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Point Shooting

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Exploring Myths and Realities of this Controversial Topic

Gun guys love to argue, especially about the same tired topics. And one of the most tenderized dead horses you’ll find in the shooting world is the debate over point shooting versus sighted fire. In old-school gun magazines, this was one of the tried-and-true article themes that reappeared every few issues, along with other venerable squabbles like “9mm versus .45” and “revolver versus semi-auto.”

Although the topic has been argued ad nauseam and no official winner ever declared, if you take a hard look at modern tactics and technology, the outcome is actually pretty clear. To that end, let’s cut through the dogma, unearth some history, see where we’ve ended up, and put this issue to rest once and for all.

War of Words
The primary reason the point shooting controversy has persisted for so long is that neither side of the argument can agree on terminology. Sighted-fire advocates are notorious for dismissively referring to point shooting as “hip shooting,” “spray and pray,” and “un-aimed fire.” To make any real progress in resolving the issue, we first need to work past this and define more technically accurate terms.

Shooting a handgun consists fundamentally of aligning the gun with the target and then operating the trigger without disturbing that alignment. How the alignment is achieved really doesn’t matter, as long as the method used is reliable and consistent. According to Merriam-Webster, this qualifies as “aiming,” defined as to “point or direct (a weapon or camera) at a target.” For the sake of argument, Webster defines the verb point as “to cause to be turned in a particular direction,” and gives the example of “point a gun.”

No matter what shooting technique you use, the basic process begins by using body mechanics to orient the weapon toward the target. For die-hard sighted-fire advocates who might disagree and insist that aiming is only a visual alignment process, consider this quote: “A correct firing stroke — from leather to lineup — aligns the pistol reflexively, once it is neurologically programmed. The sights are not used to align the weapon; rather they are used to verify an alignment already achieved by means of a trained presentation.”

rex-applegate draw-stroke

That nugget of wisdom was written by none other than the late Colonel Jeff Cooper ­— the acknowledged father of modern combat pistolcraft and founder of Gunsite — in his book To Ride, Shoot Straight, and Speak the Truth. In the spirit of that statement, it seems reasonable to equate a “trained presentation” to kinesthetic alignment of the gun. Taking that logic a step further, “point shooting” could be defined as aiming by pure kinesthetic alignment without the “visual verification” of using the sights.

Although this semantic exercise may seem trivial, it’s actually critically important in separating high-stress combat shooting from casual marksmanship. And to understand that difference, it helps to have a little sense of point shooting history.

Point Shooting Origins
There have been many different flavors of point shooting, but the best-known system with the strongest lineage began with W.E. Fairbairn and E.A. Sykes, members of the Shanghai Municipal Police during the first half of the 20th century. Real-deal close-combat badasses of their time, they were later called upon to teach British commandos and the U.S. Office of Strategic Services (the predecessor of the CIA) during World War II. In their latter role, they passed the point shooting torch to the equally legendary Colonel Rex Applegate, who continued to teach and preach his version of the technique until his death in 1998.

The reasoning for point shooting was simple: Fairbairn, Sykes, and Applegate all understood what happens to average people when someone’s trying to kill them.
In response to life-threatening stress, the body activates the Sympathetic Nervous System (SNS) and the fight, flight, or freeze instinct automatically kicks in. Physiologically, several things happen, including crouching, squaring up to face the threat, loss of fine-motor skills, pupil dilation, loss of near-vision acuity, and a natural tendency to visually focus on the thing that’s trying to kill you.

When you combine all that with the fact that pistol sights left a lot to be desired back then and many lethal-force encounters occur in low-light conditions, the odds that an average shooter could ever see his sights in a gunfight were pretty damned slim. Given all those challenges, Applegate and his predecessors emphasized kinesthetic alignment of the gun and a coarse visual index to get reasonably accurate shots on target.

Because people instinctively square up with a lethal threat, their method aligned the gun with the body’s centerline. This took care of windage. Since the shooter was already instinctively focused on the threat, they emphasized raising the gun to the line of sight before squeezing the trigger. That took care of elevation. Windage plus elevation equals aim.


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