Sometimes Seeing Isn’t Believing

Proper Sight Picture “six o’clock hold”
Proper Sight Picture “six o’clock hold”

If you have ever had any kind formal handgun training, you probably heard the instructor say, “Focus on the front sight!” The drill is to get you to first line up with the target, then line up the front sight with the target, then line up the rear sight with the front sight, followed by you maintaining your focus on the front sight only. Once you have established a sharp focus on the front sight, you continue a smooth press of the trigger straight to the rear without disrupting the sight alignment until the weapon fires. Unfortunately, since focusing on only the front sight is not natural, it seems to be that is the only thing that gets emphasized during instruction. As the old saying goes, “the squeaky wheel gets the grease.” Sadly most students walk away thinking, “Ok, just look at the front sight through the whole trigger press.” What gets missed by the student is exactly how to make a proper sight picture.

The real goal is to not only line up your front sight with the target, and to keep the front sight centered in between the rear sight, but to also keep the tops of the front and rear sights aligned as well. Why is this not as easy as you would think? Because most people have handguns whose front sight has a nice big white dot on them, or some other color marker. There are a few in the training industry who strongly recommend “point shooting” but that should only be used in a few rare instances. You should ALWAYS focus on the front sight in any shooting situation. You will learn why in a NRA Handgun Class.

So where exactly on the front sight should you focus? That depends on what kind of sights you have. For every kind of iron sights made, except for one, the top edge is the answer. If you have a white dot or any kind of color or shape on the front sight of your handgun, I recommend you black it out! I know I just lost any hope of an endorsement contract from the white dot sight manufacturers, but my concern is that you wont be able to make the emergency precision shot, when you need to, every time, with your handgun.

Proper Sight Alignment
Proper Sight Alignment

The key to a precision shot with your handgun is 100% of your focus on the top edge of the front sight. If you have a white dot on your front sight, take a look at where the white dot is placed on your front sight. You’re probably saying, “in the middle of the sight.” That’s what I figured. Now look at it even closer. Notice there is quite a bit of area between the top of the white dot and the top edge of the front sight? This is actually negatively affecting your ability to successfully place a highly accurate shot while under stress.

It is because your eyes will naturally focus on the white dot instead of the top edge of the front sight. Your eyes will lock on (no thanks to all those FRONT SIGHT commands during training) to that big white dot and just stick it on the target. Then you’ll move (again, because you are under stress) the rear sight until you line up the top of the white dot with the top of your rear sight, and you will do this very quickly and almost instinctively. Guess what happens when you press the trigger? Your shot will hit high because the top edge of your front sight is actually lined up above the top edge of the rear sight.

So why is this important? It is only important if you want the ability to hit man sized targets with your handgun out to 100 yards! It is also equally important (and could mean the difference between life and death) if you want the ability to deliver a hostage-taker face shot, from the holster, ten yards away with a first round hit between the mouth and eyes (about the size of a playing card) in less than 2 seconds! I know that sounds near impossible, but our students reach that level of ability quickly through the NRA Advanced Personal Protection Course.

Proper Sight Picture “six o’clock hold”
Proper Sight Picture “six o’clock hold”

If you remember, a second ago I said, “With all iron sights, except one type, you have to train yourself to focus on the top of the front sight.” The only other kind of iron sights that do not require this is the ones that have 3 white dots that extend horizontally across the rear and front sights. With those kinds of sights, you will naturally try to align the three dots which will also bring the top edges in alignment as well. However the farther the target is (about 50 yards) you will have to go back to the “top edge” technique again so you can properly create a “six o’clock hold” sight picture on the target. This is because your bullet will travel higher and higher above your front sight the farther it travels (before gravity is a major affect and with no wind) as so you must adjust to a more precise sight picture. But most of the time the three dot system works just as good as straight black iron sights.

This is exactly why I carry handguns with 3-dot night sights, religiously. Why 3-dot night sights? I recommend 3-dot nights sights because most lethal encounters occur in low light conditions. During the night there are simply 3 green dots to use. During the day, there are simply 3 white dots to use. I have the best of both worlds! While on the subject of night sights, let’s contemplate some situations before we are actually ever put in them.

If it is too dark to see what is in your opponent’s hands, then you can’t identify a threat and you should not shoot, even if you can see your night sights. If it is light enough to identify your opponent as a threat, then is it light enough to see your sights, so you wouldn’t really need night sights anyway. Most people are unaware that night sights by themselves are only useful for about 20 minutes during a normal 24 hour period. It is in that short window of time, when the sun is going down (or coming up) and there is still enough light to identify your target as a threat, but not enough light to clearly see your sights, that night sights really become an important addition to your weapon and prove their usefulness.

So should you have night sights on your handguns for the purpose of self-defense if they are only helpful for 20 minutes out of a day? YES! Why? Because most gun fights occur in low light and night time conditions. If you work in an artificial light environment as a warehouse night watchman, shopping mall security guard, or city police officer on the night shift, then you will find night sights particularly useful in the shadows of street lights and security lighting.

Now earlier I said, “When it is too dark to identify your opponent as a threat or not, don’t shoot!” What do you do in those situations? You use a flashlight, and light them up… with the flashlight of course. Sounds easy, but using a flashlight in the wrong manner can get you killed because as soon as you turn on that light, you are a beacon for incoming rounds. The correct tactical use of a flashlight can provide you with a distinct and overwhelming tactical advantage against your opponent. However, the incorrect use of a flashlight will make you an easy target, otherwise known as, a bullet sponge.

There is no way I can teach you in an article like this how to properly present your flashlight, move with it, search with it, when to turn it on, how long to keep it on, when to turn it off, and how to repeatedly deliver fight stopping hits using it in conjunction with your weapon. You will spend significant time under hands-on instruction in the NRA’s Personal Protection Courses teaching you the proper tactical flashlight techniques. What I can share with you is that there are two methods of using a flashlight with your weapon.

The first and easiest method is to attach the flashlight to your weapon. There are a number of companies that offer lights that mount on the lower frame of our handgun and have a toggle-like switch for immediate on/off control. The second and more difficult method is to keep your flashlight in your support hand while maintaining the proper stance and grip with your firearm so as you move, your eyes, firearm, and light move as one. We don’t ever leave the flashlight in one hand and the gun in the other and try to “fool” our adversaries into thinking we are behind the light when really we are 3 feet from it. Under stress, you will always want a two-handed support platform when you can use it. That is all for now. Be safe out there.

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Johnathan is a NRA certified firearms instructor currently serving the Northern Finger Lakes Region of New York State. He is qualified to teach the entire PISTOL discipline of the NRA shooting courses: Basic, F.I.R.S.T. Steps, Home Firearm Safety, Personal Protection Inside the Home, Personal Protection Outside the Home, Advanced Personal Protection, and is also certified by the DCJS to teach NYS self-defense and use-of-force laws. He became familiar with firearms through professional instruction and had to learn like most of his students - from the ground, up. Contact Johnathan today to learn what many do not, that, "Knowing when to shoot is just as important as knowing how."
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