Understanding Handgun Sights

Gun News

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.

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.


Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

View all articles by Bob Campbell

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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!

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  1. I use the sights. In my opinion if you want to hit your target to defuse the situation you should always use the sights. I started shooting long before I joined the Marines. I retired from the Marine Corps and and still go to the range as often as I can so that I keep my skills sharp. I carry mostly the M1911 but also the Ruger GP100 .357.

  2. It’s remarkable that when Jeff Cooper was around and taught the first aspects of “practical” pitolcraft….how he destoyed commonly-held assumptions. Yet today, all of his teachings are seemingly lost to a new generation and these bad assumptions ( shoot defensively without using sights) is again coming up for discussion. It’s been solved with plenty of backdrop info for those who want to know.

    Then there is this–> Look at the opening photo of this article. The two rear sight “dots” and the front sight “dot” do not share the same centerline. In my opinion this confuses the mind as to the proper line-up of sights. If the sights were all black, the top of the patridge style front sight would align with an invisible horizontal plane shared by the top of the rear sights ( for precision work). Big blobs of dots helps in fast shooting, but with the centerlines “off”….doesn’t help even in fast shooting. In my opinion the 3 dots should visually line up centerlines.

  3. I’m no competition pro , but I have been a shooter sense I was a very young boy , around 5 yrs old !
    Expert class marksman in the ARMY , and thru my many years of experience , both eyes open for hand gun is the only way , along with the use of your sights !
    In unexpected / surprise close range situations point and shoot technic is a must skill !
    So , practice both , often !
    When you must shoot in self defense , it behoves you to have all the skills to enhance your likely hood of survival !
    Ya never know if your going to have to defend yourself from a shooter firing at you off the hood of a car from 50 yrds away in a populated area , or from a thug who rounds the corner 6 ft from you !
    So , practice both precision sight use marksmanship & get off me point & shoot !
    And remember ,, gun control is ” The Expeditious Incorporation Of Judicious Marksmanship !!

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