Editor’s Note: The following is a syndicated article by author Ed Combs that first appeared in USCCA’s Concealed Carry Magazine Volume 12, Issue 7, October 2015 under the title, “Draw A Bead: Know Your Pistol Sights.”
When I have the opportunity to turn an antique firearm in my hands, one concept that jumps out at me harder and faster than others is firearm sighting systems and their development through the years. When I compare the Trijicons on my Glock 17 to the crude nub above the muzzle of a Kentucky long rifle, it can be like looking at a Chihuahua and a Newfoundland: It’s hard to reconcile the fact that they’re both, technically, of the same species.
Rudimentary sights are one of the reasons legendary American shooters are held in such high esteem. It isn’t just that James B. “Wild Bill” Hickok shot Davis Tutt under the fifth rib from a block away; it’s that he did so on purpose and with a Colt 1851 Navy — a cap-and-ball revolver whose front sight looks suspiciously similar to a tiny pointed post sticking up about a quarter-inch from the top of the barrel. It isn’t just that Carlos Hathcock landed some borderline unbelievable shots during his service as a USMC sniper fighting in the Vietnam War; it’s that he and other snipers of the day were basically working with off-the-rack Kennedy-era sporting goods.
However, as much as I’d love to explore the lives of such men and the evolution of the aforementioned equipment into the modern ACOG, today we’re sticking to defensive sidearms.
For the most part, modern pistol sights evolved from the revolver sights of the 19th Century, weapons that proved themselves on Civil War battlefields and from horseback during the Indian Wars. As Colt’s revolving repeater came into its own, sight systems slowly crept forward with the rest of the unit, but even as cap-and-ball sidearms became metallic cartridge marvels, revolver sight improvement lagged behind the curve set by the rest of the gun. Though overall handgun technologies were advancing at breakneck speed — single-actions gave birth to double-actions that were supplanted by autos — the concept of removable (or even adjustable) combat sights on a fighting sidearm was mostly foreign. Oh, you could buy target sights for your target gun, but why would anyone want to put such a fragile, fancy whatsit on their hip pistol … right?
Before the middle of the 20th Century, there were basically two kinds of revolver or pistol sights: tiny ones and giant ones. When you take a close look at the original 1911 pistol, the front sight is barely large enough to register by today’s full-size gun standards, almost as if it was added as an afterthought. On the other end of the spectrum, the front sight on the Colt Model 1873 — popularly known today as the “Peacemaker” — was large to the point that what appeared to be exaggerated versions made for children 80 years later weren’t all that far off in the high-front-sight department.
Rear sights were similarly unglamorous and, by modern standards, barely adequate. Just to pick on Browning again, the original 1911 was designed to be a dynamite short-range weapon, which meant that the shooter could point-shoot his target or he could line up his front-sight nub between the low steel rear notches provided he had the light and the time. Most revolvers at the turn of the past century offered similarly Spartan accommodations, be their rear sights attached notches to the back of the frame or simply a notch ground along the top of the frame. In short, pistol and revolver shooting was a decidedly short-range game to such an extent that a man who was a good pistol shot at distances longer than 25 yards was truly exceptional.
However, as I’m fond of saying, standardization breeds customization. When you hand a few hundred thousand people a few hundred thousand of the same nine different kinds of sidearms, they start tweaking them to their own tastes. Certain men in law enforcement and military service began dropping their sidearms off at ’smiths with specific instructions like, “I want a lighter trigger and a nice big, white piece of ivory on the front where that little tiny bump is.”
In fact, the most radical of these customizers in the fighting gun game was a man named John Henry FitzGerald. He would start with a Colt Police Positive .38 Special, cut the barrel to 2 inches, remove the front half of the trigger guard, bob the hammer for DAO-fire, shave some weight off the butt and give it a trigger job to smooth the whole works out. The result of these modifications was a revolver that was lightning-fast to cross-draw from the front of the pants and fire upside-down with a pinky trigger pull at an attacker who’d closed to within contact range. It also bore a strong resemblance to the result of locking a gunsmith in his shop and shouting, “And dammit, Fitz, don’t come out until you’ve made that pistol as unsafe as possible!” before slamming the door. A Google search for “FitzGerald Special” is definitely worth your time if you’re unfamiliar with these little mutants, but I’m getting away from handgun sights.
Today, almost all of that has changed. Over the past 50 years, some of the more convenient aspects of target sights found their ways into the defensive pistol world, chief among them the concept of a pistol’s end user being able to easily swap out the front and rear sights. Though some economy models do not allow this, few are the mid- or high-priced models that stick the shooter with what the T&E department settled on.
The humble revolver ramp sight was pretty much settled by the turn of the 20th Century. Though high and wide was still en vogue well into the years leading up to World War II, shortly afterward Smith & Wesson introduced the new Chief’s Special, today referred to as the Model 36. This snub-nosed five-shot defensive revolver was adorned with a small ramp at the end of the muzzle, which made drawing it from a more discreet holster or location much easier than with other styles of revolver sights, most of which were designed for duty use (and, therefore, drawn from large duty-type holsters). If it wasn’t already, this style of front sight became the standard for defensive double-action revolvers.
