, that I can remember, fail and that was an M1911 firing pin spring,” Bill related during our telephone conversation.  “There are many schools of thought regarding coil springs and their life.  There have been coil magazine springs compressed and loaded for years without any issue.” 

Bill further advised that any part on a firearm could eventually wear out given enough use; springs being no exception.  I would offer an addition that quality springs, as you would find in a high-dollar trap gun, should last for decades or more.  If you fear spring wear or failure, spend the $5.00 once a year and replace the firing pin spring in your favorite fowling piece.   

Training for the ND

Regardless of your training experience, your acceptance or rejection of the spring wear myth, reflexively snapping the trigger when you DO NOT intend to fire the gun is a fantastic way to practice for the eventual negligent discharge.  No, I’m not talking about deliberate and purposeful dry-practice.  We are talking about the guys and gals who let the gun hang loose and just reflexively snap the trigger.

The human body and mind are wonderful things.  With proper training and dedicated practice, humans can perform amazing physical feats.   However, repeat a bad habit enough times and it becomes so ingrained that you do it without thinking.

Think of the power outage.  How many of you, during a power outage, have walked into a room and reflexively flipped the light switch on the wall?  You know the electricity is out, but you reach out and flip the switch as you enter the room without even thinking.   We all laugh at ourselves when we do this because it’s silly.   You’ve performed that action thousands of times and don’t even think about it.

Now, consider reflexive trigger snapping.  If your habit is to snap the trigger on the gun every time you’ve cleared or unloaded it you are teaching yourself to activate the trigger without thinking.  Of all the actions you perform with a firearm, pressing the trigger must be the most deliberate and purposeful, not thoughtless or reflexive.    

Maybe not today and maybe not tomorrow, but if you are in the habit of thoughtlessly snapping the trigger, eventually it’s going to jump up and bite you in the butt.  A moment of inattention, the reversal of the unloading steps, coming in from an eight hour shift that turned into a twelve hour shift… all these are recipes for an ND.  Combine the trigger snap habit with a tired mind and you are almost guaranteed to put a round somewhere it’s not supposed to be.

On a personal note, I was trained to reflexively drop the hammer on an empty chamber, particularly with the M1911A1.  It took additional training and a dedicated effort to stop doing what I was taught at a young age.  If you are a reflexive trigger snapper, that doesn’t make you a bad person.  However, now that you have come to this point in the article I’ll leave you with one last piece of advice: STOP IT.

Editor’s Addition:

I don’t normally add to a columnist’s piece but personal experience compels me to do so. When I was an MP our barracks had a clearing barrel out front because the armory was in the basement and no loaded weapons were to be brought in.  When you finished your duty shift, you cleared your 1911 at the clearing barrel out front and then went in to turn in your weapon and magazines.  Because we were under orders to carry our weapons with an empty chamber, clearing your weapon meant ejecting the magazine, cycling the slide, pointing the weapon at the clearing barrel and pulling the trigger.  CLICK… and then go turn it in.

After a long midnight shift, with a tired mind and months (if not years) of habitual clearing, one soldier skipped a rather important step: he failed to eject the magazine.  So when he cycled the slide, pointed the weapon at the barrel and pulled the trigger, he got BANG instead of CLICK.  His partner looked over, saw the magazine still inserted and said, “Hey!  What did you forget to do?”  Thinking as best he could with his now scared and tired mind, the soldier realized he’d forgotten to eject the magazine before cycling the slide, so he corrected himself and removed the magazine.  Then he pointed the weapon at the clearing barrel and pulled the trigger again.  Obviously he got BANG again (because the slide had cycled and chambered a round after the first shot) instead of CLICK.

Thankfully both times he pulled the trigger his weapon was aimed at the clearing barrel.  That example – an experience I was quite thankfully not involved in, but was able to learn from – reminds me to this day that there is nothing routine in the handling of any weapon.  Paul is absolutely right in his admonishment to stop reflexively snapping the trigger on ANY weapon.  EVERY time you pull the trigger it should be your conscious intention to do so with a specific purpose in mind. – Frank Borelli


About the Author

Paul Markel has been a firearms industry writer for twenty years and is the author of the new book “Student of the Gun; A beginner once, a student for life.”  Paul hosts and produces “Student of the Gun” a show dedicated to education, experience, and enjoyment of firearms.  Episodes of SOTG can be viewed by simply going to and clicking the “play” icon.