So, you want to learn to shoot accurately, or your marksmanship is not exactly where you want it to be? Don’t fret, my friend. Anyone can learn to shoot accurately, it's simply a matter of instruction. As my friend Rubin said in the film Road Trip: “I can teach Japanese to a monkey in 46 hours. The key is just finding a way to relate to the material.” Comical, but absolutely correct.
Effective marksmanship, with any weapon, is a process. Each and every squeeze of the trigger should be part of a step-by-step formula. Naturally, as your practice with this formula continues, the quicker you will progress through the steps. Strict adherence to this formula is how you learn – and perfect – the most crucial aspect of marksmanship: purposeful repeatability. Additionally, practicing safely and effectively is paramount so that you can continue to work on your skills.
Think of it this way: a friend of yours is having a pizza party. You, being a good friend and budding pizza chef, want to make all the pizzas yourself. Say, 10 pizzas. In your kitchen, you make the dough, make the sauce, add the cheese and pop it into the oven. Unfortunately, your oven can only accommodate one pizza at a time. No bother, you say, and you make all 10 pizzas assembly-line style.
Now here is where pizza making and marksmanship share roots. Each time you make the dough and the sauce, it takes a specific amount of ingredients in a specific order. The oven has to be set to a specific temperature and each pizza needs to be in the oven for a specific amount of time. If you alter any one of those steps or ingredients, even by a fraction, you can end up with 10 pizzas that taste just a little different. Or, if you cook like me, your pizzas will look like 10 completely different items.
Marksmanship, like cooking, is a series of steps that get repeated every single trigger squeeze. If you are careful about how closely you follow the steps (and how well you manage pistol recoil), your shots will hit the target where you intend. Conversely, if you shoot without being careful, much like cooking those pizzas without using measuring cups, your shots will scatter.
Purposeful repeatability is the true evidence of an accomplished shooter. You can hit a bullseye, or even two, with luck, but the accomplished shooter can do it shot after shot.
What is Sight Alignment?
So, what is sight alignment? In short, sight alignment is exactly what it sounds like; properly aligning the sights on the weapon so the round goes where the shooter aims. Sight picture is a little more complex sounding but arguably simpler: proper sight alignment while aimed at a target.
Seems simple right? If only it were that easy we’d all be Wyatt Earp! Remember Rubin; you can learn anything as long as you can relate to the material. If I can learn to make a pizza, you can learn the mechanics of fine marksmanship.
In this article, I am going to cover sight alignment in depth. Keep in mind, the following is not the only way to use the sights (though it will definitely cover a solid majority of shooters). That said, the following techniques are the foundation of how I shoot, and how I teach others to shoot.
I use and teach, these techniques because that is exactly how the U.S. Marine Corps taught me when I first started shooting more than a decade ago. And that’s exactly how the Marine Corps taught Marines long before me, and long after me. The techniques are far and away, real-world tested and proven under every possible shooting scenario imaginable.
It just so happens that these techniques also fall in line with how the sights were designed by the manufacturer. So, rest assured, the following has been deeply vetted.
Now, all of the material is important, but much of it will not make sense initially. As you spend more time on the range, small tidbits in here will start to pop up and you’ll have the ‘aha!’ moment.
I will also point out critical skills I want you to take away the first time; the things you should take to the range and practice. As you master those key bits, the smaller details will start making sense.
Make your pizza one step at a time.
What Are Handgun Sights?
Now, before getting into the depths of sight alignment, first, we have to cover weapon sights in general. This article will cover the sights commonly found on stock handguns, and how to use those sights. The fundamental concepts, however, apply to any weapon with a sight, be it handgun, rifle, machine gun, etc. Down the rabbit hole we go!
Long before the advent of red dot sights and laser sights, a shooter needed a way to effectively aim their pistol and hit what they aimed at. Enter iron sights.
Iron sights are the default sights on a given handgun and come in two parts: the front sight post and rear sight aperture. The front sight post is generally a single post on top of the slide, directly overtop the place where a fired round exits the barrel (also called the ‘muzzle’). For the majority of manufactures, this post will be all black, or black with a colored dot on it.
