If you’ve spent any time at a range listening to people talk about how to shoot, it’s likely you have heard the terms sight alignment and sight picture. It’s also incredibly likely that whoever said those terms described them in ways that led you to believe they were the same thing.
Well, my friends, they are not the same thing.
Take a car for instance. Is the accelerator pedal and steering wheel the same thing? No? Aren’t those the items that “make the car move”? Now we’re getting to it.
What is Sight Picture?
Sight picture is proper sight alignment while aimed at the target you intend to shoot. That’s it. When it comes to marksmanship, the basic tenets (outside of trigger control, grip, stance, etc.) are lining up the sights so the weapon will hit where aimed and get those sights aimed at what you want to hit. Sight alignment while aimed at your intended target equals sight picture.
To ensure we are all using the right words to have this discussion, let’s cover sight alignment briefly.
Before the advent of red dot sights and laser pointers, the only method for aiming a pistol was to use the iron sights. While these sights may physically differ depending on pistol and manufacturer, the general design features are a single post mounted over the top of the muzzle and a rear aperture mounted at the opposite end of the pistol from this post.
The rear aperture can vary in design, but the general feature is a blade with a notch in the center. This notch is usually a ‘V’ or a square-d ‘U’, but can be almost any shape.
Sight alignment occurs when the shooter assumes a proper grip on the pistol and aims downrange. As the shooter’s eye lines up with the rear sight aperture, the front sight post will become visible in the notch. Proper sight alignment is achieved when the shooter aligns the front sight post within the rear sight aperture, having equal space (or light) on either side of the post, and the top of the front sight post even with the ‘shoulders’ of the rear aperture. Right before the shooter fires, the shooter will focus exclusively on the front sight post.
That was a down-and-dirty description of sight alignment. To truly understand this critical skill of pistol marksmanship, head over to the Definitive Guide to Understanding Sight Alignment. Don’t forget to come back!
Now that we have an understanding, sight alignment is the relationship between the front sight and rear sight. This relationship allows the shooter to determine where the barrel is aimed and where the bullet will hit. Sight picture, as a concept, is when the sights are properly aligned and aimed at an intended spot on an intended target. The “picture” of pistol sight picture refers to what the shooter’s eye will see: fuzzy rear sight, focused front sight, and fuzzy target.
It really seems like these are the same thing, right? Let’s try to clear that up.
A Deeper Look at Sight Picture
WHOOSH! You are now legendary Wild West exhibition shooter Annie Oakley. By reputation, you can shoot a playing card held on an edge or a dime thrown up in the air. We’ll leave it at “your sight alignment is perfect”.
You, Annie Oakley, decide to attempt an exhibition shot at a standard round bullseye target. Let’s say you are going to hit a quarter taped to the center of the target. The draw is good; the grip is perfect. Your eyes find your sights and the front sight post is perfectly aligned with the rear sight aperture; sight alignment is dead perfect.
But in this hypothetical world, Annie Oakely-you do not quite notice that the sights are perfectly aimed at the very bottom of the target, despite the fact that you want to hit dead center.
Trigger control is perfect, and the shot goes off. The bullet travels out the barrel and perfectly impacts exactly where the sights said it would…. the bottom of the target. Shock ripples the crowd. Unlike your hypothetical reputation, the quarter escapes destruction. All Annie Oakley-you can think is “how”?
Sight picture, Annie.
Sight alignment is only half the aiming equation. For a well-aimed shot to impact where the shooter intends, you need to properly align the sights and aim them at the spot on the target you intend to hit. Note: there are special sight pictures, which we will discuss below. For now, work with this simple definition.
As always, there is the Reader’s Digest version and the Encyclopedia Britannica version (yes, I had a collection). Let’s take it deeper.
At this point, we should all realize that both sight alignment and sight picture require a common item. Your eyes.
Every human will have a dominant eye, the same as we all have dominant hands. For the most part, your dominant eye will be the same as your dominant hand. Except for those lucky souls who are cross-eye dominant, as in they are right-handed and left eye dominant, or vice versa.
