The truth about trigger weight: Part 1 of 2

revolver trigger pull chart
October 9, 2013  
Categories: Musings

Trigger weight – is 3.5lbs of pull an arbitrary number defined as competition? Is there any point to really have “duty weight” trigger pulls? Is a a 12lb DAO trigger pull, implemented for “safety”, really more dangerous than something much lighter? Does anyone really think it should be as hard to crack off a round than cold-start a lawn mower? We’re not sure if this article is going to break the interwebz, but we’re certain it is will cause the butt-tears to flow. Take some time and read this. Let it soak in. Be prepared to read all three parts, as in typical COWAN!-esque fashion this is more thorough than an American Medical Association white paper on the advantatgs of diphallasparatus. Now, as our departed hero Cirillo the Great used to say, “You may commence.”

A Critical Look at Trigger Pull

Aaron Cowan

Trigger weight is an interesting subject when you get into a conversation about carry handguns.  Over the course of my professional career and my time with cognitive functionality I have heard many, many opinions on what an acceptable trigger pull weight was.  (For simplicity’s sake I will reduce that to my time of actual competent with a firearm and not go all the way back to when I was young and foolish – back when I thought that shotguns could propel people across rooms and Steven Segal was a hard, gravely talking demi-god come to break recalcitrant evildoers and make the world right). Grunts: recalcitrant.

Now, for the DA/SA –DAO-LDA-SAO etc. crowd this is a different sort of conversation than it is for those of use that carry striker fired handguns such as Glocks, M&Ps, XDs, Walthers, etc. (basically any handgun that does not operate by  striking the firing pin with a spurred or bobbed external hammer).

For some reason, those of us who carry a striker fired handgun get the raised eyebrow when trigger weight comes up and we announce in conversation that we have a custom trigger or a reduced trigger pull weight.  The general consensus seems to be that anything below 4 pounds (or custom in any way) is unacceptable to  many shooters.Usually it’s for one of two reasons: safety or minimizing chances of litigation/prosecution.

The striker fired operating system is still relatively new to the world of handguns if considered in the context of what is “modern.”  The design isn’t new. Roth Steyr had the Model 1907 and Browning the 1910. Both are striker fired. If you want to dig really deep, there is the Borchardt striker fired pistol from 1893.  I’m not a historian, or even an all-weapons expert, but I do like to know the pedigree of the technology I favor came from.

Now, when we look at the modern pistol outside of striker fired, we can go back much further than the Borchardt.  Double Action/Single Action, Single Action Only, and Double Action Only have been in use and have been popular in a wide variety of makes, models and calibers far longer than the striker fired gun. This is where a collective mentality regarding trigger weight comes from in regards to safety.

When it comes to litigation/prosecution concerns, I blame the internet and gun shop gossip.

What is the “acceptable” pull weight on a striker fired pistol?  Glock comes from the factory with a 5.5 pound pull, XD and XD(M)  varies from 5.5 to 7.7 depending on the source, and S&W’s M&P line seems to be 6.5 LBS. (That’s according to S&W, though end users report pulls from 6.8 to 7 LBS depending on where you look and if you are willing to believe them.)

When trigger pull is reduced below 4.5 LBS to say, 3.5, suddenly it is anointed with a “competition” title as if by magic.

For the sake of simplicity, I’m going to stick to Glock and the M&P for discussion for two reasons; widespread use in law enforcement and the fact that my point really only requires one or two popular striker fired pistols, not all of them.  If we go with the manufacturers chosen pull weight, it seems that 5.5 is the low threshold of an acceptable pull weight.  Now for all intents and purposes, a 5.5 or even a 7 LBS trigger is perfectly fine, controllable and consistent for a wide variety of shooters.  There are aftermarket options, especially for the M&P that offer a 4.5 LBS “Duty Carry” pull and for Glock the same is true.  When trigger pull is reduced below 4.5 LBS to say, 3.5, suddenly it is anointed with a “competition” title as if by magic.  Why is 3.5 pounds a competition weight, yet 4.5 and up a “duty” weight?  Is it a safety issue, a litigation issue, or is it a tradition issue?

