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Can you (and should you) really use your sights in a gunfight?

It's important to understand that using your sights in a gunfight is not always necessary or even desirable for effectively placing rounds


A reader recently inquired: It is said that stress hampers eye focus, making it impossible to use your sights in a life-threatening encounter. Yet some people who have been involved in real firearms engagements state they used their sights. Can you aim and use sights under stress if you have the proper training?”

Dr. Bill Lewinski — executive director of the Force Science Institute — responds: 

In a panic situation, where an officer is caught in a threat by surprise and perhaps overwhelmed by emotion, he or she may not be able to respond with sufficient control to attain a sight picture in the fraction of time available. There are changes to the eye under stress that can make sighting more difficult, but with the right training these can be overcome. Our research with equipment that tracks eye movement shows that sighted fire can be accomplished even under intense stress. 

The key is a combination of two critical elements: 

1) Your innate ability to acquire and implement the technical skills of effective weapon management
2) The type and quality of instruction that constitute the “right” training for gunfight mastery

In the United States, many departments train their officers only to the level of minimum state standards, which are inadequate for achieving high-level proficiency. The bulk of their training often is presented in concentrated blocks, after which learned psychomotor skills rapidly deteriorate, rather than through continual reinforcement at intervals, which tends to build and maintain skills over time. And, deplorably, many officers are never exposed to firearms training of any kind that allows them to practice perception, decision-making, and responses at the speed of an actual gunfight. 

All this leaves them dangerously deficient in many aspects of quality performance in a crisis, sight-acquisition among them. 

It's important to understand that using your sights in a gunfight is not always necessary or even desirable for effectively placing rounds. If you don't get a sight picture at 20 feet and beyond, your ability to shoot accurately is likely to be seriously impaired. That's actually not very far in real world settings — down a hallway or across some rooms. 

Closer than that, at distances where most gunfights occur, trying to use your sights may take too long; by the time you're sighted in, your target may have moved. At less than 20 feet, you're probably best to fix your gaze on your target and quickly drive your gun up to align with that line of view, firing unsighted. 

Obviously, to do this successfully requires a great deal of consistent practice, responding to force-on-force scenarios at various distances that develop realistically in terms of action, movement, and speed. This will help you learn to identify the telltale patterns of an evolving threat so you can get ahead of the reactionary curve. 

Over time, you will learn how threats unfold and be able to anticipate what, where, when, and how the “play” will progress. This, in turn, will build in you the ability to react automatically — without conscious thought — either with or without the use of your sights, depending on the dynamic circumstances you face. You will, in effect, be better equipped to stay ahead of the reactionary curve. 

To achieve that level of skill, be prepared to go — on your own — beyond the training offered by your agency. It is the rare department indeed that has the budget and the time to take officers as far as their native ability allows and elevate them to truly elite status. 

Even at no cost, you can still strengthen your fundamental skills, including sight acquisition, through dry-fire drills. With modern weapons, you can dry fire literally thousands of times without damage to your equipment. 

When your life is on the line, your personal commitment to be the best you can be will seem a small price to have paid.

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