Pulling the Trigger vs Doing the Twist: Thoughts on 3-Speed Gear Shifters

On bicycles with internally geared hubs, we typically see two types of gear shifters. The trigger shifter (pictured above) is a small gadget with a lever that is moved up and down. Today, this style of shifter usually accompanies Sturmey Archer hubs (though in Europe I have seen some lesser known models as well).

The twist shifter (pictured above) is a plastic and rubber enclosure that is built into the handlebar grip itself. To switch gears, you grab the rubber part and twist forward or backward. This style of shifter usually accompanies Shimano hubs.

After using both types of shifters on various bicycles I've owned to more or less the same extent, I have developed a strong preference for trigger shifters. When I tell people this, they tend to assume it has to do with "vintage aesthetics" - but actually, it has to do with comfort. A trigger shifter takes up very little space on the handlebars, as it is attached with a narrow bracket. This means that the shifter does not interfere with the gripping area, and allows me to install full-length grips on the handlebars.

By contrast, having a twist shifter installed effectively cuts your gripping area in half. Notice that the right handlebar grip on the Bella Ciao above is shorter than the left grip - necessary in order to make room for the shifter. Granted, you can also keep your right hand on the rubber portion of the shifter itself - but it's not very comfortable, especially as there is a tactile break between where the real grip ends and the shifter begins.

But why is it important how long your grips are, as long as you are able to fit your hands on them? The reason, is that having room to move your hands around on the handlebars, even a little, can be essential for hand comfort - especially on long rides. If you ride your bicycle for just a couple of miles or so at a time, then you might not get the urge to move your hands around. But the longer your ride is, the more fatigued your hands will get if you keep them in the same position. Some people are more sensitive to this than others, and those who have nerve damage in their hands (like yours truly) are particularly prone to it. The feeling can range from numbness, to "pins and needles" to a more severe sensation of electric current running through the hand. It is not good to experience this problem, and having room on the handlebars to move your hands around allows you to avoid it. Long grips can also help you switch between a more relaxed and a more aggressive position on your bike (by holding the grips further forward or further backward) - giving you some added control over speed.

Getting back to shifter styles, here is my right hand on the shortened grip that is integrated with the twist shifter on my Bella Ciao. As you can see, my hand covers the entire grip, with no room to move around - unless I place it on the shifter itself, though even then it is limited. And I had the same problem with this shifter on my previously-owned Pashley, which came with the 7-speed Shimano hub I innocently selected.

On the other hand, here is my hand on the grip I installed on my Gazelle. As you can see, there is room for another handful - which is only possible because of the trigger shifter.

I will note that one benefit of the twist shifter, is that it is more integrated with your hand position - which can be a plus if you switch gears very frequently. But on bicycles with internally geared hubs - especially 3-speeds - I have found that I tend to stay in one "ideal" gear most of the time, switching to a lower gear only when going uphill, and switching to a higher gear only when cycling very fast or downhill. Having to reach with my finger to pull the trigger has not caused me any inconvenience in comparison to using the twist shifter. Your experience, of course, may differ.

While I am not suggesting that everybody ought to run out and demand trigger shifters with their 3-speed bicycles, I am hoping that this comparison will provide some food for thought to those who are getting a new bike, or deciding which hub to select with a new build. I would also like to ask whether anybody knows where I can find a trigger shifter that is compatible with a 3-speed Shimano Nexus hub? Even if it involves rigging something up with a "thumbie" derailleur-style shifter, I am up for it. Thanks in advance for any advice.


  1. It should not be overly difficult to use another shifter. Measure the cable pull with the three speed and get a shifter that pulls the same. I was planning on using a bar-end shifter and a travel agent for my 7 speed. I have not looked into a 3 speed conversion in detail so can't advise more specifically.

  2. Thanks Steve. So any old shifter will do that works with a triple?

  3. We prefer triggershifters on our Torpedo 3-gear bicycles, but the wrist shifter on our Rohfloff bicycles. I have good experiences from our tandem bar end shifter, but have never tried this with a hub gear.

  4. Oh, and also - does it have to be an indexed shifter, or is the indexing in hub itself?...

  5. As Steve said, the only thing a shifter does is pull or push a cable, over a very short distance. SA does this in a straight line, Shimano with a turning movement. All you need is a SA type shifter with the same distance between gear points as Shimano.
    The indexes are only there for the inexperienced rider :-). The position of the SA trigger lever should tell you in which gear you are, even more so as there are only three.

  6. Thanks very much! Great information as usual. I have the twister on my Workcycles but will think this over as Bryan makes my new RoyalH. Beautiful day today at my Farm, but I had to leave my bike at home :^(
    I am going to bring it up over Thanksgiving though. That should be fun!



  7. Frits - It should be interesting to use a 3-speed friction shifter.

    JimP - Is your Royal H bicycle going to have an internally geared hub rather than a derailleur then?

  8. The twistshifter on Rohloff just twist: the indexing on our hubs is in the hub I think. It makes it very easy to take the rearwheel on and off by using two jackstiks. Much easyer than the Torpedo and notto mention the Shimano. Remember that there is a danish bicyclemaker that sells 3 speedshifters to place on the toptube like the old style!

  9. Shimano also makes trigger shifters. Our Gary Fisher uses one with 8 speeds, but I doubt it pulls the right amount of cable for a three speed.

    Checking forums. I see a claim that the Shimano 3 speed pulls 6.6 mm per shift and that the Shimano 3 speed thumb shifter will work. Apparently Shimano made at least two different three speeds and I have no way to know how compatible shifters might be. Measuring cable pull is the only safe way to know for sure.

  10. Yes we are going for an internal hub. What do you think of internal geared hub vs derailers? Maybe a thought for another day.


  11. Thanks for this timely and interesting post. I'm building a path racer style 3-speed with drum brakes and have been looking for an alternative to the ugly twist shifter that came with the new S/A hub. The thumbie style shifter won't suit so it looks like either a trigger or a top tube shifter - less practical I know but has a great vintage look and frees up handlebar space.

    IbisTouche - Do you have the details of the Danish top tube shifter maker? Original S/A top tube shifters in good condition are hard to find and/or expensive.

  12. Regarding trigger shifters for the shimano 3 speed, here are my observations:

    Pretty much all internal gear hubs
    (including the shimano 3speed)
    have the "indexing" (clicking)
    happen in the shift lever/grip.
    The only exception I know of
    is the Rohloff hub,
    which has the indexing inside the hub.

    So you will need a trigger shifter
    that pulls the correct amount of
    cable in between clicks.
    Since I do not think this is commercially
    available, you could use something
    like a "shiftmate" to match things up:


    This device is specifically designed
    to match different shifters to
    different derailleurs.
    Looking at their website, they do not
    cover sturmey triggers and shimano
    3 speeds, but an appropriately
    sized pulley will get you what you want.
    They might even make one for you!

    So even though I don't have a solution
    for you, this might be one avenue to explore...

    Hope this helps,

    John I

  13. My Schwinn 3 speed had a trigger shifter, but during an overhaul a few months ago I switched it out for a vintage twist shifter, and I absolutely loved the change!

    My twist shifter is only about 1/2" shorter than my grips were, but then I removed the manufactured grip and made my own custom cork grips, so that both sides are the same:


    I'm NOT a fan of the modern twist shifters, although to be honest neither the twist nor the trigger shifters get me that excited.

    Luckily my single-speed fits very well into my commute and beach rides, so I don't have to worry about shifters too much!

  14. Excellent review - thank you. Coincidence enough I came across the different shifting options last night and for some reason the trigger option appealed to me more. Now I know why thanks to your review.


  15. i would not recommend using a non-indexed shifter with an IGH, and i don't know of any indexed shifters that work with an SA hub, other than an SA-type trigger. sure, it can be done with friction, but you won't necessarily get the audible feedback that you get from friction derailleur shifting when you're not perfectly "in" a gear, but partially between gears. as a result, the only clue you might have that you are not perfectly in gear in an IGH hub is that it will skip or freewheel (this applies mostly to torpedo and SA hubs, not necessarily shimano hubs-- i know nothing about shimano IGHs). and we all know how finicky SA hubs are about their cable positions! i do know someone who uses a friction shifter with his SA IGH, but he's also the kind of person who is intimately familiar with the inner workings of an SA hub.

  16. oh, and the indexing of torpedo and SA hubs is in the trigger, not the hub.

  17. I have the Shimano 3 speed twist shifter on my mixte and I just put regular length cork grips on. I thought about cutting down the grip on the shifter side but decided not to. It works fine so far, I just slide my hand up when I need to shift.

  18. nice post.. I have a question about the grips shown in the first picture with the trigger shifters. Could you share what brand they are? I have a Pashley Princess Sovereign with the original trigger shifters and want to replace the standard black plastic hand grips. I previously purchased Brooks leather ring grips but had to return them because they're too wide in diameter for my hands and I had trouble braking. I'm looking for brown leather grips. Many thanks for your help.

