In any given firearm the traditional component parts of lock, stock and barrel work together to enable the user to aim and deliver an accurate shot.
What constitutes an accurate shot varies considerably. On the range it might be a benchrest shooter aiming to slip a projectile through the hole made by a previous shot. In the field it may be a hunter aiming to head-shoot a rabbit or drive a hunting bullet into the chest cavity of some game animal he needs for meat or wants as a trophy.
Obviously, there are a whole range of variations in between but whatever their personal needs may be, all experienced shooters and hunters agree that a good trigger is an essential requirement for accurate shooting.
In his book The Hunting Rifle (Winchester Press, 1970) Jack O’Connor wrote that ‘… the purpose of the trigger is to touch off (a shot) … with as little disturbance of the aim as possible.’
That’s always been easier said than done and as far back as the muzzleloading days gun craftsmen worked on ways of making the trigger pull lighter and more predictable. One of the solutions they came up with was the set trigger ‑ a mechanism that allowed a firearm to be discharged with a minimum amount of shooter movement and/or sight disturbance. In some cases, only a touch was required and from such triggers the term ‘hair trigger’ was derived.
While researching this article I read somewhere that many shooters regard a good set trigger as a better aid to accuracy than a $1000 scope and my experience with the devices would seem to confirm that.
There are numerous variations of the set trigger mechanism, all of them designed to greatly reduce the amount of pressure required to fire the rifle. All are adjustable to a greater or lesser degree with better quality triggers capable of reducing the final pull to mere ounces. For target shooters looking for smaller groups and higher scores that’s obviously a serious benefit. They are also quite useful in some hunting situations and as a dedicated hunter that’s where my interest in the devices lies.
Though there are variations of the theme, most set triggers work in a similar way. When the trigger is set it locks a small internal hammer or striker under spring pressure where it’s held by the set trigger sear. When the set trigger is activated the hammer or striker is released, rising up to deliver a sharp blow that disengages the action sear and so discharges the firearm ‑ the energy and momentum of the hammer replacing the trigger pressure that would otherwise have to be applied by the shooter.
Set triggers come in two standard designs – single set and double set. A single set trigger looks similar to a standard trigger except for the small screw behind or in the base of the trigger that allows the weight of pull to be adjusted. For day to day duties it can be used as a standard trigger but should the need arise it can be set by pushing the back or blade of the trigger forward to set the mechanism. A carefully aimed shot can then be taken with the weight of the trigger pull greatly reduced and a more precise shot is generally the expected outcome.
A rifle fitted with a double set trigger has two triggers inside the triggerguard, often with an obvious screw in between them. For general shooting duties the front trigger is used as it is on any other rifle. Should the use of a set trigger be necessary, the back trigger is pulled to set the mechanism, then the front trigger stroked to fire the rifle.
The screw in between the triggers is used to adjust the amount of pressure required to let off the set trigger. At all times great care must be taken to ensure that the set of the trigger hasn’t been adjusted to the point where it’s dangerously light and therefore susceptible to an accidental discharge should the rifle be knocked or bumped too hard.
For obvious reasons a set trigger should only be engaged immediately before a shot is to be taken. Carrying a loaded and cocked rifle with a set trigger engaged is an accident looking for a place to happen. In the event that a trigger is set and no shot taken, steps need to be taken to make the firearm safe again. The safety catch should be immediately applied, the action opened and unloaded and the rifle pointed in a safe direction before the trigger is dropped to eliminate any chance of an accidental discharge.
For a long time set triggers were only found on expensive target or hunting rifles, especially those of European make. Hunters working from high seats and stands in forests had long been aware of the advantages of set triggers for taking precise aimed shots at game in open areas of their hunting blocks.
During the 1960s and 70s when fox shooting was a lucrative part-time money maker for shooters all over Australia, the Brno Fox rifles in .22 Hornet and .222 Remington were widely used, especially for spotlighting not just foxes but also kangaroos. Their use promulgated a widespread acceptance of double set triggers on a scale not seen before and as dated as some of those rifles may now be, those fitted with double set triggers still command a premium price in the used gun market.
