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An Introduction To Handgun Iron Sights

Almost all handguns you can buy now have some variation on the venerable “post and notch” iron sight. The front sight is the “post”, sticking up from the middle of the muzzle end of your slide, and the rear sights are the “notch”, providing you with reference points at the back end of the slide towards you.



pistol sights

Pistol Sights – Irons

Almost all handguns you can buy now have some variation on the venerable “post and notch” iron sight. The front sight is the “post”, sticking up from the middle of the muzzle end of your slide, and the rear sights are the “notch”, providing you with reference points at the back end of the slide towards you. The fundamental of shooting known as the sight picture is the process of lining up and maintaining equal height of the front and rear sights, with equal light on either side of the front sight inside the rear notch.

how to use iron sights

Equal light; equal height – a perfect sight picture

There are many different styles of these types of sights, many of which you can see on various guns at your local shop. I’ll describe some of the most common options for you here.

While you read, you should remember that no matter what your dream gun comes with or what the gun you already have has installed, iron sights are one of the easiest things to change. Installation can be done quickly and inexpensively by your local gunsmith or if you’re brave, is one of the easier and safer home gunsmithing projects you can take on.

The most common variety of iron sights are probably the “three-dot” style, where there is a dot on the front sight and dots on each post of the notch making up the rear sight. The dots can be plain paint, glow-in-the-dark tritium vials, fiber optic, or a combination, and they can be different sizes. Three-dot sights provide a lot of visual input, but it can be tempting to line up the dots instead of the actual blades of the sights.

pistol sights

The glow-in-the-dark night sights on my carry pistol are three-dot style

One common type of variation on the three-dot sight adds other visual indicators meant to speed up how fast you can see and line up the sights. A popular example would be what you see on standard Glock pistols, with the white “U” that lets you center the front dot into. Alternatively, you might see a line or a series of lines to point to or balance the dot on or between, like the ones on the right below. Many shooters find both these and three-dot sights to ultimately be too busy to encourage proper sight focus and alignment.

pistol sights

Stock Glock sights on the left; a “bar and dot” sight on a Kahr pistol on the right

Also common are sights with just a dot on the front, which is normally a piece of fiber optic. Although, they can also be paint or tritium. You’ll see front fiber optic sights with plain black rear sights a lot on competition and target-shooting guns in particular, though they’re gaining popularity on a wider basis because the fiber is fast and easy for the eyes to pick up and the black rear sight offers no distractions to precisely lining up the sights. At the same time, the front can easily be differentiated from the rear, and can be seen against a variety of target backgrounds.

With sights that have painted dots, you can quickly and easily modify them by just drawing some black marker over the rear dots. You can also experiment in the short term with tiny pieces of black tape.

pistol sights

Competition sights with a fiber optic in the front sight post, and three-dot sights modified at home to reduce rear dots

You may have noticed that there’s a lot of variety in how narrow the front sight might be, or how wide the rear notch. The rule of thumb is that a narrower front with a wider notch, leaving lots of light in the “equal light” part of sight alignment, tends to be faster. The opposite tends to allow you to be more accurate but can cover up too much of the target. The hard part, of course, is finding the right balance. Much of that is dictated by personal preference – you’ll need to try a lot of different kinds of sights to see what works best for you.

And while standard post and notch iron front sights are pretty much just rectangles with or without a dot in them, there are many more options for the rear. The notch may have a flat bottom or a more U-shaped curve. The entire sight could be rectangular or have curved outer corners. They might be adjustable through tiny exterior screws or fixed.

pistol sights

Adjustable, rectangular rears on the left; fixed and curvier rears on the right

What kind of sights are on your pistol? What do you like or not like about them? Are you looking for something more radically different? Come back soon, when I’ll talk about electronic/optical pistol sights!

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  1. Terry

    June 19, 2017 at 9:12 AM

    I tried a diamond version of the Hex sight and didn’t like it. It covered up too much of the target and was a big lump on the back of my pistol. I currently have Speed sights on my pistol with the diamond shape dots. I rally like these. They are easy and quick to pick up and you can get more precise sight alignment. They are working for me so far. As long as you are not outside in the sun, laser sights are the best but have limited application because they are hard to see in bright light conditions.

  2. Mikial

    June 18, 2017 at 5:49 PM

    A well written article. I enjoyed it and it is definitely great for new shooters.

    For myself, from personal experience everywhere from Iraq to numerous CONUS locations, most iron sights work pretty well. I do have night sights on one of my G21s and a colored Lucite front sight on a 22/45 I used a lot for indoor speed shooting competition. To be honest though, in a close encounter shooter situation you pretty much get the front sight on the target and go from there. Most factory sights work just fine for this, whether I’m using my Jericho, Ruger AP or a Glock.

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