Ask Foghorn: What’s the Benefit of a Two Stage Trigger?

Carlos asks:

What’s the deal with two-stage triggers? I was looking at one of the self-defense ARs you recommended, and one of the extra cost options was a two-stage trigger. What is it and why would it be be desirable?

First things first, go read up on trigger terminology real quick (here’s an old Ask Foghorn article about that subject). Now that we’ve got the nuts and bolts under our belt, let’s talk a little about the applications for the different types of triggers.

As you know, there are two main types of triggers; single stage triggers and two stage triggers.

In the beginning, there was only the single stage trigger. You pull the trigger, the thing goes off, and then reload. The guns weren’t very accurate anyway, so having a good trigger didn’t make much of a difference. All you needed was something that tripped the mechanism and made the gun go bang.

That all changed as guns started getting more accurate. While a gritty eight pound single action trigger pull would be fine for a 1780′s era military musket, the same trigger on a finely crafted Kentucky long rifle would be terrible.

The reason crappy single stage triggers suck for precision work is that the heavier the trigger is, the more force is required to move it by the shooter. As the shooter applies force to the blade of the trigger, the tendency is for the muscles in his hand to contract and move the firearm off target. With precision shooting, the barrel needs to be exactly aligned with the target, and any deviation even by a single degree can throw the round completely off target. Precision shooters needed something better.

The obvious solution was to lighten the existing single stage trigger, and many still feel this is the best solution. I’ve fired a number of modern firearms where I felt like a strong enough breeze could set the gun off, let alone the pressure of my finger (the Barrett MRAD is one of those guns). Which is fine if you’re on a flat range, but if you’re hunting or “in the field” and expect to be moving around with a loaded gun, a hair trigger may not be the safest thing.

The next best solution someone though up was the set trigger which was a compromise between the gritty, crappy single stage trigger of old and the new super light (unsafe) triggers. With a set trigger, the user can mechanically switch from the safer trigger to the lighter trigger when they need to take a precision shot.

The issue is the set trigger still requires the shooter to do something before taking the shot, which can be a bit of a bother if you’re pressed for time. The solution is to give the trigger the safety of a heavier overall pull with the accuracy of a lighter break. Thus, the two stage trigger.

You can imagine a two stage trigger like a gentle hill with a low brick wall at the top and a steep drop on the other side of the wall. A single stage trigger is more like a gigantic wall on a flat plane with the same steep drop on the other side. The tops of both of the walls are level with each other and just as high. The difference is that with the two stage trigger, the shooter only needs to apply a hair more effort to get over that wall having already done the prep work (walking up the gently sloping hill).

That’s where the two stage trigger gets is power. The overall force required to release the firing mechanism is the same in both, but with the two stage trigger you can “prep” the trigger by taking up the slack (walking up the hill and stopping just before the wall), and then once you see your opportunity to take the shot, you only need a hair more pressure to get the job done. Or drop over the wall. Or whatever metaphor I’m using now.

The point is, the final amount of pressure required is much less than with the single stage trigger and greatly reduces the sympathetic muscle contractions that can throw your shot off.

But that’s not where the wonder of the two stage trigger ends. In a competition setting (where I’m most at home) you often need to take multiple close range shots before moving off to some long range work. Sure, a single stage trigger gets the job done but a two stage trigger gives the shooter the option of using that lighter trigger pull if they need it.

When firing fast, a two stage trigger will work and feel just like an okay (milspec) single stage trigger. But if you want to take a more precise shot, all you need to do is slow down for a second and go back to “prepping” the trigger (by taking up the slack) before you fire.

That’s the reason a two stage trigger is recommended in my self defense builds. If there’s a bad guy coming at you from five feet away the trigger isn’t really going to matter much so long as it works – a single stage will work just as well as a two stage trigger.

But if I’m using a rifle for self defense then either (a) something has gone terribly wrong with my handgun or (b) the baddies are far away. And rather than spraying hot lead over their heads and praying that I hit them, I’d like the ability to take a single precise shot and end the situation. And that’s something a two stage trigger does really well.

So, in short, I like two stage triggers for long distance work. It could have something to do with the NRA HP service rifle competitions I’m fond of (as they only allow two stage triggers on the guns) but it’s my preference. And if I need to take a precision shot that’s the trigger style I prefer.

[Email your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” via guntruth@me.com. Click here to browse previous posts]

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About Nick Leghorn

Nick Leghorn is a gun nerd living and working in San Antonio, Texas. In his free time, he's a competition shooter (USPSA, 3-gun and NRA High Power), aspiring pilot, and enjoys mixing statistics and science with firearms. Now on sale: Getting Started with Firearms by yours truly!

28 Responses to Ask Foghorn: What’s the Benefit of a Two Stage Trigger?

  1. avatarMurdoc says:

    “But if I’m using a rifle for self defense then either (a) something has gone terribly wrong with my handgun” Didn’t the comments yesterday more or less prove every one of your reasons for using a handgun over a rifle for self defense wrong?