As I write there are four rifles in my gun vault fitted with set triggers. Two are percussion muzzleloaders - one an unfired Lyman Great Plains rifle, the other an Italian-made rifle of similar design, both in .54 calibre with slow twist rifling designed to shoot round balls.
Many years ago, I fitted a 2-7x33 Leupold shotgun/muzzleloader sight to the Italian job and as quite a few kids who went through the old Junior Shooters program on Tilterweira Station will tell you, it works just fine on the range and in the bush. On Tilterweira it was used exclusively on goats, with most of the animals ambushed on tanks where the ranges were rarely more than 50 or 60m. There was always time to take a cool and deliberate aim as the animals watered around the edges - a perfect scenario for the use of a set trigger.
The third set trigger rifle I own is a Pedersoli reproduction of the 1885 Winchester High Wall, chambered in .45-70. Designed primarily as a range and target rifle – it’s way too heavy to be lugging around the hills – this rifle is appropriately fitted with a single set trigger as well as Pedersoli aperture sights to help my ageing eyes find the target.
I’ve never hunted with this rifle but I have done quite a bit of work with it on the range and it never fails to impress. For offhand work especially, the set trigger is a real boon. It allows me to fire the rifle with a minimum of fuss as soon as the sights are aligned with the target and while I doubt it will ever see competition work in my hands, it does shoot remarkably well out to 100m using factory loads. That it’s capable of accurate shooting at much greater ranges is a given but for me it’s more of a fun gun than anything else and I really enjoy the occasional afternoons I have shooting it.
The fourth and final set trigger rifle I own is Baby, a No.1 Ruger Light Sporting rifle in 7x57 Mauser that has been my go-to hunting rifle for more years than I can remember. Not long after I bought the Ruger, I relaced the factory trigger with an aftermarket Kepplinger single set trigger – a move I’ve never had cause to regret.
The Ruger has since been used to take two grand slams of Australian deer as well as many years’ worth of meat animals. It has also been used to take pigs, goats, feral sheep, wild dogs, foxes and even feral cats and rabbits.
For some of those animals it has admittedly been too much gun but there’s never been any doubts about the rifle’s capacity to take whatever I need.
As a single shot hunter, I know the first shot is always the best one and provided I’ve exercised due patience the set trigger has never let me down – especially when the shot is made over a pack or from some other type of field rest, as it usually is.
For all of that, set triggers are not for everyone. There are many hunters out there who will never need or want one fitted to their favourite rifle because most of the time it simply isn’t required. Who needs a set rigger when you’re working your way through a mob of pigs or goats in the lignum with a lever-action rifle?
Their forte is in the hands of hunters who prefer a slower, more deliberate pace of hunting – deer stalkers and such, or those who snipe from a fixed position at sometimes extended ranges. These are the hunters who really reap the benefits of a set trigger mechanism.
Taking a shot with a set trigger is always easier than fighting with a conventional version. All that’s required is a deliberate but gentle stroke and your shot is gone.
The corollary to that is more precise and consequentially more effective shot placement that translates into a higher rate of instantaneous, one shot kills – something that every hunter has a moral obligation to deliver every time a hunting shot is fired.
In closing it’s worthwhile noting that trigger technology improved markedly in 2002 when Savage introduced their AccuTrigger. This trigger has proven to be a game changer in more ways than one – so much so that the accuracy, reliability and safety of modern triggers has never been better.
For what it’s worth, I think it’s entirely possible that further development of the basic AccuTrigger design may well make some applications of traditional set triggers obsolete at some time in the future.
Until then, they will remain as an enduring link in the development of trigger technology that has stood the test of time from the muzzleloading days through to the present. That’s going to be a hard act for any other trigger system to follow.