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Target Focus Versus Sight Focus: Chances Are, You’re Doing It Wrong

If you don’t know whether you’re ready to learn target focused shooting, then you’re probably not. A more quantitative measure would be whether you can consistently keyhole (shooting the same spot such that the bullet holes are touching) a target at 3 to 5 yards and/or reliably hit an 8-inch circle at 15 yards. 

These are general standards, but a good measure. Only after someone has developed good aiming fundamentals, can they learn to shoot accurately while focusing on the target. You can’t run before you can walk.

The objective of combat marksmanship is to shoot fast and accurately. “Fast” meaning how quickly you can place your first shot on target, and how rapidly you can apply follow-up shots. “Accurately” is relative to distance, threat size, and threat orientation.


As with many things, combat accuracy is contextual, and there are circumstances when a shot to an extremity would be effective. 

To clarify further, there may be instances when taking multiple shots that all contact somewhere on the threat’s body may be better than taking one well-placed shot to the head that may take longer — especially when you can still follow up with the chest or head. Loud noises and putting holes anywhere in a threat can enable you to gain fire superiority, giving you time to take more precise shots.

Sights are merely a tool, and how you use them is situation-dependent (or should be). The same applies to optics and lasers. There are distances where you don’t even need to use your sights with appropriate training. 

It’s possible to remove the sights from a Glock and maintain speed and combat accuracy within 10 yards by just using the slide corners as your “sights.” I don’t suggest this be your primary aiming method — the point being that sights are just a tool that make it easier to align your weapon with where you want the bullet to go.

This article isn’t a discussion on kinesthetic shooting. When I say “target focus,” I’m still using my sights. However, within certain ranges, it’s very possible with training to get good hits on a target without even fully presenting your weapon or using your sights. You might say that point shooting is inaccurate. The problem with this claim is that it depends on what you mean by “inaccurate.”

If you mean that point shooting is inaccurate at over 15 yards, I’d agree, barring someone who trains to this standard. However, if you mean inaccurate within 1 yard, I disagree and could just as easily make the broad claim that iron sights are inaccurate, and I’d be both correct and incorrect. This claim is dependent on five factors: firearm, target, distance, time, and training.

I’d argue that sight focused shooting and target focused shooting are two different methods for using the same tool. 

For anyone who would argue that changing your aiming methods is a bad idea, I’d ask to hear their thoughts on low power variable optics (LPVO), offset red dots, IR lasers with NVGs, shooting from retention, or any other method that deviates from front sight focus or natural point of aim. Each of these tools and aiming methods has advantages and disadvantages depending on the application.

During a deadly force encounter, it’s likely most people will focus on the threat, not on their sights. Notice how I said “likely,” because it is quite possible to overcome this with training.

Most firearms training is performed on static targets that visually contrast well with their foreground and background. The target doesn’t move behind cover and doesn’t elevate or lower its threat condition.

The problem when shooting at a living threat is that they have just as much will to live as you do, baring instances of suicide by cop. They’ll move behind and around cover and concealment, all while potentially escalating or de-escalating their threat condition.

Maintaining a hard focus on the front sight during this scenario prevents you from being able to obtain accurate information on the threat. You can’t see if they’re moving in and out of cover. It’s difficult to distinguish them from the foreground and background. Moreover, if you’re focusing on your front sight while preparing to take a shot, you cannot honestly say that the threat wasn’t in the process of surrendering.

Another issue with sight focused shooting under certain contexts is the time it takes to shift our focal plane from a threat to the sights. This would most likely apply to a law enforcement scenario with an armed suspect who police have their weapons trained on.

Hopefully the officers would have reflex (red dot) optics and wouldn’t need to worry about looking at their sights. However, most officers have handguns and patrol rifles with factory iron sights.

Consider the scenario where officers need to aim their weapons at a suspect with a gun or knife. It would be important they know how to obtain a proper sight picture while maintaining a focus on the suspect.

I had little luck finding data on how long it takes the average healthy human eye to shift focal points. However, in my estimation of my own eyes, it takes about 0.5 to 1 second to shift my focus from a target to the sights. 

This timing is largely dependent on lighting and target distance. One second is a very long time under a high-stakes scenario such as the one described above.

Not only do you have to account for the time it takes the eye to shift but also the average reaction time of 0.25 second for visual stimuli.

Sight focus point of view for right eye dominant. Left eye dominant would be aiming at the “left” target.
Target Focus Point of View for right eye dominant. Left eye dominant shooter would be using the “right” gun.


I’m not a defense attorney. However, if I were representing a client who had been shot by the police, one of my lines of questioning for the officer would be as follows:

“Is it true that you are trained to focus on your front sight post when firing your weapon?”

The officer’s response should be, “yes.”

“Were you looking at my client or your front sight when you shot him?”

Regardless of the officer’s response, he’s in a bad spot (unless he was running a red-dot optic).

If the officer states that he was looking at his front sight post, I would then ask, “How were you able to identify that my client was still a threat when you fired your weapon?”

However, if he says he was looking at my client, I would then ask, “Why weren’t you operating your weapon according to how you were trained?”

Food for thought.


I would venture to say that some shooters are already practicing target focused shooting without realizing it. Some because they were never taught the fundamentals of marksmanship, and others because they naturally started focusing on the target as their proficiency grew.

Photography analogy: Depth of field (DOF) is a photography term that refers to a region where objects are in focus. A shallow DOF results in photographs that have the subject in focus with the fore and background out of focus. An example of shallow DOF is in the first image below. On the other hand, a deep DOF provides great focus of objects over various distances from the camera. The second picture illustrates a deep DOF.

