Gun Gear

Understanding Handgun Sights

hree-dot tritium sight picture

I have noticed that discussions on combat sights, combat shooting, and handguns are often hi-jacked by those with an embarrassing lack of experience. All they know is what they have read and much of that isn’t accurate. A shooter should study, true, but they should also gain practical experience and meet the instructor half way with this experience.

Colt Single Action Army revolver and 1911 pistol with ivory grips
Service pistols of the past featured smaller sights. The Colt, bottom, is a modern 1911 with superior sights. The old Colt would stay on a war pony at 100 yards.

An instructor who recommends not using the sights in a personal defense scenario or recommends off the wall or less reliable handguns isn’t doing you any favors. Chances are, his handgun is loaded with an off brand, trendy ammunition with serious deficiencies. i.e. it isn’t service grade and proven—along with the handgun—in serious agency testing. It should be a combination that has fired 20,000 trouble-free rounds is service grade and good enough for you and I. The load of the moment in the newest Glock clone isn’t in the same league.

When attempting to have an intelligent discussion concerning combat sights, I have actually been confronted with ‘no-one uses their sights in combat.’ My counter is, “The ones that hit do!” Everyone in my circle of friends that has ‘been there and done it,’ has used their sights. They have a vivid memory of using their sights to aim. The ones that missed do not.

Sale ends July 28, 2019

Sale ends July 28, 2019

On a related subject, I recently heard a comment at a gun shop that a fellow missed a deer at about 30 feet with a shotgun! Something is definitely wrong. Maybe it was nerves. God help him if the deer could shoot back. Let’s not get into fairy tales concerning those who shoot without using their sights. They are in a league with the so-called stopping power studies and those who shoot tethered goats. They are shills, fairy tales promoted by rascals to impress fools.

TruGlo fiber optic and tritium pistol sight combination above
Note the TruGlo fiber optic and tritium combination—the best of both worlds.

I have studied the subject for many years. As a peace officer, I walked the line and was involved in more than one incident—including a rather hairy ordeal in which a single shot solved the problem. It was delivered at 15 yards with a pistol equipped with self-luminous iron sights. This tends to color your thinking.

The justice system is a tightrope walked by us all, and it is the difference between always fulfilling your wishes and social responsibility. Those without social responsibility are often violent. It is best to be prepared. Every incident is different and the more versatile the sights chosen, the better you may be prepared.

A target sight is specialized. A big dot sight is equally specialized. Something more versatile is needed. My experience includes many thousands of rounds of ammunition expended over more than four decades of shooting handguns in realistic drills. While no one seems to have the perfect training system for combat shooting, the persons who constantly train and use good equipment are more likely to survive a critical incident. Prior training and regular practice are the most reliable predictors of survival in a critical incident.

TruGlo front pistol sight
TruGlo offers a combination of fiber optics and tritium.

Sights keep the shooter from missing the target. I would not wish to be the instructor asked to testify in a wrongful death suit who must tell the judge that I trained the student not to use their sights. I think the legal definition for deliberate indifference may apply to such training.

The sights should be used. Exceptions are very close range—3 yards or so. In these cases, the body of the handgun should be used as an index in meat and paper drills. The slide or cylinder covers the target and you fire.

I practice precision fire often. I make a perfect sight alignment and press the trigger. At close ranges, sometimes a fast but smooth press and superimposing the front sight on the target very quickly works. Using the sights consistently requires the shooter to train to draw, get on target, and get a very fast sight picture. This means that situational awareness must be in place, and you are prepared to respond to the attack.

The sights must be high visibility and easily acquired quickly. Regular practice is the most important component of competency. Situational awareness is vital because a surprise attack will cancel out training, save for the most rigorous training.

Modern night sights are excellent for personal defense use.
Modern night sights are excellent for personal defense use.

