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Pistol Sights 101

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Optics are one of the most common accessories added to firearms, and they’re arguably one of the most impactful upgrades to have on a firearm. Without a good sight package, you’ll never get the most of your handgun’s potential. Just as rifles are known for their wide array of optic variants, so too are pistols.  

Almost every pistol will come with some basic iron sights, but there are quite a few different pistol sights available for them. Each one has its distinct uses and benefits that lend themselves to specific applications. Below, we’re breaking down the different sights available for handguns, how they’re constructed, and how they’re useful in various scenarios:  

Understanding Pistol Sights  

There’s quite a bit to unpack with gun sights for pistols because there are a lot of variations to choose from. You’re likely familiar with the standard iron sights that virtually all handguns come with, but there’s a wider spectrum of optics available, and they’re some of the best accuracy upgrades you make to your pistol.  

As firearms technology has progressed, so too has optics technology. While there are many diverse types of sights for pistols, each one performs and functions in a unique way. Of the sights available, most fall into three distinct types: iron sights, reflex sights, and laser sights.  

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Iron Sights 

Iron sights are the most basic type of firearm sighting system. Their simple construction dates to as early as 1450. Today, it’s still common to see them in use as a main sight on pistols, and usually as a back-up sight on rifles.  

Pistol iron sights are made up of two components: the front sight and the rear sight. In most cases, the rear sight has a gap between two posts, while the front sight has only one post. Aiming with iron sights involves aligning the front sight within the notch of the rear sight. So, if the front sight is level and visible through the gap of the rear sight, your pistol is lined up and on target.  

However, iron sights can be limiting in terms of the sight picture they offer. Iron sights require you to focus on the sight itself, rather than the target. Instead of looking directly at the target, your focus should ideally be on the front sight post of the iron sights. This works, but it doesn’t get you the clearest picture of your target, which is why most enthusiasts opt for something like a pistol red dot sight. Still, iron sights are still a staple for enthusiasts, and so, there are a lot of sight variations. 

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Common Iron Sight Variations 

Depending on the manufacturer of your iron sights, the rear sight can look different. More specifically, the rear sight notch can have different shapes. The most common rear notch shapes are square, but there are other variations as well, such as U-notch and V-notch.  

Square notch sights are by far the most commonly available. As the name suggests, these sights have squared sight posts, with clean, angular lines for precise alignment. Square notch sights are great for making accurate shots since the sharper angles of the sights make it easier to detect any slight deviations when aligning your sights. It’s arguably one of the easiest sights to pick up and use since the front sight sits in near-perfect alignment in the square notch of the rear sight.  

U-notch sights are a little different in that instead of a square cut rear sight, it’s round to form its defining U-shape. The human eye naturally picks up sharp lines and corners, so it’s much easier for users to acquire their targets due to the contrast in the front and rear sight. Still, they come with the caveat of not being as accurate as square notch sights since they come with a slightly wider rear sight notch gap.  

V-notch sights have a V-shaped rear sight. They don’t necessarily have a ‘notch’ like the other iron sight options mentioned, but they have a shallow cut in the shape of a wide ‘V’. Instead of having a ‘U’ or two dots for front sight alignment, V-notch sights have either a single center dot or a center line to align with the front sight. They offer similar benefits to U-notch sights, but due to their shape and presentation, they come with a steeper learning curve. 

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Iron Sight Holds 

Iron sights come with different holds, with two of the most common being combat hold and center hold sights. Combat hold sights put the projected point-of-impact on the dot of the front sight. On center hold sights, the point of impact sits along the top edge of the front sight. Both options are effective, but they have their pros and cons.   

Combat hold sights cover up the target when used properly, which, when you’re focusing on your front sight, can hinder your situational awareness. Center hold sights often take longer to align since you have to compensate for its hold, but they obstruct less of the target. Ultimately, it’s up to personal preference as to which is best, but if you’re new to pistols, it’s worth knowing that center hold sights provide greater visibility even though they require extra practice to become proficient with them.  

Another common iron sight hold is the 6 O’clock hold. To use this sight hold, the front sight dot must sit at the bottom of your target. Like with center hold sights, there’s often a slight learning curve when first using this hold. It offers the greatest sight picture out of the mentioned holds and can be a solid option with some practice. Still, something to consider is that most of the pistols you’ll find won’t utilize a proper 6 O’clock hold.  

For reference, SIG Sauer pistols have combat hold sights, while most GLOCK pistols have center hold sights. There are a lot of good sights and accessories available for these pistols too; our article on the top GLOCK accessories goes more in-depth on this. 

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Other Types of Iron Sights 

There are many other variations of the basic iron sight package, and each focuses on distinct advantages. One such sight option is adjustable sights. Adjustable sights are much like standard iron sights, however the construction of the rear sight differs considerably from standard ones.  

On adjustable sights, the rear sight can adjust for elevation and windage to make them incredibly accurate for shots at greater distances. You probably won’t see sights like this on most factory pistols because they’re used for specialized purposes like competitions or pistol hunting. Likewise, the adjustment mechanisms also contribute to a higher price point. Something else to note, since the adjustable part of the sight is housed in the rear sight, they can be paired with different front sights, like fiber optic sights.  

Fiber optic sights are just as their name suggests: iron sights that have built-in fiber optic tubes. Manufacturers like Trijicon are among the most popular brands around and are often included on select pistol models. Iron sights aren’t always the easiest to pick up, and in some cases, they can blend in with your target, making it difficult to shoot properly. This is where fiber optic sights come into play.  

Ambient light in your environment gets picked up in the fiber optic tube, making the sights much brighter and easier to see against most target backgrounds. This style of iron sights can come in assorted colors too, with brands like HiViz having sights in green, red, and orange.  

We’ve mentioned a couple of high-quality brands already, but there are a lot of brands to consider that each make high-quality fiber optic sights. Another one we want to mention is Truglo. They’re a solid choice that has been around for decades, and they also produce some high-quality pistol sights in a multitude of color options.  

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Night Sights 

Night sights are a variation of the standard iron sight, however, as their name suggests, they can be used at night or in other low-light environments. Night sights have built-in illumination to make them easier to pick up in the dark. It’s common to see night sights included on factory pistols, especially for those oriented around tactical or duty use.  

The illumination in night sights is achieved through the incorporation of tritium, a radioactive hydrogen isotope. Tritium releases energy as it decays, which can cause other light-sensitive elements to glow when paired together. Despite the use of radioactive material, tritium is quite safe and naturally occurs in our atmosphere. It’s only harmful when in large concentrations, and many manufacturers use it in products like wristwatches and other tools.  

Something to consider is these sights have a limited lifespan. Like we said before, tritium decays over time, and has a half-life of roughly 12 years. This will leave your sights half as bright as how they started. While they’ll still be usable after this time, tritium night sights will constantly be getting dimmer as time passes.  

Still, night sights keep the operational simplicity of iron sights while coming with the bonus of being able to see better in the dark. Companies like Night Fision and Trijicon provide a plethora of options. 

Regardless of whether you use night sights or standard iron sights, they have a shared limitation in their sight picture clarity. Both require you to focus on the sight itself, rather than the target. While effective, it doesn’t give you the clearest picture of your target. This reason is why many enthusiasts opt for something like a pistol reflex sight. 

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Reflex Sights 

Reflex sights are a big step up from traditional iron sights, with mini-reflex sights and smaller pistol red dots being designed specifically for handguns. They work by projecting a reticle onto a lens which is then reflected to the user. Our article on how they work covers more of the specifics. 

Offering quicker target acquisition and the ability to more easily keep both eyes open, reflex sights enhance situational awareness. Their popularity has led to many manufacturers making more pistols that are compatible with optics or have options for optic-ready configurations. Whereas with iron sights you need to line up both sights on target while focusing on the front sight, all you need to do with a reflex sight is put the reticle on target.  

