Test Your Trigger Knowledge: Triggers Explained

Red Elftmann trigger with USA etched on the side

There is no universal lexicon for the trigger, its parts, and how it behaves. Writers are as guilty as anyone of using incorrect nomenclature. That won’t do in some applications. I have been involved in two advocations that left absolutely no room for misspelling, error, or non-technical reporting. Police reports are legal documents. In gunsmithing and technical writing (If you wish to get a good gunsmith education contact Sonora University. You will use some of the curriculum I developed.) you must be exact.

Technical writing takes an education in the field and careful research. As an example, I appreciate a clearly written manual for mowers, cameras, and power tools. Most of the time, they are well written. A few are a nightmare.

Smith and Wesson revolver with the grip removed to show the MIM hammer
Smith and Wesson revolvers with MIM hammers should never be modified by anyone.

Some imported firearms have manuals so poorly worded they are hilarious. Others are models of clarity. When it comes to triggers, we cannot afford to use the wrong word during instruction. Let’s look at few of the best ways to describe a trigger action.

Let’s begin as if we were firing the weapon. The action is cocked, as it has been racked or set. The firearm is ready to fire. The shooter will feel some pre-travel as he or she presses the trigger.


Some triggers have very little take-up to the ‘wall’ that we meet when we begin to feel more resistance. This may be referred to as a tight trigger. Some triggers have more take-up than others. This makes for greater safety according to some, while others will say safety is all between the ears. The trigger finger presses the trigger to the breaking point, and this is where take-up or slack ends.

Trigger Compression

Next is the actual trigger compression. This is the action that takes place as the trigger finger presses the trigger to the point the trigger ‘breaks,’ which means tripping the sear. The trigger hooks are engaged with the sear when the firearm is cocked and ready to fire. Trigger compression occurs when pressure on the trigger face eventually breaks the trigger and releases the sear.

trigger on a semiautomatic handgun with the trigger pressed to the rear
Take-up may be short or long. Reset is an important part of the equation.

Take-up may be reversed. That is to say, if you release the take-up before you have begun trigger compression it may be negated. The next time you are set to fire, you start at the beginning of take-up again. Be careful with that take-up, however. You should never place your finger on the trigger until you fire, not when you think you will fire, but when you fire. The break cannot be taken back.

Trigger Bars

There are nuances of design that bear your study. A Glock trigger is far different from a 1911 or a CZ 75 pistol trigger. A two-stage rifle trigger also has take-up, but it feels different from a single-stage trigger. Understand what is happening and understand the differences in feel.

Disassembled Marlin 60 trigger action
Even the humble Marlin 60 trigger action may be improved with proper care.

The trigger breaks the sear, but what happens before is important. Only a very few very inexpensive single-shot rifles of days past used a trigger that directly met the firing pin. They are far less than smooth. A two-stage trigger will feature a consistent and smooth take-up that leads to a crisp break. A single-stage trigger has appeal to some shooters.

Triggers: Travel, Compression, Creep, and Reset

So, what is trigger travel and trigger compression? Travel isn’t difficult to measure in terms of 1/8 inch and so forth. Most people effectively discount take-up and pre-travel, or slack, in the equation when considering trigger travel.

We may refer to loose motion in the trigger as creep. Creep is a bad thing in general but not so bad in a pistol as it would be in a precision rifle. Creep in a handgun used for self-defense may be handled quickly and in combat shooting there is little difference. A precision rifle demands a tight trigger action.

The primary demand on a good trigger is that it is consistent. There are certain very inexpensive handguns, usually blowback-operated, single-action models, in which the trigger reset isn’t consistent. The trigger just isn’t the same from shot to shot with different degrees of creep. I am thankful I do not have to tolerate this type of action or handgun. They are impossible to shoot well and only serve for very close-range work.

shotgun frame showing the trigger assembly
Shotgun triggers seem simple but have their own flavor of fit and control issues.

Some trigger actions have a grinding of the action. This is most common in revolvers. Some smooth up with time and others just stay the same. A gritty trigger tends not to improve in some examples. A smooth trigger gets smoother.

A Wilson Combat pistol, such as the Close Quarters Battle, will have little to no creep. A Wilson Combat aftermarket trigger for the AR-15 is a thing of beauty. These triggers are as well suited to marksmanship as possible.

I cringe when I learn of someone modifying a factory trigger for a lighter break. With careful polish you may do so. But it is easy for an individual to remove too much material. As a result, the trigger action doesn’t last as long as the factory parts should and may even be dangerous. The best means of attaining a good trigger action is to add an aftermarket parts set to the firearm.

Therefore, we will fight with an average trigger until we are ready in our training life to master a very good trigger. Another time we will make the change is when have reached the point that a standard trigger is limiting our marksmanship ability.


The grit in a trigger is a result of how much time was spent in manufacturing and polishing a handgun. An inexpensive revolver may be reliable, but it has grit in the trigger. A Colt Python has no grit (rough movement) in the trigger at all.

Transfer Bar

We call the action bar in the Glock pistol a transfer bar. The bar that transfers energy from the trigger to the hammer in a double-action pistol, such as the Beretta 92, is also a transfer bar. However, more correctly, they do not transfer energy from the trigger to the hammer but from the trigger finger to the hammer. The longer the pull, the more energy is needed.

Trigger Bar

Some call the trigger break a release. The trigger breaks against the sear and the hammer or striker is released. Breaking sharply is what is needed. When the break is mushy, the feel is much different. This isn’t a good thing and limits accuracy potential. The greater the mush and the greater the range, the worse a problem that mushiness become.

close up of two triggers, one with the hooks ground down
A 10-thumbed job at polishing or grinding will get you in trouble or maybe even shot. Note the ham handed trigger hooks on bottom trigger, they are practically gone!

