What is a “good” trigger?

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I recently met a fellow who was shooting a Colt Detective Special. We talked about his gun a while, and I asked him if he’d had any action work done to it. He said he hadn’t; sure enough, on trying his gun, I felt the typical Colt factory trigger – heavy and ugly. Since I happened to be carrying my own Colt that day, I offered to let him try it’s trigger.

Surprise! He handed back with thanks, but opined that it “didn’t feel much better than mine.”

ARE YOU FREAKIN’ KIDDING ME??? Luckily, I resisted the Homer-Simpson-like urge to strangle him. When I got back to the shop, though, I wondered – why didn’t he notice the phenomenal, night-and-day difference between the guns?

It wasn’t too long after that incident that I popped into a local gunstore. This store often stocks guns from the custom shop of a major revolver manufacturer (said shop being a Center for their Performance handguns. Ahem.) They had a couple of examples, and I asked to see them. The triggers were great in single action, but in double action were hardly (if at all) better than their run-of-the-mill production guns. I considered neither of them to be a sign of quality action work.

As I was chatting with the clerk, a couple of fellows sauntered by and asked to see the gun I had jut put down. They each tried the DA trigger, exclaimed how great the action was, and agreed that this particular maker “always has good triggers.”

I was astounded; had I not been there, I wouldn’t have believed we were talking about the same gun!

After much thought, it occurred to me that the most folks are simply unschooled on what makes a good trigger, and why anyone should want one. After kicking myself for missing these “teachable moments”, I decided to help everyone become a more educated, sophisticated revolver aficionado.

First things first
There are several aspect of a trigger’s movement that, taken together, comprise “trigger” or “action” feel.

Single action: Weight, creep, feel, letoff, over-travel.
Double action: Weight, consistency, feel, letoff, over-travel, return.
Physical characteristics: Width, profile, surface.

Let’s look at these one at a time, shall we?

Weight: this is simply the amount of force (in pounds) required to operate the trigger. This is the aspect that most people pay attention to, as it’s the one thing which can be expressed by a number – and we Americans love numbers! The trouble is that it’s really not the most important (within reasonable limits, of course) part of the trigger. In single action, lighter is generally better, to the point that it affects either ignition reliability or safety (a hammer that won’t stay cocked on its own or that is released so easily that accidental discharges occur.)

In double action, reducing that weight can not only result in misfires, but it also affects how positively the trigger returns. I’ve also found that I need a certain amount of resistance to shoot my best; my finger wants to feel some amount of pressure.

Overly light triggers can also mask an otherwise bad action. You’ll often hear people say that the best trigger job is lighter springs – if you lighten the action, you won’t feel as much through the trigger. The trigger is still awful, but you don’t notice it as much. If you’re happy with that, more power to you – but as you become accustomed to what a quality trigger feels like, you’ll find that you like it less and less.

There is an old mantra with regard to trigger weight: smooth, not light. You can shoot a smooth but heavy trigger better than a light but gritty one.

Creep (single action only): this refers to the amount of movement before the sear releases. A gun with no creep seems to break like the proverbial “glass rod” – regardless of how heavy the trigger is, it seems to just release at the perfect time. A trigger with lots of creep will move quite a bit before the sear breaks; in general, a slight amount of creep is acceptable, but excessive amounts are the sign of sloppy trigger work. Exactly where the line between “slight” and “excessive” is drawn depends on the individual shooter!

Consistency (double action only): when a trigger has the same pull weight from start to finish, it is said to be consistent. Some triggers (Colt, Dan Wesson) continually increase their pull weight toward the end of the stroke, an effect called “stacking”. Some triggers (S&W “J” frames) have a slight decrease in pull weight before the sear releases, while others start out at one weight, increase in the middle of the pull, then decrease at the end.

In general, the more consistent the pull the easier it is to shoot; however, some people like a bit of “stacking” in their actions, and shoot best that way. A gun with decreasing pull weight is slightly harder to shoot, and those with a “hump” in their pull are (at least for me) the hardest of all to shoot.

A good trigger will have as consistent a pull weight as possible, within the limitations of the gun’s design and the shooter’s desire.

