AR-15 Triggers and Trigger Selection

AR15 with a .22 conversion kit

Two things are involved when beginning to choose the components going into an AR-15 build — time and money. Each is valuable. It isn’t always a build from scratch choosing parts. Often, it is simply improving an existing firearm.

I think the barrel and trigger should receive their fair share of attention. I admit, I spend too much time on the trigger during most of my rifle builds. I suppose it is because the trigger is so easy to change, and many of us think the trigger is a shortcut to marksmanship. This isn’t true.

AR-15 Trigger
Geissele Automatics Super Semi-AutomaticTwo-Stage Trigger

For a trained shooter, a good trigger certainly helps. If you own a factory rifle, delivered with the usual 7-pound trigger, perhaps you should spend time mastering the piece before you consider changing the trigger. Maybe burn the barrel out learning to shoot…

Small Steps

Beginning, or even experienced, shooters should begin with the typical AR-15 single-stage trigger. If kept clean and lubricated, these triggers ‘smooth in’ with use. You don’t have to fire a ton of ammunition, simply (safely) conduct dry fire. After all, dry fire is a cornerstone of marksmanship.

Whatever trigger you end up with, you should execute several dozen repetitions before you head to the range. If you are looking for a shortcut to trigger selection, you won’t find it here. The choice is personal and depends on your needs and shooting style. Budget comes into play.

We all have a budget, some larger than others. I have enjoyed excellent results with Wilson Combat, Elftmann, Hiperfire, and CMC triggers. The Geissele, Rise, and POF have all given good service too. Probably the most used trigger over the past few years has been the TR TTU 3G or 3-Gun trigger from Wilson Combat. I don’t have the time, capital, or associates to test them all, but I have tested quite a few including different models from a single maker such as Hiperfire.

There are a few rules we need to follow. First, let the task at hand decide which trigger group you purchase. Second, don’t go too cheap. Gun shows are full of cheap stuff and often overpriced good stuff. It is best to purchase from an established outlet such as Cheaper Than Dirt!

Black Wilson Combat Trigger on white background
The Wilson Combat trigger drops in and gives good service and a crisp action.

If you buy cheap, you buy twice. Better to use the factory trigger until you can afford the real deal that you really want. Monsters and threats of the day are not the purpose for the trigger. Shooting competition or hunting at a specified distance with one critical shot is one criterion to making a choice. Rapid fire engagement in 3-Gun competition may be another. Don’t buy it because I said so, buy it because it fits the role.

Let’s look at the parts of the trigger, so you will understand exactly what you are looking for. When we say trigger, we are actually talking about several parts. To be accurate, we should say trigger group.

The hammer is powered by the hammer spring. Then the trigger — the curved or flat part your trigger finger presses during firing — controls the hammer drop. Press the trigger, and the sear is moved. The hammer drops, firing the rifle. The sear is important as it holds the hammer in place when the hammer is under pressure (cocked) and ready to drop with sear release instigated by the trigger’s motion.

Springfield AR-15 with POF trigger
This Springfield features a POF trigger.

The disconnect is important. When a bolt recoils and resets the trigger action, several things occur. This is called reset. A sharp reset is important. The trigger must be nearly the same let-off each time the trigger is pressed. The reset must be sharp to firmly hold the hammer and sear in the proper state.

The disconnect contacts the hammer and doesn’t allow it to keep firing. The disconnect also makes the action semi-automatic. The disconnect catches the hammer hook and arrests its travel. (Some say disconnector, and that’s fine. However, I was taught that disconnect was proper during my technical education.) The disconnect stops the hammer just before reset.

Single-Stage Triggers

Most AR-15 trigger actions are the type deemed single-stage. While the default, and perhaps most inexpensive trigger, they are also reliable in quality examples. The bolt is racked, and the trigger action is set and ready to fire. To drop the hammer, the trigger is pressed and the rifle fires.

glen zediker shooting an AR-15 with a single stage trigger
Being able to ride the trigger face, taking up the first stage, riding it back out when needed, makes for radically better performance in less stable firing positions. I use the first-stage take-up as a sort of “switch” to engage myself with the upcoming shot. If it’s not right or I’m running out of air, back off, regroup, and then go again. This off-and-on tactic requires a lot more finesse if you’re using a single-stage. And, since engagement doesn’t change with the two-stage, neither does the trigger feel. Sometimes a little off and on can nudge a single-stage into a lighter break.

