The Combative Pistol Sight
September 24, 2010
A focus on sighting systems designed for winning a gunfight
This large fiber optic sight from Hi-Viz is the closest thing to a red ramp revolver sight. It's hard not to see it.
The "point shooting vs. sighted fire" debate rages on with no end in sight. While no one disputes that a handgun's sights should be used during any type of competition, the focus of the argument is on armed conflict, i.e. gunfighting.
Advocates of point shooting maintain that it is impossible to focus on the sights during the stress of a gun battle, while those who advocate sighted fire fall back on the recollections of those who have been there and their steadfast memory of sight usage. Researchers often maintain that these people only think they remember their sights, though they were not standing in the combatant's shoes when they had these erroneous "memories."
I stand in the middle of this debate, seeing both sides of the argument while believing that there is a solution to the problem. I have been a serious student of armed conflict most of my adult life. After entering the police academy and wanting to know the secret of winning a gunfight in the event that I had one, I went searching for the answer, only to find that much of the "expert information" on the matter was mostly opinion and not fact. The firearms training arena is filled with a large number of people who advocate this technique or that tactic, but more often than not their choice of either is based on personal opinion or a desire to be different in the interest of filling their classes with paying customers.
I found out early in my career that this was not good enough for me. If my hide was going to be on the line, I wanted the truth and not innuendo, so I went looking for facts. This journey has led me to interview hundreds of people over the last 30 years who have prevailed in many armed conflicts. They include veterans of WWII, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, Afghanistan and Iraq; law enforcement officers; armed citizens; and, yes, convicted felons, as all have a unique perspective and story to tell.
The author's old stand-by: a standard tritium sight with a piece of reflective warning tape attached. It works well in a wide range of environments, but cleaning solvent eventually breaks down the bond.
I did not undertake this task in an effort to answer any arguments; I did it because I wanted to answer the question in my mind about what I needed to do to win in a gunfight.
Over time I compared what I heard to the situations I faced during my almost 30-year law enforcement career, as I have faced a bit of animosity along the way. I realize now that I will never have a complete answer, as the variables in each confrontation are too great, but I do feel that I have a good handle on what happens and what needs to be done to prepare for these situations.
And preparation is essential; make no mistake about it. As far as sights are concerned, I am convinced that sights can be used in all but extreme close-quarter confrontations--but the shooter must be enabled to do so. Standing on the firing line and shooting a qualification course one to three times a year (the standard of many law enforcement agencies) will not do, as it is not preparation. In order to use the front sight in a tense, fast-moving confrontation, the shooter must have trained in that same way.
Practice must be undertaken on targets that move, spin, wobble, charge and swing while the shooter is basically doing the same thing. Forget the traditional "running man" target found on many police ranges; this device is good for follow through and little more. If you want an education in how a person moves in a fight, watch a boxing match. In conflict, people will bob and weave in an effort to keep from getting hit. In an effort to keep from getting shot, the movement will be even more aggressive and exaggerated.
Target systems that train people to prepare for armed conflict must reflect this reality. They don't have to be fancy or cost a lot of money; they just need to move while requiring the shooter to track the movement over the front sight. Great strides can be made with dueling trees, plate racks, man-powered swingers, wobblers and chargers while at the same time getting the shooter to move while he shoots.
If all things were equal, everything in a sight plane would be in focus, but this is not the reality of a gunfight. Note that even when the gun is out of focus, the red dot is clearly seen.
Airsoft and Simunitions are an excellent end cap to a quality training program, as they force the shooter to respond while being shot at. Do not fall into the trap that force on force replaces traditional firearms training and fundamentals; it does not. The student must know how to shoot before he learns how to fight; the two are a matched set. At the same time, great fundamentals are only worthwhile if they are used while in the most realistic of settings.
Again, emphasis on the use of the front sight while involved in force-on-force training will enable the s
hooter to do so when the chips are down, but only if the shooter can see the sight without having to focus sharply on it. A good combative pistol sight needs to interrupt the shooter's field of vision. If he has to go looking for it, it probably won't happen. I say this based on what I have been told over the years by those who have been there as well as what I experienced in a few tight spots.
Through my interviews I found that those who remember seeing the front sight fall into two categories, the first being long-gun shooters, the second those who used a revolver. The long gun is actually easy to understand, as very few soldiers, Marines, street cops or SWAT team members are taught to fire their M1 Garand, M1 Carbine, M14 , M16, M4, UZI or MP-5 from the hip. All were taught to bring the gun up to the eye/target line, connect to the shoulder, look through the sight and press the trigger. Not surprisingly, most did just that, though many were engaging the enemy at distances greater than is normally associated with handgun confrontations.
Sheriff's deputy Dave Parin states that he can pick up the top of this Hi-Viz fiber optic in his peripheral vision at this point.
