If you’re hung up on front-sight focus, you need to learn advanced ways to see and shoot Limited-Class iron sights.
In my 15 years of practical pistol competition, I’ve seen when the match winner was the one who hit the targets most of the time and didn’t have a gun malfunction. I’ve also been on the line at the Bianchi Cup when the winner would be chosen by counting X’s when the top guys cleaned the entire match. Technological revolutions have driven many of the advances, but informed shooters know there’s really not that much difference in the shooting, except when you consider the development of optical sights.
Optical sights take away a big skill factor in practical shooting. After some experience, you’ll find that a scope is faster and easier to shoot everywhere, even on very close targets. When the targets get past 15 yards or the scoring areas are reduced, the scope offers an incredible boost not only to accuracy but also to speed. Thus, it’s easy to look at a modern IPSC Open Class pistol next to a Limited Class gun and convince yourself that there’s no way they could run together, and you’d be right. While I won’t insinuate stage scores can be equal, I will say that much of the limitation in shooting a Limited gun is in the shooter’s mind. This article will primarily address getting past one of the most obvious limitations—iron sights.
The skills missing from optics relate to the multi-dimensional use of a conventional sighting system. A conventional sighting system includes the shooter’s vision, the target, and the sights. These three things all exist in a common plane when using a scope. You can’t miss seeing the dot, no matter if you’re looking at it or not. All that’s necessary to make even the most difficult shots with optics is to see the target clearly and be aware of the location and perhaps stability of the dot.
Iron sights up the ante, however. For most shooters, the target, sights, and visual focus aren’t compressed into a single plane. This makes shooting iron sights more difficult than with a scope—unless you know some things about vision that can help you work around the problem.
We’ve been told forever that it’s mandatory to watch the front sight to shoot a handgun well. That is absolutely not true. I have experienced several different types of visual focus using iron sights. For the sake of convenience, I have given them each a name and definition. It’s imperative to understand that these focus types are descriptions of what might be experienced in different shooting scenarios and with different points of attention. The different focus types work because of the amount of time that’s required to make the shot and follow through.
Vision Type 1: Shooting By Feel
For one shot on an extremely close target, this is “shooting by feel.” I drive the gun to the target and pull the trigger. In Type 1, if you see a point-blank target, you can hit the target without regard to trigger control or sight picture. When this type of shooting is possible, I could do just as well with my eyes closed. This focus is normally not used at all in competition. You may, however, want to experiment with it in practice for reasons I detail later.
Vision Type 2: Through The Sights
This is an awareness of looking through my sights to the targets. I see the target in sharp focus while the sights are seen only peripherally. Type 2 is only useful on close, easy targets. In Type 2, the targets are easy to the point where all the time needed to follow through to make an accurate shot is the time it takes to shift focus from target to target. Peripheral vision shows everything necessary to position the gun on the target.
To engage Type 2 focus, I confirm alignment on the first target—I focus to the sights and see perfect alignment on the center of the target. I then shoot the other targets by focusing on each target, bringing the gun along with my eyes. But my focus stays on the targets. After I confirm alignment on the first target, I trust my index (the gun and target are aligned by the shooter’s technique) to maintain alignment as I move the gun to the other targets. To cultivate this ability, do a lot of dry runs where you close your eyes and move the gun, opening your eyes to verify alignment at different points.
Vision Type 3: Shifting Focus
This is my most common visual experience in practical shooting. Type 3 is shifting focus from targets to front sight for each shot. In Type 3, the shots are now difficult enough that you must spend extra time to move the focus back to the front sight. That little hesitation gives the body the extra time it needs to follow through to make a more accurate shot. In this case, an accurate shot is one that is refined onto a more specific area on the target. When the focus shifts to the sight, the shot breaks, and my focus immediately shifts to the next target.
