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Gun guru Gabe Suarez and I got into it a bit when I called him insane. Setting aside any question of whether or not Mr. Suarez’s past behavior indicates less than robust mental health (Jesus loves him this I know), I took Suarez to task for suggesting that a shooter should keep his finger on the trigger whilst pointing a gun at a bad guy, when not in the actual process of shooting them. This struck me as the worst kind of advice: the kind that can get innocent people killed. Again, Suarez knows more about gunfighting than I’ll ever know. But that doesn’t make him right. In fact, in this, Suarez is dead wrong. First, let’s take another look at what he actually said on the subject on his blog . . .

I am well aware of all so-called safety rules, but being anal retentive about this sort of thing only hurts your survivability n the real world for which we train.

Lets set the dogma aside and actually think about this.

Certainly there is a place for “finger off trigger”, but holding an adversary at gunpoint while he decides how to respond to your challenge and determines whether you will shoot him or not may not be it . . .

I have never pointed a gun at a bad guy with my finger off the trigger, just like I have never challenged anyone from low ready. And I had plenty of opportunity when working night watch patrol, gangs, dope, crime impact and SWAT.

I also went to all the schools that taught the finger – off methodology. Yet everytime I challenged a bad guy I did it “pointed in” and with my finger firmly touching the trigger. Everyone I worked with did the same thing.

Know what? Nobody ever got shot that didn’t have it coming.

So no one that Gabe worked with ever shot the wrong person. And all of them pointed their guns at a bad guy with their finger ON the trigger, contrary to official procedure. Let’s take that at face value and not dwell on the wider implications for police training and discipline.

Suarez is talking about two very different situations: holding a bad guy at gunpoint and challenging a bad guy. Both of which should NOT be attempted with your finger on the trigger. Before I explain why that’s a very, very bad idea, Suarez explains why it’s a good idea.

In my experiments, a bad guy role player was often able to get the drop on a “low ready using, finger in register, good guy”, while the good guy that was pointed in with “finger on his trigger” made it much more difficult for the bad guy role player.  Sure it was a matter of quarters of seconds, but those gaps are what make the deciding factor in gunfights.

First, it’s not a matter of quarters (plural) of seconds. The rabbi and I went to the range yesterday. Using a Surefire shot timer app, we tested my shot speed. I am by no means an expert shooter. But the test—illustrated but not demonstrated in the video above—confirmed what other studies have shown.

The response time differential with my finger off the trigger vs. my finger on the trigger: one-tenth of one second. I repeat: I was 1/10th of a second slower to fire with my finger off the trigger than on. During my worst performance, the difference was two-tenths of a second. Either way, you can round the number down to zero. There is no practical difference in shooting speed between starting with your finger on or off the trigger.

In the first instance, holding a bad guy at bay, that one-tenth of a second reaction time is not going to be the critical factor. In that case, you’ve identified the threat. The bad guy’s stationary. You’re free to focus your mind on looking for cues as to whether or not to shoot (e.g. a threatening movement with a weapon).

In other words, your mental processing challenges are relatively few. If you need to shoot, you can do so extremely quickly without analyzing complex variables (e.g. the target moving across a space, determining their intentions, IDing accomplices etc.) You have time to decide NOT to shoot. To issue commands, back up, seek alternative solutions.

If you’re challenging a bad guy—-FREEZE—it’s a more complicated business. The meaning of sensory information may not be clear, and you may have been taken “by surprise” (which slows down reaction time and reduces the likelihood that you’ll use your sights). You have less time to analyze the situation, and there’s more to analyze.

But again, the one-tenth of a second trigger finger placement difference is not the crucial consideration. In that situation, the decision of whether or not to shoot and where to aim will take up all your mental bandwidth and eat up all your time. As it should. Your ability to process that information quickly and accurately will determine the outcome—not trigger finger placement.

Actually, that’s not true. If your finger’s on the trigger when holding or challenging the bad guy, your odds of a negligent discharge increase astronomically.

Suarez raises and then dismisses studies that show that a parasympathetic nerve response (squeezing one hand causing the other to squeeze) accounts for hundreds of negligent discharges. The “startle response” gets similar short shrift. Apparently, expertise and training can forestall/eliminate all trigger finger-related negligence.

