2 – Sight Alignment with Pistols

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Part 2. – Sight Alignment

There are 3 main components which go into making a great shot – Grip, Trigger Pull and Sight Alignment.  Obtaining all 3 correctly at the same time is perhaps as illusive as a rap song that doesn’t make small children cry. (Hey, everyone is allowed to hate at least one thing in this world and I had to choose between Spiders and Rap music. Unlike rap, death from spiders is usually quick and relatively painless.)

In this article we set our ‘sights’ on ‘sight alignment’.  “You can’t hit what you can’t see” is true enough, but when dealing with pistols the path to accuracy may leave both your brain AND target blurry.  What’s all this about the front sight?  Where exactly do I aim with my sights? Why does my front sight look the size of 3 city blocks when aiming at 25 yards? Why do I always loose one sock from each pair?  These questions and more will be answered below.

Terminology:

Sights – The Sights are the posts, notches, beads or points on the firearm which are used to visually align the barrel with the target.  There is a vast array of low and high tech sights available for firearms and the list continues to grow daily.  The term ‘Iron Sights’ is used to describe the most common system with a fixed front sight and fixed or adjustable rear sight, which are made of metal blades or posts. The majority of Iron Sights for pistols will be ‘open sights’ which will have no enclosures or holes to look through.

Front Sight – The front sight (most typically a post) is usually very close to the end of the barrel and is located on the top of the slide or on the barrel itself (Fig 1).  Undeniably focus on and attention to the front sight will have the greatest effect on accuracy of the whole shooting process.  This fact is so important that there is even an entire shooting school known as ‘Front Sight’, so do not underestimate the importance of this to your shooting success.

(Fig 1) Front sight

Rear Sight – The Rear sight is often designed as a Notch or V with which the front sight can be aligned (Fig 2).  To obtain the maximum sight radius the Rear sight is placed as far back on the slide or body of the pistol as possible.  The orientation of the front sight in relation to the rear sight will ensure that the pistol is correctly aligned and not pointed off on an angle. 

(Fig 2) Rear sight

Sight Radius – This is the distance between the front and rear sight (Fig 3). The point of aim of the bore will be set by the orientation of the two sights and the human eye must detect any misalignment by looking at the relationship of both at once.  A greater sight radius will allow the eye to determine much smaller changes in bore angle and therefore provide increased accuracy.  To visualize this, think of a Hockey Goalie in net (can’t tell this is a Canadian site at all, eh?) – The Goalie is the front sight, you are the rear sight and the net is the target.  If you stand directly in front of the goalie it is difficult (given the short distance between you) to determine the goalies alignment relative to the net and see any openings.  If you stand 5 m back, you now have a much greater sight radius and can compare the three positions of yourself, goalie and goal with much greater detail.  Simply put, the greater the sight radius, the greater the accuracy capability of the firearm.

(Fig 3) Sight radius

Focal Plane – In physics the term focal plane is used to refer to two things – the plane on which a converging stream of light is brought into focus, or alternatively and usually less common, the plane at a given distance in which objects will be in focus (Fig 4). Unfortunately, the human eye is able to bring objects into focus in only one plane at a time.  Therefore, if one aligns the pistol sights with a target and brings the target into focus, the sights will be blurry.  If one brings the front sight into focus, all objects at a different length to the eye will be blurry – in this case, the target AND the rear sight.

(Fig 4) Only one object may be in focus at any time. Objects closer or further away than the focal distance will not project properly on the optic nerve and will apear blurry.

Sight Picture – This term is used to describe what one sees when they bring the sights up in line with the eye.  A correct sight picture will have the Front Sight, Rear Sight and target in the correct orientation, while an incorrect sight picture will not.  The trick is to align the sights and target together in such a way that the ‘picture’ you actually see matches the ideal ‘Sight Picture’ you will be shown later. 

Bullet Drop – All objects are subject to gravity.  Objects not supported physically will begin to accelerate towards the earth regardless of their velocities in any direction.  The second a bullet leaves the barrel gravity grabs at it with its grubby little gravity hands and starts to drag it towards terra firma.  If the barrel were to be parallel with the plane of the ground (Fig 5) then the bullet will transcribe a downward curve.  Ideally, we want to be able to determine the point at which the bullet will hit a target, so we require an initial upward angle of trajectory (Fig 6) to give the bullet a higher curve allowing us to visually pick the point of impact with proper sight alignment.