Understanding eye dominance is an important key to pistol marksmanship because a shooter who aligns the sights with their non-dominant eye (both eyes open) will usually impact the target far to the side of where they aimed. Before we get any further, if there is a question of which eye is your dominant eye, a simple test can clear it up.
Hold your hands out in front of you, palms facing away, fingers pointed up and making a triangle with your hands. Leave a small opening between your upraised hands, like a small window. With your hands extended in front of you, look through the window and focus on a distant object.
While keeping the focus on the distant object, bring your hands towards you until the backs of your hands are touching your face. If you are still focusing on the object in the distance, the window will be in front of your dominant eye.
Let’s confirm it with this test. With your dominant hand (the one you write with) and both eyes open, point to a distance object with your pointer finger. While holding the finger pointed at the distance object, shift your focus to your upraised finger. Alternate closing one eye, then the other. For one eye, the finger will cover the chosen object; that eye is your dominant eye.
If you’ve suddenly determined that you are cross-eye dominant (as in, write with the right hand, but have left eye dominance or vice versa) your marksmanship is going to require more practice. But first…
Eyes Open or Closed?
Should we shoot with one eye closed or both eyes open? Great question! I recommend, and train, with both eyes open. My shooting background is military and law enforcement, so I am primarily working a gun in a space that requires maximum situational awareness. Having one eye closed cuts down depth perception to an unacceptable degree, not to mention wipes out peripheral vision on the closed side. Your needs may not mirror my own.
If you’re a beginner who trains with both eyes open but you experience some double vision when focusing on your target, you may want to close your non-dominant eye to start.
If you train with your non-dominant eye closed, then eye dominance won’t matter as much. The gun is an independent item in your hand, and as long as the sights are aligned and placed on target, then the gun will perform.
For cross-eye dominant shooters, it may be easier to slightly move your head off-center and allow your dominant eye a straight view of your sights. For example, if you are a right-hand shooter but left eye dominant, moving your head slightly to the right, so the left eye (dominant) is more ‘directly behind’ the gun.
Editor’s Note: A couple of our Subject Matter Experts have mentioned that when teaching brand new shooters, i.e. people who have never touched a firearm, they recommend beginners start shooting with only their dominant eye open. This is done so that new shooters can get a clear sight picture and understand what they should be seeing/looking out for when shooting. Once they understand what they should be seeing, then shooting with both eyes open becomes easier.
Sight Picture in Practice
Well, we’ve got a solid feeling about sight alignment, and now we all understand that sight picture is the aligned sights superimposed on the target. As it turns out, where you should be placing those sights on the target actually matters too.
For precision target shooting, it is imperative to know how your handgun sights are designed to work. Sight alignment will remain the same, but the sight picture may change gun-to-gun and from one distance to another. These different sight pictures are referred to as “holds”.
Sight holds are nothing more than different sight pictures and for the purposes of this article, we will cover three of them on a standard bullseye target.
- Combat Hold (or Frame Hold) – The center of the front sight post completely covers the bullseye. If the sight is equipped with a dot, the center of the dot will cover the center of the bullseye.
- Center Hold – The top of the front sight post perfectly bisects the bullseye horizontally.
- Six o’clock hold – The top of the front sight post sits directly underneath the bottom of the bullseye. For obvious reasons, this hold can also be referred to as a “lollipop hold” or “pumpkin on a stick”.
When it comes to holds, each pistol manufacturer has designed their pistols with a particular sight hold in mind. SIG Sauer pistols, for instance, are set from the factory to use a ‘combat’ hold. Similarly, Glocks are designed for a combat hold, however, in my experience, Glock pistols are not as picky and I’ve won competitions with a G22 using a center hold.
There is a way to test your pistol sight picture, and I will cover that later in this article. The important takeaway point here is that not all pistols are manufactured alike when it comes to preferred sight hold, and it benefits all shooters to carefully test their pistols to determine the hold that works best.
Regardless of the designed sight hold of a given pistol, a shooter can still opt for a different hold. The reason a shooter might opt for a different hold is a matter of the situation and choice. To explain this idea, we’ll come at it from two different angles: precision target shooting (slow fire) and defensive shooting (rapid fire).
Precision Target Shooting
It’s a nice sunny morning and you’ve carved out some range time with your buddies. You all spend a few hours punching holes in your targets from various ranges.
