Trigger Discipline: Not Just for the Range

One of the foundational and inviolable tenets of safe gunhandling that gets drilled into the head of every neophyte who takes to the gun for the first time is keep your finger off the trigger until you are ready to fire.

The full and proper phrasing is rather to keep one’s finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard until ready to fire, but I am perhaps being pedantic.

The importance of this tenet should be obvious: if the trigger is not pulled, the gun will not, under nearly any circumstances, fire and so keeping one’s finger off of and well clear of the trigger will prevent an unintended discharge in the event of a bump or squeeze resulting from being startled or surprised.

This is not merely good advice for a safe and fun outing at the range, as trigger discipline is just as important in a life or death fight.

Myriad are the stories of negligent discharges and subsequent embarrassment, property damage or more tragically death attending such events. Altogether they underscore the importance of developing and instilling ironclad trigger finger discipline for success.

In this article, we’ll dig a little deeper into the importance of trigger discipline for real world success with a firearm and how best to develop it to an automatic level.

How Hard Can it Be?

Keeping that lone digit off the bang switch is pretty hard for the untrained, actually. Just ask any teacher of brand new and novice shooters and they’ll be completely unable to count how many times they gently (or not so gently) admonish students when they see a finger lingering on the trigger while the gun is off target and there is no decision made to fire.

Even for seasoned and veteran shooters, cultivating the discipline to stay “switched on” when handling a gun is a conscious, active action. The lazy and the complacent are often no better than the greenest of greenhorns in that regard, years of experience be damned.

Consider for a moment the interface between the human hand and nearly any gun. Being ergonomically designed to allow successful operation by the hand and fingers, you’ll notice that a gun is held in what is essentially a closed fist, and with all the fingers closed the index finger, or trigger finger, rests naturally on the trigger.

All that is required is a varying degree of force exerted by the index (trigger) finger against the trigger and the gun will fire. Because a heavy and hard-to-pull trigger is not conducive to good shooting, most guns have triggers somewhere between the light and moderate sections of the range.

Making a fist, rather the closing of the fingers is as instinctive and natural to humans as breathing. Even babies do it. We all do it to a varying degree when frightened or startled.

So if the default position of holding a firearm is that of the finger resting on the trigger or inside the trigger guard, it stands to reason that it is only a matter of time, especially in the terror and resultant stress of a live potential use of the gun against an assailant or enemy, before someone gets spooked and touches off a round when “they didn’t mean to.”

The above outcome can be prevented by a various means. One is a manual safety, engaged. By mechanically blocking the firing sequence, a mashed trigger will produce no discharge.

This works wonderfully in the event the safety is engaged, but not otherwise, and shooters who are new or poorly trained will likely not have the safety engaged reliably 100% of the time when it should be, and conversely will not disengage it reliably when it shouldn’t be. File this under “nice if it saves you, but not reliable in practice.”

Another way is through use of a heavy, longer trigger pull, one that provides more resistance to the trigger finger and ergo more feedback (hopefully) to the shooter as pressure is being applied to the trigger. All DA revolvers and the majority of DA/SA semis fall in this category.

While they work as proscribed for helping to mitigate the chance of an unintended discharge, they do not prevent it totally. Furthermore these heavy triggers take quite a bit of work on the shooter’s part to be able to shoot them at a high level and so are not favorites in the eyes of many.

Lastly, the method that is the most universal and the only one that is consistently useful and effective across all kinds of guns but also the one that requires a ton of work to implement: developing and maintaining trigger finger discipline through correct training and constant practice.

It isn’t easy, it isn’t sexy, but by God it is the prime consideration that separates true adherents from pretenders.

Real World Application

You might think it is one thing to let your finger linger on the trigger while practicing on an approved shooting range with a proper and known effective backstop while you while away an afternoon poking holes in paper, with nothing down range you don’t want to shoot and no one that could potentially come between you and your target or be residing beyond your intended target.