The accompanying rear sight aperture can be found on top of the slide, at the opposite end of the weapon as the front sight post. This is where iron sights get a little more complex.
This rear sight aperture is a notched out blade and the notch can be a square ‘U’ shape, a ‘V’ shape or even a ring. Additionally, the notch can be white, black or have two white dots on either side of the notch. All of this varies by manufacturer, pistol, and application, however, the fundamentals of how these sights work remains the same.
Before we get to that, a quick word about the distance between the sights. It would seem that the sights on the weapon were simply slapped on there based on how big your gun is (hehe). While somewhat true, the distance between the sights, called the sight radius (radii), is actually important to sight alignment, though maybe not in the way you imagine.
Without getting too far into the weeds, the shorter the sight radius is, the less movement you will see in your sights, and the less accuracy you will have.
Seems like that’s backward right? Well, to keep it simple, with short sight radius the front sight post will move very little in relation to the rear sight aperture. This means you, as the shooter, will not be as able to visually detect when the sights are not perfectly aligned.
So, conversely, the longer the sight radius, the more the front sight will move in relation to the rear sight aperture. You, as the shooter, will see every single bump and twitch you make and will correct for that in your sight alignment.
Additionally, unless you are a USPSA competition shooter with extended sights, the sight radius on your pistol will be matched to the size pistol the sights are on.
Generally, longer sight radius = larger pistol and longer barrel. Longer barrels = more precision at distance. So that longer sight radius has an added benefit to the shooter, though the two are not specifically related.
OK, enough about the hardware. Let’s get down to the reason you are actually here: how to aim a pistol?
Proper Sight Alignment – Critical Skill
To demonstrate my points I will continue to use the Sig Sauer P226. On that pistol, the front sight post is a single post with a single white dot in the center. The rear sight aperture is a blade with a square ‘U’ notch. There are two white dots on either side of the ‘shoulders’ of the ‘U’.
These white dots are actually Tritium night sights I have on this weapon, an upgrade from Sig Sauer, which I will explain in a moment. For the time being, I will be explaining the sights as if the dots did not exist.
In a vacuum, proper sight alignment occurs when the front sight post is centered in the rear sight aperture and even with the ‘shoulders’ of the notch. Easy as pie right? It is, but we need more pieces first.
Before we hit the graphics, as always, NEVER HANDLE A WEAPON UNTIL YOU HAVE VERIFIED IT IS NOT LOADED. Remove the magazine and, with the weapon pointed in a safe direction, rack the slide to ensure no rounds are in the chamber. Visually and PHYSICALLY verify the chamber is empty and the magazine is removed.
This is the view you will see as you look down your sights. A proper sight alignment will have the front sight post even with the shoulders of the rear sight aperture and centered in the aperture’s notch.
The red arrows indicate where you will be looking to ensure there is equal space on either side of the front sight post.
Now that we’ve covered how the sights are aligned, let’s address how this is done in practicality.
The human eye has an amazing depth of field and the ability to shift focus at will. What the human eye cannot do, however, is focus on multiple items at different distances.
For a majority of your life, it's possible you were never even consciously aware of this or were ever in a situation where this mattered. The brain, being the amazing organ that it is, will take care of this normally without conscious thought. Now, you are going to have to take the reins back from your brain for a bit and consciously control this ability. Why?
Well, in terms of shooting pistols, your eye will be unable to render the rear sight, front sight and target all in focus simultaneously. It is a physiological limitation. So we have to choose, and we have to do it purposefully. So which one do we focus on?
Do we focus on the rear sight? We could, but in the grand scheme of things, the rear sight is sitting nearly over the top of your outstretched hand. It is in the most stable position on the weapon and unless you accidentally drop the gun, the rear sight won’t be going anywhere.
Do we focus on the target? Again, we could. We should know what we’re shooting at right? Absolutely. A key factor in every single trigger squeeze is correctly identifying exactly what you are shooting at. But once you’ve identified your target and are preparing to fire, will focusing on the target make your shot accurate? Not at all.
