Sight Alignment and Sight Picture
[Disclaimer: Nothing in this article should be understood as a substitute for training with a qualified and certified firearms instructor. If you have a concealed carry permit and if you carry your handgun on a daily basis you must train to use the gun in defensive shooting situations. Going to a range and shooting at paper or metal targets does not prepare you to survive a lethal force encounter.]
Achieving sight alignment and acquiring a sight picture are important shooting skills that are especially important for competitive shooting and for taking precision shots to end a fight. In rapidly unfolding deadly force situations, which often occur inside 10 yards, the ability to acquire a flash sight picture or use point shooting is more important.
In this article, we will discuss sight alignment and sight picture. It is important to drill these skills to increase your accuracy on a square range and to develop the skill to survive a self-defense shooting event using the flash sight picture or point shooting techniques.
In a lethal force encounter you will experience fear and suffer from the effects of the chemicals your body is producing. Given the fear and the chemicals, you will revert to the tactics you trained on the most. If you train to align the sights and acquire the sight picture, to use the flash sight picture technique, and to point shoot you will stand a better chance of going home alive to your family and loved ones. Remember, in a deadly force situation it is not the number of shots you take that matters; it’s the number of hits that you make. The person who gets the first hit often wins the fight.
Identifying the Dominant Eye
Eye dominance is often associated with handed-ness; for example, right-handed people are often right-eye dominant. Some people are cross-dominant which means that their dominant eye is opposite their dominant hand; for example, a right-handed shooter can have a dominant left eye. There are also people, very few, who are neither right nor left-eye dominant. This condition is called “central vision.”
One of the early diagnostic assessments we do with our students is to assess their eye dominance. Eye dominance refers to the brain’s desire to use one eye more often than the other eye for focusing on objects. The assessment is a simple exercise that we do in the classroom.
Many people believe that shooters are always either right or left eye dominant. According to Insight Firearms Training Development (www.insightfirearmstraining.com) that is not true. Sometimes people can have a dominant eye in one situation and then under different conditions the opposite eye becomes dominant.
Eye dominance is important because to shoot accurately you need a sighting plane that emanates from the center of the pupil on the dominant eye, moves through the rear and front sights, and picks up the target. Eye dominance is controlled by the brain. There are two images coming into the brain—one from each eye. The left eye is controlled by the right side of the brain and the right eye is controlled by the left side of the brain. The images merge to create a single image for the person to see.
We personally train with former Army Green Berets, Army Rangers, Navy Seals, Marines, and others. We have been taught to shoot with both eyes open as we aim using our dominant eye. We are now learning that some people cannot focus on their front sight with both eyes open. Even if they think they are focusing on their front sight because of the way their brain and eyes connect they are not really focusing no matter how hard they try.
The problem with keeping both eyes open for some students is both eyes are competing for dominance and an accurate sighting plane is not created. When the sighting plane is inaccurate shot placement is off either to the right or left of the target’s center.
Sometimes when the shot placement is off center shooting instructors advise students to correct their trigger finger placement. Too much trigger finger pulls shots to the right for right-handed shooters or to the left for left-handed shooters. If the shots are left of center (right of center for left handed shooters) then there is not enough trigger finger on the trigger.
Some experts suggest that the off-center shots are related to competing eye dominance rather than trigger finger placement. The easiest way to correct the competing eye dominance problem is to squint or close one eye. The open eye becomes the dominant eye when you do that.
Testing For Visual Acuity
We recently learned about the importance of using a “gip” on the front sight from Insights Firearms Training Development (https://www.insightfirearmstraining.com/). The gip is a tiny imperfection, serration, or mark near the top of the front sight blade. Our vice president created a gip on his Glock 19 by placing a very tiny dot of bright green acrylic paint at the very top of the front sight blade (see image, below). Focusing on the gip while pressing the trigger correctly increases accuracy significantly.
A shooter must have visual acuity to see the gip. Visual acuity is achieved naturally without glasses, with prescription or reading glasses, or with corrective surgery (e.g., Lasik).
It is easy to assess visual acuity. With an unloaded gun presented toward a target ask the shooter “Can you see the front sight (or gip) clearly?” If they answer “no” then we ask them if they wear glasses. If they say “yes” then we ask them to put the glasses on and then we ask the same question about seeing the front sight. Usually, with or without glasses a person can orient his or her head and eyes to see the front sight clearly.
As our eyes age it becomes more difficult to see the front sight clearly even with corrective lenses. The solution to this annoying problem for older shooters is to use optical sights (red dot sights). Here’s a short video by Rob Leatham about that solution.
