Gunnery Sgt. Brian Zins, USMC Retired, won the national championship of conventional bulls-eye pistol shooting a dozen times, more than anyone else in history. When he talks about marksmanship, I listen.  One-handed pistol shooting at 25 and 50 yards places a premium on trigger control, but his advice on the topic can apply to any type of firearm. (I had the chance to meet Gunny Zins a bit over a decade ago: he’s an excellent teacher, and a fine man of the kind we’re proud to see as the face of American shooting sports.)

Recently, he wrote this article for the NRA.  Among other things, he takes the rather controversial position that the distal joint of the trigger finger is a more advantageous position for the shooter than the traditionally-recommended “pad” of the index finger, which I would define as the part where you find the whorl of the fingerprint.

I teach it as a very useful technique, assuming the gun fits the hand when you shoot this way. Among other things, it gives the shooter’s finger more leverage, ergo, more control.

All y’all trigger-pullers out there, after you’re done reading Brian’s thoughts and experiences, I’d be interested in hearing yours.


  1. He makes a lot of sense. Especially about knowing what the trigger is doing. And you sure can’t argue with his success.

  2. That is the way I always used my finger, any kind of shooting, rifle pistol or shotgun. I want the piece to fire as soon as my brain tells my finger to fire it. I guess if you want the surprise break the bit of spongy Bob stuff on the finger’s end might get an OK.
    What works best is best.

  3. Thanks for this article, Mas. I could write a book on my own experiences in my quest to become “good with a gun”, eventually coming to the same method the Gunny describes. Once I stumbled upon the method he describes on my own, I was too old to become a “great shot”, but did achieve being a “good shot” by most folks standards. I use this method for all handgun shooting, including handgun hunting, where I start my trigger pull before the animal comes into the sight picture. Does it work for everybody? Don’t know. Until you linked this article, I didn’t know anyone else did it this way. Thanks.

  4. Personally I use the finger joint positioning for firing double action guns which needs more leverage, and the finger pad technique for single action and rifle shooting which provides better control. I prefer smooth faced triggers for all double action work as they don’t chafe the index finger during long sessions.

  5. As someone who throws less lead annually of late than most shooters like yourself do in a week or two, I am by no means an expert. Still, you asked…

    Where I touch the trigger depends mostly on which firearm I’m shooting. My Sig P226 fits my hand so that the pad of my index finger comfortably rests on the trigger, and in de-cock mode a gentle flex makes with the boom. However, my Ruger SP101 fits my hand differently and requires better control or else I lose the sight picture when I squeeze the trigger. In fact, gripping that trigger with my first finger joint aids me greatly in that coveted “squeeze the trigger smoothly and evenly” action and I don’t easily jerk the trigger.

    Just to be different, I’ll say that my hammerless Colt pocket .25 (kept for sentimental reasons) virtually requires me to finger the trigger with the middle joint, and pulling said trigger is exactly like making a fist.

    Of course, I have never shot in competition other determining than who buys after we unload and clean and are done shooting for the day so YMMV/IMBFOS!

  6. He does not use the surprise trigger break. He knows exactly when the gun is going to go off.

    That’s a technique that can only work for someone who has no tendency to flinch. Obviously, he is in that category, but he doesn’t say how a person can become like that — or whether he just has a different kind of nervous system.

  7. Wish I could do this, but with my small hands, I can barely get the tip of my trigger finger on a M1911, with the short match trigger, as it is.

    Great idea, for large handed shooter’s, would require me to angle the M1911 completely out of alignment with my fore arm, create an ackward, uncontrollable recoil with every shot.

  8. I agree with Gunny Zins, but then again I cut my shooting teeth on DA pistols and revolvers, so I’ve been habituated to placing the “power crease” on the trigger for 25 years’ worth of shooting. I’m also glad that he so articulately described the “squishy” feeling of pressing the trigger with the fatty pad of the finger, and how subjectively imprecise it feels compared to the palpable sensation of control I have with the distal joint on the trigger – all this time, I’ve kinda felt like the odd man out because I didn’t care to use the tip/pad of my finger to press the trigger, like all the cool kids did…

  9. Finally, a voice of sanity. All these years we’ve been told “use the pad” of your finger. It never felt comfortable to me. I always found myself using the first knuckle. Once I stopped worrying about pad vs. knuckle, and did what just came natural for me, I think my shooting improved. If the pad works for YOU, by all means, stick with it.