The use of sights on long guns has been bolstered considerably in the War on Terror, as many of the returning Iraq and Afghanistan veterans talk about placing the red dot of their Aimpoint reflex sight on an insurgent and pressing the trigger. Since these dot optics do not require the shifting of the eyes from the target to the sights and back again, this "place and press" sight system works very well even in the most frantic of environments. This is the type of information that brings an end to such debates, and it is my feeling that the close-quarters war now being fought in Iraq will end a lot of the debate on how we should train for close-quarters gunfights.
Many revolver shooters, however, did remember using their sights at close quarters but not in a traditional sight picture. Most described seeing a "red glob," "orange bar" or "red and black block" in their field of vision when shooting at their opponent, which makes sense, as the sights on most combat revolvers of the time (and to this current day) were a red plastic insert combined with a flat black rear blade/window.
The move to the semiautomatic pistol brought with it sights that are black on black, three dots or dots on top of bars--sight systems that I fear are too complicated for the human eye to use when engaged in a life-or-death fight. I have thought about this a lot over the last few years, and it has led me to take a hard look at the sights that are available for the semiautomatic pistol. Current pistol sights fall into five categories: factory sights, night sights, express sights, fiber optic sights and single-dot reflex sights.
The face can be seen at this point, allowing him to visually ride the sight to the target.
Factory sights are the traditional three white dots, dot/bars or dots in a white bracket that come on the gun from the factory. These sights are either metal or plastic, and the white dots are put in place with paint.
Night sights are similar to factory sights but are equipped with a radioactive isotope known as tritium, which glows in the dark. These sights can be obtained in three-dot configurations as well as dots and bars with different colors for front and rear.
Express sights are a large round front sight combined with a rear sight that is a shallow V in shape. The large dot is placed in the middle of the V for proper alignment. These sights are also available with a tritium bead in the middle.
The latest addition to the combative pistol sight market is the fiber optic sight, which uses a piece of synthetic material that comes in a long, slender configuration called a "light pipe." This pipe catches available light and transmits it to the end point, which is what is seen in the face of the sight. This makes the sight glow brightly, catching the eye and bringing it to the sight. How much the sight glows depends on the diameter and length of the pipe as well as the color and how translucent it is.
A series of fiber optic sights in reduced light. Note that they glow better than one would think. The secret is how much of the pipe can receive light. The more open, the more potential damage. The Hi-Viz fiber optics on the right are totally encased in polymer, while Ameriglo (second and third from left) uses a steel cage.
The single-dot reflex sight is something that is normally reserved for competition, but with the introduction of the light and compact J Point sight from J.P. Enterprises, the pistol-mounted reflex sight for combat may have arrived.
Over the last year I have collected sample sights from most of the major manufacturers and have placed these on both real and Airsoft guns and have used them in training courses and basic police academy programs. Since Airsoft guns do not have the same front-sight attachment capability of their real counterparts, the sights were ground flat on the bottom and glued in place. This enabled shooters to use the same sight picture on the same-style gun in mock gun battles as they had in range training.
The live-fire drills were the same as I described in the beginning of this article. They involved drills in which the targets moved, fell over, pivoted, twirled, rotated, charged or required the shooter to move from target to target, requiring them to shift the focal plane. They also included such fundamental drills as one shot from ready, one shot from the holster, one shot/reload/one shot, Bill Drills and an El Presidente.
The force-on-force drills were basically building-search scenarios in which the shooter had to clear a building, encountering both armed and non-hostiles along the way. Such scenarios required the person doing the searching to shift his focal plane continuously in order to negotiate rooms, doors, stairwells and hallways looking for threats and then get on the sights for accurate shots.
It should be noted that my students are not taught to use the sights in shooting situations that occur at double arm's length or a bit longer, so extreme close-quarter engagements were not a factor in my project.
Rapid but precise shots on a steel target. This is what combat shooting is all about, and the high-visibility front sight can easily be seen even from this camera angle.
What I found over the last year was surprising in a few areas but not so surprising in many others. Some of the things that I will discuss in the remainder of this article may delight some while angering others. The truth is, I am after information that will help you prevail in the most extreme of circumstances.
A precise sight picture, in which the front sight is sharp with the rear sight fuzzy and the target fuzzy, will not happen. This sight picture is great on a stationary range where the target is not moving and no one is shooting back at you, but when the shooter is trying to find a moving target, move from target to target or track a threat that is trying to shoot him (with Airsoft, of course), the best that can be achieved is the insertion of a contrasting image into the eye target line.
Several decades ago the late Jeff Cooper made the statement, "If you are going to use a contrasting front sight, use a color not normally found in nature," and it is as true today as it was when he originally said it. If the front sight is to interrupt the eye/target line, it cannot blend into the background. Orange, lime green, brilliant red and florescent blue all meet this requirement.
The J Point sight is shown mounted on the slide of the author's daily-carry Glock 19. When dovetailed into the slide, the J Point makes a fairly compact sight package.
Tritium Night Sights
These sights might not be the panacea that everyone believes them to be for low-light engagements. The tritium inserts found on many of these sights are fairly small, and while they do glow brightly, the environment must be pretty dark in order for them to become really visible. My concern, and the concern of those involved in the project, was this: Can the target be identified as a threat in the level of darkness that tritium sights become truly useful? If a flashlight is used to identify a threat, tritium sights do glow bright enough to be quite useful in such an inconsistent light environment.
