Sighting-in the Fixed-Sight Revolver

Filing the front sight of a revolver

The first handgun I fired was an old Smith and Wesson Victory Model with fixed sights. It was some time before I progressed to a Smith and Wesson with click adjustable rear sights. A movable front sight is a recent addition I find very modern. While the adjustable sight is a must have for competition and hunting, for personal defense it isn’t needed if you know how to use fixed sights and zero the piece.

revolver with wood grips right profile
Fixed sight revolvers are more than viable, sometimes they are preferred.

In fact, you can win a match or take game with a fixed sight revolver providing you have taken the time to do your homework. Some fixed sight revolvers, such as the snub nose .38, are specialized tools that fill a certain niche. Others are versatile go-anywhere do-anything revolvers.

You must master the revolver to get hits. In a gunfight, the range is conversational distance and sometimes longer. The short sight radius of the snub nose revolver, like all short barrel handguns, is easier to misalign than a longer barrel handgun. That is why I often carry a longer barrel revolver when hiking.

My old five-inch barrel Military and Police revolver is a joy to fire and use. Loaded with the Buffalo Bore 158-grain lead hollow points at 1,100 fps, this is a formidable trail and defense gun. The hard cast 158-grain SWC Outdoorsman from Buffalo Bore breaks 1,100 fps and will do well for feral dogs and even the big cats, if needed.

ramp front sight on snub nose revolver
This ramp front sight is adequate and little else!

Even with adjustable sights, an error in alignment means that the bullet will strike far from the point of aim. So, learn to use those fixed sights. You must properly press the trigger action. Press the trigger straight to the rear, fire the piece, allow the trigger to reset during recoil, and then fire again. The proper cadence of fire is to fire again only when you have re-aligned the sights.

The front sight should be just below the target for the six o’clock hold or dead on for the dead on hold. You should be able to get the pistol sighted with a little effort for the load you prefer. Most revolvers will be regulated for the six o’clock hold. The sights of the fixed sight revolver are a simple groove or trough in the top strap and a front post sight. They work well enough at moderate range and are fast into action.

The problem with these sights is regulation and contrast. A black post sight against a dark target isn’t high visibility, and neither is a stainless steel front sight against a light target. Stainless or chrome allows glare.

Filing the front sight of a revolver
When filing the front sight, the rule is less is more.

The revolver will fire off center—away from the edge that glares. Visual depth is important and the sight alignment on a snub nose demands attention to detail. Use bright red nail polish to enamel the front sight. Preserve the original aiming point, and do not apply the paint so thick that the serrations disappear, if any are present. Other colors may work for you; some prefer green of course.

Older sights are integral to the barrel. Modern revolvers, such as the S&W 649, have a pin in the barrel that allows the front sight to be changed. Fiber optics are also supplied with many modern revolvers. I know some who like adjustable sights. However, some years ago, I was wearing my S&W Model 29 .44 Magnum when I got into a scuffle. I had one fellow on the ground and as I rose, the other took a swing at me with a board and broke both the hammer spur and target sights on of my revolver.

At the police department, the doorjambs are always banged up from holsters taking a hit when worn on the point of the hip. Small revolvers are worn in the pocket, and adjustable sights tend to snag more than fixed sights. In snub nose revolvers and most personal defense revolvers, fixed sights are the rule and for good reason!

post front sight on revolver
This post front sight offers excellent accuracy for those who practice.

A couple of generations ago, .38 Special revolvers were regulated for the 158-grain load. Now, however, they are usually sighted for 110- and 125-grain JHP loads, with the 158-grain load firing high. Snubnose revolvers differ, with most J frame revolvers firing low with 110- to 158-grain loads at 15 yards—the distance I like to zero and check the handgun. Older J frame revolvers may fire six inches low at this distance.

If the bullet strikes low, the traditional method of fixing the problem is to file metal from the top of the front sight blade. Be certain this is the load you want to zero the gun for. You cannot add metal back! Firing high isn’t as easily addressed.

Firing to the left or right is a more difficult problem to fix, but if the problem is severe, it may be done. Be certain you are not milking the trigger right or left and have an experienced shooter fire the revolver as well. The problem may be shooter related. If not, you may remove the cylinder and place the revolver in a padded vise. Be certain to remove the pin from a S&W barrel first, if it is of that generation, and be certain you are not simply turning the barrel shroud on others. It may be best to send the handgun back to the factory. If not, here is what is done.

S&W 442 revolver left profile
This S&W 442 is the author’s daily companion. Fixed sights work well for a snag-free draw.

I use a fixture that includes two boards cut to length, custom, for the revolver I am working with. Insert a heavy wooden rod or even a walking stick into the receiver and then turn the frame in the direction you want the bullet to move. Small movements result in large changes in the point of impact.

Another change worth considering before you move to expensive custom work is changing the grips. Yes, it seems simple, but the grips have much to do with properly presenting the sights to the eye. Hogue offers excellent grips that use geometry rather than checkering to aid control. This is clearly an option worth exploring.

It is worth testing different loads in each handgun. I prefer Buffalo Bore 158-grain loads for outdoors work. Most of the time, my short-barrel house guns are loaded with the Federal Cartridge Company 129-grain Hydra-Shok. Check sight regulation and perhaps a simple change of the load will do the business.

Last Word

Depending on the range, you should learn to use the front sight in the rear sight to regulate sight alignment for different ranges. Using 1/3 to ½ of the sight raised above the rear notch, will keep you on target to 100 yards, but you must do your homework and range work and get it right to connect at longer ranges.

Have you tried your hand at gunsmithing? How did it turn out? Share your story in the comment section.