Out of the three, you should be focusing exclusively on the front sight post as you prepare to squeeze the trigger, while you are squeezing the trigger, and in the moments directly after the shot breaks. Those words are in italics for a reason.
Imagine the firing process slowed down to a crawl. You’ve identified your target and made the decision to fire. Front sight post comes into focus and you concentrate on aligning the sights.
- Focus: you take up slack on the trigger.
- Focus: you continue to squeeze until the shot breaks.
- Focus: the gun recoils, the muzzle rises.
- Focus: you ride the recoil and the muzzle settles back on target. If that’s the only shot you will be taking, now is when you break the focus on that front sight post.
Resist the urge to rapidly switch focus between the sights and the target. When you begin to squeeze the trigger the focus should be only on the front sight post and remain locked until after the muzzle has returned to the target.
This seems incredibly regimented, right? It is. Focusing on the front sight post during the shot is potentially one of the most well documented and deeply proven concepts of marksmanship.
This relationship, fuzzy rear site, clear front sight, and fuzzy target is called Sight picture, which is covered in depth here.
So, we’ve covered what a proper sight alignment should look like. Let’s get into when it goes wrong.
Working the Sights – Food for Thought
This is the part of the presentation where we dig into the fundamentals of one reason behind why your shots don’t go where you want them to go. Read the information below and file it into the back of your mind. It will become increasingly clear the more time you spend behind your gun and as you master the critical skill above.
So, the front and rear sight on a pistol exist to allow the shooter to correctly align the pistol barrel to the eye in relation to elevation (up and down) and traverse (left and right).
Imagine an invisible line traveling from the center of the rear sight, through the center of the front sight post and on into infinity. If that invisible line is, in fact, traveling from the center of the rear sight and through the center of the front sight post, then the sights are aligned.
Conversely, say that invisible line leaves the center of the rear sight and passes through the front sight off-center, or it passes over the top of the post, or through the base of the post, then the sights are not aligned.
Let’s go to the graphics.
In this graphic, we can see that the black, dotted line travels from the center of the rear sight and passes directly through the center of the front sight. These sights are aligned vertically; the shot will be accurate.
Conversely, the white-dotted line shows that if the sights have even the slightest deviation horizontally, the round will not hit where aimed. The farther the distance between gun and target, the more deviation will be seen.
In the graphic below, the bottom shot line (black, dotted) travels from the center of the rear sight and through the center of the front sight. These sights are aligned vertically and this shot is accurate.
The converse requires a bit of imagination because, as the front sight physically goes up in relation to the rear sight, the higher the shot will impact. Just like the horizontal deviation, the further the distance to the target, the greater the deviation.
Since humans don’t regularly come equipped with laser eyes, what does that look like on an actual pistol? To demonstrate, I return to my trusty Sig Sauer P226 pistol.
The image above is how the sights would appear for a wide left shot. These sights are not aligned and the shot will impact to the left of where it was intended. If the front sight post was to the right of center, that shot would impact to the right of intended.
The image above demonstrates how the sights would look for a high shot. Remember, for the front sight post, the higher the post is in relation to the rear sight, the higher the shot will go. The lower it is, the lower the shot.
You should also notice in both of these pictures that the front sight is fuzzy and rear sight is focused: in other words, not proper sight picture.
My Sights Keep Moving! The Scourge of Shooters – Sight Drift
Anyone who has ever sighted down a weapon, quickly learns that it is impossible to keep the sights still and in the perfect spot. This phenomenon is called sight drift and it is completely expected, especially after you chugged that extra large coffee on the way to the range because you were late.
A distinct flaw in the new shooter’s game is they try to ‘freeze’ the sights by quickly hitting the trigger when the sights appear aligned. Or, they grip the gun as hard as they can to try and stop the sights from moving. While these may seem prudent, it has the opposite effect on the rounds you fire.
I can hear you from here: “But if my sights are moving how can I achieve proper sight alignment and be accurate???” I will let you in on the secret.
