Trigger Jerk


(copies of referenced materials are available at the end of the article)

I attended a training session conducted by a USMC veteran and NRA senior training counselor – I’ll call him Marty.  I had earned my NRA Instructor credential several years prior, had instructed over 200 new shooters and felt, while enhancing my knowledge & skills, this class would be the proverbial piece of cake. Well, my required 6’ shot grouping was akin to the pattern of a 12-gauge shotgun at a hundred yards! I miserably failed the shooting qualification. I had recently undergone eye surgery – no worries, that was the problem.

Marty provided me his sage advice by saying (and I quote), “You’re making the gun go off, just let it go off!”  So, gee whiz, that made sense, but what did he mean? He explained that I had “too much” finger on the trigger, and, in anticipation of the explosion of the round going off, I “jerked” the trigger to “make” the gunfire when I thought I was ready. His remedy, simple – just steadily pull the trigger until the gun fires.  By his account, if I’d succeeded in applying a “smooth, steady, trigger pull,” I would be surprised when the shot fired!  Well, after a few wall drills and dummy drills, he had me cured, at least for a while – I still have some relapses!

I’ve passed Marty’s wisdom along to many shooters, hopefully, with some success, in correcting their jerking problem.  Trained and experienced instructors in shooting fundamentals routinely spend ample time, both in class and on the range, presenting, discussing, applying, and practicing the 5 Fundamentals of pistol shooting as taught in NRA Basic courses…

Aiming; Breath Control; Hold Control; Trigger Control; and Follow-through.

… while providing the well-known pie chart of shooing effects as evidence of trigger jerk as depicted in the 7 o’clock position of the figure.  That said, I also add to those five characteristics one more of importance; Grip.  A proper, solid, and consistent grip on the firearm is fundamental by itself.

As the NRA lesson teaches, and as reinforced in the course examination, it is taught that Aiming + Trigger Control are absolutely the two most important of those 5 fundamentals. Logic tells us that this makes sense. Once you’ve established a grip, taken aim, then correctly making the gun go bang is the next step, right?  Dutifully I have ascribed to this philosophy and practice – for myself and students.

In the Nov/Dec issue of Concealed Carry Magazine there was an article1 by training guru George Harris discussing the ins and outs of trigger control.  Harris takes a very reasoned and well thought out position on the importance and relevance of trigger control, and especially the “jerking” phenomenon. The effect of this trigger jerk is throwing your shot off the intended target, low left for a right handed shooter, and low right for a lefty.

Harris goes into detail on the potential causes of this and arrives at the premise that we should not refer to the action of activating the gun’s trigger as a “squeeze” but rather refer to trigger function as ‘operating” or “manipulating“ the trigger with a smooth steady pull. Make a finger gun with your shooting hand, then flex only your trigger finger. Unless you have a well practiced trigger pull you’ll notice the thumb of that hand moves as well. Try this with your non-shooting hand and it will probably be even more evident.

From personal experience, isolating your trigger finger movement to smoothly operate the trigger seems to work for me …for a while. When I relapse to those low/left shots I rationalized I had just gone back to old habits – I slowed down, and paid special focus on a smoothly pulled trigger operation – I thought George was a genius!  Until

… I opened my copy of the current issue of the NRA publication, Shooting Illustrated. Paging through it, I saw an article titled “Trigger Jerk is a Myth” 2– saying to myself, this ought to be interesting! The author, John McPhee (aka “Shrek” & here-to-fore unknown to me), seems pretty well qualified.  Being a 20+ year veteran of the US Army, he retired as a Sgt Major with Special Forces and JSOC assignments. Currently, he operates SOB Tactical3 located near Fayetteville, NC and reportedly has trained hundreds of civilians, military & law enforcement personnel.

McPhee’s premise is interesting, to say the least. Conventional wisdom (NRA lessons) attributes those low/left shots to anticipation of recoil and a resulting “jerk” or sudden forceful squeeze of the firearm trigger.  McPhee arrived at this opinion through his instructional efforts.  Every student gets videotaped on the range. Through watching hundreds of these videos he determined the fickle finger by itself is not the culprit to those errant shots.

McPhee ascertains the trigger finger –for most the index finger – doesn’t have adequate force by itself to overcome the power exerted on the firearm by the remaining strength of the grip hand(s). To me it’s kind of illogical that that one finger has enough power to move the pistol off target – even momentarily – by overpowering the overall strength of the grip hand(s) in total.  

Now, that’s a point to ponder, isn’t it?  Think of it like this: if we acknowledge that our shots are going low & left (low & right if left-handed) the barrel must ever so slightly move off-center to affect that. Can it be that the trigger finger alone can cause this? Assuming, of course, one employs a solid, firm, and consistent grip on the pistol, in my mind, it is unlikely and brings a new perspective on that conventional wisdom. McPhee concludes that good grip is the key and that we must reject the sense it is a “jerk” of the trigger finger that causes those misses. Shooters need to focus on and achieve a proper grip to get shots consistently on target in the desired group size.

After reading his article I tend to agree. One of my fellow instructors (thanks Wendy!) makes the analogy of squeezing a lemon and a nerf ball. The lemon (or orange for that matter) takes a lot of hand pressure to extract that juice. A nerf ball, soaked in water, however, only takes a smooth consistent squeeze (read that trigger pull) to extract the liquid, more akin to that smooth, even trigger manipulation Harris referred to.

So, my conclusion to the title premise?  I agree with McPhee, “jerking” the trigger (of & by itself) is a myth!  The reality is that when you “squeeze” the trigger too aggressively, the overall tightness of your grip increases causing the firearm to ever so slightly move the muzzle left (or right) and throw those shots low & off-center.

Think about this the next time you are dealing with off center shot placement.  If they land low & to one side, focus on adjusting/improving your grip. Next time our paths cross, ask me about the “Heller Handshake” to demonstrate this proper grip!

Good shooting, have fun, and stay safe!


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