About the Author:

Wilburn Roberts

When Wilburn Roberts was a young peace officer, he adopted his present pen name at the suggestion of his chief, as some of the brass was leery of what he might write. This was also adopted out of respect for families of both victims and criminals. The pen name is the same and the man remains an outspoken proponent of using enough gun for the job.

He has been on the hit list of a well-known hate group, traveled in a dozen countries and written on many subjects, including investigating hate crimes and adopting the patrol carbine. He graduated second in his class with a degree in Police Science. It took him 20 years to work himself from Lieutenant to Sergeant and he calls it as he sees it.
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 (15)

  1. Well-written article with great commentary! I’m working with my new SP101 in 9mm, and considering my sight options.

  2. Hello everyone.

    Always check your muzzle crown before assuming the sights would be off. Most revolver crowns aren’t true to begin with.

    If your front & rear sight are centered to the bore already LEAVE IT ALONE! The problem is you, not the gun. Although you could file down the front sight to bring things centered.

    For side to side adjustment you actually need a frame wrench, padded vise & a file to adjust the front fixed revolver sight. It’s not recommended because it complicates internal ballistics.

    The barrel is torqued & a crushed fit to the frame so any attempt to use the frame window may bend the frame throwing the yolk or crane off permanently rendering the frame as junk.

    All parts must be removed before attempting this method & when clamped in the vise, you must already know to what direction loosens the barrel thread.

    The barrel torque must also be known, but when reinstalling you should very slightly decrease it as the metal would already be fatigued into a set and you could stretch the bore in a very bad way.

    You never want to over tighten a set barrel because it will reduce the cylinder gap that should be between .003″ – .008″ & could cause a dimple line in the bore just past the forcing cone.

    Most revolver barrels relax set to the right by virtue of the thread direction.

    If it’s not too far off to the right, a few precise file strokes to the left vertical side of the rear sight box may work better than actually unintentionally adjusting the cylinder gap & making the front sight have a variable angled ramp that will change the point of impact as you move up or down the ramp like so many revolvers did made from 1950 – 1980s.

    If its way off & needs to be more towards the direction of how the barrel is threaded, you’ll need to file the frame face as squarely as possible to move the front sight to that direction making sure the cylinder gap is no smaller than .003″. If it is, the revolver may shoot out of time from cylinder slam. This is to where you would need to squarely file back the cylinder gap a few thousands of an inch without drastically changing the forcing cone depth. If you do, then you’ll need to recut the forcing cone depth & gage it or it may spray bullet shear off out of the cylinder gap & erode the barrel cone lead in.

    Best regards.

  3. You can give it a try. Just remember to place two empty cartridges in the cylinder to protect the small alignment pins from breaking. Good luck.

  4. If my memory serves me well, I believe they’re left hand threads. Originally they had r/h threads, but due to Smith’s cylinder rotation being counter clockwise the threads would loosen during firing. You’ll find that on older models. Newer models 70’s and up should be left hand.

    1. Thanks Roland. Mine is S/N 4506XX, so it could go either way. Tried RH earlier with small vise grips and leather protector, leather was cutting thru. Maybe brass shim stock & LH?

    1. OK
      this is what you do
      Cut the boards to accept the outline of the revolver. (without the cylinder.)
      Since you are turning the frame not the barrel, the barrel must be stabilized. The barrel fits into the boards, one on each side. This protects the barrel. The vise is cranked down but tight! Then you use a large wooden bar to turn the frame.
      Really simple old school

    2. WR (or anyone else) – which way are the threads on a S&W N-frame Model 25-2, RH or LH? I have one I’ve never had apart that’s stuck bad.

  5. Com’on. What kind of hawgwash is this? A handgun MUST be made of plastic and ABSOLUTELY MUST be able to accept 33 round stick mags or 50 round drums. Otherwise, you ain’t armed. 😉

  6. Years ago I went through Smith & Wesson’s armorers school at the factory. There they taught us the “fine art” of changing the point of impact on fixed sight revolvers. It involved a lead bar and knocking the barrel in the direction you wanted the shot to go. Of course, the cylinder was removed for this process. I remember the head armorer said that the only rule was “keep one foot on the ground” as you came down hard on the barrel. I’ve never used this process, and it reinforced my fondness of adjustable sights. But, if you send your gun to the factory I’m reasonably sure that’s what will happen.

  7. I use a taurus 445. I have had most excellent grouping with 200gn alloy lead and 180gn ftx bullets. Had done a little file work years ago, but these two bullets have worked well. I also handload, which made tweaking the rounds for best results, including accuracy for the sights, pretty easy. Besides, for its intended purpose at less than 10 feet, I’m not super worried anyway.

  8. Well written and informative article. I occasionally still carry my old Model 36. I have however, replaced the original grips with a set if Crimson Traces for the J frame. Now that I’m older, near vision is gone as well as arms length. Since I only wear glasses to read, I don’t have my trifocals with a plano distance on a lot of times, so the sight picture is just gone. The laser helps this old guy hit the target ????

  9. To each his own, but I wouldn’t have a fixed sight revolver. Especially because I shoot nothing but handholds. For my needs, if I can’t easily & quickly make an adjustment for the load I prefer to shoot, then it’s worthless to me. The only revolvers I own are S/A such as Ruger Blackhawks or my Herter’s Power Mag.
    I’ll stick to automatics for self defense.

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Your discussions, feedback and comments are welcome here as long as they are relevant and insightful. Please be respectful of others. We reserve the right to edit as appropriate, delete profane, harassing, abusive and spam comments or posts, and block repeat offenders. All comments are held for moderation and will appear after approval.

Discover more from The Shooter's Log

Subscribe now to keep reading and get access to the full archive.

Continue reading