  10. Watching Operator Pat McNamara’s thoughts on Panteao, he too advocates “sinking” the trigger finger deep. Consistent “vise” pull (distal joint) vs. inconsistent “fulcrum” pull (pad).

    Funny how actual experience trumps dogma.

  11. Great stuff,

    Thank you for the introduction to Gunny Zins! I had yet to learn of the man until recently.

    As per distal v. Pad, I always use one or the other. The choice is made dependent upon the ergonomics of the individual firearm.
    I figure I’m more likely to go with pad on shotguns using shot (where I’m going for a trigger “slap”, as they say) and distal on all else. Yet it does vary.
    For example, If shooting slugs, buckshot or Turkey loads out of a gun I ordinarily use for shot, I keep I do tend to keep with the pad.

    I am very curious as per the approaches of others. Where abouts do you use on the finger for trigger contact with each gun?

    Is there anyone out there reading this who, by choice or necessity, using a finger other an the index to fire? What could a guy do without fingers?

    Thank You

  12. Given that he’s stating that the technique is intended for slow fire precision shooting, it’s a reasonable approach. Greater precision requires removing variables, and shooting with a ‘less squishy’ area of the finger does reduce the degree of variability in one area of the equation.

    It’s not a technique I would choose to teach someone new, or even beginning to compete, but it makes sense as a master-level technique used for competition.

    Would it work for the Gunny in a real firefight? Well, given how many rounds he’s shot over his career, I’m thinking he could pull the trigger with his off-hand pinky and still win most gunfights.

  13. It was a good article. The only concern I have the reach of the shooter for the trigger of a particular gun. He is correct about free pistol and other disciplines where very light trigger weights are used. The pad of the finger seems to work better.

  14. What Gunny Zins states may be right for him. Some experts state that when shooting a double action revolver, the first joint shout be on the trigger and when the shot breaks the tip of the finger should be now touching the frame. It will not work for me because of the curse of short fingers.
    He talks about the chicken finger. I have encountered this phenomenon. When shooting bullseye slow fire you have the time to check your scope. You can see that you have a nice tight group in the x ring, just one more shot and you will have perfect score and then your finger freezes.
    Paul Edwards—try the Chip McCormick slim grips on the 1911. Slim grip on the right (r.h.) and a standard thickness grip on the left side.

  15. I put the crease of the distal joint at the edge of the front face of the trigger. The pad next to the joint is on the trigger but I have more mechanical advantage than I would if I inserted my finger only far enough to center the pad (Mas’s definition) on the face of the trigger.

    I’ve learned two different ways to pull the trigger. In bullseye shooting, the sights wander on and off the target. Each time they come on, increase pressure on the trigger. One of those times, the gun will fire. (The gunny knows his guns well enough deliberately reach break pressure at the same instant the sights are perfectly aligned.) For practical shooting, align the sights as best you can and pull the trigger smoothly all the way through. Once you start, you are committed even if the sights are no longer perfectly aligned when the gun fires.

    Something that makes handguns difficult to shoot well is that the force required to pull the trigger is at least as much as the weight of the gun and often several times greater. Shooting accurately requires precisely balancing, with the rest of your hand, the force your finger applies to the trigger so that the gun doesn’t move off the target. Little wonder it’s so hard to shoot lightweight snubbies.

  16. Maybe as long as you do not jerk trigger pull when “initiating a firing sequence”, ergonomics, attitude/stamina and situational awareness, at that moment, become the most critical elements.