Unfortunately, not all handgun sights are replaceable. Most defensive revolvers ship with all the sights they’ll ever have, though you might be able to pay a bemused gunsmith to cut or grind off offending sights and replace them with others (at a cost not dissimilar to a new gun with sights you’d prefer). For the duration of this article, I will be concentrating on sights for autos, as they’re the most common aftermarket options.
This is not so much a style of sights as a modification that can be applied to any other style of sights. As chemistry and metallurgy advanced in the Teens and ’20s, companies began to experiment with luminescent materials in all kinds of areas, specifically clock and watch hands. This ended poorly for those involved in the glow-in-the-dark business, as the paint was radium-based and linked to all kinds of radiation-poisoning-related problems. Fortunately for all involved, by the time replaceable defensive handgun sights were coming around, safer alternatives existed.
If at all possible, I would encourage you to acquire night sights for your defensive firearm. First of all, if your defensive pistol doesn’t have steel sights, I am of the opinion that you should remedy that. If one of your hands is disabled during a fight, you’ll still need to be able to execute a reload. The easiest way to do this is to insert a charged magazine and, once it is seated, hook the rear sight on a table edge, boot heel or belt to provide the necessary pulling force to release the slide. I’m not going to say that doing this is impossible with plastic sights, but I am saying that it is far more likely for plastic sights to be broken while doing so, leaving the shooter with a less useful defensive tool.
Secondly, night sights, well, they make shooting in low-light conditions not only possible but almost as easy as during daylight. Don’t fool yourself, though; night sights aren’t magic beans either. Just because your sights glow in the dark doesn’t mean the room and your attacker will. What night sights can do for you is allow you to very quickly index the front and rear sights, thereby allowing you to properly engage an identified threat.
The luminescent compounds in night sights will eventually lose their glow, but it will not be for years. After they are no longer glowing at their past brilliance, they can be replaced either by a gunsmith or with gunsmithing tools at home. More on that later.
The most common style of sights encountered on defensive autos is what are commonly called the “standard 3-dot.” This is a system wherein the rear of the slide is fitted with a long horizontal notch of metal or polymer with a colored dot on either protuberance. At the muzzle-end of the slide, there is a post of sorts affixed that has another colored dot, sometimes of the same color and sometimes of a contrasting one.
As many of you probably know, these sights are employed by centering the dot on the front post between the dots on the rear notch. Ideally, the dots are arranged in an orderly line with equal amounts of light on either side of the front dot. Though this style of sight never became popular with rifles or shotguns, it now rules supreme in the world of defensive handgunning and, depending on the hands employing them, they’re capable of anywhere from passable to extreme accuracy.
This style of sight was born on the dangerous game fields of Africa and the Asian subcontinent. Hunters with potentially lethal quarry, such as elephants, rhinos, tigers and Cape buffaloes, needed sights that would allow them extremely rapid sight acquisition without compromising accuracy. What they came up with was an extremely wide “V”-shaped notch at the breech of the firearm and an oversized dot at the muzzle. Such an arrangement allowed the shooter to see their front sight even if it was well off the mark, thus allowing them to throw together a good sight picture before they were trampled and/or eaten by the animal they sought.
Express sights are employed in a manner very similar to standard 3-dot sights. When acquiring a sight picture with an express-style sight, the pistol is brought up to eye level and the front sight is acquired. If this is all that time allows, then the shot is sent. If time allows for a more measured shot, the shooter can center the front sight post in the valley of the vee. Using a properly installed set of express-style sights, they will be as accurate as a set of 3-dots.
Installation and Adjustment
Depending on your level of comfort and experience, you might be able to replace your own sights. Sight adjustment and replacement tools are available online and in brick-and-mortar gun shops for anywhere from a few dozen to a few hundred dollars, and depending on how much work you intend to be doing on sidearms over the next few years, purchasing your own might be the most prudent course of action.
Sights are usually affixed to autos in two ways. On most lower-priced models, the sights are permanently affixed to the slide and there isn’t a whole lot that can be done about them. However, on guns with replaceable sights, they are usually dovetailed or screwed into the fore and aft of the slide. These are the sights that can be replaced, and between the instruction manual that came with the sight adjustment/replacement tool and the instructions that came with the sights you ordered from Brownells, most people with access to a bench vise can make it happen.
I’m not here to tell you that anyone can replace their own handgun sights or really even do much more than remove a screw or two to replace their grips. However, I would advise that if you are a handy person in other areas, a YouTube search for tutorials might well be worth your while. If the process is as simple as buying the sight tool, pushing the old sights out with it and a ratchet, and then sliding in the new units, you might elect to make a go of it yourself. If the tutorial includes grinder wheels, acetylene torches and lots of cursing, you should likely consider biting the bullet and letting a professional handle it.
The gun only works if you load it, and the bullets only work if they go where you ask them to go. Your sidearm’s sights are as important as your holster or your magazines and often treated in a similar fashion — overlooked, ignored and blamed for poor performance.
However, if you spend a little time researching and test-driving differing styles and models, you might surprise yourself with how big a difference they can make.
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