The trigger directly engages the sear. Single-stage triggers, as delivered in factory rifles, often exhibit a trigger compression (pull weight) of seven pounds or a little more. A precision rifle may be set up with an aftermarket single-stage trigger of three pounds or less.

For personal defense or service use, a trigger action should be five pounds (minimum) to prevent inadvertent firing or the trigger bumping off the sear if dropped. After all, trigger weight is a product of trigger engagement with other moving parts.


Two-Stage Triggers

A two-stage trigger usually offers a lighter take-up — at least in the initial part of the trigger press. However, the initial press is met by a slightly heavier stop, often referred to as a wall, before the trigger releases the sear. The trigger compression is simply the total amount of energy needed to drop the hammer by releasing the sear.

The initial take-up may be light at two pounds and the wall may be two pounds, for a total of a four-pound trigger compression, poundage, break… In the case of the two-stage trigger, excellent shooting may be done by quickly compressing the trigger in the initial stage and then breaking the remaining trigger action weight.

A two-stage trigger derives its weight of pull from different trigger springs. These may be offered at a pull weight of as little as 2 pounds. I think that very few shooters will properly handle a 2-pound trigger. Many who think this will be a good weight for their use lack the experience to properly handle a light trigger. I am comfortable with a 4-pound trigger action and feel that this is ideal for hunting and competition use.

Elftmann offers a credible choice.
Elftmann offers a credible choice that is worth more than a casual look, you won’t be sorry.

A real issue is quality. A few years ago, I built a rifle using the absolute best materials, including an Aero Precision upper and lower receiver and good quality barrel. I went cheap with a standard trigger from a maker who offers some of the most inexpensive rifles on the market. It was heavy at 7 pounds, but overall, I felt it worked OK.

I used it in the rifle for about a year and less than 2,000 rounds. I simply didn’t get around to changing the trigger. The trigger action came apart. It literally broke and failed. I have often thought that a lighter trigger action, with a light let-off, may not last as long as it has less contact with the sear and trigger.

This hasn’t proven true with the Hiperfire at well over 3,000 rounds. I have one of the first Wilson Combat triggers in a rifle that has logged many thousands of rounds. (Huge round counts and burnouts are largely a product of fiction unfortunately, but some rifles do get hard use.)

Rise Armament RA-434 High Performance AR-15 Trigger
Rise Armament’s accuracy enhancing trigger offers a cost-effective, high-performance trigger with a crisp break and a clean release.

I hope I don’t have to mention this, but never modify an existing trigger. That is a fool’s errand. Many of the metals used in modern triggers have a coating that once broken allows rapid wear on the underlying metal. That creates a real chance of a runaway trigger, which is never a good thing.

It is possible to change out a hammer spring on an existing unit. Use a full power hammer spring if the rifle is intended for serious use. Serious use (for me) includes hunting. I also would like to use one for competition. But then again, none are as serious as personal defense.

Unless you are very experienced, a good quality, standard, single-stage trigger is best for most uses. For those in service who may face an active shooter, the range is not likely to be more than 50 yards, but precision will be of paramount importance. A good single-stage trigger is good for these uses. The two-stage trigger is a good hunting trigger and for 3-Gun use.

Competitor shooting a pistol caliber carbine with a foregrip and extended magazine
9mm carbines are proven in competition to be reliable and accurate firearms, but require a heavier duty trigger than a .223/5.56.

9mm AR Triggers

The AR 9mm features the same outline, receivers, fit, feel, and operating controls as the 5.56mm AR. However, the 9mm AR is a blowback design. While the 9mm is far less powerful than the 5.56mm/.223, the 9mm uses a heavier bolt to make the blowback work in what is originally a gas-powered rifle.