  17. Ya know its guys like Gunny and Miculek and yes you Mas, that ruin it for everybody else ! Gunny shoots 1″ groups at 50 yards, single handed, with iron sights. I’m convinced you guys are freakish alien hybrids from Zeta Reticuli !!!

  18. Good article. I believed the pad was better for accuracy than the joint, and I am happy to hear that Gunny Zins uses the joint. Defensive shooting is likely to be fast, close-range, high stress, and if it occurs in July or August, my fingers will be sweaty. I would rather use the joint.

    I would be interested in hearing how snipers press the triggers on their rifles.

    Spencer B.,

    You mentioned using a different finger other than the index finger. The only time I do that is when using a bolt-action rifle, and I practice the “mad-minute” technique used by the British with their Enfield’s in WWI. I grip the bolt, work it fast, extend my middle finger to the trigger, pull it fast, and repeat. This technique is not for accuracy, and I don’t think I would ever use it in any “real world” scenarios.

    I was once firing a double-barrel shotgun with two triggers. I thought I would put the index finger on the forward trigger, then put the middle finger on the rear trigger and fire it that way. It did not work well. Even though I used to play classical guitar (so I thought my finger control was better than average), when I fired that first shot, the middle finger contracted along with the index finger, and I fired both barrels almost simultaneously. I was trying not to do that, and I was glad I was only firing birdshot, as the kick was not too bad.

  19. Some handgun trigger-control factors regarding shooting a bear that is closing in on you: The more you hold a handgun like a long gun, the better off you may be. My experience with the rifle is that larger muscles play a bigger role in keeping the weapon steady when the adrenaline surge from meeting an aggressive bear hits your guts, especially in close cover. A Weaver stance for me is most like holding a long gun to the shoulder, and tends to be steadier than isosceles or one-hand, because it puts both upper arms at or nearer the torso for stability. If you happen to have sustained a ruptured rotator cuff, you will have observed that the trigger finger is surprisingly well connected through the arm to the shoulder. A Weaver stance will likely bring your muzzle closer to your ears, though, and blasts from heavy loads can do your hearing more damage. Getting hit in the face by the handgun in recoil would be trouble, too. Weaver may be worth considering for the stability, but should be practiced before using it under pressure. Giving up heavy loads in favor of lighter ones MIGHT be OK. I practice a tight grip whatever the stance, necessary with the heavy loads. My trigger finger position is subordinate to the balancing pressures between palm and heel, similar to the way my Air Force instructor taught me to hold a Colt .45 ACP. I think I use mostly the distal joint for pressing trigger. I am not saying that I would necessarily use a Weaver stance. The important thing is to be genuinely prepared to handle a variety of scenarios.


    I’m writing in again to let Mas, hopefully Gunny Zins too, know that I have tried the distal today on the shotgun as well! Why I’ve not taken to doing so before, I’ve no clue…

    Anyhow, this change-up appears to be the biggest positive alteration in my firearms technique in a long while. I have always loved slug shooting, it’s just a boatload of fun and now I feel more accurate than ever. For bird shot, I am not sure if it improves hits just yet per se, though it has certainly improved my comfort while shooting a certain pistol-grip equipped 12 bore I happened to know and love.

    While I have used the distal as a priority on other firearms before (As mentioned in my prior comment), switching over entirely to this technique seems to be paying dividends for me. I am not sure if the trend will continue or if I was just having a good day. Will try this afield next chance I get!

    Thanks again. Ya know, it’s just crazy what a little tweak in the technique can do for one’s shooting. I also wish to thank all commenters here for their experiences and insights. Much appreciated, all. Hope to read more soon.

  21. Spencer: Glad it worked for ya!

    Two-Gun Steve: Interesting comments. Have you tried the Ray Chapman variation of the Weaver, in which the gun arm is locked at the elbow and the bent support arm pulls the whole locked gun arm into the firing shoulder? It very nicely “turns the gun arm into a rifloe-stock” and gets the gun and its blast farther out away from the shooter’s ear.

    Long Island Mike, thanks for the kind words but I’m not in the same league as Gunny Zins and Jerry.