It is another thing entirely to have a gun in your hand in a household or public setting getting ready to put lead to a potential attacker while your family or however many innocent people are all around you in unknown locations.

Consider too that the dynamics and fluidity of an actual defensive encounter may very well see you inadvertently cover your own body with the muzzle of your gun.

The flow, if you will, of bringing the gun to bear should ideally look like this, on the range or on the street.

  1. Grip is acquired, gun is drawn.
  2. If threat is unknown or emergent, gun is brought to ready position. If threat is present, gun is indexed toward threat.
  3. Hard confirmation of specific threat visually perceived, i.e. weapon I.D.’d, intent to use it against you obviously recognized. Justification to fire is codified.
  4. Simultaneously: Challenge, if appropriate; acquire sights and final stabilization prior to shot; trigger finger moves to trigger and stays there until decision to fire made or cancelled.
  5. Decision Time. If threat persists or is lethal and immediate, decision to fire made, trigger pressed.

If status or circumstances made, decision withheld and reassessment begins.

The above is not a one-way street, with you constantly advancing towards a fire decision and never backing off.

While civilians who are obviously directly threatened will usually have little doubt as to the immediacy and seriousness of the attacker, circumstances may occur which see you “interrogate” a potential threat at barrel’s end until you are certain of the situation.

Police officers regularly have to engage in such when arriving at a chaotic scene where a variety of potential hostiles are armed or may become dangerous.

In such circumstances, the gun may be presented and the finger move to the trigger and back down and off several times in response to changing information and a changing situation!

It is crucial to understand, now, that the placement of the trigger finger is not tied to merely extending the gun out from the ready position but is instead tied to the shooter’s assessment and decision making process!

In a similar vein, some shooter’s follow a simple program that the finger goes on the trigger when the gun is on target, and comes off as the gun is reeled back in to the ready position; never between or switched shall the two be.

In reality, there might very well be a need to fire on a threat with the gun held in close to the body in a position of retention. Similarly an immediate need to fire might occur while the gun is still clearing the holster or held at the ready position.

In that instance, a skilled shooter, especially one with a gun utilizing a DA trigger, will get on the trigger early, while the gun is being indexed on the target and will even begin “prepping” the trigger to pull to break a good aimed shot the millisecond they perceive an acceptable sight picture.

This is not to say that the old saw of “on target, on the trigger- off target, off the trigger” is not valuable for ingraining basically good trigger habits. It is! But there is a better and holistic way to achieve as such through regular practice and dry fire.

Developing Proper Trigger Discipline

The first thing that must be achieved before any growth can occur as a safe shooter is the breaking of the entirely normal and instinctual response upon gripping the gun is that the index finger of the shooting hand heads for the trigger as a matter of course.

The closing of the hand around an object while maintaining the index finger in a “pointer” position, i.e. the finger being indexed outside the trigger guard up on the frame or receiver of the gun, is in no way instinctive to the untrained and must be taught and practiced.

I found success when I was a young shooter by dry practicing picking up and then later drawing the gun as its own separate act, with the desired outcome being simply to do so and keep the finger off the trigger and outside the trigger guard.

In essence, I was creating a new automatic “normalized” response; the new default for handling a gun was gripping it with my trigger finger outside the trigger guard.

Later, I even took this so far as to keep an unloaded pistol in my hand while watching TV or reading a book, and placed a sharp patch of sandpaper on the trigger, my goal of course being to keep my default idle handling of a gun with the trigger finger safely off and away from the trigger, the sandpaper providing immediate feedback if I ever failed to do so.

As I grew and developed as a shooter, I was fortunate enough to receive training from proficient mentors, ones who were themselves serious disciples of the gun, not just casual owners and “just in case” shooters.

Their teaching, combined with my own voracious reading and research of the great ones, Cooper, Awerbuck, Cirillo not least among them, set me early on the path to correct procedural decision making in tandem with deploying the gun rather than sticking to a rote “script” of doctrine.