From experience, you know your Glock G22 prefers a combat hold (center of the front sight covering the bullseye) and that is how you usually shoot it. The rounds impact where you aim them so all is good right? For that situation, sure.
It’s now the last target reset of the day. Everyone grabs their targets, and while posting them, your friend gives you the old “whoever hits closest to the “0” in the 10 ring at the 25 yard line gets a free lunch!” The game is on!
Only now, you have a sight picture problem. By using that combat hold, the front sight post is obscuring the entirety of the bullseye and then some. You can’t tell if your sights are centered on the bullseye or slightly off. Sight drift (the lazy ‘figure-8’s’ the sights will naturally make) will further complicate this problem as you have no reference point to judge the sights against. Precision is going to be a real problem unless you employ a different hold.
You, being the savvy shooter that you are, decide the center hold is going to win that free lunch. By lowering the front sight ever so slightly, to where the front sight post is bisecting the bullseye ring horizontally, you are now able to see where your front sight is in relation to the bullseye ring.
Will this drop the bullet’s point of impact? Sure will. Depending on sight radius, a negligible amount. How negligible? A pistol with a 6” sight radius and a .5mm sight deflection should see a point-of-impact difference of a little over 1”. Note: sight radius plays a huge role in this number. Know your gun.
Need to know more about sight radius? Check out this article where I cover sight radius in more depth.
What you get back from this sacrifice, is a visible reference point to make sure the front sight is as near the center of the bullseye as you can get. Vertical accuracy may suffer slightly but horizontal accuracy will get a serious boost. After all, you can’t shoot what you can’t see.
And now you get a free lunch, too.
Our ultimate guide to handgun accuracy has even more information to help you get your shot on target.
Defensive gun use is never a situation any of us want to willingly find ourselves in, but it’s definitely a situation some of us train for.
Defensive shooting is nearly always rapid draw, rapid sight picture, rapid fire. Rare is the bad dude who waits for you to properly align your sights and select the most appropriate sight picture. That said, it is important to understand that training for defensive gun use requires a different perspective on marksmanship. If you’re interested, we have more content to help you with defensive training and concealed carry drills!
That perspective revolves around one thing: time. On the range, time is plentiful. Even when competing, time can mean the difference between a bullseye and a hit in the 9-ring. We should always be practicing our marksmanship by taking the time to assure accurate shots. Otherwise, we’re simply wasting money. No one wants to go to the range and miss the target all day.
In a defensive situation however, time is not on our side. Time can be the difference between a good defense and tragedy. So our defensive gun techniques have to make the best use of the very limited time available to get the most accurate shots we can manage. Defensive gun techniques will sacrifice a certain amount of accuracy in order to get shots on target faster.
This is not to say we are firing willy-nilly with no concern for the fundamentals. Far from it. Remember, defensive gun use comes with the great responsibility to hit your intended target. Stray bullets are just as deadly as aimed ones. If you need a refresher on safely training, check out our effective training triad article.
In a defensive gun situation, this can be the difference between taking 4 seconds to carefully align the sights for a hit in the bullseye and taking 2 seconds for a hit inside the 7-ring. Defense cares little for how close to the bullseye you can get, and everything for fast hits on target.
That said, in my opinion, and in real-life, combat hold is king for defensive shooting. Instead of trying to painstakingly bisect the bad guy with the top of the front sight post (requiring precious time and concentration), all you have to do is get the sights aligned and get the front sight post on center mass. Sight acquisition is much faster, which means your defense is much faster.
Since we’re on the topic, defensive gun use will also bring us to the discussion of Flash Sight Picture.
Flash Sight Picture
Flash Sight Picture is a product of the late Lt. Col. Jeff Cooper (A retired US Marine who pioneered the modern techniques of handgun shooting).
Through extensive testing Lt. Col. Cooper determined that, between roughly 3 and 10 yards, a shooter could attain an acceptable defensive accuracy by firing as soon as the front sight was roughly aligned with the rear sight. This could be accomplished in fractions of a second and allowed defensive shooters to get shots on target quickly. He termed this technique Flash Sight Picture (FSP).
