The modern AR-15 is the ultimate kit gun. For the most part, components interchange so it’s easy to build rifles and/or make changes to an existing rifle.
Upgrades, accessories, treasures and trinkets for the AR-15 are almost limitless. The cold, hard truth, however, is that the single-best upgrade you can do to any rifle is to install a better trigger. Without a smooth, light trigger pull, the rifle can never live up to its potential. A good trigger changes the entire personality of the rifle, and it’s easy for any do-it-yourselfer to install.
There are far more aftermarket AR-15 triggers than we could cover in a single article, so we picked products from six manufacturers. Some I have used in the past and a few others were chosen on recommendations by other knowledgeable shooters.
Installation notes assume that you have already removed the magazine and cleared the firearm, preferably more than once. Additionally, the old trigger will obviously have to be taken out, which includes removing the grip to free the safety detent and pulling out the safety. It also assumes you will do safety and function checks and replace the safety detent and spring along with the grip after installing the trigger. No need to repeat that each time.
American Trigger Company This trigger uses different geometry than conventional AR triggers, and was revolutionary when it was introduced several years ago. Ronin Colman, the owner of ATC, told me he wanted to make it feel like a good 1911 trigger with a light first stage, then a clean-breaking second stage. This trigger is popular with the 3-gun/competition crowd for its excellent trigger pull, durability and complete reliability.
Installation: There are spring clips on the left side of the trigger, which mate with a groove in the trigger pin to hold the trigger pins in place. The pins are supplied. Simply locate the trigger in place, install the safety and insert the pins. Push the pins until the springs click into the grooves. That’s it, done.
Measured Trigger Pull Weight: 2 pounds, 10 ounces; 6-ounce first stage; Clean, crisp with little overtravel.
Reset: The reset on this trigger is subtle and relatively quiet compared to others. Reset is the shortest we measured at .024 inch of movement when measured at the center of the trigger. This short reset is one reason why so many top 3-gun shooters use this trigger.
Other choices: Colman told me the straight model is by far the best seller. He also offers the AR Gold in a curved trigger, which I have used for 3-gun, hunting and in a home-defense rifle. I installed the straight trigger in an ultra-accurate rifle that I use for long-range pursuits. I think I am going to like it a lot. The trigger breaks cleanly and predictably for precision
CMC Triggers This is the only drop-in trigger we tested that does not use a machined housing. Instead, it has a stamped sheet-metal housing, reminiscent of the first drop-in triggers on the market years ago. The operation is smooth and clean with an excellent pull.
Installation: The trigger comes with two anti-walk pins with screws in each end to hold them in place. I degreased the threads and put a small drop of blue 242 Loctite on each. Then I installed the trigger, inserted the pins, tightened the screws on each end and was done.
Measured Trigger Pull Weight: 1 pound, 11 ounces; It was a bit lighter than expected. It broke cleanly and sharply.
Reset: Loud and tactile. Measured at the center of the trigger, it travels .038 inch to reset.
Other choices: CMC offers numerous triggers, but we only had a chance to test the listed model. However, this one is well-suited for a competition or precision rifle that needs a short, defined and lightweight pull.
Geissele Automatics Installation: This is the only trigger in this roundup that’s not a drop-in, self-contained configuration. Geissele triggers are a traditional design. Installation, however, is easy.
There are two sections. The trigger contains the disconnector. They are held together with the installation pin. Use the supplied slave pin to push out the installation pin and replace it with the slave pin. This holds the disconnector into place. Insert the trigger and compress the springs until the pin hole is aligned with the rear hole in the receiver. Push the installation pin into place, which pushes the slave pin free.
Remove the installation pin from the hammer. Align the hammer spring as shown in the supplied illustrations and insert the hammer into the receiver. Push against the spring until the trigger hole aligns with the front hole in the receiver and push the installation pin into place. Spring arms fit into grooves in the pins to lock them in place.
Reset: Loud and tactile. Measured at the center of the trigger, it travels .133 inch to reset.
Other Choices: Another trigger received is from Geissele’s sister division, ALG Defense. It’s the Advanced Combat Trigger (ACT). This is a trigger for those who want to keep it mil-spec, but have a smoother pull. The trigger maintains at least a 5.5-pound pull weight to stay in military specs. At just $69 MSRP it’s a bargain.
Super Semi-Automatic Enhanced SSA-E Type: Two Stage Trigger Pull Weight: 3.5 pounds MSRP: $240
A. RA-535 APT, B. The Patriot, C. RA-140 Super Sporting Curved, D. RA-434
Rise Armament Installation: Installation is done with the included KNS-style anti-rotation pins. The front pin has a tab on each end that fits into a slot on the sideplates. The other end of the sideplate is screwed to the rear pin.
There are two setscrews in the trigger body that are tightened after the pins are in place to stress the pins against the frame.
Measured Trigger Pull Weight: 3 pounds, 10 ounces; There is some creep before the break.
Reset: Reset is audible and tactile. Measured at the center of the trigger, it travels .056 inch to reset.
