All or Nothing: Unsighted Fire

14-Jan-15 – 04:10 by ToddG

Hackathorn’s Law: under stress you won’t try to do anything you’re not confident you can accomplish.

Lately I’ve seen quite a few discussion about sighted vs. unsighted fire both at and on Ballistic Radio‘s FaceBook page. And like so many internet discussions it seems to devolve into an all or nothing binary only my way works debate.

Ken1Coincidentally, last week I was talking to Ken Hackathorn about sighted vs. unsighted fire. Ken, as anyone could tell you, is an absolute tyrant when it comes to accuracy. That’s me in the red at Hackathorn class in 2009. Ken stresses accuracy above all else in terms of technical shooting skills.

So why does Ken have everyone tape over their sights during a major part of his class when students have to hit multiple targets while shooting on the move? That’s a question worth exploring, and one that gets back to the problem of seeing (pardon the pun) sighted and unsighted fire as two extreme and mutually exclusive skills.

Unsighted fire doesn’t have to mean you’re shooting with your eyes closed. It doesn’t have to mean hip shooting. It simply means you’re not focused on the front sight. The gun can still be up in front of your face providing a reference — both visual and kinesthetic — of where the muzzle is pointed. Let’s face it, even if your eyes are closed, the gun is still pointed somewhere. As people learn quickly during Ken’s drill, you can still get pretty good torso shots while moving even if you aren’t using the little bumpy things atop your pistol.

So, that brings us to the 800# gorilla in the room: most people won’t focus on their sights under stress. It’s something we all know (often from personal experience simply doing stressful practice drills) but many “serious” shooters want to ignore. We’ve all been taught “front sight, trigger press” as a mantra and it’s essentially a sin to do otherwise.

Reality, however, is different. Many folks simply don’t want to accept it.

So,” the unsighted fire advocates ask, “why bother practicing with your sights in the first place?

There are two main reasons. They’re both pretty obvious once you think about it for a little while.

First, there’s the kinesthetic benefit. The more you practice putting the gun in the right spot in front of your face, the more natural it becomes. Your brain and nervous system literally start building connections that turn that practice into habit until it becomes preconscious. Even with your eyes locked onto the target, the gun appears right there in line with your eyeballs because that’s what you’ve practiced time and time again. You may still be focusing on the target but you’ve gone through the motions so many times that you’re still putting the gun where it needs to be and, ideally, you’re still aware of the gun’s position to some extent or another.

ToddKbarrelSecond and most importantly, the only way you will ever reach the point where you can see the sights under stress is if you practice it. There was a long time between when I thought I was using my sights in force-on-force scenarios and when I actually saw my sights consistently. Since then, I’ve been very conscious of my sights in FOF training (and just as conscious the times I screwed up and didn’t use them). My performance in terms of being able to maneuver and get hits on a moving target improved dramatically, as did my ability to get good hits from awkward impromptu positions behind cover.

So there are three takeaways from this:

  1. Unsighted fire happens, and more often than we often like to admit.
  2. Practicing sighted fire helps improve your shooting ability even if you don’t focus on your sights under extreme stress.
  3. Practicing sighted fire diligently can maximize your potential to see and use those sights under extreme stress.

As I’ve said many times in class, practicing sighted fire will improve your unsighted fire, but it doesn’t work the other way around.

Train hard & stay safe! ToddG

(photo of Ken Hackathorn class used without permission because the guy who took it has a stupid screen name on ARFCOM)

  1. 15 Responses to “All or Nothing: Unsighted Fire”

  2. Todd,

    Great post. Certainly the all or nothing mantra needs to be preached against over and over. I wonder what you believe is a good balance to deal with the problem?

    I always thought that the 800# gorilla is really two different main problems. The first is just as you described it, the lack of a habit. I believe the second is directly tied to speed.

