Sights or No Sights: A Brief History of Pistol Technique March 02, 2018 11:00

                   Sights or No Sights:  A Brief History of Pistol Technique



There were many published, established, and valid methods of aimed, sighted, pistol firing before point shooting doctrine was adopted. Though sights on the earliest firearms were non-existent, there are drawings and diagrams from the 16th century of shooters bringing the weapon to eye level, closing one eye, and referencing the barrel on target.  Front sights were also used on early single action revolvers, though they were not highly visible in comparison to sights of today. 

The earliest published works for double action revolvers advocated the use of the sights for the purpose of bullseye shooting.  Winnan’s techniques worked, given his shooting record. Tracy and J.B.L Noel published works and established techniques for combat shooting, rather than bullseye courses of fire.  It is interesting to note that most of the earliest techniques called for the sighted fire of the pistol. To say that point shooting came first and sighted fire somehow emerged in the mid-twentieth century is erroneous.  Sighted fire seems to have been firmly established, especially among British shooters even before WWI, and especially before Fairbairn developed his point shooting system. Some of these techniques were adopted before WWI, and others during the war.  British instructors of WWI were not proponents of point shooting.  The earliest published techniques involved the use of the pistol sights, at speed, albeit with one hand.    

Proponents of point shooting such as Fairbairn and Sykes, along with Rex Applegate, were published during WWII and later!  These works were, however, published widely and internationally, giving them much more exposure and popularity than the earlier sighted fire works of pre and post WWI.  Coupled with the point shooting influence on the OSS and later with the FBI, the point shooting technique was firmly ingrained in American law enforcement even into the 1980s!      


Early Sighted-Fire

There are wood carvings and diagrams of shooters bringing weapons to eye level and referencing the barrel as an aiming reference as early as the 1500s.  Sighted fire of the pistol in the late 19th and early 20th century was limited to slow-fire, one-handed, deliberate courses of fire.  Revolver shooters such as Winnan and Reichenbach describe their techniques as relaxed, slow, and deliberate.  Their aim was to produce ten-ring shots each and every time.  During “rapid” fire the pace sped up to five shots over twenty seconds.  These techniques worked because the shooter was allowed many seconds per shot.  The stance was bladed, the pace of fire painstakingly slow, and the trigger manipulation deliberate.  This type of shooting had little to no relation to combat, but sighted fire was taught, as daylight and generous time allotments allowed the alignment of the sights.  

Tracy and Noel changed the paradigm of aimed fire. As much as we Americans would like to believe we were the originators of combat pistol marksmanship, it was the British who led the way.  Though they still emphasized one-handed use of the pistol, their aiming and shooting were much different than bullseye practitioners.  Instead of a slow, precise emphasis of fire, these early pioneers advocated for a rapid shot sequence, focused on speed, and to a lesser degree, accuracy.  Noel especially focused on pressing the trigger as soon as the sights intersected with a small mark on the target.   The techniques taught by Noel and Tracy  worked in the narrow confines of the trenches. 

Sighted fire was the focus of many WWI veterans, both British and American.  William Reichenbach, an American WWI veteran, was quite ahead of his time when it came to semi-automatic techniques. He contributed to both revolver shooting and semi-automatic technique, coupling both with sighted fire.  Though Reichenbach focused on bullseye shooting with revolvers, his Automatic Pistol Marksmanship book published in the 1930s clearly demonstrates the influence of the trenches of WWI.  He advocated for rapid, accurate hits on target coupled with physical stress during training.  His works were quite thorough, clear in detail of technique, and reflect a modern element into pistol shooting.  Reichenbach stressed the importance of high visibility sights on a pistol for self defense, something that is still relatively new to even modern pistolcraft.  He was decades, if not a century ahead of his time.    


