Triggering Mechanics: Best Practices

Proper Trigger Placement on AR-15 Rifle

Pulling the trigger is the “last thing that happens” in the shot process. Technically, there’s also hammer or striker fall, primer ignition and so on, but breaking the sear loose to free the hammer or striker is the last part we cause. Yes, it’s important!

There’s old common advice that goes, “let the shot be a surprise…” Wrong! That’s a great concept to incorporate in teaching a brand-new shooter not to be afraid.

Gradually increasing pressure back against the trigger until the shot goes instills the idea that it is a trigger “release,” not a switch that’s flipped or a big red button that’s pushed, and helps avoid anticipation-induced flinch.

However, when we’re really shooting— sights on targets and time as a factor— you best know when the shot is going and be in full control of that moment.

The trick is to break the shot, pull the trigger, without moving the sight off the target. That requires a little technique— mechanics— and that’s what this article is about.

Short but notable note: some, me among them, promote the word “press” in place of “pull” because it’s more mechanically descriptive of operating the mechanism.

Not all triggers have perceptible movement prior to sear release, and ideally, they shouldn’t…

Proper Trigger Placement on AR-15
Follow-through. Focus on holding the trigger back for a two-count for a few shots and you’ll see what I’m talking about. Learning how this feels, and seeing how much it helps, might add a whole new dimension to your shooting.

What Is Proper Trigger Finger Technique?

First, the best point of contact with the trigger face is near the middle of the first pad of the index or trigger finger, not much farther in.

Ideally, the third joint of the trigger finger (closest to the first knuckle) will be parallel to the gun frame or receiver. This helps produce a “straight back” pull.

Now, the contact point on the trigger face can be, and should be, variable-based, partly on the trigger break effort and also on the “geometry” that helps get that straight-back press.

Make double-sure that no other part of the trigger finger is contacting anything else! Done right, only the trigger finger moves to press the trigger, and only its first two joints.

The rest of the hand stays calm and steady (no matter how tight the hand gripping pressure is).

This is something to put on the checklist-tricklist: learning and practicing isolating movement to only the trigger finger and, again, moving it straight back.

Any side loads will also move the gun, which will move the sight and where the bullet impacts.

Trigger Mechanics Showing Hand Placements
This photo set details and clarifies a few points. The black square shows the point of contact with the trigger face for the best mechanics. It’s not easily possible to attain on all triggers, but get as close as you can.

That (most of this actually) is learned and habituated through six words: dry fire, dry fire, dry fire.

This ideal architecture or geometry may be difficult to duplicate depending on the distance the finger has to reach or extend to access the trigger face.

Ideally, I like to “reach” a little to get my finger on the trigger. Often, especially with pistol grip-equipped rifles, the distance to the trigger is closer than ideal.

Keep in mind what you’re trying to accomplish— press straight back, no angling, no side pressure— and a little fudging in finger positioning helps find a way.

For me, after eons of hours spent fiddling with this, with an AR-15 I decided that getting the third joint segment of the finger parallel to the firearm receiver was ultimately a more influential factor than perfect finger pad placement on or across the trigger face.

This resulted in trigger face contact closer to the first joint, rather than the fingertip. Otherwise, I was holding my finger more “out” than I wanted, and got a sideload.

Also, if a trigger has some “swing” to it (movement arc), like a two-stage, what matters more is the geometry at the stopping point, not starting point.

Gripping AR-15 Showing Proper Trigger Placement and Grip
Get the thumb up and out of the equation. This competition handgrip, for instance, is designed to position the thumb such that it can participate in the hold, but not interfere with independent trigger finger movement.

No Sympathy

When you’re practicing the “move only the trigger finger” fundamental, you might notice that it’s difficult to do that without having the thumb also move.

They’re a team and this natural pinching reflex is how we’re built.

As best as I can, I effectively remove my thumb from the equation by holding it upwards (if possible) and keep it away from contact with the firearm receiver or frame.

The sympathetic “pinching” action has to be overcome. Sympathetic, in this use, means unavoidably linked.

Flexing the thumb in conjunction with moving the trigger finger will, not can, influence shot impacts, and that’s true for rifles and handguns.

Improper Grip Gap on AR-15
It is very important that no other bit of the finger touches the gun. If it does, there will, not can, be gun movement during the trigger pull.


The mechanics involved in a skillful trigger pull also involve what happens after the sear releases.

“Follow-through” has different definitions, and that’s because it’s as much a concept as it is a technique. Follow-through, to me, is “staying with” the trigger break for a spell after the shot has gone, keeping the trigger held back.

This spell might vary from a couple of seconds to an eye blink. A focus on this will improve your shooting! Follow-through promotes smoothness and reduces undesirable movement.

Call it a trick, but it’s a trick that works!