    I noticed on drills when I didn’t find the front sight I would look through my sight as though I was using a scope. I realized I was simply shooting faster than I could complete the shooting cycle and change focus. For me I found it was not much different than pushing the shooting speed and running my trigger finger faster than my arms thus shooting the target 2-3 inches lower than I wanted. i.e. it went bang before I transferred focus to the front sight. I thought I might just need to get faster at the entire cycle.

    If that is true then part of the, don’t use your sights is that they are over driving their body’s kinesthetic and proprioception. And if that is true then the same thing can happen while using the sights only to a lesser degree.

    So getting faster with sights isn’t just about, “it’s better than being slower”, but could it actually be something that allows the gunfight to be won in spite of the fear, physiological changes to hearing, sight and the subsequent shooting too fast?

    Of course the above is, “All things being equal” as with most things it is far more complicated.

    By justonegun on Jan 14, 2015

  3. justonegun: The “looking through the sights” thing has merit for sure. Some people call it a “soft front sight focus.” Others refer to it in terms of having a “middle distance’ focus. It’s very fast and, for easy high probability targets, definitely meets the requirements of the “see what you need to see” thing.

    If doing it on a particular target at max speed causes you to miss, then it’s not working. You need to dial back the speed so you’re seeing *enough* to get the hits you want. But if your target is an 8″ circle and your hits are landing within the 8″ circle, they’re hits. Trying to drill the dead center of a high probability with each shot isn’t helping you build your speed.

    By ToddG on Jan 14, 2015

  4. I took a force-on-force class last year that was ENLIGHTENING. I try and be diligent about using my Front Sight I found that in the higher stress scenarios I was using grip- index vs. scenarios where my brain had a second or two to process the fight I was using the sights. I was more accurate with the sights of course, but at fighting ranges I was “good enough” with out them.

    Side note: with my aging eyes, the low-contrast sights on the simmunition slide were almost impossible for me to see, but even those improved my accuracy.

    By Rick R on Jan 14, 2015

  5. Todd,

    I agree during drills and that is important during training unless we are training for the wheels to fall off. BTW: Thanks for that concept it helped.

    But sometimes even the most experienced shooter just goes too fast when in a fight/flight response. I dare say most. The question is why and how to fix it. Are they just “ascared” or is it more of a distortion?

    It’s as though everything is working as planned in the shooter’s brain expect due to perception caused by a fight/flight response they are actually shooting a very fast rhythm.

    In real life some report and demonstrate how they shot normally. Then video or other trained shooters saw them and reported they were blazing away at an extraordinary speed. Some high level shooters are amazed that they missed the bad guy.
    Oddly for many the distortion doesn’t seem to stop a trained shooter from shooting their perceived rhythm. I am suggesting that they might be over driving their ability and shooting their max rhythm.

    Their brain lied to them just as it lies to the shooter about distance distortion. As you say, they need to slow down but, they believe they did slow down. I would have been glad to swear under oath that I was 15 yards from the bad guy. Yeah, not even close.

    So if that is the truth we should be training for speed that is closer to the genetic max? As in it should be a priority. I know most people train for this anyway. But many, (and I found it prevalent depending on which side of the point shooting argument one falls), argue that you don’t need to be “that fast” and direct their training priorities in a different direction. For them I think this idea is something to seriously think about. I think it might be as dangerous to them as believing they will use their peripheral vision to look down the gun they train to hold at chin level. My and many others experience is that it is impossible for them due to that distortion.

    I suppose it’s the same type of theory that says people have a tendency to grip the crap out of the pistol when in fight or flight no matter the training so if you trained to hold the gun just enough or lightly it becomes a detriment in a life threatening situation.

    By justonegun on Jan 14, 2015

  6. justonegun: I agree on both points.

    First, I’m not a bad shooter but the last time I did a Simunition FOF scenario I caught myself not looking at my sights for a low prob shot. I was aware I did it but that didn’t make the bullet go where I wanted any better.

