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During my first trips to the pistol range, the number one question I would ask myself when aiming was “What should I be seeing here?”

One of the most widespread mistakes in handgun shooting is the misinterpretation of the “front sight” mantra. New shooters may hear this and, as a result, narrow their visual plane towards the front sight and nothing else. If a shooter constantly sees the same hard-focus sight picture on every target and at every range, they will unquestionably be accurate, but they’ll also lack a balance in accuracy and speed.

To learn what to see, try taking the same-sized target and engage it from ranges beginning at 3 to 5 yards for a close-range shot, 15 to 20 yards for an intermediate-range shot and 35 to 50 yards for a long shot. Learn to look at the target, then pick up the sights as you drive forward during the presentation. When up close, I barely use my sights. Intermediate ranges will require more attention, but not to the point where a target “blurs.” At long ranges, I see a refined sight picture with detail on the front sight blade. This general rule applies to a target size similar to a wide-open A-zone on an IPSC Metric target. However, if you change the target size, the sight detail changes, too.

Push Yourself

In my early days at the range, I rarely used bullseye targets for handgun shooting. Instead, I used a plain, 8.5-by-11-inch sheet of white office paper. At 21 feet, I would engage both plain white paper and some with hand-drawn, 2-by-4-inch rectangles. I would then try the same at 75 feet. After that, I would stagger several targets in 5- to 7-yard intervals and move the pistol in various engagement sequences. Drills like this taught me how to attain the right balance of accuracy and speed using my visual skills. Knowing when I need more or less sight to make a good hit soon became natural.

When shooting for accuracy and speed, avoid looking for the scoring perforations on paper targets. Know where the biggest part of the A-zone is and present to it. On 8-inch steel plates, which are usually further than 10 yards away, I always center the sight to give me the best chance to make a hit. I want the most area to float the sights before pulling the trigger. Increase the plate size to 10 or 12 inches and there is only a slight change in what I am seeing.

On the range, you should constantly test your limits to reach new heights. This is why I caution against setting par times that are too generous for a given ability. In terms of sight use, if you don’t challenge yourself as a shooter, you will not learn when enough is enough.

There are times when I experiment on the range with obtaining sight pictures—going from marginal to attentive, and sometimes those that are excessive. The difference between a sloppy attempt and one where you see everything is typically one-tenth of a second. Even knowing that, however, it is easy to get away from doing the right thing—being visual—when you get into “push modes” or begin taking chances to try and get ahead. I never lost a match because I was not quick enough on my feet or fast enough moving the gun from place to place, but I have lost plenty as a result of not seeing enough.

Eye Dominance

Find your dominant eye and use this to aim. It does not matter that much whether you are strong-side or cross-dominant. I am right-handed but left-eye dominant. I never made a big deal out of it, and I could never figure out if being strong-side dominant would ever change my results. But it’s really simple: Align the sights in front of the dominant eye when you shoot. The extra distance to get it aligned with a non-dominant eye will not make a difference.

It may take some practice for new shooters, but try to shoot with both eyes open. The best shooters always do, and for good reason. A wide range of visibility is the key to picking up the target and sights faster, especially when making wide transitions. Sometimes you may feel it necessary to shut one eye to “thread the needle,” such as when you have another object in between you and the shot that interferes with your visual path.

Before the draw, keep your eyes on target or keep your head up, looking for a target if it is obscured. Avoid looking downward when it is not necessary. Once the shooting begins, trust that your follow-through was good on the close shots and watch the sights lift when you need the sights, but always keep your eyes moving to the next target. Another common mistake is hesitating to watch for holes or for steel plates to fall or be struck. The longer you wait to move your eyes, the more time it takes to find the next target, reel the sights in and make the shot. Failing to lead with your eyes can also cause you to stop short or over-swing a target.

When performing a magazine change, here is the visual sequence: Call the shot, see the sight lift and follow-through, move your eyes to the bottom of the grip as you locate a new magazine, and then look back at the target while loading the magazine and presenting the pistol again. I do not keep looking at the target during the entire reload sequence. I believe it is best to ensure that the gun is still functional and watch what I am doing. If something were ever wrong with the pistol (such as an out-of-battery condition after the final shot before the load), I’d have a better chance of noticing it and making corrections.

Get Focused

Attention to detail means everything—especially visibility on the range. Before shooting a stage in competition, one of the first things you should do is note the lighting. Even on sunny days, you could enter a pit with shade or dark areas—then it is time to consider switching out from dark lenses to less-tinted or clear glasses. Dark areas mean less visibility when trying to read your sights. I like to keep both a clear and shaded set of eye protection at my disposal. Today’s higher quality eyewear features interchangeable lenses, but it is still good to have two complete sets with extra lenses. There will be situations when you are pressed for time and it is easier with a second pair. For this reason, I carry two pairs of eyewear—for efficiency and insurance, in case one set is damaged.

Remember that practical accuracy is separate from extreme precision. What you see and how you pull the trigger are riding on factors ranging from scoring system to target size and target distance. In time, the visual change-up will happen instinctively. With enough repetitions, you will know what to see to make a given shot once the pistol is presented to the target.

In conclusion, I want to stress the importance of paying attention to everything visual: lighting, target size, target color, target distance and what may change visually once you swing the pistol from one target to the next. Avoid the pressure to shoot faster when listening to a cadence of high-level shooters on the range or in your squad. Cadence kills! Shoot when you see—not because you feel like you should have made the shot already. The first step towards making a good shot is dependent on vision and nothing else.

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