Acceptable Sight Picture

As rifle shooters, it is normal for us to be focused on group size and hitting bulls’ eyes- group size because it means we have an impressive rifle, and bulls eyes, well, because it’s the middle of the circle, where our eyes are naturally drawn.  It’s ingrained into our culture, good or bad.

What’s hard to get the hang of is taking an “acceptable” shot to get a hit under time constraints.  If all you do is practice taking perfect shots under perfect conditions (do you go to the range in the rain, wind, snow, etc…?), with all the time you need, being in a hurry with a less than perfect position is likely to result in a miss.  Misses are bad.  What we need to do is become accustomed to the idea that a shot that hits the part of the target we need to hit is good enough. 
IPSC shooters know exactly what I’m talking about.  Their game comes down to points divided by time.  You want a lot of points and a little elapsed time.  The “A” zone on the humanoid target (USPSA Metric Target) measures about 6”x11”.  An “A” zone hit is worth 5 points.  It makes no difference at all whether you hit the dead center of the “A” zone or just touch the edge.  The whole thing is 5 points.  That means if you index the firearm on the target, and the sights are slightly misaligned, but in your experience will still put the bullet in the “A” zone, you should press the trigger and roll on.  Note the implication that you have deliberately practiced at some point with varying degrees of misaligned sights and therefore know how to interpret what you see.
If your goal is to hit steel, then any hit on the steel is a hit.  Hitting the center of the steel might be nice, but is it worth anything in a Steel Challenge match?  No.  It’s only worth the extra time and effort if you define it as being worth it.  If your goal is to hit an animal’s vital zone, then theoretically any hit there should do the job. 
If your goal is to score 250 on an AQT, all you need to do is make sure that every shot lands in the “5” zone (easier said [or imagined] than done).  In standing there’s a ton of leeway.  Somewhere in the vicinity of the center of the target will do.  In sitting, you can get away with a bit of imperfection and still get all 5’s if you don’t get crazy.  In rapid fire prone you better have each sight picture looking pretty much the same every time, but there is a little wiggle room side to side on the bottom and up and down in the middle.  On the slow fire prone, you need to have the darn thing just about perfect.  For the record, I don’t think I’ve ever cleaned stages 2 or 3 yet.  Yet!
If you’re shooting a hostage taker holding a gun to a hostage, forget darn near, it just has to be perfect, regardless of what the target is doing, how far it is, how you feel, or what the time constraint is.  Everything comes down to one moment in time, one perfect sight picture, and one flawless trigger press.
Hopefully this illustrates that an acceptable sight picture varies on the specific target and that there are different levels of skill and focus required to get that hit.  In Brian Enos’ classic work on pistol shooting, Practical Shooting: Beyond Fundamentals, he discusses the types of shooting focus necessary to hit targets of various sizes at various ranges (pp. 64-73).  He identifies 5 types of shooting focuses, type 1 being “extreme high speed shooting”, and type 5 being “anytime a shot is considered extremely difficult” (65).  He discusses specifically what he needs to see to get a hit at each focus.
I came up with a different take on the shooting focus types.  Instead of describing shooting situations and specific types of targets, let’s just think of them in terms of apparent size with an angular measurement that we should all be used to by now, the minute, aka MOA.

Focus Types:

1.    Point shooting (~60 moa)
2.    Snapshooting (≥ 12 MOA)
3.    Quick but deliberate aimed fire: offhand to kneeling (~8-12 MOA)
4.    Deliberate aimed fire: rice paddy prone, seated, improvised support (~4-8 MOA)
5.    Careful aimed fire: prone, seated, improvised support (~2-4 MOA)
6.    Precise shooting, prone with rest (≤ 2 MOA)

The numbers above represent, to me, what a reasonably “dialed-in” shooter should be capable of.  Some of them (Type 1 and 2) represent to me what I probably could do if I could get to the range.  Most of the others are well within my holding capability as far as group size is concerned, although group location may still need some work. 

Ideally you would have enough time to get in the steadiest position possible regardless of the target size.  Since ideal situations are not often encountered, this system should give you an idea of not only the appropriate way to engage your target in the shortest amount of time based on the size, and therefore difficulty of the target, but  also of your limitations, i.e., what targets would be more prudent not to take a shot on.  You might be wondering how you’re going to figure out the angular size of the target within the allotted time.  You should practice enough that you don’t have to think about it.  

Type 1 Focus:
Point shooting is not universally accepted as a valid tool.  It is definitely a compromise in comparison with sighted fire.  I include it because there is a range of target sizes that if I were to shoulder my rifle with the intent of hitting, I could do so without verifying the sights.  60 MOA is the smallest I would think of doing this with at this time.  60 MOA at 10 yards is about 6.3”.  Maybe with intensive practice I could improve.  Without verifying sight picture, the time from start signal to a shot (a hit) should be easily less than a second.


Type 2 Focus:
I’ve written in detail on multiple occasions about snapshooting.  Keep it under 1.5 seconds.


Type 3 Focus:
Most hunting would likely fall under this category.  Rushed, but not demanding reflex-like speed.  The target is not going to wait for long.  Under 4 seconds.


Type 4 Focus:
Similar to type 3, but demanding just a little bit more steadiness and precision.  Another way to think of it is type 3 with a steadier position.  You’ll need to try your best to achieve NPA, relax and breathe.  A nice compressed trigger press is what you’re looking for, as well as follow through.  It’s all done very quickly.  Add 2 seconds in addition to Type 3 for getting into position for a total of 6 seconds.


Type 5 Focus:
You have the initiative.  Your target is probably not going anywhere in a hurry and is probably sufficiently far away that a.) you aren’t likely to be detected, and b.) the target is not easy to hit.  If not using a steady rest such as a bipod or bag, the sling will be necessary (in my opinion) for maximum steadiness.  Under 10 seconds.

Type 6 Focus:

A target under 2 MOA is not as easy to hit as it sounds.  Grouping under 2 MOA may not be a big deal, but as I alluded to above, group location can be a little tricky.  Conditions, minor changes in technique, and the “gun gremlins” can cause the zero to drift.  If you could do as Rawhider does, and get the rifle to the range once a week and fire at least one shot, how much more certain of your zero would you be than you are now?  For me, at this point in time, that would be what they call a “game changer”.
Back to type 6 focus, the position has to be just right.  Given any distance, you should be aware of environmental factors.  You want to make sure that your eye relief, head position, scope parallax, etc… are “just so”.  If using a bipod, make sure you load it the same way you always load it.  Your grip should be the same as always.  This is a big consistency game.  You should be very deliberate, and if necessary, follow a repeatable sequence of firing.  If firing a shot for something that matters “for real” you would have liked to already fired at the same distance and under similar conditions recently.  A little traction in the chaos-adding factors in my life would help me greatly in this respect.
I’m not going to put a time limit on Type 6.  In fact, all the times listed may change depending on other factors, but especially with long range shooting the situation will dictate what you need to do beforehand to accomplish a hit.


To sum it up, acceptable sight picture to me means that you see what you need to see to get a hit in as little time as possible, whether it’s a half second on a huge target or 30 seconds on a little target waaayyyyy out there.  



11 thoughts on “Acceptable Sight Picture

  1. Agreed on all points. You sound like you’ve read my book. 😉

    Some quick thoughts:

    1)From type 3 to 6, the Ching sling loop is usable without adding any extra time.

    2)As far as group location, small variations in technique can throw your shots off. I have experienced that tiny changes in how my support hand is positioned around the stock (always jammed up against the swivel and relaxed, but changed more or less sideways around the fore-end) can throw shots off to the side.
    Small changes in cheekweld and eye placement can create parallax errors.

    3) If your zero is always changing, you may have a rifle stock bedding issue. Or, your technique is constantly varying by small amounts in one or more facets, like support hand position on fore-end, cheekweld, or buttstock position in shoulder (which influences cheekweld).

    4)Sufficient practice on targets of different sizes at different distances will teach you the analysis-at-a-glance required to figure out what position and time frame to use for a hit. You start out having to figure out each one step by step, and eventually end up instantly making the right decision. The rifle bounce is a good exercise for this.

    5)Your sight picture tells you about 95% of what you need to know about your shooting (did I send you that list?). Remember what you see for each shot and remember the hit result of that sight picture, and you will teach yourself what is acceptable and what is not.

    6)Once you learn what is acceptable, DON’T SHOOT FASTER THAN YOU CAN GAIN THE ACCEPTABLE SIGHT PICTURE. The acceptable sight picture is the boss of the trigger finger. Wait the extra fraction of a second to be sure of a hit. You can’t miss fast enough to catch up.

    7)Embrace the chaos, because it will never stop embracing you….

    • Thanks Pete.

      I agree with your points. I’ve been wanting to bed that stock for a while. I actually have the Devcon and pillars, it’s just this house project I’ve got going that is the big elephant in my room right now.

      It’s amazing how you can teach your finger to respond directly to the sight picture. It just starts to go when the gettin’s good.

      Embracing the chaos…

    • Rifleslinger, I like the practical orientation of your take on “acceptable sight picture”. It is perhaps more advanced than where my shooting is currently at but I sure like to think about where I am (or should be) headed.

      I particularly like the application of target size in MOA and time-to-take-shot guidelines you have set down. These, along with Cooper’s rifle bounce (Hey Pete!) provide really useful and tangible benchmarks to those of us who are still only a relatively short way down the rifleman’s road.

      Difficult to express how valuable I find this “distillation” of practical (i.e. field)shooting experience. Muchos gracias amigos!


    • Damn! Those “prove you are not a robot” tests you need to pass to publish a comment seem to be getting trickier … Maybe I am a robot…. Nah, a robot could hold his rifle steadier!

    • Jonno, yeah I did…rifle & pistol…and re-wrote it, and re-re-wrote it, ad nauseum about 10 more iterations…about to send it to copyright though, finally.

      Think of your wobble zone in each position in minutes of angle, and that gives you the guidelines to know what position to use to hit a target of given MOA.

      Learn to relax in position, both mind and body. Use the loop sling (RS will have a Ching loop article out soon) and sag into it, let it hold up the rifle for you. Use natural point of aim to keep sights on target without effort. With no effort to hold the rifle up (the loop sling does it), and no effort to keep sights on target(NPA does it), you can go limp and maintain a good sight picture, which is the steadiest place to be.

    • Cheers Pete – this is the sort of stuff I practice – really enjoy using a shooting sling and am getting faster with finding my NPA (but still slow). Trust you will let us know when the book comes out (and how to get a copy)?

      RS – I’m not really worried about the robot detector (I just had it fail me the other day because I couldn’t decide which mishapen letter I was supposed to choose) 🙂

    • Jonno, if I ever get it sold and published, you guys here will be among the first to know! I’ll send you a copy if necessary, from my secret Cheyenne Mountain bunker in the back broom closet of NORAD.

    • I’d be keen mate! I don’t know much about anything but gather that the world of publishing can be a real basterd. Best of luck!

  2. So Colorado Pete,when you say “think of your wobble area in MOA” you mean that we should go out and test how many minutes we shoot in various positions at different ranges? 🙂

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *