February 27, 2023
Anyone who has played around with older target rifles and pistols is familiar with set triggers. For those who aren’t, a set trigger mechanism has two triggers: one releases the sear, while the other “sets” the first so that its let-off is so light it can be tripped by a hair (hence, “hair” trigger).
Not surprisingly, German gunmakers of the old school turned the making of set triggers into a craft by itself. Its practitioners were called Stechermachers (the master craftsmen being Stechermachermeisters).
Set triggers found on German and other middle-European target rifles of the 19th century have the most elaborate and highly developed set triggers of any I’ve found. In fact, it’s hard to imagine a more complex and delicate mechanism made by human hands. About the only thing comparable is a Swiss watch.
Essentially, a set trigger works through a combination of levers (or blades) and springs, each with a progressively finer sear. Once it’s been set, when brushed ever so slightly, the primary trigger releases a blade, which trips another, which trips a third, eventually releasing the hammer or striker. This all happens in a micro-second.
German set triggers usually have three blades but could have up to seven. A seven-blade trigger is so delicate most shooters cannot use it to its potential. Those riflemen who can often sand the tips of their trigger fingers to make them ultra-sensitive, just like a safe-cracker.
In Alte Scheibenwaffen, a massive, three-volume tome on old German target rifles, the authors mention a Stechermachermeister named Emil Ernst Kommer. He learned the trade from his father, opened his shop in 1903, and made his last set trigger in 1966, when he was 87 years old. Herr Kommer’s shop contained only one machine—a treadle lathe for making pins and screws—yet he created the finest set triggers. Over the years his clients included Carl Walther, Udo Anschütz, Oskar Will, and Gebruder Merkel, among others. His best customer was Cuno Büchel, whose premier model, the Büchelmeister, is widely considered the finest rifle of its type ever made.
It was Herr Kommer’s opinion that five-lever triggers were the best, more levers being less efficient and less reliable. The vast majority of us cannot make use of a seven-lever trigger any more than we could summon the potential from a Stradivarius.
American single-shot expert James J. Grant thought very highly of German set triggers and wrote that he had never seen one, even one a century old, that did not work perfectly, as long as it had not been messed with by the “ham-handed gentry.”
The actual pull weight is set by a tiny screw protruding into the trigger guard between the triggers. Set triggers are made to be easily removable for cleaning, which is a good thing because a slight coating of oil or a tiny flake of dust can affect the operation of the ultra-delicate five- to seven-lever triggers.
It’s easy to determine how many levers your trigger has by counting the pins. The main trigger pin doesn’t count, so if a mechanism has four pins, it’s a three-lever trigger; a seven-lever trigger has eight pins; and so on.
The set triggers found on the great American target rifles from around 1900 resemble the German ones, probably because German gunmakers brought the craft with them to America, but most are not readily detachable, and all that I have seen have only two or three levers. Still, they are all that I can make use of. Learning to use the most elaborate triggers is akin to learning to caress the strings of a violin.
In case you are wondering why set triggers are not commonly found on modern benchrest rifles, the usual reason given is that the multiple levers and springs set up a vibration that can affect a group. With offhand (Schützen) shooting, it’s too slight to make a difference and is more than offset by the instant response to the slightest touch.