The concept of sight alignment and sight picture are both relatively easy for shooters to understand. Learning the skills involved with aligning the sights and placing them on target is much easier than is learning the skills involved with proper grip and trigger press. With that said, the discussion of sight alignment and sight picture usually gets only brief treatment in anything other than absolute beginner level training. While the concept is simpler than learning the other fundamentals, it is still of vital importance and many shooters never learn the more practical application of this fundamental as it applies to shooting in a self-defense manner.
The sad truth remains that few gun owners ever take serious defensive handgun training, and most who do spend any amount of time shooting do so with only slow fire at close range targets. While accuracy is vitally important, the equation of speed never even enters the mind of the average gun owner. When we begin to get fast in our shooting, as becomes necessary when dealing with violence, the application of sight alignment and picture change substantially.
Defining the Terms
Sight alignment refers to the actual alignment of the front and rear sight, a concept that tends to go away with the use of a red dot sight, but here we are addressing iron sights on a handgun. Generally, to shoot accurately to point of aim we want “equal height, equal light.” This means we want the top of the front sight aligned with the top of the rear sights, and we want the front sight sitting in the middle of the notch of the rear sight, not off to one side or the other. This is simple enough in theory, and it is easy enough to get such sight alignment when taking any amount of time to do so.
Sight picture refers to the position of these aligned sights in reference to the target. Generally, handguns are sighted in so that the bullet will impact precisely where the top of the front sight sits when the sights are aligned. Bear in mind that different loads and bullet weights can make a huge difference in point-of-impact and some loads may not shoot that that point of aim in a given gun. Load selection and the sights might need to be adjusted for a particular gun.
Sight Picture and Alignment for Defensive Shooting
So, with this principle in place, what may or may not be self-evident is that when we introduce speed while at closer distances we can compromise the precision of the sight alignment. What is far more important to our ability to make hits is our grip and trigger press. A sight picture that is roughly on the target area, yet with imperfect sight alignment, will get hits as long as we control the trigger press.
When shooting at speed at closer ranges we often speak of a “flash sight picture.” This refers to the technique of seeing the sights superimposed on the target area but getting only a brief momentary glance of the sights before making the shot. Your eyes and brain can see and process this sight picture far faster than you may realize.
As an example, when I shoot a drill that calls for multiple shots fired into the down-zero area of an IDPA or similar target, which is roughly an eight-inch circle, I am able to land all hits within that target area with a flash sight picture. Out to seven yards, I can do this while shooting at a pace of split times that are .20 seconds or less (that is 20/100s of a second). As fast as those split times are I am seeing a sight picture for each shot, but it is just an instant verification of the sights on that target area. This, however, is all we need for this kind of shooting if we are controlling the trigger and have a good grip on the gun.
If we need to make a more accurate shot, say to the ocular cavity of a threat at seven yards, or the same eight-inch target area but at 25 yards, we now need to slow down enough to get a more precise sight alignment and picture if we wish to make that hit. Therefore, a good focus on equal height and equal light is certainly germane to defensive shooting, but the vast majority of gun owners and occasional shooters never broach the technique of shooting fast with only a flash sight picture.
So, being able to transition from a flash sight picture cadence of shooting for close-in larger targets, to a more precise sight alignment and picture for smaller or farther targets, is part of the skillset of an advancing shooter. While acquiring an exact sight alignment and picture is something even novice shooters tend to know how to do, using a flash sight picture for fast shooting is something they never work with. Also, the mechanics of grip and trigger control, which are much more difficult to develop than is acquiring a sight picture, is rarely developed and handgun accuracy remains elusive for the shooter that only practices occasionally.
If you have not worked with these concepts of flash sight picture for fast, yet accurate, close-range shooting be sure to seek out some training with a good instructor to get you on your way to doing so. Being accurate is very important, but being accurate at speed gives you the true advantage that few have.