Shooting Controlled Pairs 

A defensive pistol is easy to carry discreetly, but at a cost. However, the fact that a defensive pistol is easy to carry means that it is compromised when it comes to firepower. A smaller gun means smaller, less powerful ammunition, and that means a reduced chance of stopping a threat with just one shot. In this case, sending more rounds downrange is probably the answer. Those rounds need to hit the target in order to be effective, which is why firearms trainers like to train their students to shoot controlled pairs. 

Simply put, shooting controlled pairs means shooting two rounds as fast as possible, but each round has its own separate sight picture. We’ll go into each step in this process in more detail, but let’s start with talking about what we mean by “sight picture.” 

Controlled Pairs = Two Controlled Shots

Sight picture is composed of three things: How your front and rear sights are aligned with each other, where those sights are pointing on the target, and how long you need to look at them before you take the shot. The front sight of your pistol should be centered left and right in between the notches of the rear sight. This is called sight alignment. Lining up those sights on the target and directing your focus to the front sight is the step in the process. Having the sights on-target is beneficial for obvious reasons. Front sight focus, however, is important because the front sight is the closest part of the gun to the muzzle, where the bullet leaves the gun. Seeing the movement of the front sight before, during and after the shot is fired is an essential part of learning to shoot controlled pairs. 

controlled pairs

Two hits in the center-chest, but not on top of each other. This is where you want to be.

Which brings us to our third point about sight picture: How long you need to stare at that front sight before you take the shot. To successfully shoot both shots in a controlled pair, you need to keep your attention on the front sight for as long as it takes to make the shot. This is called a flash sight picture. You see the sights and you verify they’re on target, but you don’t dwell on those sights for any longer than it takes to make a smooth trigger press and send a round downrange. 

Two Sight Pictures, Two Shots

Too fast

One of these is a good hit, the other isn’t. Slow down and see the sights with both shots.

It’s that second sight picture which sets controlled pairs apart from two-shot techniques. A “double-tap” or “Hammer,” as it is called at Gunsite, is a good example of this. Simply put, a double tap is two shots with one sight picture. This may be an effective way to get rounds on-target quickly at close ranges, but at longer distances or on smaller targets, having that second sight picture can make the difference between a good hit and a missed shot. 

Now that we’ve figured out what you need to see, let’s talk about what you need to do in order to shoot controlled pairs.

You also need a smooth trigger press for each shot in addition to a separate and distinct sight picture on the target. Any tendency towards jerking the trigger is going to show up at this point. You want two distinct sight pictures when shooting controlled pairs, but you also want two perfect trigger presses as well. Rounds that miss the target because your sights weren’t aligned or because you yanked the gun off-target while pressing the trigger are not going to stop the threat. Even worse, they can hit an innocent bystander, leaving you exposed to all sorts of emotional and legal issues. Don’t “panic fire.” When done right, shooting controlled pairs should go like this: 

  • Align the front sight on the target. 
  • Press the trigger, while focusing on the front sight 
  • Watch the movement of the front sight as it rises up under recoil
  • Bring the front sight back on-target, prepare the trigger for the next shot
  • Press the trigger again while keeping the front sight on the target

Focus On The Front Sight, But Don’t Linger

Too slow

If accuracy overrides everything else, this is a good shot. If not, speed things up, and get good hits quicker

How long should you keep your attention on the front sight? As long as it takes to make the shot. This is going to take a different amount of time for a target that’s three yards away versus a target that’s twenty five yards away. It’s also going to depend on your skill with the pistol. More experienced shooters are going to take less time to do these tasks, while newer shooters will require more time to shoot controlled pairs. 

The question then becomes, why shoot just two rounds? Why shoot controlled pairs and not, say, controlled quintets? 

Good question. 

To begin with, the process of shooting two shots can be applied over and over again. If you track the front sight for two shots, you can do it for three shots, four shorts or whatever it takes. Secondly, excessive force is a real thing, even for the armed citizen. As such, getting the habit of shooting two rounds and evaluating what effect they’re having on your opponent is probably a good idea. 

Sometimes It Takes More Than Just Two

Finally, there are several drills that address the fact that two well-placed pistol rounds might not be enough to stop an attacker. The first is the Bill Drill, where you practice sending a volume of accurate fire towards the target. The second is the Mozambique Drill, where the effects of a controlled pair is followed by evaluating what the target is doing and then shooting a round into the ocular cavity if needed. 

Shooting controlled pairs during your practice is a great way to practice trigger control, sight picture and follow up. Getting these skills to the point where they can happen without conscious thought means you can summon them on-demand when they’re needed the most. In many ways, shooting controlled pairs, and shooting them well is one of the essential parts of mastering pistol marksmanship, and should become a regular part of your practice routine.