When I decided to write this article I took a few cold polls of friends in the instructor and LE community. Then I began pouring over internet forums, articles written by others and any additional resources I could find on the topic.  One consistently presented reason for lighter trigger pull being an issue (with striker fired weapons) was safety.  Speaking of the Glock, there is no manual safety, but the M&P offers a model with a thumb safety for the crowd (or department) that prefers one; other than that, the safety features are built into the operation of the gun.  Glock’s first line of defense against a negligent discharge is the trigger safety, as is the M&Ps.  While the design is different, the purpose is the same; proper trigger pull is required to fire the weapon, whether conscious or unintentional.  Conscious is as described; we apply pressure to the trigger when we want to/need to fire.  Unintentional is by negligence; pressure is applied to the trigger through bad practice (riding the trigger or trigger affirmation). It can also be the result of startle response while the finger is on the trigger.

With a negligent discharge, the truth is that both trigger safeties and trigger pull weight are largely irrelevant.

With a negligent discharge, the truth is thatboth trigger safeties and trigger pull weight are largely irrelevant.  Why ?  Well, at the root of a negligent discharge is the finger placement.  If your finger is on the trigger when it shouldn’t be, there is no common trigger weight that will prevent negligent discharge under any condition I am aware of. In other words, a negligent discharge under those conditions is just as likely with a “competition” trigger as it is with a heavier trigger.

Let me let that last sentence sink in for a moment. Now let me add this: in 1991, the Federal Law Enforcement Training Center conducted a study that found  the human hand was capable of convulsing suddenly and involuntarily with up to 25 pounds of pressure under a startle response.  Similar pressure can be exerted during a stumble or attempt to regain balance due to inter-limb interaction (where one hand/arm desires to do what the other is doing).

25 pounds.

So if you combine bad trigger finger practices with a startle response, it’s nearly mathematically impossible for a trigger pull of 5.5 LBS to prevent a negligent discharge.  What about incorporating general stress or environmental conditions into the safety debate?  Elevated heart rate, perspiration, mud, blood, rain, cold, etc. These conditions have be

en raised in support of the 5.5 lbs + trigger pull, and I have to say that I simply don’t agree (for the same reason as above).

Unintentional is unintentional, which is negligent.  Proper safety practices and stress inoculation training will prevent negligent discharges far more readily than a trigger pull weight set at an arbitrary standard of 5 or 7 pounds.  Additionally, it would be incredibly hard (without cherry picking circumstances) to point to a negligent discharge with a 3.5 or 4 pound trigger and say “well, if it had been a 5lb trigger, that would never have happened.”  When we look at other firearms such as revolvers, they have existed in the modern DA/SA configuration for over a century and have been used in law enforcement and personal defense for just as long.  Negligent discharges with revolvers occurred (and continue to) occur just as with modern striker fired handguns for the same reason; negligence and a lack of proper training (which is also a type of negligence).

What about the inconsistency in perceived weapon safety when it comes to manual safeties? The venerable 1911 is a Single Action Only semi-automatic, equipped with a manual thumb safety.  Once this safety is disengaged, the shooter commonly has a trigger weight of 3-4.5lbs. That is at our our “duty” threshold.  Why then is it acceptable that a 1911 can have a trigger as light as 3 pounds from the factory, but a striker fired pistol cannot?  Because it has a manual thumb safety?

I cannot agree with that perception either, as the safety is disengaged when there is an expectation to fire, is it not?  Even without placing the finger on the trigger, the end result (with the safety taken off) is a weapon with a 3lb trigger. That should effectively create the same “safety” concern as does a striker fired pistol of similar pull weight weight.

There simply is no reasonable trigger weight that is going to prevent negligence to a degree that it would be otherwise beneficial when considered against the advantages of a lighter trigger to begin with – accuracy and speed.

