My 67-year old friend, a lifelong hunter and new defensive pistol student, got a somber look on his face as he sat across the table stirring his coffee. “Ya know, that keeping your finger straight thing you kept telling me, that’s big. When semi-autos first came out, my uncle got one. I was just a kid but I remember when it happened. He had this new pistol, and he was laying on the bed, admiring it. Shot his big toe plumb off. He was only about 24. He was a young man in an old man’s body after that.”
That story was the third of its kind recently told to me by students in just in two days. On average, I hear about one such story per week. These grisly accounts of legs, feet, and in one sad case, the family dog being destroyed exist simply because someone neglected Safety Rule #3:
Keep your finger off the trigger until the sights are on target and you’ve made the decision to shoot.
“Accidents” such as these generally have one of two kinds of people causing them:
- People who don’t understand or are physically unable to execute safe gun handling. In this category are brand new shooters as well as people of any age who pick up a gun without proper supervision or training.
- Experienced gun handlers who think the rules don’t apply to them.
The vast majority of scary and sad stories come from Group #2. While in most of these tales the shooter and victim are the same person, and that perhaps takes a bit of the sting away, sloppy safety habits and the disasters that ensue are a poor reflection on all of us gun owners. We can and must do better.
If the trigger finger can’t be on the trigger, where does it go?
Regardless of the firearm—whether a handgun, shotgun, or rifle—home base for the trigger finger is straight and on the frame, above and not touching the trigger guard.
It’s simple enough. A good grip on the gun, with the web between thumb and forefinger planted as high as is reasonable on whatever the firearm offers as a grip, will naturally invite correct trigger finger placement.
Less experienced or timid handlers often attempt to grasp the entire grip area (speaking mainly of handguns here) with all four shooting hand fingers. This results in a weak position from which to load, holster, or otherwise handle the gun, and it slows down reaction time when rapid access is required for hunting or defensive use.
Make the finger-straight position the one you use, so much that it’s the only place your finger feels at home on the gun. This potentially life-saving habit happens to make a shooter immediately better able to handle his or her firearm. Not to mention, it looks good in comparison to less competent ways of holding a gun. Who doesn’t want to shoot better and look good doing it?
Are there exceptions to the rule?
Other installments of this series have addressed exceptions. There are three that come to mind for Rule 3–
The first two exceptions are described with the understanding we’re talking about an UNLOADED gun that you’ve taken the initiative yourself to see is unloaded. Of course, the process of cleaning the gun, and testing function after re-assembly, repair, and such, can and should involve a test of trigger function for the vast majority of modern guns.
The second exception is testing the fit of a gun, particularly a handgun, to one’s hand. Operating the trigger of an unloaded firearm is part of judging gun/shooter fit….that’s another topic for another article.
The third exception is during a multi-shot sequence. Maintaining physical contact with the trigger when you intend to fire shots in succession is conducive to accuracy. Just put the finger back on the frame when you’re done with the sequence.
At the risk of stereotyping…
In my experience, new shooters, females in particular, are more likely to be guilty of picking up a handgun with the trigger finger around the grip. While not as an egregious an error as having it inside the trigger guard, it’s not a behavior that should be allowed to become a habit.
Older men, on the other hand, including experienced hunters, seem especially unaware of the trigger finger remaining inside the trigger guard after coming off target. This is an invitation for an unintended discharge and embarrassing or tragic results.
There are of course people of all descriptions who break this rule, and many of the above who don’t. These are generalities shared so that you can not only check your own habits, but also be aware of what’s going on around you afield or on the range. If you’re not yet in the habit of handling a gun with a straight, on-the-frame trigger finger, please take extra precaution and check the location of your finger each and every time you handle a firearm.
It’s not just while aiming at the target
What we do in our casual, everyday moments of gun handling may seem unimportant. But it’s in these moments when bad habits are formed that result in an “accident” or avoidable delay. Mr. Murphy actually shows up less often than he could, but when he does, the simple matter of having a finger where it doesn’t belong has already cost too many injuries, deaths, and missed opportunities for the shot of a lifetime. Be part of the solution—be mindful of where that trigger finger is when there’s a gun in your hand. Keep your finger straight and on the frame unless you’re shooting. It’s a small investment that pays handsomely in safety and the longevity of our rights.