This article was contributed by Warren Wilson, a lieutenant with metropolitan police department in Oklahoma. He is a former SWAT team leader, current firearms instructor and writer. He has been a full-time law enforcement officer since 1996.
“That’s the first time I’ve ever seen it explained that way,” a relatively experienced student told me after a classroom lecture covering the use of sights. She told me she had a little better understanding by the way I’d presented it. It would be nice to be able to say that’s because of my teaching prowess, but it’s really just because a lot goes into shooting a pistol well and there’s always something to be learned. Experienced and new shooters alike should review those fundamentals regularly.
Let’s take a look at sights and their proper use. I’d like to start out by apologizing to all the instructors from whom I’m about to plagiarize. After a while, it’s difficult to remember where you learned everything.
It should go without saying that one should never start working with firearms until receiving training from a qualified instructor – not your significant other or uncle who used to be in the military or law enforcement, but a qualified instructor who is intimately familiar with the four firearms safety rules.
Before getting too far afield, it’s important to be aware of your eye dominance. Many people are cross-eye dominant. For example, they are right-handed while being left eye dominant. Shooting with one’s non-dominant eye can be difficult for some. If you’re not certain which is your dominant eye, check out Top Shot Chris Cheng’s excellent video here:
Sight Picture vs. Sight Alignment
You’ve likely heard the terms, “sight alignment” and “sight picture.” We’ll discuss sight alignment in more detail below, but it’s essentially the relationship of your front and rear sights. Sight picture is the relationship of your sights to the target. In other words, after your sights are aligned, they still must be properly aimed at the target throughout the trigger pull.
Picture the top of the front sight horizontally splitting the hole you’re about to make in the target. If the sights are perfectly aligned but not on target, you will miss. If your front sight is on target, but not properly aligned with the rear sights, same. Proper sight alignment and proper sight picture are equally important and dependent upon each other for solid marksmanship.
Equal Height, Equal Light
We’ve all seen illustrations and photos of good sight alignment. I’ve included my personal version here. You should see an equal amount of light between the sight posts (called “light bars”) and equal height of the front and rear sight. That is good sight alignment. After you can obtain both good sight alignment and a good sight picture, it’s all up to your trigger finger. In fact, a proper trigger pull is probably more important than a perfect sight picture and alignment.
Look at the picture included above. You’ll notice it’s good, but not perfect. Yours never will be either. Don’t worry too much about perfection, because it doesn’t exist.
The importance of a hard focus on the front sight cannot be overstated when working on improving your pistol shooting. It’s not only important for marksmanship, but for follow through during and after the shot. You should be able to detect even the slightest flaws on your front sight. Focus on the front sight “like you’re trying to read a serial number off of it,” says my friend, Jerry Jones, of Operation Specific Training.
A great dry fire practice exercise to sharpen up your front sight focus is called the Wall Drill. The Wall Drill is much like any other dry fire practice, except it is done only an inch or two away from a blank wall with no particular aiming point. That requires the student to focus on the front sight.
I tell my students to embrace their front sight like they would their childhood Woobie. (I know you had some variation of an emotional support object when you were a kid.) You can never be happy during or immediately after firing a shot until you have your Woobie in perfect focus. Before during and after the shot breaks, always be trying to find your Woobie.
Lines and Boxes and Circles, Oh My!
Tom Givens is one of many great instructors I’ve had the pleasure of training with. He taught me something during his Handgun Instructor Development class that helped me a great deal. Tom teaches not just to focus on the front sight, but the top edge of the front sight (remember, that edge is where we want our bullet to strike).
The key is to let your mind process the front sight as a line because it takes less brain strain to process lines than it does squares or circles. Which leads me to another shape: circles. If your semi-automatic gun comes with those silly white dots sights as so many do, I highly recommend you black them out with a marker. All they do is add one more distraction we don’t need.
The Gun Range
After your dry fire practice, go to the range and work those fundamentals live fire. Avoid the instant gratification of steel targets when you’re perfecting your marksmanship. Only paper targets will provide the kind of feedback necessary to hone your skills. Steel targets are fun, but they make the same beautiful music with marginal hits as they do with solid hits. Paper targets never lie.
I hope this helps. Be safe and have fun, in that order.