Competitive Shooting

How to Sight in Your Gun

Setting up to check the zero on a Browning Hi-Power with an inexpensive pistol rest

In a previous article, I talked about the evolution of sights from the earliest beads and posts on long guns to the latest adjustable sights for handguns. I did not do a deep dive into the latest sights for rifles, other than a brief mention of types. One area that is often overlooked is the importance of sighting in your handguns. Primarily because defensive handguns are used at close range, most shooters — especially new shooters — overlook the importance of precisely regulated sights on those handguns.

Most instructors even overlook sighting-in as part of their routine of instruction assuming students have already attended to that detail. I require all my students to sight in and confirm where their firearms shoot at different distances appropriate to the platform and it’s intended use. Handguns are shot from a rest at 7, 10, 15, and 25 yards, and adjusted if needed to hit point of aim.

BoMar adjustable sights on a Custom Jim Hoag 1911 Series 70 Colt
BoMar adjustable sights on a Custom Jim Hoag 1911 Series 70 Colt.

I’m sure some of you are getting ready to comment about what a waste of time that lesson is for a handgun, because it is most often shot at such close range. That is not true. In my tests I have seen different brands and bullet weights of premium defensive ammunition shoot off the point of aim by as much as 1.5 feet at 7 yards.

You may find that hard to believe, but keep this in mind. New handguns are sighted in before they leave the factory to shoot the most popular bullet weight in a given caliber for the particular platform. An example would be a compact 9×19 Parabellum would be zeroed at the factory with 115-grain bullets fired at standard velocity.

If you shoot a high velocity 80-grain bullet or a 147-grain +P+, do you really think they will shoot to the same point of impact? How about a .38 Special sighted at the factory with standard 158-grain? Will it shoot to the same point of impact using the same point of aim with Hornady Critical Defense Lite 90-grain FTX or the Glaser Safety Slug 80-grain Jacketed Hollow-Point (JHP)? No, it would not even be close.

This is nothing new. In fact, as early as 1981 when Hornady supplied the ammunition for the IPSC Nationals, competitive shooters realized that adjustable sights provided a necessary advantage to adapt to the changing loads supplied at different events. Granted, early adjustable sights were not as rugged as fixed sights and many defensive shooting advocates pooh-poohed adjustable sights.

concrete-and-steel shooting bench
A good sturdy concrete-and-steel shooting bench guarantees a stable platform.

The truth, however, is that civilians do not expose their firearms to the harsh conditions and abuse that law enforcement and the military dish out. The odds of having to employ the one-handed slide rack using the belt or a hard, fixed surface so you can cycle the slide (outside of a class) is greater than being hit by lighting or winning the Lotto. Any good quality, adjustable sight can certainly survive that a few times today. Now that the negative reason for having an adjustable sight has been erased, let’s look at the positive reasons.

Adjustability

When you initially acquire a firearm, most people have a specific use in mind for it such as self-defense, target shooting, hunting etc. Based on the intended use, a bullet style and weight are chosen that is most appropriate for the intended use. In a perfect pre-Covid world, most shooters had certain brands they preferred due to past experience. Today however, (more often than not) what you buy is what is available and affordable. In that world, adjustable sights are a must because you might have to resight your firearm after every trip to the ammo locker.

We all know that to aim a firearm, the shooter points the firearm so that the two sights are aligned. The alignment of the front and rear sight is called sight alignment. Those aligned sights and are then placed in line with the target forming the sight picture. I am sure it is obvious that if you can’t aim a firearm, you can’t hit a target. Therefore, the key to hitting a target is a correctly adjusted sighting device.

With fixed sights, we are basically relying on:

  • Someone we don’t know.
  • Using a brand of ammunition that we might not prefer.
  • Shooting a bullet style and weight that may not be appropriate.
  • Aligning the sights at a distance we might not be shooting at.

That’s an awful lot on blind faith. That’s the reason I prefer ammunition that is appropriate to the task. It’s also why I prefer high-quality adjustable sights on all my serious working guns and go through the following process with every firearm — before putting it to work.

15-yard shooting from the pistol rest
15-yard shooting from the pistol rest.

Understand, I am primarily addressing handguns with this article, but this same advice applies to long guns, including shotguns that need to be patterned with the different loads and shot sizes you intend to shoot. The first decision that must be made is to determine the intended use of the handgun. For this conversation, self-defense is the purpose.

The Process

You should first determine the bullet weight and type you prefer and here are some things to consider. You might want to carry the same manufacturer, style, and weight load that law enforcement in your area carries. If you are unfortunately involved in a fatal shooting, an overzealous prosecutor can’t use your ammunition choice to vilify you.

21-shot group shot at 25 yards with a Kings Gunworks Custom Series 70 Colt in .45 ACP
As you can see from the notes on the target, this was a 21-shot group shot at 25 yards with a Kings Gunworks Custom Series 70 Colt in .45 ACP. Not too shabby, if I do say so myself.

If you decide against that strategy, your next choice should be the projectile or bullet type. Should it be the latest wiz bang ogre slayer? Or, because a handgun’s chief asset is its portability (not its power), and you consider penetration important… should you opt for full metal jacket, which parenthetically is my choice. The other aspect you might strongly weigh as the deciding factor is what is the most accurate load in your firearm.

