See target, engage

     When it comes to launching bullets under extreme stress, there are two major schools that debate the qualities of their platform. One advocates point shooting, the other advocates aligning the sights before pressing the trigger. In reality both are necessary skills for the law enforcement official facing a close quarter battle.

     In the school of point shooting, the shooter is taught to shoot without using sights. This skill is usually credited to Col. Rex Applegate, who was influenced by W. E. Fairbairn's and E.A. Sykes' techniques for close combat shooting.

     Applegate was a close quarter combat expert who trained allied forces during World War II. Fairburn and Sykes worked for the Shanghai Municipal Police between World War I and World War II, and both men were recorded in more than 200 close quarter confrontations.

     Point shooting is a product of real-life experiences of close quarter encounters using the knife and gun. It accounts for the instinctive crouching that people assume when shooting under high stress. Advocates of the method know that aligning the sights takes time and quick, efficient fighters tend to prevail.

     Other schools which teach combat shooting usually have students place their front sight on the target and engage, combining three elements of shooting: platform, trigger control and sight alignment/sight picture.

     Arguably, point shooting sounds a lot simpler than it is. But in actuality it requires knowledge of body mechanics, careful firearm selection and plenty of practice. And, it is not a universal concept. To some, it means firing from the hip, just as the gun clears the holster. To others, it means getting the gun up to the sighting plane (the imaginary area fixed between the eyes and the target) and firing.

     Fairburn and Sykes originally intended the concept of point shooting to be relative. If the target is close and quick, a hip shot is the answer. The transition continues to raising the firearm to the centerline of the shooter, until the firearm is in the sighting plane.

     Going back to our dilemma on which is better, the extreme end of the continuum is aimed, sighted fire. Point shooting from the hip is the fastest, but theoretically the least accurate method, followed by point shooting in the sighting plane, then "picking up the front sight," and lastly, deliberate aimed fire. In order for officers to prevail in a firefight, they should be proficient in all of these.

     The greatest limitation to point shooting in law enforcement will always be policy and liability. In areas where point shooting training has prevailed, the severe liability of a missed shot was never followed by a platoon of attorneys eager to empty the local government coffers. Any victim of the errant shot will easily win the lawsuit lottery with aimed fire. The agency with a training policy for un-aimed fire would be entitled to the mother of lawsuit jackpots.

     Realistically, if the close quarters shooting scenario is recognized for what it is, all combat shooting is really sighted shooting. The close quarters use of sights is body indexing based, using the eyes and gun position, not the eyes and alignment of the sights.

     Officers can train in point shooting, provided it is the policy to understand that the shooting is situation-driven. First, it must be recognized that precision and accuracy is relative. A timely, somewhat accurate shot will always beat an aimed target accurate shot in a combat zone.

Changes in distance

     As distance increases, other factors change. The shooter who would surely land a bullet in a clinch has a lesser hit probability from farther away. Distance also increases the potential for reactionary gap. Thus, the need for aimed fire increases as distance increases, and the potential for point shooting accuracy decreases as distance increases. The continuum is three dimensional. The "degree of emergency" or threat level has to be factored in. Thus, the equation is not distance driven, although distance is a factor.

Target focus considerations

     In order to train for close quarters shooting, officers must learn several aspects of their own limitations: How accurately they can point shoot, how quickly they can pick up the front sight, and where, in their own skill level, these factors overlap.

     It is unreasonable to allow shooters to train point shooting engagements at 15 yards. It is also unreasonable to train "slow fire" techniques at targets one can touch. If trainers are writing this into the training plan, the language should be "… distance reasonable to the degree and nature of threat …"

     The first skill to learn is target focus. Officers must see the threat and learn to concentrate on the area in which a bullet would most likely stop it. Officers must literally look at this area.

     Target focus is a powerful window to the subconscious. That is, a person's subconscious driven skill is much greater than his or her deliberate engagement. Occasionally, this manifests itself in the form of actual incidents where the shooter sees the greatest threat and shoots it. In rare occasions, people have shot the gun out of an assailant's hand. Regardless of how the shooter trains, target focus should be the primary goal.

Indexing the body

     When startled or threatened, the shooter will assume a crouched position. This Fairburn/Sykes observation led to training soldiers to shoot from the crouched position. Applegate's writings actually had the shooter take a step toward the assailant, thus indexing the body.

     Practicing in a crouch should encourage the handgun to the centerline of the body, from the point where it leaves the holster to its extension to the target. The timing of the threat dictates where in this plane the shooter will fire.

     Trainers should first have officers establish their natural point of aim. The natural point of aim is where the body will command the bullet if the eyes are closed. In fact, shooters test the natural point of aim by closing their eyes and assuming a good shooting index. After settling in this position, the shooter points at the target in their mind and opens his eyes. The index of the body will indicate the natural point of aim. Knowing where the body indexes will indicate where the body will command the bullet naturally.

     Most shooters in a crouch position will establish a natural point of aim, which puts the prominent hip bones more or less parallel to the target, so the hips form an isosceles triangle to the greatest threat, regardless of where the feet lay.

Choosing the right equipment

     If the gun can be brought to the sighting plane, the shooter must be able to "pick up" the front sight as it enters the plane. If time allows, the front and rear sight alignment should be consummated. The shooter should always focus on the target. The gun is brought to the line between the eyes and target, not the other way around.

     There are products out there specifically designed to convince the brain to "make sense" of the sight picture. Foremost is the Advantage Tactical Sight, which causes the shooter to align the handgun by completing a picture, with the tip of the picture on the target. This product encourages the brain to draw on the subconscious' desire (which is faster than conscious thought) to assemble patterns, like putting a puzzle together.

     The user's skeleton and muscles must maintain their alignment, especially the wrist. Range practice should include drills where the shooter maintains continual visual contact with a specific area of the target and a barrel parallel to the ground shortly after it clears the holster.

     The equipment that will give the most advantage here is the handgun itself. The better the gun's ergonomics, the better its "pointability." Applegate taught one-handed shooting that used the non-firing hand for balance. The goal of close quarter shooting should be aimed, two-handed fire with all other methods leading up to this goal. Guns that point will sit level in the hand when thrust toward the target. This will not always be the same gun for every shooter. It will depend a lot on the backstrap design and the size and shape of the hand.

     Manufacturers recognize the need for fight-winning ergonomics in their designs. If we were to recommend an agency-wide purchase for fight-winning handguns, it would be something with a replaceable backstrap such as FNH USA's FNP Series. This product line has a 9mm (FNP 9), .40 (FNP 40) and a .45 ( FNP 45) with user replaceable backstraps and an ergonomic design that places the web of the hand very close to the axis of the bore.

     The backstrap is the area on the rear of the pistol grip where it contacts the palm. On the FNP model line, one can change the gun's pointing characteristics to suit the user. Our experience with the FNP 9 is that it fits a variety of shooters and is easy to get into the fight.

     Training to prevail in close quarters requires repeated dry fire drills where officers start out slowly with draw and shoot drills toward muscle memory. As gun manipulation skills improve, training live fire with a Pact timer is added. If it is a training day on the range, officers should shoot against the Pact timer in friendly competition. The drills should be simple. Officers can compete to see who can empty a magazine of A zone hits at a 3-yard target.

     The debate about point shooting versus aimed fire will always be fueled by new statistics and incidents. The important thing is to keep the debate alive — both have their place and officers should always practice to see the target and engage.

     Lindsey Bertomen is a retired police officer who teaches Administration of Justice at Hartnell College in Salinas, California.