  19. I've got pretty big hands, and have also found that on some bikes with grip shifting part of my hand either (1) hangs off of the end, or (2)there's a flimsy, empty rubber grip end under part of my hand (which may be worse than nothing at all).


  20. a while back i encountered a bike set up with a 3 speed hub, moustache bars and bar end shifter. While not a fan of the bars, the bar end shifter seemed to work really well.

  21. IbisTouche - I would also like to know who makes the Danish top tube shifter!

    Julianne - I looked at your page, but I don't get it! So is the twist shifter hidden inside the grip? I don't see the actual shifter in the pictures.

    Juliana - Those grips come with the Pashley Guv'nor. I am not sure where Pashley sources them from, but they are specific to the Guv'nor model.

    JimP - They are apples and oranges. Derailleur gearing gives you a much, much wider range of gears - making it ideal for hilly cycling. Internal hub gearing has a limited range of gearing, but requires much less maintenance.

    Dog Friendly Dallas - Whether that's possible depends on the handlebars. On the handlebars on the bike which currently has the twist shifter, there is no room to have the shifter, the brake lever, and a full sized grip.

    somervillain - The hub I need a trigger for is Shimano, not SA. For an SA hub it would not be a problem, since they come with trigger shifters already. My instincts tell me that a friction shifter is ultimately not a good idea as it can wear out the hub, as some have mentioned - but I just don't want to believe that it's either that or buy an SA hub + shifter and rebuild the wheel!

    Steve - I have tried to look up Shimano 3-speed trigger shifters, but have found nothing...

  22. Juliana - the brown grips are Pashley's own and can be bought separately from their bikes. I put them on my Pashley Princess Sovereign and they look and feel great.

  23. I never had a problem with my grip shifters, but I do notice that I like to change the position of my hands on long rides. The extra bar ends on my mountain bike were always great on long uphill rides. But well, in the city a mountain bike has a lot of disadvantages too..

  24. you can use any friction lever you want, an old bar end shifter would be awesome...

  25. The Sturmey Archer hub on my 1970s Raleigh 20 has a grip shifter and I must say I don't really get on with. I often find it slips when I'm gripping the handlebars particularly hard (for example when there's a bit of a hill!).

  26. Well given the fact that Charleston is as flat as a pancake, except for some pesky bridges, the hub gears sound best for me. Thanks!

  27. When Sram's twist shifters came out in the 90s for mountain bikes, I thought I had died and gone to heaven. Then I tried Shimano's Rapidfire shifters and now I prefer them for two reasons. I like the thumb and trigger action to shift, and they take up less room on the bars. For those who dislike twist shifters for internal-geared hubs, you might check out Jtek Engineering's bar-end shifters. I have no first-hand experience with them, but have seen several positive reviews.

  28. MT cyclist said: "Then I tried Shimano's Rapidfire shifters and now I prefer them for two reasons. I like the thumb and trigger action to shift, and they take up less room on the bars."

    MT, i agree about the rapidfire shifters! i just put them on my tandem (with flat mtb bars) and i've fallen in love. however, they really are only suitable for flat bars... they wouldn't work well with any sort of swept-back city bars. and, they're indexed for shimano/SRAM derailleurs only.

  29. @ somervillain - some of the Radipfire style shifters will work with swept back bars. I've used both SRAM X7 and Shimano XTR shifters on both north road style and On-One Mary bars. X7 and XTR shifters have no indicator pods and no pods=less interference with the bends in the bars. I'll also rotate the shifter inboard so it's more of an up-down rather than forward-backward motion.

  30. V-

    I covered the twist shifter (on the right side of the bars) in cork paper. The before and after pictures are on top, and you can see the gear markings H-N-L. It still functions exactly the same, but it doesn't look like a shifter.

    The instructions on the site are for covering bars by making your own grips. Once I replaced my shifter with a twist the grips didn't quite match each other and it drove me nuts! Hence the DIY upgrade.

  31. Ian: You asked for an adress for the maker and seller of the toptube copy of the old SA trigger shifter. I was at their wabsite:

    but can´t find it anymore, but they have another shifter I haven´t seen before instead. Have a talk to them to have one ofthe toptube ones made for you!

    1. Interesting information about Cykelmageren in Denmark. I have been looking for a more nice looking three speed shifter and what they have surely looks like a great shifter. Then I looked at the price and it was 2 200 Danish kroner for only the shifter and that is around $315 and that is A LOT of money for just a 3 speed shifter. With that price there will be only a small and exclusive group of people who will buy this stuff.


  32. I've never liked twist-grip shifters. I think it's because even on upright bars with grips, I tend to slide my hand along the bar, which causes me to accidentally shift a twist-grip control. This was especially true during the brief time I used Grip-Shifts (I started dropping the "f" when I mentioned them.) on the mountain bike I rode back in the day.

    Not only do I prefer the action of trigger shifters, whether with derailleurs on a mountain bike or internally-geared hubs on a city bike, I like the relative mechanical simplicity of trigger shifters compared to twist-grips. Also, trigger shifters tend to use somewhat shorter cables and have cleaner cable routing, which make shifts crisper.

  33. I have a pet hate of mountain bike handle bars as I think the position is completely unergonomic. They got it right a century ago with the North Road - the oblique angle fits the function of the hand. Imagine how you hammer or chop wood - now move your hand in that downward stroke and freeze it at the bottom of the stroke - that is the North Road.
    I have big hands and struggle with most grips, as the width of my clenched fist is about 5 inches, and a bit of extra each side of the fist is comfortable. Some of the modern grips with a broader near-end for the base of the hand, ulnar side (little finger side) to rest on seem a better idea, but less classical/vintage. however I haven't tried a set - maybe soon. AL NZ

  34. I am sure others have mentioned that you can most likely change the shifter as it is a matter of hooking up the cables. I have heard this criticism of the shimano hubs so people were getting friction or index downtube shift levers. Think of how pretty they are! You only need one and if your frame doesn't have a mount on the downtube, you can find levers with clamps that can go on the frame or the handlebar stem. Very simple!

  35. Velouria, that's true. I have a coaster brake on that bike and so I don't have a brake lever on the shifter side.

  36. I use a regular downtube shifter on my Sturmey-Archer 3-speed hub. When I converted a venerable road bike to commuter use, I bought a vintage S-A trigger shifter to use, and all the hardware. But the quality of that stuff was off-putting, and adding the pulley just bugged me. So I set it up with a beautiful old Simplex retro-friction shifter. Middle gear is adjusted with the lever perpendicular to the downtube -- I marked registration with a Sharpie on both fixed and rotating parts. The lever has plenty of cable pull to reach both lower (taut) and upper (fully relaxed) gears with no problem at all.

    There's only one caveat: particularly between middle and upper gears, this S-A hub has a “hole” where the hub will freewheel; so if you're going “indexless” you need to be careful about that. I must say that I've only done that once, when I first started using it, and it doesn't seem to be so cranky between middle and low gears. I don't think that I would set up a hub with more than three speeds this way; but I think it's great for the AW, and the best thing is that all my bikes have the shifting in the same place (on the downtube). Plus, I think it looks way more elegant.

  37. To those who use friction shifters with your 3-speed hub - Have you noticed no adverse effects on your hub? How often do you switch gears?

  38. mr. cranky pants: that's good to know, i didn't know this. i was thinking of swapping out the flat mtb bars on my tandem for something like nitto dove bars or a similar swept back bar, but wasn't sure how well it could work. my shifters have the larger pods with indicators, and their rotation is fixes with respect to the integrated brake levers. i might replace them, but the XT/XTR ones are expensive! the ones on now are the consumer-grade alivios, but they work just fine.

  39. and now for something completely different: I love the bookcases / backdrop to some of the photos above! Nice library....

  40. Thanks jeanette - The funny thing is that I get that backdrop almost regardless of where in the apartment I take pictures; most of the walls are covered with those bookcases!

  41. My friction-shifted S-A AW hub is old, but appeared to be essentially unused. I've put about two years of commuting on it with no ill effects -- it's rock-solid as far as I can tell.

    I ride the bike in middle (direct) gear most of the time, with only occasional shifts up or down. I'm careful when I do that, but I've learned the feel of the shifter in the right location, so that I can do it even in the dark, without looking.

  42. I definitely prefer the trigger shifter on my Raleigh as opposed to the twist shifter I had on the Electra Amsterdam, and also the one I used on a Batavus Old Dutch I borrowed once -

    I personally just find the twisting motion to be kind of awkward, and much prefer just flicking the lever with my finger. The twist shifter on the Batavus, which used an SRAM 3-speed hub, was also physically kind of hard to twist, so that just exacerbated the issue for me as I had to fully grip the twist-shift part and turn it, whereas with the Amsterdam (Shimano), I could at least just use my thumb and forefinger to turn the shifter.

  43. My sorte has a twist shifter and while I don't mind it too much I notice that when going up hill I am holding on to the handle bars rather hard pulling to give my body some strength and the pulling action wants to twist the gear in to the next gear. since I'm going up hill shifting to a harder gear is def unwanted. I would very much like more handle room at these times...