(Fig 5) Path of pullet if shot horizontaly

(Fig 6) Path of bullet with initial upward trajectory

Sights – As mentioned above there are a wide variety of sights one can encounter on a pistol.  ‘Open’ sights are the most common, especially on firearms not custom made for accuracy competition.   (Fig 7) shows various different sights and their configuration.  For the purpose of this article, the popular ‘Partridge’ post sight will be used in examples.  As time passes, even the ‘low tech’ Iron sights are receiving face lifts, with either high visibility colors for day time or glowing Tritium inserts for use in low light.  These can be seen in (Fig 8) in which the bright or lighted elements are seen as white.  These are available in a multitude of colors (high contrast are ~usually~ red, whereas the Tritium sights are ~usually~ green.)

(Fig 7) Commonly encountered sights

(Fig 8) High visibility or Night sights

Now let’s get down to the details…

Aligning the sights

The Front and Rear sights must be aligned vertically and horizontally to achieve an accurate shot.  Furthermore, the resultant sight picture must be oriented with relation to the target correctly to ensure the point of impact (POI) is where the shooter intends it to be.  Horizontal sight alignment will vary given the design of the front and rear sights, but it commonly involves positioning the post equally between the sides of the back sight.  (Fig 9) shows correct and incorrect horizontal alignment.  The easiest way to center the front post is to use the negative space on either side of it and try to keep these spaces the same size.  Vertical alignment requires positioning the height of the front sight correctly – most often by setting the top of front and rear sights at the same height. (Fig 10)  shows both correct and incorrect vertical alignment.  While the general rules just mentioned will likely work for your sights, if you have a different design you may have to do a little research to determine exactly what sight picture you should expect for proper alignment.  (Fig 11) demonstrates the results of correct and incorrect alignment configurations on Partridge sights.  Keep in mind that the further away a target is, and the smaller the sight radius of your pistol, the greater the deviation of the POI with improper alignment.  An important thing to note for your pistol is whether the POI is set to the top of the front sight, or above (sometimes known as 6-oclock hold).  This can change from one pistol type to the other so it is best to ensure you check the manual and determine if you need to cover, or sit under what you wish to hit. (Fig 12) indicates how different pistols may require different points of aim (POA) to hit the same target.

(Fig 9) Horizontal alignment

(Fig 10) Vertical alignment

(Fig 11) Effect of alignment on Point of Impact

(Fig 12) variance on POA and POI for different pistol designs

One final point on alignment to consider is that the smaller the front post and space around the posts, the more accuracy the sights will be capable of.  This comes into play due to the size of area the shooter must draw information from.  ‘Target’ sights for pistols have finer front blades and smaller notches for alignment (Fig 13).  This allows the shooter to focus on a smaller total area to align the front sight properly and therefore reduces the front sight divergence.  As we move to combat sights (Fig 14), the area of focus (and the margin for error) becomes larger, which is seen again to an even greater extent if one needs to use the high visibility supplemental sights (Fig 15). Therefore, the larger the spacing between the sight components, the more margin for error and the less accurate each shot will be. Consider this if accuracy is your goal when looking to purchase sights for your firearm.

(Fig 13) Area of focus to align 'target' sights with small front post and minimal spacing for high accuracy

(Fig 14) Area of focus to align 'combat' sights with larger front post and spacing

(Fig 15) Area of focus to align 'supplemental' sights with large distances between high visibility components

Focus

The human eye has a flexible lens which sits just inside the black opening (Iris).  Small muscles on the side of this lens stretch it to create different contours which will bring objects either near or far into sharp focus.  While this is amazing it does come with one disadvantage: objects at any distance other than that which we have in focus will be blurry regardless if they are closer or further than the focal plane.  It is unlikely you will have experienced this disadvantage if you have not been involved in the shooting sports before as the eye is a master of changing focus very quickly so we hardly notice… that is about to change.  When we bring a pistol up and prepare to shoot at a target we have 3 planes which include important visual information for us to consider.  There is the plane with the rear sights, the plane with the front sights and further along there is the target itself.  As discussed above, all three must align to keep us from missing the target entirely and having to blame the wind.  Of these three only ONE may be in focus and clear at any given time and ANYONE without training will always pick the target.  It’s not your fault, so don’t feel too bad.  When you sneakily throw a snowball you look at the back of your wife’s head, not your fingers, so you are accustomed to focusing on the target and nothing else.  Shooting is a different story.  Here, the alignment of the bore is far more important than anything and the best indication of that is the Front sight.

