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The role of vision in officer-involved shootings

There seems to be a lot of debate these days about which sighting techniques are appropriate for lethal force or defensive shooting applications. Much of this comes from an incomplete understanding of what has been proven to actually work under stress conditions.

In traditional shooting training, one is taught to focus on the front sight, keep it centered in the rear notch and let the rear sight and target become blurred as we press the trigger without unduly disturbing the sight alignment or sight picture.

Under deadly-force, close-range shooting conditions, it becomes increasingly difficult to gain a true target focus on the front sight. Some folks have simply switched to point shooting, which relies on a kinesthetic alignment of the weapon with the target with vision helping to “steer” the gun on target.

The trouble with point shooting is that there are other physical processes that can interfere with getting good, fight-stopping hits. What can be done on the range, without duress, may be quite different than what can be obtained under gunfight conditions.

Peripheral Vision Shooting or “Soft Focus” Sighting
“Soft focus” or “peripheral vision shooting” is part of sighted fire systems where we see the sight or sights without directly focusing with a hard focus on the front sight itself. Soft focus shooting is sometimes called “Target Focus.” This is a misnomer. What you need to see at very close ranges to make a good centerline hit is different from what you need to see at five to seven yards. What you need to both feel and see for a precise hit on the centerline of the body is different from throwing a bullet somewhere on the body.

What this means is that you will need to come back toward the front sight and sight alignment to be able to see what you need to see to make the hit.

To shoot well with this type of focus at speed, you must be able to hold the sights aligned by feel (kinesthetic awareness) as you shoot and be able to process what you are seeing without looking at it with a hard focus.

Soft focus shooting techniques have been used since firearms were first invented and were used in archery long before that. With the advent of high-speed competitive shooting, we have been using soft focus sighting techniques for more than three decades now. Soft focus sighting techniques can be (and have been) used very successfully in lethal force situations. They have been used in combat and hunting long before that.

No one person can claim credit for soft focus shooting. If you are a student of history, you might recall Ed McGivern, who worked for Smith and Wesson and was one of the greatest exhibition shooters who ever lived. Ed. McGivern was also a scientist, studying all kinds of shooting related items to see what was possible.

I consider his book, “Fast and Fancy Revolver Shooting” essential reading for those who wish to excel in firearms skills. Ed McGivern also coined the term “practical shooting” to describe the type of shooting most applicable to law enforcement officers and gunfights.

Ed McGivern was using soft focus shooting techniques as part of his system and this was way back in the 1920’s and 1930’s!

“See What You Need to See” and The Focal Continuum
Over the last few decades, I have invented a lot of sayings that keep getting repeated time and time again during our courses. Collectively, they are referred to as “Averyisms.”

“See what you need to see” is one that has made it into many different shooting programs over the last couple of decades. It comes from the Elements of Shooting which comprise The Shooting Cycle and involves the entire Focal Continuum.

“The Eye is the Lens, But the Brain is the Film”
Each person is different in ability, skill level, and personality. One person can use a particular way of sighting that will just not work for another person because there is not enough visual input to help them coordinate the gun and the trigger successfully at their current ability and skill level. Each person must learn what level of focus on the sights and sight alignment they will need to make reliable hits on targets, under stress.

If you do not process what you are seeing, you may not be able to make use of it. Distracted attention is one of the biggest pitfalls of soft focus shooting. Though some will process at a subconscious level without recalling it, the ability to remain aware of what you are seeing as you are shooting is a higher level of performance, which requires a higher level of training.

What this means is that you will need to be able to visually process what you are seeing as you are shooting. This allows for rapid acquisition of target, adjustments in sight picture and alignment, and visually calling shots — all done at high speed under the duress of a lethal force situation.

To master the full range of visual skills, including peripheral vision shooting techniques, you will need to learn to use what I have termed the “Focal Continuum.”

The Focal Continuum is the infinite number of focal points between the target and the front sight.

The Focal Continuum represents the full range of vision and sighting and shooting technique necessary to hit a man at any range, day or night, under any conditions. It addresses everything from extreme close quarters point shooting to a hard focus on the front sight and sight alignment at extended distances of 100 yards and beyond with the handgun or any sighted weapon system.

“See what you need to see” involves what is called “visual patience.” It seems like it takes a lot longer than it actually does. This is due to the effects of stress. Building the discipline to process efficiently will give you much more control over this process. With correct training, it will happen just as fast as someone trying to use a “quick and dirty” shooting technique.

“See what you need to see” means just that. What do YOU need to see in order to make a hit when there are severe consequences for failure?

Binocular Vision and Processing
In reactive shooting situations, it is important to use both eyes while acquiring and sighting on your target. Keeping both eyes open assists with balance and movement, hand-eye coordination, information gathering, judging distance, etc. However, not everyone can focus properly with both eyes fully open and get a double image of the gun and sights. With training, many can learn to eliminate this problem.

