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Building Trigger Finger Discipline

"Keep your finger off the trigger until you've made a conscious decision to shoot." 

Most of you know this rule.  Simple, right?  It's certainly a simple concept, and it's easy to have good trigger finger discipline in an air-conditioned square range. (I should hope so - working the trigger is mostly all you're doing!) 

But maintaining trigger finger discipline on command…without fail…during stressful situations is harder than most people realize.  It doesn't matter how great a shooter you are – there are plenty of excellent marksmen whose trigger discipline goes in the toilet the moment they are exposed to more stressful situations. 

Imagine participating in a rifle class.  You will be learning new skills and moving in ways that may be unfamiliar to you.  Rifle classYou may be turning and running in different directions, performing actions where your muzzle will not always be pointed downrange.  Dropping to the deck into prone, shooting, jumping up, and running 20 yards before dropping down to do it again – these are athletic activities that tax your ability to maintain discipline and focus.  There is also the increased stress of performing unfamiliar drills during live fire.  And remember that you're surrounded by other people of varying skill levels doing exactly the same thing.  If it's so simple, why do many people have their fingers on the trigger when they don't intend to?

Every skill we practice incorporates trigger finger discipline: drawing from the holster and pointing toward the target; getting up from one firing position to move to another; magazine changes; training with partners in class.  Real situations where the stress of danger can degrade our fine motor skills: a family member inadvertently crosses your firing path, moving through crowds, holstering the pistol after the adrenal dump of a gun fight.  Each of these situations involves your finger going on or off the trigger at the appropriate time.  Perhaps that’s an obvious point, but do you know that you have this skill mastered?


Two Trigger Problems

1. Trigger on too soon – i.e. going to the trigger before you intend to (before you have made a conscious decision).  The most obvious example is when drawing the pistol from the holster – the finger goes to the trigger before the gun is oriented towards the target.  Generally this is a beginner problem.

DrawKeep the finger at the natural limit of extension on your draw

2. Trigger off too late – i.e. keeping the finger on the trigger when you shouldn't.  Again the obvious example is holstering the pistol.  This is why we stress holstering reluctantly (slowly) as well as looking to ensure nothing is blocking the mouth of the holster (you can also see that your finger is off the trigger).  There are many other examples – more experienced shooters will run into this one when learning new skills and/or exposed to stress.  In this case, the rule is “Make a conscious decision to get your finger off the trigger when you don't intend to shoot." This should be easy, but we see enough examples in class…so again I ask: if it's so easy why doesn't everyone do it??? 

HolsteringLook briefly to ensure your holster and trigger are clear

Regardless of our experience level, from time to time we should focus simply on this one basic skill.  Isolate it – break it apart from a compound skill such as drawing and practice it for repetitions just like you would a punch or a trigger pull or a draw stroke. 

Did I mention you need to practice this one even more with your off-hand?  If you can sign your name equally well with both left and right, you get a pass…but, for the majority of us, our off-hand trigger finger is “developmentally disabled."

Actually I take the signature thing back...many of you will have equally poor signatures with both hands.  Just practice it already!



Your finger should be in one of two places.  On-trigger is obvious.  

Off-trigger is the one that can be problematic…it should be at the natural limit of extension and nowhere else.  Too many people allow it to float somewhere in space.  Yes, it may be off the trigger, but if you haven’t made a conscious decision to both remove your finger from the trigger and place it exactly where you intend it to go, it's not good enough. 

Off-TriggerResting on the trigger guard isn't good enough.


Dry Practice Safety

When you practice dry at home, put the ammo in another room.  Check your pistol, rifle, and every training mag you are using to verify they are unloaded.  Verbally stating “clear” for each gun and magazine is a good idea, it may seem silly but it's cheap insurance.  Even better, have someone else verify everything is clear as well.  Hopefully your significant other is cool with that. 


General Advice

Most of the drills are very simple.  But that's good because we’re trying to isolate a fundamental skill, and beginners have to start somewhere.  Work them until you have it cold.  Do double or triple the reps on your off-hand side until it starts to catch up.  Even one minute a day will benefit you (and everyone else that you train with).

More advanced folks will always benefit from fundamental practice...particularly on the off-hand side.  Advanced people can also make these more challenging both mentally and physically.  Incorporate trigger discipline drills with conscious breathing practice: trigger-off, slowly inhale for 15 seconds, trigger-on, exhale for 15 seconds.  Obviously with the breathing it makes this slow and deliberate practice, which is worthwhile even for advanced gunfighters.  Or practice trigger discipline for one minute each side while balancing on one leg.  Want a workout at the same time? Hold the other leg straight out.  Yeah it looks silly…really silly.  But you're in the privacy of your own home.

