Sighted vs. Reflexive (unsighted) Fire – Part 1

Sighted vs. Reflexive (unsighted) Fire - Part 1

Sighted vs. Reflexive (unsighted) Fire - Part 1

This is the first post in a series covering the topic of sighted fire vs. reflexive fire.

The controversy around the sighted vs. reflexive fire has been raging for a long time. How long, I am not exactly sure, but I am in my early 40’s and I don’t remember a time in my life when I hadn’t heard the arguments from both sides.

I am sure that the debate goes back to at least Col. Rex Applegate, who, if memory serves me correctly, advocated a reflexive fire position with gun completely out of your face, kind of a James Bond thing.

If there is a firearms history buff out there somewhere who can help flesh out the history of the debate, I am sure it will be interesting to see just how far back it goes.

On this particular subject, there has at times been a rather vicious discourse, which in my opinion, has been entirely unnecessary. Then again, when dealing with such a independent and individualistic community that the firearms community naturally attracts, this type of spirited debate should be expected.

As with any subject that becomes dogma and emotionally charged, people often end up giving a visceral reaction and saying things that they don’t mean, or perhaps jumping to conclusions they haven’t fully thought through. However, as is often the case, by listening closely to both sides of the disagreement, and objectively looking at both the hard and anecdotal evidence, we can admit that the arguments for both techniques do at least have some merit.

Unfortunately, due to the heated nature of the ideological schism the controversy has lead to unneeded bitterness and division in the firearms community that, by my estimation, is both unnecessary and unwarranted.

What I am going to attempt to do with this series of posts is show the two opposing sides that they have much more in common than they may initially believe and further more, I will attempt to demonstrate that the two techniques are simply the obverse and reverse of the same coin.

Allow me to first set the parameters for the following discussion.

What I am addressing is practical shooting accuracy for combative fire – the kind of speed and accuracy required to winning a gunfight. That is, getting your hits where you want them, under high-stress conditions, in order to end the fight of your life in your favor, in the shortest amount of time possible, which most often takes place in fractions of a second, in low light, and at relatively close distances.

Now, I know this is not a new concept, but it does bear repeating: When fighting with a firearm, you need both speed and accuracy to prevail. If you shoot too fast and can’t guarantee your hits, you aren’t causing the change (damaging to your adversary) that you should be striving for.

If, on the other hand, if it takes you too long to shoot, you could be allowing your adversary to either close the distance or get lucky with a spray and pray hit before you have had the opportunity to shoot.

It naturally follows then that the closer you are to a threat, the more speed you will need, and because of this you will most likely be sacrificing some accuracy. Conversely, the further away you get the more you will need to focus on accuracy thereby sacrificing some speed.

This concept of not being able to eat your cake and have it too, is what we refer to as the principle of duality.

As I explain in our Tactics Manual, the principle of duality describes the fact that most opportunities and techniques have two sides that can be exploited to your advantage depending on where you find yourself in the tactical situation.
Like most things in life, tactical principles have give and take; that is you gain something and at the same time you lose something in the process.

The way we look at the sighted/unsighted fire debate at Pulse O2DA is that sighted fire and unsighted/reflexive fire are both valid techniques.

We believe this not only because of our own experience as well as those people we have worked with, but because some some very serious investigation in the this area has been looked at by men like Bruce Sidle and his Warrior Science Group. Bruce’s research coincide with the behavior that we see during our courses, both on the firing line and during the high stress Reality Based Training (RBT) scenarios that we specialize in.

With all of the apparently contradictory information out there, we need to ask ourselves: Why do so many high end operators and truly good shooters swearing by each technique?

Does this mean that one group is right and the other apparently equally competent group is obviously wrong?

Obviously it could mean that, but we don’t believe it does mean that. So what is going on here? They can’t both be right, can they?

Well, yes, they can.

I believe that they are both right because each of the techniques has it’s own tactical niche – a particular place and circumstance where that technique really shines and pays off.

To really wrap our minds around this, let’s start by looking at what a tactic is.

As we describe elsewhere: “A technique is a thing you could do by formula. This would include things like loading, malfunction clearances, reloads, how to present, aim, and fire a weapons system, gouging eyes, punching, using concealment and cover, ‘slicing the pie’, talking on the radio, and so on.”

In our view, the argument over which technique is better is a non sequitur, as both techniques are proven valid, and just because one has it’s particular tactical niche it does not follow that the other technique is any less valid when used to fulfill its particular niche.

Therefore, in our view, dedicating an inordinate amount of firearms training solely in one technique at the expense of another – because it is your firm belief that one technique is superior under all circumstances – makes about as much sense as never practicing malfunction clearances because your firearm hasn’t malfunctioned yet.

Furthermore, we believe that the argument over which technique is superior overall, arises over a failure to fully appreciate the individual techniques role in a tactic.

Now please bear with me, I am going to over-explain this, as I believe understanding this concept is vital if we desire to focus on the important things in our training program while sloughing off the unessential in order to maximize the limited training time available to us.

There is an old aphorism that states “Tactics are an art, not a science.”

While there is some truth to this dictum, for the most part the cliché is misleading because it gives one the distinct impression that in conflict, only art (judgment and creativity) and not science (techniques and procedures) can thrive and overcome adversity.

At PulseO2DA we believe that a tactic is neither purely art, nor purely science. A tactic is the product of both art and science, which when used appropriately and intelligently, multiply one another exponentially giving you true power and leverage.

That is to say that we cannot simply add judgment and creativity (art) to techniques and procedures (science) in an arbitrary and illogical manner and arrive at a sum called tactics.

Rather, we use each to increase the value of the other exponentially when they are combined in a logical and well-reasoned manner.*

In other words, a tactic is made up of one or more appropriate techniques strung together in a logical manner in order to fit your specific needs for the situation at hand.

For instance: There are two main techniques of taking cover; one is “hugging” cover, and the other is “pushing-off” cover (getting at least one giant step away from cover). Now, most of the time the appropriate technique for taking cover requires you to push-off cover. While learning the push-off is important and it is the correct technique most of the time, there are situations when the push-off would be both inappropriate and detrimental to your survivability. (Again, the principle of duality is at play here).

So in the above example you would use your intellect and experience (orientation) to decide which of the techniques of taking cover is appropriate for you at that particular moment and time for the situation you find yourself in. This is because you must allow your situation to dictate what you need to do, or what you need to modify in order to shape the situation to best benefit you at that time.

There is one more foundational idea that I would like to cover before I get back to the debate, and that is the body’s natural response to a high-stress event and the effects a high-stress event can have on the human body. But we will need to address this final portion in the next blog post.

*For those Marines out there, you will no-doubt recognize this is a bit of a bastardization of FMFM 1, so to all of you out there, forgive me for taking the liberties that I have.

 

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  • Ford Truck

    If my memory serves correctly, in his book “Keith”, Elmer Keith told of Ed McGivern saying he always used his sights, but Mr. Keith showed a picture of Mr. McGivern shooting Carter’s Little Liver Pills out of the air & Mr. McGivern’s ‘line of sight’ was considerably above and tangent to the revolver bore.  Mr. Keith said he showed the picture to Mr. McGivern & Mr. McGivern was surprised by it.

  • 10-7Cop

    I’m not sure who these “high end operators” are that advocate unsighted fire beyond arm’s reach.  I’ve spent 30 years working with those who gunfight for a living, and I don’t know any.

    •  Hello 10-7Cop, the “high end operators” I am referring to that advocate unsighted/reflexive fire are CAG, Ranger, etc… which we have more than a few on our instructional staff, as well as SWAT cops (with overseas contracting experience) who feel the same.

      Having had the pleasure to work with many of these men (especially since 9/11 and beyond) many (not all) of their experiences are in alignment with Bruce Siddle’s argument for reflexive fire (Sharpening the Warrior’s Edge).

      Please be patient, I will address the rest of the debate in the next article and show how the two marry up quite nicely.

      Thanks for your comments, and I hope that this helps.

  • JB

    Aiming vs Spray-and-pray are separate techniques each with their place and time.

    If I am close enough to hear the ‘click’ I am most likely going to use the Spray technique for a couple of bursts then try aiming if I am still standing… 

    • Hello JB, and thanks for the comment.

      While I am not talking about “spraying and praying” when I talk about reflexive fire, your comment does get to the heart of the matter, and you are absolutely right, both techniques have their place.

    • TC

      I was taught to point and shoot like pointing my finger when I was 9.  I have always practiced this type of shooting even though I’m a pistol instructor.  So I use both techniques.  I’m as good with one as the other.  Of course distance will trigger my sight to shoot over point and shoot.  Not spraying and praying.

  • rone

    Reflexive or instinctive has been around since the first gun, I’m sure.  I’m 60 and know its been around for 52 years.  At 8, after some safety, my first gun, a 410 single shot was my constant companion and do not remember, mid way through the first summer and more than a case of shells, actually drawing a bead. I threw it up but, with both eyes open, to encompass the full picture for escaping squirrels or quail……….it was not taught, it was instinct.  I did manage to get off three shots on squirrel and on occasion quail if, they broke their flushed flight path for an obstruction. With one in the mouth and two splitting the pinkie and next fingers, it was pretty smooth cycling. Because of the weight for an 8 year old, I carried it resting on my left arm, which was crossed over and resting on my stomach, so my right hand was always on the grip, with trigger finger laid along side the guard.

    That first winter, we had a good snow and from the pasture to tree line, not far away, the rabbits were smart enough to not get caught in the snow, except on occasion, which was my first shot from the aforementioned position. I was cold after a day in the woods. With the wind blowing, the squirrels laid up and the rabbits scarce…………..I had only one. Walking back, fingers half numb, the last few hundred yards from the barn, I walked by the same brier patch I’d rustled when heading into the woods. The rabbit flushed straight across the path in front of me and without thought my thumb locked the hammer and I’d fired with the 410 still resting in its place. It was pretty startling all the way around and it became, when the time was right, a useful method, although I never practiced it, (because I bought my own shells) just instinctively new, it was the best method in a given situation.

    The spring of 1961 an instinctive shot saved my life. The spring rains outside of Miami Oklahoma had been no more than normal but, it did necessitate my wearing rubber boots for a walk to the pond. I slipped quietly over the berm because it was good practice, all was quiet. I approached the water and a water moccasin snaked away from me throught the water. I reached the waters edge, watched and listened for a while, enjoying the beautiful spring weather. I took three steps and although I didn’t see it, new, it was a moccasin that had hit my boot top. With God guiding my hand, I jumped straight in the air, cocked and fired before my feet touched the ground. When I focused the snakes head was gone. I’ve thought about that day off and on, my whole life……………each time I do, hair stands on the back of my neck…………just like now. 

  • Redscout

    When in close quarters I find reflexive fire far better than aimed fire. In the Army we are trained in reflexive fire and it is faster and as accurate as aimed fire in tight,close quarters.

    •  Redscout, you had good trainers it sounds like… good points as well. Thanks for posting.

  • Vanshd

    If you’ve ever been in the situation, and I have, you understand exactly what reflexive shooting is. Pretty amazing when you do it the first time without thinking. 🙂

  • pocketdrummer

    I think it depends on the range and the weapon at hand.

    Pistol 15y aimed.

    • Your own distances may vary a little based on your reflexive aiming ability.

      My aim is not very good, so I’ll use reflex aiming up to about 8 to 10 yards.  Farther than that and I better start using the sights, or I’ll never hit the adversary.

      I know. I need more practice. 

      •  You hit a key point there Bob, we each need to know our own distance and practice more for each… thanks for the input.

  • Rude Colonial

    I’m 82 now so I can give a worm’s eye view of how it was viewed over 60 years ago.  It was called “shooting from the hip” or “hip shooting.”  There was no argument between that and aimed shooting, just two different ways to go depending on the circumstances.  Both required practice and both were effective.

  • snakeeyes

    I am new here, but I tried reflex shooting for the first time when I qualified for my concealed permit a few years ago.  I am an old Marine that taught marksmanship for a while, and we always taught bullseye shooting.  Hold a six o’clock sight picture and squeeze.  I never taught combat shooting, I’m sure that is very different.

    When shooting a pistol, we always sighted in at 25 yards, and shot at 15, 25 and 50.  When I went to qualify for my concealed permit, my pistol was sighted at 25 yards and we were shooting at 7 yards.  I had no idea of the trajectory at that close range, so I called my stepson who is a lot more into guns and is also a combat veteran.  He said to me (just point it like your finger).  I was truly shocked when every round was in the black.

    I will always use this method for close quarter shooting.

    •  Amazing what we can do if we aren’t told any different… thanks for sharing snakeeyes.

  • In Box

    The couple courses I’ve been to, and the vast majority of courses I’ve seen all teach sighted shots only even at super close range. But, I’ve found that within 3 yards I can fire an unsighted hammer from muscle memory and never miss the torso. I found that at the 3 yard line doing the two to the chest / assess / one to the head, I practiced doing slow sighted shots until I could feel that my sights were on target before I could actually focus on them, and from there I just ripped off the first pair unsighted then sighted in on the head. So maybe it is a combination of training to the sights until you have the muscle memory to not need them, then trusting your muscle memory when you NEED to get a shot off faster than the target could.

  • There is also something in between.  Get a super-quick sight picture and shoot.  Don’t try to line up the sights, just verify the front sight is somewhere approximately between the rear sights.  You would be surprised how quickly you can do follow-up shots (the second one of a double-tap, for example) with this technique.

    •  Spot on Bob, it’s called a “flash sight picture” and it certainly works.

  • utimmer43

    I didn’t even realize there was controversy over the subject.  You do what you gotta do given the circumstance you find yourself in. And you train for many variables. How hard is that?

  • Diehl8923

    In my observation of many things in life there are folks who are pre disposed to some things or 
    methods more or less than others.  In my own family I noticed my brother was a better shot a moving game, excellent on pheasants etc. At the trap range I did a little better than he.  My shooting on trap had to be more instinctive and quick and was fairly proficient, but on game my performance was frequently disappointing.  I have noticed that often aiming at a bird gave little success while picking out a spot on the bird or a spot just in front of the bird,  that is aiming more definitely gave much better results.  My father taught was top shot in competitive pistol shooting in the sixties always demanded that we be able to call our shots. Meaning it hit the target at 2:00 o clock, seven ring and so on.    If we could not we would say why not,  did we flinch, quite on the shot, or close our eyes.   One thing I have learned about shooting by pointing verses aiming is something I picked  up from Bill Jordan, a famous border patrol agent and trick shot artist,  getting the gun just far enough out into your line of sight where your perifferal vision can pick up the the end of the barrel, will allow your brain to  triangulate with much greater accuracy, with out aiming. It’s a modified shoot from the hip technique. Practice improves technique and builds confidence, no matter what the game.    
    Another of his favourite sayings was, any one can be an expert shot if they can master three simple things.  Breath control, sight alignment and trigger control.  In an armed confrontation breath control
    and sight may have to take a back seat, but trigger is still mandatory.

    •  “Practice improves technique and builds confidence, no matter what the game. ”

      Love it, thanks for sharing.

  • Chapedskiba

    Well said and professionally presented. Can’t wait for the next installment.

  • Fred Payne

    I went through basic training in the early 70’s near the close of the Viet Nam war. We were given instruction in what the military called quick kill. The teaching aid was a simple Daisy BB gun without sights. The point of this training was exactly what it the name implies. Point and shoot and still hit your target and in a minimum amount of time. With practice I was able to hit aluminum discs tossed in the air not much larger than a quarter. I grew up in the South and had handled guns since an early age so this wasn’t such a stretch for me. Most of the guys had never even fired a weapon and were really surprised that this was doable. Of course this was for close range encounters when time is of the essence.

  • geezer117

    When you age, as I have, you will not be able to get a good sight picture. At any age, shooting in the dark will be without a good sight picture. Instinctive shooting skills are necessary.

    There is better alternative: equip your handguns with laser sights. 

  • Hersfelder

    In my experience (US Army Cold War Survivor) most armed altercations are conducted in very low or no-light environments.  Often the only thing you can see FOR SURE is the muzzle flash of the bad-guy shooting at you….sometimes you can get a profile view if there is some light.  In those cases, you cannot see your sights, plus trying to use aimed fire will just get you killed.  Back in the day, we called it “hip-shooting” rather than “reflexive fire.”  We trained by skipping cans laying on the ground at ranges from 15 to 35 or so feet, shooting from the hip.  It actually was a relatively easy thing to do.  These days, I always get an “ooooohhh” or an “aaaahhhhh” from my kids/friends/observers when I put bullets in the black on the range or knock cans off a fence rail in the country, shooting from a “gunman’s crouch” shooting from the hip.

  • Dogwood2

    While I respect the author’s obvious credentials, knowledge and expertise I wish he had written his piece on one page.  My own opinion, which I think will reflect the author’s, is that you use whatever type of fire, aimed or instinctive, that the situtation demands or allows.  For example, when beiing attacked, draw your weapon and get off as quick a shot or shots using reflexive/instinctive fire as you are able to at the perp while bringing the pistol  up to where you can then use aimed fire which is more accurate.  The attacker’s aim and aggression is going to be compromised when he is being fired at.  Every situation must me reacted to based on its own merits and should always consider Mitch Vilos’ five rules in his “Bottom Line” , pages 31-32 in his book, “Self-Defense Laws of the 50 States”. 

