THE AIMING PROBLEM - American Pistol Shooting (2015)

American Pistol Shooting (2015)

Chapter VII


TO SOLVE the aiming problem in pistol shooting requires a knowledge of several factors all of which, though comparatively simple in principle, must be thoroughly understood by the novice if he desires to advance steadily and without unnecessary set-backs toward the goal of expert shooting. The correct method of aiming and of adjusting sights, the kind, size, shape and color of the latter, the matter of eyesight and shooting glasses, and the effects of different lights on aiming are some of the details that must be understood by a beginner in order to make rapid progress in the game.


The principles of aiming are simple and easily learned. The purpose of this act is to point the pistol by means of the arm, the eyes and the sights so that the bullet will hit the target when the weapon is fired. This is accomplished by bringing the sights of the pistol into the line of sight from the master eye to the target. When the sights are brought into alignment correctly, they should present to the eye a certain picture or perspective view with the target in the background. This view of the sights and target should always be the same and any variation from it should be corrected before firing. The view of the sights properly aligned on a bull’s-eye target should show the front sight centered in the notch of the rear sight with its top aligned with the top edge of the rear sight and just tangent to the bottom of the bull’s-eye. This is known as the normal method of aiming.


The appearance of bull’s-eye and sights when correctly aligned by the normal method of aiming. The top of both front sights should just touch the bull’s-eye.

(Left) A Colt’s target revolver with Patridge sights.

(Right) A Tell free pistol.

With this method it must be remembered that, though the point of aim is at the bottom edge of the bull’s-eye, the sights are constructed or adjusted to such a height that the pistol when properly aimed and fired will place its shots in the center of the bull’s-eye. For game shooting or for target shooting at small objects, the pistol should be sighted so that it will hit the spot at which it is aimed.

Most good pistol shots keep both eyes open while aiming and firing. The beginner should learn this method of binocular aiming because of its natural advantages. The right-handed shooter, however, whose left eye is his master eye, may find it difficult to aim easily with both eyes open and he then has the choice of closing the left eye while aiming or of learning to shoot with the left hand. Closing the left eye would be preferable.

To determine the master eye, extend the right arm and index finger. Keeping both eyes open, carefully align the top of the finger with a small object some distance away. Without moving the head, close the left eye and if the sight alignment between eye, finger and object appears the same as with both eyes open, the right eye is the master eye. If the finger appears to point to the left of the object, then the left eye is the master eye.


With target pistols and military weapons having adjustable sights, the normal method of aiming should always be used and errors in elevation corrected by raising or lowering the sights, without changing the aiming point. If the pistol has an adjustable rear sight, move it in the direction you wish to make the correction or the direction you wish your bullet to go. Remember always that your bullet will follow the direction of movement of the rear sight. If the sight adjustments are made on the front sight, the rule is reversed. Some target weapons have both sights adjustable, the front sight for elevation and the rear sight for direction. When using pistols thus sighted, care must be taken to follow the rules for making adjustments, or confusion and errors in sight setting will result. In using weapons of this kind make the correction for direction first by moving the rear sight and verify the adjustment with a few shots. Adjust for elevation by raising or lowering the front sight the proper amount, being careful to lower it if you wish to shoot higher, or to raise it if you wish to lower your shot group.

On military or pocket pistols having absolutely fixed sights, errors in elevation and direction due to the improper sighting of the weapon can be corrected only by changing the aiming point, or by altering the sights themselves. In the case of elevation trouble only, errors can be corrected by changing from the normal method of aiming to that of seeing more or less of the front sight in the rear sight notch.

At one time, in our military service, men were taught to take what was known as fine sight, half sight or full sight, if they wished to change the elevation of the shot on the target. Due to the uncertainty of taking the same amount of front sight when an attempt was made to take a fine or full sight, great inaccuracy sometimes occurred. With the half sight, the top of the front sight could be accurately aligned with the top of the rear sight and this method was retained as the correct one for aiming with open sights and was called the normal method of sighting or aiming.

It is well at this time to advise the novice to make no alterations in fixed sights until considerable experience and practice has convinced him that his pistol does not hit where it should when properly aimed and fired.

When he is certain that his pistol is not properly sighted for his manner of gripping, he should determine its errors by firing several five or ten shot groups at the range he expects to use the gun the most, and then calculate the distance of the center of impact of each group from the center of the bull’s-eye. The mean error of these centers from the center of the bull’s-eye should be the amount of correction to make on the sight. If the rear sight consists of a sight bar, and is not part of the frame or barrel of the weapon, elevation corrections can be made as follows: to increase elevation file off the top of the front sight; to decrease elevation file off the top of the rear sight and deepen the notch; to correct for errors to the right or left or what are known as errors of direction, drive the sight bar with a small hammer in the direction you wish to make your correction.


This sketch shows three methods of aligning fixed revolver sights on a bull’s-eye. Such a revolver should be sighted so that when a “normal sight” is taken at 6:00 o’clock on the bull’s-eye the bullets will hit center. The same revolver will shoot low if a “fine sight” is taken and high if a “full sight” is used. Instead of changing the method of aligning the sights, it is better practice to change the aiming point to one above or below the bottom of the bull’s-eye an amount equal to the correction necessary to center the shots in the black.

If the rear sight is merely a notch cut in the frame or barrel of the pistol and the front sight is fixed, there is no way of decreasing the elevation. However, one can, by filing off the front sight, make the pistol shoot higher.

The best way to get such a pistol sighted to suit is to determine its errors in inches, both for elevation and direction, and then send the weapon back to the factory with instructions to have it resighted the way desired.

When making sight adjustments either with adjustable sights or by altering the sights themselves, it is well to understand and appreciate how a little change in the height, or the lateral movement of a sight changes the position of the bullets on the target. For example, let us assume that a revolver with sights 6 inches apart is shooting eight inches high and four inches to the right of the center of the bull’s-eye at 50 yards. How much must we lower the rear sight and move it to the left to make it shoot center?

Let x = the correction necessary for elevation,


let x = correction necessary for direction


From this it will be noted that the sight changes are small for a comparatively large change in the elevation and direction of the bullets.


The question of the kind, shape, and size of sights for use in different conditions of light and background always has and probably always will provide a most interesting subject for experiment by the pistol enthusiast and one in which he can use his ingenuity to the limit of his interest.

Sights may be classified in a general way according to use and form, as military and non-military. The latter class may be again divided according to their use into target and sporting sights. Strictly speaking military sights should be open and fixed. They should be of a shape that permits a pistol to be readily drawn from a holster and they should be strongly and substantially made so as to stand the rough usage of general military service. Until the adoption of automatic pistols for military purposes, the rear sights on our military revolvers were cut in the frame of the weapon, but today many military automatic pistols have a rear sight that can be moved laterally and some even have sights adjustable for elevation.

Front sights may be grouped into two classes, as blade or bead, according to the cross-sectional view they present to the eye while aiming. Blade sights will usually be found on military and pocket pistols, while either blade or bead sights are in use on target or sporting pistols. The material generally used in the construction of the front sights is soft steel, or a combination of steel with German silver, bronze, ivory, or gold. These composite sights usually consist of a steel base with a bronze, silver, ivory or gold bead.

Rear sights vary from a notch cut in the pistol frame near the breech to accurately made sight bars, which are fitted to the barrel or frame in such a way as to permit their movement and adjustment for elevations and deflections. These adjustments are usually made by turning convenient set screws by means of a key or jeweler’s screw-driver or by micrometer adjusting screws. The notches in the sight bars are usually bevelled toward the muzzle so they will always present a clean cut outline to the eye when aiming. Peep sights are seldom used in pistol shooting as they are impracticable except for experimental work or very deliberate slow fire shooting. They are not permitted in any of the pistol matches controlled by the National Rifle Association of America, the United States Revolver Association or the International Shooting Union.

While open sights have always been acknowledged as the most practicable for pistols, the shape, form, and size of these sights have been and will continue to be the subject of considerable study and controversy among pistol cranks.

As a general rule a sight should be large, and high enough to avoid being blurred by heat waves which rise from the heated barrel of a gun fired rapidly on a warm sunny day. This applies particularly to military pistols.

Large sights are advantageous because they are easy to see and align quickly. They are less affected by light changes, either natural or artificial, and they are not so easily bent, broken or displaced as fine sights. For these reasons probably, they have become very popular in late years, not only for military shooting but for very accurate target work, especially indoors under artificial light. Thirty years ago the bead front sight was the favorite for target work, but nowadays the pendulum has swung the other way and many more rectangular blade sights are in use for accurate target shooting, although the bead front sight still has its staunch advocates. Very fine pin head beads, while very accurate in favorable light, are most difficult to use in very bright light such as one encounters when shooting toward the west on a sunny afternoon.

Realizing that there is occasionally a necessity for changing one’s aiming point when using fixed sights, it always seems easier to do this with a front sight whose top and sides are rectangular than with one whose outline is curved. Similarly it is easier to hold the top of such a sight centered under the bull’s-eye at six o’clock than it is to do the same thing with a bead sight. Psychologically the latter procedure seems as difficult as balancing a large ball on top of a small one.

For target shooting at the customary bull’s-eye target, a black sight is preferable, provided one aims at six o’clock on the bull’s-eye, as his sights are then clearly outlined against the light colored background of the target. If, however, he is firing at a very large black bull’s-eye or a black silhouette figure target and his aiming point is within the black, then a white, ivory, gold or silver front sight is highly desirable. If a rectangular front sight is used, it can be made more easily visible by coating or painting it with chalk or white paint. A small tube of Chinese White carried in one’s shooting kit and carefully applied to the front sight will aid greatly when executing rapid or quick fire against a dark silhouette target. All members of the Winning American Olympic Pistol Team of 1924 used this method of illuminating their sights and it proved very successful. For shooting among the shades and shadows of the woods, the same scheme would be successful were it not for the fact that the color would be rubbed off while carrying the pistol in, or drawing it from a holster or pocket.

Though opinions differ as to the relative merits of ivory, German silver, bronze and gold beads for hunting or sporting purposes, the author firmly believes that a good gold alloy bead is superior to all others for general use. It is capable of being seen in most unfavorable lights and it can be blackened or smoked without harm, should its use be desired for shooting at the regular paper target. Though it is obviously undesirable to have the bead highly polished for use in bright sunlight, the contrary is true when it is used in the dark woods. Frequently when hunting in the thick fir forests of our Northwest or in the jungles of the tropics, I have been able, with the aid of the tiny point of gold gleaming from the center of my bead, to hit wonderfully concealed small game perched in the dark foliage. The chief disadvantage of gold beads is their softness, and they must therefore be handled carefully, or they get out of shape easily.


Due to the short ranges at which pistol shooting is done and the large targets normally used, excellent eyesight is not so necessary to success as a novice might suppose. Normal vision without the aid of glasses is desirable though not absolutely necessary, for one may correct faulty vision by glasses so as to have it free from astigmatism and thus be able to pass the 20/20 optical test. Furthermore it has frequently been noted that eyes that are apparently normal and which can see well enough to aim easily and accurately in daylight have great difficulty in seeing the sights distinctly when shooting is done under artificial light. This results in errors of aiming that produce large shot groups regardless of how well the marksman may hold. To anyone who finds himself in this predicament and who desires to continue shooting under artificial light, as so many small bore pistol shots are now doing, the author offers an incident from his personal experience that may aid the discouraged.


1 and 2 are King gold bead front sights for Colt’s target pistols and revolvers. No. 1 is designed for use in a holster. 3 is an ivory head for the same weapons. 4, 5 and 6 are similar sights designed for S. & W. pistols and revolvers. 7 and 8 are Marble gold bead sights designed for S. & W. and Colt’s pistols and revolvers.


Standard sights issued on Colt’s target pistols and revolvers.

When I first took up indoor pistol shooting, it was after considerable experience out of doors with military revolvers. My introduction to the game came as a result of being stationed near a city in which a flourishing rifle and revolver club was organized. I became a member of the club and was keenly interested in observing what to me was a new and interesting phase of pistol shooting, for the indoor season was then in full swing and the pistol shots of the club had discarded their heavy revolvers and were devoting their efforts to small bore matches.

On the advice of some of the older shots, I invested in a .22 caliber Smith and Wesson target pistol with 10 in. barrel and equipped with a thin blade front sight. The sights proved to be entirely unsuitable for indoor shooting as the front sight was but one thirty-second of an inch thick.

My eyesight at that time was normal except for a very slight astigmatism for which I used corrected glasses when reading or shooting.

My first attempts for a score at this new game, with my impracticable sights, resulted in a startling failure, for I found that my eyes could not accommodate themselves to the open sights and bull’s-eye as seen in electric light and they soon began to water and feel strained. I then began to experiment with the lighting system and tried shooting from a dark firing point, but all to no avail. In talking over my troubles with brother shooters, I learned that all of them were using broad front sights; some used large beads but most of them the broad rectangular Patridge sight. Most of them aimed at six o’clock on the bull’s-eye, but a few bisected it with the flat top of their rectangular front sights, which were just wide enough for the purpose. I changed my sights to a Patridge one-tenth inch rectangular front, and a square notched rear sight which helped somewhat, for I could then at least see my sights, though rather hazily and indistinctly. The bull’s-eye, however, stood out clear and black.

After several evenings my scores showed little improvement and I became discouraged, especially when I found that my daily efforts developed eye strain and headaches. As a last resort I consulted an optician who had been recommended to me because of his interest in outdoor revolver shooting. He listened to my tale of woe, became quite interested in the problem and directed me to bring my pistol, shooting glasses and an indoor target to his office the next day. On keeping this appointment I found that he had arranged to simulate the condition of the indoor range. He placed me in a chair with a large mirror across the room in front of me and hung the paper target above and behind me with a light so arranged that I was somewhat in the dark and the target was brightly illuminated. After he had adjusted one of the ordinary optician’s trial frames to my head, he directed me to aim at the target while he slipped various test lenses into the slots in front of my eyes. With lenses corresponding to those of my own glasses, I found the sights looked blurred and fuzzy as when shooting at the club. Other lenses were substituted until finally two were found that brought my sights into distinct focus but made the bull’s-eye appear very slightly blurred, or out of focus. The prescription for these lenses was Right, Plus .50 sphere combined with plus .50 cylinder axis 90. Left, Plus .50 cylinder axis 90 and from this the optician had ground two lenses which he mounted in a pair of cheap nickel spectacles and gave me the next day with instructions to try them on the indoor range.

