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Front Sight Focus: Myth or Mandatory?

A lifelong study of gunfights confirms that handgun sights are critical, but maybe not for the reasons you think. Consider this holistic approach to accurate shooting to better understand the role of pistol sights and how they may save your life.

Front Sight Focus: Myth or Mandatory?

The author demonstrates drawing to a close retention position during one of his classes. There will be times the gun cannot be brought to the eye/target line and it will become important to know what proper alignment feels like. (Dave Spaulding photo)

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I've studied armed conflict my entire adult life. My quest began unexpectedly as I went through the basic police academy in 1976. Most of my basic firearm training was spent preparing for the Practical Pistol Course (PPC), which consisted of “realistic phases,” such as prone at 60 yards, kneeling at 50 yards, and hip shooting at 5 yards. I admit, I knew nothing about gunfighting at the time, unless you consider 1960s television “training,” but what I was doing didn't make sense to me.

If you have been in one of my classes, you have probably heard the story of my sitting down with my father to talk about my training concerns regarding what I was being taught having little to do with shooting to save my life. My dad, who was a WWII veteran and a proud member of the American Legion, said, “You want to know about gunfighting? Go down to my Legion Hall, there are lots guys who can answer your questions.” Huh, good idea, so off I went.

The first man I spoke with was an elderly WWI veteran. Ironically, probably about the same age I am now. Although he was reluctant to talk about his wartime experiences, once he understood what I, the “cop kid,” really wanted, he invited me to sit with him. “I'll buy you a beer,” he said. Then, with a tear in his eye and a shaking hand, he told me what it was like to fight in a muddy trench with a bayonet on his rifle, and the fear that filled his heart as he watched the Germans come over the top. He also told me what it was like to fight in a 4-foot diameter tunnel with an entrenching tool and nothing else. I've never forgotten what he told me that day and I never will.

Early Contrast Sights
The author’s version of an early contrasting front sight, circa 1989. He used stick-on warning tape and then trimmed the center and edges. (Dave Spaulding photo)

Since that time, I've spoken with hundreds of people: cops, soldiers, Marines, armed citizens, and, yes, felons who've been involved in armed conflict. I made it a study to take in what they heard, felt, and saw. I didn’t do this to discover the ultimate answer to gunfighting; I did it to prepare myself for what I might face as I worked the streets. The stories were so compelling that I could not stop, and I continue searching out firsthand accounts to this day.

During 35 years of law enforcement, I've seen my share of adversity and faced a few threats to my life along the way. When combined with my interviews, those experiences have led me to some conclusions about what’s needed to prevail in a gunfight. These conclusions might not jive with other studies, but I don't care — I know what I know. I've taught these lessons to the students I've instructed, and the feedback I've received from those who’ve used the skills and information has been most encouraging.

Revolver Sights
Revolver sights of the 1970s and '80s were actually quite good! No, tritium inserts were not the norm, but the sights were highly visible anyway. The red front and notch rear sight are quick to align and easy to see, which is why companies still use the arrangement today, as on this Ruger Redhawk. (Photos by Joe Kurtenbach)

One question I've always asked is, “Do you remember using the sights on your gun?” I've found that the answer is directly related to the gun used. For example, those who used a long gun remember achieving some type of sight picture, especially those in a battlespace. With current generation optics, this is even more so the case. It also isn’t really surprising, as few are taught to shoot a long gun from the hip. In addition, long-gun conflicts often occur at longer distances (no, not always), and time and distance better allows the use of sights.

I've also found those who used service-size revolvers remember some type of sight picture, but not necessarily the clear textbook version. I’ve been told something like, “I remember a red splotch in front of my eyes,” or, “There was a green and black glob in my field of vision,” referring to the red, orange, or green plastic inserts that were common on the front sights of Smith & Wesson and Ruger revolvers of the past. The bright plastic front sight insert was one of the most common aftermarket modifications of that era.

Ameriglo CAP sights
The author was deeply involved in the creation of the Ameriglo CAP (Combative Application Pistol) sight. The square-in-square sight system mimicked what was found on earlier revolver sights. The rear sight line as added by popular demand. The author prefers the serrated, plain-black rear. (Ameriglo photos)

The group that least remembers their sights are those who used a semiautomatic pistol. Remember, early auto pistols had sights so diminutive they were useless. In more recent years, I have wondered if lack of sight use was due to the visually confusing sights that are often standard. Factory pistol sights are typically three white dots or a white dot on top of a white bar. They are great for target shooting, but how good are they when you must quickly “get on” the sights in a pandemonium-filled event? At the close distances of the normal handgun fight, a precise sight picture is not essential, but it sure is nice to have some type of muzzle-alignment reference!

This was the primary thought behind the development of the Ameriglo CAP (Combative Application Pistol) sight, a project I was deeply involved in. One breakthrough has to be credited to an eye surgeon who was not a shooter. After looking at several popular sight configurations, he commented, “You’re trying to line up straight edges, right? Then why have you placed round dots on the sights? It’s optically confusing.” Thus, we made the CAP’s brightly colored front sight insert square, so it would easily align with a square rear sight window, much like the sights on popular police service revolvers of the past. Over the years, I have received a number of reports from people who have used the sights in actual gunfights and the reports have been quite encouraging. Today, fiber-optic-filled iron sights are growing in popularity and I think this is just fine, provided the rear sight does not optically “confuse” access to a quick front sight “reference.”

