Handgun Trigger-Pull Assessments for Recruits

The trigger-pull assessment can be an important teaching tool particularly in getting prepared for firearms training, helping new recruits improve their grip strength prior to them entering the program, planning for remedial training, and setting goals for the curriculum. You can discern many things by watching how an individual picks up and handles a weapon for the first time for example.

Students run through the trigger-pull assessment. Photo: Bruce Cameron.Students run through the trigger-pull assessment. Photo: Bruce Cameron.Recruitment plays a crucial part in the success or failure of an organization. Hiring the right people can make all of the difference in the world, at least where behavior is concerned. This rings true in law enforcement, as well as business. Police administrators and trainers need to know what kind of people they will be bringing on board.

It's essential that they learn as much they can about the individual candidate before the hiring and training process begins. The more information they have, the better. Their decisions will indeed affect the future and safety of the department and the outcomes of people's lives.

Currently, there are a number of performance tests and other evaluations that law enforcement and security departments can use to ascertain, diagnose, and measure certain skill levels. Here are a few examples and all have their place:

  • Physical fitness (endurance, agility, obstacle course, and dash)
  • Weapon proficiency (manipulation and marksmanship)
  • Specific written tests (on appropriate subjects or standardized tests)
  • Written assignments (writing an essay or short answer questions)
  • Reading comprehension examinations (reading diagnostics)
  • Psychological screenings and or rersonality tests
  • Polygraph tests
  • Interviews (oral communications)
  • Job aptitude tests
  • Cognitive, observation or memory tests
  • Scenarios or role-playing, talking in front of an audience

The results of these tests help employers make sound decisions about new personnel, when combined with information from a background investigation, a valid job-task analysis, a set of standards and job-specific prerequisites.

The ability to test and screen law enforcement recruits is the first step toward creating an effective, productive, and professional operation. If not, the alternatives and consequences may stay with you for a long time.

Handgun Trigger-Pull Assessment: A Screening Technique

The handgun trigger-pull assessment is a technique that can be used to supplement the pre-testing process for new recruits. Of course, it's essential that you discuss this with your personnel, legal or human resource department, so it meets your hiring and testing criteria. From a reliability and validity perspective, it's recommended that you try it out first. Avoid using it as a qualifier or disqualifier until you deem it appropriate.

There are demonstrable tools available that can be used to assess the future training "needs" of new personnel while determining people's strengths and weaknesses at the same time. Understanding initial proficiency levels will give trainers the opportunity to plan ahead and make good choices about who you hire and how you train.

You will want to discover as much as you can about the individual candidate in a relatively short period of time as you can. You'll need to provide a reliable test under fair conditions so everyone has an opportunity to succeed.

The trigger-pull assessment can be an important teaching tool particularly in getting prepared for firearms training, helping new recruits improve their grip strength prior to them entering the program, planning for remedial training, and setting goals for the curriculum. You can discern many things by watching how an individual picks up and handles a weapon for the first time for example. It may allow you to correct unsafe behavior on the spot. It may provide you time to demonstrate certain techniques, or it may give you a good starting point in determining their firearm capabilities.

On the day of pre-testing, the trigger-pull assessment can be used in conjunction with other activities. It must be performed in a safe place such as a firing range, simulator room, or secure classroom or training area. You'll begin with an empty weapon, and be sure to have the candidates follow all range safety rules.

The handguns themselves must be dedicated training or classroom weapons that are perhaps set aside for training. Ensure they have been deactivated, color-coded and inspected. No live ammunition should be present. You must also empty handgun speed loaders or magazines that could be used.

After handing out the weapons, require everyone to face down range. Please inspect them again and double-check to make sure everything is clear. This is a dry fire exercise but should be handled as if you were on the firing line using range commands and procedures.

