Front Sight Focus
This article will answer a reader’s question debating the importance of front sight focus. While addressing this topic, I’ll also cover the mechanics of the human eye and the different types of pistol sights.
“A lot of instructors, including you, stress the absolute importance of sharply focusing on the front sight when shooting a pistol. You also put a heavy emphasis on the importance of shooting tight groups in your articles and gun reviews. However, I attended some other courses and read a ton of other articles that downplay both the importance of front sight focus and shooting tight groups. In these cases, they emphasize gaining only ‘flash front sight’ to achieve ‘combat accuracy’ as the key to effective defensive shooting. I’m inclined to side with the latter because if I’m going to have to use my gun to defend myself, I’m not going to have the time for a sharp front sight focus and won’t need to maintain a tight group to stop the threat. The only ‘score’ in a defensive shooting is defined by who is left standing. So, why are you so insistent on establishing a sharp front sight focus and shooting tight groups?” – William in Poway, CA
William, thank you for the email and your question. You bring up a good point regarding the different types of shooting which require varying degrees of front sight focus and accuracy. In general, bulls-eye and target shooting require a very high degree of focus and accuracy. Conversely, rapidly reactions under extreme stress in a defensive scenario will typically allow for only the ‘flash front sight’ you mentioned. However, regardless of the situation, you are morally and legally responsible for ensuring where every projectile lands.
Trigger control and aiming are the determinants of where your shots land. If you train to master these elements, you’ll not only build a solid foundation for gaining and maintaining true proficiency, you will be just as fast and considerably more accurate than those who aspire to only be good “combat shooters.” Those who train to consistently accept a “flash front sight focus” are not enhancing their ability to shoot accurately, nor are they faster, and there is no practical benefit to training to a lower and less effective standard. Proficient shooters didn’t get fast by accepting sloppy sight alignment, they got fast by developing myelin along the appropriate neuromuscular pathways that resulted in consistently shooting fast and accurate groups over thousands and thousands of correct (perfect) repetitions. Combat accuracy is “good enough” in combat, but it should not be the standard by which you train.
To a certain degree you are right in stating that no one will be “scoring” your shots in a defensive scenario, but mastering the fundamentals and training to higher standards of proficiency will greatly increase your odds of being “the guy left standing” without injuring yourself or innocent bystanders.
In the following paragraphs, I’ll provide a more in-depth answer by covering the mechanics of the human eye in regard to front sight focus, different types of front sights, and conclude with considerations for training.
Aiming (sight alignment/sight picture)
By now, most of us have learned in basic pistol instruction that sight alignment is required to ensure the pistol is properly oriented to send the fired projectile in the desired direction. When combined with sight picture, the projectile consistently lands where it is intended. While a minor error in sight picture may place the projectile in the wrong part of the target, a similar error in sight alignment may contribute to a missed shot. Once proper sight alignment and sight picture are attained, effective trigger control ensures that neither the sight alignment nor the sight picture are interrupted when initiating the firing sequence.
Sounds easy, right? Not so! Too many shooters try to analyze and correct this myriad of variables simultaneously. So, let’s break this down one element at a time.
The Mechanics of the Human Eye
Although the eye is an astounding sensory organ, it has a limited depth of field which allows for focusing on only one image at a time.
Light enters the pupil which acts as an aperture controlling the amount of light passing through two lenses which posit the focused image on the retina. This image is then sent via the optic nerve to the brain. The light passing through the eye is “focused” or sharpened by the two lenses. The outermost lens is the cornea, which is fixed, and the innermost is the crystalline lens, which is variable. Altering focus from near to far objects requires a change in optical power which is controlled by the crystalline lens. In order to focus on a distant object, the ciliary muscles relax and flatten the curvature of the crystalline lens. Conversely, the ciliary muscles contract to create a bulge in the crystalline lens which causes greater refraction allowing focus on close objects. Thus, it is impossible to focus simultaneously on near and far objects. Establishing a sharp focus on one object renders all other objects in view in varying lesser-degrees of focus.
A shooter has three possible focus areas: the target, the front sight, or the rear sight. Many shooters naturally tend to apply a sharp focus on the target or a specific area within the target. This is natural since this is where we envision where we want the projectile to land. However, this leaves both the front and the rear sight out of focus and prone to misalignment. Alternately, some focus on the rear sight because it is the closest to the eye. This, then, leaves the front sight and the target out of focus.
Due to its orientation directly above the muzzle, the front sight is most important focus area since it is the final determinant of where the projectile is going! A sharp and clear front sight focus properly aligned with a slightly blurry rear sight and centered on a slightly blurry target is required for both accuracy and consistency. Granted, this is much easier said than done and it takes a lot of time and practice (dry-fire and live-fire) to “trust” the front sight.
As stated above, maintaining a consistent front sight focus is difficult to master. Over the years as I gained proficiency and coached others to do the same, I noted a common progression. Beginners tend to focus on the target instead of the front sight.
Remember, optical power (focus) is accomplished by the flexing and relaxing of the ciliary muscles to alter the refraction of light passing through the eye’s crystalline lens. Rapidly shifting focus between the target, front sight, and rear sight induces fatigue in these ciliary muscles which degrades focus during the firing process.
Through practice and repetition, experienced shooters learn to immediately and consistently focus on the front sight while using visual cues from the rear sight and target through the entire firing process. Highly experienced shooters learn to “follow through” and maintain a general focus in the vicinity of the front sight as the gun recoils and return to a sharp front sight focus for follow-on shots as required.
Your question highlights an important distinction between recreational, target, competition, and personal defense shooting. The different types of shooting will incorporate a wide variety of time windows, target presentations, target distances, and environmental factors (light, temperature, etc.). Accordingly, there are different shooting techniques and front sights optimized to accommodate for these variations.
Bullseye shooting, for example allows for single shots at distances up to 50 yards with very manageable time limits. Therefore, a solid stationary stance and grip accompanied by an intense focus on a black serrated front sight is optimal. For action pistol sports such as United States Pistol Shooting Association (USPSA) or International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) matches, the shooter is typically moving quickly from one firing position to another and engaging a wide variety of near and far targets (some of them moving as well). For this many shooters opt for “three-dot” sights which may include a fiber optic front sight (which draws ambient light through a tube and directs it toward the eye). Lastly, personal defense pistols typically incorporate tritium vials in their front and rear sights which are highly visible during daylight and emit a soft glow during low-light situations.
More Practical Application
Your question also highlights another consideration: why bother with sharp front sight focus and groups if the intent of defensive shooting is to quickly place enough shots on the target to end the threat? Let’s examine this further…
By now, we should agree that aiming and trigger control are THE basic shooting fundamentals. Without which, consistently placing shots in the desired part of the target in any conditions is exceptionally difficult. Furthermore, without these fundamentals there is little consistency to conduct any diagnosis of missed shots and apply corrective actions. Therefore, shooters should first learn and master a sharp front sight focus as an element of aiming. This contributes to the ability to consistently place groups on a target. With these consistent groups, the shooter can then measure and analyze errors in trigger control. Click the image to the right to see a general guide assessing errors in trigger control. Once the shooter has built a solid foundation of both aiming and trigger control, then he or she can build proficiency through more advanced shooting skills.
Again, you mentioned achieving “combat accuracy” by using only a “flash front sight” for defensive shooting. You’re right in stating that you’ll have neither the time for achieving a sharp front sight focus nor the need for a tight group in this situation. But why would you train only to the minimum standard? We can all accept as fact that the stress induced during a defensive shooting will introduce a high level of adrenaline into our blood stream which will cause tunnel vision, auditory exclusion, and loss of fine motor skills… all of which will diminish our shooting ability to one degree or another. As such wouldn’t it be better to work through this degradation from a highly refined set of skills rather than a minimally developed skill set?
The reality is that we can’t accurately predict the exact conditions we may face in a defensive shooting scenario. Not every target will be a stationary full torso facing us at 10 feet in a well lit area. Aggressors may be advancing toward us from behind obstacles in low light or engage us from a covered position with only a small area exposed. So, we need to build and maintain skills that range from the low side of employing a flash-front-sight to achieve combat accuracy up through the higher side of placing a well-aimed shot at a small non-standard target in low light… all under stress. This proficiency can only be achieved by building and mastering the fundamentals of aiming (sight alignment/sight picture) and trigger control.
William, thanks again for the great question and giving me the opportunity to answer it.
Keep the questions coming! We, as a community of proactive and engaged citizens who are dedicated to ensuring our personal security and keeping our loved ones safe, can only get better by learning something new every day and sharing the knowledge.
Stay safe and shoot straight
- Howard Hall