The Myth of the “Surprise Break”

The myth of the "Surprise Break."

Instructors have taught the “Surprise Break” trigger break concept to shooters for years. This is the concept that the moment the round goes off, it should be a surprise to the shooter. A shooter who works on mastering his breathing, executes a proper trigger squeeze and holds the weapon properly should, according to the surprise break theory, have a round mysteriously go off and perfectly strike the target where the shooter is aiming at.

Unfortunately, not everyone understands the instructional context and intent of the surprise trigger break.


Surprise Trigger Break in Concept

In concept, the surprise break is a good idea. It focuses on eliminating recoil anticipation, which is a malady that affects many shooters. It is often difficult to untrain someone from doing this. A shooter who anticipates recoil will tend to force the barrel of the weapon down at the moment of firing, to try to compensate for recoil. This generally results in rounds impacting lower than the shooter intended.

The fix on the range is the surprise break. At the moment of surprise, every human shooting element (grip, breathing, sight picture) should be in perfect harmony. The bullet lands exactly where you intended it to go. Human error should not prevent the round from hitting the desired destination.

Here’s the problem. This is a training technique, not a gunfighting technique.

We train to fight. We don’t train to train. Nor do we train to train to fight…


The Person Behind the Trigger is the Most Important Factor

By the time a bullet leaves the barrel, there are many forces at work that affect its eventual destination. Arguably, internal ballistics (what happens to the round when it is still in the firearm after the primer has been struck) has more to do with where a round lands than does external ballistics (what the round does after it leaves the barrel of the weapon).

The primary effector of accurate round placement as it relates to internal ballistics is the person pulling the trigger. The most precise weapon system, equipped with the latest in state-of-the-art optics, coupled with match grade ammunition is ultimately most affected by human error. More so than wind, elevation, atmosphere, gravity, angles and so on. The person behind the gun is the most significant force in terms of being able to put accurate rounds downrange.

Poor sight alignment, mashing the trigger, improper grip, anticipating recoil. The list goes on and on of shooter mistakes that can affect accuracy. We do what we can to compensate for this. We train to solve these issues.


Not a good time to wait for the surprise break

Not a good time to wait for the surprise break. Training is for when you are on the range, not when there’s actual work to be done.

“Surprise Break” Doesn’t Really Work in a Gunfight

Waiting for the “surprise moment” when engaging an armed assailant(s) just isn’t realistic. If enemy rounds are kicking up dirt in close proximity to you, it is unlikely that you will reach a Zen-like moment of clarity, where you and the gun are one, you release half a breath, and then the round leaves the barrel unexpectantly, eliminating the threat. This technique may work at your neighborhood range, but not on the two-way range.

The physiological effects of being in an SYPIF (Shi**ing Your Pants In Fear) scenario will definitely negate the potential positive effects of the Surprise Break training technique. Tunnel vision, highly elevated heartbeat, degradation of basic motor skills, and massive adrenaline spikes will cause you to fire repeatedly and aggressively at the threat. You won’t have time to wait for the surprise…..The only surprise may be a warm spot in the front of your pants or a brown stain in the back. The surprises you really want to avoid are any new holes in your body that didn’t exist there when you were born.

The killing of another human being, to protect yourself or anyone else, should be a deliberate process. There should be no surprises involved. You’re trying to kill them before they kill you. It’s that simple. Generally, this needs to be done as quickly and efficiently as possible.

The Suprise Trigger Break Probably Won’t Hold Up in Court

And, from a legal standpoint, do you want to go court and defend your actions by saying you waited for the surprise when encountering a deadly threat? Even a mediocre defense attorney is going to easily attack that.

“So, you’re saying the gun went off in your hands?”

“If I understand you correctly, you were surprised when the gun fired? Like you didn’t intend for it to go off?”

SURPRISE! You are getting sued and you might be going to jail! Use of force experts who testify in court cases should be aware of this.

Surprise Break - We Train to Fight, not to Train.

Don’t confuse a training technique with a gunfighting technique.

We train to fight, not train to train. The Surprise Break, albeit an effective training technique, needs to be left in your range bag when there is gunfighting that needs to be done. As a diagnostic, it can be used to modify or fix common human errors while trying to fire a weapon. However, don’t confuse a training technique with a gunfighting technique.



Grab a gun: but hone your skills; there’s more to it than just pulling the trigger

Weapon Lights: yes, you need one; read more about ’em

Rifle Magazines: keep it fueled

Glock Magazines: feed your machine

Training vs Experience: get your learn on


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Nicholas "Doc" Perna

Nicholas “Doc” Perna is a former 82nd Airborne officer and longtime police officer. He’s an EMT and Street Crimes supervisor who has over the course of his career served in just about every possible billet: patrol, detectives,  counter-narcotics, gang task force, SWAT, and others. He’s a firearms instructor and Terrorism Liaison Officer and has been decorated for valor in the line of duty by his department. A combat veteran of Iraq, he has conducted psychological operations as part of Joint Special Operations Task Force Arabian Peninsula, also filling such other billets as airborne medical platoon leader, company commander, battalion intelligence officer, and battalion OPSO.

  • Judge Mental

    Sorry but this was a waste of zeroes and ones. Nobody thinks “surprise break” even in mild competition or shooting under time constraint. You cannot train a human to the point that they will lolly-gag and wait for the break when someone is bearing down on them with a knife. And the concept is still great for its intended purpose.

    • Mark Fergerson

      Its intended purpose does not apply to self-defense though, and that’s the point of the article.
      So if you’re using that method, recognize what what you’re doing only applies on the range, not in the real world.
      That’s fine intellectually, but you’ve been training your body (muscle memory) to DO IT WRONG.
      What do you think will happen when you don’t have time to undo it?

      • Roy Clark

        Practicing “surprise trigger break” is the foundation for a smooth trigger press. Only a smooth and slow trigger press can become fast over time and remain smooth – and accurate without thinking. Best to get the bad guy holding your loved one hostage pretty quickly or stop the first of more than one bad guy fast.
        I teach this when also coaching Olympic Recurve Archery. So far, in 3 years, 2 State medalists and 1 2x State & National Champion. Worked for me and them; but, of course, your results may vary.

  • Donald Ducko

    I think everyone overcomplicates shooting. The second problem if I had to come up with one would be people are afraid of the gun. Bottomline just shoot. It’s not rocket science. Don’t overthink it and don’t get into a measuring contest. Nobody cares how much you shoot, where you’ve shot or anything else. It is possible to be as good as some so called expert very quickly and easily. Finally those who can’t teach. Those who can don’t talk about it. They just do it.

    Just shoot.

    • Dietrich

      Spot on Donald. I get weary of hordes of “experts” over complicating what should be simple tasks.

  • ej harbet

    In my ccw course the ex missouri state trooper tought the surprise break. as i left the class that info landed into the mental trash folder.
    Better trainers than him tought me gun fighting long before ccw became legal in missouri. Many are no longer with us,none died by the gun!

  • Bill Towell

    Good points. Sniper firing vs pistol gunfight. I was brought up shooting for under MOA at 100 yards, breath control, between heartbeats, and surprise trigger break. For distance shooting with a rifle, this was helpful on long shots for a deer sometimes and much fun at range. Now I concealed carry, and speed is a big factor while extreme accuracy is not. Two different shooting skills. (Also I never was good at surprise break). Granted, shooting the M-16 and a 300 Win Mag have quite different recoil.

  • zenlifter

    I was going to comment but posting here could be used against me in court as the article alludes too.