Of all the pages of drivel you will read here, the one thing that will have the greatest effect on your shooting accuracy is your focus on the front sight (the second will be your trigger pull).  If you focus on the target, the front sight will be blurry and it could be nearly impossible to tell if it was out by up to 1/8 of an inch at arms length – a difference down range of nearly 14 inches @ 15 yds!  (Fig 16) and (Fig 17) show what the front site should look like graphically and realistically.

(Fig 16) Correct sight picture - front sight is sharp and clear, rear sight is out of focal distance and is blurry

(Fig 17) Correct sight picture with front sight in focus and rear sights blurry. Anyone else hear the DOOM II music in their head when they see this pic?

Just in case you still remain unconvinced on the importance of the front sight, (Table 1) illustrates the effect of front sight divergence at various target distances.  It also includes different sight radius values to show the effects on the angle of deviation in POI given shorter pistols.

(Table 1) Change in POI deviation with distance and sight radius

When you shoot focus on the front sight and concentrate on keeping it still and on target throughout the shot.  If something goes wrong chances are it is one of two things – your front sight focus or your trigger.  Always relax after a bad shot, take a few breaths and bring your mental state back to the front sight.  Forget the last mistake as only one shot ever matters…  the one you are about to take.

Orienting the Sight

Now that we have talked about keeping the front sight in focus we are facing the reality that our targets will be blurry.  At 25 yards they will be VERY blurry and if you are aiming at anything smaller than a 5 inch circle, it may be mostly obscured by that little front sight at the end of your pistol.  So, given that we are learning to aim at blurry little targets, how do we tackle the challenge of not seeing them well – or at all?  The trick is to obtain the correct sight picture then orient the sights based upon high contrast visual clues on the target – especially if the intended POI is hidden.  Let’s look at a few common targets.

(Fig 18) A Silhouette, typical circle and a great - but frustrating - target for practicing sight alignment and trigger pull.

As you can imagine from looking at the targets, there is a skill in aligning the sights to a POA. This is especially so when they become blurry, as one needs to try and break them down to high contrast elements from which orientation points can be obtained. One useful trick on plain or low detail targets (a white pie plate for example) is to mentally quarter the shape, and aim for the center point. (Fig 19) shows the imagined lines breaking up the shape and providing a POA for you to orient to. Overall one needs to identify the target, determine the intended POI and then orient the sight picture with the target using visual or imagined clues to achieve the corresponding POA.

(Fig 19) This shows some of the imaginary lines, based upon high contrast or geometric points on the target, that one could use to create a point of aim. This will make it easier to orient the sights in relation to the target when the target is no longer clear.

Now comes the bad news.  The following pictures, (Fig 20) and (Fig 21), will show you how much detail can be lost when the target is no longer in focus.  This should help one to see why they will need to break the target down by easily identifiable points to maintain the same POA shot after shot.

(Fig 20) A Silhouette target as it should appear. The target is blurry and out of focus so one is unable to use fine details to align to.

(Fig 21) Highly detailed targets such as the 'dots on a page' nearly dissapear when out of focus. This adds significantly to the challenge.

A last issue to briefly discuss is that of reflected light and halo or blurring around the front sight (most noticeable when aiming at small distant targets in a very bright environment).  When one is focused on the front sight, the area immediately around the sight can appear to increase in contrast and become lighter.  This can obscure a portion of the target or cause objects to appear oddly shaped and different.  If your target appears misshapen due to the lighter halo, you may have to create the shape of the complete target in your mind and use that as an orientation aid.

Non-Iron Sights

Various other Sight options are available.  Red Dots, Lasers or even magnified optics.  I’ll leave magnified optics out for now as that will be covered later in a Rifle segment and instead concentrate on the other options.