Vision Type 4: Front Sight Focus
On shots that are more difficult or important, I refine the sight focus in Type 3 to the point where I stay focused on the front sight until I see recoil lift it off the target. In Type 4, the shots are difficult enough that focusing back on the sight may not give enough time to reliably make the shot. On these targets, you must stay with the sight focus until you see the sight lift. You take time to call the shot exactly. The focus on the front sight is the same quality in Types 3 and 4; the difference is in the duration of time I stay focused on the sight.
Type 4 can apply to any shot or shots on a stage. It allows the shooter to take a little extra follow-through time to make a difficult shot, or one that looks a questionable as the shot is released.
Vision Type 5: Reactive Sighting
For extremely difficult shots, Type 5 vision is an awareness of watching the sight react to the pressure I’m putting on the trigger, and adjusting the pressure I’m putting on the trigger by watching the reaction of the sight. I have the sensation that my finger is connected to the front sight and that I “look” the shot off; that is, my eye breaks the shot, not my finger. In Type 5, the shot is tough enough that the quality of hold and alignment must be monitored all through the process of firing. I must see perfect alignment when the gun fires.
Further Vision Refinement
I modify some of the focus types by including “soft” and “hard” focus. This could be thought of as the balance between peripheral and central vision.
When more things are in focus but perhaps no single thing is seen with refined clarity, that’s a softer focus. A harder, central vision type focus is more like looking through a viewing area so that whatever is centrally located is seen in detail, while anything outside the area is only vaguely identifiable. A hard focus can be either on the sight or the target.
Understanding hard and soft focus brings up an advanced possibility that many shooters will have trouble understanding: Seeing everything with a soft focus. It’s an advanced idea only because it’s not a normal impulse in pistol shooting.
By “seeing everything” I mean that nothing within the shooting area is intentionally paid greater attention than any other detail. There is the sensation that the sights and target, or targets, are all being seen with equal, adequate clarity to make the shots needed. This experience is most closely related to the Type 2 focus described earlier, with the difference being there is no hard look at each target. The best description I can offer is that it’s the sensation that I see the targets, but then my vision pulls back and expands to include more things nearer to me. A soft focus extends the range of a Type 2 approach and, obviously, boosts speed another gear because you see and shoot the targets as a group, not as individual targets.
An ophthalmologist may say this is impossible, that you can’t see more than one thing in focus at one time. I can. I get a lot of questions on this technique when I try to explain it. It’s the will to do it that makes it possible, but not the effort. The harder you try to see everything, the more trouble you’ll have.
When I discuss this soft focus idea, a lot of shooters can’t grasp it. That’s why I’m always asking students the question: “Ya follow?” Oftentimes they aren’t following, so I then offer this explanation.
The first experience of a soft focus can happen away from the shooting range. Driving a car for instance. When driving, most people shift their focus from place to place: road to rearview mirror to speedometer to radio, and so forth. We look at what is deemed necessary to see at a given moment and then to the next thing. A car approaches from the rear and its image is reflected in the rearview mirror. Peripheral vision picks up on a change in this point within the driver’s area of awareness and the eyes immediately zero in on the mirror to see the details of the approaching car. This, in shooting terms, is a Type 3 focus.
Related to shooting, a soft focus is easier to see using an optical sighted gun because seeing the dot requires no shift of attention. Certainly, the closer to the same area and plane the targets exist, and the closer they are to the shooter, the more likely a soft focus will be realized.
A soft focus is the feeling of seeing without looking, a feeling like it’s possible to shoot all the targets without moving the eyes, and it’s too hard to describe beyond that because, remember, we’re not supposed to be able to do it. Then there’s a drinking analogy: I can tell you from sunup to sundown everything about whiskey—how it’s made, how it looks, what it tastes like—but you don’t really know what whiskey is until you take a shot for yourself. Afterward, nothing I can say will replace the tasting experience. You know what whiskey is. Soft focus is the same: You will see it if you want to see it, and when you do, that’s that. Ya follow?
One of the big differences between the scores of top shooters and good shooters is in the time and quality of their target acquisitions. “Acquiring” a target should be thought of to include everything that precedes breaking the shot on the next target, beginning from the time the shot broke on the last target.
