Defensive Sighting

A new study sheds light on how shooters direct their gaze.

On the range or in dry-firing exercises, dial up the difficulty to learn how much sighting effort it really takes you to hit the target.

ONE OF THE BASIC TENETS OF HANDGUN shooting is focusing on the gun's front sight, then aligning it in the rear sight notch as you superimpose the two on the desired point of impact. What I've noticed is this is frequently overdone. In defensive shooting in particular, a threat or threats will overwhelmingly be at conversational speaking distance. Realistically, then, fine sighting is not only unnecessary but doing so in self-defense can be fatal.

The obvious solution is not to worry so much about your sight picture. However, since most handgun practice takes place on controlled ranges, which correctly discourage or prohibit rapid fire or any drawing from a holster, most shooters simply default to firing nice tight groups on single targets.

With such sighting skills ingrained, they are then misapplied in self-defense practice. Until recently, we could only occasionally catch a shooter performing this momentary hesitation before firing at an easy target to re-verify his sight alignment.

Now, with the almost universal availability of tiny video camcorders--even in cell phones--this momentary hesitation can quickly be noted. Of particular interest is a study titled, "How your eyes can cast your fate in a gunfight," posted on the Force Science Institute, Ltd. website (forcescience.org). The institute folks used multiple video devices to record, among other activities, exactly what the eye does in relation to handgun sighting and threat observation during a force-on-force encounter.

Quoting from the website: "This unique study shows that winning a gunfight involves more than just issues of action and reaction times'¦Where an officer is looking during an encounter, what kind of information he is picking up, and how he is processing it are also vitally important.

"An effective gaze control strategy can help officers minimize or defeat the action/reaction advantage that the suspect might otherwise have. In short, an officer's performance can be impaired or enhanced by where his eyes and attention are focused in the midst of a deadly encounter."

Twenty-four law enforcement officers were the subjects, split between 10-year SWAT team members and new law enforcement academy graduates. The one-minute scenario was set in an office in which a potential threat becomes aggressive with the receptionist.

At some point the aggressor (whom the subjects were told might or might not be armed) has his back to the officer then spins around and either draws a cell phone or handgun. The officer, armed with an FX-firing Glock, then had to make the split-second decision to shoot or not. The subjects ran this scenario seven times with no significant change in their reactions.

Each subject wore a head-mounted, computer-interactive video camera and a mobile monocular "eye tracker." The latter precisely documented his line of sight, and the two inputs were overlaid.

SWAT versus Rookies
Not all that surprisingly, SWAT officers strongly outperformed the rookies, hitting the assailant nearly 75 percent of the time compared to about 54 percent for the rookies. SWAT hits were about 62 percent upper torso, while the rookies had only about 48 percent upper-torso hits.

Analyzing the last seven seconds of the scenario, researchers tabulated two important factors: fixations (when an officer's gaze was stable on an object or location) and saccades (eyes moved rapidly from one fixed location to another).

SWAT officers had a higher frequency of fixations than rookies in all phases except the aim/fire phase. Here, the SWAT members had fewer fixations to fewer locations, indicative of greater focus and concentration as they aimed and fired.

SWAT members increasingly directed their attention to the suspect's gun hand/arm--beginning at 21 percent in assessment and early pivot phases to 71 percent in the final two seconds.

"On hits, the SWAT directed 86 percent of their final fixations to this one location, revealing a remarkable degree of focus and concentration under fire," the website notes. "They had time for a final, undisturbed period of super concentration.'¦In this, their eyes remained settled on a defined target location through trigger pull."

On the other hand, at the time the suspect aimed and fired, only 33 percent of the rookies' fixations were directed at his arm and weapon. In fact, during the final critical moment--the last 500 milliseconds--82 percent of them took their eyes off the assailant and looked at their own guns, attempting to find or confirm sight alignment. The study also noted that, with a high percentage of their shots, the rookies did not even see the assailant as they fired.

About 30 percent of the SWAT guys also looked at their guns, but their timing was different. Most of those gaze-shifts occurred before the officers aimed. The immediate and predominant focus was on their weapons. They then shifted focus to the threat while bringing their guns into position and catching their sights in their peripheral vision. This is better known as a "flash" sight picture.

Why do officers unnecessarily re-verify sight alignment? I think it's a combination of a lack of confidence in their shooting ability and a lack of experience in lethal-force situations.

While only a partial solution, dry-fire practice (a laser would be a great help here) and varying the shooting difficulty allows you to better dial in and retain what is and is not the necessary sighting effort for various shooting challenges. Your life could depend on it.

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