AR-15s

A Practical Look at AR-15 Triggers

AR-15 triggers - locking pins

We don’t really talk much about stock AR-15 triggers, and that’s because there’s not much to say. They’re bad. No nicer thing can be said.

To improve the trigger, get another trigger. That’s just that. Over the years, the number of replacement aftermarket AR-15 triggers has radically increased, and it’s done so to the point of borderline overload.

So, how do you know which to get? Let’s take a practical look.

AR-15 trigger ronin coleman american gold
A very good modular single-stage is Ronin Coleman’s American Gold. This tops the list of AR-15 triggers popular with practical rifle competitors.

Two-Stage or Single-Stage?

The AR-15 trigger design was a departure from its predecessors. Previous U.S. military rifles used a “two-stage” trigger.

A two-stage trigger has, well, two stages (or steps) to break a shot. The first stage is a set amount of free movement, under spring pressure, that ends in a distinct stop.

After the stop, the pressure applied to the trigger then eventually releases the sear/hammer engagement. A single-stage trigger doesn’t have the initial “swing” of free movement—it’s “solid,” just there waiting on enough pressure to trip it.

Which one is the best? That could be a long and drawn out dissertation, so I’ll try to get it to the essence quickly. In my mind, the two-stage is a better choice for making more precise shots, and, mostly, it’s safer.

That safety factor was the primary reason the two-stage was previously incorporated into military rifles.

AR-15 trigger design
Original two-stage patented by Charlie Milazzo really changed the game for competition AR-15 shooters. A true two-stage like this has a primary and secondary sear, it’s not just spring-loaded free travel.

It’s safer because there is that separate, distinct and predictable, movement in the trigger before it comes to a stop waiting on pressure for the final break or release. That means a shooter can safely come in and out of a shot opportunity.

The advantage in precision comes from two sources. One is that the first stage added to the second stage is total break weight. Let’s say we want a fairly light trigger in hopes of smaller groups.

A light, single-stage is the ticket for some, but I like the two-stage because I get a clear signal from it that the break is nigh.

And, again, back to the safety point: a three-pound two-stage, for instance, can be a mix (if the trigger is adjustable) that might have a very light second stage break—but, overall, an easily manageable level of total pressure applied to the trigger to make a shot.

Virtually all purpose-built, high-precision target rifles (and pistols) use a two-stage, and I’m talking about Olympic-style or ISSF competition. It makes standing position shooting, especially, much easier.

wilson combat modular two-stage trigger
Here’s a good one: Wilson Combat modular two-stage. Highly recommended.

There are applications, however, where a single-stage is better. High-speed target engagements, such as what’s needed in USPSA-style “practical rifle” competition, favor a single-stage.

The reason is because of the small amount of movement to reset the trigger for the next shot. There have been some improvements made over the past few years, but, by and large, the trigger return distance to reset is a pretty big swing in most two-stage triggers.

To be clear, I’m talking about breaking a shot and then releasing the trigger back forward until the disconnector hands off the hammer to the sear so the trigger can be pulled again to fire another round.

AR-15 triggers - disconnector function
Here’s how a disconnector works. The trigger is reset and ready to fire again when the hammer and sear are engaged again (notice how the hammer “popped” up when the disconnector released it), and the distance the trigger has to be moved forward to allow that varies. Single-stage is shorter.

It’s a long stretch with most two-stages and can be almost imperceptible in a well-designed single-stage.

Two other points that might make some happier with a single-stage:

  • One is familiarity, given that most triggers in most rifles are single-stage.
  • Another is that cost usually favors the single-stage.
Geissele AR-15 trigger
This is a sort of “hybrid” from Geissele, the Super 3 Gun. It’s a little bit two-stage and mostly single-stage, or that’s how I feel it. Specializations and options for AR-15 triggers are numerous these days.

Conventional Or Modular?

Replacement triggers follow one of two essential formats. They’re either a direct replacement or “modular” (or those are the terms I use to keep it straight).

A direct replacement trigger replaces the stock trigger using the trigger/hammer pins, hammer spring, trigger return spring and the same essential format—it’s in pieces. The pins and springs will likely be different, but they’re the same form.

The modular triggers, first popularized by Timney, have the entire trigger assembly, including pins and springs, pre-assembled into a body or housing. This housing is then fitted and fixed into the lower receiver using standard-type trigger pins.

