Let’s talk about triggers.

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I had an interesting email recently. The writer said that he’d contacted a number of gunsmiths to inquire about action work. In every case, he said, all he could get out of them was “we can make it lighter.” Occasionally I’ll get an inquiry from the other side of this phenomenon – someone whose only question is “how light can you make it?” Why this fixation on pull weight? I believe it’s because people just haven’t been properly educated!

If you’ve read my essay on “What makes a good trigger?“, you already know about the factors that go into a quality action job. (If you haven’t read it, go ahead and do so now; I’ll wait.)

Back already? OK!

When having action work done, there are three competing performance criteria: weight, reliability, and return.

Weight is self explanatory, and is what most people relate to. I’ve covered this in the article referenced above, so I won’t go into more explanation – except to say that weight isn’t the only thing you should consider, and if that’s all your gunsmith can talk about you might want to re-think having him work on your gun!

The second performance criteria is reliability. When I speak of reliability, I mean the expectation that the gun will ignite primers from all common ammunition 100% of the time in both single and double action. That means even the hardest primers being made (currently CCI Magnum primers) will light off every time that the hammer falls; anything else is less reliable. A gun that fires off Federal primers all the time, Winchester most of the time, and CCI Magnums about half the time isn’t reliable; it may be acceptable for the use that the gun will be put to, but it is not reliable. (As it turns out, the more reliable the ignition, the more accurate the gun will be. There are a number of reasons for this, which I’ll go into in a later article.)

Finally, there is return, or the action of the trigger resetting itself. In the article I referenced above, I talked about the qualities of trigger return – but there is more to consider. One way of lightening the overall pull weight of the action is to reduce the spring tension that powers the trigger return. This can introduce a couple of undesired side effects; first, the return spring tension can be so low that the trigger “sticks” and doesn’t return (most prevalent on guns where the quality of the trigger return, in terms of smoothness, isn’t understood or is ignored.)

The second side effect is that the return speed is lowered. This results in the shooter being able to “outrun” the trigger, shooting faster than the trigger will reset itself. This can cause premature cycling of the cylinder (the cylinder rotating without the hammer being cocked and dropped) or action locking (requiring the shooter to stop his/her pull, let the action reset, and then restarting the pull – most common on Rugers.) In a competition, these side effects can lose points – in a self-defense scenario, they might cause you to lose something more precious!

Here’s the “kicker”: when getting action work done, you get to choose any two of the three performance criteria, but not all three. For instance, if you want light pull weight and good reliability, you’re going to sacrifice return. If you want light pull and good return, you’re going to sacrifice reliability. If you want reliability and fast trigger reset, you’re going to have to learn to deal with heavier pull weights!

There is no free lunch, and there isn’t a gunsmith in the world who can repeal the laws of physics; you get any 2, but not all 3 in the same gun. You have to make the decision as to what is best for your intended use!

Let me illustrate: I am starting work on a Ruger SP-101 that is to be shot by an older lady. She only shoots reloads that her husband makes for her, and only at the range (this is not a defensive or competition piece.)

The primary concern is ease of cocking the gun in single action; it won’t be used in double action at all. So, the criteria that is important in this case is action weight; we don’t care all that much about return (other than it actually do so – the speed isn’t a consideration), and since the fellow can load the ammunition to shoot in this specific gun (he will use whatever primers necessary to make the gun run), reliability is not a concern. This is a great example of tuning the action to fit the use!

For a defensive gun, reliability is the first consideration, with return second. For a competition gun, say for ICORE or USPSA (or even IDPA), the speed of the action reset is paramount – followed by a light pull weight. The competitor will usually select or reload ammunition to suit the gun, which makes reliability (in the sense that I use the term) less a concern.

If all a gunsmith can talk about is how light he can make the action, he’s ignoring fully two-thirds of of action performance. This is a two-way street, though – its not just gunsmiths who don’t understand this stuff! Shooters raised on the typical gun rag articles never learn about this either, because all most writers know how to discuss is pull weight.

When I get an inquiry from someone whose only question is “how light”, I try to educate him or her to make more informed choices. I hope I’ve been able to do that here!

-=[ Grant ]=-


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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