So, the trigger breaks against the sear. The trigger is still in motion and continues to move. This is called over travel. It is sometimes called backlash. As an example, the CZ 75 pistol has characteristic modest backlash. The Kriss Sphinx CZ clone has appreciably less.

Overtravel is necessary for the trigger to continue in motion and meet the reset. As the action resets, the sear re-engages the hammer hooks. A good sharp reset is important, especially in a personal defense firearm that may be fired quickly and accurately.

Overtravel and Reset

Reset is usually much shorter than the original rearward trigger of the trigger action. A trained marksman understands that reset is as important as a good clean trigger break. Learning to allow the trigger to move just past the break and then reset is the mark of a trained shooter.

Mastering the Trigger

Learning to master the trigger demands practice. This means a great deal of dry fire practice. Be certain the firearm is triple checked to ensure it is unloaded. Just the same, be certain the firearm is aimed at a backstop that will stop a bullet — just in case you do something unthinkable that you should not have.

pistol held with a two-handed grip
Firing offhand, a good trigger and sights add up to accuracy well past 25 yards.

Rack the action, break the trigger, and rack the action again. Riding the trigger and not allowing it to run all the way forward again is often done in fast shooting. I have seen very good shooting using this type of trigger control.

I have also seen experienced shooters completely remove the finger from the trigger between shots and slap the trigger again. While not recommended, this works best with a clean trigger. Clean means free of grit and a tight trigger means a short take-up and fast reset.

Conclusion: Triggers

While the person behind the sights is the single most important part of the equation, a good trigger is an important part of the whole picture.

Do you shoot a factory or aftermarket trigger? Have any of your firearms had a trigger job to improve its performance? Which aftermarket option have you had good luck with? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • WIlson combat rifle trigger
  • Young man shooting an AR-15 rifle
  • Wilson Combat rifle in .300 HAMM’R with scope, right profile
  • shotgun frame showing the trigger assembly
  • Red Elftmann trigger with USA etched on the side
  • Disassembled Marlin 60 trigger action
  • CMC triggers designed as an upgrade fro AR_15s and AK-47s
  • Modern era revolver with the grip removed to show the inner workings to compare triggers
  • pistol held with a two-handed grip
  • close up of two triggers, one with the hooks ground down
  • Smith and Wesson revolver with the grip removed to show the MIM hammer
  • two triggers
  • trigger on a semiautomatic handgun with the trigger pressed to the rear
  • snub nose revolver with the grips removed to show the lockwork
  • 1911 semiautomatic handgun cocked and locked on a paper target
  • AR-15 trigger assembly

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 (11)

  1. There is another aspect of the trigger that is not (or ever?) discussed and that is the trigger blade itself. They are, almost without exception, presented as a one type fits all that applies to all brands and to all firearm configurations from Pistols to long arms. I recommend readers have a look at the web site of an Australian Company, Their Trigger Shoes are made in two configurations and can be fitted to any shape and size production trigger blade. Designed and manufactured by a shooter for shooters it allows the shooter to have a common finger to trigger feel across all of your firearms including Pistols, so regardless of how many firearms you have or what you use them for the finger to trigger experience is common.. The different configurations include a perfect Trigger shoe designed for the Benchrest shooter.

  2. I am no competitor, or precision shooter by any stretch.
    I like Timneys for AR types.
    I never mess with my CCW sidearm triggers.
    Have polished a couple myself.
    One that really surprised me was the trigger on my Steyr .50 BMG, very light and clean. For some reason, i expected a heavy 2 stage.

  3. I replaced the trigger on my AR-10 with a Giesselle National Match. I replaced the trigger on my Savage 10PF with a Timney trigger. These are long range shooters so needed the lighter trigger pull. I have several Taurus revolvers. While the guns are really good the triggers were horrendous! I cleaned out the internal parts, then filled it with Flitz polish. I then dry fired each 1000 times. I then cleaned out the internal parts oiled them appropriately. They are much better. Shooters in DA.

  4. Timney !
    Silky smooth !
    Simple install
    I have one in a Ruger 10-22
    Tac driver
    Also in an AR-15 with 20” barrel topped with a Leupold scope
    Super !!

  5. Since many of us were taught that the only jerk is the one behind the trigger, what does that tell us about creep? 😉

  6. Nice article, however I would like to have seen this level of knowledge give a little more information on the difference, advantage/disadvantage, between single-stage, and double-stage triggers. When do we want each, and why? Self modifying a trigger, voiding factory warranty, is just an insane practice. The easiest, and best improvement I have used to overcome creep, grit, etc., on a less than desirable trigger, is just to put, literally, a drop of Wilson Combat Lube on the hammer pin, the trigger pin(s) (1911 film coat the trigger bar), and another on the sear. It seems to improve all of these defects without removing metal. Take the 1911 for example, while it has three separate safeties, in reality, those three safeties ALL verge on a single point, known as the sear. Think about that for a moment, as removing metal from the sear on a 1911, can effectively override ALL of those three safeties. In other words, on a 1911, if the sear fails for whatever reason (no matter how many safeties), it is probably going to go bang! Take the authors advise, if you want a better trigger, replace it with a QUALITY trigger, as if your life depends on it. I would still lube it with Wilson Combat Lube.

  7. I have a Smith and Wesson 640 hate this gun the trigger was terrible heavy gun shaking all over will I installed a set of Wilson Combat tune up springs now it’s my favorite gun to shoot it’s like nite and day it’s smooth pull like a new gun

  8. Once the trigger motion hits the “wall,” the added motion needed for the trigger to “break” is considered “creep” and is directly related to the amount of sear-to-hammer (hook) engagement. I am somewhat confused by your definition. Are we saying the same thing? Thank you and best regards.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.

Discover more from The Shooter's Log

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading