The Best AR-15 Triggers on the Market
September 06, 2013
It was one of those hot summer days in Maine where you fought the humidity more than the heat itself. Lying wrapped in two sweatshirts and a heavy shooting jacket, I appeared to be a heat casualty in the making. Sweat was pouring off me, but I didn't care. I had made it across the course without dropping too many points.
Now I was on my belly and everything was right with the world. Looking through my spotting scope, I watched as 600 yards away an "X" came up. Mechanically I released the bolt on an 80-grain handload and rolled back into the gun. Checking the wind one last time I paused and took up the first stage on the trigger. Then I carefully broke the shot. There are times you just know a shot is good, and this was one of those times.
I had lost all feeling in my left hand from sling tension two or three rounds ago, but I didn't care. I was inside the 10-ring and the wind was steady. It was just me, my rifle and a shimmering black dot oh so far away.
Dropping another cartridge into the chamber. I watched my target come back up. It was a 10, and I was still on a roll. Getting back into position, I checked my target frame number, relaxed and settled into position. The wind hadn't changed, my breathing was as I wanted it and my eyes felt good. My position was solid. You could have hung a 5-gallon bucket of water off my muzzle and I wouldn't have cared.
Exhaling, I began to refine my hold as I placed my finger on the trigger. Bang! I don't doubt there was a look of surprise on my face as my target dropped into the pits. Just like that, my match had come to an end. My target stayed down for a long time as they searched for the hole. When it finally came back up, it showed a hit in the 5-ring at 12 o'clock.
What had happened? The very expensive adjustable two-stage match trigger I was using had unexpectedly come out of adjustment. When it did, it lost its first stage. So when I had attempted to take up the first stage slack, it had simply fired. Laying in the hot sun my initial reaction was to stand up and fling the rifle, by its bloop tube, out into the woods. I didn't though, and I didn't win the match either. That day Murphy laughed in my face as I packed my gear up and hauled it off the 600-yard line.
Picking the right trigger for your AR-15 can be a bit of a challenge these days, thanks to the vastness of the offerings. You can have almost any style of trigger you can think of. Single-stage, two-stage, National Match, tactical, 3-Gun, adjustable, non-adjustable, straight or curved bow, cassette or combat you can order it online and have it shipped to your door. Prices range from reasonable to quite expensive. The big question isn't how much you have to spend, but rather what trigger is best for your individual needs.
Life hasn't always been this good though. You don't have to flip the pages of time back very far to return to the days of old: back to the Dark Ages, when a rifle wearing a stock hewn from a tree still ruled the course. These were the days before the Age of the Black Rifle and its explosion of aftermarket parts.
Back then, there wasn't a lot you could do if you didn't like the way your AR-15 trigger felt. There were no aftermarket triggers to order. In the early years, if you wanted a better trigger you had to have a gunsmith tweak your stock parts.
So how did we get from those seemingly prehistoric times to our current age of abundance? Good question. To gain insight I spoke with John Miller, who is a very well-respected retired US Army Ordnance officer. Among other things, Miller served as XO of the National Guard Marksmanship Training Unit (NGMTU) Small Arms Readiness Training Team (SART). I also spoke with Gus Norcross who is a retired NGMTU armorer. Gus set a national record at the Wilson Matches with an M16A1 rifle and currently runs Angus Arms in Wiscasset, Maine.
The basic AR-15 trigger mechanism has proven to be a robust and reliable design. It has served well for decades. Stoner simplified the original design and filed for a patent covering it on December 22, 1959. He referred to it as an "Automatic trigger mechanism with three sears and a rotatable control member." On July 24, 1962, he received patent 3,045,555 for it. Although a good design, it is not perfect.
Here is what John Miller had to say about the original design, "In our experience, we had few troubles with the AR-15 trigger, unless someone tried to 'stone' the notches for improvement. The trigger nose and hammer notch are case hardened with a very thin layer of hardened material. If the case is stoned through, wear will occur at a rapid rate, giving failure to hold the hammer.
"Another concern was the exchange of the disconnector. If this was not within specs, the rifle would fire when the trigger was pulled and again when the trigger was released. This was due to tolerance buildup and the hook on the lower back of the hammer missing the claw on the disconnector before the nose of the trigger could engage the primary hammer notch. This was usually good for a change of undies for the shooter.
"The opposite could happen too, where the hammer did not release from the claw and would not fire at all. Both conditions were easily fixed, but too common when parts were exchanged (especially between makers). We always tested all the rifles for this at all matches and inspections."
What about early attempts at improving standard AR-15 triggers? Here is what Gus Norcross had to say, "Early AR developments (triggers, barrels, etc.) in the late 80s and early 90s seemed to be driven by (NRA) High Power shooters. When Colt introduced the HBAR (late '80s) with heavy barrel and 1:7 twist, I noticed random articles appearing in gun publications about the possibilities of using the AR in competition and the advent of heavy match bullets sealed the deal.
"There were very few aftermarket competition parts available in this early period and match triggers, float tubes, etc. had to be fabricated. We had to work with what we had and the stock triggers were reworked to reduce creep and lighten the pull. One modification involved drilling out the pistol grip screw and tapping it for a long set screw that contacted the rear of the trigger. Tightening the screw pushed the rear of the trigger up and the engagement surface down reducing engagement (creep). This modification did not work on Colts with the sear block."
"Another method of adjusting engagement was to solder a piece of key stock to the left rear of the trigger and drill and tap it for a small set screw that contacted the floor of the receiver.
"Tightening the screw would reduce engagement. As John Miller said, polishing of the engagement surfaces was ill advised due to the possibility of breaking through the hard surface. The attached picture shows (left to right) a stock trigger, a stock trigger modified with a set screw as I just described and the current JP Enterprises trigger with set screws for adjusting engagement and overtravel. I recommend the JP as the best bang for the buck in match triggers (Brownell's 452-015-000).
"Keep in mind that sometimes the disconnector must also be adjusted when fooling with engagement angles so gunsmith fit for parts like these is strongly advised. Another thing to watch when reducing creep is the size of the hammer and sear pin holes in receivers. Supposed to be .154" on non-Colt guns but I've seen them bigger. Try this test: holding an assembled lower with your thumb restraining the hammer, smear a drop of oil across the end of each pin and work the trigger back and forth a little bit. If you see the ends of the pins moving you have loose pins.
"Oversized pins are available from JP Enterprises (Brownell's 452-015-028), Rock River and Colt. I've noticed Colt lowers seem to be the worst for loose pins, but some I've repaired have been quite old with lots of miles on them so they would be more likely worn than current offerings. I don't often have to repair factory AR triggers, but I'd say disconnector adjustment is the most common problem. The shooter finds his rifle doubles occasionally. Easy to fix with a stone.
"I used a Jewell trigger in my NRA match rifle to make Master in 2000. Never had an issue with that one or others I owned. I think some people adjust them too close to the edge and after a bit of wear they need to be re-adjusted again. The Jewell was the first commonly available real match grade trigger I remember. A real benchmark in the AR aftermarket, I think."
John Miller also made an interesting comment regarding two-stage match trigger development. "While no one has done a story on them, it was the U.S. Air Force Marksmanship Training Unit shop at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio that came up with the first two-stage AR triggers. They did this when they were attempting to make the M16 into their Service Rifle for Camp Perry. They are very proud of their pioneering work, as they should be. It's too bad they don't get the credit they deserve."
The adoption of the M16A2 with its three-round burst mechanism certainly didn't improve the trigger pull compared to the Vietnam-era M16A1. When I competed with an M16A2 at the U.S. Army's Small Arms Championship at Fort Benning, I mentally kept track of my rifle's trigger during the slow-fire stages. Why? The burst mechanism means the M16A2 typically has two consecutive pulls which are similar and one that is a bit worse. Not something you would notice making rapid shots inside 200 yards, but at 500 yards it comes into play.
So I asked them both their thoughts on this design. Miller was both brief and blunt, "I need not delve into the three-round burst crap, other than to say it was a headache with no round count memory. The worst aspect of this design, if you let off the trigger after two shots rather than three, the next pull would give one shot as the ratchet caught up."
Norcross was also brief concerning the A2 trigger design, "No personal experience with the A2 trigger. Was never issued one. I believe the burst trigger tends to vary in pull weight as the ratcheting piece moves. I would guess the M16A1 trigger is better from a shooter's perspective."
While it is true that NRA High Power is the genesis for most of the advancements made in ammunition and accessories for the AR-15, it is but one sport. Today 3-Gun competitors are also greatly influencing the development of new parts and accessories for this design. When it comes to triggers, many 3-Gun competitors are looking for something different than a traditional National Match style trigger.
Speed is important in 3-Gun, so the way the trigger resets comes into play. I with Jim Tarr, who is not only a USPSA Grand Master but also shoots on Ballista Tactical's 3-Gun Team. I asked him what he looks for in an AR trigger for 3-Gun competition. Here is what he had to say:
"What do I want in an AR trigger for 3-Gun competition? Three things: It needs to be a single-stage trigger, with a pull weight between 3-3.5 pounds, and be reliable. Why those requirements? 3-Gun competition involves engaging targets with a rifle from muzzle distance out to 300 yardsâ€”and sometimes beyond. So why a single-stage, if the shooter might have to make head shots at extreme distance?
Simple: 3-Gun competition involves a lot of shooting. Multiple rounds on each target, and a lot of targets. A good two-stage trigger would probably work fine for distance shots, but it will slow the shooter down when it's time to pour on the speed. At that point the gun needs a trigger as light and quick to reset as possible.
So why not a 2.0- or even 2.5-lb trigger? Simple: 3-Gun competitors are not like High Power competitors, immobile and strapped into their rifles. They are running and gunning, charging into one awkward shooting position or another, jamming their rifle against whatever prop or support might be available, or just flopping down in the dirt.
If I see a competitor with a long gun that doesn't have paint from a prop (window, doorway, bench) rubbed off on the barrel or handguard, I know it must be a new gun. Any triggers lighter than 3 pounds tend to be a little too light for such rough handling. Anything heavier than 3.5 pounds and it can be a real struggle to make those tight shots at distance, especially when you know there's a timer running. Most "3-Gun" AR triggers are single-stage designs with pull weights between 3-4 pounds exactly because of this.
"My last requirement, reliability, seems to be a no-brainer. What I mean by reliability is that I don't want my trigger, halfway through a match, to decide to stop working, or to turn my semi-auto rifle into a full auto weaponâ€”over the years I've had both happen to me. Generally, simple = reliable."
Having received some useful information from all three of them, I next asked the hard question. Which aftermarket trigger did they prefer?
John Miller simply replied, "Bill Geissele's are the best."
Gus Norcross was a bit more talkative, "As far as trigger preferences I'd say my number one choice for combat guns is the ALG Combat Trigger from ALG Defense. I have always recommended stock triggers for combat guns until this one came out. It is essentially a really well made stock trigger impregnated with some sort of lube. Very nice. A best buy for defensive carbines.
"For an inexpensive varmint rifle, I'd go with the JP trigger I mentioned above. It's a little over $100 and worth every penny. For NRA Highpower service rifles and match rifles I'd go with Geissele's of the appropriate flavor. The Geissele NM trigger for match rifles is very nice. There are other triggers out there (also) worth considering. I use a Timney for my AR-10 and it is great."
Jim Tarr had this to say, "While there are a number of match triggers on the market that provide crisp and awesome trigger pulls, all aftermarket triggers are not created equal.
"If your aftermarket match trigger has a number of set screws, or three times the number of parts that the GI system does, you're just asking for trouble. That's one reason why my 3-Gun trigger of choice is the Geissele Super 3-Gun trigger. While there are triggers out there with slightly crisper and/or lighter pulls, the Geissele design does not have any more parts than the original GI design. With the Super 3-Gun I get both an excellent 3.5-lb single stage trigger, and peace of mind."
I found it interesting that all three mentioned Bill Geissele's triggers. Not surprising, but interesting. In the world of AR triggers Bill Geissele is a rock star, albeit a humble one. So, being a fan of his work myself, I contacted Bill about an interview. A couple hours later, I was leaning back with my trusty notebook scribbling while Bill was kind enough to share his thoughts with me. Here, in his own words, is how he got started:
"I started as an engineer in the mining industry, and then moved into the railroad industry. I was an engineering manager who shot High Power on the side. In 2003 I was competing in High Power and I struggled to find a really good trigger. It really frustrated me, so I decided to make my own. So I went out and bought a CAD program, designed and manufactured an AR Match trigger. I introduced my National Match High Speed trigger in the summer of 2004.