Other choices: Rise Armament produces a wide variety of triggers, including another single-stage offering, the RA-434 High Performance Trigger, and one called The Patriot. This one comes in the colors of the American flag and comes with its own challenge coin. A portion of each sale is donated to Folds of Honor to help military families.
I installed the company’s bargain-priced RA-140 Super Sporting, 3.5-pound trigger in my .450 Bushmaster. This curved, single-stage trigger is a huge improvement in this rifle. Pull weight is tack-on at 3.5 pounds and it’s smooth and sharp. Excellent trigger at an affordable price. MSRP: $139.
(l.) AR Targa 2-Stage Long (r.) AR Calvin Elite Single Stage Drop-In
Timney Trigger Company Timney Triggers was one of the early manufacturers of drop-in AR-15 triggers. That means the company has had a long time and a lot of triggers to figure it all out. I have probably used more Timneys, both in AR rifles and bolt guns, than all others combined. They are reliable, affordable and free from drama and trouble.
The two-stage design is excellent for long-range precision shooting. It allows good control over the trigger and when it breaks. The shooter pulls the first stage to the stop. This helps steady and focus the trigger pull. Then it only takes a light additional pull to fire the shot.
Installation: This is a simple trigger to install. Slip it into place and slide the safety into place. Install the front and rear trigger pins. There is a small screw on each side of the trigger. Use the supplied Allen wrench to push the spring leg out of the way and tighten the screws snuggly. No need for Loctite or two screws as the installed screws have a locking feature. Run the function and safety checks and you are done.
Measured Trigger Pull Weight: 3 pounds, 15 ounces; 1-pound, 13-ounce first stage; The transition between the first and second stage is well defined. The second stage has a slight amount of creep before it breaks.
Reset: Loud and tactile. Measured at the center of the trigger, it travels .062 inch to reset.
Other choices: Timney has a wide range of AR triggers to choose from. For precision shooters who prefer a single-stage trigger, consider the Calvin Elite. MSRP: $296.99. You can custom order the pull weight. Mine is 1.5 pounds. For long-range work or any precision shooting it is an excellent trigger. All I need to do is think about pulling it and the gun fires. Great for long-range shooting.
The trigger shoe on the Calvin Elite is adjustable and replaceable. It can be moved up and down the shaft and rotated to adjust exactly to your finger. The trigger comes with four different shoes so there is a style for everybody.
AR Targa 2-stage Long Type: Two Stage Trigger Pull Weight: 4 pounds MSRP: $245.95
(l.) Marksman Performance Choice (r.) Classic AR trigger curved
Velocity Triggers Velocity Triggers offers excellent pricing for high-quality AR triggers. The company is owned by Tom Vehr. Tom is the brother of John Vehr, who owns Timney Triggers. Tom worked for Timney for years before setting up shop to build triggers for Knight Rifles. When Knight was sold some years later, Tom bought up the equipment and started making AR triggers.
The MPC trigger has a removable trigger shoe. It’s installed after the trigger group is installed into the receiver as it’s 3⁄8-inch wide and too large to fit through the bottom of the receiver. Trigger-shoe options are curved, straight or straight with a finger stop, which is the one I have. This results in a wide, flat trigger for a great feel when shooting for precision. It’s also easy to control when shooting fast.
This offset-trigger-shoe design sets the trigger a bit farther forward. Those shooters with big hands or long fingers will really like this. Yet, it’s not too far forward for short-fingered people.
I have been using Velocity Triggers since the company started. I have them in several rifles and have never had a single issue.
Installation: The Velocity Trigger uses the existing pins. You can use non-slip or non-rotational pins, but they are not necessary. Slip the trigger group into the receiver, install the safety and insert both pins. Then use the supplied Allen wrench to tighten the two setscrews in the trigger frame against the receiver. The trick is to tighten them until the wrench flexes. This is quite snug and it loads the pins with tension to keep them in place. There are two more setscrews included which are installed over the first two screws to lock them in place. Finally, the trigger shoe is installed using the modified Allen wrench that is supplied.
Reset: Loud and tactile. Measured at the center of the trigger, it travels .056 inch to reset.
Other choices: Velocity Triggers also offers The Classic AR triggers, which are available with several trigger options. I like the curved, but there are several designs including the popular straight. The Classic AR comes in three pull-weight options: 3, 4 and 4.5 pounds. With an MSRP of $149.95, these triggers have a “street price” that’s affordable and they have quickly become popular with AR-15 shooters.
Is the straight trigger better than the curved? Who knows? It’s mostly a preference thing and while I favor a curved trigger, I like them both.
As for aethetics, they are, of course, subjective and of secondary importance. That said, all else being equal, a swoopy, high-tech-looking bang switch can look pretty cool, adding a final touch of elegance or badassery to an AR.
In any event, don’t let a heavy, hitchy, cruddy original equipment trigger “trigger” you. Get out of your safe space, bring your AR-15 rifle up to modern standards and go do some trigger pulling.