Point Shooting and Sighted Fire: Why should we care?
Originally, I always believed that the most contentious area of firearms practice was in caliber selection and ammo properties. I was wrong. So very, very wrong.
It is one thing to measure ballistic properties and study cadavers for wound channel geometry. These things are measurable and arguable and generally provide tasty meat for many a rambunctious debate. But when we venture into the world of technique things get real damn murky real damn fast. Technique can be very subjective. Subjective leads to anger, anger leads to hate, and well, you know the rest.
The real problem with the “point shooting v. sighted fire” discussion is that the choice is personal and esoteric. That’s right, I said it. It’s a personal choice and there ain’t no other way to look at it. People are going to decide for themselves which technique they prefer, and the internet really has no patience for that sort of thing.
I have spent the last few months reading everything I could find on the various methods of combat shooting, and there are thousands of pages of data supporting most of them. For every incident where one style performs well, there is an incident where the other performed just as well. I warn you, dear reader, that this will not be an exhaustive study of every style of pistol shooting. I am not in the mood to write a forty-page article with pictures and diagrams. I will leave that those more expert in the nitty-gritty than I (I’m looking at YOU Skeletor…); this will be a high level look at the pros and cons of several methods, and the reasons people love them.
Let’ start with definitions.
What is point shooting?
According to google dictionary, point shooting is:
“…a method of shooting a firearm that relies on a shooter’s instinctive reactions, kinematics, and the use of body mechanics that can be employed effectively in life threat emergencies, to quickly engage close targets...”
Deplorable sentence structure aside, this is as good a good place to start as any. Most point shooting advocates will stress that this style is based upon your natural reactions in a high-stress situation. That is to say, employing basic gross-motor techniques to get bullets into bad guys quickly and without extraneous steps. You know…kinda like pointing at something…
Discussed since the early nineteenth century, (Berenger, 1835) point shooting didn’t really come into its own until Rex Applegate, William Fairbairn, and Eric Sykes got really excited about it after the formation of the OSS in 1942. In Applegate’s 1943 magnum opus Kill or be Killed he advocated what has become known as the “FSA” method of point-shooting, and most people consider that to be the birth of the modern point shooting movement. Basically, the shooter uses the natural “index” of the body when facing a threat to align the weapon with the threat.
For instance, when Applegate tested his theories in elaborate, high-stress shoot-houses he called “houses of horror,” he observed that people will automatically face directly at the threat, and that their bodies would naturally turn or “index” with the threat. He developed a system to hold and point a weapon (type/size notwithstanding) wherein the shooter simply brought the weapon to bear along his/her own center axis and instinctively sent bullets along this natural index direction. At typical pistol combat ranges, this pretty much ensured a perforated bad guy every time.
This method eliminated the need to train many aspects of what was traditionally considered good marksmanship. Typically, a shooter would train stance, grip, trigger pull, and sight alignment for many thousands of repetitions to ensure that their shots went where he/she wanted them to. Applegate’s method meant that a relatively inexperienced weapon handler could be trained to be combat-effective at typical combat ranges far more quickly. This method also eliminates many steps that individuals under high stress may be unable to do. It was already a known quantity in 1943 that fine-motor skills suffer under high-stress conditions, and Applegate ensured that his method employed no fine-motor techniques or low-percentage maneuvers.
Later testing at the famous “Hogan’s Alley” facility at the FBI showed a 300 percent improvement in average hits when individuals trained in FSA point shooting did the course, as compared to traditionally trained shooters.
Not THAT Hogan's alley, you nerd!
Other Point-shooting methods followed, some mere refinements on Applegate’s work, others complete reinventions of the concept, but all followed the fundamental tenet that instinctive, gross-motor movements were accurate enough, and far more reliable under stress than traditional marksmanship methods.
I’ll illustrate a few here:
·Quick Kill- This method was developed by Lucky McDaniel (awesome name!) for the US Army in 1967. It was mostly a rifle method, but was often adapted for pistols. Essentially, the shooter learned to aim above the barrel, rather than along it, which eliminated many of the fine-motor techniques involved with obtaining proper sight picture. Much loved by Skeet and Trap shooters to this day.