Point Shooting

Point shooting had its origins in law enforcement rather than military circles. As stated earlier,  the WWI veterans focused on sighted fire to achieve rapid, accurate hits at close to intermediate ranges.  In contrast, point shooting does not reference the sighs, but relies on timing the pistol once it reaches eye level.  The shot is fired without referencing the sights.  In Shooting to Live, by Fairbairn and Sykes, point shooting is explained as a method to be used one-handed.  The first sentence of the book gives this away.  The emphasis was speed over accuracy at close distance.  Fairbairn was a member of the Shanghai Municipal Police Department during a time when the city was among the most lawless in the world.  He had extensive experience with brawling, back alley deals gone wrong, and a fair share of gunfights.  The weaponry with which he learned his lessons was one of limited, quality, semi-automatic pistols, and the revolver.  The early 1911 .45ACP Colt pistol that Fairbairn highly touted had atrociously small, thin, narrow sights that are all but impossible to see at speed even in broad daylight.  Considering that many of Fairbairn’s experiences took place in dark, poorly lit alleys and rooms, it is no wonder that he did not believe in using the sights on the pistol.  Coupled with a total lack of hand-held lighting sources during the early 20th century, techniques had to be adopted that worked with no reference to the sights, as they were not visually perceptible.  It is no wonder he adopted the close-range technique of point shooting.  Raising the entire pistol to eye level is much easier to see in the dark than the small sights of the 1911 pistol of the time. 

In terms of training, Fairbairn lays it all out in his book.  He was training unskilled recruits, en masse, for a very short duration until they were “qualified” to hit the street. He clearly states that the semi-automatic pistol should be carried without a round in the chamber.  In order to shoot, the officer must already have the pistol out of the holster, and rack a round to not only chamber live ammunition but also cock the action.  Officers were not even allowed to bring the pistol home, but had to pass the firearm on to the next man coming on shift.  His ideal department included two pistols for every three men.  

Drills took place between two to five yards only.  No shooting was done past five yards.  A “passing” score was four out of six rounds anywhere on a full-size man target at each yard line.  This illustrates that point shooting values speed over accuracy.  However, an interesting development was added to the art of pistolcraft.  Instead of a bladed stance, Fairbairn instructed trainees to square up to the target, and slightly crouch while they raised the pistol to eye level.  He had observed that under stress, officers tended to get low and face the threatening behavior.  This method differed from earlier techniques in that it is much better suited to not only armed but unarmed combat.  Given Fairbairn’s extensive martial art background, this is one of the earliest examples of blending fighting techniques that work across a spectrum of situations.

The main contribution of point shooting techniques was the emphasis on the squared-up body position.  This is much similar to the isosceles technique taught today, albeit with only one hand rather than two for maximum accuracy and recoil control.   Because of Fairbairn’s reputation and track record of success managing his men in Shanghai, point shooting became the dominant method taught in the US to federal law enforcement and military after WWII.  Point shooting was taught to the British military by Fairbairn and Sykes, and their knowledge was passed on to young US Army LT. Rex Applegate, who passed it on in the US. In fact, point shooting is still taught today in certain agencies, notably the US Border Patrol.

After WWII, pistol training in the US thus became rather dichotomous.  Elements of slow-fire, bullseye shooting and also the point shooting methods advocated by Fairbairn and Sykes, via Rex Applegate dominated the landscape. The FBI managed to take the worst of the two methods that on one hand had nothing to do with combat, and on the other nothing to do with accuracy. 


Back to Sighted Fire, with a Twist

During the 1950s and 1960s, a different method of pistolcraft emerged.  Its emphasis was on two-handed, sighted fire.  Given the availability of quality, high visibility sights for the 1911 pistol, as well as a non-bullseye stance, a new technique was born.  Forged in the Bear Valley of California, Jeff Cooper’s Leather Slap matches changed pistolcraft permanently.   Its echoes are still felt today.  Cooper managed to attract and compete with the best shooters willing to adopt, stylize, and promote the new technique of aimed, two-handed, sighted fire, at speed!  Men such as Jack Weaver, Ray Chapman, Thell Reed, Bruce Nelson, Leonard Knight, John Plahn, and Al Nichols proved the superiority of two-handed, sighted fire over the traditional, one-handed, bullseye and point shooting methods.  A young pistol shooter, Ken Hackathorne began shooting and writing about the method.  Chances are, he would meet and convert another young man--Bill Rogers--who had been indoctrinated into point shooting, to the two-handed method of aimed fire. 

