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It's the Trigger, not the Sights!

It's the Trigger, not the Sights!

Chris Edwards, Glock Sport Shooting Foundation director, shows a new shooter the effects of recoil and the benefits of a good grip and stance.

Good hits are made with perfect trigger control, not perfect sight control. Align the sights and have a perfect sight picture, but yank the trigger and you miss. why do we put sights first in our teaching? The instructor's mantra is invariably, "Front Sight. . .Press. . .Front Sight." I suggest it should properly be, "Trigger Press. . .Let the Sights Wobble. . .Trigger Press."

Why make trigger press the first priority? Because correct trigger manipulation is, in my opinion, the reason for a well-placed shot.

Sure, having the sights lined up properly, as well as a having good grip and stance are all part of the well-aimed shot, but correct and consistent trigger manipulation is the heart of the shot.

Moving trigger press up to first place goes to the psychology of learning and comprehension. We all assign importance by ranking. Consider the Four Rules of Gun Safety. Rule Number 1 is "All guns are always loaded," and rightly so, for the others build on Rule Number 1.

If we teach front sight first, the pupil will devote the bulk of his effort to mastering the sights at the expense of learning a good trigger pull, often with disastrous results such as perfecting the trigger yank as he tries to catch that perfect sight moment.

To get good hits on this B-27 humanoid target quickly and accurately at realistic self-defense distances, good trigger control is needed, using the sights simply to verify that the gun is centered.

By putting the trigger press first, with sights next in line and used to simply verify the gun's orientation to the target, jerked or flinched shots are minimized or eliminated. If excellent trigger control is learned first, the shooter can let the sights wobble atrociously, his grip can be simply enough to keep the gun from hitting the earth and his stance an exercise in standing erect--and he'll still make good hits.


My acknowledgment of this truism came about through an unusual teaching venue that forced me to reevaluate the building blocks of handgun marksmanship. Over the last four years I've been part of an eclectic group teaching handgun skills at one-day Media Events sponsored by the National Shooting Sports Foundation. At these events, mainstream media are invited to come out to a nearby range where they can have the opportunity to learn about firearms in general, with the emphasis on handguns.

Early on, it became very apparent that the invitees would have had little or no experience with firearms. This meant we had to give them all the fundamentals and do it in a very compressed time frame, since we had but 31⁄2 hours, at most, for hands-on trigger time. The rest of the day was taken up with a thorough safety briefing, working with sterile dummy guns and dummy ammunition and dry firing. We also acknowledged that our instruction could well be the first and last the attendees would ever receive, so we felt an obligation to ensure that when they left they would be safe and effective gun handlers.

While the safety briefing was not open to compromise, there wasn't enough time to cover the components of traditional instruction as would be the case in a formal training school, but we had to make the program work. Something had to give, so the question was: What and where to cut or, to which skills should we devote our limited instructional time?

These police cadets do not need fine sighting to hit their target from this distance--they need good trigger control.

We knew what we wanted--to have them able to safely handle a firearm and to fire well-aimed shots. The first shooting was up close at two and three yards. Targets were moved back as the shooters progressed, with a goal of good hits at 15 yards against large bull's-eye, Bianchi Tombstone and Pepper Popper (steel) targets. Part of the program had a shoot-off scheduled, where attendees would shoot the Flying M stage (modified) taken from the Glock Shooting Sports Foundation match. This, of course, presupposed they had developed sufficient skills to not embarrass themselves.

I matched up the advantages and disadvantages of perfecting the skills of sights, trigger, grip and stance against the time it normally takes to teach these as they are applied at the various distances and targets. Obviously, up close the students could do most everything wrong and still hit the large tombstone or bull's-eye targets, but even at five yards the gun had only to stay centered somewhere on target if they manipulated the trigger smoothly. I was somewhat surprised to find that this lack of emphasis on the sights continued to hold true back to 15 yards.

I next looked at how these first-timers approached the handgun. Most were, quite normally, apprehensive. Now, what happens when someone is apprehensive (which is also to say, uneasily fearful)? According to Bruce Siddle in his seminal work, Sharpening the Warriors Edge, he found that certain physiological actions transpire when fearful. Among them is that eyes are unable to focus on close-range objects--such as sights--and fine motor skills are also impeded.