Feel: ever pulled a trigger that seemed to have sand in it? Or a trigger that felt like running a stick down a picket fence? Both of those are examples of bad action feel – the feedback given through a trigger as the action’s parts slide and rotate. The elimination of those “artifacts” in the feel is a prime sign of a gunsmith’s ability. A good trigger should not have any roughness or hesitation in its stroke, regardless of pull weight.

Letoff: when the sear releases, it should do so predictably and without abruptness. Many triggers release with what can only be described as jerk, which makes holding the sights steady at the moment of the bullet’s exit much more difficult.

Over-travel: after the sear breaks, the trigger should stop moving back. Trigger movement after the sear releases is similar to a bad letoff; it can result in the gun moving slightly when the bullet exits the muzzle, which limits accuracy. Colt revolvers, because of their design, have no over-travel; other makes control this through the use of trigger stops (in various forms.) Interestingly, correcting over-travel can usually make up for an abrupt letoff.

Return (DA only): Jerry Miculek, the greatest living revolver shooter, points out that the trigger pull is only half – or even less – of the equation. Trigger return is at least as important to successful double-action shooting. Trigger return should be judged much like trigger pull: no hesitation, no grittiness or roughness, consistent speed, and as quick as the gun’s design allows.

This aspect of trigger performance is one that many gunsmiths – particularly those who are “generalists” – don’t understand. I know someone who owns a revolver customized by a very well-known gunsmith. (So well known, in fact, that if you were to name the top 5 best-known and respected pistolsmiths in the country, this fellow would be on that list. It is hard to pick up a gun magazine without seeing his name someplace in its pages.) This fellow is renowned for doing both autoloader and revolver work, and the gun bears his trademark etched into the barrel.

The trigger pull is pretty good – not quite as consistent as I would like, but it’s not bad. The trigger return, however, is atrocious. I’ve never felt a stock gun whose return was this bad, let alone one worked on by one of the shining lights in the pistolsmithing field! It literally feels like someone dumped sand into that action – in stark contrast to the pull, which is nice and smooth. So jarring is the juxtaposition of pull and release that it is difficult to concentrate on shooting the thing.

A good trigger has a return as good as – or better than – its pull. If your gunsmith doesn’t understand this, switch gunsmiths!

Physical characteristics
While not strictly part of the action itself, the shape and finish of the trigger can greatly influence how the package feels. These aspects are usually more personal preference than anything, but over the years some general consensus has been reached.

Most revolver shooters agree that a trigger with a smooth, polished face and well-rounded edges is to be desired. The surface should be free of grooves or residual striations, have a perfect radius, and polished to a mirror finish. The edges of trigger should be rounded so that there is no discernible corner; the finger should slide smoothly from one side to the other, and from top to bottom.

There are exceptions; for instance, Jerry Miculek is adamant about the use of serrated (grooved) as an aid to speed shooting. Like I said, it’s about personal preference!

Width is important too – in general, the wider the trigger the lighter the action will feel. (A narrow trigger can be made to feel wider by finishing a flat portion down the middle one-third of its face, and by rounding the edges just a bit less.) The back of the trigger should be attended to – one with a sharp back edge/corner will make itself felt. Lightly breaking those edges will eliminate any pinching or chafing, particularly on those triggers which are not terribly thick.

I hope this has helped you to understand just what is meant by the term “good trigger”. Handle lots of guns, both factory and custom, and get used to evaluating them by the standards above. You’ll find yourself becoming a connoisseur in no time!

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About the Author:

Grant Cunningham is a renowned author and teacher in the fields of self defense, defensive shooting education and personal safety. He’s written several popular books on handguns and defensive shooting, including "The Book of the Revolver", "Shooter’s Guide To Handguns", "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals", "Defensive Pistol Fundamentals", and "Practice Strategies for Defensive Shooting" (Fall 2015.) Grant has also written articles on shooting, self defense, training and teaching for many magazines and shooting websites, including Concealed Carry Magazine, Gun Digest Magazine, the Association of Defensive Shooting Instructors ADSI) and the popular Personal Defense Network training website. He’s produced a DVD in the National Rifle Association’s Personal Firearm Defense series titled "Defensive Revolver Fundamentals" and teaches defensive shooting and personal safety courses all over the United States.
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