June 06, 2013
By James Tarr
Many people are wondering these days if their carry gun should have a light trigger. Like many small, close-knit communities, gun writers tend to follow certain belief systems and echo what other writers say about certain subjects without really looking into the source of the belief. In giving good-natured grief to fellow scribes, I often use the phrase, "Like most gun writers, you have confused your opinion with fact."
I call these set-in-stone ideas "gun magazine gospels"—in direct contradiction to the secondary definition of gospel, which is "a thing that is absolutely true." One of these is the dictum that carry guns should have trigger pulls over X pounds, X usually but not always being four.
This jumped out at me again recently as I was reading an article on customizing Glocks for competition shooting and saw the following about trigger jobs: "With that in mind, however, the minute that the firing pin and spring are modified, the Glock 35 becomes a competition-only gun. It is not suitable for personal protection with the trigger pull hovering around three pounds."
My immediate reaction was, "Why not?"
The author of the article was building a gun designed for practical shooting. Practical shooting involves firing thousands if not tens of thousands of rounds in practice and during high-stress, on-the-clock competition. It requires a completely reliable gun that is drawn from a holster as fast as possible. The trigger pull in question was being modified to allow the user to make tough shots under pressure while keeping the pistol completely reliable.
How is an ultra reliable gun with good sights and a trigger that allows the user to make tough shots under pressure unsuitable for carry? Because some gun writer decades ago decreed that any trigger pulls under four pounds are not suitable for a carry gun. Why four? Why not five or 5.5 or 6.79?
I've got some news for you: If you can't keep your finger off the trigger when it's not supposed to be there, no trigger pull is right for you because you're unsafe.
NYPD officers are issued Glocks with the "New York trigger," which features a trigger pull nearly double the standard weight. But even that wasn't heavy enough. There were lots of instances of negligent discharges, and at NYPD's request Glock developed the "New York Plus" trigger. Apparently the NYPD doesn't have the time and/or money to train its officers to keep their fingers outside the trigger guard until they're ready to fire.
An eight- to 11-pound trigger makes a handgun much tougher to shoot accidentally. And accurately. Last August two NYPD officers fired a reported 16 rounds at a suspect outside the Empire State Building, hitting him—as well as nine bystanders. One officer was about 12 feet from the suspect, the other about 25, so we are not talking about distance shooting.
There were a number of people on the sidewalk directly behind the suspect, but considering how many bystanders were hit, it appears most of the officers' rounds weren't hitting the suspect.
Would lighter triggers on their Glocks have allowed them to shoot more accurately? We'll never know, but I find it hard to believe they could do worse. (And I don't blame the officers but rather a system that requires them to qualify only twice a year with their handguns, which is about average for police departments. How skilled a driver would you be if you got behind the wheel of a car only twice a year?)
Competition vs. Street
Does somebody want to make the argument that competition is not the street? You are correct; it is not. However, U.S. Practical Shooting Association and International Defensive Pistol Association range officers are strict about ensuring a competitor's finger stays outside of the trigger guard except when engaging targets, whether he or she is running, reloading a pistol, whatever. Doing something over and over again is one sure way to ingrain it into your muscle memory. Doing it twice a year is not.
So why are guns with trigger pulls suitable for the "crucible of competition," as Jeff Cooper called it, unsuitable for carry?
Short answer? They're not—in my opinion. As long as your pistol is mechanically sound, if you keep your finger out of the trigger guard and carry the pistol in a holster that covers the trigger guard, a pistol with a "light" trigger pull is perfectly safe.
I've been an armored car driver in Detroit, uniformed police officer and private investigator, and I have carried a gun every day for the past 20 years. None of my carry guns have stock factory trigger pulls, and none of them has ever gone off "accidentally."
Heck, forget me; listen to what Col. Jeff Cooper had to say about what was the best trigger pull weight on a 1911 destined for carry: "Three pounds, crisp, is the word." A three-pound trigger on a carry gun would give a lot of gun writers—as well as trainers accustomed to dealing with people who don't have basic safe gun handling skills—brain aneurysms, but light trigger pulls aren't inherently unsafe. Some shooters are. I don't think people with the proper skills need to be handicapped because the world is full of idiots.