"Then at the 2004 National Matches at Camp Perry I just happened to be squadded with an AMU (Army Marksmanship Unit) shooter. I showed it to him and he liked it enough to suggest I show it to Gene Clark (a highly respected/accomplished AMU gunsmith) at the AMU truck. So I did and Gene thought it was pretty nice. He asked what I was using for a hammer spring and I told him a standard M16A1 spring. He thought the use of full power springs was important and stated that when you back down on hammer torque, groups open up.
"They are round, but larger. Then Gene said, "Hey commander, come over," to Col. David Liwanag, who at the time was the CO of the AMU. Liwanag was also impressed.
"Some time went by and then in January 2005 I received an order for six triggers from the AMU. I didn't know it at the time but they were actually proof of concept triggers for the SASS (Semi-Automatic Sniper System) project. Now keep in mind that at this time I was still working full-time in the railroad industry.
I worked all day and then grabbed a nap and then worked til 1 a.m. making triggers. I worked every Saturday and Sunday without taking a day off. I was building triggers in my small 12x14 foot basement.
Then in 2006, the phone rang and it was a call from a unit at Fort Bragg. "Do you do select-fire triggers? Can you make a combat trigger?" they asked. An existing trigger design in service with a unit had failed, leading to a runaway gun. Unimpressed, they wanted a new trigger design.
"I said yes and a short time later some folks showed up with Pelican cases. They all crowded into my small basement and asked if I could do this or that. I said yes. Then they opened a case and asked if I could do a trigger for an FNH SCAR.
"In the summer of 2006, my SSF was adopted by a customer in U.S. Special Operations for use in the HK 416. I've had good success because I've had access to good people who know a lot. They would say, "Bill, this is what the trigger has to be, and be like. It has to be able to handle dirt ingress and worn guns. They told me what they needed, and then I simply built that. The adoption of the SSF led to the introduction of the SSA version in 2007. I invested $1 million into the SSA.
"I continued working full-time in the railroad industry until 2008. For all those years, I was building triggers on the side. In 2008, though, I began selling enough triggers to leave my day job and do triggers full-time. But I was still working out of my basement. I didn't move into a dedicated shop until 2009. Today we have 28 employees and an entire engineering/design department.
"Our engineers/designers use Autodesk Inventor which is a 3D mechanical solid modeling software for creating 3D digital prototypes used in the design, visualization and simulation of products. We do almost everything in-house. We have very few things we sub out, basically foundry work and vacuum heat treating. Machining, ADM and assembly are all done here. This allows us to control our processes.
"We are a vertically integrated company, so when I get a request I can walk over to our engineering department. In a very short amount of time we can have something developed to meet a request. Our goal is to provide the American warfighter with overmatch capability.
"Our combat triggers are designed to be controlled under stress. They are non-adjustable and easily installed with two pins. They offer safety, forgiveness, reliability and performance in one package. A single-stage trigger cannot give you all four of these. We have one trigger we have tested successfully to 250,000 dry-fires, and a number which have gone to 150,000 cycles. Our trigger is safety certified by Naval Surface Warfare Center, Crane Division. This was a nine month process we are very proud of.
"When it comes to safety, all our triggers have a secondary safety sear. So even if the primary sear failed, the secondary sear would take over and you would still have a rudimentary single-stage. It would still function and still go bang. It is a very safe design appealing to military organizations. Currently our focus is on the U.S. military and our future goal is for broader adoption of our triggers into larger departments."
After speaking with Bill Geissele, it was time to get to work. So next I took a look at a few different trigger designs currently on the market. Since there is no way for me to cover everything available I selected triggers from six different manufacturers. Some of these I was very familiar with and others were entirely new to me. Manufacturers consisted of Alexander Arms, American Trigger Corp., CMC Trigger, Geissele, JARD Inc. and POF USA. These different designs vary quite a bit and show how diverse the market currently is. Since these models are not all geared toward the same segment of shooters it's impossible to compare them head to head. Even then it would be subjective. However I can compare them regarding build quality and ease of installation. So I did this and added my own thoughts.
A stock trigger (l.), a stock trigger modified with a set screw as described by Gus Norcross and a JP Enterprises trigger with adjusting set screws.
Alexander Arms offers a single-stage trigger made from very high quality materials. It features a skeletonized hammer and full weight Mil Spec springs.
Fortier has used the Alexander Arms Tactical Trigger for several years now with zero issues. It provides a very crisp and consistent 4-pound pull.