The design of the sights is important. I think that the classic Smith and Wesson orange insert revolver sight is a good sight for most uses. It is accurate for close range defensive encounters and accurate in the precise sense at longer range. The sights must be large enough, and they should have a contrast of some type with white dots on a black sight the baseline.

Bright orange front sights are better. The fiber optics used in the Ruger GP 100 3-inch barrel .44 Special are excellent. This is a sight that has proven accurate well past 50 yards but is brilliantly fast at moderate range.

Tritium night sights are a good choice for a personal defense handgun. The tritium vials, however, are not large enough on their own to provide a rapid sight acquisition and must be surrounded by another material. TruGlo uses fiber optic sights to surround tritium and this comes out well.

I like the single front dot for many conditions. This makes for brilliantly fast work and aids keeping both eyes open. Be certain to practice dry fire with a triple-checked unloaded pistol, and be certain you understand the sight picture you will have with the night sight of your choice. Practice constantly, keep your eyes on the target, and you will get a hit. Only a lack of practice will hinder your marksmanship.

What is your opinion on the use of handgun sights? Do you practice using them in self-defense drills or do you subscribe to point and shoot theories? Which sights do you prefer on your carry or home defense handguns? Share your answers in the comment section.


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Comments (19)

  1. Good article Bob, but maybe you haven’t shot at night without ambient in a long time. Tritium sights are ok if there is some light between you and the target. Then you can see the target and your sights. But if you have ever been in total darkness, all you are going to see are the sights, thats it. You will not be able to see your target. When you turn on your weapon or hand held light to illuminate the target the sights become just plain black sights. You must identify your target before you put your finger on the trigger. Fiber optic sights are far superior to tritium. Your weapon or hand held light does not turn them black.
    Secondly you did not mention another fine point. Test your ammo in darkness. Some manufacturers put flame retardants in their powder to minimize the muzzle flash. We’re talking premium ammo here. Some do not. The muzzle flash can blind you and delay any neccessary follow up shot.
    Then, anyone who carries a gun and does not carry a flashlight, even during the day, believes they are invincible, or their ignorant. That is to say they need training.
    Finally lasers are great on hand guns. You will not always have time to present the pistol or revolver in a classic two handgrip.
    Ok, ok, ok…. Ok, must not forget, practicing gripping the weapon on the draw so that it comes second nature is very important.
    Finally, I totally agree with you that training and practice are omnipotent.
    Happy Trails…. May the good Lord take a liking to you. Szczinator

  2. No one is going to mention crimson trace laser sights?
    No buttons to push, just grip you gun and they go on.
    Once zeroed, they make you Superman!
    You can stay behind cover, only expose your hand and still make accurate hits.
    I can make hits with them while running full speed away while shooting one handed!
    I can also get shots off before the gun is at eye level to even see the iron sights.
    If the batteries fail, then I am back to iron sights.

  3. Sights are a must and shooters are well advised to use them. I get in 2 sessions a week of practice it my not be a lot of rounds but any and all practice is beneficial to me. My EDC is a Glock 19 and I have put a set of night sights on it. A good investment.

  4. Not that sights are not important, but learning to shoot without them is equally important… at least at close distances. Since the VAST majority of gunfights happen within 7 yards (21′) or less, you need to be able to shoot INSTANTLY. With all the adrenaline kicking in (and it WILL happen), your focus goes down the toilet and it becomes extremely difficult to focus on a small front sight. That is why instinctively drawing and then immediately send rounds down range to the center mass of your target (which may or may not be the mid torso if the other person has some kind of cover) by point shooting is so important. This take lots of practice though, just like any other shooting drill.

  5. Did two tours in RVN and my issue piece was a Remington 1911 .45 ACP. As old as it was and the way it rattled, it was still the most accurate piece I’ve ever used. It saved my life on many occasions.

    Practice makes Perfect. Unless you practice often and purposefully you will die with your unaimed piece in your cold dead hands.

    80 years old and still shoot 96 on PPC and 90 on Combat Course. Lifetime NRA member.

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