Let’s be clear, FSP is a rapid defensive technique for targets between 3 and 10 yards. Inside of 3 yards, it’s unlikely you will need the sights at all and attempting to use this technique past 10 yards can seriously degrade accuracy. The further the distance to the target, the higher likelihood of missing the target altogether. Key point: to be accurate, FSP requires a proper pistol grip and good trigger control.
There are no two ways about it, FSP is an advanced technique. Without a solid foundation in draw, proper grip and good trigger control, any shot fired using FSP is just as likely to miss the target. It is, however, a proven technique for rapid sight picture with acceptable accuracy.
Sight Picture in Adverse Conditions
Let’s talk about adverse conditions for a moment. Remember, sight picture is all about sight alignment superimposed onto the target. In order to have a solid sight picture, the shooter needs to be able to properly reference the target. Without that solid reference, we’re back to you Annie Oakley plugging the base of the target.
Darkness adds an entirely different realm to the pistol shooter with iron sights. Center holds are near-impossible to judge in low-light because both the target and the front sight post are dark colors. The shooter will have great difficulty determining if the front sight post is actually bisecting the bullseye, or just near it, leading to huge variations in both vertical and horizontal impact. With a proper focus on the front sight post, the bullseye will just fade away. No solid reference means a poor sight picture.
Similarly, a six o’clock hold will blend the front sight into the base of the bullseye. Two dark colors meshing together, make it very difficult to determine if the front sight is fully beneath the bullseye, or just covering part of it. Vertical point of impact will vary significantly.
Once again, in low-light shooting conditions, combat hold is king.
By driving the front sight post into the center of the bullseye, the shooter can compensate for color blend by covering all of it. Under adverse conditions, it’s the best shot at accuracy (shooting puns). Even better, if your pistol is equipped with night sights, the front sight post will be the proud owner of a glowing dot. Place the center of the glowing dot center mass of the dark target. Profit.
Speaking of adverse shooting conditions, how should the sight picture change for shooting at a distance? How about an uphill or downhill? Fair warning, some of this is a bit of a brain bender.
Sight Picture for a Distance Shot
Generally, most ranges we all go to have a maximum distance of 25 yards. That is the distance with the best combination of economic factors (larger ranges cost more money and some indoor ranges are even more limiting) and shooter ability. The level of skill required to reliably shoot beyond 25 yards increases dramatically. But does that mean your pistol can’t shoot effectively past 25 yards? Not by a long stretch. But we have to change our approach a bit to get those shots on target. Bring on the physics.
The moment a fired bullet leaves the barrel of a gun, gravity begins to drag it back towards the earth. Gravity is a fact of life we are all familiar with, so that should come as no surprise. Pistol manufacturers also understand this, and their sights are designed to provide a point of aim/point of impact at a predetermined distance (called a ‘zero’) while factoring in the amount of bullet drop in that distance.
Let’s get real deep here.
The long-term trajectory of a fired bullet will resemble a parabolic arc. In layman’s terms, if you could actually watch a rifle bullet’s flight path, it would appear to arc upward from the firing point, peak, and then arc down to the ground.
Full disclosure, the bullet does not actually rise after it’s fired, the sights on a rifle are designed so that the barrel is actually pointed slightly upward.
Pistol bullets behave similarly, with similar design features, but the initial path upward is so slight, it may as well not actually be there (remember, rifles are designed for a long distance, so their barrels are designed to gently point up). The peak and downward arc, however, follow the same path as the rifle bullet.
Now, unlike a bullet, your eyes can see in a straight line, unaffected by gravity. Using your eyesight, you line up your sights and place them on the target as we’ve discussed. The reality is, your line of sight can continue at a great distance without changing path. The pistol bullet you fire, however, will begin that downward arc immediately after being fired.
The key is, upon being fired, the bullet will retain maximum velocity (for this, forward speed), and will travel much further horizontally, than gravity can bring it down vertically. For most pistol cartridges, the drop is less than .01” within the first 25-30 yards.
As a quick example, let’s say you have your trusty Glock 17 9mm. Your target is 20 yards away. You line up the sights and fire the first round. At that range, the bullet will still retain nearly all of its initial velocity and can easily resist gravity’s pull in terms of distance traveled vs drop. The round will hit the target right where you aimed it.
