Identifying & Fixing Common Trigger Control Problems

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Identifying & Fixing Common Trigger Control Problems

Professional football coach Vince Lombardi won five National Football League championships in seven years and never coached a team with a losing record. He once said, “Excellence is achieved by first mastering the fundamentals” and he believed focusing first on the fundamentals is what most contributed to outstanding results. Over the years, I have learned several things about effective handgun shooting, and I still have much more to learn. But my next sentence is a major revelation, and I sincerely mean it.

Of all the eight key shooting fundamentals I have learned and regularly teach to my students, there is one fundamental that stands out and is responsible for the most in number and severity of mistakes. It is not blocking, tackling, passing, or catching, but is also a fundamental. Of course, all shooting basics are essential, and it is difficult to isolate just one area with mistakes because all fundamentals are important and inter-related. But, I continue to identify common mistakes in every class in one fundamental area for both new and experienced shooters. That fundamental is Trigger Control.

Many students ask me how they can overcome these trigger control errors and fix them. Well, there are readily-apparent symptoms, and there are some fixes for these common trigger control mistakes. Most do not even realize they are making these mistakes in this crucial area until I point them out and they see their imprecise target hits.

Early on I experienced all of these myself personally and now I occasionally experience them. So, I want to share how I identify trigger control problems, list the common ones, and suggest how to fix them. And, by the way, this is a perpetual process, especially for me. Hope this helps you some.

The First Step in Overcoming Any Trigger Control Problem

I have learned the hard way that the first step in overcoming any problem or mistake is to identify what the exact problem is, not just the symptoms. We may not even recognize that we have a particular problem or because of the extraneous influencing variables, think something else other than trigger control is the problem. In any event, I want to give you my three cents minus one cent ideas for the common trigger mistakes, how to recognize them, and how to help solve them.

Focus on the fundamentals!

Three Basic Actions of Trigger Control

Three Basic Actions of Trigger Control

Trigger control fundamentally consists of three deliberate actions when pressing a gun’s trigger:

First, the continuous, independent movement of the trigger finger straight to the rear smoothly and consistently without stopping, rather than in an intermittent, stop-and-go manner.

Second, follow-through or continuing the rearward press of the trigger finger on the trigger through the entire recoil cycle. Some call this “pinning” the trigger and “riding” the recoil. The trigger finger must maintain contact with the trigger from beginning to end of the entire firing and recoil process.

Lastly, allowing the trigger to move forward just far enough to engage the sear to reset the trigger as part of the follow-through process after the recoil has ended. You hear an audible click or tactilely feel the reset or both.

Seven Trigger Control Problems

Here are the seven Trigger Control problems I have identified:

  1. Flinching
  2. Jerking
  3. Milking
  4. Heeling
  5. Thumbing
  6. Pushing
  7. Holding Too Long 

Of the many Trigger Control errors I have observed, the Flinch and Jerk are the most common. Often we do not know what precisely they are, what causes them, what their signs are, and so cannot fix them. Often the recoil of the pistol will conceal the quick and abrupt movement of the trigger which causes the muzzle to dip low and left for a right-handed shooter or low and right for a left-handed shooter.  So, the trigger control problem of the shooter is not observed by the instructor or noticed by the shooter. There must be no or very minimal movement of the muzzle for an acceptable trigger press. Many shooters confuse the Flinching and Jerking mistakes. Here are my ideas to help distinguish between a Flinch and a Jerk and to help solve them.

Movement When Anticipating the "Bang" is a Flinch
Movement When Anticipating the “Bang” is a Flinch

1. Flinching

Flinching is more of a physical response or movement anticipating a shot being fired where the shooter perceives the bang to be unpleasant and possibly dangerous. Flinching is stimulated by the loud noise and movement of a dangerous weapon near the face and head.

Because we know that firing a gun will make a loud noise and there will be recoil, a Flinch is also a mental issue because we are thinking about and anticipating the recoil and loud noise. Anticipating the upcoming recoil with the loud bang causes our premature reaction to the sound and results in a Flinch. With right-handed and left-handed shooters, rounds usually impact high to the right or left, respectively. Also, if your shots are hitting all over the target in a wide group, you might be anticipating the recoil and flinching.

I actually have had some new shooter students who closed their eyes while pressing the trigger and simultaneously shoved the gun away from their face and head. Most did not even realize they shoved the gun at the last second before the shot. Of course, this movement often results in moving the gun’s muzzle off target and affects accuracy.

Sometimes a Flinch is confused with a Jerk. The result of a Flinch is usually a shot farther from the desired target hit than a trigger Jerk, but both do not achieve the desired target hit. I have observed students with a Flinch even missing the entire target, as well as having widely-dispersed hits.