Compared to iron sights, reflex sights will win out in nearly every aspect. They fit on the pistol slide without hindering holster compatibility, so long as it’s an optic ready holster. Keep in mind that specialized holsters are also available for unique setups.  

There are two primary categories of pistol dot sights: mini-reflex sights, with an open emitter design, and pistol red dot sights, which are enclosed and more closely resemble their larger rifle counterparts. Both sight options are incredibly useful and work to achieve the same goal, but they each have pros and cons. 

Mini-reflex sights are lighter and offer larger sight windows, but are vulnerable to environmental interference due to their open emitter design. In rough field conditions, dirt, dust, or other debris can occlude the diode, preventing it from projecting its reticle. Pistol red dot sights have enclosed emitters and are more resilient to harsh conditions, but due to their design, they can be slightly heavier and have smaller lenses. 

Regardless of which style reflex sight you choose, both are solid options. It’s impossible to determine which is the best pistol red dot option. However, you can rest assured knowing they both fulfill a similar role. For everyday use, open emitter mini-reflex sights are great, but for a more durable optic, an enclosed pistol red dot is the better choice.  

Also, it’s worth mentioning that mini-reflex sights can project specialized complex reticles, with some models being capable of swapping reticles at will. In addition to the standard 3 or 6 MOA dot reticle, these optics can project complex reticle patterns like chevron and circle-dot reticles. For diverse shooting needs, they can be a better option for you since they are larger and offer more options for wind holds and bullet drop compensation. It also makes it significantly easier to find the dot.  

One of the biggest challenges newcomers have is finding the dot/reticle when acquiring their sight. Our ACSS® Vulcan® reticle makes this process incredibly easy. It features a large ring that sits outside of the optic’s field of view that only shows up when you’re off center. Our guide on the ACSS Vulcan reticle goes more in-depth on it and the optics that use it.  

When it comes to pistol red dots and mini-reflex sights, there are a lot of manufacturers making high-quality options. Primary Arms Optics, Trijicon, and Holosun are a few of some of the most popular brands available. If you plan to upgrade to a mini-reflex sight, our guide on what to consider with a pistol red dot goes further in-depth on these optics.  

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Laser Sights 

A laser sight is a device that projects a laser beam on target. While they’re often used on rifles, mainly for shooting at night with NODs, there are many enthusiasts who use them on their pistols to aid in sight acquisition. 

While laser sights used to be bulky and not incredibly practical for everyday carry, modern laser sights are much smaller and have longer run times. Some weapon lights, like the SureFire X400T-A Turbo, even integrate a laser sight, offering dual functionality. Check out our guide on pistol lights for conceal carry if you’re interested in running a light on your pistol.  

Laser sights can come in either red or green, and both have their advantages. Because of how light works, our eyes can pick up certain colors easier depending on the environment. For instance, in bright daylight or in a brightly lit room, a green laser will be much quicker to pick up. In low light environments, both red and green are solid options. That said, green lasers eat through batteries quickly since green emitters require a higher light intensity. Overall, red lasers are much more efficient on power, but keep in mind that if you’re not constantly using your laser, they can last for year or longer depending on the make and model. 

The mounting options for laser sights vary and are dependent on the specific design of the pistol. Fortunately, laser sights come in configurations that either mount to the grip, trigger guard, or the accessory rail of your pistol.  

While lasers are a great point of reference for quick aiming, they aren’t to be used as a replacement for iron sights or a reflex sight. They can complement your main sights but can’t substitute for a lack of fundamental training.  

Lastly, unless your laser is grip mounted, you’ll likely need another holster if you plan to carry your pistol every day. Rail and trigger guard mounted laser units are a lot like weapon lights in that they alter the form factor of your pistol. As such, you’ll need specialized holsters designed around the contour of the laser/light. Still, they can be a solid upgrade to your pistol, but just remember that they shouldn’t be relied upon like a main sight.  

