The Basics: Sight Alignment, Sight Picture, Trigger Control and Hitting

By Bob Campbell published on in Concealed Carry, Preparedness, Safety, Training

In my previous concealed carry and practical defense installment, I shared information regarding the criminal mind of the adversary and some tactics when confronted by these individuals. In this installment, I will give you the tools necessary to improve your handgun handling. —Bob Campbell

Once you have recognized the problem and the adversary, you need to begin to acquire necessary skills. The skills are more important than the hardware, and that is why we will discuss the procedure to obtain proficiency at arms before we discuss the actual arms. The goal is to hit the target—not to make covering fire and not to fire a warning shot or anything of that nature. The only moral goal is to hit the target.

A gray haired man in a black jacket shows a dark-haired woman in teal shirt and jeans how to hit the target.

A competent instructor should teach the basics.

When it comes to hitting the target, you must understand the fundamentals. Only by completely understanding traditional marksmanship can you apply these skills to the combat maneuvers known as tactics. The basics of marksmanship will save your life. As an NRA-certified instructor, I must chase away a number of myths and teach shooters to fire their weapons efficiently, quickly and safely.

Among the most dangerous myths is the myth of point shooting or instinctive shooting. I am not going to waste time on that fallacy, except to note that I will not be the instructor who must admit to a judge that I taught a student not to use the sights. If a student wounds or kills an innocent person as a result of ignoring the sights, then a jury of average citizens might conclude that I was as negligent as a driving instructor teaching students to drive with their eyes closed. Only by using the sights and sight alignment properly will you secure a hit—particularly at longer handgun ranges.

The Whole Picture

It is not just about static shooting on the range. There are a number of details the all-around defensive shooter must master. The draw leads into the stance, and the stance leads into the proper sight picture. From the time you draw the pistol into the target, you are on course for a hit, or a miss if not addressed properly.

Military Intelligence Officer Practices Frequently

When he isn’t protecting the free world, this military intelligence officer practices the proper technique on his own time and his own dime.

The stance is the foundation for shooting and the shooting platform.

  • Your stance should be rock solid.
  • You should stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart.
  • Stand with your feet at about a 45-degree angle toward the target, not flat-footed .
  • Your weight should be well distributed.
  • You should lean into the gun.
  • Your arms are simply out-thrust with the isosceles stance. With the Weaver stance, you keep one arm straight and slightly bend your support arm.  Square your body to the target with the isosceles stance, but with the Weaver stance, your body is bladed to the target. Although you can do good work with either, the Weaver is the professional’s choice.

The Firing Grip

To obtain the firing grip:

  1. Squeeze the pistol until your hand shakes.
  2. Back off a bit.
    At that point, you have the perfect pressure.

Make sure:

  • The web of your hand is hard on the tang, not in a lower position on the handle.
  • Your hand lines up with the bones of your arm.

If the pistol is too large for your hand, there may be something called the H grip at play, which you want to avoid. A firearm that is too large for your hand size is counterproductive to good work and may present a dangerous control situation. With the proper firing grip, you have the leverage to control the handgun in recoil and exert proper trigger control. Be certain your hand properly fits the pistol, or you are going to have a problem controlling and firing the pistol.

Your firing hand holds the firearm, and you wrap your support hand around the firing hand with the fingers of the non-dominant hand meeting with the firing hand. The thumbs-forward grip is often the strongest and most effective. If you do not understand the proper grip, try this:

  1. Make a fist with your thumb raised up.
  2. Close your thumb. Feel how much stronger the fist is closed with the thumb down?

The proper firing grip is strong and secure.

Sight Alignment

Sight alignment is simple enough as far as the geometry goes. The front sight is either a post or a blade attached to the slide or the barrel of the handgun. The rear sight is an open sight with two raised bars or posts on each side. The sight radius is the distance between the two sights. Within reason, the longer the sight radius, the easier it is to achieve a perfect sight picture. However, the shorter sight radius of ultra-compact pistols, such as the snubnose .38, often exaggerates mistakes in alignment.

