Front Sight Focus or Target Focus? [FIREARMS]
Moving On From Sight Focus
Only after someone has developed good Aiming Fundamentals, can they learn to shoot accurately while focusing on the target. You cannot run before you can walk. (Please don’t comment with some random story of someone who ran before they walked, you get the point).
Years ago, I would try to teach new shooters target focused shooting too soon. This teaching method was only effective sometimes. Later, I understood how beginning with the fundamentals was crucial before introducing how to aim while focusing on the target.
If you do not know whether or not you are ready to learn target focused shooting, then you are probably not. A more quantitative measure would be whether you can consistently keyhole (shooting the same spot such that the bullet holed are touching) a target at 3-5 yards and/or reliably hit an 8in circle at 15 yards. These are general standards, but a good measure.
This blog post and other content on this website DOES NOT constitute or form an instructor-student relationship between the author (me) and the reader (you). Online education can only supplement in-person formal instruction, it cannot replace it. It is your responsibility to understand the firearms laws in your area and to follow the Firearms Safety Rules.
The objective of combat marksmanship is to shoot fast and accurate. “Fast” including how fast you can place your first shot on target and how fast you can apply follow-up shots. “Accurate” is relative to distance, threat size, and threat orientation.
Side note: I wish the commonly accepted phrase was “Accurate and Fast” rather than “Fast and Accurate”, as to emphasize the accuracy component.
Combat marksmanship involves how fast you can place shots within the chest, head, or the pelvic girdle of a humanoid target. Note: these are just the measured standards that are typically used for combat accuracy.
Context is King
As with many things, combat accuracy is contextual and there are circumstances when a shot to an extremity would be effective. To clarify further, there may be instances where taking multiple shots that all contact somewhere on the threat’s body may be better than taking one well placed shot to the head that may take longer. Especially when you can still follow up with the chest or head. Loud noises and putting holes anywhere in a threat can enable you to gain fire superiority, giving you time to take more precise shots.
Sights are merely a tool, and how you use them is situation-dependent (or should be). The same applies to optics and lasers. There are distances where you don’t even need to use your sights with appropriate training. However, I do not advocate kinesthetic shooting for every context.
It is possible to remove the sights from a Glock and maintain speed and combat accuracy within 10 yards by just using the slide corners as your “sights”.
I do NOT suggest this be your primary aiming method. My point is that sights are just a tool that make it easier to align your weapon.
This post is not a discussion on kinesthetic shooting. When I say “target focus”, I am still using my sights. However, within certain ranges (0-1yds) it is very possible with training to get good hits on a target without even fully presenting your weapon or using your sights. Hereafter, this will be referred to as kinesthetic shooting (point shooting). You might say that point shooting is inaccurate. The problem with this claim is that it depends on what you mean by “inaccurate”.
All Things Have Their Limitations
If you mean that point shooting is inaccurate at 15+ yards, I would agree, baring someone who trains to this standard. However, if you mean inaccurate within 1 yard, I disagree.
I could just as easily make the broad claim that iron sights are inaccurate.
I would be both correct and incorrect. This claim is dependent on five factors: firearm, target, distance, time, and training.
Same Tool, Different Applications
Consider sight focused shooting and target focused shooting to be two different methods for using the same tool. For anyone who would argue that changing your aiming methods is a bad idea, I would ask what their thoughts are on Low Power Variable Optics (LPVO’s), off-set red dots, IR lasers with NVGs, shooting from retention, or any other method that deviates from front sight focus or natural point of aim. Each of these tools and aiming methods has advantageous and disadvantages depending on the application.
Imagine someone who has never boxed before. They don’t know how to develop a proper stance, what to do with their hands, or how to move.
If they were to receive coaching on how to box, the coach would first demonstrate the fundamentals and then have the student mirror. The student would need to focus on their hands, their feet, and the rest of their body to ensure they were in a good boxing position.
Eventually, they would begin to practice how to throw various punches, while occasionally tracking their hands to ensure proper movement. The coach would then have them practice hitting a target, like a punching bag. Even during this stage, they still might transition their focus back and forth between the bag and their hands/gloves to ensure proper form.
Over time, muscle memory and proprioception would develop and they would not need to focus on what their hands/gloves were doing. Enabling them to focus more on the target. This would be important when training with speed bags and trying to punch the punching mitts worn by their coach.
This does not mean that they are not aware of where their hands are (proprioceptively and peripherally), but that through thousands of repetitions, their hand/glove position has become more and more autonomous.
Finally, they would apply what they have learned against another fighter. They would need to track the other fighter’s movements while locating openings for strikes and timing their punches, as well as blocking and dodging their opponents punches.
Now, imagine if the coach instructed them to always maintain focus of their hands while leaving the other fighter blurry and out of focus. This would not end well for the novice athlete.
