Renowned defensive tactics trainer Chuck Humes calls them the Flawless Four, but most of us know them as the four basic rules of firearms safety:
1. All guns are always loaded
2. Never point a gun at anything you are not willing to shoot, kill or destroy.
3. Keep your finger outside of the trigger guard until you are on target and prepared to shoot.
4. Always know your backstop and what lies beyond.
There may be additional rules at individual facilities or agencies, but these four rules are universally applied, and if followed, involuntary firearm discharges will be avoided.
Most officers understand critical incidents are seldom black and white, and rapidly change, which calls for tactics and techniques that can also rapidly change. Otherwise, officers are at the mercy of armed suspects who don t follow the rules.
The most hazardous situation an officer can face is searching for and confronting an armed suspect. Having spent almost 30 years in law enforcement, including 12 years on SWAT, 11 years on patrol and five years in narcotics, I ve been in this situation a time or two, and I can tell you obeying the Flawless Four when you think you might get shot can prove difficult.
During high-stress events, officers focus on the potential threat and can unknowingly place their finger on the trigger. If they feel their lives are in danger, they will feel that they must be ready to act. In some cases, contact with the trigger is a security blanket, reassuring officers that it is still there if they need it. I ve seen the same thing at traffic stops when officers place their hand on their gun as they approach a car in case the stop goes bad. This isn t good or bad, it s just reality.
So, telling officers to keep their finger off the trigger isn t enough. They must learn to place their finger in a particular position so they know where it is by feel. Placing the finger along the side of the frame isn t enough if an officer involuntary or convulsively grips the gun, which could happen if the officer trips or gets startled.
Take a moment and look at your hand. Open and close it, and think about how it functions it s truly an amazing mechanism. Note how the fingers oppose the thumb and create a grip. Spread the fingers, and notice the path they travel as they close; the fingers fall into a straight line before they fold on the palm so the grip will be stronger. It s possible to close the fingers and maintain a gap between them, but this isn t a natural grip. Try to convulsively close your hand, and you ll see it s almost impossible to maintain any gap between the fingers.
If you convulsively grip (due to any number of factors) while a gun is in your hand, even if the trigger finger is placed along the frame, the hand will close, and the trigger finger will slide off the frame into alignment with the palm and may close on the trigger, discharging the gun it s a physiological fact!
In addition, an officer s finger might be moving in and out of the trigger guard as stress builds, which is a real problem if the officer feels their life is threatened. After all, as hard as instructors try to train it out, if an officer thinks danger is near, the muzzle will lead to the threat count on it.
What I ve tried to instill in those I ve trained for more than a decade is to position the finger on a particular spot on the frame above the trigger in a bent position. If the fingertip isn t in front of the trigger during a convulsive movement, the finger is less likely to slingshot onto the trigger face, but hopefully will fold past it. The tip of the finger is one of the most sensitive places on the body, and using this to keep track of trigger finger placement has merit.
Shortly after I instituted this technique change in my former agency, a member of the narcotics unit contacted me. He told me he was involved in an entry/raid situation and had to run across a wet lawn with his Glock pistol in his hand. His trigger finger was bent and positioned on the takedown latch located on the side of the frame. He slipped on the wet grass and fell flat on his back, which knocked the wind out of him.
Once he caught his breath and started to get up, he noticed his trigger finger was bent back against the frame. He believed if he had placed his finger straight along the side of the gun, it would have slipped on to the trigger and discharged.
There are several locations officers can place their trigger finger on modern frames. As previously stated, the Glock has a serrated takedown lever, while other pistols have a slide-stop lever with a rounded pin on the right side of the frame. There have been a few experts who deride this practice, stating it would be possible to push the pin out and disable the pistol. Although possible if all things line up just right, I feel it s worth the slight risk. I m not saying to apply extreme inward pressure, but simply rest the tip of your finger against the post.
When using guns flat on the side with no obvious protrusions, I ve found a small round tab of skateboard tape offers a nice felt index.
The Bottom Line
Is this the answer to the trigger-finger placement conundrum? No, but it s food for thought, and at least it addresses the problem. Ignoring something like this will just lead to problems in the future, and you might save some young officer and his family a great deal of grief. Stay safe, stay alert and stay focused on the task at hand.
Trigger Contact During Stress Study
Training should focus on keeping officers from inadvertently discharging their firearm during high-stress situations, which is easier said than done. From 1992 1995, I charted how often an officer placed their finger on the trigger of a training gun while taking part in FATS video training.
In FATS, an officer stands 10 or 12 feet away from a full-size screen and watches a life-size video scenario unfold in front of them. The training gun fires a laser beam that interacts with the program and tells the instructor where the suspect was hit and whether or not shots hit or missed.
The first year, many officers balked at the idea that their finger found the trigger, so I videotaped the sessions throughout the following years and replayed the tape so they could see for themselves. Keep in mind, these were officers with varying skill levels. Some officers only fired their gun when required, and others were gun-school groupies, but all were surprised by what happened.
All I did was place a legal pad next to the control console and watch the officer s hand as they progressed through various high-risk scenarios and their stress increased. If their finger made contact with the trigger, I placed a slash on the paper, even if it was just a minor tap or brush.
I chose to note any trigger contact, and I thought it would be educational for my students. I didn t publish the results, but what I found was revealed in an article written by former Smith & Wesson Academy Director and current New Braintree (Mass.) Police Department Chief Bert DuVerney in the Smith & Wesson Academy newsletter. However, I was promoted to lieutenant in 1996 and left the training. I packed the legal pad away in a box. Over the years, I was asked about the study from time to time but couldn t find the pad to quote the actual numbers.
On a recent Sunday afternoon, while cleaning some junk out of my Dad s attic, I found a box filled with training supplies, coffee mugs, a desk nameplate, pens, pencils and the coffee-stained legal pad with all of the slashes. So, here are the numbers:
Year Officers going through FATS # that placed a finger on the trigger
1992 678 632
1993 657 592
1994 642 579
1995 681 612