Trigger Control Happy Place

by Hubert Townsend

Readers will recall that I used Yogi Berra’s interesting phrase to describe what action is needed for a marksmanship coach — “You can observe a lot by watching,” as long as you know what to look for.

You will also recall that I think that 90 percent of all shooter errors involve improper trigger control, caused by a subconscious flinching when pulling the trigger because of our inborn startle reflex. We don’t like loud bangs and rifles will do that, so jerking the trigger prevents that small psychological shock since we will therefore know exactly when the rifle will go bang and recoil.

So, how do we overcome that reflex and pull the trigger straight to the rear and be slightly surprised when the rifle does fire (thereby keeping the weapons’ sights on the target)? I twisted Yogi’s words to become “You can learn a lot by listening” and invited all my students to share their ideas. Their comments were interesting.

My favorite was “When I pull the trigger I go to a happy place.” This is a reference to the Happy Gilmore movie where the hero, when confronted with stress, imagines “a happy place,” a soothing, relaxing scenario complete with a scantily clad lady bearing beer. Perhaps the soldier wasn’t too far off; EEG studies of master marksmen record that while they are sighting in and beginning the trigger pull that their brains show beta waves, the normal awake and alert pattern, but they go to alpha (the meditative state) just a split second before the trigger releases. Hence the phrase “paralysis by analysis.” Or as Yogi described it — “You can’t hit and think at the same time.”

One comment that was mentioned several times was the very psychologically powerful drill instructor demonstration, occasionally performed at basic training. The DI first talks about the piddly recoil of the M16 rifle and then to prove it, he places the weapon’s butt (the back end) on the male’s favorite and most sensitive organ, and pulls the trigger. That certainly convinces any guy that the recoil should not be a problem.

Obviously it is a well-remembered lesson to many.

Other interesting ideas included, “I know I am going to flinch, so I flinch in my mind and then pull the trigger straight to the rear”; “Make them shoot bigger guns first and then the M16 is like a pop-gun,” “I listen for the metallic click of the trigger and block out the rest of the noise.”

For a remedial instructor, observing a finger come bouncing off the trigger is a dead giveaway for a jerk in progress. The finger should stay to the rear for a brief moment to ensure good follow-through and then move forward but not off of the trigger, unless the shooter is done shooting. I have discovered one method to cure the hard-core jerker. After ensuring that the first three fundamentals are performed properly (solid position, breathing and aiming) the instructor asks “Has this rifle ever hurt you?” “Good, we are going to get you into a solid position and then I will show you exactly what trigger control feels like.” The shooter is placed in proper position, told to close his/her eyes and to relax their finger on the trigger.

Then, while their eyes are kept closed, the coach will place his finger on theirs and slowly squeeze it to the rear. When the rifle discharges he says “One thousand one” (to emphasize proper follow-through) and then slowly relaxes his finger till the trigger mechanism pushes both their fingers forward, but they are still on the reset trigger. “Did you hear and feel that click when the trigger went forward?” “You should sense that each and every shot. That is what trigger control feels like.”

This exercise is then quickly repeated several times to build good habits and shooter confidence. The shooter, having experienced the small surprise of the discharge, should no longer fear this and smooths out his/her trigger pull. Normally, this blind shooting exercise works immediately and the shooter completes the group and zero range within 12 shots. But once there was a continual wide shot group and I was at a total loss. In desperation I went back to those pesky fundamentals to see which one I could have missed. None of them. “So, what is left?” I asked myself. “Do you have hearing protection?” and when I looked, I saw that the foam earplugs were improperly hanging out of the ears, causing the shooter to naturally flinch from the high decibel report. Such an easy fix. If only I had “observed a lot by watching” earlier. The Yogi was right.

Trigve, my orange-haired trigger troll has gotten some competition. I’ll be taking him to a real “happy place” this month. It’s called Wyoming.

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