Adjustable Sights: Why your Handgun Needs Them

By Chuck Hawks

Target pistols, upscale revolvers and hunting handguns are supplied with fully adjustable sights. The rear sight is typically screw/click adjustable for both windage and elevation. Customers purchasing these types of handguns are usually more experienced shooters and their guns are required to hit where they are aimed. If you would like your handgun to hit where it is aimed, you also need adjustable sights.

Manufacturers supply handguns with fixed sights for one reason: they are cheap. Often, the rear sight is just a groove in the gun's frame. Unfortunately, the fixed sights supplied on the majority of handguns sold today are virtually guaranteed not to shoot to point of aim. Here's why.

Sights can only be regulated for one specific load. That means bullet weight, powder charge and sometimes even the brand/type of primer used. Bullet weight is especially critical. Even if the manufacturer of a handgun with fixed sights took the time to regulate the sights of each gun at the factory (none do), they could only be regulated for one specific load, usually something once considered "typical." Over the last 50 years, the proliferation of factory loads with different bullet weights, bullet types and velocities--not to mention the steep increase in the popularity of reloading--make a mockery of the whole idea of a typical load.

For example, lets say a fixed sight .38 Special revolver is intended to be used with the Remington 158 grain LRN (standard police) factory load at a muzzle velocity (MV) of 755 fps from a four inch barrel. Instead, you buy the Winchester Personal Protection 125 grain JHP +P factory load at 945 fps from a four inch barrel. Those two loads are going to shoot to entirely different points of impact. Any load other than the designated load will shoot to a different point of impact, even another brand of 158 grain LRN. Should you intend to use your handgun for more than one purpose, requiring two different loads, you are doubly dammed.

Fixed sights can only be set for one distance. Closer or farther away, the point of impact is not the same. If you want the gun to shoot to point of aim at 50 feet or 50 yards, but the fixed sights are regulated for 25 yards, you are out of luck.

Even if you shoot only the Remington 158 grain police load for which the sights in our example are intended and the gun was regulated to shoot to point of aim at the distance you desire, your grip on the gun is undoubtedly somewhat different from whomever or whatever (perhaps a Ransom Rest) was used to develop the fixed sight setting. Unfortunately, even a slight change in grip style and tension will change the point of impact of any handgun. (You can easily verify this by shooting at a paper bullseye target and intentionally changing your grip or grip tension.) The sights must be regulated for your specific hold.

To achieve this with fixed sights requires a lot of trial and error effort and considerable luck. If the gun shoots low, you can file down the front sight to raise the point of impact. If it shoots high, you may be able to file down the rear sight (unfortunately decreasing the depth of the rear notch and degrading the sight picture at the same time). If the windage is off to either side you can try bending the front sight blade in the opposite direction, or turning the barrel in the frame. Either results in a skewed sight picture with an angled front sight.

Obviously, some of these methods do not apply to all handguns and the amount of correction available using any of these methods is quite limited. Even if you are ultimately successful in regulating fixed sights to hit at the point of aim at the distance you desire with the load you choose, you will undoubtedly have wasted more money on ammunition to achieve this than the price of an adjustable rear sight.

Realistically, to get your handgun to shoot where you aim, you need adjustable sights. It is usually easier and less hassle to buy a handgun that comes with adjustable sights than to replace the inferior fixed sights on a model that doesn't. In addition, the design of many fixed sight handguns does not even allow sight replacement. Keep these facts in mind when shopping for your next handgun.

Some folks will argue that at contact distance or for point shooting you don't need adjustable sights. True enough, since in these very limited instances the sights are not used. However, surely you want to be able to use your handgun at distances beyond the range of, say, a baseball bat or a spear.

The whole point of firearms to extend the distance between the shooter and the target. In the case of a defensive firearm, to stay out of the range of impact weapons. You want to stop an attack by a hostile predator, whether human or animal, reliably and well beyond the distance at which it can do you harm. This requires accurate, not approximate, bullet placement.

Another argument against an adjustable rear sight is that it is more fragile than a fixed rear sight. This may be true, depending on the type of sights being compared. A rear sight consisting of a groove in the frame is undoubtedly more impact resistant than most adjustable sights. However, for this to apply, you would need to drop your handgun directly on its rear sight blade, from a considerable height, onto a hard surface.

How likely is this? In some 50 years of rather active handgun shooting, mostly in the field in rough terrain, I have never done this. My guess is you would have to accidentally drop a gun a great many times to get it to land on the rear sight. Anyone that clumsy probably should not own any type of gun.

Offhand, I cannot remember seeing a rifle equipped with fixed sights. Rifle buyers would not allow it. Why are handgun shooters different? Is the assumption we do not care if we hit what we shoot at, or that we are simply ignorant? (Unfortunately, the latter may be true for some first time handgun buyers, allowing the manufacturers of inexpensive handguns to take advantage.)

In reality, accuracy is just as important with a handgun as with a rifle. The range maybe shorter with a handgun, but the need to put a bullet on target remains. Bullet placement is paramount, with a rifle or handgun, whether you are plinking, target shooting, hunting, or shooting to save your life. When the chips are down, misses or peripheral hits will not get the job done.

The mantra for accurate handgun shooting is to "focus on the sights, not on the target." Not very useful advice if the sights cannot be adjusted to hit where they look!

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Copyright 2014 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.