Trigger Exercises with John Tate


For LEOs and fellow firearm instructors for whom I may in the future conduct firearms training. This short article was from an email I just sent to a fellow who is having trouble with trigger control to offer some exercises that work well for improving shooting skills.

A dissertation on trigger exercises. I’m assuming you know the basics, but I’ll give you one ‘cheater tip.’ Any iron sight shooter knows to focus on the front sight. That’s easy to say; but for some, hard to do. Go to ‘Dollar Store’ or some similar outlet and buy a pair of +1.25 diopter reading glasses. Put them on. YOU CANNOT FOCUS BEYOND YOUR FRONT SIGHT! So, by using these, you’ll make a habit and see the benefit of proper sight picture (sights aligned and in focus; target under sights, but fuzzy).

OK – one more. Some say determining your “strong (or dominate) eye” is crucial. I say BS. It’s much easier to learn to close one eyelid than to rebuild your anatomy. So IF you determine that your left eye is dominate, just put a patch over it until you learn to close it without squinting too much.


First – DRY FIRE! For hours and hours. When doing so, give extra attention to follow-through. Watch this video.

You should notice that when Keith’s hammer falls, you see no other movement of the pistol. This comes from trigger control.

Second – DRY FIRE! For hours and hours. When doing so, CALL YOUR SHOT! State exactly where the sights were when the hammer fell. There are many reasons for calling your shot. One is simply attention to the sights, optical and mental focus on the sights.

Third – DRY FIRE! The ration should be ~ 1000:1 dry fire to live fire rounds. Why is dry fire so good?
You can dry fire anywhere. No need to go to the range.
Dry fire costs nothing but time. If you’re not willing to spend that, you don’t want to shoot better.

In dry fire, you exercise every aspect of shooting except recoil, noise, and recoil recovery … the last of these will still be minimized by the firm grip you practice in dry fire.

Due to the lack of distractions of recoil and noise, dry fire allows you to concentrate an those crucial aspects of shooting: stance, grip, breath control, sight alignment, sight picture, TRIGGER CONTROL, and follow through.

Finally, graduate school: The McGivern trigger exercises.
Get a copy of Ed McGivern’s Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting.

ISBN-10: 1-60239-086-X
ISBN-13: 978-1-60239-086-7

For his trigger drills, see pages 120 – 122 and, to a lesser degree pp 174-175. (There may have been some embellishments in my version, below.) See in particular the last line on page 122: “The trigger should be allowed to go forward as the same rate of speed as that at which it was drawn back, whether quickly or slowly.”

Also, I respectfully draw your attention to this quote from page 175: “Trigger control is the “mystery” underlying all of these seemingly
marvelous performances, and nothing else can ever take its place for successful results in double-action revolver shooting.”

Here is a quick and dirty of the McGivern trigger drills. The drills are to be conducted with a nice, heavy, double-action revolver. (E.g., S&W 686.) If you cannot find a good revolver, a FULL double-action semi-auto pistol will do. (E.g., Beretta 92F, S&W 3900, 4500, or 5900. A Glock is NOT a double-action pistol.) The drills, listed below are executed as follows: master each step before you move to the next.

1st. Single action, Two Handed, Strong Hand on Trigger. Go through all dry fire sequences. Your goal is having hammer fall without any sight movement. First, very slowly. Then, with time and mastery of keeping solid sight alignment, faster and faster. Faster and faster until satisfied that you’re snapping as fast as you can. One very important element: move the trigger finger back and forth at the SAME speed; slow back => slow forward; fast back => fast forward. The idea, of course, is to make the trigger finger move independently of the other 4 fingers and the hand itself.

2nd. Single action, Two Handed, Weak Hand on Trigger.
3rd. Single action, Strong Hand only. As above.
4th. Single action, Weak Hand only. As above.
5th. Double Action, Two Handed; Strong Hand on Trigger; then as above.
6th. Double Action, Two Handed; Weak Hand on Trigger; then as above.
7th Double Action, Strong Hand only. As above.
8th. Double Action, Weak Hand only. As above.

Full disclosure:

As you might imagine, I still occasionally do some training. When I do, I expect to be required to shoot a bit myself … and I really don’t want to give an inept performance. I have a S&W 629 with 6½ barrel; it’s a fairly heavy gun. I use that revolver to polish my technique … by using McGivern’s step 8 above.