Is this an exact comparison with firearms? No, and I am not suggesting that there never exists distances and situations where front sight focus wouldn’t apply. However, it is entirely possible to use your sights while focusing on the threat and shoot accurate and fast.
There are a couple factors that affect whether sight focused shooting or threat focused shooting are appropriate.
Body Alarm Response
Though you may have never heard the term, most people have experienced a Body Alarm Response (BAR) to one extent or another. A BAR occurs when you notice an immediate threat to your safety and your sympathetic nervous system takes over, resulting in the fight, flight, posture, or submit response.
This can occur when you are cruising along in traffic and all of a sudden notice break lights on the car you are about to rear end. This occurs when someone startles you. And this will occur if you realize someone is trying to kill you.
Stress inoculation through Force On Force training can aid in one’s ability to handle a BAR. This is true for martial arts professionals, police officers, and military.
During a deadly force encounter, it is likely that most people will focus on the threat, not on their sights. Notice how I said “likely”, because it is quite possible to overcome this with training.
Living, Breathing, Thinking Targets
Most firearms training is performed on static targets that visually contrast well with their foreground and background. The target does not move behind cover and does not elevate or lower its threat condition.
The problem when shooting at a living threat is that they have just as much will to live as you do, baring instances of suicide by cop. They will move behind and around cover and concealment, all while potentially escalating or de-escalating their threat condition.
Maintaining a hard focus on the front sight during this scenario prevents you from being able to obtain accurate information on the threat. You cannot see if they are moving in and out of cover. It is difficult to distinguish them from the foreground and background. Moreover, if you are focusing on your front sight while preparing to take a shot, you cannot honestly say that the threat was not in the process of surrendering.
Another issue I have with sight focused shooting under certain contexts is the time it takes to shift our focal plane from a threat to the sites. This would most likely apply to a Law Enforcement scenario with an armed suspect that police have their weapons trained on.
Hopefully the officers would have reflexive (red dot) optics and would not need to worry about looking at their sights. However, many officers have handguns and patrol rifles with factory iron sights.
Consider the scenario where officers need to aim their weapons at a suspect with a gun or knife. It would be important they know how to obtain a proper sight picture while maintaining a focus on the suspect.
I had little luck finding data on how long it takes the average healthy human eye to shift focal points. However, in my estimation of my own eyes, it takes about 0.5 to 1 second to shift my focus from a target to the sights. This timing is largely dependent on lighting and target distance. One second is a very long time under a high stakes scenario such as the one described above.
Not only do you have to account for the time it takes the eye to shift but also the average reaction time of 0.25 seconds for visual stimuli.
A DA Cops Hope Doesn't Exist
I am not a defense attorney. However, if I were a DA representing a client who had been shot by the police, my line of questioning for the officer would be as follows:
“Is it true that you are trained to focus on your front sight post when firing your weapon?”
The officer’s response should be, “yes”.
“Were you looking at my client or your front sight when you shot him?”
Regardless of the officer’s response, he is in a bad spot (unless he was running a red dot optic).
If the officer states that he was looking at his front sight post, I would then ask “how were you able to identify that my client was still a threat when you fired your weapon?”
However, if he says he was looking at my client, I would then ask him “why weren’t you operating your weapon according to how you were trained?”
Again, I’m and not a DA and I pray no DA tries to use this line of questioning on a good cop who was involved in a justifiable shooting. I am also not suggesting that this would be a slam dunk, but it wouldn’t help the officer. Or maybe I’m wrong all together.
It is my opinion that we are handicapping people by not properly graduating them from the fundamentals of marksmanship to combat/defensive marksmanship.
Or at least not formally so.
It may be the case that as shooters advance in proficiency, they begin to adopt target focused shooting techniques without even realizing it.
You Might Already Be Doing It
I would venture to say that some shooters are already practicing target focused shooting without realizing it. Some because they were never taught the fundamentals of marksmanship. Others because they naturally started focusing on the target as their proficiency grew.
I use the following method to help determine someone’s dominant eye, as well as how to demonstrate target focused shooting. This method only requires your hands and no firearm.
- Look for a wall outlet or light switch on the wall that is about 10-20′ away from you. This will be your target for the purpose of this demonstration. The moon works great for this too.
- Focus on the “target” with both eyes open.
- Next, raise your dominant hand while trying to cover the object with your thumb (like you’re giving a thumbs up). DO NOT TAKE YOUR FOCUS AWAY FROM THE OBJECT AND DO NOT CLOSE EITHER EYE.
- Without moving your head or your hand, close your right eye
- Is your thumb still covering the object?
- If the object is covered, you are left eye dominant.
- Now, without moving your head or your hand, open your right eye and close your left eye.
- Once again, is your thumb still covering the object?
- If the object is covered, you are right eye dominant.
