Should You Always Use Your Sights in Self-Defense Shooting?

Should You Always Use Your Sights in Self-Defense Shooting?

Some say that sights on your handgun are there for a purpose and that you should always use your sights in self-defense encounters. Others say that it is NOT always necessary or even best to use your sights in a gunfight. Recently, I received a note from a reader that said it is false for a firearms instructor to state that you should not use your sights in some encounters, since you should always line up your front and rear sights and use them. Well, it certainly is important and makes sense to use your sights if you can all the time. Seems this debate has been going on for quite awhile on websites. But, do you ALWAYS use your sights? Are there times when NOT using your sights is acceptable and even prudent? In other words, is point shooting without your sights a desirable technique for effectively placing rounds on the threat? Do some situations call for NOT aligning your sights and NOT getting a sight picture? I am anxious to learn your thoughts about this in the comments section at the end of this article.

Here are my ideas and some important research conclusions from some professional psychologists and researchers. I believe that in a stressful encounter which quickly surprises someone, the emotional defender may NOT be able to control his sight alignment process and respond appropriately and in a timely manner to get the needed hits. If someone is trying to kill you and you are stressed with much adrenaline pumping, it will be very difficult (even with some training) to take your eyes off the bad guy/gal target and focus on the front sight. We all know the “Body Alarm Reaction” (BAR) changes that occur during high levels of stress. One classic BAR research study by Dr. Edward Godnig with the Police Policy Studies Council in 2004 summarized some changes that occur under stress. He reports the following changes that affect shooters during high stress encounters:

  1. Narrowing of attention span and range of perceived alternatives,
  2. Reduction in problem-solving capabilities,
  3. Oversight of long-term consequences,
  4. Inefficiency in information search strategies,
  5. Difficulties in focusing & maintaining attention to fine detail discrimination, and
  6. Temporary loss of fine visual-motor skills (e.g. eye-hand coordination) with intense fear.

Dr. Godnig’s research concludes that the eye focusing system (accommodation) loses it ability to maintain clear focus on targets at close distances, when a shooter is threatened by a dangerous situation, like combat and violent encounters. He says it is not possible during the first few seconds after entering into the BAR to clearly focus upon the front sights of a gun. A shooter’s visual focusing and attention is drawn to focus toward far distant viewing, toward infinity. This focusing change toward far distant focus is a direct result of the change from parasympathetic nervous system control to sympathetic nervous system control, he says. During the stages of the BAR, the lens becomes less convex in shape and this results in an optical shift of focus resulting in clear focus only while viewing distant targets, according to Dr. Godnig. Remember the 3-3-3 Rule… that the majority of all deadly-force encounters happen at 3 yards or less, with 3 rounds usually fired, and in 3 seconds. So 3 yards or less is considered close distance by most. Dr. Godnig says there are also significant changes in the cortisol hormone that contribute to energy, muscle function, and physiological changes that explain the perceptual changes called “tunnel vision” and “perceptual narrowing”. Humans have an innate tendency to narrow attention upon a threat during extreme stress and experience “tunnel vision.” This impairs sighting and focus and influences hits.

Dr. Bill Lewinski, executive director of the Force Science Institute and police psychologist and researcher, said in 2015 that it’s important to understand that “using your sights in a gunfight is not always necessary or even desirable for effectively placing rounds.” In a panic situation, where an officer is caught in a threat by surprise and perhaps overwhelmed by emotion, he or she may not be able to respond with sufficient control to attain a sight picture in the fraction of time available, he says. There are changes to the eye under stress that can make sighting more difficult, but with the right training these can be overcome. Dr. Lewinski also says our research with equipment that tracks eye movement shows that sighted fire can be accomplished even under intense stress. He says it’s important to understand that using your sights in a gunfight is not always necessary or even desirable. He says “If you don’t get a sight picture at 20 feet and beyond, your ability to shoot accurately is likely to be seriously impaired. That’s actually not very far in real world settings — down a hallway or across some rooms.”

Dr. Lewinski concluded that at distances where most gunfights occur (less than 20 feet), trying to use your sights may take too long; by the time you’re sighted in, your target may have moved. “At less than 20 feet, you’re probably best to fix your gaze on your target and quickly drive your gun up to align with that line of view, firing unsighted.

Obviously, to do this successfully requires training and a great deal of consistent practice, responding to force-on-force scenarios at various distances that develop realistically in terms of action, movement, fundamentals, and speed. This will help you learn to identify the common patterns of an evolving threat so you can be prepared in advance as much as possible. Training and practice, practice, … and don’t forget PRACTICE… with SAFETY FIRST.