Sure, there are other tools that will also help. Buying a nice air gun and shooting in your house, down your hallway is one. But straight dry fire is by far the best practice … and you cannot do it too much.

Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting


From Wikipedia
Edward McGivern (October 20, 1874 – December 12, 1957) was a famous exhibition shooter, shooting instructor and author of the book Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting. McGivern performed extensive research into the art of handgun shooting, particularly with the double action revolver. He is renowned as one of the best handgunners that ever lived. His Guinness world record for “The greatest rapid-fire feat” (set on August 20, 1932 at the Lead Clube Range, South Dakota) still stands. He emptied two revolvers in less than 2 seconds. He set another record on September 13, 1932, shooting five rounds from a double action revolver at 15 feet in 2/5 of a second, and covering the group with his hand. Other accomplishments include “firing two times from 15 feet five shots which could be covered by a silver half-dollar piece in 45/100 of a second”. His shooting was so rapid, timing machines would malfunction in attempting to record his shooting speed.

Mr. McGivern was capable of many amazing shooting feats, most of them well documented in his book. To name just a few:

  • He could break six simultaneously hand thrown clay pigeons (standard trap targets) in the air before they hit the ground.
  • He could hit a tin can hand thrown 20 ft. in the air five times before it hit the ground.
  • He could drive a tack or nail into wood by shooting it.
  • He could shoot the spots out of playing cards at 18 feet, or even split a playing card edge on.
  • He could shoot a dime on the fly.

All of these executed with either hand using a factory Smith & Wesson Model 10 double action revolver (purportedly his favorite handgun)

Notes on Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting
by Ed McGivern

Page 28 admonished reader to find a club and attend shooting events.

“When the average person wishes to learn to play any games or enter any line of sport is is generally the custom to look up someone prominent in that game, or in some manner leading in or promoting the particular line of sport in which he may be interested, and arrange for a course of instruction…

“With the person becoming interested in … shooting this course is not always followed, If is was it would be a much easier matter for the student to learn the proper method oh handling his gun, … thus avoiding the genera tendency to form bad habits at the start that usually prove quite difficult to correct later on.”

Page 33,
Section 4

Shooting Standard Regulation Stationary Targets

“When beginning your training the most effective plan is to try careful and very deliberate slow fire, at fairly large targets and at fairly short ranges, gradually working along and slightly increasing the range, until reaching the standard distances at which certain sized bull’s-eyes and targets are regularly used. It is best to stick to the standard targets and the standard distances that are very plainly stated in the regular target shooting rules…”

“[M]y education regarding aerial target shooting with revolvers was broadened and intensified in relation to group shooting and trigger squeezing, and the why, looming large and prominent, was made very clear to me…”

(emphasis in original)

Section 5
Training for Aerial Targets

Shooting marbles out of the air

“[P]rogress was really started towards becoming an aerial target shot with revolvers. How? Well, it can be quite easily explained in a very simple way: I had learned to “squeeze and control the trigger,” and also had learned to align the sights about even with the bottom of the marble, or any other target, letting it sort of rife on the top of the sights somewhat as military shooting (6 O’Clock hold) is done.

I had learned to use the sights quickly and accurately on moving targets and had learned to squeeze and control the trigger properly while also keeping the movements of the revolver under perfect control…”

(emphasis in original)

“The real secret of the whole matter was that I had developed enough skill to shoot close groups in relation to the point of aim, and in direct relation to the center of the small targets…”

McGivern advised the PowerPlinker to first develop enough group shooting ability on paper targets so that the aimed group is small enough such that an aerial target cannot slip though a “hole” in that group.

“The person who starts out to acquire sufficient skill to ‘put his bullets right on top of each other,’ has a false idea.”

At the distance from the muzzle the thrown target will be hit the shooter MUST have enough skill to group shots tight enough so there is no gap in the group large enough for the target to slip through.

“If a revolver shot, using the .38 Special cartridges, can shoot a group the size of a quarter, that is, keeping the bullets within the outline of the quarter, he can regularly hit three-eights inch marbles. When the revolver shooter can shoot a circular group where the width of the bullet on each side of the center will make the space between them slightly smaller than the object being shot at, then he will score all hits just so long as he doses not permit the group to open up enough to make this opening in the center of group large enough for the object that is used as the target to pass through without touching.”