Sight alignment is the relationship of the front and rear sights. Simply, the eye must create a sighting plane emanating from the pupil of the dominant eye, through the rear and front sights, and then visually pick up the target. Proper sight alignment of the two sights means that the top edge of the front sight is vertically centered in the notch of the rear sight and that there is an equal amount of white space on either side of the front sight post (“equal height, equal light”) (see the image, below. The “proper” sight picture shows a 6 o’clock hold, discussed later).
Sight picture is the placement of the properly aligned sights on the target (see the image, above). Once the front sight post and the rear sights are correctly aligned then you need to know where to place the sights on the target to get an accurate hit.
Where you place the sights on the target depends on the firearm you are using. Different firearms have different sight pictures that are manufactured into the guns. Some guns are accurate using a “combat hold” (also called a center hold) which positions the aligned sights to cover the exact center of the target) (image on the right). Guns sighted for a “target hold” are accurate when the front sight sits at the center bottom of the bullseye (six-o’clock hold) (image on the left). Often, handguns used for self-defense use the quicker but less precise combat hold.
Focus on the Front Sight
It is physiologically impossible for the human eye to clearly focus on three objects at the same time (rear sight, front sight, and target). So after you align your sights and acquire your sight picture what one thing do you need to focus on? If you said the front sight you are correct is you are taking your time to aim before you press off a shot (techniques called “point shooting” and “tactical accuracy,” discussed later, do not focus on the front sight.)
If you are focusing only on the gip on the front sight the rear sights and the target will be slightly blurred. If you are focusing on the rear sights, the front post and target will be slightly blurred. If you are focusing on the target your rear and front sights will be slightly blurred. You simply cannot focus on more than one object at the same time so don’t think you can very quickly switch back and forth between the two sights and the target and then shoot accurately.
As an aside, there are some shooting experts who believe that the sole focus should be on the target (read about that later in this article). There are pros and cons to that option, but for us we rely on the training we have received from highly skilled military shooters and our own experience as instructors. Focus on the front sight unless you are engaged in point shooting.
The images below, again, represent acceptable sight pictures. The image on the left is for paper targets at the range. The image on the right is for defensive shooting. Front and rear sights are aligned and placed on the center of the target. The front post is crystal clear. When you are shooting this is the image you need to create before you press the trigger. You may also want to view the video about sight alignment and sight picture.
Here’s a short video about sight alignment and sight picture.
Aiming in a Defensive Shooting Event
Much of what we discussed about sight alignment and sight picture is perfectly suited to training on a square range. What if you are out and about with your concealed carry handgun and you find yourself engaged in a defensive shooting event? Will you have time to align your sights and acquire an acceptable sight picture? Where do you focus your firearm in a self-defense situation? You must get accurate, well-placed shots off quickly to stop the threat and to end the gunfight quickly. Remember, it’s not the number of shots you take it’s the number of hits you make. The person who gets the first hit usually prevails.
If the deadly force encounter is beyond about 7-10 yards then you may be able to align your sights and acquire an acceptable sight picture while focusing on the front sight. Of course, situational factors and your expertise and preferences will affect that decision. A deadly force encounter, however, often only lasts several seconds and if the shooting is happening at 3 to 7 yards then you simply won’t have time to align your sights precisely and acquire an acceptable sight picture because of the speed of these deadly threats.
In these close-in fast moving deadly force encounters what do you focus on? What are the factors to help you make these decisions? There are two techniques that you might consider: the Flash Sight Picture (FSP) and Point Shooting (PS).
Flash Sight Picture
The flash sight picture technique is used for close encounters of 3 to 7 yards. In a high speed, close-in deadly force encounter you want rapid well-placed shots to stop the threat. With the flash sight picture technique you focus on the threat but you do not try to align your rear and front sights. All you do is focus on the front sight and focus quickly.
Quickly glance at the front sight in relation to the rear sight but don’t try to align them. Place the front sight on the center of the blurry target. Focus only on the front sight. This skill may seem uncomfortable or unnatural to those who are accustomed to aligning the sights and acquiring an acceptable sight picture. You might also be distracted by movement in front of you or even by the body language of the bad guy. You must train to develop the mental discipline and skill to use this technique. If you don’t train to master this technique you can get yourself killed.
As with the traditional aiming protocol the key to success is not to shoot a high volume of rounds but to shoot well-placed rounds to stop the threat. In an earlier post, shown below, we wrote about the stopping power of ammunition and told readers that the size of the round is not as important as accurate shot placement. Hits count, not shots fired.
Here is a short YouTube video of an interview with an instructor from Gunsight Academy about the flash sight picture technique.
Point Shooting Techniques
Point shooting is not the same as the flash sight picture technique. Point shooting does not use front or rear sights in deadly force encounters of less than three yards and you must act quickly, decisively, and aggressively. This technique must be practiced with great care. We have seen a YouTube video where a shooter is demonstrating the technique using a holster that requires the trigger finger to release the firearm from the holster. As he rapidly withdraw the gun from the holster the trigger finger slipped off the retention release and went right onto the trigger. He shot himself in the upper leg. He lived to tell about it with great embarrassment.
