The trigger-reset method requires fine motor skills that we lose under stress.
Trigger Reset Controversy
By: Antoine Lane
Teaching a train-the-trainer course to law enforcement firearms instructors can be a daunting task, especially when challenging long-established teaching methods. And no two topics of discussion draw more ire and interest than using the front sight and the method of trigger pull on a semi-automatic handgun.
Most law enforcement firearms instructors come from a teaching paradigm that promotes front-sight focused shooting. The matter may merely be a case of well-entrenched tradition. But what about the trigger pull? Why is this subject such a lightning rod of debate?
The vast majority of law enforcement agencies and regional police training academies teach the same way to manipulate the trigger on a semi-automatic handgun—a method called Trigger Reset. The trigger reset method is actually just a trick that helps officers pass their annual qualifications. More troublesome, it is grossly inadequate for preparing them for a lethal encounter.
The definition for trigger reset is this: When the handgun is fired, the trigger remains depressed during the cycling of the slide and the departure of the projectile and spent shell case. To fire any additional shots, the shooter releases the trigger forward, but only far enough to hear and/or feel a “click” (the resetting of the trigger). Once the shooter hears and/or feels the “click,” then the shooter again presses the trigger rearward and the gun fires.
The primary function of a law-enforcement firearms instructor is to prepare their students to win a lethal force encounter. There are numerous other things that firearms instructors need to teach in order to adequately prepare their students for such an event—like mindset, the ability to recognize precursors that threaten their safety, backdrop awareness, and so on. But at its core, the job is to ensure officers can execute the technical and tactical use of their firearm in the field, not just pass their annual firearms qualification.
The acceptance of science and research in police training, i.e., Force Science Institute, et al, has greatly benefitted law enforcement in recent years. This new reality has introduced some fascinating insight into the mind and body of both perpetrator and police officer – specifically the physiological response of the body during a lethal encounter.
These studies also gave birth to our recognition of the body’s autonomic response, and the human condition during a stressful moment typically called the Fight or Flight Syndrome. Nearly every police officer in the field has experienced some if not all of the conventional Fight or Flight symptoms during their tours of duty.
The better known characteristics are adrenaline rush, reallocation of blood to large muscle groups, auditory exclusion, tunnel vision—and important for the trigger pull discussion—a loss of fine motor skills, specifically digital dexterity or fine finger movement.
Are we adequately preparing our officers for a lethal encounter when the effective use of trigger reset asks the officer to hear something they will not have the capacity to hear, or feel something they will not have the ability feel?” Auditory exclusion inhibits the possibility of hearing the trigger-reset. And the reallocation of blood to large muscle groups, coupled with the loss of fine motor skills and dexterity, drastically reduces feeling the trigger reset.
Science, research, and most importantly, the testimony of officers involved in lethal encounters all validate this. Officers who have been involved in lethal encounters, some of whom have extensive training using the trigger reset method, admitted they did not employ the trigger resetting technique during the moment of truth. Instead, they subconsciously reverted to a technique known in the firearms training community as “slapping the trigger.” This is a method that some firearms instructors consider flawed and do not teach.
So why has trigger reset gained such prominence? Why has it predominated the world of law-enforcement firearms training for the past two decades? Why doesn’t trigger reset translate from the practice range to a lethal encounter? The answer lies in the brain’s subconscious response to stress. The brain’s subconscious response is a very powerful feature that is automatically ignited to protect the body when the brain perceives a threat.
There are two types of subconscious responses—a natural response we are all born with; and a conditioned response, which can only be accessed through conscious repetition.
If you approach someone and without warning feign as if you were going to hit him/her in the face, his/her eyes will close and his/her body will react to absorb the blow. That’s a natural subconscious response. A conditioned subconscious response occurs when through conscious repetition, a certain activity is repeated until it becomes what is commonly referred to as second nature.
A person merely performs the activity thousands or even tens of thousands of times until it can be executed without a second thought, regardless of the environment. Firearms instructors often refer to this example as muscle memory.
So if the power of the conditioned subconscious response can be only be accessed through conscious repetition, then how come officers who’ve trained extensively using trigger reset demonstrate an inability to employ this method during a lethal encounter?
In “Understanding and Leveraging the Psychophysiology of Emotional Intensity,” Dr. Matthew Sztajnkrycer of Force Science Institute suggests that under stress, the conditioned subconscious response is limited to only identifying and performing bodily movements that are uncomplicated, comfortable and without elaboration. Under stress, the trigger reset method is a sophisticated movement that requires fine motor skills. Consequently, the primal properties of the subconscious response will not elect to use that movement, and discard it for a much simpler one.
What can we teach our officers so they can consciously practice a trigger manipulation method that can be more easily identified by the body’s subconscious response during a stressful event? Or stated another way, how do we train like we’re going to fight?
We should research any literature or up-to-date training techniques that allow our officers to benefit from a subconscious response. One such technique is called a “free-flowing” or “rolling trigger” manipulation method. This method is more akin to the “slapping the trigger” technique previously mentioned, and employs characteristics that can be more readily identified by the mid-brain under stress.
The free-flowing or rolling trigger technique keeps the trigger finger in motion during live fire. The legendary Colonel Rex Applegate was involved in over 100 lethal encounters and studied the behaviors of the men he led into battle. Col. Applegate discovered there were four very natural, primal behaviors exhibited by the men during lethal encounters. First, they lowered their center of gravity. Second, they squared up to the threat. Third, they focused intently on the threat or target. Fourth, they held their weapons with a white-knuckled grip.
All of these involuntary reactions benefit officers involved in a lethal encounter except one, the death grip. That kind of tension causes trigger freeze, i.e., the inability to pull the trigger repeatedly, and causes misses at extremely close distances.
With the rolling trigger method, the shooter pulls the trigger straight to the rear and then during recoil allows the trigger to fully return to its original position in preparation for a subsequent shot. Whether the trigger finger comes completely off the trigger during the firing sequence is irrelevant. What is important to remember is the trigger finger stays in motion. It is flowing naturally from the front to back.
Trigger reset method restricts finger movement, whereas the rolling trigger method promotes finger movement. This finger movement helps to mitigate the damaging effects of a white-knuckled death grip. The end result is a ‘sophisticated slap’ of the trigger that is fast, accurate, and more likely to be utilized by the brain’s subconscious response during a lethal encounter.
Sadly, most police departments have rejected this well-proven technique and have greatly underestimated its value. Instead, they have opted to hang on to traditional techniques that are 20 years behind current methods. The “rolling trigger” manipulation technique has been introduced to a few notable police departments, such as the Memphis Police, Las Vegas Metro Police, San Antonio Police and the Los Angeles Police (LAPD).
Upon completion of the training, the feedback from these departments has been extremely positive. All who have attended the training definitively stated that the rolling trigger manipulation technique more adequately prepared them for a lethal encounter than the trigger reset method. Once they fully understood the principles of the technique, they experienced improved range qualification scores as well.
The officer under stress simply will not use the trigger reset method. Firearms instructors don’t want to default to the infamous trigger slap. The rolling trigger is one positive way to train like we are going to fight.
Antoine Lane, Director of Training for Accuracy Influenced Mechanics for Law Enforcement (AIM4LE), has 22 years of law enforcement experience, a Master’s Degree in Training and Professional Development, and is a United States Practical Shooting Association Double Grand-Master. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or through www.aim4le.com.