Contrary to popular myth, McGivern did all of his aerial shooting as aimed fire and with smooth trigger control, as learned on paper Bullseye targets. He advised aiming at the base of the target while airborne and to move your position (and the sights) in relation to the target as it moved. Don’t wait for the target to “pause” at the top of the movement, instead, keep the sights moving.

“[T]his “watchful waiting” attitude-while the target hesitates-is a very practical illustration of the familiar saying, “He who hesitates is lost.” Instead of waiting and trying to make still (or stopped) targets out of rapidly moving ones, just follow the outline of the methods described a short time ago in the account of the marble shooting. Bend the body forward for downward movement. Bend the body back for upward movement. Swing or twist body sideways for side movement, and hold arms and hands and revolver in direct relative position to the eye and in line with, and as near as possible at, the correct elevation of target…”

“That triggers are not squeezed and controlled in much the same way as for other shooting, is also quite the wrong idea. THEY ARE! The apparent difference lying in the fact that it is done much more quickly and with a longer sweep when using double-action methods, yet very evenly, very carefully, and quite smoothly, as a result of practice and practically experience which must be developed, of course, by persistent effort and sensible study of the subject and the principles involved.”

McGivern is probably best known for his rapid fire feats, such as placing six shots into a thrown gallon can before it hit the ground, and firing five shots in 0.40 seconds into a playing card group at 15 feet.

Once again, when learning rapid fire on stationary and aerial targets McGivern returned to group shooting on Bullseye targets.

“The training methods for preparing to fire six bullets into a tin can were entirely changed at this particular time, and practice for many weeks was confined to shooting six shots at certain sized portions of paper targets just as rapidly as it was possible to operate the revolvers by double-action method.”

McGivern got on target by using a “Slight Lifting Motion of Entire Gun.” He pointed in from just below the target and fired just as the gun (and the sights) paused.

“It consists of leveling the gun just slightly below the point where you want the bullet to strike, then while maintaining the proper sight alignment, raise the entire gun up to the correct elevation for the bullet to connect with the desire spot or object which constitutes the target. It will be found that gravity will greatly assist in arresting the motion of the gun momentarily while the shot is being fired.”

For quick follow up shots McGivern used what he termed “The Forward Poke.” Today, shooters call it “Timing the Gun” “Reset Drill” and “Post Ignition Push.” At some point in speed the shooter has to haul the gun back on target in order to obtain split times quickly enough.

“[T]he gun is pushed slightly forward the target, which brings the front sight down and in proper relation to the rear sight.”

Ed McGivern Training Sequence

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Ed McGivern Training Sequence
by John Tate

I’ve used McGivern’s training scheme for several years. See below for details.

What really brought home the value of these techniques was the report from a friend of mine, a firearms instructor with NY State Police. The agency was transitioning from Glock 9mm to Glock .45s. There was one 30-year officer who just couldn’t get used to the increased recoil. He kept flinching. If he couldn’t qualify, he was going to be terminated.

My friend (then a SGT, later a MAJ), wrote me and asked for help. Oh sure, I gave all the conditioning drills I knew, but I also included the McGivern drills … of which I’d just learned.

Several weeks later, I got an e-mail stating that the officer had finally qual’ed. I will cherish the last line of that message as long as I live. My friend said, “You helped save the career of a 30-year officer.” The McGivern drills were new to my friend too. He said they were what made the difference.


* Ed McGivern’s trigger exercises will strengthen physical awareness and mental discipline to allow mental focus on marriage of sight picture and trigger movement as opposed to discharge. (Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting; ISBN 0-8329-0557-7. See pages 120 – 122, to a lesser degree pp 174-175) The McGivern trigger drills are dry firing drills performed in stages:

1st. Single action, Two Handed. Go through all dry fire sequences. Focus on having hammer fall without any sight movement. First, very slowly. Then, with time and mastery of keeping solid sight alignment, faster and faster. Faster and faster until satisfied that you’re snapping as fast as you can with no sight movement. One very important element: move the trigger finger back and forth at the SAME speed; slow back => slow forward; fast back => fast forward. The idea, of course, is to make the trigger finger move independently of the other 4 fingers and the hand itself.

2nd. Single action, Strong Hand Only. As above.

3rd. Single action, Weak Hand Only. As above.

4th. Double Action, Two Handed. As above.

5th. Double Action, Strong Hand Only. As above.

6th. Double Action, Weak Hand Only. As above.

Now – think about it – why does the weak hand train the strong hand? It doesn’t. It trains the brain! That is what we’re trying to train … the brain!

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