The new candidate will be asked to participate in two trigger-pull assessments with the handgun of your choice. It would be wise to use the same weapon your department utilizes so you can better judge the results. It would also better simulate your qualifications and courses of fire. The factory authorized trigger-pull weight should also be paralleled. You may wish to make a check sheet of the following:

  • Does the individual have the strength needed to pull the trigger the appropriate number of times in order to meet firearm training and qualification criterion?
  • Does the individual have the skills to safely manipulate the weapon (such as hand dexterity and strength, locking the slide to the rear, closing the slide, loading an empty magazine, lowering the hammer, and performing safety function checks)?
  • Does the individual know what low-ready and muzzle control mean or is she pointing her weapon in different directions?
  • Does he understand range commands and follow directions or do they look confused?
  • Can she perform weapon tasks in the right order?
  • Does the individual understand the basic rules of firearm safety and the concept of down-range, how one picks up a weapon or hands a weapon off to another party?[PAGEBREAK]

Those who don't do well may have a weakness with those students in the class such as poor firearm fundamentals, carpal-tunnel syndrome, nerve damage, or lack of strength. If students can't pull the trigger a certain amount of times with an empty weapon, how do you expect them to do it with a "live weapon?"

These people will have to practice, and you'll need to inform them of that fact. You should also give them exercises to do to strengthen their grip. It also may give people time enough to improve. The trigger-pull assessment is to be conducted by members of your training staff. However, it should be expected that students should be able to complete Assessment #1 with no problem.

Based on our current research, students should score a minimum of 50 with the strong hand and 35-40 with the weak hand on Assessment #2. Average scores should range much higher (70s and 80s), and you may see some in the 100s. This has proved to be good data so far but please keep in mind there have been no scientific studies done on this yet. If they score in the 40s or lower, it may mean you have to come up with a plan for them. It is also a good idea to provide warm-up periods (to stretch, shake out the hands) and a small break between the tests. Departments should use their own courses of fire and times and adjust things that best suit them. Try it yourselves and see how you do.

Assessment #1

To establish a baseline, the new candidate should be required to safely pull the trigger X-amount of times (x=2, 3, 4, or 6 rounds fired) within the allotted time limits (such as 3, 5, 10, or 20 seconds) for each stage of fire on your qualification course. You should use your own departmental handgun course of fire when you do this. The assessment should be patterned after your course and conducted in the same series of stages and intervals as you would on the range.

The time frames involved may be modified to account for position changes or when you are simulating reloading. The training officer will call the course out loud and the candidate will respond to the directions by pulling the trigger the appropriate amount of times for each stage. The candidate should use the right, left, or both hands (as dictated by the course) and they should use the position that is specified (such as kneeling, standing, or prone).

An example of a quick and easy score sheet is listed below. The candidate will be given a break between the first and second assessment. All stages will begin from the low ready. Most people will not have any problems with this, so use it as a warm up. If you have available holsters, please feel free to use them as well.

Here's an example of a template you can use to track the assessment. You can call it, "Sample Course of Fire," and set it up with these headings: Stage(s) of Fire, Times, Number of Rounds, and Position.

EXAMPLE: "Your first stage of fire will be at the three-yard line. From the low-ready, you'll move into the standing position and fire two rounds center mass in three seconds. Then go back into the low ready. Is the line ready? The line is ready, fire."

Insert Your Departmental Course of Fire Here

Assessment #1 Score Sheet:

Completed All Stages of Fire                    

Did Not Complete:                    

(Annotate number of rounds fired for each stage).

Stage I



Stage II




Stage III




Stage IV




Stage V




Stage VI




Comments: One example would be, "Shooter has problem with weak hand. And can only pull trigger 10 times."

Assessment #2

To gauge strength and endurance, each candidate will be asked to pull the trigger as many times as he or she can within a time period of 60 seconds. This exercise will be done twice.

Each hand will be used with one hand only  will be used. The amount of times the trigger is pulled for each hand will be counted and recorded (indicated below). The trainer will do the timing. In addition, you can have an additional trainer do the counting or, if done in relay groups, have a partner of one of the students do it.

Number of Right Hand Trigger Pulls: Enter number.

Number of Left Handed Trigger Pulls: Enter number.

Comments: Enter here.

I hope this little exercise during the pre-screening process for new hires will help. In the long run, we have found here, that it is a very valuable tool for detecting firearm related problems before they begin. At the same time, it is a process that will benefit the trainer and the student for the future in meeting the demands of the times.

Col. Bruce Cameron is the training manager and commandant of the Department of Energy's Hanford Patrol Training Academy in Richland, Wash. He is also trained as a firearm and tactical instructor and safety officer. 

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