Taurus pistol with focus on the sight/sight alignment on a white background.

Proper sight picture and sight alignment may be practiced at home. Courtesy Taurus International

Simply align the front post between the rear posts in the rear notch with an equal amount of light on each side of the post. The top of the front sight should be equal with the top of each rear leaf. Sight alignment is a constant whether or not you have an object in your sights. The balance between the front and rear sight and sight alignment cannot be compromised. You can practice sight alignment in dry fire.

Sight Picture

Sight picture is the superimposition of the sights on the target. You must hold the sight alignment true while the sights are placed on the object you want to strike with a bullet. Since this post is about defensive shooting, use humanoid targets for practice, beginning with a one-dimensional target to which you are squared, then you can advance to more challenging targets.

Keep the sights aligned properly and then place the front sight directly under the target for the “six o’ clock” hold, and dead on the target for the “dead on” hold. Holding under the target in the six o’clock hold is most common, and most combat handguns are designed for it.

The premise is that a pistol sighted in that way strikes a little high at close range and gives you a fighting chance at 50 yards. Of course, pistols differ, and you must be certain of your zero. But the most important point is that you impose the sight alignment over the target, resulting in sight picture.

You cannot aim for an area; you must aim for a small part of the target. As an example, a person debriefed after a gunfight often says they aimed for a certain part of the adversary’s clothing, such as a shirt button. Those who miss have aimed for the whole target.

Aim for a small part of the target, and the bullet will do the most good.

Proper Focus

The front sight should be clear and sharp, while the target and rear sight will be blurred. It is all about the front sight—FRONT SIGHT, FRONT SIGHT, FRONT SIGHT.

If you are in a low-light situation and the only sighting choice you have is the front sight, then you will superimpose the front sight on the middle of the target. At close range, the bullets will strike a bit high—put the front sight on the belt buckle and the bullets will go into the chest area. This is a modification of the standard sight picture that also works well for combat shooting.

Remember, accuracy is always more important than speed. Bat Masterson may have been the first to say, “Speed is good; accuracy is final.” Speed is simply mastering the economy of motion. Practice, and practice well, and speed comes. The cadence of fire will never be dictated by how quickly you can pull the trigger. I am pretty certain I could teach a monkey to pull the trigger quickly.

The cadence of fire is set by how quickly you recover the sights after recoil. Remember, only the shot being fired is important. Follow up shots, if needed, take care of themselves. Do not fire strings but a number of controlled shots.

Trigger Compression

When you use the proper sight picture and sight alignment, there is no excuse for a miss; although if you do not properly manage the trigger, you will miss the target. Teaching students how to manage the trigger is more complicated today because there are more types of trigger actions. Single-action, double-action, double-action-only and safe-action triggers differ as to the exact demands on our dexterity, although all operate by the same principle.

Trigger management is simple enough. Press (do not jerk or pull the trigger—it is a smooth press) the trigger straight to the rear without disturbing the sight picture and sight alignment.

Breaking the trigger cleanly is important, and so is learning reset. A good cadence of fire is to:

  1. Fire.
  2. Allow the trigger to reset.
  3. Fire again with an equal amount of time spent in pressing the trigger and allowing it to reset.

No matter how quickly you fire, the cadence of fire is not set by how quickly you press the trigger; it is determined by how quickly you realign your sights on the target after each shot.

Follow Through

A ball player continues his swing after he hits the ball, and a golfer does not release his grip after he contacts the golf ball. What you do after you fire could impact what you did before you release the grip. Keep the handgun held tightly and do not relax the grip. That ensures proper recoil function, ejecting one case and loading another. It also keeps your grip and accuracy consistent.

You will lose your image of the front sight for a brief interval, and with the proper grip, you quickly will realign the sights and get back on target.