Obviously the 1911 is maintained in the holster with the safety on, as it was designed.  The Glock and the M&P (the model without the optional thumb safety), our two example weapons, have no such manual safety, as designed.  Is the issue that a striker fired weapon, without a manual safety, is inherently more dangerous during the time it is drawn until it is presented to the threat/target?  I won’t agree with this either, as any inherent danger is with the shooter, not the weapon.  There simply is no reasonable trigger weight that is going to prevent negligence to a degree that it would be otherwise beneficial when considered against the advantages of a lighter trigger to begin with – accuracy and speed.

I am not advocating competition practices for self-defense carry, though I do feel it’s necessary to identify why a lighter trigger pull is an advantage. If these advantages exist in the “competition world”, they obviously exist in the everyday world (physics don’t change).   I find the stark dichotomy here in acceptable pull weight between duty and competition more than curious.  Both require safe weapon use and accuracy and both require speed and repetitious memory to perform tasks. However, “competition” trigger weights are avoided in the duty/carry world by reason a safety concern that is going to exist with any conceivable reasonable trigger weight.

A lighter trigger pull assists in accuracy and can aid in faster shooting.  Why is accuracy important? would be a stupid question to ask. I would consider asking why speed is important to be just as nonsensical.  If you are fast and accurate, your chances of winning a violent encounter are increased dramatically.  Considering that the average LE gunfight is predominantly between 0 and 20 feet1  we can see that speed and accuracy are critical to winning.   A lighter trigger pull aids in accuracy (when coupled with proper trigger control) by reducing the actual physical stress required to force the weapon to discharge a round. It reduces the amount of time a sight picture needs to be held between the conscious decision to fire and the round actually leaving the barrel.

Under the stresses of a real use of force, fine motor skills degrade quickly or even instantaneously. Shooters rely largely on repetitious memory to perform fine motor skill tasks such as trigger control, magazine release and slide release manipulation under these conditions.  If something is easy (light) under resting conditions, it will remain subjectively easy (light) under stressful conditions.  Something harder (heavy) to do at rest will be subjectively harder still under stress.  This doesn’t mean a 3.5 pound trigger will cure accuracy issues under stress, it won’t. It will provide a better degree of accuracy than a heavier trigger, all conditions being equal.

We must consider that not all shooters are created equal in terms of size or strength.  I have trained both citizens and police officers that fall into the “small” category.  With these shooters, they unequivocally handle a lighter trigger pull better than they do a heavier one. Because of this, they maintain a higher degree of accuracy.

In Part 2 we will continue the discussion with a look at training concerns, the fallacies of litigious liability convictions and why trigger discipline is trigger discipline regardless of trigger pull weight.

Aaron Cowan

1According to the Federal Bureau of Investigations Law Enforcement Officer Killed and Assaulted annual report, of the 500 officers killed with firearms between 2002 and 2011, 235 were killed within 0-5 feet, 97 within 6-10 feet and 72 within 11-20 feet.

About the Author: Aaron Cowan is the Lead Instructor for Sage Dynamics, host of their Defensive Handgun Fundamentals DVD and a contributor to Breach-Bang-Clear. Sage Dynamics is a reality-focused firearms and tactics training company that provides practical instruction for the civilian, police and military professional.  Aaron served in the US Army as an Infantryman,  as a private security contractor and police officer with over ten years combined experience including time as a SWAT team member, SWAT deputy team commander, SWAT sniper, sniper section leader and in-service police training officer.  Aaron holds multiple professional certifications including certifications from the National Rifle Association Law Enforcement Division’s instructor training program, California POST certified academy instructor, Advanced Law Enforcement Rapid Response Training (ALERRT) Active Shooter Response Instructor and Simunitions Scenario Instructor among others. Follow Sage Dyamics on Facebook, watch their

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or maybe check out the HMFIC’s novel Rushing Winter

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