An advanced person may already have mastered trigger discipline, but it’s a simple thing you can add to many other skills you should be practicing.  Maximize your time!


Simple Training Drills


1. Hold the pistol or rifle towards a target, either pointed in or in close contact position.  Make a conscious decision to place the finger at the natural limit of extension.  Then make a conscious decision to place the finger on the trigger.  Do it slowly and deliberately.  Do it fast.  Do it slow and deliberately again.  Repeat 10, 20, or 100 times, whatever you need.  If you're right-handed, do triple the repetitions with your left. 

Close contact off Close contact on






2. Hold the gun in close contact position.  As you extend toward the target, consciously decide to go on-trigger (should be on-trigger by the time you reach full extension).  As you pull the gun back to close contact position, consciously decide to go off-trigger (should be off-trigger by the time the pistol is in close contact position). 

Pointed in


3. Same drill as #2 but start in Sul position.  You get the idea.  Do it with both pistol and rifle, both left and right sides.



4. Start with the rifle in high ready, off-trigger.  Point in, on-trigger.  Back to high ready, off-trigger.  Rinse repeat.

High ready off trigger Rifle pointed in on trigger







5. In kneeling position with a rifle, point in to your target, on-trigger.  Imagine you need to look at your partner on your right…if your cheek leaves your stock, you go off-trigger.  Look left, point in, look right, point in…etc.  Do it from other shooting positions.

Uzi on trigger Uzi off trigger








If your cheek comes off the stock, your finger goes off the trigger


6. Practice your mag changes, with emphasis on what your trigger finger is doing.  Do it left and right.  This is easy to do or easy to screw up, depending on where your mag release is.

Sig 556 Safety

AK Safety







With the SIG 556, it's easy.  With an AK it's possible to screw it up, so be aware.


A Little Harder...

We're still isolating the trigger finger skill, but now we're incorporating some physical and mental stress.  The more repetitions the better, because as you get tired you get more distracted, and it becomes harder to maintain good trigger discipline. 

1. Start with the rifle in patrol ready, finger off-trigger.  Drop into kneeling position, finger on-trigger. 

Patrol Ready off trigger Kneeling on trigger










2. With the rifle in high ready, off-trigger.  Drop to the squatting position, on-trigger.  Squatting is uncomfortable for you?  Hmmm.  Unless you've got an injury that precludes this position, shut up and practice it.  Out of 20 times, did you get the trigger right every time?  If so, great!  If not...hmm, more practice!

High ready off trigger Squat on trigger








3. Start with the rifle in patrol ready, off-trigger.  Drop to prone position, go on-trigger once your sights are lined up.  Go off-trigger before you get up.  Do this one 20 times each side.  Do it slow, do it fast.  See if you ever catch yourself on-trigger as you get up or drop down.  Have a partner watch you, or better yet, video tape yourself. 

A3-Day3 Prone-P1030686

4. Do some kettlebell swings, pushups, sprints, whatever.  Then do any of the above drills both left and right.


5. Have a training partner give you different commands: kneel, prone, get cover behind that tree, change mags, whatever.   Any time you take a firing position, go on-trigger.  Any time you're moving or otherwise not "shooting" (remember, we're dry for this drill), go off-trigger.  Every time your partner catches you with your finger on the trigger when it shouldn't be, you owe him a beer.


The rifle is a physical weapon, so even good shooters will benefit from this practice.  These are particularly useful for those preparing for a rifle class. 

Our goal is to make this skill automatic.  To do that, we must be deliberate, both in our conscious decision to get the finger on the trigger, and also to get it off.

You should become so good at this skill that it is very obvious to everyone, fellow students and instructors alike, that your trigger finger is always where it is supposed to be.  Your fellow students will appreciate it, feel safer, and may be inspired to master it as well.  Your instructors will be able to tell at a glance that you've got this one right, and can focus more attention on other things that will make you a more dangerous fighter. 

To repeat the rule, "Keep your finger off the trigger until you've made a conscious decision to shoot."  It takes conscious, disciplined practice to make this skill stick.  If we intend to be skilled gunfighters, we must practice and seek training.  If we are to be safe students and training partners, trigger finger discipline must be mastered.