·Quick Fire- This handgun method has the shooter hold the weapon in two hands. As the threat is perceived, weapon and brought up close to the body until it is at chin level, then the weapon is thrust straight forward until the arms are fully extended. This creates a triangle with the arms as the long sides and the chest as the base. Then the shooter simply uses the natural indexing of the body to point the triangle at the bad guy. Trigger is pulled and bad guy stops bothering you.
·Hip Shooting- Exactly what you think it is. The weapon is drawn and fired without being in view at all. The shooter clears the holster and fires immediately, using instinct and body index to ensure hits. Legendary FBI shooter Jelly Bryce used this method exclusively, and was actually filmed clearing his holster and putting a round on target in 2/5 of a second.
He's on the left. Note the weapon is NOT indexed along his centerline, but stays on the strong side.
Point Shooting Advantages:
·It’s fast- Point shooting techniques minimize the time between clearing the holster and putting lead downrange. Typically, non-professional shooters employing this method will get shots off faster than if more traditional methods are employed.
·It’s easy to remember- Point shooting methods are very quickly learned and are immediately deployable, even for an amateur or recreational shooter. Furthermore, Point shooting methods are far easier to retain during high-stress and combat scenarios. Fancy sighted methods are great, but if you are too jazzed to execute them, they don’t mean a thing.
·It’ll kill the bad guy-Research shows that any method that puts bullets into bad guys is a good defensive shooting method. Most people concede, and my own research indicates that at typical pistol-fighting distances, point shooting kills the bad guy just as dead as any other method.
Point Shooting Disadvantages:
·It’s less accurate- Don’t get all cranky on me, point shooters! I do not mean to imply that point shooting will make you miss. I am pointing out that slow, aimed, sighted fire will be more consistent and accurate than point shooting. Virtually all of Applegate’s work was at distances of ten feet or less. I posit that untrained monkeys could hit a man-sized target at that range.
·It’s one dimensional- Point shooting is perfectly suited for scoring hits on a man-sized target at very close range. For anything else it is more or less useless. Any shot that requires care or precision will require a different method. Period.
·It can result in bad habits- Most point-shooting methods, due to their own fundamental tenets of simplicity, do not address many of the fine motor skills that ultimately parlay into good weaponsmanship. Point shooting is about killing bad guys, not about proper multi-disciplinary gun-handling. This can result in shooters who flinch too much, have poor trigger mechanics, or bad posture.
What is Sighted Fire?
Sighted fire is a shooting method wherein the shooter aligns the front and rear sights of the weapon for every shot fired. This encompasses most of the traditionally taught marksmanship techniques. Typically, the shooter will need to establish four things to ensure hits: Stance, grip, sight picture, and trigger pull. (It should be noted that point shooters have to establish only stance, grip, and pull.)
Individual variations in this style will vary, but generally, the shooter will assume the combat shooting stance they prefer, grip the weapon firmly and raise it to eye level, align the front and rear sights (See above picture), and then squeeze the trigger to effect hits on the bad guy. I could spend a few pages talking about Weaver stance, isosceles, one-handed and two-handed methods, but that really isn’t what I want to focus on here. What is important to understand with sighted fire is that it requires a calm mind and a steady hand to be truly effective.
Sighted Fire Advantages:
·Accuracy-This is considered by many to be the most accurate way of sending little lead projectiles into bad guys. The care and attention to detail of this method translates into very consistent, accurate fire. Point shooting may get as many bullets into the bad guy as sighted fire, but it won’t put them neatly in the cranial-ocular cavity like sighted fire can.
·Multi-purpose- Sighted fire parlays into nearly every type of weapon and scenario. It does not matter if you are at the range or in a firefight, the fundamentals of sighted fire always apply. Employing proper technique to ensure that your bullet goes exactly where you want it to is always desirable. As an overall shooting method, it has many more facets and uses than point shooting.
·Longer range- Your mileage may vary, but for the most part, point shooting performance suffers greatly after about twelve feet. Sighted fire is limited only by your practice time and your weapon. I have a scoped Super Redhawk that I can hit crabapples with at a hundred and fifty yards. I am a mediocre shooter at best, but I can ding a 10-inch steel plate at seventy yards using the four-inch revolver I carry every day. Unless you are Jelly Bryce, this will not be possible with point shooting techniques.
Sighted Fire Disadvantages:
·Slow- Without a significant investment in training time and extensive practice, sighted fire will always be the slowest way to shoot. There is just too much you need to get right to rush it, and the result will be missed shots if you try.
