How-To

Handgun Sights. The Basics.

When shopping for a handgun, the vast majority of them will come with some type of factory sights. Sights are the mechanism you use to get your eyes on your target to aim your shot. Generally, handguns come with a set of sights—a rear sight and a front sight. The rear sight is the one closest to you and the front sight is the one closest to the end of the barrel.
You will find traditional pistol sights typically called Patridge or open sights. Patridge sights have a square post-style front sight and a rectangular rear sight with a notch in the middle. Sometimes you will find this notch described as a U-notch or V-notch, which is simply the shape of the notch in the sight. The front sight will be visible in the center of the rear’s sight notch. The front sight is the sight you focus on in order to hit your target. To read more about focusing on your front sight, read our blog post, Defensive Shooting 101: Focus on the Front Sight.

Fixed versus Adjustable

Sights are either fixed or adjustable. Fixed sights cannot be changed or moved. In general, when a handgun has fixed sights, it will not be an easy task to upgrade to aftermarket sights. They are usually factory set for shooting at certain distances and for a particular load of ammunition.

Adjustable sights allow you to move the sight around to compensate for windage or elevation or both. Windage is the variable of how the wind will affect the trajectory of your projectile (bullet), meaning the sight will be left and right adjustable. Elevation means the sight is up and down adjustable. Usually the front sight is adjustable for elevation. Adjustable sights are useful for target shooting, when you want to adjust for a certain load of ammunition, and for when you want to set the sight picture best suited for you. Fixed sights are fine for a self-defense handgun because of how quickly you need to gain your sight picture or target when shooting in a self-defense situation.

A classic set of 3-dot sights.
A classic set of 3-dot sights.

3-Dot Sights

Many handguns come with 3-dot sights from the factory. The 3-dot sight configuration comes in a variety of standard or daytime and night sights. The daytime/standard 3-dot sights have three painted white dots on them, two on the rear sight and one on the front sight. Three-dot sights make it easier and quicker to obtain your sight picture. Sight manufacturer XS Sights have a very large dot on the front sight, while standard factory dots will be regular size, such as on the Springfield XD handgun line.

Some 3-dot sights have fiber optic or tritium inserts. The company TruGlo incorporates both fiber optics and tritium in their sights.

Low Light and Night Sights

Fiber optic sights are good for low-light situations, but not good for complete darkness. The manufacturers use a fiber-filled glass or plastic rod and insert it into the metal sight post. These fiber optic rods catch any ambient light, gather that light and the light will travel to the end of the tube. Due to the internal reflection of the fiber-optic sight, the entire rod will light up.

A green front fiber optic sight from Hiviz.
A green front fiber optic sight from Hiviz.

Night sights on the other hand will glow in complete darkness. All companies that manufacture night sights use tritium as the glow source. Tritium is a radioactive isotope of hydrogen that constantly glows in the dark without needing a light source to charge. To accomplish this, manufactures mix tritium and a phosphor, which is a substance that gives off light and insert them into a glass tube, then put into the pistol’s metal sight post. Tritium glows for about 12 years.

Three-dot, fiber optic, and tritium sights are all upgrades to a standard open pistol sight. All three sights help you get a quicker sight picture onto your target. Some gun manufactures, such as SIG Sauer and Glock offer up-graded night sights on some of their models. AmeriGlo, a company that makes night sights, offers a ghost ring sight for Glock models. Ghost ring sights have a circle for a rear sight instead of a notch.

AmeriGlo ghost ring sight for Glock 9mm, .40 and .357.
AmeriGlo ghost ring sight for Glock 9mm, .40 and .357.

Another sight term you will find when shopping for a handgun is Heine Straight-Eight sights. There are plenty of Taurus gun models that have up-graded Heine Straight Eight sights. These sights are referring to a particular brand of sight.

Before you pick which type of sights you will need on your pistol, you must consider what shooting conditions you will be using your gun for the most. If it is your home-defense gun and have poor eyesight such as myself, then tritium night sights are helpful. I like Meprolight tritium sights. If you also regularly target shoot with your self-defense gun, 3-dot sights are fine. I prefer XS Sights because of the large, easy to see front dot.

The type of sights that come on the handgun you choose is a serious matter. After all, it is what you use to hit your target.

What type of sight is your favorite? Let us know in the comments section below!

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!

1 Comment;

  1. Handgun sights
    There is much controversy over sights and what I like to call “gee whiz” toys or gadgets on weapons in relation to the CHL user/carrier…
    To make a possibly 2 day event on this subject shorter, in a combat situation in a one-to-one situation, you will NEVER use your sights, or gadgets.
    You will fire from the hip, one handed, never having used your sights. You will however use “Point firing techniques”. That is, you will point your finger along the frame of the weapon at your intended target and then fire.
    All the fancy toys in the world will not save you because in 3/10th’s of a second it’s usually all over. I know, I have been down this road as a cop AND as a civilian because of what I do.
    You are better off doing the following:
    1. Choose a combat designed/proven weapon (I carry the MK25)
    2. Use a professional holster and do not trade weapons and holsters like people decide how pants and shoes go together. Carry only one and always carry THAT weapon.
    3. Receive professional training on the point firing technique and then STAY PROFICENT.
    4. Use a round that has professional terminal ballistics that show it delivers all of its energy into the target without penetration beyond the 12” SAMMI recommendation. (Like what I use…I use the 9mm 147gr Sub-sonic hollow-point Federal Hydro Shok®.
    5. Finally practice with what you carry. For those that cry about the cost of that round, I give you the same response I give those in selecting a motorcycle helmet “…how much is your head worth”.
    6. And finally for those that say they can’t afford my recommendations “…there are alternatives out there, but you must compensate for their weaknesses.”
    Remember, your sights are the least of your worries.
    © 2012 Dennis Chevalier and Associates CSIR

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