Let’s move that target to 100 yards.
Same process, you line up your sights, get a good combat hold on the bullseye, and pull the trigger. That bullet now has to travel 100 yards, losing velocity the entire way (slowing down) and having gravity drag it down. How close to the bullseye is your shot going to impact?
If we hit the math, or just reference this article where a variety of rounds were tested, you’re looking at a 13” drop at 100 yards, assuming perfect fundamentals. If we move the target to 150 yards, the bullet will drop a staggering 35”.
So how do we counter bullet drop over a distance with a pistol? Easy. We adjust our sight picture to higher than our intended point of impact.
With a rifle, we’d be able to make a whole series of sight adjustments to compensate for the distance and allow for the sight picture to remain the same, but on a pistol the sights are essentially fixed in place. To pull these shots off, we’re going to switch to a sight picture affectionately called ‘Arkansas elevation’.
At its roots, Arkansas elevation is an educated guess. The iron sights on a pistol don’t give the sort of feedback one would need to make really solid adjustments, and the distance to the target further limits the amount of feedback the shooter will get from the target.
So the implication should be rather clear: we do not make critical shots with pistols at ranges that require Arkansas elevation. I am including this portion of the guide for fun shooting purposes only. That said, the next time you get the opportunity to shoot pistol past 50 yards or so, practice with your Arkansas elevation. The further out you go, you may find that your sight picture needs to be aimed at the top of the bullseye, or even the top of the paper, depending on the distance. The further from the target you are, the higher you will need to aim.
Now let’s really bend the mind.
We’ve established that a long distance shot will impact the target lower than aimed. Where will a distance shot uphill impact? How about downhill?
Sight Picture Shooting Uphill and Downhill
Thanks to Sir Isaac Newton, we know that gravity is a constant value. In terms of bullet drop over distance traveled, gravity has its maximum effect on bullets fired at a completely parallel path to the surface of the earth (a horizontal shot allows for maximum straight-line distance traveled).
Conversely, in terms of bullet drop over distance traveled, gravity will have a decreasing effect on bullets fired at upward or downward angles. Even cooler, the effect will continually decrease as the angle increases past parallel to the surface of the earth. That sounds ridiculous, right? Let’s make it easier.
You and your buddies are tossing a football around. One of you shoots out on a short route and you gun the ball straight at him. Gravity drags it down a bit, but the pass is caught.
The new ball owner turns to lob the football at the third guy who is a much further distance away. How will he throw the ball? Gun it straight on? Or give it an upward lob so it drifts down to the catcher? Making sense?
So the relationship between gravity and bullets is somewhat straightforward now (hopefully). The hook is understanding that the sights on a given pistol are manufactured for a point of aim/point of impact when the bullet is experiencing maximum gravitational pull over distance traveled, or, when the shooter fires on a level path to the target.
And since an uphill/downhill shot (a shot where the bullet is traveling at less than parallel to the mean surface of the earth) will experience less drop over distance traveled, then where will the bullet impact in relation to the sights? ‘Aha!’ moment ahead…
Bullets fired uphill or downhill in relation to the surface of the earth will impact higher on the target than they would have had the same shot been taken over a parallel shot path. The more extreme the angle, uphill or downhill, the higher on the target the impact will be.
Say you get really good with your Arkansas elevation at 100 yards, level shot. Regular bulls-eyes with a sight picture just level with the top of the target.
Now let’s take that target and put it 100 yards away and 100 yards higher than your shooting position, forcing you to shoot at a 45-degree angle. You assume your shooting position and apply the sight picture you know works at 100 yards flat. Yep. Your rounds are going to impact nowhere near where you expect.
As the math goes, a bullet fired at a target 100 yards away from the shooter, and at 100 yards of elevation, will experience half of the drop expected from the same shot at zero elevation.
If we move the target to 100 yards out at 150 yards elevation, we should see a quarter of the expected drop. Finally, if I placed a target at 100 yards and directly over the shooter, mathematically, we would see no elevation drop despite the distance. The pistol will be point of aim point of impact.
