Acceptable Sight Picture

One of the first things a new shooter learns is what a correct sight picture should look like. If you’ve been subjected to any sort of formalized instruction you may have had your instructor or coach repeating various mantras at you, such things as “equal height, equal light” or similar. And of course, finding that sight picture with your pistol as you’re refining the final portions of your draw from the holster is important.

That said, once shooters fully understand this, there’s another hurdle that seems to plague them. I refer to it as the “waiting for Christmas” syndrome, although I’m sure others have different terms for it. What I then find is that shooters often finish their draw and there is a discernible, sometimes lengthy pause before the shooter sends that first round to the target. Two things contribute to it, but I am only going to discuss one of them here: what sort of sight picture is OK?

New shooters often think that the sights must be perfect before they shoot, no matter what distance from the target. Getting them over that hurdle is one of the keys to improving speed. One of the greatest minds on the subject, Brian Enos, discusses it in his book: Practical Shooting, Beyond the Fundamentals. Without copying the entirety of that book, I will say that his writings on sighting really made a difference in my shooting, especially at speed.

What the more intermediate to advanced shooter knows is that sight picture can vary with the needs of the shot, in terms of size of target and distance to the target. At closer ranges it may not even matter if the sights are fully viewed, provided the gun is indexed visually in the center of the target. That said, if you must hit a 1” box, even at closer ranges, some level of sight acuity is going to be required. If the target is a more generous target, especially a larger target at close range, getting away with a lot of variance in sighting is not only permissible, but probably encouraged in order to build speed.

As distance increases, the requirement of sight usage changes. Also, this varies, depending on the shooter. Some shooters can have a fuzzy view of the sights and a crisp view of the target and still get good hits. Gabe White has discussed this at length and written on it in various forums, to include He has stated that you shouldn’t dismiss the speed capabilities of a hard front sight focused shooter, nor should you discount the accuracy potential of a soft sight focused shooter.

Red dot shooters, lest you think I’m leaving you out of this discussion, it applies to you as well. A true precision shot with a red dot gun may require the dot to be mostly stationary, whereas a closer range shot or bigger target may only require a flash of the dot in the window before breaking the shot. All sighting systems wobble if human hands are holding them. Iron sights do as well, but we typically don’t perceive it nearly as much because they are a much coarser system. Depending on the width of a typical front sight and its distance from your eye, you may perceive it as 10-15 MOA, and perhaps more if you have a wider front sight/shorter arms. Even the bigger dots in some dot systems are still much less than this, and many shooters are running a 3.25 MOA dot, which means the sighting system on that dot is at least twice as fine as a typical front sight, and maybe as much as 4x as fine. That refinement in the sighting system increases perceived wobble, much like a variable powered optic seems to magnify wobble, especially on the higher settings. The wobble is always there, it is just that with coarser systems/lesser magnifications, we don’t perceive it.

So there is a separate but also related problem that one must take into account, and that is “shooting through an acceptable movement in the sighting system.” This is important for iron sights and dot sights. I just find that it rears its ugly head sooner for a dot shooter, because they are much more aware of it. Most iron sight shooters don’t become aware of the problem until we move them back to 15-25 yards. Then it seems like it magically appears to them, when in reality it has been there all along. As a side note, some shooters don’t ever push that distance back, which is a shame, because a pistol is certainly capable of making decent hits for much more distance than people are willing to give it credit. Obviously in any sort of situation requiring longer range hits, I’d prefer a rifle, but life doesn’t always give you what you want.

If you boil it down, I’m back to quoting some of the grandmaster shooters of yore, “see what you need to see in order to get your hits.” What this means to me is that you must go to the range and do some shooting and experimentation. Using targets of differing sizes at different distances, work your sight pictures and speed and see what works, as well as what leaves you lacking. This is probably not a task that can be completely solved in one afternoon on the range, but more like an ongoing problem that you’ll need to continually work. If you aren’t changing up your drills and routines on the range regularly, it’ll be even more difficult for you to find your deficiencies and correct them. There are numerous sources for excellent drills and practice routines on the internet, and I won’t list them all here. I suspect if you’re reading this, you may be aware of several. The two that I’ll mention are my previously quoted, and Greg Ellifritz’s blog. He routinely posts shooting drills that he is working, and he is very good about varying up his routines. There are certainly others, but if you follow those two resources and get some regular practice at some of the drills posted, you’ll be further along than 99% of the shooters out there.