Remember this: It is okay to slightly squint one or both eyes if you need to do so in order to obtain a proper sight alignment and picture. It doesn’t take more time to do so and may become necessary for you under certain conditions. It won’t affect your processing during other tasks. I find that I have to squint more in indoor or low lighting situations that I do outdoors.

Some may have to shut the off eye due to problems with focusing. Again, this is individual in nature and must be allowed for in shooting programs.

Each person is different in their visual ability to process and will be affected differently by stress, lighting conditions, fatigue, and the visual acuity they now possess. Your vision will also change as you age and your accommodation may not be what it once was. The lens tends to thicken with age and loses it elasticity. We have developed different visual correction techniques with glasses and keep abreast of modern developments in eye surgery, lens replacement, and other therapies.

Kinesthetic Skills and Visual Skills
Shooting fast and accurately also involves using kinesthetic skills with visual skills in tandem. “The Body Points but The Eyes Verify.” When trained correctly, these two systems blend synergistically into performance greater than either one can do alone.

You must learn to bring the gun up with the sights already aligned; using kinesthetic awareness to train the reflex until it is ingrained into “muscle memory.” This must then be stress conditioned to ensure reliable performance under duress.

We demonstrated this in our DVD series “Secrets of a Professional Shooter” which we did back in 2000, including 50 yard “soft focus” shooting just to show what is possible when using these two systems together.

Using kinesthetic skills with visual skills is not a 50/50 relationship. At closer ranges, kinesthetic skills dominate with vision supporting. Point shooting tends to place the emphasis on using kinesthetic alignment only with the eye merely used to bring the gun on target. The problem with this is that there are many other processes in play that tend to cause problems with holding this kinesthetic alignment and will degrade the precision of the shot being fired.

This is why we use vision to help maintain the alignment and keep the gun on target, especially if you or the target is moving. In the mid-ranges, vision needs to monitor more closely to ensure the sights are where they belong and not moving all over. At longer ranges, more traditional sight focus is used to ensure the hit.

Problems with “Soft Focus”
“Soft focus” can turn into point shooting very quickly when your attention is distracted. Your focus and visual processing will have a tendency to go to what has gained your attention.

This problem was recognized very early on in various training academies and was one of the reasons why focus on the front sight was emphasized. If you see it and pay attention to it, even indirectly, you are way ahead of not registering it at all.

In order to best use soft focus techniques successfully in stress conditions, you must be able to:
A.) Bring the weapon to the target with the sights already aligned
B.) Task focus on seeing the appropriate sight picture well enough to make the hit

Those who use “soft focus” or point shooting in the safety of their own range with controlled shooting drills with relatively low stress involved tend to get a false sense of their real skill level under duress.

There is also a process in play that I will call “bracketing” that’s worth noting. While point or “soft focus” shooting, the shooter will spot the first hit on target and then make immediate correction to bring the hits into the better scoring area of the target.

We see this with all shooters using point shooting techniques and it artificially inflates the skill level. We had to make corrections for it during the hit probability study we did in conjunction with Force Science.

When we cover the target with a dark shirt, introduce realistic time frames, conduct man vs. man drills, competitive shooting training or high stress force on force training in our courses and stress is placed on individuals very directly, those that utilize the Focal Continuum correctly generally win hands down over other methodologies. This also applies to lethal force situations.

Time, Training, and Commitment – Get the Return on Your Investment
Learning to correctly use soft focus shooting along with the entire Focal Continuum involves more than a couple of days on the range. You must train your entire shooting system to work with your sighting techniques. This is one of many reasons why we do five day programs of instruction for advanced performance skills, particularly in Advanced Handgun Skills and Advanced Handgun Skills Instructor courses of instruction. You need time to train, practice and begin to internalize a library of experiences, under different circumstances and stress loads, to see what works for YOU!

This process will continue when you leave and will broaden and deepen your skill at visual processing. I think the five day programs offer the greatest return in performance for the investment of your time. You just have to commit to doing it.

Hype, Myth, and Plain Old B.S.
I hear all the time “studies” being quoted about how you can’t see your sights under stress or when your heart rate goes above a certain level. This is simply not true. Yet, instructors that have not tested and validated this by actual scientific experimentation on their own will quote the above as if it were gospel and severely impair their student’s confidence and skill level in deadly force events.

We have proven again and again over the years that, with correct training, you CAN see what you need to see to make fight-stopping hits under these circumstances.

I have participated in more than a few deadly force encounters where things were extremely tense and I was getting ready to shoot folks. Some were very close and some were at more extended distances. In all cases, I was able to register the appropriate sight picture for the situation, even when time was compressed to less than one second. If I needed to shoot, there is no doubt as to hitting in those encounters. I have also trained many students who have gone on to win their encounters in deadly force situations.

This is a result of proper mental management and conditioning and skills training for these events.

Some individuals have tried to brand “soft focus” shooting as an entire shooting system and give it a sexy title that sounds cool. They make claims such as “this is what you do naturally” etc. To the uninitiated, this resonates well and sucks them in.

This is marketing hype, not science. The truth is that vision and attention will constantly shift and task focus must be trained to recognize the proper focus needed for the individual to make the hit.

The reality of learning to use the sights effectively involves learning a complete system that will work at ALL ranges, not just a very narrow band of situations. You must be willing to commit to learning it and take the time to do it right. The return on your investment cannot be measured in dollars and cents, but it can be measured in performance in real situations and the attendant pride and peace of mind from being able to perform when it counts.

I’ve trained officers who were later involved in gunfights where they were the only ones to make fight-stopping hits on the bad guy when other officers in near proximity missed entirely — multiple times.

The truth of the matter is that sighted fire, with the appropriate focus on sight alignment and sight picture, is just as fast as point shooting and far more precise and effective. In the not too distant future I will be doing some video clips to demonstrate the speed of engagement, using the Focal Continuum.

As some would like to point out, the handgun is inferior to the rifle in terms of energy and incapacitation. Wouldn’t it make sense that you would need to be more precise if this is the case?

I am relentless when it comes to testing, evaluating, and comparing firearms techniques. I try every theory and concept that has been put forward as well as those I develop in the hope of seeing a performance increase. After all is said and done, I still end up utilizing sighted fire with the appropriate focus for the situation, using the Focal Continuum. We simply refine and apply these skills at a higher level of performance, using peak performance principles.

This comes as a result of almost 30 years of professional, high-level shooting (with more than a million rounds fired) as well as extensive research and development into all facets of firearms training and the combined feedback of thousands of my students and colleagues world wide as well as my own personal experiences on the street .

In the final analysis, there is a range of shooting skills that officers need to be proficient at if they are to carry out the mission to serve and protect. We have more marketing claims and promises bombarding law enforcement than at any time in history. It is very hard to separate the “wheat from the chaff” when it comes to shooting techniques.

However, certain things have stood the test of time because they work when other systems don’t.

I will leave you with some sayings to take with you. Give credit to those who said them and you will be blessed with credibility in your presentations.

The first is an “Averyism” that I find myself repeating time and time again when students miss fast, again and again, when put under stress. It will probably become a bumper sticker.

“If At First You Don’t Succeed, Try Aimed Fire”

If you keep missing your target, focus on seeing what you need to see in terms of sight alignment and sight picture; using either soft or hard focus; then press the trigger without disturbing the picture. Your focus on holding the appropriate alignment and sight picture will help you hold the gun steady when you press the trigger. It works like magic, time after time.

The second comes from Ross Seyfried, a world champion IPSC shooter from the early days of the sport.

“You Can’t Miss Fast Enough to Win”

Spraying and praying is not a good strategy. Only good hits count.

The final one comes from the Old West as a maxim whose origin has been attributed to various people (No, it was not Wyatt Earp, Doc Holliday, or Bill Hickok) and whose true origin has been lost in the mists of time. Nevertheless, it rings true.

“Speed’s Fine, But Accuracy’s Final”

Boot Hill is full of those who thought they were pretty good. In the end, those who made the first shot count were generally the ones who won. Keep your cool, place your shots, and repeat until the fight is won. We’ll talk later about what sighting techniques you used. Just hit them when it counts.

Ron Avery is President and Director of Training for The Practical Shooting Academy, Inc. and Executive Director of the non-profit, Rocky Mountain Tactical Institute - both training institutions dedicated to professional firearms and tactics courses, higher police standards and training and use of force research.

Ron is a former police officer with many years of street experience, which he brings into the training environment. He is internationally recognized as a researcher, firearms trainer and world class shooter. His training methodology is currently being used by hundreds of agencies and thousands of individuals across the US and internationally.

He has worked as a consultant and trainer for top level federal agencies, special operations military from all branches of the armed forces and law enforcement agencies across the US.

He is a weapons and tactics trainer for, handgun, carbine, select fire, precision rifle and shotgun, as well as advanced instructor schools, defensive tactics, team skills and tactics, low light tactics, arrest and control and officer survival. He is also a consultant for firearms training programs, use of force and firearms research, range development, instructor development and other firearm related topics.

For over 25 years he has consistently ranked among the best shooters in the world in national, international and world championship competitions, winning many different titles including two-time National Law Enforcement Champion. In 2002, he represented his country as a member of the first place, United States Practical Shooting Association’s “Gold Team” in the Standard Division in the World Championships in South Africa.

As a published writer, his articles have been featured in SWAT Magazine, Petersen’s Handguns, American Handgunner, U.S.P.S.A.'s Front Sight, Colorado State Shooting Association and other law enforcement publications and journals.