Another “surprise” when practicing this technique for the first time is the concussive force of the shot as it hits the target. It can be startling which can result in a negligent discharge.
Given the physiological changes in your body in a life and death encounter that include an adrenaline rush, a reduction in visual acuity, a reduction is peripheral vision, and depth perception, the impairment of reflexes, the reduction in fine motor skills, among others, using the point shooting technique beyond 3 yards will likely result in you missing your target. So, use point shooting for 2 to 3 yard distances, the flash sight picture technique when shooting at 3 to 10 yards, and sighted shooting for distances beyond 10 yards.
In the video below, Rob Leatham discusses point shooting.
The Front Sight “Lie”
In the interest of offering a counterpoint to sighted shooting you need to know that some experts do not believe in sighted shooting, especially for dealing with deadly force situations. These experts believe that training to defend yourself with a handgun using front sight-focused shooting is only a step toward a higher goal; that is, it is one step toward learning target-focused shooting.
Front Sight-Focused Shooting vs. Target-Focused Shooting
You read about front sight-focused shooting (sighted shooting and flash sight picture). With sighted shooting you align the sights and then acquire an acceptable sight picture. For flash sight shooting you focus only the front sight and place it in the center of the target.
Using target-focused shooting requires a different approach. First, a strong and correct proper grip on the handgun is crucial. You read about the importance of the grip in part 2 of this series. After you acquire a strong grip your next challenge is to acquire a sustained and intense focus on the intended target, not on the front sight. As you focus intently at the target the handgun is presented to match up with where your eyes are focused and then the trigger is pressed until it breaks a shot.
People who have survived lethal force encounters provide testimony that they are often unable to acquire the front sight but rather then focus on the target and aim their gun where their eyes are focused. Field experience, the latest research, technologically advanced training aids, and the overwhelming number of testimonies from those survivors of lethal encounters tell us that they maintained a clear focus on the intended target and allowed the sights on the handgun to be blurry.
Target focused shooting also apparently helps shooters to be aware of the dynamics of the situation; for example, where the target moves, how fast does he move, whether or not he has to reload, and so on. In a lethal force encounter the bad guy will be moving. You should be moving to cover too. It is challenging to track a moving target by focusing only the front sight according to those who argue for target-focused shooting.
Technical Accuracy vs. Tactical Accuracy
Target-focused advocates talk about two kinds of accuracy: technical accuracy and tactical accuracy. Technical accuracy is manufactured into the handgun. Each gun that is built undergoes a battery of tests to ensure that the gun functions as designed. The final test at the factory is to align the rear and front sights.
Tactical accuracy is about how your gun functions without taking well-aimed shots in a fast moving deadly encounter where events unfold unpredictably. Gun manufacturers cannot assess tactical accuracy because so much of it depends on the shooter’s physical build, stance, grip, eye sight, and ability to press the trigger. The experience of people who have survived a lethal force encounter is needed to assess the tactical accuracy of any handgun.
Another video by Rob Leatham talking about why aiming is useless which is the argument that the target-focused shooting experts believe.
Aiming increases your accuracy when shooting at paper or metal targets. Aiming involves aligning the rear and front sights and then placing the front sight on the target to acquire an acceptable sight picture while focusing solely on the front sight.
Aiming is affected by eye dominance. People can be left-eye or right-eye dominant or have central vision where there is not a dominant eye. Eye dominance can also change.
Visual acuity is also important. If you are using sight-focused shooting you must be able to see the front sight clearly, especially the “gip” (a tiny scratch, serration, or mark at the top edge of the front sight). If your vision prevents you from seeing the front sight you can get prescription lenses or reading glasses. If your vision is still not what it should be after using corrective lenses then you can use a red dot optical sight.
The traditional sighted shooting technique probably won’t help you survive a fast moving lethal force encounter at distances closer than 10 yards. The flash sight technique can be used at distances of 3 to 10 yards and point shooting should be used at distances of 2 to 3 yards.
We also pointed out that focusing on the front sight has critics. Those critics point out the difference between technical accuracy (achieved through the manufacturing process) and tactical accuracy (documented by those who survived a deadly force situation). The critics’ arguments are based on reports from gun fight survivors who claim that they did not use or even see their front sights. Rather, they pointed their gun at the target and focused intently on that target with laser-like focus. Advocates of this technique believe that it is easier to track a moving target and to hit it using this technique.
In part 4 of this series we will explore the challenges of manipulating the trigger correctly, recovering sight alignment, and follow-through (there are some shooting experts who believe that trigger manipulation is the key to shooting accurately).