The eyes cannot focus but fine motor skills are only "impeded?" This meant there was even more reason to learn trigger manipulation, not improved sighting.

The media folks transitioned from safe gun-handling drills to dry-fire practice, which now focused on making a good trigger press. They were told to use the sights to simply verify that the gun was centered on the target. I also told them to let the gun wobble around while they moved the trigger smoothly.

I had previously observed a more scientific approach to this while visiting the FBI Firearms Training Unit in Quantico, Virginia. One instructor, explaining his remedial training work, had me use his electronic training device, a multi-thousand-dollar video-trigger pressure setup hooked into a split-screen computer, all on a live-fire indoor range. With this, the instructor sees what the shooter sees and the computer displays a graph of trigger pull and pressure.

It was demonstrated to me

that at 10 yards, burying the front sight to the left, right and down--but coupled with a good trigger press--bullet strike varied but four inches from point-of-aim. This proved to me that trigger pull is much more critical to marksmanship than sighting.

Here, a media representative shoots the modified GSSF Flying M stage at the Fairfax, Virginia Rod & Gun Club. Chris Edwards is instructing.

When we moved to the range, we repeated the dry-fire drill and then got some rounds down range. As our media folks got good hits and became accustomed to the noise and recoil, their apprehension was noticeably less. This meant they then were better able to see their sights, but were building their skills on the foundation of the good trigger work. This dovetailed nicely into moving the targets farther away and teaching them how to further refine and use sights.

I also noticed that with the reversed order of trigger first/sights second, they more quickly picked up on the sights but did not attempt to have that "perfect" sight picture. The tendency to snatch or jerk the trigger was noticeably less than under the traditional method of instruction. I thought I was on to something but I was still doubtful, since the exercise was done simply to meet exigent circumstances.

I took what I learned at the NSSF media events to my work teaching basic defensive firearms to police cadets at a local community college. Most of them had no firearms experience either. The cadets, as did the media folks, begin training at two yards then follow the curriculum that dictates shooting at three, five, 10, 15 and finally 25 yards. The cadets fired two-handed, as well as with either hand unsupported.

As I found with the media folks, the students, having worked on good trigger control at two, three, five and 10 yards, were able to easily refine the sights at 15 and 25 yards to get good hits.

Additional benefits developed as well. Now the students were generally more comfortable with their training and the instructors had much less correcting to do. The students were progressing faster, shooting better and had much more positive attitudes.

Another fact I learned in the media events and saw demonstrated repeatedly in the cadet class was that whatever was learned first and was rewarded--good hits, loading, clearing, gripping the gun, etc.--was the action to which they reverted under stress. I'm sure there's some body of scientific knowledge explaining this better, but all I know is it's easier to teach correctly--and get it right the very first time--than it is to undo the mistakes.

The Tombstone or Bianchi target is used in the NSSF media events. That's Jim Scoutten of Shooting, USA TV show on the left.

Now, if you accept this "first imprinting-lasting imprinting" phenomena and move trigger control up first, the pupil, under stress, will always revert or default to pressing the trigger correctly and letting the gun wobble, and get hits. Conversely, if the introduction to the handgun stresses sights, the pupil will always work at, look for, correct and recorrect the sights at the expense of good trigger press. The most egregious example that this works out badly is the "trigger snatch" where, after the pupil diligently and momentarily gets that perfect sight moment, he snatches or yanks the trigger to unleash the bullet before his visual masterpiece dissolves.

Ask any master-class instructor what he teaches and he will reply, in almost all instances, "Front Sight. . .Press. . .Front Sight." If you question him as to the most important component of firing the handgun accurately, he'll quickly tell you that trigger control is the single most important skill to master.

What is implicit in his instruction is the presumption that learning to master sight control, the shooter already possesses a good trigger press. My question is, if the trigger pull is the foundation, why not put it where it belongs? "Trigger press. . .Front Sight to verify. . .Let the gun wobble. . .Press."

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