    Second, I think there is some truth to what you’re saying about speed being automatic. That’s why I’ve always been an advocate of getting faster instead of just “smooth is fast” silliness. At some point, we’re going to be launching bullets as fast as we can make the gun work. The closer to that we’ve come in practice, the better off we’ll be.

    OTOH, I do know from my FOF experiences that I can insert a level of control to make sure I don’t out drive my headlights, as they say. That, too, comes from practice and exercising discipline in how we shoot. It’s also why I’m not a proponent of the whole “shooting pace” thing. The closer I can get to letting my visual input control what’s happening the more likely I am to get the best speed and best accuracy available for the given moment.

    By ToddG on Jan 14, 2015

  7. Great post with a lot of insight for any discipline.

    By BaiHu on Jan 14, 2015

  8. It’s kind of a joke…because it’s so simple yet so confusing, but “see what you need to see” begins to make sense when one finally understand what it means. “Blob of gun” generally pointed at target is about all you need to hit something 3 yards away. But you can’t get away from that at 25 yards of course. So do people use their sights in gun fights; what do people say they did etc. People that get ambushed and are shooting from feet away will often say they never saw their sights. But people that are getting hits at 25 yards will say they did. I think it’s important to train that way. Meaning, it’s important to shoot open targets at 3 yards and see how much “sights” you need to get good hits. I think most will see it doesn’t take much. And if they’re running a timer, whole half seconds can be shaved. In a gun fights, .25 = a round back at you so there is no time to waste.

    By Matt S. on Jan 14, 2015

  9. I submit that sighted or unsighted, AKA Point Shooting, is a continuum that is dependent on range to the target. The closer you are, the less sighting is needed to put rounds where needed. Consider the FBI statistics from self-defense shootings below and how many times one would bring their gun up to obtain sight picture before shooting. In fact the majority of the time, bringing your gun up to get a sight picture would make it easy for the BG to grab it when you stick it out there.

    I conclude that for close-in shooting (less than 3 yards), one should have practiced getting the gun indexed properly so it is pointing at the BG and press the trigger. This does not get one ragged hole accuracy. With practice at the close in ranges it can get rounds into the center of mass to stop the threat – and is that not the goal of all this?


    55% of gunfights take place 0-5 feet.

    20% of gunfights take place in 5-10 feet.

    20% of gunfights take place in 10-21 feet.

    95% of gunfights take place in 0-21 feet. (Source- FBI)

    By 308Tom on Jan 15, 2015

  10. I agree with the continuum analogy, and have used it extensively the past couple years. To Todd’s point though, practicing sighted fire will only improve the application of our not so sighted fire because it allows us to build a consistent reference point.

    Also keep in mind that statistics can be misleading if not carefully considered.

    By Nate on Jan 15, 2015

  11. I’ll just add…as example, my fastest ever 7 yard Bill Drill on a timer from Production gear is 1.73 sec. I begin to even get a glimpse of the front sight around shot 3. I know my first shot breaks as I push to extension, 2 and follows right behind at extension, 3 I see the sight as it rises; then for 4 as it settles and rises and 5 and 6 in similar fashion. So 3 A zone hits having never seen the sights.

    By Matt S. on Jan 15, 2015

  12. FBI Stats are for officers assaulted. They are not a representation of gunfights were the good guys won unscathed. This is also precisely what we want to achieve – bad guy neutralized and good guy going home safe and in one piece.

    I saw my front sight in a 10′ gunfight that I could swear was 7yds, and was 100% surprise/reactive. I also hit 2/2, my first round being fatal within minutes and effective in taking the fight out of the subject. I had exactly time for those 2 shots before the subject was taken to the ground by a well meaning citizen. To say this is typical would be silly – to discount that I had time for two rounds, and those rounds had to be effective, is not silly. I credit extensive force on force and sighted fire at all distances if anything in my training regimen was influential.

