Safety and Training

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.

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.


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 (20)

  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.

  6. For many of my 28 years in law enforcement I carried a model 66 S&W with night sites on it when they were only available by special order from one company. They DO work. In qualification we had to fire at targets that were dimly illuminated from a position with no light. I could consistently hit. I have had Sig semi autos, and S&W Semi autos with night sites and recently got a Springfield with same. With my aging eyes, one of the worst set of sites to pick-up is the factory set on my Beretta 92FS.

  7. I now prefer Trijicon XR sights. My two GLOCKS (30 & 36) have the narrow yellow front sight with the U-notch rear sight. They are fixed but shoot a variety of .45 ACP to the same spot within 25 yards.
    My worst pistol is a new S&W 642 with sights that are almost unusable.

  8. Mr Campbell, thank you sir for telling like it is and not sugar coating it to save from hurt feelings of those up and coming know it alls. Your straight forward common sense and many years of real world experience shared here, will undoubtedly not only result in many more hits on target, but saved lives as well.

  9. Sig’s x-ray 3 sights work perfect for me . They came from the factory on my legion and 365, I am going to put them on my 320. The big dot bright green front really grabs the eye. I can and have used just about every sight out there but the x-rays are my favorite so far.

  10. I think that this is some good stuff, but where can one practice more realistic drills? Most if not all of my local ranges are indoors. The few outdoor ranges aren’t conducive. I think the private clubs might offer something, and there are some 3-4 day classes that offer realistic training but not sure how much is ‘sight specific’. I have access to private land out in the boonies.

    So i probably have a place but where do i find the training exercises ? Like a lot of people i can shoot paper. But i really want to know how to use my pistol safely, comfortably and w confidence.

  11. I shoot a Canik TP9SA. The factory sights are dotted with a center line (lollipop) on the rear sight. I very carefully set a large bubble of glow paint on all the markings. They work great, but I also have a reflex red-green dot sight. The mount allows me to use my factory sights also, and places the focal line above my suppressor. Very sweet set up and ridiculously accurate.
    As far as using them ALL the time. It situationally differs. Up to around 10 feet I’m very practiced at “draw and fire”. Center mass is pretty easy at that range. I’ll snap off a couple quick hip shots, then aim for a couple more. Seems to be a little more real world response to me.
    I guess its a time thing. If you have time to aim, then by all means, aim. However, if things unfold in a way that leaves you no time, having a well practiced “quick draw” or as I call them, snap shot, can be the difference between life and death. It also keeps you from sending rounds downrange willy-nilly.
    Anybody that has read any of my posts, knows I preach “real world” scenarios for practice. Sure, keep your marksmanship skills sharp with typical paper target shooting, but don’t limit yourself, or the types of situations you can respond to. Shoot on the move, crouched, moving to both strong and weak sides. With and WITHOUT sights. Be prepared for as many different situations as you can, or that is practical for your range.
    Stay safe!!

    As always
    Carry on

    1. Well said. A shooter who can anticipate his environment or his situation is always one shot ahead of his advisory.


  12. Great article! I was first taught to use my front sight, the weirdly point then pull with the middle finger and never lose you front sight.

    This is a great article. Thanks.

  13. What’s are reputable ammunition brands to use? And is it alright to use cheaper brands for target practice?

    1. Aaron
      Thanks for reading. As for ammunition selection look to the big federal agencies ammunition selection program. The Ohio State Patrol, also, a few years ago conducted a test in which 228,000 rounds were fired without a single ammunition failure. Winchester and Speer loads. Federal Cartridge Company has many contracts, and the French fired some 700,000 rounds in selecting their SIG pistols, using Speer/Federal and CCI loads. In 1916 Winchester won a US Army contract that specified one failure to fire in 100,000 rounds- the standard is higher now. These programs and contracts have a great deal of validity.

    2. Also do not forget the Black Hills Ammunition military contracts for their first class sniper loads.
      Hornady is also a company with an excellent reputation.

  14. Mr. Campbell is dead on. Pistols and revolvers have sights for a reason. They should be used. “Aim small; miss small” is a statement that goes all the way back to the Revolutionary War, and is still valid today. I would go a little farther. I have adjustable sights on all my handguns. Fixed sights are only good for one load; the one that shoots to point of aim. Adjustable sights let me adjust for whatever load is accurate in a particular weapon. That means when the sights are aligned, the round impacts where the gun is aimed, not to the side or high or low, but within one or one and a half inch of point of aim. This helps to eliminate peripheral hits which might not be incapacitating. I think that not using sights is a little like trying to drive without the steering wheel. It can be done, but its foolish. By the way, I spent 20 years in the US Army teaching pistol and rifle marksmanship. Failure to acquire your sights while trying to qualify with the pistol meant not qualifying. Point shooting works for most people only at very close range, and requires thousands of rounds of practice to perfect. Sights work for anyone.

  15. I can’t fault any conclusions from this article. The sights on some revolvers, baffle me wide front blades with no contrast between front and rear sights, how is a shooter to determine where they are aiming?

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