One persistent piece of gun shop lore is that it’s impossible to use your sights under the stress of a violent encounter. Entire alternative shooting systems have been built around this idea and many of the arguments used to perpetuate the myth seem convincing at first, especially to those who are still learning gun fighting basics. While it is true that you can learn to make hits without using your sights, particularly when both you and your target are stationary, all of the alternative, sightless methods of shooting fall apart quickly when movement is introduced and distances increase. People tend to start moving pretty fast once a shot is fired, or even before, and hitting moving targets should be something we can do on demand. Unless you are very lucky, this generally requires using sights, and believe it or not, with practice it is possible.
Using Sights in the Real World
When I was still in uniformed patrol, I happened to be about a block away when another officer pulled into a restaurant parking lot just as two men were pulling masks over their face and getting ready to enter the restaurant. One had already drawn a handgun. When the suspects saw the marked car, they ran and immediately split up. The other officer chased the one who went east, and I saw the one who went north jump a fence into an apartment complex.
I gave chase and the suspect ran down into a creek, tripped in the mud on the opposite bank, and then flipped over on his back. It was night time, but the moon and a street light on a nearby bridge provided sufficient light for us to see each other clearly. The world slowed down for me as he reached into his waistband. I was approximately 30 yards behind him as I drew my pistol, brought it to eye level, and transitioned from focusing on him to focusing on the front sight. As I was pulling the trigger my subconscious screamed out to me that something wasn’t right. I focused back on the suspect and realized what he pulled out of his waistband was a cell phone. I believe you could classify being in a foot chase with an armed robbery suspect, alone, in the dark, and having to decide whether to shoot or not shoot qualifies as a stressful event. Yet, I was able to transition from target to sight to target for the simplest of reasons. I was trained to, and I had been through realistic force on force training that had made focusing on my sights instinctive.
I’ve spoken to a multitude of officers and armed citizens who have fired their weapons under stress. In one particularly relevant story, a rookie officer, still in his first few months on the street, was confronted by an armed suspect firing from behind a car door. The rookie had cover and was returning fire. In his own words, “I fired 5 to 6 shots very quickly, realized I was not being effective, and then slowed down and really concentrated on the front sight.” After the initial shock of being fired on dissipated, he was able to realize why he was being ineffective, fall back on his training, and use his sight to get good hits and survive the encounter.
Massad Ayoob relates similar conversations in this 2014 article in which he says, “I’ve lost count of how many gunfights I’ve studied where the survivor said something like, ‘I was pointing the gun and firing as best I could and nothing was happening. Then I remembered to aim with my sights, and the other guy went down and it was over.’”
John McPhee, the owner of SOB Tactical, confirms that it is not only possible to use your sights in actual gunfights, but it is key to your success. John, a retired special operations soldier with extensive combat experience from Bosnia and Iraq, has related to me that he was able to use his sights during stressful situations. In addition, when witnessing other soldiers shoot, they were obviously using their sights even if they had no conscious awareness of doing so. In his words, “Gun comes to the eye, shots are taken and gun is lowered. How does a guy bring the sight to his eye and not see it and… shoot perfect shots?” John also makes no bones that training to use your sights is imperative for success in combat shooting. “You have to train to see the sights every shot. When the time comes, you will do it so fast that the brain’s subconscious will do all this quicker than the conscious can even remember it.”
Getting the Most From Your Sights
Gabe White is one of the most technically proficient shooters I’ve ever known. Gabe shoots Master class in USPSA Limited using normal every day carry equipment and is currently the only person worldwide to land a perfect score on the Rogers Shooting School Test from concealment. He also confirms the need to use sights to get accurate hits while moving. An example of his proficiency can be seen here:
Gabe states that under the stress of competition, which he lists as mental wanderings, self-doubt, nervousness, fear, and anxiety (what can be called “social stress” and causes the same physiological response as “threat to life stress” despite different triggers), he can and does use his sights because he has trained to do so. Gabe’s trained ability to quickly find and use his sights allows him to perform at the level he does. He states, “There is frequently very little, or no actual time difference between aiming the gun using the sights — which is the most precise and certain way to aim the gun — and just sticking the gun out there, not aiming at all, and whacking on the trigger. There is usually a huge accuracy difference, however.”
Much of the staying power this myth has is based on the history of highly visible and prestigious law enforcement agencies, such as the FBI or OSS, utilizing sightless fire. It’s telling is that none of these units, or their modern equivalents, still teach unsighted fire for anything other than extreme close quarters fighting. Training techniques in professional organizations adapt as they improve methods and tactics (often from blood lessons) and equipment improves. In case you missed it in Chris’s post earlier this week, take a look at this clip from a 1950’s FBI training film:
More than just the width of a man’s tie has changed since then. Does the FBI still teach to shoot strong hand only instead of two handed when both hands are available? Does the FBI still teach their agents to have their finger on the trigger when they are covering someone but not ready to shoot? To remain stationary while shooting? To adopt an aggressive crouch in place instead of seeking cover? To target the lower abdomen? I happen know a few FBI agents in both personal and professional capacities, so I went ahead and asked them these questions. They are not really supposed to divulge training techniques outside of the Bureau, so I won’t name names. The answers were always some variation of “no”, often followed by laughing and head shaking like I’d just asked if their partner was a talking dog. None of these techniques remain in training today, including sightless shooting. Why? Because we have better options. Do you want to use 1960s techniques or take advantage of decades of advancement of the science of gunfighting and use today’s best practices?
Some folks in the 1960’s and earlier already knew the advantage of sighted fire. However, the tools available were often lacking and didn’t support the better technique. Small sights that were difficult to acquire, particularly in low light situations, made point shooting the best option in a lot of circumstances for early gunfighters. Take a look at the sights on a standard police double action revolver from yesteryear versus the sights of a modern pistol.
Given that today’s pistol sights are significantly easier to acquire and offer a sighting system that is visible in all lighting conditions, why would you not take advantage of that advancement in equipment? As equipment changes, so can tactics that take advantage of the new capabilities.
In closing, both John and Gabe state that any type of sights will do, assuming you train with them. Both emphasize the need to work with the sights until use occurs at the subconscious level. John’s personal preference is a single tritium dot front sight and plain rear. Gabe believes all sight systems have pros and cons that you need to match up to your own needs, vision, and preferences, but he prefers the three dot set up as the most useful for most users in most situations. My own testing and experience validate this and will be addressed in more detail in a future article. User-friendly sights paired with consistent practice will help ensure that those sights can be depended upon to help you make an accurate shot when you need it most.