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Sights can make the shooter more accurate, and make the experience far more enjoyable.
But there are so many options available when it comes to upgrading the sights on handguns, that it can be a daunting, confusing task. Because of the different specifications between gun manufacturers, models, and years of production, there is no simple answer to the question, "Will these sights work on my gun?" This guide covers types of pistol sights, how to choose the correct sights for your gun, and what sights are best for the type of shooting you do.
Safety Warning: Always make sure your pistol is unloaded before performing any maintenance or sight upgrades. If you are unsure of how to install pistol sights, have the job done by a qualified gunsmith.
Most pistols have a front sight post and a rear sight. The front sight post can be as simple as a piece of metal, or it can be made from space age polymers or glow-in-the-dark materials. At the rear, there is a notched rear sight - either at the back of the slide on semi-automatic pistols, or the back of the frame on revolvers. The operation of open sights on a handgun is as simple as lining up the front sight post with the notch on the rear sight. There are some differences in point of aim between manufacturers, but this is the basic method used to aim a pistol with open sights.
Before we get into the options available for your pistol, let's look at how pistol sights fit onto your handgun.
Adjustable Sights vs. Fixed Sights
One thing to consider before purchasing sights for your handgun is whether or not you want a fixed or adjustable rear sight. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages, and your choice should be made depending on your needs and the type of shooting you'll be doing.
Fixed sights are what you'll commonly find installed from the factory on most pistols. They perform well in most scenarios, but any adjustment will have to be done by physically pushing the sight right or left in the rear dovetail. Also, you won't get any vertical adjustment with fixed rear sights. Again, this isn't always a detriment to your shooting experience, because you won't always need vertical adjustment in some scenarios.
For example, a nightstand gun with fixed sights that is used for home defense will function perfectly well, and some will argue more reliably in a critical moment, than a pistol with a rear sight that has windage and elevation adjustment. Likewise, a pistol that is used for concealed carry should utilize a low-profile non-adjustable rear sight, both for ease of concealment and to prevent the possibility of a snag when drawing under pressure.
Most competition shooters will opt for an adjustable rear sight. This is so that the sight can be modified for distances in competition, and to be fine-tuned for precision. Much in the same vein, a larger sight won't cause the same kind of concealment and drawing issues when carried in an external holster during competition as it would when carrying concealed.
Marked vs. Unmarked Sights
When we say marked vs. unmarked, we're referring to the dots, underlines, or lack thereof on the sights themselves. Many pistol competitions prohibit a marked rear sight, which means that a flat black or serrated rear sight is required. In other applications, a shooter may opt for two dots on the rear sight with a dot on the front, an underline on the rear sight with a dot in front, no markings in the rear with a fiber optic front sight, the list goes on. Any combination you choose is a matter of personal preference, or in the case of competition, what the rules will allow.
Illuminated vs. Non-Illuminated Sights
Non-illuminated sights are the unmarked or painted front and rear sights that are meant for daylight use. They are perfectly acceptable for range use in the daytime, and are included from the factory on most civilian market pistols.
Illumination can mean any number of sight types, and the list keeps getting longer.
Trititum Illumination - Tritium is a radioactive compound that emits a glow in low light and darkness. You won't see the glow during the day, so tritium is often used in combination with a painted dot. Tritium has a half life of about 12 years, which means that your sights will lose about half their brightness every 12 years after they are manufactured. Also referred to generically as "night sights," these glow-in-the-dark sights are often used by law enforcement and for home defense.
Fiber Optic/Lexan Illumination - Fiber optic illumination (commonly grouped with Lexan light pipes) are colored pieces of plastic or glass-type compounds that collect ambient light, causing the dots to appear illuminated. These are great for daylight use, and can provide a benefit when shooting in low light. Fiber optics will not glow at night, since they need light to perform. These types of sights are available in many different color combinations, as well as ghost-ring sights (Dead Ringer GP sights, for example).
What Sights Do I Need?
That's a complicated question, but here are some questions to ask yourself before buying:
What purpose are they serving? Is this a home-defense nightstand gun, a concealed carry pistol, a range toy, or a competition pistol? Each one has different needs.
Do I need adjustable sights? If you're using this pistol for concealed carry, you'll probably want a fixed rear sight that is compact and won't snag on clothing. If you're looking for precision and versatility at the range, an adjustable rear might be what you're looking for.
Illuminated Sights? In case of self defense, illuminated sights can make a huge difference. If you're only shooting at the range in daylight, they may not be necessary.
Stay safe, and happy shooting.