For me to help avoid a Flinch, more PRACTICE and reminding myself of certain things are the keys. An outward sign of an impending Flinch from a shooter is their sudden startle to a gunshot at the range. Each class there always seems to be a new shooter or someone who does not regularly shoot guns who suddenly jumps, makes a quick, nervous movement, or physically reacts as an instinctive, surprise reaction to the sound of a gun firing. It is important to have the right mindset, control, and proper discipline. Practicing and reminding myself to physically maintain control of the gun at all times, grip the gun firmly, continue to follow through after my shot, not anticipate the noise and recoil, and be comfortable with the sound of the gun all help. I have found that putting a lot of rounds down range through practice really helps me to overcome my Flinch, to accept that I am in control of the gun, and to understand that the movement and noise are not related to my safe shooting practices. I do not fear the gun and noise, and so I have no reason to Flinch.

Three Techniques for Identifying and Overcoming a Flinch Problem

Often a flinch is masked by the recoil of the gun itself, so shooters do not know nor recognize they are flinching. Here are three helpful techniques to identify and overcome flinches. You can use these for yourself, a shooting partner, or a student.

First, I have found I can verify the Flinch error by students by loading one of their magazines randomly with snap caps or dummy rounds mixed between regular rounds. So when qualifying with live rounds, they do not know if the round they will be firing is a real round or a snap cap/dummy round. Often then when the student comes to the dummy round or snap cap, they physically move the gun some way. Usually shoving it forward up or down, which causes an imprecise target hit. Then they quickly realize that they definitely do have a Flinch problem.

Another Flinch identification technique I use for students when they are qualifying is to flip the safety on for guns that have external, manual safeties, without the student’s knowledge.  In class, we go over their responsibility to check the safety, but some do not remember or do not do this. Since the student does not know that the safety is on, it becomes very apparent when they drastically move the gun and Flinch. Several students have emphatically said to me they are not flinching, but I knew better and wanted them to know it for themselves. So by either my mixing the rounds or putting the safety on, it is evident to the shooter themselves and me that they are definitely physically shoving the gun up, down, or sideways and flinching. When they press the trigger, and the dummy round does not fire and they cause movement, or when they move when the safety is engaged, they will then have strong, positive feedback that they are indeed anticipating the noise and recoil and are flinching.

A useful technique to help overcome a Flinch is called the “Pin and Ride” technique. This technique seeks to strengthen follow-through by the shooter, so the shooter does not fight or resist the recoil. It involves continuing to hold the trigger back after the shot has broken or the gun goes bang while maintaining a solid grip and stance. Pinning the trigger back, so after recoil, the gun naturally settles back down on the target. Then after the gun is fired and the recoil is over (ride or experience the recoil completely to the completion of recoil) and only then is the trigger released, forcing focus on trigger control and follow through to avoid a flinch.  This technique proved helpful to myself and some students (and some competitive shooters rely on it to get to their next target), in addition to regularly changing springs to help slow down recoil and to reduce wear and tear on the gun. Fighting recoil causes fatigue, and that contributes to inaccuracies.

2. Jerking

Jerking the trigger at the last second is a mental and physical issue, but primarily a mental one. Shooters must understand the necessity for mentally focusing on their trigger press and TRAIN the Jerk or slapping motion out of their mechanics. Again, PRACTICE is key. If shooters are consistently shooting to the lower left (as a right-handed shooter), they are probably quickly yanking the trigger back at the last second and, perhaps, not even realizing it. Note that some shooters, like champion Rob Leatham, mention that slapping the trigger is not a bad thing and, in fact, is necessary for rapid shooting. But they caution that a tight grip and a locked wrist are required for control.

Timing the Shot

A Jerk comes from the attempt to fire the shot quickly at a specific point in time that coincides with when the sights become immediately positioned on the target. The shooter thinks that since he has accomplished the sight alignment and sight picture, he must hurry and quickly press the trigger before they escape. I learned for myself that my eyes were usually focused on the target and not on the front sight when this occurs. This is a problem. Some call this “timing” the shot. At that instantaneous point in time when the shooter sees the sights on the target, he quickly and suddenly yanks on the trigger with the trigger finger to hurriedly and immediately fire the shot. The shooter Jerks the trigger when he quickly presses the trigger the very instant he has his sight picture. However, this quick yank of the trigger while well-intentioned has the opposite affect. This quick reaction or slap usually results in the movement and compression of the rest of the fingers of the dominant hand on the grip, the muscles in the hand and wrist to move the muzzle off the target just before the bullet exits the muzzle or both.

Believe me, I know all about this error. Sometimes for me, my anticipation and anxiousness are the genuine culprits for my Jerk error. I have improved, but must continually discipline my mind to overcome my Jerk by mentally concentrating and focusing on the trigger press fundamentals and having a slow, smooth and deliberate trigger press with minimal movement of my other fingers and hand, while focusing on only the front sight. Sounds easy, but a challenge for me and others. 

3. Milking

Milking the trigger is a common trigger control error. Milking means that your grip fingers are also contracting as your index trigger finger contracts to press the trigger. Similar to milking a cow or squeezing an orange. Of course, when shooting just your trigger finger should move, and it should move straight back, smoothly, continuously, without interruption and non-intermittently (not stop-and-go.) Milking is an extra movement that negatively affects accuracy.

Fundamentally then, only the trigger finger should move when pressing the trigger. That movement should be straight back, rather than sideways or up or down. The trigger finger should be isolated from the other fingers of your shooting hand, and your index trigger finger should be the only finger that moves.