Follow-through is essential for controlling the firearm:

  1. Keep the grip.
  2. Allow the trigger to reset.
  3. Maintain the sight picture.

Every shot is a controlled, singular, event. Do not consider a firing string a volley of shots; rather, consider each shot as the most important shot. That is the key to hitting the target. Shooting without the desire and ability to hit is nonsense.

The Center of Mass

The center of mass you aim for to stop a fight is not always as you perceived it. The center of mass is sometimes perceived as the area between the shoulders, with the heart as the center. The center of mass, in mathematical terms, is an axis of symmetry and constant density.

In combat shooting, the center of mass is the center of the target. That means that if there is only a shoulder or a leg exposed, you will fire for the center of that mass. If you are trying to align a perfect shot to the arterial region of the heart, you are going to hold your fire a long time. The center of an exposed target is the center of mass.

If the head is the only target, as in a case in which the opponent is firing around a corner, then you aim for the center of the cranium. If your adversary is kneeling and firing around cover and with a kneecap exposed, then you fire at the center of the knee. Whatever the target, aiming for the geometric center is the proper aiming point, allowing the greatest chance of a hit. In the unlikely event you have the perfect shot at a criminal facing and squared to you, the center of the chest is the best target.

Do not rely on that perfect shot, and always aim for the center of mass—whatever that center might be.

Basic Action Types

Service grade handgun in khaki-brown on a gray-to-white background.

Basic service-grade handguns are well suited for all around defense use.

Before we discuss more advanced skills, and in particular the different types of handguns, you need to understand the differences in action types. The ability to master a particular action type depends much on your dedication to training and your ability to cope with a complicated manual of arms. Just the same, the most accomplished shooters I know—and those that are the most formidable—have chosen simple service-grade handguns that carry the day, if need be.

You need to understand the differences in the double action, double action only and single action. However, in the end, a qualified shooter may use each equally well at short range. How the pistol runs on a combat course is not the whole story. The pistol’s handling, how it feels on the hip and how quickly and smoothly it comes into action are hugely important. How you feel with the handgun at the ready position is also important.

I will give you a description of each action type and the manual of arms for each (the manual of arms is simply the actions needed to make the piece ready for action, to draw and fire the piece and bring it into action).

Revolvers

Young woman in black t-shirt and jeans with pink ear protection practices loading her firearm, with a wooded area in the background.

Take time to learn the basics and learn to smoothly load and handle the firearm.

The trigger finger operates revolvers. The revolver’s action requires that you operate the trigger, that the trigger rotates the cylinder and both raise and drop the hammer to fire the gun. As such, the trigger action is sometimes heavy, although just the same often very smooth (smoothness is better than lightness in the overall scheme of things).

The first were single-action revolvers for which you cocked the hammer manually for each shot. The thumb reared the hammer to the sear, where it cocked against spring pressure. The trigger then pressed to trip the sear and drop the hammer, hence the term single action because the trigger only dropped the hammer, preferring a single task.

These revolvers (the Colt Single Action Army is first among them) were the great harrowers of their day, particularly in the American Civil War. They were slow to load, but they were a wonder. While they are suitable for recreational use, do not use them for personal defense.

The next step in the revolver’s evolution was the double-action revolver. Many of the early double-action revolvers used the old side-gate-loading design, although the modern swing-out cylinder revolver was in use prior to 1900. The main advantage of the double-action revolver is speed. The trigger both cocks and drops the hammer, thus the term double action. You can get good speed and accuracy with this system since it is capable of excellent practical accuracy once mastered. Most of these revolvers also have a single-action option.

You may cock the hammer manually for a deliberate shot. While useful for long-range shots or small targets at close range, ignore the single-action option for personal defense use. The double-action-only revolver is usually a concealed hammer revolver without a single-action notch.

