Thoughts on Triggers

Thoughts on Triggers | Shooting Sportsman Magazine

A fine shotgun is a synthesis of form and function. One might make the case that quality, as defined by a shotgun, is the perfect balance between these two elements—precise engineering and build execution often translating into exquisite handling and operation, making a fine gun something that is beautiful to look at and beautiful to use. When design is artful, tolerances are tight, shapes are proportioned and details are universally attended to, a shotgun is pure joy.

It is interesting, therefore, to look at instances where the balance of form and function get out of whack. Oddly, certain facets of a shotgun’s form regularly get more attention than others, and certain functional elements often are overlooked as simply utilitarian and not worthy of much consideration. The attention paid to triggers is a prime example. When shooters talk about triggers—double triggers especially—they typically focus on pull weights, crispness and the size or treatment of the trigger-blade surface. Rarely does one go in-depth in discussing trigger cant, profile, sculptural shape, integration within the trigger guard, or the manner in which all of these aspects, when attended to with care, can impact the shooter’s efficacy and comfort. Far too often the humble trigger is simply regarded as a button to be depressed in an effort to bring the successive bits of form and function into necessary action.

Case in point: a nice old Parker that recently arrived in the shop of DC Whitman Custom Gunsmithing with a long-neglected trigger issue. The gun was of relatively high grade, with the original wood in good shape and engraving that was well executed. The owner, who recently had acquired the gun, was complaining of a problem with the trigger: namely that upon firing the front trigger, his trigger finger was getting cut somehow or the trigger finger of his glove was getting torn. The gun was, for this reason, effectively unshootable.

Quick inspection revealed an obvious issue. The front trigger was markedly short and lacking the necessary arc and length to cradle the trigger finger. Upon recoil, the trigger finger was slipping off the trigger blade and getting wrenched back, catching in the space between the bottom of the trigger blade and the trigger guard. This motion was cutting the shooter’s finger as the point of the trigger blade moved dramatically forward with recoil from the shot. What should have been recognized long before as being visibly problematic was only being addressed now due to the violent—and painful—result.

Upon investigation, it became clear that the trigger had been bent or broken at some point, shortened, tidied up quickly and put back into use. The necessary fix would be to replace the front trigger in its entirety, a procedure that is oddly common in the workload of better gunsmiths. A deeper look into the initial problem and the ensuing fix provides an opportunity for a better understanding of trigger construction, proportioning and shaping. There is far more to the humble trigger than meets the untrained eye.

In a perfect world, a double trigger’s form and function integrate as follows: By virtue of limited space internally, double triggers must be nested, with trigger blades situated more or less in line but the front trigger oriented on the shooter’s side of the rear trigger (i.e., the front trigger on the right for a right-handed shooter). The front trigger is crafted in an arc that positions the bottom, or point, of the trigger blade no more than 1⁄16" from the inside of the trigger guard. The blade is graceful in both arc and contour (cross-section) and canted, or turned, in the direction of the trigger hand (i.e., clockwise for a right-handed shooter). The arc should be of a radius to accommodate the “standard-size” trigger finger, and the trigger should be positioned far enough forward to create space between the front of the trigger guard and the front trigger for comfortable acquisition while leaving sufficient space between the front trigger and the rear trigger for same. Full depression of the rear trigger should place it close to but not touching the rear, inside portion of the trigger guard, which should be shaped to follow the arc of the rear trigger blade. The rear trigger should be canted somewhat similarly to the front trigger. In effect, triggers should move precisely, and travel should neither create contact with the trigger guard nor leave space for a finger to get caught up and cut. Oh, and it all should look graceful—trim and sleek and well-finished.