    • Commenting on my opinion there, not a solid fact.

    • avatarDex says:

      A AR15 with 77gr black hills will work just fine for home defense. A long gun is miles better than a handgun in my opinion

      • avatarSean M says:

        I consider a handgun to be a sidearm, and there only when all else fails, or you have no choice but to use one for reasons of concealment. That said, my home defence weapon is a .300AAC AR-platform SBR with a suppressor, RDS, and strobe tac light. I’d like to add night vision to it to round it out. The suppressor with 220gr subsonic ammo works wonderfully in helping me retain my hearing if I need to engage a target in an enclosed space, and still be able to hear any of his buddies in the next room. The light and night vision are good force multipliers. With proper training, the AR platform makes an outstanding home defence firearm, and is superior to the handgun in nearly all regards. If .223 doesn’t make you happy, there’s always .300AAC, 6.5 Grendel, 6.8SPC, .458 SOCOM, 7.62x39mm, and plenty of other rounds for which the AR platform can be easily adapted to pack a lot more punch.

  2. avatarJason says:

    The main benefit of a two-stage trigger is that it makes it very easy to learn proper trigger control. Which will just make you a better shooter on all kinds of guns, and all kinds of triggers. Even many single-stage triggers have some slack, and if you learn to take that up, you’ll break the shot cleaner.

  3. avatarbontai Joe says:

    Excellent description of a two stage trigger in my opinion.

  4. avatarChainsawWieldingManiac says:

    I have an RRA 2-stage on one of my AR-15s, and I can’t say I’m so terribly impressed with it for general usage. I can see more of the 2-stage usage on a true precision gun, but it seems to me like a Spike’s Battle Trigger and some light JP springs are the way to go. Maybe I’d feel differently if I upgraded to a Geissele.

    • avatarBrett says:

      I went with the Spikes/JP setup on my last build and I love it. I’m used to a single stage trigger, and having one with a nice, light, clean break is awesome.

    • avatarcounihan says:

      You will feel differently about a Geisselle. Try to find somebody with their super dynamic 3 Gun trigger. Amazing doesn’t even begin to do it justice. It feels like greased ball bearings sliding over glass.

  5. avatarRopingdown says:

    Interesting article. I would just raise two issues:

    “The point is, the final amount of pressure required is much less than with the single stage trigger and greatly reduces the sympathetic muscle contractions that can throw your shot off.”

    I think the variation between the ‘second stage’ weight and a good single stage trigger today is at most 1/2 lb. For the Geissele triggers there is almost no difference between the two.

    “When firing fast, a two stage trigger will work and feel just like an okay (milspec) single stage trigger. But if you want to take a more precise shot, all you need to do is slow down for a second and go back to “prepping” the trigger (by taking up the slack) before you fire.” –A milspec single stage trigger? I believe a ‘milspec’ trigger is a two-stage trigger in the M16, AR, etc.

    Indeed, that is WHY the the National NRA-style HP rifle competitions require a two-stage trigger….to stick to the service rifle standard and keep things level among competitors. Safety isn’t provided on the range by a heavy trigger, but by the mechanical safety and muzzle discipline. In combat, on the other hand, guys are running around amped up and very often leaving the safety off as they move. That’s like being an LEO in a gunfight. A heavier trigger in those situations does prevent unintended discharges, two stage or not (i.e. there is no range discipline).

    I like a 2.5-3 lb trigger on a hunting rifle with little take-up or over-travel. A light trigger is NOT unsafe when hunting. The mechanical safety should be left on until a few instants before the shot, in part because clicking the safety to ‘off’ earlier (for example on a Winchester Model 70 or Mauser 98 style action) often spooks game long before you have a good shot. When on the move hunting, the safety should be on. In many countries you must have the bolt either up or completely open when on the move (See, e.g., Sweden).

    For milspec as two-stage, see:
    http://www.brownells.com/.aspx/lid=11405/learn/

  6. avatarRabbi says:

    Nice description. Unfort, most two stage AR triggers are not as rugged nor reliable as single stage trigger so all my defense rifle have singles.

    • avatar"Dr."Dave says:

      Exactally.

      I’d rely on a two stage trigger if I were competition shooter, where a down gun means I cant have any more fun that day or that I wouldnt get any more SWAG.

      But in the real world, if your trigger malfunctions, as I have seen MANY two stage units do, you’re screwed.

    • avatarDex says:

      if its a geissle trigger, then its plenty rugged enough. Special Operations would agree.

  7. avatar"Dr."Dave says:

    The only type of trigger that is unsafe is one that is so mechanically faulty that it moves and drops the hammer with out the assistance of a finger.

    A one pound trigger is perfectly safe, so long as the shooter does their part.

    Every day TTAG contradicts itself.

    Guns don’t hurt people, negligence does, etc.

    And then you get articles saying that certain features are unsafe.

    Which is it that is unsafe? Shooters or the gun?

    Shooters.

    If you put your trigger finger inside the trigger guard, and you leave your saftey off, it doesnt matter, really, if its a twelve pound trigger or a 3/4 pound single stage.