  44. Yes yes yes, a thousand times Yes.

    How many times do you see people say "oh just buy a new 3-speed hub and/or wheelset for that old bike, they are cheap" - well, 99% of them come with twist-grips, not anything else. If you want a trigger, you have to pay more, if you can find it.

    And well, you can't put a twist shifter on an old gull-wing handlebar very easily, especially when the grips are glued on by 40 years of being there already. And if you get the grips off, how do you finagle that bizarro space-looking plastic bauble onto it properly? You push it on, and , well, it only goes so far, and no further. It doesn't like the curves. It doesn't like any curves. Yes you can stick it on, but it looks, you know, wrong, jutting out there halfway down the bend.

    Or then maybe you have to cut down your grips. Providing less gripping space! Discrimination against people with big hands! And some of us need a solid grip so that when we hit a hole or something we don't have our front wheel flying in odd directions and tumbling us onto the pavement.

    And then when you want to turn your bike upside down for some low-fi maintenance, your bulbous twist-grip is now scraping the pavement and getting all scuffed up and/or damaged. Compare this with -any- other shifter. Trigger? No problem, rotate it to safety. Downtube? No problem. Bar-end? No problem! Twist-grip? Problem!

    Twist-grip cuts down on the types of bars you can have. Drop? Gull? North road? Upside down drop? You are SOL with these twist-grips - they only like straight or mostly straight bars. You'd almost question their open-mindedness and liberality, with how much these twist-grips only like straight bars.

    All of the non-twist shifters (downtube, barend, trigger) are easier to install, easier to deal with, more reliable, take up less space, get damaged less easily, look better, and are just better in every possible way, other than the fact that you have to take your hand off your bars for 1/2 second to use them.

  45. The fact you don't have to take your hands off the bars is the only advantage I can see to the twist-grip, and its, like Lovely Bike points out, not really an advantage. Most people take their hands off bars for 1/2 second just to avoid muscle fatigue, to scratch their nose, or whatever. And how often do you need to shift really? Not often. Unless you are racing. And most people are not racing.

    "Oh but downshift and barend arent indexed". Uhm, they could be. There's no reason in the world that engineers who create the bizarre monstrosity called the twist-grip shifter couldn't figure out how to do the same for bar-ends or for down-tubes. Indexing is not magic. They can build an ipad, they can build an indexed downtube shifter or indexed bar-end shifter. It is a choice to not do these things. A choice, not a necessity.

    I can almost see some planned-obsolescence marketing person deep inside corporate headquarters showing a bar graph to management pointing out that twist-grip shifters = more shifting = faster wearout of gears = people buying new gears/chains/hubs more often = profit. Maybe I'm paranoid, but what other possible reason can there be for introducing a technically inferior solution to a problem that was solved 100 years ago.

    "Oh", says internet bicycle expert, "You have no problem, just get a trigger shifter, its not expensive". Yeah. Actually yes problem. Go search the net for a 3 speed wheelset - chances are 99% it will have twist-grip shifters and/or these awful coasting brakes. This is not what the 3-speed people want. We want what the bikes had 30 years ago because they worked perfectly.

    I had a twist-grip shifter on a brand new bike a few years back - after a few hundred miles, not only did it fail to shift when my hands got too sweaty, it actually fell apart on me while I was riding. Compare with crappy department store bikes made in the early 1980s with their trigger shifter - still working today. How is this progress? This is exactly the opposite direction the car industry has gone. Bicycles are actually getting less reliable while cars are getting more reliable.

    Twist grip shifters, in conclusion, represent everything that is soulless and wrong. They represent the death of common sense in the bicycling industry the bizarre fetish for cheap plasticized garbage that wont last a year.

  46. This is an old post, but I'm curious about the topic. I know you're a fan of three speeds, but I'm hoping that my next bike will be an 8 speed IGH. I have been riding an old 3 speed that has the weird combo of a Shimano hub and SA trigger shifter (http://store.qbike.com/sturmey-archer-shifter-s-a-3sp-hb-hsj762-original-s-a.html). I love that shifter! It makes such a satisfying and clean click as it shifts into place. The motion is so quick. I've looked around a bit, but it seems that neither Shimano nor SA make anything like it for an 8 speed hub. There's the Shimano 8 Alfine trigger shifter, but it's got the flicking option to shift down and the thumb to go back up: http://www.modernbike.com/itemgroup.asp?igpk=2126204102&TID=367&gclid=CNLxt-PXgbwCFYl9OgodaFIAlQ. Not quite the same, and so ugly. Is there something I'm missing?


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