The 10 Ring on a 50m Free Pistol target is 50mm in diameter and the match is shot offhand. The 10 Ring on a 10m air pistol target is only 10mm in diameter and this is also shot offhand. Although shot prone, when shooting long range Big Bore Handgun Silhouette, ties are broken with shoot-off involving setting up half-scale Chicken, Pig and Turkey targets at 200 metres. The half-scale targets are actually the size of a full size target as they are half the height and half the length. It is not unusual for 3 or 4 of these relatively tiny targets to be knocked over in a shoot-off and this is done with open sights.
Almost 27% of the points in a Service Pistol Match are scored at 50 metres, and precision placement of shots at this distance on a scoring ring that is only 100mm wide will make it or break it an a competition.
Some of the popular practical matches, particularly scenarios, are more focussed on speed rather than accuracy and new shooters who go directly into this type of handgun competition frequently miss out on learning the basic principles of mastering the use of iron sights on handguns.
The above examples of the precision required in some handgun disciplines highlight the importance of sights and sighting with handguns, and understanding these important factors is essential if you want to shoot a handgun accurately.
The first thing to understand is the geometry of using open sights on a pistol. On most pistols used in competition, the average sight radius is around 20cm and may be up to 30+cm on the longer barrelled target pistols used for Free Pistol and Unlimited Silhouette.
Taking the 20cm example as the most common, this means that any sight alignment error by the shooter will be magnified by the distance to the target divided by the sight radius. At 25 metres with the fore mentioned sight radius, this comes out as 2500/20 = 125. So, a 1mm error in sight alignment will become a 125mm move in point of impact at 25 metres.
The effect is even more pronounced in at 200m in Silhouette, where any sight misalignment on a pistol with a 250mm sight radius will be magnified 800 times at 200m.
To completely miss the cardboard at that range, the sight alignment error would have to be several millimetres. For this reason, the pistol shooter's first priority is to maintain focus on the sights and NOT look at the target. Shooters who have come from rifle or shotgun disciplines often find this concept hard to grasp.
Most pistol sights are of the Patridge type, named after the somewhat mysterious E.E.Patridge who developed this type of sight at the end of the 19th Century. The Patridge sight has a square blade and a square, flat bottomed notch. This was a bit of an innovation in the days of the buckhorn and barleycorn sights used on most long-arms in those days.
Target pistol shooting was in its infancy and pistol sights of that era were relatively crude - often nothing more than a notch cut in the top strap of the pistol and a semi-circular blade as a foresight that was designed more for smooth drawing from a holster than aiming at a target..
As illustrated with the 200m Silhouette example above Patridge-type sights are capable of very good precision, but that depends on how the shooter's eyes relate to the front and rear sights, and this relationship is very important. Most of the high-end target pistols now have both adjustable rear sight notches and adjustable (or replaceable) front sights.
From the shooters perspective, the sight picture needs to provide him/her with a clearly defined front sight, uniform light bars on either side of the front sight and a level relationship between the top of the front sight blade and the top of the rear sight notch.
The human eye is pretty clever at centralising things, and even a slight variation in the light bar width on each side of the front sight of fractions of a millimetre off centre are easy to detect.
It would seem logical that the thinner the front sight, the more precise the aiming should be, but this is not the case. Front sight blades that are much less than 3mm in diameter are rarely used these days. In my experience, the thin front sight seem to impose more strain on the eyes, and the longer the match goes on, the harder it seems to get good sight definition.
Same goes for the rear sight notch. If the light bars are very narrow, they become harder to define as shooting progresses and you may experience what is commonly called 'gray-out', where the front sight stops looking black and starts to appear gray and fuzzy, or also may appear to have a shadow of itself on one side.
I have found that a front sight of at least 3mm wide, matched with a rear notch at least 100 thou (2.54mm) and preferable around 115 thou (2.9mm) will give a sight picture tha t does not give anything away in precision while minimising eye fatigue.
Another sight geometry feature with Partidge type sights is the depth of the rear notch. A shallow notch poses similar issues to narrow sights. It gets harder to maintain sight perception where the deeper sight notch lets a lot more light in around the front sight and it seems easier to maintain the sight picture with such a setup. The curious phenomenon with wide front and rear sights is that at times they seem somewhat wider than the target you arc aiming at, yet the precision is not compromised.
Many high-end Free Pistol have relatively wide front sights - often 3.5mm or more, and from the shooter's perspective, the front sight blade looks about as wide as the scoring area on the 50m Precision target with its black aiming area out the to 8-Ring and 50mm 10-Ring.
For a while, target pistol manufacturers like Hammerli produced its rear sights with a U shaped rear notch. The principal behind this is that if the front sight is not centred, one side of the bottom of the U will appear higher tha n the other and technically give the user a better idea of whether the front sight is centred or not. One problem with this arrangement is that it tends to take the shooter's focus of the top of the front sight and incline it towards the bottom of the rear sight notch. These types of sights have now been relegated to history.
Not all matches prescribe open sights. Open classes in IPSC matches allow certain types of optical sights and while conventional glass-based optics were once in the picture, most Open Class shooters use holographic sights or some type of compact reflex sight.
These are very compact and consist of a screen onto which a red dot is projected, that appears to be at infinity.
These sights obviously get around all the sight alignment issues typical of open sights, but have one feature that needs to be mastered. This is finding the red dot. Whe n the pistol is lifted into shooting position, usually in a hurry in competition, if the red dot is not on that little screen, you have a problem. Like all serious competitors, those who use these types of sights do sufficient practice to ensure that they find the dot when the need it.
Another very effective option for precision pistol shooters is the use of aperture sights. Rimfire Silhouette shooters have gone down this track to shoot some of the 50m and 100m Rimfire and centrefire Field Pistol Silhouette matches. The factor that rules aperture sights out for most centrefire calibres is a simple one ... pain.
There is simply too much recoil to allow the pistol to be held close enough to the eye to make the aperture option effective in other than the smaller centrefire calibres like the .22 Hornet. The lighter .22 Rimfire recoil gets around this problem.
Using a 1.5mm diameter rear aperture coupled with a 1.2mm front aperture makes shooting even the smaller metal silhouette targets, or any other appropriate targets, much easier, especially for older eyes. Even if the front aperture is fuzzy, all that needs to be done is to put the target in the middle of the ring and squeeze the trigger.
This type of sight proved so effective in improving scores in International Silhouette competition, the organising body (IHMSU) has changed the rules to ban the use of aperture sights for the Production and Revolver matches and one of the Field Pistol matches.
20 years ago, long eye relief scopes were the precision aiming devices of choice for long range handgunncrs, but the advent of the reflex and holographic sights have virtually put them off the radar these days.
One problem with these LER sights on handguns, particularly if they have any sort of magnification, is image black-out. Their exit pupil (the beam of light that contains the image that reaches the eye) is typically only about 5mm in diameter, and unless this falls right on the shooter's iris, there is no image.
These types of scopes are good for precision I still use LER scopes from time to time for testing handloads in my centrefire target guns, as they help take the guesswork out of testing ammunition that is not always easy to do with open sights.
For pistols with lighter recoil, the use of a conventional rifle scope is a very effective way of getting optimum aiming precision when testing ammunition. Most rifle scopes have an eye relief of around 100mm and this limits their use to cartridges with moderate recoil.
That covers most of the sight issues, but what about sighting? The eyes have it! I come in contact with a large number of pistol shooters in my travels around the competitions, and one of the common subjects for discussion is eyesight, or problems associates with it. Regardless of age and eye condition, the pistol shooter always has to face the fact that it is not possible to get the rear sight, the front sight and the target in focus simultaneously.
Those with spectacles have to decide where they want their optometrist to focus their glasses for shooting. In my area, these are optometrists that cater to shooters and understand the requirements, and encourage you to bring you pistol to your eye test.
The standard requirement is to get the front sight into clear focus and deal with the other focus issues in another way. Most shooters find that the best 'other way' is through the use of an adjustable iris - either as part of a set of specialised shooting glasses like Knobloch's, or single adjustable irises like the Merit that is suction cupped to your shooting glasses.
The theory behind using these irises is the Pinhole Effect. Whe n you look through a 'pinhole', the depth of field of the image is dramatically increased. This is no different on a camera, where reducing the size of the aperture significantly increases the depth of field of the image that will be in focus. A very cheap and effective option that has worked for me, where I have struggled with using conventional prescription lenses, is the use of pinhole glasses.
They are simply a set of aviator style plastic spectacles where the lenses are matte black plastic units with numerous equally spaced holes about 1mm in diameter. Using these in place of conventional spectacles has solved most of my ageing eye sighting problems.
Unlike the single iris Knobloch or Merit systems, the pinhole glasses have so many pinhole options that it is easy to line one up with the sights regardless of your shooting position.
The fact that you can pay a few hundred dollars for Knobloch's or their equivalent, $80 for a Merit or less than $10 for a set of Pinhole glasses is another attractive feature of these sighting aids.
As a final test of evaluating your pistol shooting problems, try shooting ten shots normally from an offhand position at a 25m ISSF bullseye target and measure the size of the group. Then, turn the target around and shoot at the blank white target, aligning the sights at where you normally would if the black scoring rings were visible. I would be very surprised if the group on the blank target is not smaller than that on the front side. Why? Because you have nothing to focus on except the sights - keep that in mind.
It is worth repeating the mantra that is published in the US Army's Marksmanship Training Unit's Pistol Marksmanship guide.
It states: "Align the sights precisely on that part of the target required for your group to centre in the scoring area and cause the hammer to fall without disturbing that sight alignment." Mastering the target handgun is all about the sights.