    •  Hello Dogwood2, Sorry for the two parts, I felt that the entire article would have been too long for one post… to be honest, I thought the one post was too long.

      I hope that the second post will tie it off nicely and you are spot on with your observations as well as where you think I am taking this.

  • Lamontepd

    In Law Enforcement, we are taught both, for different reasons.  The main thing is to keep your weapon 2 arms and guns length from the bad guy, but sometimes that is not practical. Distracting and hitting with one hand while you are drawing. As you clear leather, your weapon is turned onto the target and you are putting rounds on target immediately.  As you give yourself a reactionary gap, you have the luxury of bringing the sights into play.  Learning to do both is very important and both must be practiced in a safe manner, to become proficiant.  After all, shooting, like any honed skill is a degrading skill set.

  • Docmagnum357

    I personally use both, and In NRA personal protection classes we teach the “speed rock”, or firing from the hip.  Most folks are surprised that they can hit anything like that.

  • Jake Starr

    Every shooter should be able to do both. But in a lethal force encounter you will square with your target, crouch and use reflexive fire…sights maybe up on target in line of sight but you will be target focused…IHMO.

  • Very well said. I don’t know why the heck people get so hung up on technique. The idea is not to be a killbot and actually train yourself to be able to function well enough to maintain the right mindset and do what you need when you need it. Why do people get hung up on concepts? I think it comes from the other wrong idea that in a gunfight your brain is going to shut down and go totally primitive and therefore, you have to train in what you think will work 100 percent. Given that as a precursor, there is going to be a lot of debate. Experienced combatants do not shut down mentally and rely on “training takes over” but way too much training is based on this and way too many people expect it and train around that instead of training through it.

    •  D. Jeep, you have it right “Experienced combatants do not shut down mentally…”

      I plan on addressing this briefly in the next article as well as an in-depth article in the near future.

      Thanks for your input.

  •  Ahhh 4bravo, you stole some of my thunder…

    Dogma is the killer, isn’t it?

    Thank you for your thoughtful input, and taking the time to comment here, well said sir.

  •  geezer117, I agree, and further more, I am not a big fan of teaching a “sight picture” for any reason… I will address that at some point in the future.

  • 10-7Cop,
    I thought I replied to this when I first saw it, yet I don’t see my reply below
    your post now, so at the risk of sounding redundant I will answer again.

     

    The
    “high end operators” who “advocate unsighted fire beyond arm’s reach” are the
    CAG (Delta), Ranger, special forces and SWAT teams that I have had the privilege
    to work and train with over the years.

     

    While
    I can’t say that they all do advocate reflexive fire (not talking about firing
    from the hip), a good majority do, and have used the technique with good
    results.

     

    I
    hope that my next article helps to flesh out any questions that may be
    remaining.

     

    Thanks
    for calling it as you see it.
     

  • Bttbbob

    You can trace index shooting (reflexive shooting back to William Fairbairn in 1907), He trained Rex Applegate who coined it into the Kill or Be Killed Method. It was the method we taught at Quantico when I was a PMI there. His writings became a Marine Corps Manual. FMFRP 12-80. It was introduced to the Marine Corps in 1976 when Rex Applegate came to Quantico to teach the PMI’s that worked the pistol range in closed quarters pistol shooting. Then the PMI’s at Quantico trained the other coaches and PMI’s throughout the Marine Corps.

  • Bttbbob

    There are actually three different types of fire when aligning a gun. 1-Sighted fire/aimed fire. 2-Flash Sight Picture 3-Index or reflexive or point shooting. Each have advantages and disadvantages.

  • 4bravo1

    I am still waiting for the “educated response and evidence of anyone who feels sighted fire should be the priority.”  Anyone, anyone, … Bueller?

  • Tim Bolin

    The debate is as old as weaponry itself, only the particulars of the argument change, and the reasoned answer remains the same regardless of the particulars.

    “According to this Ichi school, you can win with a long weapon, and yet you can also win with a short weapon. In short, the Way of the Ichi school is the spirit of winning, whatever the weapon and whatever its size.” — Musashi Miyamoto, The Book of Five Rings

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