When this proportional work is done, the shooter should experience several distinct sensations. With proper gunfit and length of pull, the hand on the wrist of the gun should essentially stay in position and the recoil from the first shot should move the gun subtly enough to position the trigger finger on the second trigger without conscious thought. Proper canting will enable the trigger finger to find the smooth, elliptical front edge of each trigger blade ergonomically, without requiring that the finger aggressively hook around the trigger blade for comfort, thereby forcing the trigger hand to move on the wrist. A single length of pull determined by a good gunfitter will assume this proper positioning of both triggers, which is why an inch or so of distance between the front and rear trigger will not substantively change the consistency of impact/“aim.” A gun with proper triggers will feel almost indescribably “right.”

Arthritis and injury can impact hand positioning on a given gun.

Single triggers are another kettle of fish entirely. Much has been done to tweak and modify trigger blades on single-trigger and target guns—most notably in the treatment of the blade surface (stippling/checkering or a smooth finish) and/or the width of the blade surface. The concept is that a broad, flat trigger will distribute pressure over a greater surface area, thereby reducing and “smoothing out” the degree of pressure required to trip the trigger. Unfortunately, the broad, flat structure of an un-canted target trigger does little to consider the positioning of the trigger finger; even with a palm swell, the trigger hand is not positioned to allow the trigger finger to cross the trigger blade at a true 90 degrees. This facet of a gun’s configuration goes largely unnoticed by most but can be readily felt when two guns, one with canted triggers and one without, are shot one after the other.

Perhaps the most obvious highlighting of trigger positioning and proportioning occurs when a left-handed shooter attempts to use a standard double-trigger gun. Typically in this case everything feels wrong. A lefty shooter will address a righty gun only to find the front trigger nested on the opposite side from his or her trigger hand, canted to the opposite side, and fixed with a toplever that cannot be easily pushed with the thumb of the trigger hand. A true left-handed side-by-side gun (a rare bird in general) will have a toplever that swings to the left, barrels choked to shoot left to right, a forward trigger nested to the left and a rear trigger nested to the right and canted counter-clockwise toward the lefty’s trigger hand. In the rare instance when lefty shooters are handed such guns, they will either buy them or spend a lifetime wishing they had.

Though aspects like toplever function cannot be changed easily, triggers can be modified readily either to accommodate the dominant hand of the shooter or simply make for a more comfortable gun. Broken triggers, like that on the aforementioned Parker, can be rebuilt to proper proportions entirely. Occasionally a new blade can be grafted onto the existing trigger and shaped accordingly. More often than not, a trigger can be bent and re-canted by heating it with an oxyacetylene torch, bending it gently, filing for shape and refinishing. All these processes are relatively common fixes. In a custom-gun build it is vital that trigger positioning be assessed by the fitter and addressed by the gunmaker. This ounce of extra attention will result in a ton of satisfaction for the shooter down the line. Proper triggers will look, feel and shoot better than those that are given a cursory one-size-fits-all build.

As a final note, recall the broken Parker trigger and think for a moment on the factors that necessitate trigger work. Triggers do break. They feature relatively delicate blades of bent metal configured to experience only a few pounds of pressure. When a trigger seizes or fails to make the gun go bang, the shooter often puts an undue amount of pressure on the blade trying to force detonation. This pressure will either break the trigger entirely or bend it in such a way that it no longer will function properly. A modification of the stock, such as bending, lengthening or shortening, will change the integration of the triggers in relation to the trigger hand. These modifications can necessitate some trigger work to position the trigger hand accurately relative to the triggers.

Finally, a shooter’s physicality can change over time. Arthritis and injury can greatly impact the comfortable hand positioning on a given gun and may result in a shooter being less comfortable or less successful. Custom trigger work can often solve this problem, making the enjoyment of shooting more sustainable over a lifetime.

It is remarkable how quickly triggers are overlooked and how proper trigger configuration can impact the look of a gun and the success of a shooter. When built properly and finished properly, triggers will look and feel “right,” making the pleasure of looking at and shooting a fine shotgun all the greater.

To see this article online along with additional images, visit shootingsportsman.com/springs.


Delbert Whitman Jr. lives near Traverse City, Michigan, and is a professional gunsmith specializing in repair, restoration, stockmaking and engraving. Reid Bryant is an Editor at Large for Shooting Sportsman.


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