Shallow depth of field example. The depth of field has the deer in focus with the fore and background out of focus. Deep depth of field example. The depth of field allows for the objects both close and far to be in focus.

The human eye functions similarly. We have a DOF that’s dependent on distance, lighting, age, and other variables unique to each person. Depending on the application, this DOF may or may not be acceptable for target focus shooting.

When you performed the exercise above, your thumb was probably still within an acceptable DOF. You were probably able to make out the details of your thumb, even though your eyes were focused and converged on the target. If so, this DOF would be perfectly acceptable for aligning your front and rear sights while looking through them.

I do not know what the exact DOF is needed for target focused shooting. This depends on the shooter’s eyes and context (lighting and distance).

Target focused shooting involves looking through, not over, the sights. Do not use target focused shooting until you’re able to apply the fundamentals of front sight focus.

When I aim, my focal point and the convergence point for my eyes are usually on the target. This results in a “soft focus” and a “doubling” of the sights as seen in the previous image. The amount of blur depends on target distance, lighting around the target, and the lighting around me. All of these factors affect my eyes’ acceptable DOF.

Notice how you can confirm my sight picture since the sights form a proper, albeit inverted, sight picture over my right pupil. I often use this method with a plastic, inert training gun to confirm someone is obtaining a proper sight picture.

I have the person aim the blue gun at my right eye. Proper sight alignment has been achieved if I observe the sights are aligned with their pupil. I feel that I have emphasized it enough, but do not use this coaching method with a real gun! 

It is very possible to shoot fast and accurate utilizing threat/target focus. I do it and I personally know many elite shooters who do it. However, there are testimonials from professionals who state that they were looking at their front sight during a deadly force encounter.

Part of me wants to suspect that their memory may be flawed due to the tricks the brain plays on us under stress. However, I will concede that this is possible. Especially considering the findings in the study we will look at later.

Consider you’re offered two pills:

  • A black pill that would grant you the skills to focus on your sights during a deadly force encounter 
  • A red pill that would grant you the skills to focus on the threat

Which would you choose?

All other variables remain constant. You shoot just as fast and just as accurate, regardless of which you choose. The only thing that changes is your focus.

I believe many would choose the red pill. The funny thing is most people already have … it’s called a red-dot optic.

You may be thinking that the black/red pill analogy was a bait and switch, and it kind of was. However, I only use it to drive home this point: target focused shooting can be more advantageous than sight focused shooting, and for these reasons:

  1. No need to overcome the temptation to look at the threat.
  2. No delay due to shifting focus from threat to sights.
  3. Ability to obtain real-time information on what the target is doing. (The target is dynamic, your sights are not.)
  4. Double vision of your sights versus the target. (Again, your sights are static, the threat is dynamic.)


To readers who still believe that crisp front sight focus and eye convergence on the front sight is the only reliable method for shooting a firearm fast and accurately, I offer these questions: 

  1. Do you find it difficult to overcome the urge to look at a target when shooting under the clock, when shooting at a live role-player during force-on-force, or shooting a real threat?
  2. If you use front sight focus and the target is blurry, how are you able to identify what the threat or role-player is doing (moving behind and around cover, or if its threat condition is changing, etc.)?
  3. If you keep your focal point on the target and then transition to front sight focus, how do you do this quickly when at 10 to 15 yards, since there’s a physical limit to how fast your eyes can shift focus?
  4. When shooting with both eyes open, do your eyes converge on the front sight? If so, do you see a doubling effect of the targets/threats along with its surroundings as illustrated in the image above?


For the longest time, I’ve wanted to conduct a study to determine where people actually look during a stressful shooting. I reasoned that there must be some method for using eye-tracking software to track eye convergence while participating in force-on-force scenarios. After some research, I discovered that this study had already been performed.

Professor of Kinesiology, Dr. Joan Vickers performed a study on two groups of police officers: “rookie officers” and “elite officers.” 

Vickers stated in her report that the rookie officers had very little experience, while the elite officers had more experience as police officers as well as working on tactical response teams (read: SWAT). Results reflected no significant time variation in the time it took both sets of officers (rookie and elite) to draw their weapon, aim at the suspect, and shoot the suspect.

In this image, the shooter is looking through the sights with his eyes focusing and converging on the camera lens.

Vickers’ findings revealed that the elite officers kept their focus on the suspect and maintained an average of 75 percent accuracy. While the rookie officers were more likely to use front sight focus and had an average accuracy of 62 percent.

“We found that the rookies, at the very moment when they should have kept their quiet eye on the assailant, made a fast saccade back to the sights on their own gun on 84 percent of trials. This caused them to lose sight of the assailant and they pulled the trigger on many trials when their gaze was off the target completely.”

“Instead of establishing a sight picture with their gaze down on the sights and the target blurred, elite performers run a line of gaze through their sites and maintain a long duration quiet eye focus on the target, whether stationary or moving. This change in attention strategy allows elite athletes and officers to maintain complete visual control over all the events they encounter.”

Mistakes were made …

“More startling, it was also discovered that the rookie officers mistakenly shot the suspect when he was holding a cell phone 65 percent of the time, whereas the elite officers made this mistake 18 percent of the time.”


My hope is that you found this article interesting and educational. I would like to reemphasize that I’m not suggesting there’s no place for front sight focus in shooting.

I definitely believe there are contexts where having a hard front sight focus is advantageous. Furthermore, I believe that it’s imperative that novice shooters understand the fundamentals of sight alignment and sight picture before practicing with target focused shooting. 

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