- Without moving your head or hand, open both eyes again while continuing to focus on the object, not focusing on your thumb.
- You should notice what appears to be two hands and two thumbs. You should also notice that your thumb appears see-through or ghost like
- This same phenomena applies to target focussed shooting.
I created the following two images to better illustrate what I am referring to when I say “doubling” of the sights or target when aiming with both eyes open. The first image illustrate what you will see when your eyes focus and converge on the sights. The second image is what it will look like when your eyes focus and converge on the target.
Take note of the doubling effect that sight focused shooting has on the target as well as the surroundings. Furthermore, notice how the target focused method enables you to “see through” the sights, gun, and your hand. This phenomena is due to the convergence of your eyes on the target.
NOTE: These are from the perspective of a right eye dominant shooter (me). I have provided instructions for left eye dominant shooters in the captions.
Depth of Field (DOF) is a photography term that refers to a region where objects are in focus. A shallow DOF results in photographs that have the subject in focus with the fore and background out of focus. An example of shallow DOF is in the first image bellow. On the other hand, a deep DOF provides great focus of objects over various distances from the camera. The second picture illustrates a deep DOF.
The human eye functions similarly. We have a DOF that is dependent on distance, lighting, age, and other variables unique to each person. Depending on the application, this DOF may or may not be acceptable for target focus shooting.
When you performed the exercise above, your thumb was probably still within an acceptable DOF. You were probably able to make out the details of your thumb, even though your eyes were focused and converged on the target. If so, this DOF would be perfectly acceptable for aligning your front and rear sights while looking through them.
I do not know what the exact DOF is needed for target focused shooting. This depends on the shooter’s eyes and context (lighting and distance).
Awareness vs Focus
Target focused shooting involves looking through, not over, and not point shooting. Do not use target focused shooting until you are able to apply the fundamentals of front sight focus.
When I aim, my focal point and the convergence point for my eyes are usually on the target. This results in a “soft focus” and a “doubling” of the sights as seen in the previous image. The amount of blur depends on target distance, lighting around the target, and the lighting around me. All of these factors affect my eyes’ acceptable DOF.
Notice how you can confirm my sight picture since the sights form a proper, albeit inverted, sight picture over my right pupil. I often use this method WITH A PLASTIC INERT TRAINING GUN (BLUE GUN) to confirm someone is obtaining a proper sight picture.
I have the person aim an INERT TRAINING GUN at my right eye. Proper sight alignment has been achieved if I observe the sights are aligned with their pupil. I feel that I have emphasized it enough, but do not use this coaching method with a real gun! See my post on safety for more.
Black or Red Pill?
It is very possible to shoot fast and accurate utilizing threat/target focus. I do it and I personally know many elite shooters who do it. However, there are testimonials from professionals who state that they were looking at their front sight during a deadly force encounter.
Part of me wants to suspect that their memory may be flawed due to the tricks the brain plays on us under stress. However, I will concede that this is possible. Especially considering the findings in the study we will look at later in this post.
Consider you are offered two pills:
- A black pill that would grant you the skills to focus on your sights during a deadly force encounter
- A red pill that would grant you the skills to focus on the threat, what would you choose.
All other variables remain constant. You shoot just as fast and just as accurate, regardless of which pill you choose. The only thing that changes is your focus.
Let’s also assume for a moment you didn’t call the police on some stranger offering you pills. #DADJoke
I believe many would choose the red pill. The funny thing is, most people already have…it’s called a red dot optic.
You may be thinking that the black/red pill analogy was a bait-n-switch, and it kind of was. However, I only use it to drive home this point: target focused shooting can be more advantageous than sight focused shooting. For three reasons:
- No need to overcome the temptation to look at the threat.
- No delay due to shifting focus from threat to sights.
- Ability to obtain real-time information on what the target is doing. (The target is dynamic, your sights are not.)
- Double vision of your sights vs. the target. (Again, your sights are static in, the threat is dynamic).
Dry Fire as a Kid
As a young boy, I played with toy guns like most young boys. Unbeknownst to me, I had essentially been conducting dry fire practice for years as a kid. I focused on the pretend targets in my backyard while bringing the toy gun’s sights into my line of sight. No one over told me to “look at the front sight“.
I was also very curious for my age, and found it interesting that I would “see” two pairs of sights and two pairs of guns. I would close one eye, then the other, and then bring my eye convergence back to the sights. Eventually, I realized that this doubling effect was because my eyes were converging on the target. I just couldn’t articulate it back then.
I may not have been shooting live rounds to validate my sight picture, however, I was still building the muscle memory such that I would be looking through the sights while focused on the target.
By the time I was taken to the range for the first time, I was driving nails. I believe this was due to the inadvertent dry fire practice I conducted for the greater part of my youth.