Body and Sight alignment
Aligning the eyes, sights, and target is the optimal position for accurate handgun shooting. Learning and achieving the feel of a good shooting position can make accurate shooting possible, even with a sub-optimal sight picture. (Dave Spaulding photo)

Remember this: The single most important thing you can do in a gunfight is get the gun between you and your opponent. This first step has nothing to do with sights whatsoever, and everything to do with presence of mind and the engrained physical mechanics of drawing and presenting a defensive firearm. Once accomplished, the goal becomes aligning the muzzle of the firearm with the threat and depressing the trigger in such a way that you do not pull the muzzle off target — easier said than done. During the combative application of the pistol, the only role any sighting system plays, regardless of its configuration, is tell you where the muzzle is pointed. Ideally, the sights are used to refine the alignment of gun towards those relatively small areas of the body that, when hit, can cause rapid incapacitation and stop the threat.

Recommended


Close Contact Aim
Unloaded firearm, for demonstration only. Remember, job one is to get the gun between you and the threat. While not a classic sight picture, a felt body index is a form of aiming in the author’s view. Close-contact shooting is merely another form of combative pistolcraft. (Dave Spaulding photo)

In training, using the sights is critical because it is the best method to learn, and confirm, how to align the body for a target-focused shot. Yes, use the sights to confirm muzzle alignment, but also take notice of how it feels to align the gun correctly. By paying attention to both the sights and the body, isn’t it probable the gun will still arrive where you need it, even if the sights are not seen? Truth be told, you are far more likely to miss due to poor trigger control or bad grip than lack of sight picture, and practicing with the sights is the best way to teach the body to properly align the gun and then control the trigger.

At the risk of angering a few folks, I am just going to say it: Everybody point shoots! Now, before you tune me out, let me explain. Sights are not utilized until the handgun is at or near full extension. Perhaps you catch a glimpse in the peripheral during presentation, it can help confirm alignment but is far from a complete sight picture. So, what gets the gun to the place where you can fully use your chosen sight system? That’s right, practiced body alignment which, at full presentation, is confirmed by the sights.

Point shooting position
Unless you are literally on top of your target, shooting positions like this should be avoided as an incapacitating hit would be a matter of luck. Point shooting is a reality for everyone, but this isn't what the author talking about when he uses the term. (Dave Spaulding photo)

My point, here, is that the felt, physical aspects of shooting are grossly underrated! Knowing how it feels to properly align the pistol is a must for combat shooting, especially if you are in motion during your fight, which is very likely.

Moving from irons to electro-optics, I hear folks complain about how hard it is to find the dot, the reticle, in their carry optics. My advice, instead of spastically “rocketing” the gun to the target and having it bounce around at the end of extension, try deliberately placing the muzzle where you want it and just let the dot go along for the ride. No, the readout on the timer might not be as pleasing, at least at first, but the shot will be more accurate, and you won’t have to hope for a good hit. This is the case for iron sights as well, don’t chase a sight picture, instead learn to place the gun where you can see and use the sights. Remember, all any sight system does is tell you where the muzzle is pointed, and muzzle alignment is what produces an accurate shot.

Carry optics
Carry optics are the pistol sight system of the 21st century. The reason is obvious, the bright dot is easy to see and allows a target focus while still maintaining a sight picture. (Dave Spaulding photo)

Many competitive shooters have told me they like black-on-black sights, which are fine if you know what color your targets will be. After all, a black sight configuration on a white target background is a form of contrasting sights to my way of thinking. However, if the target color varies, having a sight that’s a high visibility, contrasting color will help the eyes find it and use it. It might not be totally clear, but anything that helps assure a shooter their muzzle is where they need it is worth exploring. The concept proves to be even more important as a shooter ages, and their eyes are no longer as sharp as they once were. Trust me here, I have spent decades learning how to depress a trigger straight to the rear only to discover I now can’t see the sights. A brightly colored front sight or a bright, glowing dot really helps.

Ameriglo Fiber Optics
Fiber optic sights are currently quite popular on combat pistols. These sights are effective in everything but dark environments. If the rear sight is uncluttered, the bright front is easy to find. (Ameriglo photos)

If your current sight system works for you, don't mess with it. But if you're concerned about whether or not you can find your sights quickly during the scariest few seconds of your life, or you've noticed that the sights disappear when you're training at a rapid pace, give the contrasting front sight system a look to see if it helps. Seldom do I recommend a change of gear as a training solution but it is ok to make a change if it actually enhances performance. Jut consider carefully.

Sound Off

What sights work best for you? Do you train for a hard front sight focus? Where do you land on point shooting? Let us know by emailing gaeditor@outdoorsg.com and use "Sound Off" in the subject line.




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