Fiber optic sights are grossly underrated for combat applications. Many equate fiber optic sights as an accessory for hunting or archery, but my research revealed that they may be the best combat sights available. At first it was thought that these sights were only going to be useful in bright sunlight, but nothing could be further from the truth. Depending on their construction and pipe material used, the sights gathered far more light than many will give them credit for.
While all of the fiber optic sights tested were quality products, the sights from Hi-Viz were hands down the most visible of the sights used due mostly to the translucent pipe material they use as well as the open configuration of their sight mount. Ameriglo sights were found to be the most durable. With their chrome-moly 4140 steel sight housing, Ameriglo fiber optic sights will stand up to the harshest of treatment in the roughest of environments.
Some of the fiber optic sights tested used a closed design to protect the tube, which resulted in eliminating some of the light-gathering capability of the pipe. Another nice benefit of fiber optics is that they can be used in the direction of the sun, which makes regular sights hard to see; fiber optic sights just glow brighter.
To determine just how fiber optics compare to tritium sights, I placed a set of each side by side on the slide of a Glock pistol and asked a series of students to search a building, paying attention to how much the sights glowed next to each other in comparison to how dark their environment became. While some felt the tritium was superior, others felt that the fiber optic was very similar in visibility when the light was bright enough to identify a target as a threat. The combination fiber optic/tritium sight from Tru-Glo made this comparison a moot point, as the sight glowed brightly no matter what environment the sight was used in, though the fiber optic pipe was smaller than those found on other brands.
Tru-Glo offers a robust fiber optic sight, though its fiber optic/tritium combination is the way to go.
The XS Sights express big-dot sight system was the easiest to find and get on target quickly. All who shot with the XS Sights were quite pleased at how easily they could find the sight and place it in the narrow V. The lack of aligning the square front sight into a square rear sight simplified the process. The downside was that the white dot was lost in the many white walls, curtains, furniture and other backdrops that are part of everyday living. White is a common color, and XS would do well to take a hint from Col. Cooper.
The J Point sight was shunned by all who looked at it, until they shot with it. I admit that I fell into this category, thinking that the sight was just a toy for competitive shooters. I contacted John Paul, the inventor of the sight, who revealed that he, too, thought his creation was just a gizmo for the "run and gun" crowd until he started getting feedback on the sight from combat in Afghanistan. John told me that he was contacted by a member of U.S. intelligence who had used the J Point sight on his Glock 21 while on tour. "In country'¦this real-life operator used the gun on four different occasions to save his own life."
John told me, "The sight was broken when he took a tumble down a hill and the gun went flying. I gave him a new one." I had John mount his sight into a spare Glock slide that I had on hand, and I admit that I am quite impressed with it. Others who used it were as equally impressed as I.
The main question is whether the sight will stand up to the rigors of military and police service (making it viable for the legally armed citizen as well), but only time will answer this question. Since the sight, including the lens, is made from lightweight polymer material, it adds next to no weight to the gun. A rear fixed sight is built into the body of the unit that can be used in the event that the sight is damaged.
Be forewarned: The lens of the J Point will enhance the glow of any fiber optic or tritium sight that you may use as a BUIS for the J Point, which is quite distracting when trying to look at the red dot alone. Use a flat black front sight for this purpose. Like the Aimpoint and other reflex sight systems now enjoying great success in Iraq and Afghanistan, the J Point is a "place and press" sight that does not require
a shifting of focus from the target to the sight. The time for a pistol-mounted reflex sight has come, and hopefully the J point will be the answer.
Hi-Viz now offers a combative-grade sight utilizing a large front fiber optic combined with a serrated rear sight equipped with smaller fiber optic pipes.
Alertness and awareness are much like the common light switch: You are either switched on or you are switched off. Obviously, the sights can more easily be used if the shooter is switched on and prepared for confrontation vs. being caught off guard and thrown into startle response. While everyone in a confrontation will suffer some level of startle (unless, of course, you are starting the fight), those who are switched on will suffer it to a lesser degree than those who are totally unprepared. Unfortunately, many cops live in this state of mind.
The end result of all of this is that if you are going to be able to use your pistol's sights in an armed conflict, they must be made so that they interrupt your field of vision. The sights must be made so that they can't help but be noticed. In the end, however, we all point shoot. This does not mean that we can't use the sights, it's just that the sights do not come into play until the gun is up in front of your face. This means that the hands, arms and upper torso must direct the gun to the target so that our eyes can reference the front sight to reconfirm what our upper body should have been doing.
Anyone who thinks they can just thrust their pistol toward the target, chase down the front sight and get a quick and accurate shot is mistaken at best. Getting the gun to the target is a coordinated effort of the upper body--isn't that point shooting? Can we use the sights in a fight? The answer is yes, but it will take a training program directed at that goal and a sight system that one cannot ignore.