Red Dots – Each day that passes another smaller, lighter, cooler, better smelling Red Dot sight is released on the market.  What is a Red Dot sight you ask?  A Red Dot is composed of glass, frame and laser as well as some form of mount (Fig 22).  The glass itself is not cut like a lens, so it will have no magnification, but instead is like a transparent movie theater screen upon which the laser shines a little dot.  The dot may be a single point (as on most Aimpoints) or some form of circle / cross hairs (as seen in Eotechs and others).  The idea is that because of the cut of the glass, the dot (once zeroed) will represent the point of impact when you look through the sight.  This is true even if the eye is moved around relative to the sight.  The advantage of a Red Dot sight lies in its simplicity of use – one must no longer align the front and rear sights but simply focus on the dot and put that where you want the hole to go therefore one can usually shoot faster with the same given accuracy.  If you can afford the addition, go right ahead, but ensure you are still a master of the Irons as no battery lasts forever. – Keep in mind, the dot is like the front sight, it must ALWAYS be in focus as you fire.

(Fig 22) Red Dot sight. The red dot provides one single thing to align rather than both a front and rear sight.

Lasers – Lasers on pistols are GREAT, just ask my cats when I’m cleaning my firearms.  They have kept their sexy cat physiques by constantly ensuring no laser dots are free to roam the halls of my abode unmolested.

(Fig 23a) Predator Reaction Training with Laser sight. Warning - these skills may be used on your own feet at night.

(Fig 23b) The 1000 yrd stare of a stone cold killer. Be woeful of what you may create.

Aside from feline exercise, I find the use of laser sights when shooting to be very limited.  Some lasers are built into flashlights (Fig 24), while others are built into the grip of the firearm or even the recoil rod itself and all have some type of on / off or pressure switch.  In the end, you are always better to learn to shoot with the least amount of technological aid possible (things break at the worst of times) and so I suggest little time be spent practicing with the laser if you have one until you are more than proficient at the basics.  The advantages of a laser sight are: 1. Intimidation of an aggressor – people tend to re-consider their actions when they have a glowing, pertinent reminder of their mortality on their chest.  2. Being able to shoot without indexing the sights – having been knocked under your table by a rampaging zombie you can still acquire a POI and save your brain from being eaten.  They are, to my knowledge, disallowed in most or all competition so their usefulness is limited mostly to defensive purposes.  Laws currently being what they are in Canada where one is NOT allowed to carry a firearm for defense, usefulness within these boarders remains limited – unless you have a cat.

(Fig 24) Laser Sight and Flashlight Combo. Now you can run your batteries dry in half the time!

Ok, I’ve been a little harsh on lasers as they do have some very useful applications in training.  A few ways they can quickly add value is in point shooting (low retention shooting), trigger pull training and in safely drawing your pistol from a holster.  To do the first, I work on picking a small target and perform a draw to low retention or a pointed shot.  When I break the shot I freeze and then turn on the laser to provide instant feedback on how well my POA matches my target.  Keep in mind, the orientation of the dot to the target itself will depend upon the zero distance of the laser and its position relative to the bore.  For the Second, one can aim the firearm and let the laser sit on a far wall.  While pulling the trigger, the laser will jump around excessively if you apply incorrect pressure.  Your goal is to obtain smaller and smaller ‘painted’ areas on the wall with the laser over time.  Lastly, turn the laser on and holster the pistol as you normally would.  Keep an eye on where the laser dot shows up as you go through the holstering motion – anything it crosses could have holes one day.  Leave the laser on for a draw from the holster and watch again where the dot travels– are you potentially blasting holes in your right foot each time?  How about your off hand? – this is often a humbling lesson learned the safe way.  (Much more on trigger control and holster draws is available in other articles)

Both Eyes Open –

Should you shoot with one eye closed or both eyes open? There are shooters in both camps that will not be moving their tents any time soon and there are certainly enough expert shooters using both to show that either methodology will work.  Keeping one eye closed can make it easier on the brain to concentrate on the sights without other distracting information, however, there are advantages to keeping both eyes open.  The first is that both optic nerves are receiving light, so there is no reflexive widening of the Iris in the open eye – which leads to loss of clarity.  (Keeping both eyes open is important enough that many long distance competition shooters will place scotch tape on their shooting glasses across their ‘off-side’ eye.  This provides light to that eye, but does not provide a competing image for the brain to sort out.)    The second advantage of having both eyes open is that for either competition or defense, it provides much more information on the environment and further targets.  For this reason I would suggest starting your shooting career by learning to shoot with both eyes open, or even trying to adjust your current learned style to work on opening that closed eye if you can.  I currently shoot with my secondary eye 1/2 to 2/3 open.  I probably look like a blinking idiot, but it does get me half way there.  Red Dot sights are specifically designed to take  advantage of the ‘Binden’ (both eyes open) concept, and should always be used with both of your Bright Eyes open (Bushy Tail is optional).