- Fact: ALL sights will drift, regardless of the shooter.
- Fact: Short of putting your handgun in a vise, you will be unable to stop the sights from drifting.
- Fact: You can, and will, be very accurate with drifting sights.
- Before I get any further, for those experienced shooters out there who are still with me, yes, I know there is a time and place for ‘freezing’ the sights. That is an advanced skill we will cover in a different article. Carry on.
Back to the show. Sight drift is a fundamental fact of pistols propagated by the simple mechanics of holding a heavy object out in front of your body. Musculature can only grant us so much stability and stamina. The longer you hold that object in front of you, both in the moment and over the course of the day, the more fatigued you will become and the more aggressively your sights will drift.
Drift can only be reduced with experience, proper grip/stance and by relaxing. “Relaxing?? I’m shooting a gun!” I know. The most common sight issue I find with new shooters is them getting frustrated about trying to stop their sights from moving (an impossibility as we’ve discussed).
The more flustered the shooter gets, the more the sights drift, so forth and so on. Shots get missed, flustering intensifies and in fairly short order the shooter is entirely incapable of applying the fundamentals. This feedback loop can turn a fun indoor range day into a disappointing experience.
So, as I said. Relax. Watch the sights drift. Over time you will notice small patterns; sometimes figure-8’s, sometimes small circles, etc. Experience, along with proper grip and stance, will reduce the sight drift to the point where it will be a non-issue for you. Provided the sights are aligned, even not perfectly, your shots will go where you want them to.
So the shooting bug has bit you and now you’ve found yourself as the proud new owner of a reflex dot sight? Or maybe some shiny new Tritium sights? Does it change the technique? It depends.
Let’s cover those Tritium sights first since I happen to have a set on my P226. Night sights (or low light sights) come in a few different varieties. I’ll clear something up front the jump, Tritium is not a brand name. It’s the name of the radioactive isotope inside each dot that makes it glow. “My sights are radioactive??” Yep.
As the Tritium decays, it reacts with the phosphorescent coating on the inside of the tiny tube it sits in. The advantage is the sights will glow instantly in low light, or completely dark, conditions. The disadvantage is the Tritium isotope has a half-life of 12 years, meaning in six years the sights will start to dull (like mine, which is why I was unable to snag you guys a picture).
There are also night sights with the same three-dot configuration utilizing a phosphorescent paint. Like those old-school glow-in-the-dark stickers we all stuck to our ceilings, this paint ‘charges’ with ambient light.
Regardless of the configuration or possible radioactivity of your night sights, the concepts of sight alignment remain the same. Only, instead of carefully getting that front sight post perfectly between the shoulders of the rear sight aperture, you are going to line up the three glowing dots. Not a perfect system, but it gives you something in the dire circumstance of things going bump in the night.
Now, say you got yourself one of those fancy red dot sights. After I get over my jealousy, I will point out two things.
- Train with iron sights FIRST. Batteries go dead, electronics die unexpectedly. Backup iron sights will get the job done in any conditions.
- The red dot sight is an adjustable sight. It must be correctly zeroed to the gun it is on. Otherwise, the point of impact will not be where the dot is.
Sight alignment with a dot sight is…..well……it's damn easy. Provided your sight is properly zeroed for that weapon, and you practice all the other fundamentals of marksmanship (grip, stance, trigger control, etc.) your shots should impact where you put the red dot.
Keep Training – Practice the Skills
Well, if you are still here I give you impressive credit. Bet you never realized there was all that info behind ‘sight alignment’. We’ve only scratched the surface folks…
As I pointed out earlier, every squeeze of the trigger requires positive identification of what you are shooting at. The second part of that equation is hitting what you are shooting at. Range days are fun, but range days also have their serious side too. If the moment arrives when that firearm becomes necessary to protect yourself or your family; judicious accuracy will be appreciated. And besides, the best shot IS the best shot. Hard to argue with results and bragging rights are there for the taking.
Stay the course and keep effectively training. Once you understand the ingredients, you’ll be making the same pizzas in no time.
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