Guns and Gear

Massad Ayoob: “My trigger finger is my safety”

Guns and Gear Contributor
Font Size:

By Massad Ayoob

Really? Even when violent impacts, G-forces, and adrenaline all hit at once?

When people talk about firearms safety in high-stress circumstances, you often hear, “All you have to do is keep your finger off the trigger.” That statement is right up there with, “All you have to do to avoid trouble is… stay out of trouble.” Or Nancy Reagan’s sweet but naïve solution to America’s drug problem, “Just say no.”

It all works in theory. The trouble comes when, as the saying goes, “the feces hit the rotating oscillator.” Doesn’t mean it can’t be done, though.

Case In Point

On Jan. 26, 2013, my friend John Strayer and I were inside the cramped Plexiglas bubble of an ancient Hiller HU12B helicopter, hunting feral hogs over Okeechobee, Fla.. John was on the left, veteran pilot Graham Harward in the center where the control console is on this aircraft, and I was on the right. Ain’t no doors on this bird, and space being as limited as it was, John and I each had one foot through the open entryway on a landing strut, and the other inside the aircraft.

We had been aloft for less than 10 minutes, cruising at about a 1,000 feet for the quarry, when John spotted the first oinker on the ground. Graham gently turned the helicopter toward port, bringing us down, as the pig ran toward a copse of pines and disappeared under the green. John had spotted it, so it was his shot, and Graham kept the bird to the right to give the best angle to the designated shooter. We were using .44 Magnum revolvers. John drew his Smith & Wesson Model 29 Mountain Gun, a Lew Horton special run with tapered 4-inch barrel and a lovely old-time blue finish. He held it in a strong wedge hold, 2-handed, his trigger finger straight on the frame above the trigger and below the cylinder, and the muzzle pointing safely out of the helicopter. It was loaded with six rounds of full-power 240-grain softpoints.

On the opposite side of the helo, I left my Power Custom Ruger Super Redhawk in its utilitarian Uncle Mike’s hip holster, and my 4-inch S&W Model 629 in its Bianchi shoulder rig. It was John’s turn to run the cannon, so I unlimbered the Canon. We were an estimated 100 feet above the ground, safely above the treetops, when I widened the zoom lens as far as it could go and snapped a shot of John leaning out and looking down, ready to take the hog when it emerged from the trees onto open ground. It turned out to be the last photograph taken while the Hiller was airborne.

Crash Time

About then the Hiller’s engine began to lose power. We were descending… unwillingly. I saw the trees coming up to meet us, and when the rotors were about to hit the treetops, I flipped the camera out under my left arm—it was strapped to the left shoulder epaulet of my Eotac fatigue jacket—and ducked down into crash position, forearms up to shield eyes and head. There was a rapid series of impacts (it felt like a car crash at full speed) and then we were on the ground, nose down and upside-down at about a 45-degree angle. The chopper was totaled. We weren’t, though we were all banged up and bleeding. More details are available on my blog. Somewhere, the hogs are still laughing. But the lesson is….

Habituated Safety

It had happened far too fast for John Strayer to holster his gun. The Model 29 was in his hand the whole way down… and his trigger finger stayed straight on the frame, and the muzzle in a safe direction, the whole time.

What has to be understood is that when the helicopter hit the ground, John’s hand and arm and gun were driven through the Plexiglas bubble. The shattered Plexiglas was sharp, and it didn’t just cut his hand deep, it nearly filleted it. The finger never touched the trigger, and the gun never fired. He couldn’t holster until he crawled out of the wrecked helicopter. He was bleeding so bad he stuck a glove on his hand to soak up the blood. A week later, John shot a pistol match, southpaw, out of a lefty holster.

I first met John Strayer in 1998 when he took one of my classes. He was already an experienced, safe shooter, and he later became one of IDPA’s first Five Gun Masters. He has won more matches, and more state and regional championship shooting titles, than he can remember. He has taught a bunch of classes, too, and on Jan. 26, 2013, he taught a lesson we should all share with everyone who owns a gun.

The lesson is, if you burn into your brain the rule of “Keep your finger clear of the trigger until you are in the very act of intentionally firing the weapon,” you can make it work in the most brutally-hitting moments of deadly danger. From now on, John Strayer is gonna be my example of that!

Thanks to the team at GUNS Magazine for contributing this post. Take a moment to visit their site by clicking here.