The trigger is obviously one of the most important links that a shooter has to his rifle. Granted, the stock, grip, and forend all matter, but the trigger is of special importance. Today we are going to be looking at the differences between single-stage triggers and two-stage triggers and just what each offers to you.
Unlike many of my articles were I talk about which cartridges are better than 6.5 Creedmoor, I won’t try to pick a winner here, despite the fact that I have a clear favorite. The differences between single and two-stage triggers are relatively minor, but they tell me a great deal about what a shooter prioritizes and how they see their relationship to their rifle.
For the purposes of this article, I will be talking about rifles and not other guns. Handguns are a bit different and their triggers vary a great deal between single action, double action, striker-fired, and so on.
The triggers of most rifles are often easily replaced. The AR-15 rifles featured in this article can accept any type of standard trigger meant for the AR platform and aren’t permanently bound to the parts they have, unlike many types of other guns.
The technical differences between single and two-stage triggers are small, but very important. In a literal sense, there is no functional difference between the two when it comes to how the rifle operates.
For those new to guns, you may want to review our trigger terminology 101 post here.
The purpose of a rifle’s trigger — single-stage or two-stage — is to release the sear that causes the weapon to fire. A double action revolver, for instance, uses trigger pull to both rotate the cylinder and retract the hammer to fire it. There are multiple actions being performed, where there is only one function on a rifle trigger.
Allow me to explain: the two-stage trigger in a rifle is not the same a double-action trigger in a handgun. The first stage is merely what is called ‘slack’ and it doesn’t perform a mechanical function.
You begin your trigger pull with a light take-up, which is the first stage. This stage sees the trigger shoe being brought back to a stopping point, which is the second stage.
Pressing through the second stage fires the rifle. The first stage can be released should the shooter not wish to fire. Upon reset, a shooter can reset directly to the second stage, which can speed precise shooting.
A single-stage trigger is static and has no take-up or slack. When you press the trigger, there is only the break and the rifle will fire. Most single-stage triggers have lighter pull weights by comparison to their two-stage brethren.
Unlike most types of technology, the single and two-stage trigger did not develop as distinct evolutionary steps.
Since manufacturing standardization didn’t exist in any widespread capacity until the mid 1800’s, the individual gun was indeed an individual in that it was not one of many, but the only one of its make. Triggers varied greatly until mass production manufacturing was introduced.
Skipping ahead to about 1900, we see a general divide along civilian and military lines. The military rifles of the day usually had two-stage triggers while civilian arms were typically single stage. I have studied this divide for some time and have arrived at some interesting conclusions.
The military rifles that introduced true two-stage triggers were the guns of about 1890-1914 vintage. These were the Mausers, Springfields, Mosin-Nagants, Krags, and Enfields. Two-stage triggers in these rifles were generally considered more robust and reliable. A rifleman had some grace in his trigger pull thanks to the take-up stage.
Sporting rifles of the era, typically the Winchester lever action, were generally made for less stressful use and enjoyed crisp, single-stage triggers. The single-stage pull here resulted from the positioning of the trigger sear on the hammer. The light pull on many high-end lever guns is the result of this. It’s rare to find a lever gun with a two-stage trigger.
The military-style trigger began to change when fully automatic rifles were more widely introduced in the years following WWI. The M1 Garand and other excellent semi-auto rifles had two-stage triggers, but triggers became mushier and less precise with the introduction of the M16/AR-15.
Thanks to the modularity of the AR system, today’s two-stage triggers are incredible. The version featured in my 300 Blackout here was made by Geissele.
Today’s budget AR-15 rifles typically have what are called mil-spec triggers. The mil-spec trigger is something of a bastard in that it’s both heavy and gritty with a long pull. This trigger is technically a single-stage design despite the fact that the pull is often as long as that of a two-stage. If you get a quality single-stage, you will have no creep or pull at all. The trigger will simply break like a glass rod when you pull it.
If you find yourself looking to improve your rifle’s trigger, you have a few ways to go about it. I personally prefer a two-stage as I shoot in National Match and CMP competition. I also prefer them for hunting as I like to take up the trigger when I’m about to fire.
The sensation of a two-stage is very natural to me and it feels very tactile. I can ‘talk’ to my rifle better as it is easier to me to anticipate the shot and recoil follow-through.
Taking up the slack in the first stage feels like I’m zeroing in on my shot. At matches I will begin taking up slack as I hover around the black, but will only get it to the second firing stage when I’m rock steady.
My hunting rifle, a 700-based 450 Bushmaster built by my friends at Precision Rifle Company using parts supplied by Brownell’s, wears a two-stage Timney Calvin Elite trigger. It’s one of the best triggers I have ever used and it gives me great confidence in the field.
If you have been a single-stage shooter, you probably grew up shooting shotguns and sporting rifles. All the people I know who prefer a single-stage trigger got their start with dedicated hunting rifles, typically a bolt action, although that isn’t to say that they did not also shoot semi-autos.
The sport rifle has long been dedicated to a single, stiff pull and this tradition has carried through to most of today’s common rifles.
The rifle featured here is a Brenton USA 450 Bushmaster and it carries a single-stage trigger. It’s arguably the best AR-based dedicated hunting rifle made today.
The benefit of a good single-stage trigger is that you get a short and fast pull with a quick reset. This type of trigger is generally the choice for benchrest shooters and hunters.
There are some general risks associated with this type of trigger that are not present on the two-stage trigger. Drop risk and accidental discharge are far more likely with a light, single-stage trigger, although this problem is usually reserved for bolt actions rather than ARs due to how the trigger and sear are arranged. The lower the pull weight, the greater the potential danger.
How much should you consider spending on a trigger? Well, that’s all relative to what you want to get out of it. I consider $150-300 to be a good starting point if you want a no-compromise trigger from a reputable company. I don’t consider a $400 trigger to be too much depending on what sports you want to get into. You generally get what you pay for in this life and life is too short for bad triggers.
For a good overview, see Jeremy’s epic drop-in trigger roundup post.
Today we have several deep divides in the gun industry. M-LOK vs. KeyMod. AR-15 vs. AK-47. 9mm vs. 40 S&W. Mil vs. MOA.
The thing is, the market usually decides. M-LOK won. The AR is currently dominating. What’s .40 cal again?
We see one exception here and that’s Mils vs. MOA. That’s more of a matter of experience and personal preference than performance. The single-stage vs. two-stage question is much the same.
Which one should you choose? Pick whatever you want so long as you’re comfortable with it and it meets your needs. If you haven’t shot either, borrow some guns and try them both.
On the other hand, if you know MOA and grew up shooting a two-stage trigger, then go with it. You’ll be much happier in the long run than if you try to switch to Mils and single-stage just because that’s the trend in your sport of choice.