In the last article in the series, I told you about how the eye picks up images and sees. We’ve been talking about what “flat” really means in terms of shooting – how we perceive “flat” when we shoot a handgun, what we’re actually seeing, and what shooting a gun that we perceive as “flat” really does for us. So far, we’ve defined flat, and we’ve talked about how the eyes see. If you haven’t read those articles, you might want to start there before getting into the stuff in this one. So, then, one of sthe important questions we’ve been driving at: can we accurately see the sights lift from exactly the point where the gun went off? That is, can we really call shots accurately?
The answer is…. Yes…. but…. How the gun moves can affect exactly how accurately you can call your shots – or, with an Open division gun, whether you can call them at all.
With an iron sight gun, what you’re actually seeing is the silhouette of the sights interposed on top of the image of the target (and, to some extent, the image of the front sight’s serrations, depending on how sharply you’re focused on the front sight). This happens pretty quickly, though. While the gun may fully cycle in .05 seconds, the portion we’re really concerned about – the part where the sights lift off the target – happens in maybe .01-.02 seconds. Check out the slow motion videos and see how short a period of time that really is relative to the full cycle. Actually, the most important timeframe is way shorter than that – that’s the time it actually takes for the bullet to leave the barrel. Depending on the gun in question, that time frame is 2.5-6 microseconds (that’s .00025 to .00060 seconds – or 1667-4000 fps type timeframe)! But, what we’re really looking for is the time in that first phase of recoil where the the bullet leaves the barrel and the sights start to lift off the target. If there’s not enough contrast between the brightness of the target, and the darkness of the sights in that exact period of time, the sights can move faster than your eye can keep up, and they appear to be a blur once all that information is decoded by the brain. Depending on how clearly you were focused on that front sight as the gun went off, you may not actually be aware of precisely where the sights were, just a sort of generalized area on the target. On close targets, no big deal. On distant targets, you may not notice if the gun has wandered slightly off your intended aiming point.
With an open division gun and it’s attendant optical sight, things get slightly more complex. Check out this slow motion video, courtesy of Roy Steadman. Really look at how the dots moves , and watch the movements of the gun itself.
Unlike iron sights, where the contrast between the sights and the target are created by the sights being darker than the target, we’re trying to create contrast by making the dot significantly brighter than the target. When the dot starts to move, it makes a streak across the retina, much like how car lights will leave a streak in a photograph taken at night with a long exposure. When there’s a lot of contrast between the target and the dot, you see a pretty emphatic streak. To see this fully, shoot your gun at dusk or in the dark, and see just how much movement there really is in the path of the dot as your gun cycles. So much for “cycles straight up and down”, right? When I do this with my gun (a gun that does appear to cycle straight up and down under normal lighting conditions), I can see all kinds of extra movement – wiggle induced by the scope mount and scope, lateral instability in the gun and in my grip, etc. There’s truly a lot going on. We don’t see that extra movement during the day because the dot simply isn’t bright enough for our eyes to register that much movement against the rest of the scene we’re seeing. We see the slowest parts of the movement – the parts where the image of the dot is able to “impress” upon the cones that are sensitive to it’s color enough to be picked up in the time that the dot passes them, and our brain assembles those discrete signals (mostly from the cones) into a moving dot that appears to move smoothly up and back to point of aim.
What about fiber optic inserts in iron sights? Consider them a hybrid of the two scenarios above. The fiber adds a bright spot to the sights that make them easier to pick up (especially in dimmer lighting conditions), but doesn’t really add enough brightness to fully track the movement of the sights any better than a moderately bright dot sight.
The short of it is, yes, you can see the gun begin to move, but you don’t necessarily see what you think you see. Your eyes aren’t fast enough and, if you’re shooting an Open gun, the sight is inadequate to be seen perfectly. However, we can take some steps to improve our ability to accurately pick up the motion of the gun in the early parts of recoil and thus improve our ability to call shots. First, you have to recognize that there’s really no way to improve the speed at which your eyes see things. You can improve your focal speed, eye movement speeds, target recognition speeds, and all of that, but you can’t change how fast the chemistry works or how your brain is wired to put the signals together. Under some circumstances, we can see at a faster rate. For instance, under extreme duress, it seems that the brain speeds up its processing of the visual signals, upping the rate at which we perceive motion. In fact, the brain uses visual information in part to perceive the passing of time. It may be that this phenomenon of vision speeding up under duress may explain the time dilation effect that people report in life or death situations – they’re suddenly seeing more information, and the part of the brain that’s attune to time interprets that as time passing more slowly (or that things are happening in slow motion – since the reference for time is now moving more quickly, things appear to take more time to happen…). So, you can’t hack your eyes to speed up, unfortunately. That would be nice, wouldn’t it?
Next up – what can we do to improve our ability to follow the movement of the gun?