Only it doesn’t. Poor training—defined here as aiming and shooting your weapon with your finger on the trigger—increases the likelihood of a negligent discharge. Why wouldn’t it? If you practice aiming and firing without an intermediary step thousands of times, that process becomes the default option.

Many of Suarez’s supporters, and some TTAG commentators, are down with that. If you aim your gun at someone, you’ve already made the decision to fire. That’s nuts.

Self-defense situations are fluid. In the blink of an eye, an assailant can go from a deadly threat to a less-than-deadly threat. A person walking towards you with a knife may stop. The “weapon” a supposed bad guy’s drawing can turn out to be a police badge. You can instantly recognize that home invader as your daughter’s horny boyfriend. The bad guy may simply run away.

Leaving your finger off the trigger before firing, and practicing that way, gives you the option of not shooting. If necessary, you can blow past that option in one-tenth of a second. Macho posturing aside, putting your finger on the trigger while deciding whether or not to shoot increases the possibility that you may shoot when you don’t want to. A mistake that may cost the life of an innocent person, perhaps one of your children. Or yourself.

In my mind, the question is this: why NOT start with your finger off the trigger?

I can think of one example where one tenth of one second could be the difference between life and death: a shoot-out, where both combatants are equally equipped, and start the firing sequence at exactly the same time. Something like, say, a Wild West high-noon style gunfight. Which occurred (at least fictionally) in a tactically sterile battlefield.

Accuracy is another issue. The motion of drawing the finger down the slide, into the guard and onto the trigger jerked the gun slightly—enough to spread my groups out by about half an inch at five yards. [We’ll recreate this test in full later.] At combat distances, that’s simply not an issue.

At longer distances, you may want to take an extra second to aim at your adversary before squeezing (rather than yanking) the trigger. The nine-tenths of a second you’ve given yourself are the more important part of that calculation, if you know what I mean.

In short, follow the safety rule. Keep your finger off the trigger until you’re ready to shoot your target. As in actually in the process of shooting. Anyone who suggest anything else is, I’m afraid to say (but I’ll say it) meshuggah.

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  1. I agree with the finger off policy unless you absolutely intend on shooting the perp. I have several Kimbers with very sensitive triggers and if I were to keep my finger on the trigger, there’s a really good chance of an accidental discharge as you pointed out. All it takes is one wrong twitch while under pressure and then you’ve got some big trouble.

  2. If I cannot identify someone as a BG, or in a situation where my use of deadly force against a BG isn’t justifed, then even pointing the gun at someone is illegal and unwarranted (and in some jurisdictions will constitute ADW) even if my finger is off the trigger. However, if I identify a BG in a stuation where my use of deadly force is justifed, my finger will be inside the trigger guard where it can do me some good.

    Rule No. 4 requires us to be aware of our target and anything around it. If I’ve positively identified the BG and know who’s there and who isn’t, Rule No. 4 is satisfied. Rule No. 3 (often called the “Golden Rule”) specifies that we must keep our finger off the trigger until our sights are on the target and we are ready to shoot. Well, guess what? I’m ready to shoot. The loss of 1/10th of a second doesn’t exist in a vacuum. It is added to the time it takes for me to assess the situation, shout warnings, go through my mental computations, plan my response and find my target. The total loss of time will be much more than 1/10th and could cost me or mine my life. Personally, I prefer not to die with my gun at low ready and my finger up my butt.

    Rule No. 3 does not require me to shoot. Thus, if the BG follows my instructions and leaves or surrenders, I will remove my finger from the trigger. Until then, I’m at Defcon 1.

    • Do not conflate keeping a gun at low ready with trigger finger placement. It’s entirely possible, indeed advisable in certain situations, to have your gun pointed at the perp with your finger OFF the trigger.

      • Why would you do that? There is no reason to keep a gun pointed at anyone who isn’t a threat, and no reason not to have a finger on the trigger if the person is a threat. If the threat is subdued, your finger should be off the trigger and the gun should not be pointed. If the threat is active, the gun has to be leveled and finger on the trigger. I think that’s what Suarez was saying (I’m not sure), and I agree. To me, keeping my finger off the trigger when confronting an active threat is as wise as policing your brass during a gunfight.

        • If somebody is in my house uninvited they are a threat whether they are carrying a gun or not and my gun will be pointed at their chest.

  3. Robert and Ralph both make excellent points, and I guess you’re in a “damned if you do and damned if you don’t” stituation. I hope and pray that I never have to find out.

