“Focus on the Front Sight” – But Why?

“Focus on the front sight!” It’s often one of the first pieces of advice new shooters get. Sometimes, they get it nicely, as a suggestion; other times, so I’m told, they get it screamed at them when they’re not doing it. (Side note: screaming at students rarely seems productive to me, the only possible exception being a firmer “STOP” command when something immediate and unsafe is happening.)

But few instructors, in my experience, take the time to explain precisely why you should focus on the front sight. So, I thought I’d take a stab at it. Please note: This is my understanding, and I freely admit the limits of my knowledge and experience when it comes to teaching this stuff. Feel free to chime in and expand on this or clarify nuances.

The sights on a gun, obviously, help ensure that the bullet hits the spot on the target where the shooter thinks it’ll hit. In order to hit the right spot, the axis of the barrel must be lined up with the spot on the target you’re aiming at. This is why we have a front and a rear sight – the alignment of these two visual aiming references relative to one another shows you whether the axis of the barrel is lined up, or whether you’ve aimed high, low, left or right of the target. If the front sight is high relative to the rear, for example, the barrel is tilted upward and you’ll miss your target.

So, in order to line up your shot, your eye has to evaluate the relationships between three objects: front sight, rear sight, and target. Unfortunately, these are all located on different planes of focus – that is, at different distances from the eye, and the eye can only focus on one plane at a time. So, we have to choose where we focus our eye.

What happens if we focus on the target, like so?

This might seem the logical place to put our attention, but it won’t get us accurate shots. Here’s why: Small deviations in the position of the gun are magnified the farther away the target gets. Move the gun barrel 1/4 inch to one side, and by the time that bullet gets 25 yards or more down-range, that 1/4 inch has become several inches of deflection in the bullet’s point-of-impact. Out to 100 yards, your 1/4 inch deflection will result in a bullet that’s close to a foot off course. The other problem is that targets are much bigger than sights, so you need to control the position of the sights with much more precision. And it’s hard to precisely judge the relationship of the sights to one another when both are blurry and out of focus.

So, what about focusing on the rear sight, like this?

Nope, this won’t work either, because (as you can see) we lose track of the front sight’s position too easily. Plus which, the position of the front sight won’t change much when we shoot – our stance and grip put the gun where they put it, and when we move our point of aim around we’re adjusting the position of the front of the gun much more than the rear. Try it with your finger: Point at an object, and then swivel your hand up and down at the wrist. Notice how much the end of your finger moves, and how much the base of your thumb does. Finally, with our focus on the rear sight, the slight movements of the gun are harder for our eye to detect, because the front sight – which deflects far more than the rear sight – is out of focus.

The front sight, then, is the place where our focus needs to be. Let’s take a look at why:

With our focus on the front sight, we’ve gained the following:

  • We’re focused on the barrel’s orientation (up/down and left/right) relative to our point of aim;
  • We can still see the rear sight well enough to judge the gun’s orientation, even though it’s a bit blurry;
  • We can still see the target well enough to judge where we’re aiming, even though the target is slightly out of focus too.
If the human eye could focus on three different things at once this would of course be a non-issue. But with the limitations of our physiology, we need to choose to focus on the spot that’s most critical to our ability to accurately judge what the pistol is doing, relative to the target. That spot is the front sight.

Photo credits: The photo of the tritium sights is from meprolight.com; the sight images I assembled myself with a target image provided by Midway USA.

Comments

  1. Bambi says:

    Thank you so much for this information. I’ve been having some problems with my groupings and this might just be the answer.

  2. Dear Tammy:

    Your description is precisely correct and well stated indeed. May I suggest a recent two part series I did on shooting basics, which covers this and related issues?

    https://statelymcdanielmanor.wordpress.com/2012/09/19/shooting-basics-targets-sights-and-safety/

    Thanks!

  3. This is excellent!

    Just remember that it actually works only if the sights are correctly placed and aligned on the gun. 🙂 A recent student had a new “Glock” and was very clear on how to get a good sight picture… but his shots were all going to the lower right. We worked on trigger pull, grip and everything else we could think of. No real change.

    Then I fired a few shots and all of mine went into the same lower right position! The only thing I could think of is that the sights are off and suggested he either send it back to Glock or take it to a gunsmith.

    • This is very true – if the sights are improperly aligned relative to the barrel axis of the gun, your shots will definitely be off. Fortunately, adjusting the sights on most pistols isn’t difficult for someone with the proper tool. A trip to a gunsmith should fix your student’s pistol, I would suspect.

      • None of my handguns have adjustable sights, so I wouldn’t know where to begin. His Glock actually did seem to have some sort of adjustment for the rear sight… though neither one of us had any idea what to do with it, so a gunsmith or more knowledgeable Glock user is probably the best answer.

        It’s nice to be able to do things ourselves, of course, but I’d rather find expert help for something like this. You should see what happened to the toaster I tried to repair a while back! LOL The screws come out just fine, but how in the world do you hold it all together long enough to get them back IN? Thank goodness a new toaster was cheap…

      • I know exactly what you mean. I asked a local gun shop friend once whether upgrading sights on a gun was a do-it-yourself job. He asked if I was mechanically inclined, took one look at my expression, and said in the same breath “no, I wouldn’t recommend it.”

        And with a gun, the potential cost of a mistake is too high for me to want to tackle much DIY work.

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