Pistol Sights: Handgun Iron
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 sight is 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.
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 is 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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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Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on July 26, 2016, and has been updated for quality and relevancy.