Sighted vs. point shooting–myths and realities


A common argument in the shooting world for the last half decade has been whether it’s better to focus on your threat when shooting or focus on your front sights.

The answer is “yes.” 🙂

Ok…so it’s a little more complicated than that.

But as you get deeper and deeper into shooting, you come to realize that it’s not a black and white issue.

Sighted shooting practice (in the right quality and quantity) sets up the muscle memory (see footnote) so that in an extreme stress situation, your sights automatically come up into alignment between your dominant eye and your target.

And unsighted aiming is simply a preliminary step in the process of using your sights.

Most people agree that if you’ve got an attacker on top of you, pummeling away, and you’re able to get to your gun, you don’t need to visually line up your sights…your sights will be automatically aligned when you’re pressing the muzzle against your attacker.

And most people agree that if you’re shooting a 6” target at 25 yards, you’re better off using your sights.

But what about in-between?  That’s a little more complicated.

I’ve got some info for you that you’ve probably not seen or heard before that will help you sort through this.

To start things off, we need to talk about the eye, vision, and perception.

The eye and vision is an amazing thing.  If you think about a violent attack, here’s a rundown of one way it can play out…

  1. You see movement, and shift your eyes to point towards the movement.
  2. The muscles around the eye adjust the shape of the eye to focus the image on the back of the eye and the pupil adjusts to let in the ideal amount of light.
  3. As the light hits the back of the eye, a chemical reaction happens. That chemical reaction turns light into electrical signals that travel along the optic nerve.
  4. The images from both eyes are split and combined into 2 images in the optic chiasm, flipped, and sent to the visual cortex.
  5. The visual cortex decides how to create a single image out of the 2 pictures it was fed…ideally suppressing one image and prioritizing the other…and creates a single image out of the 2 images it was fed to send to the rest of the brain for processing.
  6. The brain uses that image to assess threats and determine actions.

The process is pretty darn amazing…and it’s happening ALL THE TIME.

If you shift your focus from a “wide” focus that sees an entire person to a “narrow” focus that just looks at the weapon in their hand, you run through the entire process again.  (In this case, I’m not referring to the lens focusing wide or narrow, but the visual cortex reducing the information it’s sending to the rest of the brain)

And, if you decide that the use of a firearm is appropriate, you go through that entire process again when you line up your sights or verify sight alignment.

It feels like this process happens instantly, but it doesn’t.

Subconsciously seeing something can take a few miliseconds to a third of a second, depending on the study.

But conscious perception of what you saw can take from .4-.7 seconds or longer.  And in many cases, you don’t consciously process your sight picture until after the bullet has left the muzzle…(it’s ok if your eyes crossed and you scratched your head on that one.)

Here are some of the factors that influence how long it takes to focus and consciously process a visual image…

  1. General shapes are faster to identify than specific fine details.
  2. Visual processing is faster in full light than partial or low light.
  3. The more sensory input you have, the slower your visual processing will be, due to sensory overload.  (i.e. complex visual environment, loud noises, balance challenges, extreme pressure/heat/cold on your skin, etc.)
  4. The more new and novel the sensory input is, the slower your visual processing will be.
  5. When you have a pre-conceived bias, it takes longer to perceive something that doesn’t match that bias.
  6. It’s faster to shift between objects at similar distances or similar light levels than between objects at different distances or different light levels.
  7. At extreme stress levels, it’s harder for your eyes to make fine focus movements.
  8. Blood sugar, fatigue, eye health, shock, surprise, and other factors can make the perception process take longer.

How’s this fit into the debate between point shooting and sighted shooting?

In short, shifting conscious focus from the target to the front sight takes time…time that your brain may not think you have in a fight for your life.

There have been several studies done that show that in a gunfight, your focus is going to be on your threat.  Some go so far as to say that you won’t be able to see your sights and use this as a reason to only practice “point” shooting.

But there’s a few problems with that.

As Col. Jeff Cooper said (roughly), “Nobody was born with a natural ability to point a gun.”

Pointing a gun without using the sights and actually hitting what you aim at is an incredibly perishable skill that requires significant practice to master.

If you ONLY practice point shooting, it either takes very high level mental skills (that I’ll share a resource for in a minute) or a very high practice round count.  And, it’s not something that you can practice a few times a month and expect to stay on top of.  It’s something that some people need to practice every few hours and other people need to practice every day or two.

More than one high level security team, who’s names/letters I won’t mention, who use point shooting, have their members qualify daily.  If they pass, they get to work for the day.  If they don’t, they get to ride a desk, do other admin work, or go home and try again the next day.

It’s THAT perishable of a skill…for some people.

You see, point shooting accuracy is affected by several factors, including:

  1. Visual, vestibular, and proprioceptive system synchronization (the eye and inner ear both telling the brain that the same point in space is straight ahead. It’s common for people to NOT be synchronized and it can be caused by chemo, vitamin B deficiency, head trauma, or other things.)
  2. Working out. If you develop the cybernetic loop to point shoot accurately, take a few days off, and do heavy weightlifting, you’re going to have to retrain your brain to point shoot again with the new, stronger muscles that you have.

Illness, fatigue, injury, and adrenaline dumps can also affect the accuracy of point shooting.

How’s this play out?

Well, you’ve probably heard of cases where police and bad guys have had shootouts in bedrooms on the opposite side of queen size beds, emptied their magazines, and missed each other with every round fired.  That’s point shooting done poorly…or point shooting done the “normal” way.

It kind of negates the argument that snub nosed revolvers don’t need sights because you’ll be so close you won’t need them…or does it?

Here’s another way of looking at it…

There are thousands of stories of people successfully using firearms in combat and self-defense who didn’t see the sights.

There are also stories of people successfully using firearms in combat and self-defense who DID see their sights.

So it’s not a matter of one way is right and one way is wrong…there’s got to be more to it.

Here’s something I’ve seen:

Remember the numbers I gave you earlier about the amount of time that it takes to CONSCIOUSLY perceive an image?  .4 seconds is about as fast as it can happen.

With that in mind, if someone says that they’re using their sights, you should be able to watch video and see at least a .4 second delay between when the sights get to a point between the eye and the target and when the shot is fired AND there should be a minimum .4 second delay between when the sights recover from recoil and when the next shot is fired.

You see that on most shooters, but not high end shooters.

So, how are they able to get off their first shot without that extra .4 second delay and get off subsequent shots without that extra delay?

It’s a process.

When you start the process of using the sights to shoot, you bring your gun up and then adjust it until the sights are in alignment with your target…this takes time.

As you keep practicing, the supporting and stabilizing muscles of the shoulders, arms, and hands learn what they’re supposed to do.

Eventually, you bring your gun up and the sights are automatically in alignment.  All you’re doing with your eyes is verifying sight alignment.  This is something that shooters can eventually do subconsciously…in a few thousandths of a second instead of .4 seconds or more.

After the fact, the shooter will swear that they had a sight picture before firing, but video proves out that they didn’t consciously comprehend what their subconscious mind saw until after the bullet had left the muzzle.  Everything was being driven by the subconscious.

At this point, you have to ask yourself, is that sighted shooting or point shooting?

Again, my answer is “yes.”

It’s a blending of the two that happens when you master sighted shooting through high quality practice using your sights.

If you rush the process, things kind of fall apart and you can shoot 16-18 rounds at a man sized target across a queen size bed and miss with every shot, but if you keep focusing on the fundamentals, at some point the blending of sighted and unsighted shooting just happens through the process of mastering sighted shooting.

Can you go the other way???  Starting with unsighted shooting?

Sort of.

The best way to think of point shooting is that point shooting is an intermediary step in the sighted shooting process.

I don’t agree with a lot of pure point shooting teaching because while the teachers may be committed to continual practice, the students aren’t all as committed to the volume and frequency of practice necessary to keep their skills sharp.

But I do agree with point shooting as a step in the sighted shooting process.

Sighted shooting is more forgiving to a lack of frequent practice because you have concrete steps to fall back on to hit your target every time (horizontal and vertical sight alignment, compress the trigger straight back without disturbing sight alignment…and the bullet hits the target.)  It’s similar to the land nav concept of a handrail.

I go into the process of integrating sighted and unsighted shooting in a video presentation >HERE<  If you’re serious about self defense shooting, I want to encourage you to check it out today.

Darn it if I’m not at 1700 words with this article.  The average attention span is around 800 words, so I’m going to cut it off.

I’ve got books of info and experience on this, and am more than happy to answer any questions you have on sighted vs. point shooting.  If you’ve got any questions, ask them by commenting below:

Questions? Comments? What are your thoughts? Share them by commenting below either through Facebook (preferred) or directly on the blog:

Footnote:  I used the dreaded term “Muscle Memory.”  That puts most people into one of 2 camps…one camp thinks, “he’s one of us” and the other thinks, “what a rube…muscles don’t have memory.”  Ok…let’s get this straight.  The point of this article is to communicate and influence behavior…hopefully to get people to make better training choices.  Since that’s the case, I tend to sometimes use more-common street language than terms that are more technically accurate.  If I say “muscle memory,” everyone knows what I’m talking about.  If I say “fully myelinated neuropathway,” I lose a ton of the audience.  If I gradually transition from one to the other, we all get to learn together.

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  • Sharon Sampson

    Reply Reply June 24, 2016

    I love practicing at night until I was told by an old codger ‘there’s some idget shooting in the middle of night up thare’…I just grinned and nodded in agreement. Is it not a good idea, since the first shot is the one that matters, to use both eyes (I LOVE that flash on my 44 mag) or to close the non-dominant eye to have some night vision to even see if that fist shot was effective?

  • Herman

    Reply Reply June 10, 2016

    Very good article and understandable. Keep up the good work

  • TheMatrix

    Reply Reply May 27, 2016

    Yeah, about 800 words is where i had to break it off & restart later. Tighter editing is called for. The article needs to be long enough to cover the subject and SHORT enough to be interesting–about 800 words.

    • Ox

      Reply Reply May 28, 2016

      LOL…fortunately, not everyone gives in to the ridiculousness of 800 word limits. If they did, we wouldn’t have books, TV shows, movies, or anything else.

      I fully appreciate the fact that articles over 800 words might lose some of the people who have the attention span of a squirrel on crack…there are times during the day where my limit is about 200 words…but I have tremendous respect for people who can still concentrate for more than a few seconds.

      Here’s why. When you limit articles to 800 words, what you end up with is pop-gun-training culture where the same ridiculous pabum (baby food) is regurgitated over and over and over again. If you really want meat on a subject…the kind of information that can completely transform your ability to shoot and/or fight, it takes more than 800 words.

      I get that not everyone is going to read every word of what I write…but for those who are hungry and looking for dramatic positive change…I’m going to keep writing longer articles that deliver more value.

  • 35 years in the military and 25 in law enforcement it’s ,rep,reps,reps. If ammo cost is a problem purchase the dry fire system and put your time in .Because you’ll only be second once.

  • TSEjr

    Reply Reply May 27, 2016

    I am 59rys old, served 6yrs USMC, have both H2H combatives training (strong proponent of TFT) and firearms training. I have never been on the receiving end of shots fired in anger but have successfully defended myself twice in unarmed combat. Just want to reinforce the neuro-visual description provided. In both cases, the fine features of my attacker disappeared and were replaced by a non-descript form on which only presented target strike points. In both cases, fine feature recognition reappeared at the point the attacker was incapacitated.

    Thanks for all the information you provide.

  • George Webber

    Reply Reply May 27, 2016

    Good article! I have been shooting for approximately 68 years (I am now 73) and learned using sights. As a teenager I had a friend with a .22 single shot rifle with the sights removed. We used it for some target shooting and I discovered that with no sights I had to use the barrel as the “sights”. To me, point shooting is much the same. I started using the technique with a handgun and practiced “dry fire” pointing at the target. Using the same grip every time and I found the pointing is just an extension of my arm. Using the sights narrows my group. Then came lasers and practice took on a whole new meaning. Now I can point the weapon, activate the laser, and check to see where the shot would have gone. Peripheral vision shooting takes on a whole new meaning.
    I am not suggesting my technique for anyone else and I thankfully have never had to test my skills in a gunfight.
    Thank you for your articles, Ox, You inspire thoughtful consideration of a difficult topic every time.

  • David Eberhardt

    Reply Reply May 27, 2016

    Great article. I look forward to reading these articles all the time since they are so informative and spot on.

  • James Wunderlich

    Reply Reply May 27, 2016

    Thank you for this great article.

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