Bill Rogers was a young FBI agent thoroughly taught in the art of point shooting.  In fact, he had achieved the highly-coveted “possible,” a 250 out of 250 points on the FBI Practical Pistol Course.  In short, Bill was one of the top shots in the entire FBI.  His perspective changed when Ken Hackathorne shot against him and demonstrated the superiority of two-handed, aimed, fire against targets at various distances.  Bill saw that sighted fire was superior to point shooting.  He was so convinced that he demonstrated the vast difference of sighted fire vs. point shooting during a presentation to the FBI firearms training unit.  In 1980, he shot against Rollie Swanson, the FBI’s champion point shooter.  The difference in time and accuracy between sighted fire and point shooting was not even close, Bill having resoundingly bested Swanson at his own range. Bill Rogers was largely responsible for helping  to convert the FBI’s point shooting program to one of aimed, sighted fire at speed.  Bill currently runs one of the most respected shooting schools in the world, with students capable of reaction time speeds using the sights to hit partially exposed targets from contact to 25 yards.  Most targets are exposed for less than a second, and many for half that time.  The targets are head size, and they move.  Speed and accuracy need not be mutually exclusive.  If we can use the sights at the same, or even better speed than point shooting, why would anyone choose unverified shots over guaranteed hits, especially at closer distances?

In addition, statistics prove that many gunfights take place outside of the five-yard envelope.  A study by the Police Marksman Association found that among officers that won gunfights, the average distance was seven yards, with hits over 60% of the time!  That hit percentage was during deadly force, not a range where a target stood still waiting to be hit anywhere from head to toe.  What is more convincing is that officers in the study remembered seeing their sights clearly and on target.  Compare that to point shooting accuracy. 

Point shooting training required only 4 out of 6 hits anywhere on the body to pass the standard.  Given that pistol rounds need to be placed into the central nervous system to guarantee immediate incapacitation of a violent criminal, the accuracy standard of point shooting was generous at best, and ineffective at worst.  The originators of point shooting thought that a hit anywhere on the body was acceptable, when in fact medical proof demonstrates that only a hit to the center upper chest hitting the spinal cord or brain stem is effective.  Point shooting was never meant to hit accurately.  It was designed to hit a man anywhere on the body, with speed rather than accuracy the standard.  Modern proponents of point shooting claim success in that their students can be taught quickly to hit an extremely generous upper chest area at distances of less than 20 feet.  No head shots are required.  Their targets are overly generous for the upper vitals and central nervous system.  Little to no accuracy is required.  That is not success.  That is firing rapidly in an ineffective capacity.  

Aimed fire is no slower than point shooting, yet provides far more accuracy, especially at distance, or with partially exposed targets such as a hostage.  When executed at speed, sighted fire is capable of head shots at ten yards in half of one second. Try that with point shooting. You will be very luck indeed if you hit the head one out of ten times. With practice, this shooter has drawn from concealment, verified the sights on target, and hit three spine box hits at three yards in 1.15 seconds.  That is three central nervous system hits in just over one second, from concealment.  A slow string of that drill is 1.4 seconds, on a very bad day. 

Point shooting cannot achieve that guaranteed level of accuracy in such a short amount of time.  The accuracy is guaranteed because the sights were on target each and every shot, and confirmed by the shooter.  We use the sights to verify alignment of the muzzle with the target, not achieve it.  With proper repetitions, the muzzle will be aligned with the target at any distance, with the sights simply providing last-instant verification. 

Jeff Cooper called the front sight the green light, and green means go, right now!  Time is our most precious commodity during a gunfight.  Misses take up the most time during a gunfight. You do have time to verify alignment, you do not have time miss. If you cannot see the sights, you do not have the latest information as to where your rounds went.  Take the time to verify alignment.  Pay attention to your shooting during your practice and gunfight and you will hit your intended mark.  If you practice with your pistol to verify the sights each and every time, your muzzle will subconsciously be aligned with the target.  Sighted fire may degrade to point shooting, but point shooting will never upgrade to sighted fire. 

A scenario:  The most important person in your life is held hostage in your hallway.  The criminal has a knife to the throat of the person you care most about in this life.  You must take the shot, or their death will surely happen before the police arrive.  What are you going to do?  Are you going to take the gamble and point shoot?  Or are you going to KNOW where the shot will go using your front sight?  I hope you get the point, pun very much intended.