Fast-forward to when I enlisted in the Marines. During range week we spent hours and hours “snapping in”, which is essentially dry fire practice. Regardless of what the range coaches at Boot Camp told me, I continued focusing on the target while looking “through” my aligned sights. I didn’t do this because I thought I knew better, but because it worked better for me.
First Red Dot
When I was issued my first Eotech, I applied the same aiming technique I had been using all along. To steal my own analogy, I had been applying the “red pill” skills to iron sights for years. Exceptions include longer shots, when iron sight alignment was extremely important. I would shift my focal point back and forth a few times to validate my sight alignment.
After being issued the Eotech, I was still looking at the target. I didn’t really appreciate it at the time, but I know many people who struggle with transitioning to Eotechs and other red dot optics. This is because they are still trying to focus on the reticle. Focusing on the reticle of a red dot optic or holographic optic usually results in a very blurry reticle.
I could (still can) shoot a standard AR platform with mil-spec sights at 300yd+ on a silhouette man sized target while looking at the target. I have multiple expert rifle awards to prove it. This was before the Corps transitioned to the ACOG for quals. Once again, my focal point does transition back and forth a few times to validate my sight alignment and sight picture during longer engagements, but I focus on the target before the shot breaks.
Now, you might be saying, “red dot optics are different from iron sights because there is no parallax (or minimized parallax) and you don’t have to align the reticle.” I agree, but the same method I use for looking through an Eotech applies to looking through iron sights, AFTER YOU HAVE LEARNED THE FUNDAMENTALS!
To readers who still believe that crisp front sight focus and eye convergence on the front sight is the only reliable method for shooting a firearm fast and accurate. Please respond below in the comments to these questions, I am not asking these rhetorically, I honestly want to know.
- Do you find it difficult to overcome the urge to look at a target when shooting under the clock, when shooting at a live role-player during force-on-force, or shooting a real threat?
- If you use front sight focus and the target is blurry, how are you able to identify what the threat or role-player is doing? (moving behind and around cover, or if its threat condition is changing, etc.)
- If you keep your focal point on the target and then transition to front sight focus, how do you do this quickly for 10-15yds since there is a physical limit to how fast your eyes can shift focus?
- When shooting with both eyes open, do your eyes converge on the front sight? If so, do you see a doubling effect of the targets/threats along with its surroundings as illustrated in the image above?
For the longest time, I have wanted to conduct a study to determine where people actually look during a stressful shooting. I reasoned that there must be some method for using eye tracking software to track eye convergence while participating in force-on-force scenarios. After some research, I discovered that this study had already been performed.
Professor of Kinesiology, Dr. Joan Vickers performed a study on two groups of police officers: “rookie officers” and “elite officers”. Dr. Vickers stated in her report that the rookie officers had very little experience, while the elite officers had more experience as police officers as well as working on tactical response teams (read: SWAT). Results reflected no significant time variation in the time it took both sets of officers (rookie and elite) to draw their weapon, aim at the suspect, and shoot the suspect.
(For anyone else who noticed, I thought the name, Vickers, was ironic)
Who Focused On What
Dr. Vicker’s findings revealed that the elite officers kept their focus on the suspect and maintained an average of 75% accuracy. While the rookie officers were more likely to use front sight focus and had an average accuracy of 62%.
“We found that the rookies, at the very moment when they should have kept their quiet eye on the assailant, made a fast saccade back to the sights on their own gun on 84% of trials. This caused them to lose sight of the assailant and they pulled the trigger on many trials when their gaze was off the target completely.” 
“Instead of establishing a sight picture with their gaze down on the sights and the target blurred, elite performers run a line of gaze through their sites and maintain a long duration quiet eye focus on the target, whether stationary or moving. This change in attention strategy allows elite athletes and officers to maintain complete visual control over all the events they encounter.”
Mistakes were made...
More startling, it was also discovered that the rookie officers mistakenly shot the suspect when he was holding a cell phone 65% of the time, whereas the elite officers made this mistake 18% of the time.
Admittedly, this is one study and I wish we could conduct many more like it. However, I am confident that the information obtained supports the premise of this post.
Eye tracking used in Quiet Eye study to analyze eye saccade during force-on-force exercise.
Video excerpt from Dr. Vicker’s presentation on her findings.
EyeLock Tracking System Demonstration. Not part of Dr. Vicker’s study, but still very interesting.
My hope is that you found this post interesting and educational. I would like to reemphasize that I am not suggesting there is no place for front sight focus in shooting. I definitely believe there are contexts where having a hard front sight focus is advantageous. Furthermore, I believe that it is imperative that novice shooters understand the fundamentals of sight alignment and sight picture before practicing with target focused shooting.
If you have any comments or questions, please don’t hesitate to comment below or use our contact form.
Thanks for reading!