·Difficulty- Under high stress conditions, sighted fire can be impossible for many people. Too much adrenaline and anxiety makes the necessary focus and steadiness excessively difficult to obtain and maintain. This results in numerous documented cases of otherwise competent shooters missing wildly.
·Tough learning curve- Sighted fire methods can be taught quickly, but many people need a lot of practice to become proficient. Endless repetition is necessary to become truly competent in sighted fire, and like any martial arts, practitioners may spend years developing their techniques. The average defensive shooter may not have the time or inclination to develop their skills at this level.
Is that it?
We now understand the differences between the two methods, so what now? It seems pretty obvious what the real substance of the debate is, right? Do you want to be slow and accurate, or fast and ‘good enough?’ While you certainly can look at it that way, there really is more to the discussion. What kind of shooter do you want to be? Why do you own a gun in the first place? How much time do you have for practice? What will work best with my personality and style?
Not to mention that the astute reader might be asking his or herself right now, “Why do I have to choose? Hasn’t anyone come up with a hybrid method yet?”
The answer, Virginia, is, “You bet your skinny little ass they have!”
Of course there are hybrid methods. So let’s take a look at a couple.
·Front Sight Press- This method of shooting is based on proper sighted fire mechanics, but instead of taking the time to align the sights properly, the shooter simply focuses on the front sight blade. The theory is that if you have practiced proper shooting mechanics, then you will naturally follow the front sight with the rear one, or at least well enough to score combat-effective hits. While not truly sighted fire, it isn’t really point shooting either.
·Silhouette- Developed by the legendary Jim Cirillo, this method has the shooter use the weapons silhouette to reference alignment, not the sights. The theory is that when properly aligned, the weapon will have a certain silhouette that is easily recognizable without losing focus on the bad guy. The shooter simply brings the weapon to eye level and checks the silhouette before shooting. This theory is predicated on the assumption that it is far easier to recognize the silhouette than it is to align the sights.
Entropy Effect- I actually just coined this (shamelessly stealing an original Star Trek episode name) to describe a common hybrid shooting scenario wherein a classically trained sighted fire shooter's technique simply collapses into a more compact method through practice and stress. For instance, many cases exist where the shooter in a gunfight does not remember aligning the sights, but managed to make consistent hits instinctively despite no point-shooting training. This is generally the result of endless hours of practice making sight alignment pretty much instinctive. Which is a good thing, but it can't really be relied on for most people.
All hybrid methods are compromise between the two extremes of “slow and accurate” and “fast and good enough.” Most hybrid methods enjoy the benefits of being faster than true sighted fire, but more accurate for longer distances than point shooting. Unfortunately they only mitigate, not eliminate the limitations of their parent systems. It’s simple question you have to ask yourself: how much accuracy am I willing to sacrifice to acquire the speed necessary to ensure my survival?
Statistics; and Why I Hate Them
Trying to lock down statistics for this article has been an exercise in frustration. Not because they aren’t out there; lord no. There is no shortage of gun fight stats out there. The problem is that there is no control group, no homogeneous sampling, and no repeatable conditions. You just get mountains of holistic data that may or may not account for all of the factors that determined outcome.
Many proponents of both sides of this debate will use these statistics, and cherry pick the factors that best support their argument. This does not help us with objective observation. This just makes it harder, dammit!
Here is a list of what I believe is more or less universally accepted by all sides
·*Nearly every exchange of gunfire in the US occurs at less than twenty-one feet.
·*Most gunfights are in poor lighting.
·*Even experienced shooters tend to miss a lot under live fire (In 2000, NYPD reported a 9% hit rate for their officers).
·*Most people don’t remember using the sights in a gun fight.
·*Experienced combat shooters are more likely to remember using the sights than civilians, and have higher hit percentages.
Well, that’s something, isn’t it? It tells us that despite all the bickering and arguing, the point shooters have a… well…a point. Typically, a gun fight in the US occurs at very close range and in bad light. This would make true sighted fire very tricky, even without the added stress of incoming fire. But, to be truly objective, we have to note that even experienced shooters tend to miss a lot when it gets hairy, so maybe a little more effort into getting lead on target is required as well. We also know that the real hardcore guys in SWAT and comparable roles DO tend to use and remember using those sights, and they have the best hit percentage of all. Then again, we are not SWAT guys, for the most part. We are Joe SixPack (or TwelvePack in my case) and we don’t have access to the finest training and equipment money can buy.
