Mike Morton says it’s time to give inaccurate shooting the finger – by setting up your trigger correctly
What would you say is the most important component of an airgun apart from the operator? This is a great question to pose to fellow shooters over a mug of tea or a pint of beer at the end of a session – and you’ll get some great answers too. But whether you think it’s the barrel, the ammo, gun fit or consistency of power delivery, the trigger will always be right up there – and for many people, a good trigger and trigger control are top of the list.
There are three factors that make or break a trigger: the way it’s designed, the way it’s set up, and the way it’s used. While many gunsmiths and some amateur enthusiasts will happily tear apart a trigger to polish the parts or make minor design modifications, we’ll just concentrate for now on the two remaining factors that we can all easily influence – trigger set-up and trigger technique – both of which can transform the way an air rifle shoots.
A crisp trigger, breaking at a sensible weight – which is known as trigger-pull – will inspire confidence and will help you keep the gun on aim during the firing cycle. If your rifle is inherently inaccurate, a good trigger won’t suddenly make it come good, but it can certainly help. And if you already have a good rifle, a decent trigger will make it even better.
Trigger-pull is a measure of the force that needs to be exerted on the trigger to get the sear to release, or the valve to open, depending on the type of rifle. The amount of trigger-pull you want to set will depend on the type of shooting you do, your own preference and any club or competition rules that may be in place.
A pellet must be released at the exact moment a deliberate shot is taken, and a shooter should never be taken by surprise with the gun going off when he or she is not expecting it.
ADJUSTING A TRIGGER
Most of the triggers that are installed on air rifles today are two-stage. The main advantage of a two-stage unit is knowing exactly when the trigger is going to break. When you pull back on a two-stage trigger, applying consistent, even pressure, you will effectively come to a stop point. This is a warning that you’ve come to the end of the first stage and have reached the second. As you continue to apply pressure, the gun will then fire.
The majority of the adjustments available on a trigger are to do with the actual distance the trigger has to travel over each stage and the trigger-pull necessary to fire the rifle. If your trigger is excessively heavy, consider lightening it, but only if you know what you’re doing. If not, take it to a competent gunsmith at your local shop or club.
Each trigger is different, offering varying degrees of adjustability, but let’s take the example of the Quattro trigger that’s fitted to the Hatsan Galatian. This has three screws – which can be accessed through the trigger guard – offering adjustments for trigger-pull, trigger travel and the pressure needed to move the trigger to the end of the first stage. The key to adjusting this – or any other trigger – is to change only one setting at a time, test the rifle, repeat the process until you’re happy with your results, then move on to the next type of adjustment if necessary.
The other factor you should bear in mind is to make sure you adjust only in small increments. A tiny movement of the adjustment screw can have a huge impact on how the trigger behaves.
THE SMACK TEST
Whenever you make an adjustment, it’s vital to ensure that the trigger is still functioning correctly. Triggers can be made too light – and they then become dangerous. I once shot another person’s rifle where the trigger had been set so light that the gun went off when the bolt was closed!
To ensure your own trigger is safe, cock the rifle, load a pellet if it’s a springer or gas ram, point it in a safe direction, then give the butt of the rifle a good, sharp smack. The gun should not go off. If it does, you will either need to adjust and repeat the test until the gun is safe, or take it to a gunsmith to look at.
Whenever you’ve been working on your trigger, you need to check that you comply with club or competition rules, or you’re just curious to see how heavy your trigger-pull is, you’ll need some sort of device to check it. The most common device for this purpose is a spring-loaded gauge. My own example, made by Lyman, is electronic, but the principle for both is identical.
As always, first make very sure that the rifle isn’t loaded and is pointing in a safe direction, then cock the rifle. Position the roller in the centre of the trigger, then pull back in line with the bore until the trigger releases. It’s important to be consistent in the way you use the gauge, otherwise your results will vary. The gauge can be toggled to deliver either metric or imperial measurements.
LENGTH OF PULL
The distance from the middle of the trigger blade to the end of the butt pad is known as the length of pull – not to be confused with trigger-pull. Having the correct LOP for your particular physique will make the rifle more comfortable for you to use, and will therefore help you shoot it more accurately. You can use a tape measure to determine the LOP of your rifle.
While you’ve now measured the length of pull of the gun, you also need to measure the LOP that’s good for you. Hopefully they’ll coincide, and there are three ways to do this. The most common method is to put the butt of the gun in the crook of your elbow and see how easy it is to place the pad of your trigger finger on the blade. This technique will give you a rough idea of your length of pull, but isn’t perfect: you’ll automatically move your finger to find the blade, whereas the blade should naturally be positioned immediately underneath your finger.
A better method is to take an existing rifle that you are already shooting well, and measure the LOP on that. A third way is to have an experienced shooter watch you as you take aim. They’ll be able to see whether the gun fits you properly, and whether or not you’re fumbling to find the blade.
Assuming your length of pull isn’t optimal, there are a few possible options. Some blades can be slid forwards or backwards inside the trigger guard, changing LOP. Some stocks have extendable butts, increasing LOP. Spacers can sometimes be inserted between the butt and the butt pad, again increasing length of pull, while an extreme (and permanent) measure is to cut a stock down and have the butt pad refitted. A custom stock can also be sized for you.
Replacement trigger blades are available for some rifles, and some of these blades are set back to reduce the length of pull. Rowan Engineering, for example, makes a range of blades that are either straight or curved, and may be set back or extra-set back, giving you two levels of reduction in LOP.
Clothing will also have an effect on length of pull. Shooting a rifle in the depths of winter when you’re wearing multiple layers under a thick jacket will be a very different experience to shooting it in the summer in a lightweight mesh hunting top or T-shirt. You may therefore need to adjust LOP from one season to another due to your clothing.