AR-15 Receiver Showing Trigger Reset
This is a trigger reset: as the trigger is released back forward the hammer “pops” up as it gets handed off to the sear again. Feel that as you’re shooting.

When shooting a semi-auto, keep your finger on the trigger face shot to shot— “ride the trigger.” Some folks treat a trigger like it’s hot: they poke it back and then jump off it.

Staying in contact helps avoid “slapping” at the trigger, which creates all manners of shot impacts strayed from the center. You should be able to feel the trigger reset on every shot.

In an AR-15, for instance, the reset is the little “pop” you feel when the disconnector hands off the hammer to the sear.

Pull the trigger, hold it back, let it forward and feel the reset: the trigger is prepped and ready for its next release. This reset point varies greatly with different firearms.

Shooting speed, which means the time from shot to shot, doesn’t matter to the value of or dedication to this tactic. Even if it’s two shots a second, or more, keep your finger in contact.

Press Process

Fast or slow? Hard or soft? Folks, if the sight doesn’t move, it does not matter! A gentle, slow, deliberate press back on the trigger works no better than a sharp, abrupt, deliberate press.

“Deliberate” is the key. When I get the sight where it needs to be, it might not be there for long so I want to break the shot with full attention and intention right then, especially firing offhand.

I’m not popping at the trigger nilly-willy, I’m just compressing the time. Trick is, as said, to press the trigger fully without moving the gun, and that is what all those mechanical tricks are all about— especially that “straight back” move.

Clearly, trigger resistance (break weight) and grip holding pressure strongly factor in how aggressive anyone can get with a trigger break.

The more firmly the hand is gripping and the lighter the trigger break weight, the better you can jump on it without ill effect.

(It’s also why I modify my rifle triggers to give additional overtravel, and also remove any overtravel stop altogether if one exists. I do not want the trigger coming to an abrupt halt following a quick press on it! That moves the gun.)

How to Correctly Pull the Trigger on a Revolver
The best way to manipulate a double-action is to stroke it back in one continuous action and then release it fully forward in the next, same speed each direction. And keep your finger on the trigger throughout!

One last consideration: double-action triggers, which means most revolvers and also “double-action-only” semis (which are not common but do exist), and this could also include any trigger that has some amount of movement arc built-in to its design, need another approach to mechanics.

The very best way to operate a double-action trigger is to pull it all the way through in one full-stroke motion. Do not “stage” these triggers!

Staging means pulling the trigger through its arc until you feel the step-stop where the single-action mode sear engagement would be, pausing there, and then completing the shot as if you’d cocked back the hammer.

That’s disruptive and a sure way to open up a group.

Work a double-action trigger the same as you’d work the trigger on a spray bottle full of kitchen cleaner: back and forth, and go the same speed back, same speed forth. Try it and you’ll see!

What type of triggers do you like? How do you pull the trigger to get the best results? Let us know in the comments below!

About the Author:

Glen Zediker

Glen Zediker is the owner of Zediker Publishing, which specializes in books and other publications focused primarily on AR-15s, handloading, and shooting skills. Since 1989, he has authored or co-authored 20 books.

He started shooting at age 5 and competing in NRA Smallbore rifle at age 8. He got his first AR-15 at age 15 and has now had 45 years of experience with that firearms platform. He’s worked professionally with some of the greatest shooters on the planet and leading industry professionals. And he does pretty well on his own! Glen holds a High Master classification in NRA High Power Rifle and first earned that using an AR-15 Service Rifle. He’s also competed in many other forms of competition, including USPSA, Steel Challenge, Silhouette Rifle and Pistol, Bullseye Pistol, ISSF Air Rifle, Practical Rifle and shotgun sports.

Since 1986 Glen has been a frequent and regular contributor to many publications, having had over 500 assigned articles published. See more at
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Comments (6)

  1. I still think “pull” is a better description of curling your finger inward, toward yourself. Although I don’t think the term has much effect on results either way… maybe we should “use” the trigger?

  2. This was a GREAT REVIEW for one that has been around for awhile! Plus it should be mandatory at ALL NEWBIE CLASSES. I’ll be spending some time doing more dry fire practice. It popped into my mind that even experienced shooters need to do this on a regular basis. After all our guns wear and so do we = we have to keep on the changes. 🙂

  3. “Let the shot be a surprise” is a basic concept in Bullseye pistol (now called precision pistol, I believe) and has been for decades. It is a helpful and valid method of marksmanship, not just for beginners but for masters as well. You have to accept your “area of wobble” focus on sight alignment and trigger control and let the shot be a surprise.

  4. Finally I can quote a professional when some wannabe range dork quotes the idiotic “let the trigger surprise you!”. When I have a firearm in my hands, I want ZERO surprises! My working of the trigger is deliberate, with as much intention and purpose I can muster. Thanks for a great article!

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