Once your decision is made, and a sufficient amount of ammunition has been purchased, you will go to the range for your sight-in session. For this, your range should have a good, solid bench to set up on and shoot from. On the bench, you will need a good rest. Most people don’t have a Ransom Rest but if your range or a friend has one use it. If not, there are pistol rests available for under $100, or you can use sandbags (if you have them or can rent them from the range).

You will need screwdrivers and/or Allen wrenches to fit the screws used for adjustment on your sights. A 100-foot tape measure is important to set the target at the correct distance from the muzzle. Don’t forget good, clear targets, a target stand, cardboard, and a stapler with staples. You’ll also need a pencil or pen to make notes on the target such as time, date, temperature, firearm, load, distance, order of shots, etc. It is also helpful to have a spotting scope but not necessary. Those items along with your regular range gear should do.

Before you start shooting, ensure the firearm is fully supported, and the position, sight alignment, and sight picture are repeatable. Ensure all movement during the trigger press has been eliminated. Starting with the target at 7 yards, fire one shot every 5 minutes. Get up, walk around, breath, relax, and repeat until a 5-shot group is created.

Note the position of the group, and then make the windage adjustments (as needed) following the manufacturer’s instructions. Remember, the rear sight is moved in the direction you want the group to move. If you want to move the group left you move the rear sight to the left. If you want to move the group down, lower the rear sight. Always read the manufacturer’s instructions and follow them.

Spotting scope on a shooting bench at an outdoor range
A spotting scope can cut down on the back and forth to the target.

Once you are adjusted for windage at 7 yards, adjust for elevation based on your last group. I like to be about 1-inch high at seven yards. I then move the target to 10, 15, and 25 yards noting where the gun groups and make adjustments as necessary. To me, it is most important that windage is dead center at all ranges.

Elevation will vary depending on the load, but I try to obtain the flattest trajectory with the least amount of compensation. That means the point of impact will be high at the closer distances and extends the point blank distance farther out. I also tend to shoot lighter bullets for both a flatter trajectory and longer range shots with less recoil for faster follow-up shots.

I hope you find this helpful when it comes to making those decisions about sights and sighting in. Remember, incorporate dry fire practice into your routine to help you improve, without the price of live fire.

Do you sight-in your pistol for various distances and loads? Do you have a tip for sighting-in a handgun? Share your answers in the comment section.

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 (12)

  1. It may seem basic but it’s very important to know where your working gun groups with the ammo you choose to carry in it! Practice, practice, practice!

  2. Excellent article. Ret. LEO, 9 yrs. active-duty military, former competitive shooter, old, old, old.
    Becoming problematic (annual quals). I’m moving to 17rd mags to accommodate all the mag changes, moving to an RMR to account for 3 yds. to 25 yds PPC targets. I’ve never considered the drop in various pistol ammo. (Using wad cutters for comp.–everyone is using the same). You make very good points vis-a-vis accuracy. As soon as I receive my new P320F, I’ll be going to the range to sight it in and note the drop at each the qualification stage. I only carry ball, when I travel out of state, to avoid all the restrictions against hollow-points. Usually take a ten-round mag out of state.

  3. Also realize that your eyeball is in a different location relative to the sights when sitting vs standing.
    With a rifle in NRA highpower I had to add 1 MOA difference.

  4. Great article. I agree on the reasons to make this effort as well as the process itself. Some of my friends see this as OCD on my part but I appreciate the results.

    In recent years, even fixed sights have become an obsession for me! Driven by adding RDS to fixed sight guns I have taken to adding new suppressor height sights myself – not wanting to trust someone else to properly mount and align the new sights. Since I had to invest in a quality sight pusher to mount these new sights, I now even place fixed sight guns that are not using an RDS on a rest and adjust as necessary! I can’t adjust elevation on fixed sight handguns but I have improved windage for my preferred cartridge for all of my handguns.

  5. Another great article by Ed LaPorta. I only wish these directions were given to me 50 years ago.

  6. This is just what Ed had me do the 1st. time I was over there being harangued by the L.A.W Chief Instructor “Himself” as always good procedure followed by repeat after me teaches you well .

  7. I am a long time shooter, and I agree with you assessment on how to sight in a hand gun, I think everyone should know how to do this, and as you know, that some people don’t have to use the sights and up to about 15 yards, if I don’t dwell on it too much I will put a good group in the target, further out, at I have to use sights. I have carried a colt 45acp for many years and it feels natural and a part of when I shoot.

  8. Good article. Thank you. I pretty much do the same, and have found if you drift adjust to zero for horizontal, then like you do, you only have to mentally adjust for different ranges. I load 5 rounds per magazine, as 5 samples make it statistically significant. Aiming at the same point for say a box of 50, will allow you to make a more informed adjustment, based on the center of the grouping. As in your picture of your 70 series Colt, I would move the rear sight .005 to the right, and have a better zero. In rifle sights, it is a common advantage to have a DUEL Zero, like say in a typical AR in 5.56, firing 50 rounds (5 at a time, and adjust to zero) at the same spot at 50 yards, gives a very nice picture of your rifles accuracy. AND a 50 yard zero on a typical AR in 5.56, at 100 yards will hit high, roughly the same amount as the distance of the centerline of the bore and the centerline of the sight. THEN at 200 yards will be back to zero for what is known as a 50/200 zero, or in other words your AR is good for a direct hit all the way out to 200 yards. Zeroing is very worth the time and ammo spent, and it is fun.

  9. Everyone needs to read and understand this article including those with tons of experience.

    This is one of the pillars of all around marksmanship

    Good job.

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