As such, becoming more comfortable with Type 2 and 3 focus can be a big difference to a shooter who’s at the “good” level, and also exposes perhaps the greatest limitation of a “front sight focus” mentality. If a shooter only watches the front sight, he might know where the sight is but not where the gun is pointing, and also not where the gun needs to go.
About the only times I ever have the classic “watch the front sight” experience is on a really intense multiple-shot scenario, like shooting bowling pins, where seeing the current or next target doesn’t require any special attention. When the targets are that close together, the sensation is like following the bouncing ball on one of those television sing-alongs: I see the sight all through recoil as it tracks up and down onto the next target and the next target. And even then it’s not an intentional thing.
The more you open yourself up to different possibilities, the more often you’ll experience mostly good things that perhaps are not “supposed” to happen. Gain enough experience and you’ll find that adjustments are being made in your shooting without any conscious attention paid on your part. This is when pistol shooting begins to take on the character of an art rather than a skill.
In most practical shooting scenarios, though, the trick to fast target acquisitions is moving the eye to the next target as soon as you’ve seen what you needed to see on the current target. This applies no matter how hard or long it was necessary to have a sight focus on the previous target.
For most shots in IPSC, all that’s ever required is to move the gun directly to each target and see the gun stop on the center of each target. The eye directs gun movement, and unless it locates and defines the place where the gun should go before the gun starts moving there, it’s hard to move the gun directly to the target so that it’s there as soon as you’re ready to shoot.
It’s important to understand that the head doesn’t have to move to see the next target—the eyeball swivels in its socket. As the shooter’s index moves the gun to that target, the eyeball remains focused on the target and will swivel back to a point where it’s looking straight ahead when the gun is there.
To get the feeling of this, practice without shooting. Move the gun around on different targets and practice eye movement to see what the vision “feels” like. Line the gun up on the target, look at the sight, then look away without moving anything but the eyeball to the next target (seeing the target outside of the gun), then bring the gun to that point, keeping visual focus locked on the target. Keep the eyes moving.
To try this yourself, look at Type 2 targets in pairs instead of seeing them one at a time. The next target you’re going to shoot stays in your peripheral vision. Learning to see the targets in pairs is really more a way of visualizing a stage than it is a shooting tactic. The important thing you have to remember is that you always have some place for the gun to go, and that you’re always aware of where it’s going next.
Don’t Get In A Box
At the range, these focus types describe visual sensations rather than definable techniques. You don’t have to use Type 2 on a certain target, or Type 4 on another. When you’re shooting well, your brain will automatically select the right vision for the right target if you allow it to. Forcing it to see a certain way slows you down.
However, if you are aware of these different visual sensations, you can see them during practice or matches and learn more about your own shooting skills. Then, on days when things aren’t flowing, being able to size up a target sequence based on these different focus types is another tool that can help get a shooter through a stage in good shape, and maybe move back into the flow where everything happens smoothly and easily.
You must understand that is limiting to plan to see a particular focus type on a stage or target. Planning to see something, and seeing it, is probably better than seeing nothing, but that’s not the way it has to happen. You might experience a Type 4 on a close Type 1 target, and that’s not right or wrong. I have, for instance, been working at extreme speed on close targets and all of a sudden been keenly aware of feeling every little movement in the trigger. This wasn’t intentional, nor was it necessary to hit the target: it was only something I noticed. The point is to notice it. We tend to wait on a rational explanation of possibilities before we can allow ourselves to open up and pay attention to what we see and feel. There is really no difference between being limited by thoughts that a front sight focus is necessary and being limited by thinking that a target focus is necessary. They’re both limitations and, therefore, constricting.
So how do you learn all this? Pay attention. Observe. You can’t alter what you do until you know what you do. If you pay attention to what you see and how you feel when you shoot, rather than counting points and analyzing times, then you’ll be started on what may be a very rewarding journey. Ya follow?