June 15, 2022
By Jeremy Stafford
Because we are living in the Golden Age of affordable, quality firearms instruction, it’s easy to forget that the front-line instructors are, collectively, us! While we mean well, and can usually shoot well, many non-professional instructors have difficulty explaining key topics to friends and family members. New shooters are often unfamiliar with our shooting jargon; some may not even know what the “front sight” is. Like many of Guns & Ammo’s readers, my father and my best friend’s dad spent hours teaching me how to shoot as I was growing up. Unfortunately, too many of today’s new gun owners are not as fortunate, but they still need a helping hand.
Two of the most arduous concepts to impress on new shooters are sight picture and sight alignment. On paper, it seems easy. For sight alignment, we U.S. Marines had to memorize: “Center the tip of the front sight post vertically and horizontally in the rear sight!” For sight picture, “Place the top of the front sight post in relation to the target while maintaining sight alignment, sir!”
“Sight alignment” is the relationship of the front sight within the rear sight’s notch, groove or aperture. With perfect handgun sight alignment, the front sight post is centered in the rear sight, level across the top and with equal spacing on each side. The axiom “Equal height, equal light” is still warranted.
“Sight picture” is taking sight alignment and factoring the shooter’s eye and the target. The shooter should focus on the front sight; the rear sight and the target will appear slightly out of focus, yet clear enough to provide verification of where the shooter intends for the projectile to impact. Within the definition of “sight alignment,” there are several variations. “Flash sight picture” is a term coined by Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper wherein the shooter accelerates the act of focusing on the front sight and settles on a coarse sight picture that provides an acceptable trade-off between precision and speed. While this concept is easy to read and understand (theoretically), applying it often requires further explanation and practical demonstration.
As an instructor for the Los Angeles Police Department, and privately, I’ve helped thousands of recruits and students through the fundamentals. Though I spent hours explaining and reinforcing sight management, practical application drills usually revealed that shooters broke their focus on the front sight or misaligned the sights. The primary issues were always rooted in trigger management, but that’s a subject for another article.
Running trigger drill No. 1 — i.e., the shooter holds the pistol and aligns the sights while instructor presses the trigger — is a quick way for an instructor to determine if the sights are aligned correctly. However, to determine if the shooter is focusing on the front sight is more difficult; it requires effective communication and accurate target diagnosis. A shooter’s target will often show evidence of “haloing” around the intended target if the shooter is breaking focus. Another clue is a loose shot group; it may be centered, but it is usually a larger size than expected if the shooter is showing good trigger manipulation. Communicating with the student is critical, it’s also where many instructors — and helpful friends — fail.
Using words to explain these nuanced concepts can be done, but it may take time and be inefficient. Crudely made training aids and drawings or photos are helpful, but not always ideal. The best training tools I’ve found for explaining the fundamentals of sight alignment and sight picture (as well as diagnosis) come from TrainingSights (trainingsights.com). These instructional aids are screen-printed plastic overlays, and can be used to reproduce the common sight pictures. Separate sheets for front sights and rear sights, as well as different red dots and familiar silhouettes are offered. TrainingSights also has options available for scope reticles and bodies. The days of pointing to cardboard posters or using your fingers to explain sight use are behind us.
For demonstration purposes, lay the training aids over a target to illustrate what the sights should look like. Once the coach shows the shooter what they should be seeing, the coach can remove the training sights, hand them to a shooter, and ask them to place the overlays on the target to demonstrate their understanding. It takes just a couple of moments, but these yield fantastic results among students.
When diagnosing shooter error, the instructor also has several options. Asking a student to line up the training sights to replicate what they’re seeing benefits the instructor. Shooters will often show me exactly what they are doing wrong. A coach can also lay the training sights on top of a student’s actual shot group to identify what they may be doing wrong, and then use the overlays to illustrate how to fix the problem.
For shooters learning how to use red dots, the training sights can be used to show proper sight picture and illustrate that the dot does not have to be centered within the optic’s window. Not having to center the dot in the optic’s window is a difficult concept for many shooters to understand. The ability to demonstrate the concept to a shooter using an electronic sight for the first time saves time.
I have used TrainingSights’ products with groups of shooters ranging from experienced law enforcement to individuals picking up a gun for the first time. My experience has been positive with great feedback. TrainingSights are also available in different sight colors and styles; you can build a set to match the shooter’s setup. At less than $10 a set, they represent a great value. As pistol sights evolve, so can our training tools.
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