When people talk about guns having "too light" a trigger pull, what they fail to realize is that "light" has no specific definition in the first place. Factory guns can have trigger pulls ranging anywhere from under four to more than 12 pounds. The single-action trigger pull on my SIG P226 was just over three pounds out of the box. Does that mean it's inherently unsafe? No.
Not all types of guns are equal when it comes to the trigger pull argument, however. If you're carrying a 1911, not only do you have to deactivate the thumb safety before firing it, there is the grip safety to consider as well. Having to physically deactivate two safeties before it's even possible to pull the trigger adds something to the equation. I know someone who carries a Colt Commander with a two-pound trigger pull. That's lighter than I'd want for myself, but is it inherently unsafe? Again, no.
A lot of 1911 owners carry their guns in Condition One—cocked and locked, with loaded chamber and thumb safety on—but striker-fired guns such as Glocks and Smith & Wesson M&Ps are entirely different matters. When loaded, they exist in a permanent "cocked and unlocked" state, with a partially cocked striker. There is no external safety to be found other than the lever on the trigger.
Plenty of cops have had accidental discharges into the ground (or their legs) when reholstering striker-fired guns because the drawstring of their jackets or the strap of their thumb-break holsters got wedged into the trigger guard. In such instances there is nothing to stop the pistol from firing other than the force required to actually pull the trigger. This is why a well-fitting quality holster that covers the trigger guard of the pistol is a must.
The fewer mechanical safeties on your pistol, the more you need to ensure it's not going to go bang until you want it to. If your carry pistol is bouncing around loose in your purse, briefcase or glove box, where pens or lipstick tubes can get wedged inside the trigger guard, the last thing you want is a striker-fired pistol with no external safety to have a light trigger. Whenever possible, such pistols should be in holsters so their trigger guards are covered.
A big reason thrown out against custom or "customized" guns is that if you ever do shoot anyone, the opposing lawyer will crucify you for having an unsafe gun, a gun with a "hair trigger." I hate to break it to you, but if you've done anything to your carry gun—changing the grips, sights, springs, adding grip tape or doing a trigger job—you've customized it, and you're open to the same kind of legal attack.
I know a lawyer who simply added an aftermarket safety to his striker-fired gun, and in my opinion he unwittingly opened himself up to all sorts of courtroom attacks.
"Sir, your model pistol has been issued to dozens of police departments and several military units, but you apparently thought it was unfit to use as is? What are your qualifications to make that decision? If you felt the design of the pistol was inherently unsafe, why didn't you carry a different pistol? Isn't that irresponsible of you? Has this aftermarket safety been approved by the maker for use on its pistols?"
I'm certainly no lawyer and am not qualified to dispense legal advice, but as a private investigator and former cop I'm no stranger to the legal system, so take my opinion for what it's worth. My response to that line of legal attack has always been that everything I've done to my gun has allowed me to shoot it better.
Frankly, you're open to legal attack even if you haven't done anything to your pistol as it came from the factory, so why not make sure you can hit what you're aiming at—at speed and under stress?
One of the biggest legal aspects of any defensive shooting will be whether your rounds went where you wanted them to. If they did, I think any attack by the opposing lawyer on the tool you used will be merely a distraction. Even if your carry gun has a one-pound "hair trigger," if the three shots you fired at your carjacker hit him in the dead center of his chest, I would think any argument a lawyer makes about your trigger will seem silly to a jury.
Now, on the other hand, if you didn't hit what you were aiming at or accidentally pulled the trigger when jumping behind a car and shot an innocent bystander or yourself—then you've got all sorts of trouble.
When it comes to customizations, some gunsmiths will gladly testify to the safety and quality of their work in a courtroom, some not so much. Regardless, if you get a trigger job done—whether by a professional or by yourself (know your limitations)—do not carry or depend on it until you've shot the gun enough to prove its reliability. And by that I mean hundreds of rounds, not just a magazine or two.
My philosophy has always been to carry a gun that best allows me to hit what I'm aiming at under stress. Winning the gunfight has always been more important to me than any potential court case that may come afterward. Carry a gun that you can shoot as fast and accurately as your skill allows, and practice, practice, practice.