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PPSC Staff Views

Point Shooting

by Bert DuVernay
Winter 1999

Over the last few years, there has been much discussion of the role of point shooting in defensive handgun training. The late Col. Rex Applegate was instrumental in renewing this discussion. His view was that the shots fired to hits ratio during police gunfights is so low that it proves that sighted shooting is not the answer and that police should be taught to point the firearm without using the sights.

I don't think that there is any doubt that there is a great deal of room for improvement in our hit rates, however we must be careful not to too quickly abandon the concept of sighted shooting without closer examination. Frankly, I think that we are too often asking the wrong questions regarding this issue. The question is not whether one technique is superior or even more reliable than the other. Some departments have attained very high hit rates using sighted fire and the Weaver stance (Anchorage AK PD in particular). The question is which teaching approach achieves the best hit rates for the lowest time investment.

There do appear to be some limitations on what the body is capable of during a sudden confrontation. There is evidence that under the stress of a sudden confrontation the eyes will not be capable of focusing on anything other than distant objects. If that is true, actually using the sights during that type of circumstance is impossible and another way of hitting must be provided the student. There are a lot of isolated reports of people involved in confrontations that are confident that they saw their sights. There are also a great number in which the opposite is true. There are at least two factors which effect these reports.

First, these reports may not be reliable in many circumstances. The chemicals secreted into the bloodstream during life threatening stress impede both perception and memory. A person's recollection may greatly consist of what they think they should have done compared to what they really did. If a person was trained to use the sights and they believe in that approach, their belief may fill in a weak spot in the memory. In other words, under some circumstances, a person is likely to honestly report that they did whatever they think they should have done.

Another is the failure to differentiate between the types of circumstances. It is reasonable to assume that an officer that has had advance notice of the impending fight is more likely to be able to see the sights than an officer that finds himself unexpectedly attacked. Thus, a member of a entry or stake out team, who knows that it is likely that he or she will discharge a firearm is more likely to see the sights than an officer who finds himself attacked while giving a crime prevention talk.

A third factor that applies to not only this issue, but causes problems throughout almost all examinations of gunfights is the lack of a good statistical base. The evidence consists of isolated reports, usually confirming the ideas of the person that quotes them. These type of reports really don't prove much. In order for this type of evidence to be more reliable, it would have to involve a number of gunfights, picked by region, time period or other common factor, and then broken down into the percent that reported seeing the sights versus those that didn't. Of course, the other factors that affect what the participants report still remain.

Whether or not fine motor skills can be used during a deadly confrontation is also far from resolved. Navy and Marine fighter pilots use fine motor skills to land on carriers very successfully and, although I've never done it, I'm told that is both stressful and life threatening. The operation of the plane under combat conditions may be closer to the point, however. In that case, the pilot is using fine motor skills to control the weapon (the airplane) during a fight. Here again, these are not sudden situations but ones that were anticipated before the event.

It seems reasonable to assume that the expectation of a fight is one of the main issues involved in whether or not the person involved is able to use the sights. One could conclude that one of the most effective ways to use that assumption would be to work on the mental conditioning of the officers so that they expect violent resistance. That is not to say that officers should treat citizens in a rough or disrespectful manner, but just that during the course of their normal duties, they should expect that, sooner or later, someone will attack them with a weapon. It is not an unreasonable assumption. If we learn to expect the attack, we will not be surprised when it happens and be able to react appropriately. This is not an original idea. It is essentially the same mental conditioning that has been taught by Jeff Cooper for years. It may be that a good part of the answer to this entire controversy lies here, not with the adoption of a particular shooting style or aiming technique.

However, even if we assume that good mental conditioning is in place, there will still be some totally unexpected confrontations. If the eyes cannot focus on the sights under those circumstances, we must provide our students with tools that will help them solve the problem. It would appear that shooting (hitting) without the conscious use of the sights must be one of the tools in the toolbox.