BLADE HEIGHT AND ANGLE
When you pull a trigger, your finger isn’t actually coming directly back, but is tracing an arc, with the middle knuckle being the pivot. This means a perfectly centred blade will have a varying amount of pressure exerted over it as your fingertip travels through this arc of movement. A blade that can be angled to the right for right-handed shooters, and vice versa for lefties, will offer a more consistent contact area to the pad of your trigger finger whenever you take a shot.
How much of an angle you choose to set depends on you. A blade angled more sharply to the side will let the pad of the finger gain full contact immediately. The downside to this is the fact that as the finger sweeps back through its arc, the angle may not be optimal at the point where the trigger actually breaks. As with many things in shooting, the best way to determine what’s right for you is to experiment until you find the perfect position that maximises comfort and control.
Blade height is much the same. You’ll need to try different settings to see what’s best. Some blades run up and down a post, offering a myriad of minor adjustments, while others just need to be removed and turned upside-down, providing two distinct heights.
REPLACING A TRIGGER BLADE
A ‘trigger’ is actually the mechanism that initiates the firing cycle. With the exception of some powder-burners, where companies like Geissele and Timney do make replacement triggers, the item most people are talking about when they use the term ‘trigger’ is the trigger blade.
Regardless of any other adjustments, the style, shape, height and angle of a trigger blade can all combine to make a huge difference to the way a trigger performs. Many air rifles will come with a specific trigger blade that can’t be altered. This is a little bit like shooting a rifle with a non-adjustable stock. It will fit some people perfectly, while it may be something of a compromise for others.
Airgun manufacturers realise this, and some guns like the BSA R-10 and Gold Star come ready-fitted with an adjustable blade, while others offer this type of blade as a factory-fitted optional extra. If no factory-made adjustable blade is available for your particular rifle, help is at hand from aftermarket firms and custom houses such as Rowan Engineering (www.rowanengineering.com) and US-based Charlie Da Tuna Trigger Works (www.charliedatuna.com).
Changing the blade is often enough to make a trigger feel substantially different, but before you go down this route, the most obvious question to ask yourself is whether you really need to do this. Some people may benefit hugely from swapping blades, while others may see only marginal gains. It’s up to you to decide whether or not you’re happy with your existing trigger blade, or whether you feel your trigger control could be enhanced by fitting a more versatile blade.
I put this to the test with my Weihrauch HW 100, the blade of which is very good as it comes. Nevertheless, I swapped it anyway for an aftermarket blade produced by Rowan to see whether I’d benefit from customising the new blade for fit and feel. Having followed the steps described here to install the new blade, I’m glad in this case that I fitted the new unit. I was already shooting the rifle well with the standard trigger blade, and while the new blade hasn’t made my shooting any more accurate, it’s a pleasure to use and feels better. Your mileage may vary, and you might even see your own groups tighten up – just by swapping the blade.
A well set-up trigger is only useful if it’s being controlled properly. Good trigger technique and follow-through are essential to good marksmanship. Trigger technique is also linked to general shooting techniques such as stability and comfort, so whatever position you’re going to shoot in, make yourself as steady as possible and ensure your skeleton is supporting the weight of your body and rifle rather than your muscles, which will quickly tire.
PULL OR SQUEEZE?
Pulling a trigger may sound simple enough, but there are two different techniques – both of which have their merits, and one of which will probably work better for you.
Pulling a trigger means bringing your finger back; as already mentioned, this will be in an arc rather a straight line. In this case, the only thing moving will be your trigger finger. Squeezing, on the other hand, relies on you using your whole hand to release the shot, making a squeezing motion as if you have taken hold of someone else’s hand and are about to shake it. Critics of pulling a trigger believe the rifle itself may be pulled off-aim, while critics of squeezing think this method can make the whole rifle shudder; neither will help accuracy.
The right method is the one that works better for you; but whichever you choose, when you pull the trigger, imagine you’re drawing a line in the sand with your fingertip and the blade is somewhere in the middle of that imaginary line. Keep that trigger finger coming back: when it makes contact with the trigger blade, continue to draw it backwards, smoothly and consistently.
FIRING AND DRY-FIRING
The best way to become familiar with either a new trigger or one that’s been adjusted is to get shooting. Depending on where you shoot, and whether you’re using a springer or PCP, it can be enough just to dry-fire your rifle, saving pellets and air. Don’t do this with a springer, though, as the piston and compression chamber need the buffer provided by the presence of a pellet to prevent them from being damaged. PCPs, on the other hand, are fine to dry-fire, and some rifles like the Daystate Renegade even let you set the trigger without cocking the rifle so you can practise more easily.
It’s important to practise in different stances too, so if you shoot prone, offhand, sitting, kneeling, off shooting bags, off a bipod or off sticks, find out if your trigger technique is consistent across the board.
Following through a shot means maintaining the aim position long after you think the pellet’s left the barrel. If you pop your head up to inspect your handiwork, you’re not giving your rifle the opportunity to do its job.
The time it takes for the pellet to fly out of the muzzle after the trigger has been released is called lock time. If you move the rifle even slightly during this phase, the rifle barrel will no longer be pointing in the same position over the target. If you fail to follow through, you’re also failing to properly check your shot. It’s far easier to spot your shot by staying on aim and looking through the scope to keep everything steady.
BECOME A LASER BEING
Lasers are usually fitted to air rifles as a rudimentary rangefinding device, but can also be employed to help refine your trigger technique. Aim the beam at a target and safe backstop then pull the trigger.
It’s possible to see whether or not you’ve held steady in the aim and followed through when you’re looking at the target through a scope, but a laser makes the task even easier. The red dot over the target should remain still when the trigger is pulled. Lasers are also useful if you’re shooting with other people, as they too can look at the projected dot and see whether it jumps around when you take a shot.