  4. “At longer distances, you may want to take an extra second to aim at your adversary before squeezing (rather than yanking) the trigger.”

    I think this advice may negate the thrust of the article, depending on how you define “longer distances.” At some distances, that extra second is best devoted to getting the hell out of Dodge and retreating poste-haste is. One second can move you at least ten feet further away from the zone of danger. There is no legally-measured zone past which an otherwise justifiable SD shooting becomes unjustified. That would depend on circumstances, but it is safe to say that if you can run away and don’t, you will be the one facing off against a DA. Under the “wrong” circumstances, it is quite possible that if you slow down and take careful aim, the authorities will deduce that you should have been running instead of aiming.

    • With all due respect to my retired lawyer friend, forget about the DA. In a life-or-death armed self-defense situation, the only shots that count are the ones that hit their target. Obviously, there’s a calculation at work: threat level, threat distance, threat movement, amount of available space to maneuver, available cover, number of perps, etc. In some cases (e.g. close combat), speed over aiming. In others, aiming carefully (longer distance). In either case, I don’t think that 1/10th of a second is a factor. The extra safety of keeping your finger off the trigger is worth any theoretical disadvantage.

    • Ralph,

      How would the DA feel about a negligent discharge into the chest of someone you were holding at gunpoint?

      Here’s more proof:

      • rabbi, I thought I was clear but maybe I wasn’t. If I’m establishing whether or not there’s a threat, the finger is off the trigger and the gun is at low ready or holstered, depending on the conditions as I see them. If I see a BG and determine that he’s no threat, I yell a fair warning but do not level my gun. Yes, I maintain awareness so I’m not surprised by the BG’s best friend or his stellar quick-draw technique. If I determine that there’s an active threat from the BG of death or serious bodily injury against me or mine, my finger is on the trigger and the gun is pointed where it needs to be pointed. I won’t point the gun unless I’m completely prepared to use it and justified in its use. BTW, I’m also screaming my head off while this is going on. If the threat has been neutralized through surrender of the BG or, better still (because I have no interest in playing guard dog to a BG) if the BG takes off a-runnin’, I wave him a fond farewell with my left hand, wish him continued success in all his endeavors that don’t involve me, take my right pointer off the trigger and put my piece away as soon as it’s safe to do so.

        • Ralph,

          It comes down to this; you are either holding him at gun point OR you are shooting him. Your finger should be on the trigger ONLY when you are shooting.

          “I maintain awareness so I’m not surprised” – You may think that when sitting behind your keyboard, but body alarm reaction will reduce your vision to tunnel vision and your hearing as well. Google the “Cornell Young” shooting: A rookie officer who died because he did not hear nor see his fellow cops approach him while he held a bad guy at gunpoint while off duty.

          “no reason not to have a finger on the trigger if the person is a threat” ???????????????? THINK ND!!!!!

  5. I, like many gun owners I’m sure, don’t get nearly enough tactical training. I go to the range fairly regularly but that is mostly static shooting and I’ve taken a class here and there. I know I should do more but I don’t; I just don’t have the time (or money) for more extensive training.

    Thus, I’m not a highly trained or skilled gunfighter and I don’t have any pratical experience in confronting a BG in my living room at 3AM, or anywhere else for that matter (thankfully). Therefore, if I do ever meet a BG at 3AM I’m going to be highly anxious and if I were to leave my finger on the trigger there is a good chance that I would end up discharging the gun due to the clenching or startle reaction.
    Consequently, I ALWAYS leave my finger off the trigger. For me to do otherwise is irresponsible.

    • I understand what you’re saying, but if you ALWAYS keep your finger off the trigger, how will you shoot the gun?

  6. “The only thing that I knew that had effect on things was violence,” Gabe says. “You take care of business and things change. I grabbed my rifle and I went off purposing in my heart to do something evil ’cause I figured that was the only thing I had left.”

    Before he could exact vengeance on his accusers, something stopped him in his tracks.

    “I clearly heard God’s voice and the voice was telling me to pray. So I turned the car around, went home, put everything away and I prayed.”

    Well thank G-d for that.

    As far as the topic at hand, there is also a huge difference between clearing “a” house and clearing “your” house. If you are on some elite team who’s very existence is classified going through a where you know that you will only find then maybe it is appropriate to have your finger on the trigger (but probably not). If you are in your house and something goes bump in the night, absolutely not.

    • “If you are in your house and something goes bump in the night, absolutely not.”

      Precisely correct — up until you establish that the thing that went bump was your unfriendly neighborhood home invader.

  7. Well, I guess this is better discourse than what I’m seeing about the Tucson shooting! I’d like to point out here that self defense shooters should not be on trigger until they are ready to fire. But, if your gun is pointed at your target, you should be ready to shoot. If not, don’t point our gun at him/her. I know that sounds simple but lets not forget that we are not out looking for bad guys. Indeed, we should be situationally aware of them before an attack (easier said than done I admit) and either retreat or engage an imminent threat should it materialize.

    I’m going to repeat from the earlier thread that if my gun is covering a threat it is because that threat is imminent and is very, very close to being shot and I’m definitely on trigger. This is partly why I carry a single/double gun because the D/A trigger is stiff enough to prevent negligent discharges due to flinch etc. Moreover, I’m not a big fan of slapping at a D/A trigger which is what is being suggested here.

    I’d also like to mention that a range simulation of defensive fire is not all that reliable because you are missing the bodily reactions to a life and death situation i.e. stress, adrenalin and all that comes with it. These factors reduce reaction time and open up groups beyond the simulated defensive fire. If you add trigger slap, the groups open up even more.

    The rule says; “Keep you trigger finger off trigger until you are on target and ready to shoot”. If I have made the decision to deploy my gun it is because a threat is present and I can’t get away from or control it. However, if I’m covering a target it is because they pose an imminent threat and I’m very close to shooting said threat.

    I know I’m switching gears here but let’s take a look at Joe Zamudio’s actions in Tucson for a minute. According to his various interviews, Zamudio hears gunfire at the Safeway and bolts towards it to “help”. He does deploy his gun even as he approaches the guy who is holding the Glock 19. Why? Because he made the proper threat assessment. The G-19 was locked up and he didn’t know for certain who the shooter was. Thank God Zumudio didn’t draw and fire upon the “threat”; can you all imagine the sh**storm that would have created?

    The only reason I bring this is for those who argue that CCW citizens could “prevent” shootings by folks against third parties. This is not why we (or at least me) carry a personal defense gun. Operative word being personal. It may sound selfish, but I carry to protect me and my family not the general public. Will I help if I can? Sure but as Zamudio’s situation demonstrates, making the correct threat assessment in a wildly chaotic situation is very difficult. I think everyone who carries a gun (legally) owes Joe Zamudio a pat on the back and a full throated attaboy for making the right decisions.

  8. Robert,

    Your assertion is doubling back on itself. In the first part of your article you say that finger on / off the trigger is statistically insignificant to a shot from a pre-established and presumably aimed or pointed orientation. Later in the article you say:

    “Self-defense situations are fluid. In the blink of an eye, an assailant can go from a deadly threat to a less-than-deadly threat. A person walking towards you with a knife may stop. The “weapon” a supposed bad guy’s drawing can turn out to be a police badge. You can instantly recognize that home invader as your daughter’s horny boyfriend. The bad guy may simply run away.”

    In this paragraph you make the point that time is of the essence although you only provide scenarios that support a ‘no shoot’ situation.

    I would point out that as a law abiding, gun carrying citizen you aren’t making offensive moves, attacking the bad guys; rather you are making only necessary and defensive moves. This means for better or worse reacting rather than acting. In a very enlightening version of the Tueller drill my trainer showed me and the entire class that action beats reaction at Tueller distances, consistently. Our designated attacker gets to the shooter before the 2nd shot consistently on all but the fastest of shooters. The attacker runs parallel to the line and when the shooter notices the movement may draw and place 2 shots on steel at 21 feet before contact or they are beaten. Now, what if the “attacker” in this “scenario” stopped halfway through, dropping whatever weapon they had? I’d bet money they would still get shot, particularly by the faster shooters because in that compressed time space of roughly 2 seconds the stopping and decision to not shoot will take close to .5 seconds, or about .2 – .25 seconds to register the deescalation, and another .25 to decide/act not to shoot.

    Now I’m not saying you’re right, or Mr. Suarez (whom I do not know). However, there is at least one incident I know of in which a police officer has killed someone for what Mr. Suarez advocates:

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