A standard trigger with a heavy pull is fine for the 9mm AR rifle. Pistol caliber carbines take a hard hit that creates a lot of momentum in the action. This means that the trigger must be rated for the 9mm carbine, which has more — not less — momentum in the bolt than the .223 caliber rifle. Choosing an AR-15 trigger should be addressed in several steps. Define the purpose or likely role(s) of the rifle. Consider the quality of the build and the likely expense. Take your own experience into consideration when making your choice, and choose a trigger unit with a good reputation and warranty.

Have you changed the trigger on your AR? Which one did you select and why? Do you prefer one or two-stage triggers and why? Share your answers in the Comment section.

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (6)

  1. I’m not a trigger snob by any means… if it’s smooth, I’m pretty much happy. Not a fan of hair triggers. My AR… standard mil-spec and is perfectly acceptable for me. When I built my brother’s AR I used the Daniel Defense DDM4 upper, a JMT poly lower, brother wanted certain furniture so he went with Magpul stuff, free float handgaurd with M-Lok… and the trigger group I installed? A JMT Saber drop in. $89. It’s darn good, I’ll give it that. It spoiled my brother though. We’re both former ARMY. He was in for 7 years, combat experience, etc… and can’t shoot a standard mil-spec trigger for beans now. Haha! His AR is nice but is a pig weight wise. Around 8.5lbs loaded with 30rnd Magpuls where mine is a little over 6.5lbs… and that’s with 30 rnd stainless mags… but he’s got a nice trigger, however, my boring old standard mil-spec works just fine and I’m just as accurate with mine as he is with his.

  2. I am one who has tried out a lot AR-15 triggers over the years, single stage, and two stage triggers, I will say there were a lot of triggers, both single, and double stage that I was pleased with, but that being said I never had a “go to ” trigger. What I did decide was that while doing precision long range shooting I definitely preferred a two-stage trigger and for closer tactical or close quarters combat type of training I preferred a good single stage trigger, I guess what I was looking for was a happy medium for both styles of shooting, which up to about two years ago I thought was an impossible feat. Purely by accident I was looking through some different gun websites just browsing around. And I found myself on Larue tacticals webpage. and the first thing that caught my eye were the triggers they were advertising both single and two-stage.also I really liked the look of their straight bow, single stage and two stage triggers. which we both know looks don’t mean squat, when it comes to the functionality of a trigger More so ” the proof is in the pudding” next thing I notice, and started to investigate were the thousands of reviews on these triggers, which page after page I read I don’t think I found one bad review, so right off the bat I’m thinking OK this is got to be a gimmick and also the price point I believe $89 a trigger. Anyways, as skeptical as I was, I ordered one of their.MBT 2S triggers, (meticulously built trigger) two stage flat bow.
    And after receiving, installing and testing in one of my many AR”s I instantly knew this was going to be my go to trigger everything I read in the reviews were dead accurate in my opinion. So today I own 11 of these MBT 2S flat bow triggers and could not be more pleased, this trigger bridge the gap between my precision long range, shooting in my closer, tactical style shooting. I think it has the most crisp glass break feel that I can only compare to some of the guissele triggers but 150.00$ easier on your wallet. The first stage 2 pound take up is as consistent as I’ve ever seen or felt, and the second stage breaks at 2 pounds very consistently also, remind me of snapping a candy cane, and half every time I pull the trigger.. with all this being said, I love this trigger, and it is my go to, but this is only my opinion, for the money and the type of shooting that I do is trigger is my last trigger for any of my AR 15s.

  3. For my colt M4 carbine i choose the geissele ssa trigger group . It has a nice crisp break , helps with my accuracy as a recreational shooter . Prices just like everything these days are high . not sure if i would buy geissele @ today’s premium price , after reading this article . I bought my ssa trigger group 8-9 years ago .

  4. I changed out the trigger in my Palmetto State Armory SBR with a Geisselle SSA-E and my grouping went from 30 out of 30 in a 3” to 30/30 in a 1.5”. Breath control practice is a huge part of that as well.

  5. I read reviews on a Bravo Company trigger replacement, and the reviews were very complementary with many saying they were as good as, if not better than many of the expensive name brands they already owned. It is smooth, with around a 5# pull, and a VERY audible positive click reset, for around $70. Worth a try for the budget minded.

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