Curing the Sick Trigger

If you want to shoot better, this is a good place to start.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Let us suppose that you buy a sports car. It has a zero-to-60 time of five seconds flat, a highly sophisticated suspension, terrific traction, and huge disc brakes. However, the steering is so heavy that you can barely turn the wheel, and so imprecise that the car wanders all over the road.

"Stuff and nonsense," you say. "No car maker would put something like that on the market." You're right; they don't. But rifle makers put out the exact equivalent-guns that are excellent in all respects but one: the trigger. And as the steering controls the car, the trigger controls the rifle.

How We Came to This Sorry State
Gunmakers do not make bad triggers because they are evil or lazy or incompetent; they do it because of lawyers. For the last two decades, whenever a gun has gone off accidentally, lawyers have gathered like buzzards on a road-killed hog and have flimflammed gullible juries into awarding huge sums to plaintiffs who came to grief not through faulty triggers but through their own epic carelessness.

A trigger relies on spring pressure to control its weight of pull-the number of ounces of pressure that you need to apply to make it go off. The other controlling factor is sear engagement-the metal-to-metal contact between the trigger and the sear, which holds the firing pin in the cocked position. If you have a lot of weight on the spring and a lot of sear engagement, it will be almost impossible for the rifle to go off accidentally, but it will also be nearly impossible to make it go off when you want.

You can build a safe trigger that is also controllable, but it takes time and some delicate adjustment (typical sear engagement is 15- to 18-thousandths of an inch), and jacks up the price of a gun.

So What Do You Do?
If you shoot less than a box of ammo a year and take your rifle out of the case only during deer season, there's no sense worrying about your trigger because you're not a serious shooter. But if you don't shoot well, want to do better, and your trigger is part of the problem, you can have it adjusted or replaced.

In the good old days, most gunmakers assumed that discerning shooters would have their triggers tweaked and were pretty relaxed about the whole business. But no longer, and rightly so. I have snapped some tinkered-with triggers that made my blood run cold.

A trigger job for the average big-game rifle will cost between $50 and $75 and can make all the difference in the world. A gunsmith will take your trigger completely apart, polish the engaging surfaces, and/or replace the spring that controls the pull weight. (The so-called adjustment screw on many factory triggers makes them pull only heavier, not lighter.)

You may be told that nothing can be done with your trigger, and that may well be true. Some triggers-notably those on Remington pump-action and auto rifles and Winchester Model 94s-are so designed that not much can be done with them, and some bolt-action triggers require so much diddling that it's not worth the effort. So you turn to...

Replacement Triggers
Timney is practically synonymous with replacement trigger. They make an utterly reliable trigger with a very good pull at a price of $80 to $90. I've used many Timneys and have nothing but kind words for them. Your gunsmith can order one for you.

For years, Savage owners could only gnash their teeth because no one made replacement triggers for their rifles, but now there are three: one by Rifle Basix, one by Sharp Shooter, and one by Timney. They are all about the same price, but the one by Sharp Shooter appears to be for varmint rifles and breaks too light for big-game hunting. All three are sold by Brownell's, and your gunsmith can order them for you.

At the top of the trigger heap is the Jewell. A hunting-model Jewell costs $195, and installation is another $50. But if yoou are a serious shooter and/or have a fine rifle that you would like to turn into a super gun, you will not begrudge a penny that you spend. You can reach Jewell Triggers at 512-353-2999.

And Some Random Thoughts
You might find the following trigger comments useful; just remember that they are generalizations.

  • Winchester Model 70. Probably the best hunting-rifle trigger, period. What sets it apart is its extreme simplicity and ruggedness. Properly set up, it has a wonderful pull, and almost nothing can keep it from working properly. If you don't like your Model 70 trigger, don't replace it; have it tuned.

  • Remington Model 700. Properly adjusted, it offers the best pull of any factory trigger. However, it is susceptible to accumulated grease, rust, and idiots who insist on tampering with it.

  • Weatherby Mark V. Weatherby uses a high-tech machine called the Trigger-Scan system to adjust their triggers at the factory, and their pulls are good right out of the box. The system not only adjusts but also records how many thousandths of an inch of engagement, and how many pounds of pull, go into each trigger.

  • Browning A-Bolt. Like the Weatherby triggers, the ones I've tried have been fine, unless you're really fussy. But if you are fussy, a slicked-up A-Bolt trigger is a sensual delight.

  • Savage 110, 111, 116. Savage rifles can shoot with anything at any price, but triggers have long been their weak spot. A gunsmith can lighten a Savage trigger, but the basic pull is still nothing to write home about.

  • Ruger Model 77. The ones I've tried have been way too heavy, but they can be cleaned up.

  • Marlin 336 and Savage Model 99. These are the only lever actions I know of whose triggers can be slicked up. A well-tuned Model 99 trigger is particularly nice.

Recommended reading: For additional cogent comments on the present state of triggers, I recommend Jim Carmichel's April 2002 shooting department in Outdoor Life. For those of you not familiar with OL, it is a hunting and fishing magazine distinguished by the presence on its staff of one Gerald Gibbs, the world's oldest fishing editor.