In that way I had a major advantage over many shooters who come to that epiphany later on in their travels, if at all.

Specifically, when practicing even on basic accuracy standards and bullseye shooting, a conscious, deliberate mental command must be internalized to respond to a specific threat, and then distinctly to shoot.

This sounds more esoteric than it is; in practice response to a threat coincides with the placing of the finger on the trigger, not, again, the indexing of the gun on the target. When the mental command of shoot is ordered, only then is the trigger press completed.

More expansive and nuanced training can entail multiple targets, eve simple shapes, colors or numbers on a single sheet, and a coach calling out one or multiple that warrant “interrogation” and indexing the gun on them. Only upon the actual command of “threat” (whatever the verbiage is) is the proscribed number of shots fired.

The best training in this regard easily accomplished on most shooting ranges is through the use of photo realistic human shoot/no-shoot targets that can be configured holding a weapon, innocent object or nothing, ideally ones on a turner or spinner that present in a limited window to the shooter.

Alternately, a low tech solution is just to have the shooter close their eyes or dip their head while the coach prepares the unknown target. Then, upon the target revealing itself or the command to begin, the shooter is forced to assess the target and either get on the trigger or not as appropriate.

The next logical evolution, and one that requires a bit more in the way of planning, personnel and setup, is the use of role-players in freeform simulation, guns being replaced by either simulation markers or airsoft guns.

Note that strict adherence to special safety protocols and use of proper PPE is mandatory for this type of training unless you, literally, want your eye shot out.

A thinking, reacting human is more than capable of escalating or deescalating a confrontation in a way that would organically see the student response go up and down the decision tree to a shooting. Good coaches and often video recording is necessary to get the most from this type of training, also.

Something Else to Consider

I have observed a phenomenon, happening both to myself and other shooters who I would consider expert, extensively trained and switched-on gunhands, occurring in very high-stress training situations that would likely never have been discovered were it not for after-action video analysis and debriefing by a skilled teacher.

This phenomenon is a very insidious “feelie” check of the trigger by the trigger finger, and seemingly so quick and subtle that the shooter who does so will swear, adamantly, that they did no such thing.

The cause of this is as of yet undetermined, but seems to be the semi-instinctual self-reassurance that the trigger is, indeed, still there. It happened to me, and I would have sworn on the graves of my ancestors that I had not done so. Video though showed the event as clear as day.

More research is needed to confirm this, but my own ongoing investigation and research into the matter has revealed that even the very best shooters I know- professionals of all stripes, dedicated to high levels of no-fail performance and ones who spend exorbitantly on professional training and personal development- are not immune when the stress is cranked way up.

This is a personal preference, but it is this phenomenon and the other, known vagaries of actually employing a gun in a real event, that being one where you will point a gun at people far more than you will actually need to shoot them, that has cemented my preference for DA/SA semi-autos.

The long, heavier initial pull provides some assurance against both deliberate placement on the trigger and inadvertent impingement on it resulting from sympathetic muscle reflex or the hard-to-detect “feelie”.

Furthermore once the initial shot has been fired, subsequent trigger pulls are light, easy to manage single action pulls until such time as the decision is made to deescalate and then decock the hammer back to DA mode.

The quest for lighter and lighter striker-fired triggers that feature no more external barrier to manipulation, deliberate or otherwise, than an easily defeated trigger safety (itself nothing more than a drop safety of another stripe) will lead to negative outcomes in real defensive usage.


Trigger discipline is not for newbies and not for the practice range alone. A failure to inculcate and maintain trigger discipline will lead to failure and tragedy in any number of real world scenarios.

At the same time, improper implementation of procedures may result in a loss of efficiency and a hampered decision making process when fractions of a second count.

Take the time to get on the right track now and correct any flaws and weak points you might already have when it comes to your practice and future training.

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