Front Sight Saturday Night Fever –

I’ve had many students curse and swear because their front sight is like a teenager on ecstasy.  IT JUST WON’T STOP DANCING!  The good news is you can relax; the bad news is that it will never stop moving entirely.  On a good day, with the stars aligned and my lucky rabbit foot working on over drive, I’ve achieved moments where my pistol is basically stationary – but even then I can see the nearly imperceptible movements as it bobs and weaves back and forth.  The reason for this is that your muscles never ‘lock’ into a position.  As you hold something out in front of you your brain will be making constant muscle corrections based upon the physical feedback of your nerves as well as the visual feedback from your eyes.  Some people who train to shoot from holster draw will actually practice releasing the first round just as their arms are reaching extension.  They do this because it can be easier at times to obtain a steady POA under directed movement than it can be to simply hold the pistol stationary.  WARNING – Don’t try this until you have taken a good holster course and are very proficient with your firearm of choice!

Accept the movement as inevitable while always trying to reduce it each time you shoot.  The best way to do so is to focus on that beloved front sight and work on keeping that still as possible.

Sight Safety –

Just because you do not have your sights aligned on the target and up in front of you doesn’t mean they aren’t pointed at something.  It may be the ground; it may be YOUR leg.  It may be your buddies leg or something more important to him than his leg.  Keep this in mind at ALL times – what are your sights pointing at right now?

SUMMARY or WHAT DID WE LEARN?

  •  Aim small, Hit small – this is an old saying from back in the day when your grandparents had to walk to school up hill both ways in the snow with no shoes.  It can be summarized as: if you aim at the broad side of a barn you just might hit it, but if you aim for a nail on the door of that barn, you just might hit that.  The more finite your point of aim and expectation of yourself, the more accurate your shot will be.  Miss the nail by an inch rather than the barn by 3 feet.
  • Front sight, Front sight, Front sight.  People repeat this as a mantra for good reason.  The front sight must be in focus every time you shoot.  Learn it, Live it, Love it.
  • You must align the sights – Vertically, Horizontally AND orient them to the target
  • Break the target down into simple shapes which are easy to Bisect or Quarter, then use those imaginary lines to provide POA
  • Keep both eyes open
  • IR lasers are no good for cat toys unless you buy your cats night vision.
  • Your sight will always move, just try to make it move LESS
  • Safety IS important 
    • Always treat every Firearm as if it were loaded
    • Never point any Firearm at anything you do not wish to destroy
    • Keep finger straight and off the trigger until you intend to fire
    • Know your target AND what is beyond it
  • Have Fun! 

TIP of the Day –

HIPPY THE HIPPO saysbuy 30 pairs of the same black socks.  You won’t even notice if one goes missing.

If you havent already, go check out the following for further reading on pistol shooting skills:

1- Holding the Pistol (https://canadianshooter.wordpress.com/holding-the-pistol/)

3 – Trigger Pull with Pistols (https://canadianshooter.wordpress.com/trigger-finger/)

To learn more about Canadian Shooter and a little about hippos check out:

About (https://canadianshooter.wordpress.com/about/)

All Photographs by Bob McKerrell (www.bobmckerrell.com) – Thanks Bob!

All Drawings, Diagrams and Words by Mike C.

Email: canadianshooterblog@gmail.com with any questions/comment/feedback

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Comments
  1. […] 1.握枪 https://canadianshooter.wordpress.com/holding-the-pistol/ 2.瞄准 https://canadianshooter.wordpress.com/2-sight-alignment-with-pistols/ […]

  2. Alan says:

    Excellent and concise explanation for target shooting accuracy.Alan New Mexico USA

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