Manual of Arms for the Revolver

  1. Load.
  2. Holster.
  3. Draw.
  4. Fire.

Self-Loaders

All self-loading pistols feature a box magazine and reciprocating slide. In the simplest terms, you load the magazine, rack the slide and fire the pistol. There are, however, nuances of the automatic (and it is OK to call them automatics, so we know what we are talking about) that can be terribly confusing. It is good to have a general understanding of all types for safety’s sake, and the bottom line is to make sure you are completely familiar with your personal handgun.

If there is one universal shortcoming of students, it is that they are unfamiliar with the basics of loading, making the handgun ready and how the controls work. All automatics work by harnessing recoil energy, although how the actions work to fire the cartridge differs a great deal.

First, let’s look at the operating types: the blowback and locked breech.

The blowback is generally regarded as suitable only for use with low-power cartridges from the .22 to the .380 ACP. A few 9mm and even .45 caliber handguns use the blowback action, but the mass necessary for the slide for such an action dictates a very large and heavy handgun. The blowback features a fixed barrel. When you fire it, the slide recoils from the barrel and ejects the spent cartridge. A fresh cartridge feeds from the magazine, and as the slide returns to battery, the new cartridge bumps into the chamber.

With the locked breech design, the barrel and slide recoil together until the bullet exits the barrel, pressure abates and the slide unlocks from the barrel. It then ejects the fired cartridge, and the slide returns forward, strips a round from the magazine, and feeds it into the chamber. An extractor mounted on the slide pulls the cartridge from the chamber, and an ejector mounted on the frame bumps the case into the air with either action. The recoil spring compresses as the slide recoils, and then at the end of slide travel, the recoil spring pulls the slide back into battery. All of the action and operation takes place in the blink of an eye.

Single action revolver with ammunition and holster on a white-to-gray background

If you choose the single-action handgun, and a light handgun chambered for a powerful cartridge, you will practice about 25% more to maintain proficiency.

Single-Action Automatics

These are the operating actions, but the difference in the firing action is how the hammer or firing pin falls. The single action features a hammer or striker you cock before firing. The slide racks, which cocks the firing pin or hammer against the pressure of a mainspring. The cocked hammer only requires you to press the trigger to fire the pistol.

Since the trigger performs only a single action, these handguns are single-action automatics. The normal carry mode is to load the pistol, place the safety on, and carry it with the hammer back and the safety on. This is called cocked-and-locked carry.

You can keep the handgun at home ready with the hammer down on a loaded chamber, but this is not the most efficient means of keeping the handgun at ready.

Manual of Arms for the Single-Action Automatic

  1. Load.
  2. Apply safety.
  3. Holster.
  4. Draw.
  5. Disengage safety.
  6. Fire.

Double-Action Automatics

The double-action first-shot pistol requires the trigger action to both cock and drop the hammer. A long press on the trigger cocks and drops the hammer. When the pistol fires, the slide recocks the hammer. Subsequent shots fire as single action. To safely lower the hammer, most pistols of this type feature a decocking lever, which rotates to lower the hammer.

Most of the double-action first-shot pistols also feature a decocking lever that doubles as a manual safety. Some have a decocker only, which lowers the hammer and cannot be used as a safety. The selective double-action pistol (the CZ 75 is the best known example) lets you place the safety on with the hammer cocked, allowing cocked-and-locked carry. You must lower the hammer carefully by manually grasping it while pulling the trigger to make the pistol ready for carry as a double-action first-shot pistol.

The selective double-action pistol has the advantage of you being able to apply the safety while engaged in tactical movement without lowering the hammer.

You may carry all of these pistols either on safe or off safe, if there is a manual safety. Shooters are often divided on which mode of carry to choose.

Manual of Arms for the Double-Action First-Shot Pistol

  1. Load.
  2. Decock.
  3. Place safety on (optional).
  4. Holster.
  5. Draw.
  6. Place safety off.
  7. Fire.

Double-Action-Only Automatics

The double-action-only pistol was developed to simplify training. The double-action automatic requires you to learn two distinct trigger actions, both the long, double-action trigger press and short, single-action trigger press. The double-action-only self-loader features one trigger action, usually a shorter action than the traditional first-shot trigger.