AR-15 Triggers Geissele
Outstanding two-stage from Geissele Automatics. This is not modular, and it is fully adjustable. I use this trigger, but only on my competition-only rifles. Hi-Speed National Match.

Which is better? Yes! No doubt, the modular (very often called “drop-in”) designs are decidedly easier to install. There are no pieces to fit and no hammer springs and pin alignments to fuss with.

One issue with any direct replacement trigger, such as a Geissele, is that it incorporates the USGI-style trigger/hammer pins into its operation. The pins can be a weak link.

If they’re a poor fit, or not correctly sized and concentric, then the hammer and trigger pieces rotating on those pins can result in inconsistent movement. Most of the better direct replacement triggers will supply high-quality pins, which Geissele does.

If not, there are premium precision trigger pins available, and these are strongly recommended. One reason some of the competition-oriented triggers are a direct replacement is so they can be more easily and effectively custom-tuned, in case you wondered.

The nice thing about a modular trigger is that the pins serve only to keep the trigger in the lower receiver. They don’t have a whit to do with the operation of the trigger itself. That’s already all predetermined.

And, by the way, the grooves on the hammer/trigger pins engage spring-arms so, loose or not, the pins won’t come out slap out of the gun.

AR-15 triggers - locking pins
Non-rotating precision pins, such as these from KNS Precision, provide the most stable base for a replacement-style trigger.

Conclusion

As started on, there are SO many aftermarket AR-15 triggers available now that choosing one is bound to leave as many questions as answers. I mean, unless you can try them all, you won’t know if you got the best one for you, and at the best price.

There are a few that have been around awhile, and they are safe bets. I will not recommend one here because I’ve had too many conflicting conversations with trusted folks who favor one over another, and for different reasons.

That’s a great problem to have: too many good triggers to choose from!

Unless it’s a competition-only application, I really don’t recommend adjustable triggers, and that’s because anything that can adjust can also un-adjust.

What’s your go-to choice when it comes to AR-15 triggers? Let us know in the comments below.

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 have a Daniel Defense with the stock trigger. I would like to add some “updates” if you will. Trigger BCG etc. I do not shoot competitions, just the range and God forbid home defense. Thank you & Merry Christmas to all.

  2. My first experience with a “drop in” AR trigger was a POF brand. The rifle is a Windom .308 which was decent in the accuracy department befor the POF. Now it shoots sub MOA EVERY TIME. This rifle easily out shoots my Ruger Precision bolt action in the same caliber. Firm believer in now.

  3. Please, Please when talking about an AR 15 these days. They are not “ASSAULT RIFLES” they are a semiautomatic firearm. The term assault rifle gives the firearm a negative connotation. Unless you want to give the liberals ammunition to take away your AR 15. I enjoy shooting my AR 15 but I have a 3 1/2 pound set of springs. When putting a lot of rounds down range. You may find a lighter trigger pull makes your day more pleasant. Which I didn’t see anything about this in the article.

  4. I have a few AR platforms… most with stock triggers but I love the ones I got and put in from Timney. In my 308 I have a 2 stage (2 1/2x 2 1/2). Soooo nice.Even a friend said he liked it because it removed the flinching that he was prone to. It does let you know when the BANG will occur.

    I am lazy as well and impatient so… my choices are always “drop ins”. They work great…no muss no fuss.

  5. I like consistency with all the configurations of AR’s I shoot. Since I, too, am a High Power Rifle shooter, I shoot the Geissele High Speed 2-stage trigger in my Match Rifle. I have a second GHS, set to slightly higher pull weights in my varmint AR. My “tactical” & fun (.22 LR) AR’s each have the great Rock River 2-stage triggers.

    If I could have 2-stage triggers on my bolt rifles, I would go that route too. I shoot enough of each and hardly ever mix, that my trigger-finger muscle-memory rarely, if ever, gets “confused” between single- & 2-stage triggers.

    I coach HPR-style shooting, and stress trigger-control to avoid “slapping” the trigger and to have smooth controlled release after the shot so that the shooter feels (& hears) the hammer/sear/trigger reset along with the first-stage take-up for the next shot.

    SIGHT CONTROL + TRIGGER CONTROL = GUN CONTROL

  6. So is it fair to say that a two-stage is generally better for a medium-to-long range battle rifle configuration (200+ yards), while a single stage would be best in a close quarters combat / assault rifle / AR pistol configuration?

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