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Sight Tracking: What, Why, and How

When it comes to throwing lead and hitting steel, we all want to be capable of shooting with speed and accuracy, and competent shooters are capable of both. There are lots of skills required to shoot fast and straight, and one of the most important is sight tracking. Sight tracking is one of the fundamental skills a lot of shooters aren’t aware of. Most shooters will know grip and stance, which are both important, but how many utilize sight tracking? 

What is sight tracking?

Sight tracking is the ability to follow the sights as your weapon fires. When a weapon fires, it recoils upward and rearward, naturally disrupting your sight picture and creating the task known as sight tracking. Sight tracking with long guns is easy. You have three points of contact on the weapon, so it’s easy to track your sights. On handguns, it’s a bit tougher. Shooters have to work fairly hard to develop the ability to track their sights, but when they do, they realize just how effective the skill can be. 

A Sig on a Sig, what’s not to love?

Why is sight tracking important?

Sight tracking allows a shooter to shoot fast and accurately. If you can track your sights, you can follow them off and back to the target. This allows you to press the trigger as soon as the sights are back on target. If the sights are the target, and your grip is solid, then you’ll hit the target. Sight tracking is a fantastic skill to have, and it’s the cornerstone of shooting fast and straight. 

How can you become better at sight tracking?

Like anything with firearms, the best way to get better at tracking your sights is to seek out a qualified instructor. Guys like Aaron Cowan, Scott Jedlinski, Steve Fisher, and probably a ton of others I’m forgetting will get you spun up and on target before you know it. Outside of training, you can certainly practice on your own, and it’s a skill you can learn by yourself. 

One of the key fundamentals to tracking your sights is a good grip and stance. The weapon should consistently recoil up and back down. If it’s going up, then up left, then up right, you might need to focus on diagnosing your grip problems before you focus on sight tracking. 

In my humble opinion, the best way to learn to track your sights is with a .22LR pistol, specifically a pistol with a reciprocating slide. The Walther P22, the Sig Sauer P322, or FN 502 are good places to start. The lower the recoil, the easier it is to track your sights. These .22LR pistols offer hardly any recoil and make it cheap to get a ton of practice in. 

vortex defender on p322
My son really enjoys his P322 with a red dot.

In general, bigger, heavier guns have less recoil, which makes sight tracking easier. That’s why steel-frame pistols are still a competitive option in the current marketplace. 

There are two major sight styles for modern handguns: iron sights and red dots. Each requires its own tracking technique. 

Sight Tracking Iron Sights 

With iron sights, our goal is to focus on the front sight to ensure an accurate shot. With a front-sight focus, your target will begin to look a little blurry. The front sight is nice and sharp. As you squeeze the trigger, your goal is maintained and focused on that front sight. As the gun fires, the sights will move violently, but your goal is to keep your focus on the front sight. You should not shift your plane of focus to the target. 

iron sights
The sights on both pistols are outstanding. The Hellcat’s rear U-notch is easy to pick up. The Reflex’s orange dot on the front sight is excellent. Unfortunately, the tritium on the author’s Reflex was dead and would not glow. Photo: Jim Davis.

Keep it focused on the front sight as it moves. It will look like a blur and can be tough to do at first, so it takes tons of practice. Your goal is to track the sight until it’s reached stillness. Optimally, you’ll get really good at instinctively pulling the trigger when the slide returns to battery. Once you get quick, it seems like the sight never actually sits still. 

Sight Tracking a Red Dot 

One of the best things about red dots is the ability to maintain a target focus. I can focus on what’s potentially a threat and not have to focus on a front sight. It’s quite nice and feels natural to me. With that in mind, if we are tracking our sights, how can we both track a red dot and stay target-focused? 

You can’t, well, not in the same way you track iron sights. We are going to remain target-focused. As the gun fires and the red dot reciprocates with the slide, you should see a red streak of light moving rearward.

Shield Sights SMSc
The SMSc from Shield Sights is a useful addition to your pistol. Photo: Jim Davis.

The better the refresh rate the optic has, the easier the dot is to see. Once you master the art of shooting fast, the red dot will always be a streak. 

As you focus on the target and see the dot, your job is to shoot it as fast as you can while keeping the red streak within the target’s scoring zone. Your slide is never really sitting still and the dot is moving rapidly. Tracking a red dot is easier than tracking iron sights, but it still takes practice to get good at. As an enthusiastic shooter, I’m not always able to maintain the streak, but I’m getting a little better at it. 

How To Get Better At Sight Tracking

There are a number of different ways to get better at sight tracking. If you’re just starting your journey, I would focus on going slow and steady. Obtain a fairly large target of some type. I wouldn’t use anything smaller than a piece of printer paper. Position yourself five yards from the target. Your goal here is to fire one shot at a time while tracking the front sight or the dot. 

Take your time and really practice keeping your eyes focused on the method appropriate for your sights. Mentally acknowledge when the front sight is back on target. Do this for a few reps, and then try introducing a second shot. It doesn’t need to be a rapid-fire follow-up shot, but it should be fired as soon as you mentally acknowledge that the dot or front sight is back on target. 

From there, just slowly try to do it faster and faster. It’s not easy, so take your time. It’s all about keeping that focus, which can be difficult. As you get better, you can go faster, get a smaller target, or both. 

What makes sight tracking more difficult?

Some factors make tracking sights more difficult. As we mentioned, more recoil and muzzle flip makes the sight harder to find. Ultralightweight guns in man-sized calibers can be a nightmare. Tracking the sights on a .44 Magnum snub nose will never be easy.

Iron sights are harder to track than red dots, in my opinion. Iron sights that are smaller are harder to track than larger iron sights.

Low-Light training and other advanced skills requires the upmost safety skills.
The more advanced you train, the more safety skills apply. In low-light scenarios, being aware of your muzzle and actions is crucial.

The same goes with high visibility sights. In some cases, certain sight styles can be more difficult to track than others. I find it tougher to track 3-dot iron sights because they all look alike until that fraction of a second before I fire. The same goes for all-black sights. I do like some contrast. A white dot between two blacked-out rear sights is a great option. 

Another external condition you can’t often help is poor lighting. If you are shooting in a dimly lit indoor range, then expect it to be tougher to track your sights. Light is always a factor in vision. 

Tracking Them Down 

Learning how to track your sights is an excellent skill to have. It’s not easy and requires practice, as well as practice to maintain it once you have learned it. However, if your goal is to shoot fast and accurately, that’s the only way you’ll be able to do it. Get out there and get after it.

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