Great instructors in any field understand that effective training begins with laying a solid foundation and then building upon that foundation step by step. For handgun training, that foundation begins with the front sight, and rightfully so. However, when it comes to preparing a police officer to win a lethal encounter, front sight-focused shooting is just a step to be built upon, not the final destination—target-focused shooting is.
If you ask most law enforcement firearms instructors what the one secret to becoming a better shooter is, there’s a strong possibility that you’re going to hear, “Front sight. Front sight. Front sight.” Front sight awareness is key for improving handgun skills, but not in the form that it has been traditionally taught. Traditional law enforcement training is based on the technical accuracy of the handgun. But advanced handgun training should graduate the user toward mastering tactical accuracy.
Technical Accuracy vs. Tactical Accuracy
For technical accuracy, handgun manufacturers complete a battery of tests to ensure the mechanical operation of their product. Their final test is to align the front and rear sights and take carefully aimed shots in a controlled environment to verify the technical accuracy of the handgun.
Ensuring tactical accuracy is more complex. Tactical accuracy is how well the gun operates without taking carefully aimed shots in an unpredictable environment, such as in a lethal encounter. Additionally, because so many end-users utilize a multiplicity of handgun deployments such as stance, arm extension, grip, etc., it is difficult for manufacturers to adequately evaluate the tactical accuracy of their weapon system. Officer experience in the field is needed to gauge the tactical accuracy of a weapon system. But before we go further let’s clearly define the difference between front sight-focused shooting and target-focused shooting.
Front Sight-Focused Shooting vs. Target-Focused Shooting
For years, law enforcement firearms instructors have taught that when the handgun is presented to a target the front sight should have a clear focus and the target should be blurry, with the rear sights also slightly out of focus. The shooter is then instructed to obtain proper sight alignment, whereby the top edges of the front and rear sights are of equal height, and the front sight is centered between the rear notch of the rear sights. The final instructions given to the shooter is to maintain the aforementioned sight alignment, ensure that the front sight stays in clear focus, and press the trigger rearward until the handgun fires.
With target-focused shooting, the firing instructions are slightly different. First, the proper grip on the handgun is crucial. The beavertail or tang of the handgun needs to be centered in the middle of the strong hand wrist, with a properly applied support hand (two thumbs forward technique). The second key ingredient is that the eyes have a laser-like focus on the intended target, not the front sight. Note: The shooter has to be fully committed to this aspect of target-focused shooting, engaging in an intense focal point on the target equivalent to Superman using his infrared vision to burn a hole through said target. As the shooter looks intently at the target the handgun is instinctively presented to exactly where the eyes are focused, and the trigger is subconsciously pulled. Unlike front sight-focused shooting where the front sight is clear, with target-focused shooting the target is clear and it’s the front sight that is blurry.
Old School vs. New School of Thought
There is an unspoken fear among firearms instructors to teach any technique outside the scope of front sight-focused shooting for litigation reasons. (What firearms instructor in their right mind would testify to a jury that they teach their students to do something other than front sight-focused shooting?) But here’s where that lineage of thought goes awry. For the past few decades, firearms instructors have testified in court that their firearms training programs teach students to maintain a crystal clear focus on the front sight (the predictable element in a shooting), but allow their target (the unpredictable element in a shooting) to be out of focus. Strange, huh? So how is it any stranger to testify that based on: field experience, the latest research, technologically advanced training aids, and the overwhelming number of testimonies from officers involved in lethal encounters that students are taught to maintain a clear focus on the intended target, and allow the sights on the handgun to be blurry? Target focused instruction teaches the student to pay a greater level of attention to the dynamic nature of the target, versus the inanimate nature of the sight.
There is one more undeniable factor about lethal encounters that challenges the sanctity of front sight-focused shooting. It is the dynamic of movement. The brain’s subconscious response and will to live typically prevent any shooter (cop or perp) from remaining stationary during a firefight. When considering the data provided by the FBI's Law Enforcement Officers Killed and Assaulted (LEOKA) research on police shootings, most significantly the number and manner of shots fired on average, coupled with the high probability of movement, how forthright is our dialogue as firearms instructors when we espouse front sight-focused shooting for handgun mastery? It is virtually impossible to follow the traditional prescription of a clear front sight and blurry target when the brain recognizes a fatal threat. What can be repeated under stress, however, is to maintain a clear line of sight on a threat and blurry sights, or target-focused shooting.
Lastly, during a Meggitt training study entitled Virtual Training Systems and Survival Humanistic Factors, Mobile Eye Tracking technology was used to discover that, “If the threat is within 17 yards or less, the officer does not use the weapon’s sights—in other words, if the sights are smaller than the threat, the sights are not being used.” (Meggitt Smart Engineering for Extreme Environments 2009.)
Front sight-focused shooting will always be the most definitive method for measuring the technical accuracy of a handgun. But in the world of law enforcement fieldwork, the front sight will not be the primary method used for winning a lethal encounter, target-focused shooting will.