Full disclosure, the aforementioned theory does not factor in cartridge size, environmental conditions, etc. The rule of thumb for distance is: increase the distance and the factors affecting bullet flight increase.
That may have been far more than you were looking to learn about sight picture, but it has its application. For uphill and downhill shooting with a pistol at a distance, take care on how you apply your Arkansas elevation. The steeper the angle, the less compensation you need to apply.
OK, let’s get out of the deep end and back into the shallows. How do you determine what sight picture is most effective for your pistol? Why, shooting it of course.
Testing Different Holds
The following is my own personal test for my pistol sights. Take a clean paper target and, using a silver marker, make a mark somewhere on the bullseye. Post your target at ten yards.
Assume a good stance, get an excellent grip, and apply the fundamentals of sight alignment with utmost concentration. Using a combat hold, fire at least three well-aimed shots without putting the pistol down or looking at your shot holes. You want to establish a shot group, and resetting your shooting platform, or looking at each shot hole, can throw that off.
Bring the paper back in and set it aside.
Break out a second target and repeat the above with a center hold. Remember, well-aimed shots and don’t bring the weapon down or look at the shot holes.
After that’s done, compare the two sheets closely. There should be a noticeable difference between where the shot group landed for each set. The hold that placed the center of the shot group nearest the silver mark is likely the winner. Confirm by getting a third target and running it out to 25 yards. Same drill with the winning hold. Bring it back and see if the center of the shot group sits on the mark.
Now, that is my unofficial test. If you are finding that your shots scatter too much because of poor fundamentals, you can use a rest to stabilize the shots.
Regardless of what hold the manufacturer designed, you, as the shooter, can still choose the hold that works for you. Deciding which hold is a matter of trial and error. Spend time behind the gun, carefully aim your shots and determine where the rounds impact. After you develop a solid baseline, adjust as necessary.
Side note: Pistol iron sights are adjustable. That said, I never recommend adjusting the sights until the shooter has a very solid grasp of marksmanship. Too often, I’ve seen shooters immediately adjust their sights when their fundamentals were causing the poor shots. As that shooter gets better, they are plagued with shots that don’t impact where aimed. Learn the gun first. Very infrequently do I see factory pistols that do not hit where aimed properly.
Now what if you don’t have iron sights?
As we’ve discussed, sight picture is essentially proper sight alignment while aimed at the target you intend to hit. So sight picture with upgraded sights is exactly the same concept.
Sight Picture with Optical Sights
Note: optic sights must be zeroed to the gun first. Optics are not like iron sights; for the most part, the sight has nearly infinite adjustment and must be properly aligned to the gun before any shots can be accurate.
What this means is the sight has to be adjusted until it correctly indicates where the rounds will impact at a given range. This also means you can adjust the sight for whichever hold you prefer, though dot sights are basically designed for combat holds. Refer to the manufacturer’s instructions to properly zero the sight.
That said, sight picture with a properly zeroed optical sight is much simpler. Place the dot on the target where you intend for your rounds to impact. Keep in mind, Arkansas elevation is still going to apply to optical sights over distance (unless you zero the sights for a distance shot, which is a lot of work for a small payoff). The uphill/downhill effect will also apply so make your shots accordingly.
Put the Skills Together
As far as I’m concerned, all the fun in shooting is being able to get the shots on the target where I want them. Not all targets consist of a straight bullseye and, as you progress in your shooting, targets may have multiple bulls-eyes on each one. Or, if you move into competition shooting with steel plate racks, being able to selectively hit a particular point becomes incredibly important.
Working the sights on a handgun is an equation with half being sight alignment and half being sight picture. These are effectively two separate concepts and should be treated as such. Otherwise you’ll be a real life Annie-Oakley-plugging-the-base-of-the-target.
Get out there and practice. Try the different holds and determine which one works for you and for each gun. If you get a chance, practice working on distance shooting and your Arkansas elevation. Also, don’t forget to work on managing your recoil to get back into sight picture quicker.
Practice the fundamentals and keep those shots on target.
As always, marksmanship is a learning game. There is always more to learn, and a great place to ask questions is our pistol forum. Head over there for a detailed response from our experts to your burning marksmanship questions.