Steve Barron and Clyde Beasley of Hocking College, Nelsonville, Ohio, were instructed by COL Applegate in his method of shooting several years ago. I have known Steve and Clyde for many years and their background as "sighted" shooters is as firm as anyone's. They came back from Applegate's training convinced that they had found a better way to instruct police recruits and have been using those techniques in Ohio Peace Officer Training Council basic police classes ever since. Two accomplished shooters and instructors, Sgt. Dan Keuhn and Tpr.(ret.) Mike Stamm of the Michigan State Police trained with Steve a few weeks ago and also acknowledge the value of the technique for efficiently teaching beginners to get fast hits at short distances.

Even Gunsite under Jeff Cooper acknowledged the validity of point shooting under low light conditions. When I attended the API250 course there, I was taught that when the light level is too low to see the sights, hits can be made through the muscle memory obtained by aligning the sights when visible. I was taught the same thing by John Farnam and when I came to S&W Academy, found that the same thing was taught here. We continue to teach that approach.

Applegate was quite adamant that the gun should be brought to eye level even when not consciously aligning the sights. When you compare that to Jim Cirello's alternative sighting technique of aligning (squaring) the silhouette of the pistol slide on an opponent, one has to wonder if Applegate wasn't subconsciously doing a little of that himself.

Let's take this a step further. When I consider the varying approaches of Cooper, Cirello and Applegate, I see considerable overlap in technique. Cooper uses "pointed" fire only when the eyes cannot discern the sights. In essence, for Cooper, "sighted" fire is the primary technique, while "pointed" fire is the secondary technique.

Applegate advocated "sighted" fire at greater distances. In essence, for Applegate, "pointed" fire is the primary technique, while "sighted" fire is the secondary technique.

Cirello, famous for his "alternative sighting" techniques, vividly told a class at the 1998 ASLET conference in Mobile how he saw the front sight of his model 10 during a fight that arose from a stake-out.

It is my belief that the differences in language used are far greater than the differences in the techniques employed. All these respected individuals are doing very nearly the same thing, but choose very different ways of thinking about what they do, so they describe it very differently.

So it seems that both approaches have some merit. What remains to be determined is which "primary" technique turns out people most capable of defending themselves in the shortest period of time. Either due to stress or low light, it seems to be certain that often the sights will not be visible during the fight, so some way of hitting under those circumstances must be provided.

Before we can evaluate methods of hitting without the sights, we must decide what we expect from them. My criteria is that a shooting technique must provide the greatest number of students the ability to keep the vast majority of their hits in an 8 inch circle at 10 feet. The technique must not produce more misses of the torso than sighted techniques.

I arrived at the first standard because the primary reliable means of incapacitation from handgun rounds is to drop the blood pressure to the point that the person cannot maintain consciousness. This is the one thing that all antagonists in the stopping power debates agree upon. To do that you have to destroy the cardiovascular system, which requires that the greatest number of shots hit the heart region, about 8 inches in diameter (some would even say that is an optimistic estimate).

Roughly 75% of our gunfights occur at 10 feet or less. Taken together, those two facts require that our students be able to reliably hit an 8 inch circle, quickly, at 10 feet, if they are to survive the statistically likely gunfight.

It is our sworn duty to protect the public, not to endanger it. If a technique under consideration results in a greater number of rounds passing, rather than striking, our opponent it should be rejected. The status quo in that regard is bad enough, we should not accept anything that worsens it.

Most of the video and photographic records of targets shot with point shooting techniques that I have seen do not indicate this standard of marksmanship. To teach students a technique that will not give them the necessary skill to survive a gunfight does them no service. Granted that many officers trained with sighted techniques can't do this either, but changing the teaching technique utilized, without strong indication of some benefit is a waste of time.

That isn't to say that the desired standard of accuracy can't be obtained with point shooting techniques. The simple fact of the matter is that we really don't know which technique is best, even though we (firearms instructors as a whole) don't hesitate to express our views with nearly religious fervor. Until we learn to stop arguing and start testing, we probably never will.