    By CVPD167 on Jan 15, 2015

  13. Tom and Nate,

    When looking at that chart you should keep in mind that there is another chart. It looks exactly like the one you posted, except it is a chart of perceived distances that police officers said they were at when they fired. The sight distortion has a very real effect on how a person judges distance. I personally have confused 47 yards for 15 (exact measurement), 100+ for about 25 and 10 for 3-5 (last two paced off after the fact).

    Most police shootings show a large difference in distance and perceived distance (usually 90+% of the shootings report it occurred). And almost all of those cases are a perception of being closer than they are. I have never had this occur in a shoot house, DT or FoF. I’ve only experienced it when my little pea brain said you got to do something or get killed.

    So when you mentally train to just shoot from retention or on the way up at a certain distance, you could be setting yourself up to miss. My distortion is so bad that I will only shoot from my retention if I could touch the bad guy before I went into fight/flight or am touching the bad guy, not if I perceive I can touch him.

    I advocate shooting a certain position or speed depending on where you are, i.e. inside a home, down a hall, in a yard, on a traffic stop, touching someone, otherwise move and reference the front sight before you decide how fast you will shoot.

    By justonegun on Jan 15, 2015

  14. I really have just begun my journey to owning a handgun personally as well as cc. I know I dont have perfect vision, and my dominant eye is the screwed up one. I have a hard time staying focused on my sights. No fof classes or anything like that before. You guys have any suggestions, or just keep practicing? You all have shared some great views and opinions and I enjoyed reading both the article and the comments. Looking forward to reading more great stuff.

    By avg.joe on Jan 17, 2015

  15. Get and continue to get formal instruction!!!

    There are a large number of folks and outfits that put on firearms training and ALL of the classes will help advance your knowledge, skills, and attitude for handling firearms.

    Most cost at least several hundred bucks plus your ammo and perhaps some travel time – but nearly all are worth the effort, expense, and time.

    No single class will cover all you need to know, nor could you absorb all in a day or so.

    It is a journey, and structured supervised gun handling and shooting are excellent ways to (1) learn the best methods, (2) help avoid developing bad habits, and (3) help you to become a safe and effective gun handler.

    On the eyes, at age 70+ I’ve helped mitigate some of the diminishing vision problems by using a Trijicon RMR sight. It easily solves the sight alignment problem and reduces the aiming problem to putting the red dot where you want to hit – no worries about being able to see the front sight. This is a little expensive for some, but probably less than the cost of another gun. (Trijicon has some excellent competitors too, but if you get a cheap red dot, then you’ll you’ll trade up after wasting that money)

    By 308Tom on Jan 17, 2015

  16. Ave.Joe,

    You must be safe. You can’t shoot yourself or someone else during practice. Take a class if you don’t understand how to implement the safety rules or manipulate the pistol.

    You need to know when to and when not to shoot someone. I suggest you should be an expert at that long before you’re an expert with the pistol.

    Sometimes there are local classes that give basic instruction on both.

    After that, where will you carry the pistol on your body, what type of grip, how will you use the sights(directly related to Todd’s post)? If you research, decide and can safely practice those basics while searching for an instructor who can diagnose your fundamentals it will make your progress that much faster.

    I’m a big proponent of private or semi-private instruction to learn your fundamentals. Instructor can show you how to do it. You go home or the range and practice it until your progress stops. You should have some type of test to see how you are progressing. Ask that instructor for suggestions. Todd also has a great amount of basic tests that you can use. I suggest keeping it simple. Smoothness and efficiency can be seen with someone videoing your draw, holster, reload, etc from the side and behind using a smartphone. A timer shows if your times are improving and shooting a valid test on a small target shows your improvement in accuracy.

    When you can’t make improvements go back to the instructor again or find another that will be able to see what you are doing.

    FoF, building clearing, advanced tactical courses all have value. I believe if you take them before you master the fundamentals it is a waste of money and can slow your progress of what is important.

    Others might want a more multi-tracked training plan. Where you do it all at once. Only you can decide what you want to do.

    By justonegun on Jan 17, 2015

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