This is the basis of the entire argument, people. Everybody is sure that they are right, and they all have a lot of statistical and anecdotal evidence to make their own arguments compelling. We here at Bullshido know that not all methods are created equal, and that there must be some overarching guidelines to help you select which method to invest your time and effort in.
I think we all know where this is going…
To the Range!
Practice makes perfect. It doesn’t matter what method you pick, you need to practice it. Or miss a lot. It’s your call. I decided to try some of this stuff out in a very non-scientific, anecdotal way.
For the record, I am a classically trained shooter. I employ slow sighted fire in my training for the vast majority of my practice. When I intend to model combat shooting in my practice, I try to employ the same methods as regular practice, only faster and with higher volume of fire. This has naturally progressed into the Front Sight Press method for me.
Fortuitously for this little experiment, I recently acquired an Auto Ordnance GI pattern 1911 with no front sight. This would keep me from cheating. I took it to the official Bullshido firearms testing facility and started trying to hit targets with it. I employed the FSA method, the Silhouette method and hip shooting techniques to see how they worked and felt for me. It was illuminating.
·At ten feet, all three methods worked fine. With hip shooting the bad guy tended to get shot in the groin with alarming frequency, but I figure that’s a valid combat hit, so it counted. FSA and Silhouette produced reliable man-stopping torso hits without fail.
·At fifteen feet, hip shooting was down to about 50%, while FAS and Silhouette still worked fine. Occasional off-paper shots, but for the most part still reliable.
·At twenty feet FSA started to get ugly, but Silhouette still worked very well. Hip shooting was a lost cause for me at this point.
For comparison, I grabbed my trusty Taurus Model 66 .357 and repeated this with my preferred method of Front Sight Press. I have never been in a gunfight, but from a low ready stance I can empty my revolver (seven rounds) into a human silhouette in less than two seconds at distances of fifteen feet or so. Anymore than that and I start to get the occasional flyer. At distances of twenty feet or less, my combat hit percentage for double taps is pretty much 99% with this method. Guess what kids? For me, that’s good enough!
What does this prove? Nothing. But it demonstrates that the individual will have to invest some time in finding out what works. I stumbled onto Frost Sight Press in a very natural and organic way, and it has molded seamlessly into my shooting practice. You may find that your combat shooting method evolves similarly. Allowing your combat shooting method to evolve on its own may be more important than you realize, because everybody’s body will have slightly different kinesthetic properties, and everybody’s psyche will react to stress differently. I will say that anyone who shouts categorically that one method is the “best” is being unfair (hell, even chunners win sometimes). Naturally, some methods will have more inherent advantages, but for the most part, it is up to the individual to learn which method best suits them.
Jelly Bryce rarely lifted his weapon above his nipples, and there are nineteen dead felons who can attest to his method’s effectiveness. That was good enough for him. Jim Cirillo survived seventeen shootouts while with the NYPD using the silhouette method. Why? Because it was good enough for him!
You all know damn well what I am going to say here. Get out to the range and practice. If you can afford it, go take a class. Try stuff. One interesting aspect of all this research has been the concept of the sighting continuum, wherein you select your sighting method based upon distance; starting with hip shooting and going all the way up until you are at slow sighted fire as your distance increases. That seems like a lot of practice, but the theory is sound. So go give it a shot!
This article was not intended to end the argument. That is impossible. I do contend, however, that the argument is kind of silly. Is there anyone out there who contends that shooting accurately takes longer than shooting quickly; or that shooting quickly makes you more likely to kill the bad guy before he kills you? These are not lofty concepts. This is basic caveman logic.
The answer I posit is the standard Bullshido answer for everything: Go ask your instructor/train in a realistic manner.
If you are training your shooting in a manner that is as alive as safely possible, and seeking qualified instruction when you can, then your method will evolve on its own. I wish I could be more strident, but it’s just too simple a concept to me; GO OUT THERE AND FIGURE IT OUT. This is not the kind of decision you make based upon an argument you lost on a web forum. This is the kind of decision (Just like any martial art) you make after careful research and some practice.