Point shooting is a simple and intuitive technique that is based on natural hand-eye coordination, rather than the sights. If you look at a close target and then point your index finger at it, your finger naturally points at what your eye is focusing on. Point shooting is named that because you don’t bring the handgun up to your eyes, you only bring it up and “point” using your finger at the target. Usually you will be able to hit a close target without using the sights, since the bad guy/gal may be so close that you do not have the time and cannot draw your weapon to eye level. Point shooting can be from the hip or from the chest level at retention. Two tips I learned are (1) pull your elbow into your ribcage to help index the gun and (2) rotate your firing hand away from your body to lessen the chance of interfering with the recoiling slide.

Over time, you can learn how threat situations develop and be able to anticipate what, where, when, and how the situation will progress and what technique is best. This, in turn, through your training will build in you the ability to react automatically — without conscious thought — either WITH or WITHOUT the use of your sights, depending on the dynamic situational variables you face. It is important, of course, to understand the point shooting technique, as well the fundamentals of sight alignment and sight picture, before you employ either. I believe that you should first know the basics of sight alignment and sight picture before you attempt to use point shooting. See my chapters on defensive shooting and the methods to use for shooting in the 2016 second printing of my book “Concealed Carry & Handgun Essentials for Personal Protection.”

With training and practice, you can be better equipped to plan ahead and respond appropriately with instinctive point shooting, flash sight picture shooting, or sighted fire, etc. Remember, in most situations, you should use the sights on your gun if you can. But if you are very close to the threat and he/she is within arms length or a few feet, point shooting may be the best technique to employ. Your goal is to stop the threat and get hits on the target quickly.

SITUATIONAL AWARENESS and shot placement are key.

Photo by author.

Note: This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and a certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.   

© 2016 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected]

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  • msg51

    We will tell investigators that the bad guy killed the good guy, because the good guy didn’t get a good sight picture. I would guess that most defense shooting will be point and shoot, no sight needed.

    • Reformed_2

      As an older retired LEO we were trained in point & shoot from the three yard line back to 10 yards. After that distance we used our sights. You might be surprised to discover how effective P&S can be when practiced and how much quicker you can get off your first round.

  • redderek

    When practicing I do a couple of exercises. And to start, no firing of the gun is required – be sure no bullets in chamber or magazine.
    1. Start with the gun in holster or on a platform.
    2. Quickly draw and point. Then stop! Do not move the gun.
    3. Now look at where the sights are pointing.
    If you are pointing at the target, good. Otherwise, learn what adjustments are needed to allow you to point on the target without the sights.

    This requires grabbing the gun and getting it into the hand consistently.

    The second exercise is at the range. Set up 4 smaller targets on the paper target and give them arbitrary numbers such as 1, 2, 3, 4. Then start with the gun in the holster or on a platform. Then someone calls out two numbers and the goal is to draw and shoot at those two numbers. Start slow and work the speed up so that accuracy can be developed.

    • Bdpenn

      Proper flash sight shooting. Start at the low ready timed for 2 seconds bring up the gun with eyes on front sight shoot into center of mass. Start with a standard piece of typing paper at 3 then 7 yards. After you are able to place all of you shots in 2 seconds each on the paper change to a 9 inch paper plate. Usually 20 consistant shots at 2 seconds each is a good round. Keep practicing to close in your groups. If your carring you should become second hand with this skill. Also practice just as hard using both sights together remembering to fully focus on the front sight only. Yes the rear sight and the target will be fuzzy. Your eyes can only focus on one object at a time make it the front sight for accuracy. Both sight picture skills must be mastered and imprinted into muscle memory. If the time comes let your brain take the lead. You need to be thinking about cover.
      Go to the holster only after you master this skill from low ready.
      Always use your sights and if you got 2 working eyes work at using both while shooting. You’ll be surprised how much bright the field of view becomes and increasing your proifial vision is increased.
      Bottom line if your gonna point and shoot, point the front sight at center mass with both eyes open. Good shooting.

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  • Green Hornet

    The only PHD I have is in my shed, Post Hole Digger
    I’d say you need to understand sight alignment but each situation will call for a different response
    That being said I see Point and Shoot the most likely response
    I say you need a gun that you can draw, point & shoot and reasonably hit the target
    I practice this with and without my glasses on as in the night you may be suprised
    I find some guns do not give me the Point & Shoot as well as others
    just saying
    good luck to all
    stay safe

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