The most widely used is the Glock, although it is debatable if the Glock is a true double action only since the Glock’s striker is partially prepped as the slide cocks. The trigger finishes cocking the striker against spring pressure, and the hammer breaks off the sear and fires at the end of travel. The slide then resets the striker.

The SIG P250 is a double-action-only pistol of a different type. The trigger both cocks and drops the hammer. The double-action-only handgun’s primary advantage is simplicity, although I have seen shooters with excellent combat accuracy with the type. For most of you who are choosing an automatic pistol for personal defense, the simplicity of the DAO design is attractive.

Manual of Arms for the Double-Action-Only Pistol

  1. Load.
  2. Holster.
  3. Draw.
  4. Fire.

The Merits of the Types

Black Glock revolver, barrel pointed up and to the right on a white-to-gray background

The Glock is simple to operate, unlikely to malfunction and effective in use.

My long-term and extensive experience with single-action, DAO and double-action first-shot pistols strongly indicates that the single action produces the best results on the combat range. The low-bore axis of the 1911-type handgun limits muzzle flip. There is no handgun faster to an accurate first shot than a properly carried, cocked and locked, single-action 1911 handgun. However, you must be dedicated to mastering the type for it to prove the best choice.

If, for example, you choose a 1911 pistol and you are leery of cocked-and-locked carry—thus carrying it hammer down—you have given up the advantages of the type. While the single action is the most tactical in the sense that it is the fastest of all handguns to an accurate first shot, the practical application of skill requires intensive practice to master.

In short, the most efficient of the self-loaders on the firing range may not always be the most practical for everyone and every situation. However, the single action has only one trigger action to master. When using the double-action first-shot pistol, you must master the double-action trigger, then learn to use the single-action trigger as well. Some simply cock the hammer of the double-action first-shot pistol for the first shot: this isn’t ideal, it is slow and fumble-prone.

The double-action first-shot pistol is capable of a fast first shot hit in trained hands. I have watched a military intelligence officer ring the gong every time at 25 yards with his Beretta. He was practicing by firing, decocking and firing again to master the double-action stroke. Just the same, some never quite get the double-action stroke correctly. For those with limited training time, who simply do not wish to use a pistol that requires the safety be disengaged before firing, or who do not want to master the two trigger pulls of the double-action pistol, the double-action-only types have great appeal.

The single-action pistol demands training and concentration. The double-action pistol demands coordination. The double-action-only requires you to learn to efficiently press the trigger action and allow the pistol to reset. The Glock and the SIG P250 can be very efficient combat guns versus target guns.

The long double-action trigger is a safety feature, but true safety is between the ears, and proper training is more important than the action type. That requires good training and an attentive student. In the end, the single action is best suited to a highly interested person willing to make a substantial commitment to training. The double-action first-shot pistol confuses some shooters and is more difficult to master—for the first shot.

For most of us, most of the time, the simplicity of the double-action-only pistol is difficult to ignore. You are up and running more quickly. While you may not ace the course at an IDPA match, the DAO will save your life.

What pistols do you use? Do you prefer a single action? A double action? Share in the comments section.

Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

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Comments (12)

  • Frank M.

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    I also had a High Standard Double 9. It was the best shooting pistol I have ever had, it was a tack driver. Sadly it was stolen from my house about 25 years ago. I now have a Glock 19, a XDM 3.8 9mm and a Smith & Wesson Shield 9. I really like all of them, but carry the Shield with a 8 round mag and a spare 8 round mag most of the time due to it being more concealable. For home defense I keep a Mossberg 930 SPX in the bedroom loaded with #1 Buck. Liked the article, I like to read the thoughts of folks who have experience that I can learn from.

    Reply

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