Holding the Trigger Back While Loading an M1911 Pistol

By Syd

At a recent IDPA match, I saw a disqualification which illustrated a much debated issue about trigger jobs on M1911 pistols: holding the trigger back while loading an M1911 pistol.

The stage involved retreating to cover and shooting from the side of a barrel. A shooter using a customized M1911 got a stovepipe on his first shot from behind cover. He swept the jammed case with his hand, as we are taught to do, but the sweep somehow turned the stovepipe into a double feed. He stripped the magazine out of the gun and racked the slide to clear the malfunction. Then he inserted a fresh magazine and racked the slide while holding the trigger back. The gun went off, launching a bullet just inches from his knee into the dirt. Since the gun was unsupported, this unintended discharge resulted in another jam. Again the shooter racked the slide with his finger on the trigger and again the gun went off. The Safety Officer stopped the shooter and informed him that he had been disqualified. The disqualification is the severest penalty in IDPA. The shooter was both embarrassed and shaken. He explained to the SO that a trigger job had been done on the gun and his gunsmith had advised him to do the procedure which had resulted in the negligent discharges: to hold the trigger back while racking the slide.

For years, this procedure has been advised by gunsmiths for pistols which have had custom trigger jobs, especially when the trigger is lightened for bullseye-type competition. The purpose of this technique is to prevent the sear engagement surfaces from bouncing against each other when the slide slams into battery. The thinking is that the sear bounce damages the polished engagement surfaces. Many of the National Match and Series 70 Gold Cups actually have a small spring on the sear to prevent this bouncing action. From a technical point of view, this advice is accurate. (If you are one of those folks who like to snap your empty pistol closed by hitting the slide release to drop the slide, you should hold the trigger back. See “Dropping the Slide on an Empty Chamber“) On a properly functioning M1911, you can hold the trigger back and rack the slide and the hammer will not fall. It will remain cocked until you allow the trigger to reset and pull the trigger again. (This is, by the way, one of the basic safety tests to perform on a used M1911 – with an empty gun, depress the trigger and rack the slide. The hammer should remain cocked. If it doesn’t, the gun is dangerous and needs the attention of a competent gunsmith).

So, if the procedure works, why did this shooter have this scary problem? There are two or perhaps three possibilities. The first and most likely is that, in his haste and awkward position, he was allowing the trigger to reset. If his timing was just a bit off, he may have actually racked the slide just a nanosecond prior to depressing the trigger, or, the rearward action of racking the slide may have produced just enough movement to allow the trigger to reset. Another possibility is that the disconnector was worn to the extent that it no longer functioned, allowing the trigger to release the hammer with the slide out of battery (which is a very dangerous situation). And the last and least likely possibility is that the trigger job was done wrong and that the sear was slipping past the engagement hooks on the hammer.

I didn’t get a chance to examine the fellow’s gun. He left, obviously upset, so I can only speculate on the source of the problem. Regardless of the ultimate reason for the negligent discharges, this case illustrates something very important about doing custom work on an M1911 pistol. It is of critical importance that one clearly identifies the mission of the pistol prior to the custom work, and then stick to those decisions once the work is done. Communicate that mission description to your gunsmith so that he can set up the gun properly. Generally speaking, a tack driving target gun with a 2 lb. trigger is not an appropriate setup for an action shooting sport like IDPA, nor is it advisable for carry and duty use. Triggers in the 4-5 lb. range are really better and safer for action shooting and carry. I would even go so far as to say that just a bit of take-up (the distance the trigger moves before it breaks the shot) is a good thing – not a lot, but maybe just a sixteenth to an eighth of an inch for an added bit of insurance, especially for a duty gun. I know that there are people who will disagree on this point, but that’s my opinion.

A second realization is that the procedure of holding the trigger back while loading the gun is not a safe method for action sports such as IDPA in which you are rushing against the clock, shooting from weird positions and shooting from the weak hand. While holding the trigger back may be acceptable for static range shooting where time is not important and the shooter is standing still, it creates safety problems in the dynamic context of an action shooting match. In the realm of pure technical ideas, it should work, but it becomes hazardous in the real world of mortal human beings who can make mistakes under pressure.

And last, I would suggest that those contemplating custom work on their M1911 pistols might be well advised to take a conservative approach toward trigger jobs. Do you really want a gun that will go off if you so much as breathe on it? Isn’t it better to spend some time at the range developing good trigger control rather than trying to get a gunsmith to compensate for the lack of it, and, in the process, creating a gun that is either dangerous or of extremely limited use? If the answer turns out to be “Yes, I want a target gun with a very light trigger,” then perhaps you really may need two pistols – one for the target work and another for action sports and carry.

Comments, suggestions, contributions? Let me know