Sympathetic Response

Shooters must also recognize that when you grab, move, or press something with one hand and its finger(s), especially while under stress, your opposite hand and fingers may want to mirror that movement with a sympathetic response unintentionally. Studies have shown some inadvertently fire their gun while doing something with their non-gun hand or fingers, so be careful! I recall reading about a police officer who was holding a criminal at bay with his gun while at the same time he was moving the same index finger of his opposite hand. He had a negligent discharge when his shooting finger moved and discharged his gun killing the criminal. Terrible! Shooters must focus on using the trigger finger independently to minimize extraneous movement while maintaining a constant, consistent grip on the gun with the rest of the hand. Practice develops the appropriate Muscle Memory.

4. Heeling

This occurs when the shooter exerts excessive forward pressure with the heel of the hand as they fire the gun. This pressure forces the front sight up just as the trigger trips the sear. It will usually result in a shot group high near the 12:00 position on the target.

Diagnosing and fixing trigger control Heeling errors (as well as any of these errors) is not an exact science because several other fundamentals may be involved, like problems with proper grip, sight alignment, sight picture, stable stance, breathing, etc. A complete and deliberate focus on the front sight, both mentally and visually, will usually help cure this error. So easy to say, but practice helps. Of course, do not anticipate recoil, do not push the heel of the hand forward when the shot breaks, and do not break your wrist upward.

5. Thumbing

Thumbing is squeezing and rotating the thumb or applying too much trigger finger/thumb pressure when firing the shot. For example, if a right-handed shooter rotates his thumb clockwise to the right during the trigger press, the rounds will likely hit to the right, a thumbing error. Without a doubt, the point of bullet impact is dependent on the movement of the shooter’s trigger finger, thumb and hand at the moment the trigger is pressed. Proper grip is a key factor to help prevent the thumbing error. I like to rest my strong thumb firmly on top of my support thumb and try to not move my strong thumb and fingers sympathetically with the movement of my trigger finger during the press.

Placing the Proper Amount of Finger on the Trigger Prevents Pushing 
Placing the Proper Amount of Finger on the Trigger Prevents Pushing

6. Pushing

Pushing the gun up, down or to either side with no follow through is a common error, especially for new shooters. Placing too little of the finger on the trigger, for example, causes the finger to push the trigger back and to the left instead of straight back, so bullets impact the target at 9:00 or 10:00 or miss high. If too little trigger finger is accompanied by a breaking wrist action, either up or down, then bullets impact at 12:00 or 6:00 respectively.

Be sure to firmly lock the strong-hand wrist, grip the gun firmly, do not lean backward, and do not push the gun in any direction at the last second before firing the shot. You should experience a “surprise break” when the shot fires. Do not anticipate and shove the gun at the break. A surprise break is absolutely essential to achieving any kind of accuracy with a handgun. For the gun to fire with a surprise break, you should apply pressure to the trigger gradually and evenly until it fires. I try to hurry up and get to the target, but then ALWAYS SLOW down and apply gradual trigger pressure. And when my gun actually does fire, I am surprised because I have not anticipated the exact moment of the break. The key to perfecting the surprise break is a lot of PRACTICE where you put steady and incrementally heavier pressure on the trigger until the gun goes bang.

7. Holding Too Long

This error draws out the trigger press because the shooter wants a perfect shot and target hit. I see this in new handgun students frequently because they want to qualify and not have bad shots, so they are extremely slow, deliberate but indecisive and overly cautious in their trigger press. They do not exert positive and proper pressure on the trigger at the proper time. Instead of two to three seconds or so for the shot, they may take seven to eight seconds for just that one shot in our classes. Now recognize that the world record by Jerry Miculek is eight shots fired in one second. Speed versus accuracy is something else. We do not emphasize speed initially in our classes, but rather accuracy first. But eight seconds for one shot is too slow, even for beginners. And that might translate into a bad outcome for self-defense situations. Most modern semi-automatic pistols can fire a round and load the next one into the chamber faster than most can press the trigger. FBI studies have shown that a novice shooter can fire three shots easily in less than a second. Roughly it takes .25 of a second to fire one shot, so four shots can usually be fired in one second. So then a trained shooter can double that… or eight shots in one second. But it is more than speed; accuracy counts.

I see it a lot that new shooters hold their breath and shot too long. This in itself can cause problems with the trigger and its results. A consequence of a long hold is that the shooter’s breath control is poor, and there usually is undesirable movement and less accuracy. The shooter may not have enough air to hold his breath for the long time to minimize movement, and this actually causes just the opposite of what is desirable… a miss or an inaccurate shot because of more movement. Naturally, again, in a real-life self-defense encounter or tactical situation, this delay could be deadly. So for your initial training as a new shooter at the range, get that one shot off in no longer than three to four seconds, and probably sooner. But remember, train and practice for accuracy first with proper fundamentals, then train for speed.

Continued Success and Practice!

Photos by Author & as credited.

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only, and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

© 2017 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected].