Do you need adjustable handgun sights?

Taurus 9mm semi-automatic handgun

During a recent range session, I brought along two of my favorite handguns. The six-inch barrel Colt .357 and SIG Sauer 1911 each feature fully adjustable rear sights. These sights allow the shooter to account for windage and elevation, and to fine tune the sights to the individual loading. There are many different bullet weights in each caliber, and they do not fire to the same point of aim.

Colt .357 revolver with ziplock bag of ammunition
This Colt .357 has been sighted for 125-, 140-, 158- and 180-grain XTP loads, at one time or the other. This makes for confidence in your zero and good field accuracy.

Fixed sights may be zeroed to certain loads, but once zeroed, that is it. A handgun with adjustable sights may be zeroed for one load and then re-zeroed for another. If you are really good at the game you may even tune the elevation setting for different ranges. It isn’t just target and hunting handguns that need adjustable sights. Service guns may profit from adjustable sights. After all, for many years the Smith and Wesson Combat Masterpiece and Combat Magnum were front line police revolvers, and each featured adjustable sights. Some were knocked off the revolver when they contacted door jambs or vehicle doors, but at other times they allowed excellent shooting at very long range.

Let’s look at reality. When you purchase an expensive hunting handgun or a target pistol, you expect to be able to convince the pistol to hit where it is aimed. The point of impact and point of aim will be in perfect sync. If you purchase a fixed-sight handgun for personal defense, and find it is zeroed for one load or the other but it will not be easily done.

Might we expect for any handgun to be zeroed for the load of choice?

Some makers make the effort to properly zero a handgun for the most popular service load. Most fixed-sight 1911 handguns are useful for the six o’clock load and 230-grain ball. However, if you use a 185- or 200-grain load, then you may not be so lucky. With the development of so many handgun loads during the past few decades there is hardly a thing such as a standard load. 9mm Luger defense loads may range in weight from 92- to 150-grains and 880 to 1,500 fps velocity.

Taurus 9mm semi-automatic handgun
The Taurus 9mm compact is zeroed for the duty load, thanks to factory standard adjustable sights!

Some decades ago, .38 Special revolvers were sighted for 158-grain loads. Later, most were sighted for 125-grain loads. The rub is, even if the bullets are the same weight, the load may not strike to the same point of impact, especially if the velocity isn’t the same. Even if you are able to zero the pistol for a standard 15 yards, the pistol is zeroed only for a set distance.

What if we want to sight the go-anywhere do-anything handgun for field use or taking on coyotes?

Another consideration is that the firing grip affects the point of impact. Shooters who change the stocks on a hunting handgun have long understood this. It is good to be able to zero the handgun for your personal use. Fixed sights are more useful in institutional or general issue handguns. They are close, good enough I suppose, for a variety of shooters and body types. A personal handgun should be just that, personal.

Colt Gold Cup on a white and blue grid target
This is a nice group, but it is low on target. The only thing to do is get out the file.

It is simpler to choose a handgun with adjustable sights. I think that snub nose .38s and compact 9mm handguns should be snag-free and useful for pocket carry. Once you move into all-around handguns such as the 1911 .45 or a .357 magnum revolver, adjustable sights are an advantage. These handguns are powerful, but the full effect of their power will not be realized if shot placement is generally not precise. Adjustable sights allow the shooter to make accurate shots. Hostage rescue might be one requirement. Another might be stopping a dangerous animal at 10 yards or more. Shot placement is critical.

Adjustable sights are more easily changed out. The adjustable sights on Smith and Wesson revolvers may be modified with different sight blades and the front sight on many modern revolvers may be changed. Different front sight heights are available.

Some say that adjustable sights are fragile. The Colt Gold Cup in early variations well into the 1970s features a rear sight held on by a hollow pin. It tended to fly off. Shooters quickly replaced the hollow pin with a roll pin. At the time, the staked-on front sight of GI 1911A1 handguns also flew off from time to time. The Bomar rear sight was markedly superior. Today, Springfield, Ruger, Kimber, and Colt offer much better and more durable rear sights. The Ruger fully-adjustable revolver sight is very rugged as well. Just the same, few of us are in the habit of banging our handguns on metal workbenches, and these sights will serve well.

Have you ever adjusted the sights on your pistol for different ammunition? Share your experience in the comment section.


About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.

Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Rifle Magazine
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns

Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (16)

  1. Adjustable sights on Service rifles are as well protected as they can be.. Yet still they get literally knocked off.. Adjustable sights on handguns are far less durable enjoy no such protection and are subject considerable banging.and day to day use.

    Screws come lose all manner of misadventure can (and do) occur with adjustable sights.

    The number of times one might be called upon to make an extreme precision shot with an Handgun in a defensive situation is minute. However the need for consistent reasonably well aligned reliable sighting is not.

    From experience adjustable sights on handguns do get out of whack more often than fixed and you may not know it till you need them..Therefor fixed sights are the most reliable and safest way to go for defensive handgun use.

  2. I agree with DavidW; there is no all around handgun unless you take competitive shooting out of the picture. An EDC with fixed sights will do fine for defensive use or field protection against charging critters because the range is short and the desired POI is center mass.

    In defensive shooting at 7 yards, I don’t need perfect sight alignment nor do I gave time for it. I need only to look over the top of the barrel (shotgun style) and stop the threat. To do that, it is necessary to have non-fragile sights that won’t snag on holsters or clothing.

  3. So, I don’t have access to unlimited rounds to try everything under the sun. But that seems to be the first thing to do. Find a round that will do the job you want, then dial it in.
    This is where reloading comes in. My EDC may shoot low at 15 yards, that may be fine. Its spot on at 7. However, I can tweak charges and bullets to place the round where I want. It’s fun, sometimes frustrating, but ultimately rewarding. I also carry a sight pusher tool at the range for dialing in windage.
    In the past, I would get out the file for the front sight, but now I would rather leave the firearm alone if possible and tweak the loads.

  4. Have transferred most of my sights to adjustable rear and fiber optic fronts as I have gotten older I find these to be invaluable for general shooting and competition.

  5. I own two Ruger Blackhawk revolvers, and both are single action . One is a .357 Mag with a 6,5″ barrel, and the other is a .45 Colt Convertible (it has interchangeable cylinders) Flattop with a 5.5″ barrel. I shoot at a very nice outdoors range, where I could shoot up to 100 yards if I so choose. But that is too far to see the target (12″ round paper), so I shoot distances of 25 and 50 yards. Many times while shooting I have to adjust the rear sight simply due changing the ammo. Most of the time the adjustment is for range (height adjustment). But sometimes I notice I am shooting in a group to the left or the right, so I will change the lateral adjustment then.

    I have never owned or shot a handgun without adjustable sights, so I cannot make a direct comparison. But it seems to me just about everything Bob covers in the article above looks good! I cannot imagine having a handgun without adjustable sights, unless it is used for only one thing and always at the same distance.

    I have ballistics for 32 handguns and 18 rifle calibers, so I know the properties of the ammo I am shooting and when I change it, and shoot the different rounds. Both of my Ruger Blackhawks can shoot a huge range of power with the 4 calibers I can shoot: .38 Spec & .357 Mag in the .357 Mag Blackhawk and .45 ACP and .45 LC in my .45 Ruger revolver. The .357 Blackhawk can shoot ammo that rangers from about 200 ft. lbs., to over 900 ft. lbs. of ME! The .45 Blackhawk can shoot ammo that ranges in power from about 300 ft. lbs. (cowboy loads) to 1,240 ft. lbs.of Muzzle Energy (ME). Of course, the Muzzle Velocity (MV) varies widely as well. These are huge ranges for both handguns, and it does require sight adjustments, due to both the ammo variance, AND the distances.

  6. I got rid of my S&W 4516 after going through 3 different fixed rear sights,plus the recoil spring was only set up foe standard 230gr ball-not the +P 230gr hollowpoint.Got a glock 30 with adjustable sights[put a Lone Wolf barrel in it for non jacketed ammo,plus a large tritium front sight.Been happy ever since.I did the same re sights[and ambidextrous safety]on a Colt 80 series Government too].Excepting muzzleloading pistols where one has to file and drift,I won’t look at handguns with fixed sights.

  7. Targets/competition vs duty are totally different games. In my opinion. While competition is shooting for scores, the latter is rarely used at any great distance. It was always more of a point and shoot because you were at reasonably close range. LE data says most shootings occur at distance from 3-15 feet. At close range, I see no need to dial it in. You just need to know your weapon and where the hits go when you pull the trigger.

    The difference is why we used silhouette targets and trained to shoot center mass. If more precise shots are required, a dialed in rifle is a better tool.

    For many years I carried the S&W .38 CM as my duty weapon, a 1911 in Vietnam (along with a bunch of other arms). I carried a Garcia Mod D .380 for a backup. Never messed with the sights once I knew where the hits would fall. I carry a S&W Mod 60 .38 or a Bersa Firestorm .380. With age, my vision isn’t what it used to was, so these two and a Kimber Ultra Carry II .45 all have CT lasers, which were about unheard of during my duty days. Throughout my career we had to qualify every 6 months with out duty weapons. Only once in 21+ years did I fail to shoot Expert.

    My rifles, on the other hand, are all dialed in.

  8. That Colt looks like my 6″ .357 Trooper I carried, replacing my issue S&W 10 4″. I shot competition with the Colt from 7 yds to 50 yds, sighted in with wad cutters. I eventually replaced the Trooper with the rage du jour, S&W Model 19 .357 6″ for matches and began carrying a new 4″ Model 15 which the dept. traded in the 10s for. I believe we sighted in for 25 yds, but always manage high scores with 50 round stages, never readjusting our sights from 7 to 50 ys. The # of X rings were always the tie breakers..

  9. Every handgun I own has adjustable sights on it except for an 8mm Nambu. I never intended to shoot it anyway after I discovered the cost of ammunition for it.
    I can’t imagine how they could be fragile unless you drop them a lot or play catch with them on concrete. The only pistol I owned that didn’t have adjustable sights was a Model 39 S&W that the Illinois state police carried long ago. I acquired adjustable sights from a Model 59 S&W which were interchangeable & fit my Model 39.
    At one time, Bomar made an adjustable rib sight which included the front sight , for the 1911 which I installed on a Remington Mark IV. It added some weight which made it a little more manageable for me since I have small hands.

  10. Most handguns unless they are used in competition or hunting will suit my needs with fixed sights. My great grandmother did a fine job shooting silver dollars and comes from the air with her fixed sight 44 Colt single action, she worked with a wild West show from 1927 through The Great Depression. It takes time to get to know the sight picture, but the sights offer far more than needed for most needs. Shotgunners are well accustomed to compensating for limited sights and still lead and account for ballistic drop. More than enough to work with when shooting twenty feet.

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