  22. > I cut my shooting teeth on DA pistols and
    > revolvers, so I’ve been habituated to placing
    > the “power crease” on the trigger

    Uh… me too. It never occured to me to pull the trigger any other way. And that’s right where the standard-length trigger of a 1911 falls, which may be why they feel so natural when I shoot them.

    I’ve never much cared whether a trigger was smooth, serrated, curved, or straight. Hmm… I wonder if that’s just me or if it’s more of an issue to pad shooters.

  23. Everyone is different! Tall, skinny, arthritic, long fingered. Do you shoot a tiny little gun or a “long slide”. So many factors dictate where you touch the trigger. You have to be “practiced” enough to shoot your gun AND any other gun you may find that you will have to use in troubled times. Keeping the palm surface of your index finger off of the side of the pistol during an uninterrupted trigger PRESS while focusing on the front sight is what I strive to address when teaching.

  24. Well, Mas after reading the article I’ll agree. I’ve used that part of my index finger. It felt more natural to me, especially with a 1911. Pulling the trigger using the pad of my index finger, was taught to me, but, I found it was easier for me to pull the gun off target.

  25. Mas, thanks for mentioning the Ray Chapman stance. I took a look at some examples. You could say it is intermediate between Weaver and isosceles. I think I have been using a mostly Chapman stance and thought it was more isosceles. I wonder how Chapman touched the trigger. He had many championships “back in the day.”

  26. I have always preferred to shoot my guns using the distal joint method as Kendahl described it. For me this is the quickest, most consistent, & most natural way to pull a trigger, especially under stress in a defensive situation. I also prefer to use a modified Weaver stance when shooting a handgun, which I find to be much steadier than the isosceles & with the proper grip it makes recoil noticeably more controllable. For distant offhand shots, I prefer the Ray Chapman variation of the Weaver that Mas described with the gun arm locked at the elbow, which feels steadier to me than shooting a rifle offhand. In any life threatening situation, an adrenaline fueled “crush grip” on the weapon does not seem to me to be compatible with a pad of the finger trigger pull. The only time I ever use the pad of the trigger finger is with a very light set trigger on a rifle. Even with a single action handgun trigger or a normal single stage rifle trigger, I can control the trigger pull better using the distal joint method because of my familiarity with it.

  27. I find that if I am practicing combat shooting or bird hunting, I tend to use Gunny’s technique. If in slow fire or rifle shooting, I put the pad on the trigger. While I’ll agree with Gunny’s rationale for “connectedness” to the trigger from the joint, I’ll push back and say that I believe that the pad has more nerve endings to relay feeling.

    That all said, I do agree that I don’t get surprised by the shot unless I’m shooting a weapon that I’m not familiar with.

  28. Having first learned to shoot, like most, on rifles and BB guns, the technique of using the pad of the finger on the trigger was pretty well ingrained. Then i picked up a DA revolver and my world changed! Gunny Zins’ method is spot on for how I learned to shoot DA revolvers and it did improve both speed and accuracy!

    Now I find that I use the pad of the finger on rifles, shotguns, and SA handguns. But it is back to the knuckle for DA handguns and similar long pull triggers like are on many modern defensive handguns and service pistols.

    The biggest improvement for my accuracy with a handgun has been Mas’s own “CRUSH Grip”. SA, DA, modern pistol, 1911, they all are more accurate when I try to squeeze the oil out of the grip panels! Thank you Dr. Ayoob!

  29. Interesting article, thanks for bringing to our attention. I found a key part of the article to be that the trigger “needs to have a little roll in it”.

    Like several of the folks here, what part of my finger lies on the trigger is going to depend upon reach to the trigger. I use whatever part of the last joint I need to to make the trigger move straight back. As it happens, with the AR pattern rifle (as issued), that’s the right edge of the trigger against the crease of the joint. With this finger position I can roll the trigger much like a double action revolver and do quite well.

    I’m tending to work my way back to that with the precision rifle.

  30. mas – I must say your “distal joint education,” as well as Mr. Zinns’ lessons – cannot be beat! Thanks once more for so much “meat” in your articles and blogs.

    Now, sorry for the thread drift here, Mas, but what is your take on the “Center Axis Relock System CAR or C.A.R. Shooting System?” It keeps popping up everywhere – is it as good as its proponents make it out to be?

  31. I didn’t have the best performance with Center Axis Relock, Don, but there are folks who swear by it. Best bet is to find a CAR instructor and give it a try and see if it works for you.

  32. Thanks for the quick response, Mas! I neglected to ask you what you think about a recommendation (actually, it is part of the CAR system, too) I have seen recently to “tilt” the pistol approx. 45 degrees to obtain a better wrist geometry (for lack of a better term). In some of your earlier writings, you advised that very tilt to free the gun from snagging on a loose jacket, windbreaker, excess girth, etc. This time, it is being advised for something even more basic – a better grip. I have tried it while dry firing – haven’t been to the range yet for live fire – but I can see what their point is. Any thoughts?

  33. Don, the outboard tilt (top of the gun tilted to the right when firing right-handed) would be for pistol retention position, tight to the body, to keep the slide from fouling on outer garments. What you’re talking about is the McMillan/Chapman rotation, developed by Bill McMillan while in the Marine Corps and picked up on for combat shooting by ex-Marine Ray Chapman. Pistol is rotated 15 to 45 degrees to the left if firing right handed. This does allow a slightly stronger grasp with the firing hand, particularly when firing one hand only, but can slightly alter point of aim/point of impact coordinates beyond close range.

    It’s great for shooting with the hand opposite the dominant eye, particularly one-handed (being right-handed and right eye dominant, I’ve been shooting left hand only this way of late), and some find it works well for them in a two-hand hold also.

  34. Again, thanks for the quick clarification, Mas. I had my tilts confused a bit. Also, I hear you when you say “of late.” I really appreciate anything to do with sight issues, etc. – because, as I may have told you in the past – I am exactly two weeks older than you and can really relate to those things. Another lesson learned. I’m very anxious to try this new “slant” (sorry, couldn’t resist) on shooting.

  35. I’ve always heard using the finger tip to pull the trigger, straight back, was the way to go. So I had to go pull out a 1911 and give both ways another try. My hands are large enough to wrap my trigger finger around the trigger at the first joint, no problem. My trigger is also good enough that either way works fine, but a heavy trigger would possibly result in torquing the muzzle away from the target using the first finger joint method. Practice, practice, practice.

    I trained my daughter to use the finger tip method and she does just fine too, but her hands are also large (she has no trouble properly gripping a 1911). I explained to her that the rectangular grip of this pistol fits the hand in an unnatural way (unlike the curved butt of many revolvers) and she had to LEARN to hold it. Holes appearing close together on the target meant she was doing it right.

    A lot of the old codger pistol shooters in my corner of the universe used to practice by holding a match book in the palm of their hand, wide end (where the match heads were) pressed into the web of their hand between thumb and trigger finger, and the striker strip representing the trigger. Properly pressed, the match book would expand open equally on both sides.

    I learned a lot about what I know of trigger pull by shooting indoor target archery in the unlimited class. This is the class that uses stabilizers, balancers, optical sights, releases etc. You hold on the target looking through the peep sight in the string with the dot of the sight on the X ring and press the release waiting for it to go off. This teaches you control (it also teaches you how to punch yourself in the face when you try to tweak your release so it’s a little too light and it goes off as you draw). Getting tired and punching the release as the dot of your sight wobbles past the X is a fail. The Chicken Finger as described in the article also has a cousin in archery. It’s called “Target Freeze.” This is where no matter what you do you CANNOT lift the bow high enough to center the sight on the target. All you can do is let down (hopefully without firing the arrow) and start over.

    Which ever way works best for you is the way to go. OOH-RAH Gunny Zins, and thanks for your service!

  36. In qualifying, my instructors always said, use the pad. It never worked well for me. I always went back to the distal joint. Way better!

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