Choosing a Sight 

As you now know, there are a lot of sight options available for handguns, but which one is the best one? When you break down each sight, they each have their own pros and cons. So, there really isn’t a best sight per se, but depending on your needs or pistol’s purpose, you may benefit more by opting for one over the other.  

Iron sights are a staple sight for pistols, and they almost always come with them in some configuration. Standard sights work great, but for competitions that require them, or any other precision needs, adjustable sights are a solid choice. For everyday use, duty, or recreation, standard irons, fiber optic, and night sights will provide you with the most versatility.  

Like we mentioned before, iron sights work fine but don’t provide the greatest sight picture. Reflex sights, however, are essentially a direct upgrade from irons. These sights are great for any scenario. They’re used often for personal defense, duty, and competitions, as they provide the best overall sight picture and quicker target acquisition. Just make sure that your dot sight is zeroed at the proper distance.  

Finally, though they’re mainly used in defensive scenarios, laser sights can be a great accessory sight for your pistol. Most competitions prohibit the use of lasers, so they’re mainly relegated to duty use and personal protection. Still, they allow you to get a quick reference of aim on when they’re zeroed properly.  

Ultimately, choosing a sight depends on your specific needs, your pistol’s make and model, and your personal preferences. Depending on what pistol you own, you may not be able to run certain sight options. It’s crucial to research the sights you’re interested in to make sure that they’re compatible with your handgun. 

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Sighting in your Pistol 

Now that you know what sight options are available for your pistol, you’ll need to know how to sight them in. Fortunately, we already have some incredible articles that go over sighting in reflex sights and lasers. So, we’re going to focus mainly on iron sights.  

Pistol iron sights don’t really need to be fine-tuned to be zeroed, so long as it’s a dovetail sight. Dovetail sights are meant to securely fit a rear sight in place, so when installing them after replacing the stock sights, they just need to be securely fit in place. A well-installed dovetail sight, with even spacing on both sides of the rear sight, should align properly with the front sight, effectively zeroing it. However, installing or replacing these sights might require a special tool. This can be done at home, but if you’re uncomfortable with working on your firearms, we recommend visiting a gunsmith to ensure proper fitment.  

If you’re running adjustable sights for target shooting or precision, there are some adjustments you can make to them. Most adjustable sights have adjustable windage and elevation. Sighting these in is pretty much like sighting in irons on a rifle. 

You’ll want to secure the pistol in a stable position before shooting your first test group. Having a stable position allows you to minimize the risk of over/under correction and will provide you with repeatable results when shooting. With your target set up at your zero distance, place your pistol on the shooting rest of your choice and align your sights with the target and fire a 3-round test group. This first group will serve as your reference point for how you’ll need to adjust your sights. Adjust your sights for windage and elevation and fire another group to see where your new impact lies. You may be inclined to fire only one shot, but firing a second group minimizes the risk of over-correcting for a flier, if one is to occur. Keep repeating this process until you’ve hit the center of your target.  

By completing this step, your sights are zeroed, and you’re ready to start plinking targets. If you’re keeping the stock iron sights and opting for something like a mini reflex sight or a laser sight, you’re in luck. Our guide on zeroing pistol red dot sights, and our beginner’s guide to pistol laser units go in depth on the zeroing process for each sight variant.  

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The sheer variety of handgun sight options is vast, and there is a solid choice for every conceivable purpose and preference. Still, it’s daunting to choose a new sight for your pistol, especially when there’s a near-endless number of options.  

However, by taking your needs into consideration, you can choose the right optic to ensure that it’s suitable for you and your requirements. Optics packages can be a costly investment at times, and it’s best to do your research to make sure it will perform well and fit your needs.  

Upgrading your handgun’s sights is a great way to enhance your pistol’s performance, but it takes more than cool hardware to set you up for success. Our new pistol owner’s guide is worth reading if owning a handgun is new to you or if you simply want some helpful tips and best practices for storage, cleaning, etc.  

Finally, our article on the best handguns for self-defense will help you get a better understanding of what to look for when shopping for a new pistol and accessories.