If your experience with flight simulations up to this point has been limited to modern-era games, you are in for a nasty surprise. Flying WWII-era aircraft offensively is a bit more challenging. All-aspect missiles and over-the-horizon targeting are inventions of the distant future at this point in history. To down an enemy, you must maneuver your fighter to achieve the proper angle of attack (point of aim, if you wish) with fixed gun sites, an appropriately short range and also time the shot correctly for maximum hits. The old Revolutionary War adage, "Don't fire until you see the whites of their eyes," is almost as appropriate to WWII air combat as it was to ground combat at that time.
"Go in close, and then when you think
you are too close, go in closer."
Major Thomas B. McGuire, USAAF
2nd leading Ace, WWII,
Major McGuire's advice is based on the fact that the closer you are to the target, the lower the deflection angle you need to hit it. Concurrently, the smaller the relative motion between you and the target, the less the angle of deflection. Sure, it is possible to calculate the lead angle on a fast-moving target (in terms of relative speed) at extreme gun range, but this is the lowest percentage shot of all those available to you. Don't take it unless you are trying to force an enemy fighter from an offensive to a defensive position, such as forcing him to break off first in a head-to-head pass. Other headings in this section will teach you how to maneuver against an evasive enemy to set up a shot. Herein, we will focus on the types of shots and when to take them for the best percentage chances of success.
In general terms, there are two different types of firing solutions: tracking solutions and snapshots. Snapshots are less of a solution than a "feel" for the way deflection shooting works, but more on them later. In a tracking solution, you have acquired a target that remains relatively unaware of your presence or has chosen a defensive maneuver which you can follow fairly well such that the relative motion between you and the target is fairly predictable. This is the optimum case. You have time, even if it is 15 seconds or less, to evaluate that relative motion and calculate where you will initiate your first burst at the target. If your intended victim is relatively inexperienced, you might even have time to quickly adjust that initial fire before his evasive maneuvers take effect.
Your best defense against an enemy attempting to obtain a tracking solution is to keep moving. Bob and weave just like a boxer does. Not only does this complicate the process for anyone attempting to obtain a tracking solution on you, it also allows you to check your blind spots from a different perspective, provided you are practicing good scanning discipline as well.
On the offensive, available tracking time before firing is also affected by closure rate. Obviously, you have less time in a head-to-head pass than when closing on the target's six. For example, in the Bomber Busting section you are shown that a Bf-109 completing a head-on pass on a B-17 enters effective gun range 2.5 seconds before collision and must pull off 1.5 seconds later to avoid collision. You have more time to line up your shot, but your window to refine and execute it is still very small.
Inexperienced pilots often make the mistake of lining up targets in their gunsights too early in the engagement sequence. Subsequently, you are continually altering course to keep the target in your gunsight as you approach it. Consequently, you are lagging behind the target and it will take you a lot longer to meet the aforementioned criteria for a good gunnery shot than if you pursued a true intercept course. It may be natural to want to track your intended victim in the gunsight, but, excluding a head-to-head pass, when you do this you are conducting a "lag pursuit" instead of an intercept.
In an intercept, you are on a course which is designed to intersect the target plane's current course somewhere ahead of his current position. In the optimum case, with a non-maneuvering target, this would put you in a gunnery solution soon after you enter firing range. Remember, on an intercept course, assuming the target doesn't go evasive and change course, his relative motion to you is zero or nearly so. This permits you to calculate how much to lead the target based only on your range to that target, without having to additionally allow for relative motion.
Further, high closure rates are better at long range than they are at short range. This is because they allow you to attack sooner. But at shorter ranges, those maneuvers you can execute to slow the closure rate without disturbing the firing solution are desired. That is because the latter increase the window of engagement. An increased window of engagement once you are in firing range means that it is easier for you to complete the third portion of the gunnery solution equation, the timing of the firing to achieve maximum effect.
Situational awareness plays a part as well. If the enemy pilot you are targeting is unaware of your presence, you have longer to track that target before taking the initial shot. Hence, the importance of the element of surprise. You don't have to have surprise to down the enemy, but it certainly increases your chances. Most of the WWII fliers who survived being shot down claimed not to have known what hit them before it was over. Surprise is discussed in greater detail in the section titled "The Element of Surprise". Now, let's examine the other type of deflection shot, the snapshot.
Snapshots have a lower percentage of success than tracking shots simply because you have less time to determine a firing solution before you actually pull the trigger. Learning how to set up a good snapshot in situations other than a head-on pass is more of an art than a science. If you can score hits, great! It's almost as good if you can only make your tracers buzz the enemy cockpit, because they probably rattled him. But if you are blatantly off target, all the worse for you because the enemy develops a sense that you don't know what you are doing and he will be more aggressive, denying you many opportunities to follow up on the attack. Always put the enemy on the defensive if you can. See the subsequent sections under this heading for additional details that support this tactical axiom.
The final concept which must be covered under this section is that of energy versus angle. Hopefully, you've already perused the section on energy management. So you have a basic understanding of the importance of energy management in a dogfight. Now, however, you must relate energy management to angle of attack. Proper deflection shooting requires that you match the angle of attack to a trajectory that places your bullets on target. Concurrently, however, you must come to understand that sacrificing energy to promote an target solution is not always the best tactical approach.
Consider for a moment the classic aircraft matchup from the Battle of Britain: the Spitfire vs. the Bf-109. We've discussed elsewhere that the Spitfire retains excellent turning characteristics at or near stall speed while the Bf-109 handles sluggishly at a similar point in its flight envelope. As such, if the Bf-109 pilot bleeds off his energy by yanking the stick and turning a lot to try and get an angle on the Spitfire, he is sacrificing the maneuvering advantage to the enemy unless he kills him quickly. And even if he does, the Bf-109 in this example would be in such a low energy state subsequent to that kill that he would be easy prey for other enemies in the area.
But if the Bf-109 pilot in this example had developed a knack for deflection shooting, there would be no need for him to get into a turning fight with the Spitfire to begin with. The better approach is to keep your energy state high and keep the initiative by making repeated diving attacks on your foe, each followed by a zoom climb and a wing over to regain angle on the target. If the enemy tries to follow you into the climb, he will be bleeding energy as he does, which should make him a relatively slow, easy target when you do the wing over.
You can learn only so much about the art of deflection shooting in the classroom however; the rest comes from pulling the trigger on lots of different targets with a variety of aspects, closure rates and target angles. Watch your tracers and remember how your planes were positioned in relation to one another when your bullets found their mark. With practice and patience, you will learn how to put your initial fire on target as well.