It was with feelings of mingled fear and doubt that I placed a target on the range that evening and from a darkened firing point aligned my sights on the bull’s-eye. To my joy and relief the sights were clear and distinct and though the bull’s-eye was slightly out of focus I found no difficulty in aiming accurately, and my scores thenceforth showed improvement in accordance with my ability to hold. The eye strain and headaches I had been having after each evening’s shooting, occurred no more. Those same nickel frames with the original lenses in them have now been in use for over sixteen years for indoor shooting under artificial light.

Frequently in the many pistol clubs with which my military service has brought me in contact, I have seen men experimenting with sights and lights in an attempt to get clearer definition of the former and to them I have told this story and provided a remedy, much to their relief and pleasure. Fortunately only a small proportion of men who follow this indoor pistol game have the same degree of eye trouble that I had, and it is to this small minority that I offer this incident.


Although some individuals have trouble with artificial light, others find that sunlight has a noticeable effect on their shooting at times. With open sights as used on pistols, there are frequently occasions when an unusual condition of light causes the shot group to be displaced materially from the center of a bull’s-eye target. There is no absolute rule which governs and by which a marksman can be certain of making proper corrections under all conditions of light.

It is generally believed that in using open sights in bright sunlight there is a tendency to shoot away from the sun. For example, when firing with the sun shining strongly from the right, the pistol will shoot to the left or with a bright sun overhead as at noon time the shot group will be low. This rule holds only for certain individuals, and the effects of bright sunlight on the sights vary with different kinds of sights. There is only one safe rule to follow and that is to “sight in your pistol” for different conditions of light, and to be absolutely certain that you know where it shoots under these conditions. As a safety precaution, be especially careful of your aim and hold for the first few shots of any competition you may enter. Then if you find that your shots are not centered properly when you call them “good,” correct your direction or elevation accordingly. I once saw a man who had an excellent chance for the Pistol Championship of the World ruin that chance and his morale as well, by not raising his elevation when his sighters showed that his group was low. He continued to fire his first ten record shots with an elevation he had been accustomed to using and then, when it was too late, he raised his rear sight and centered his group. His low shots were not due to anything except a peculiar light condition which affected many competitors who fired at that time.


Closely linked with aiming is an equally important essential of good marksmanship known as “Calling the Shot.” It is the term used by shooters for indicating the location of a hit by the sight alignment at the instant the arm is fired, and before the actual bullet hole is seen by or indicated to the shooter. Its importance is not generally appreciated by beginners nor is the necessity for its proper performance fully understood by all experienced shots.

The reasons for calling the shot are:

1. To assure a marksman that he knows exactly where his pistol is aimed at the instant it is fired.

2. To determine whether or not the pistol is correctly sighted, that is whether it will hit the target when properly aimed.

3. To aid a novice in preventing and overcoming flinching.

4. To teach the necessity for close, steady holding until a shot is fired, for calling the shot is absolutely essential to the development of great accuracy in pistol marksmanship.

If a shooter cannot see where his pistol is aimed when it fires, the chances are that he shuts his eyes and flinches. The disposition to so do is the greatest obstacle to accurate marksmanship. If on the other hand, he can indicate the exact spot on the target on which his sights were aligned when the explosion occurred, he can then determine by the location of the bullet hole whether or not the gun shoots where it is aimed. If a novice will concentrate on aiming and calling his shot while he is holding and squeezing, it will aid him greatly in overcoming the tendency to flinch which is caused by letting the mind dwell on the explosion and its effects.

While firing a shot carefully, a marksman tries to hold his sights aligned on the target, and to squeeze his trigger when this alignment looks right. If he keeps his eyes open, he will, after a little practice, be able to see the exact spot on the target at which his weapon was aimed when it fired. Then without hesitation and without looking at the bullet hole, he should call his shot by saying to himself or to his coach, “It’s high, It’s low, It’s right, It’s left, It’s good” as the case may be. As he becomes more experienced, he will be able to call his shots by saying; “It’s an 8 at 3 o’clock” or “It’s a close nine at 12 o’clock” or “It’s a bull’s-eye at 6 o’clock.” When he can call his shots accurately by the clock system, that is by referring to the bull’s-eye as though it were a clock and the points on its circumference in terms of the hours and fractions thereof, then, and only then will he get the full benefits from the practice. When a marksman realizes that to call a shot other than “Good” means a lower score than might have been, the psychological effect is to make him strive earnestly to aim, hold and squeeze so that he can call all of his shots “Good,” and this in turn results in greater accuracy.