    You’re doing it wrong, and there is going to be a negligent discharge.

    That said, that’s the best metaphor I’ve heard about single versus two stage triggers, Nick.

    But you forgot to say anything about trigger reset, which is really important.

    • What I said was:

      The obvious solution was to lighten the existing single stage trigger, and many still feel this is the best solution. I’ve fired a number of modern firearms where I felt like a strong enough breeze could set the gun off, let alone the pressure of my finger (the Barrett MRAD is one of those guns). Which is fine if you’re on a flat range, but if you’re hunting or “in the field” and expect to be moving around with a loaded gun, a hair trigger may not be the safest thing.

      Like I mentioned, there’s a place for extremely light triggers to be used safely. But when you move off the flat range things have a tendency to go wrong.

      It’s the same reason I don’t like the SERPA holsters: they are a piece of equipment that has known issues when used in a specific way.

      Part of being a responsible shooter is using the right tool for the job. If a light single stage trigger is something you can handle then go ahead. But if I’m going to be moving around and shooting (like in a 3-gun match) I want something with a heavier pull so when that dump of adrenaline comes on board I can still safely operate the trigger.

      In short, it’s not just about how you handle the trigger when you’re calm and focused but how you handle it when you’re flying full speed down a course and your brain is still two steps behind you.

    • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      A one-stage trigger that has been adjusted down to single-digit ounces may very well be an inherently unsafe trigger. The engagement will be cut down to only a few thousandths of an inch, and a heavy enough shock to the rifle could well cause disengagement.

      This is one of the other benefits of a two-stage trigger designed for very light pulls. The engagement is “blocked in” by the first stage and it can’t move until the first stage movement is completed.

      If you want trigger weights under 2.5lbs, and especially under 1.5lbs, it is a pretty smart move to check out two-stage triggers. Two stage trigger groups like the Jewell and Anschuetz can be adjusted down to 2 to 3 ounces. Most people can’t handle a trigger that light competently. Almost everyone who tries out my Annie 1807 jumps the trigger and puts the round well off-target the first time they fire it.

      • avatarRopingdown says:

        Agree. Somewhere around 1.5 lbs specific skill is needed even with a two-stage trigger. No? Otherwise people tend to ‘skate’ right through the second stage unprepared, psychologically and physically, for the shot?

  8. avatarColby says:

    So are two stage triggers only for ARs and such?

    • No, two stage triggers are available for just about any rifle and many handguns. Sometimes they’re offered as options on factory configurations but more often they’re available as aftermarket parts you can swap out yourself.

    • avatarDyspeptic Gunsmith says:

      No, you see two-stage triggers on competition guns, such as Anschuetz .22′s and other accuracy competition bolt guns.

    • avatarJason says:

      The M1 Garand and M1A also have two-stage triggers. If you have those – or you might get one in the future – it’s a good idea to have the same type of trigger on your AR, so the skills translate directly.

  9. avatarDubya Bee says:

    Nick,

    For fast shots with a tw-stage trigger, have you tried the “Trophy trigger technique?”

    See http://www.shootingusa.com/PRO_TIPS/USAMU3-1/usamu3-1.html

    I don’t know about two-stage triggers being more unreliable. Of the many matches I’ve attended and the many match shooters I’ve talked to, I’ve never heard that before.

  10. avatarCarlosT says:

    Thanks for a very thorough answer, Nick. Trigger prep is actually something I’ve been taught even on handguns, so the logic behind the two stage trigger really makes sense to me.

  11. avatarTom says:

    I learned to shoot with some guns that had crappy, creepy triggers. It was just part of the real estate.

  12. avatarRalph says:

    I prefer a single-stage trigger on a rifle but not a handgun. Having some takeup on a handgun trigger seems to make it a little bit safer without a big effect on accuracy, especially at handgun distances. With a rifle at rifle distances, a light, single stage trigger is a bit more accurate for me. It’s a personal preference and YMMV.

    As far as staging the trigger is concerned, revolver triggers are easy to stage. It’s very easy to tell where the sear trips because revolver triggers have a tendency to stack — the pull is hardest just before the trip. But if you can stage the trigger on a semiautomatic pistol or a rifle, you have a mediocre trigger. With a good, linear trigger, the point where the sear trips should be indistinguishable from any other point along the trigger pull.

  13. avatarDex says:

    “Which is fine if you’re on a flat range, but if you’re hunting or “in the field” and expect to be moving around with a loaded gun, a hair trigger may not be the safest thing.”

    easy problem to solve. keep the safety engaged and your finger off the trigger, even when moving tactically. its about discipline. military snipers are not having issues…

  14. avatarNCG says:

    Excellent and informative discussion. I’m only just beginning to explore the variations in trigger pull among my guns. My interest in guns came through hunting, so I’m wary of a rifle or shotgun I can’t safely carry (over rough terrain) with one in the pipe. My preference is for lever action rifles with exposed hammers. This is good stuff, thanks Leghorn.

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