Iron sights are critical for accurate shooting. This is true regardless of whether you’re shooting bullseye metallic silhouettes or a determined criminal assailant. While self-defense shootings are usually up close and personal, that doesn’t negate the importance of high-quality sights.
The Importance of Iron Sights
In defensive shooting, hitting your target is absolutely critical. If you don’t land hits consistently, your weapon is useless to you. At the same time, to avoid injuring or killing bystanders, you must be able to predict where your shots will go.
Part of learning the fundamentals of marksmanship involves mastering the use of iron sights. Handguns, including those for self-defense, are no exception. If you want to shoot accurately, you need to see your sights, and your sights need to be functional.
How Iron Sights Work
Firearm sights run the gamut from traditional iron sights to electronic red-dot (reflector/holographic) sights. Before you can select the iron sights you need for your defensive firearm, it’s worth discussing how iron sights work.
The traditional arrangement consists of a front sight and a rear sight. Front sights take many forms, from rectangular posts and ramped blades to brass beads. The rear sight of a handgun is usually a U- or V-shaped notch.
To hit your target, align the front sight vertically and horizontally with the rear sight. When you place your aligned sights on target, this is called a sight picture.
Fixed or Adjustable
Most handgun sights are fixed. This means that you can’t readily adjust them for elevation, although they may be drift-adjustable for windage. Drift adjustment refers to your ability to move the sight horizontally in its dovetail using a punch. Fixed combat sights are the most robust in design and the least susceptible to breakage. They’re also less affected by recoil.
Iron sights can be adjustable, but exercise care when choosing adjustable sights for self-defense. Adjustable sights are more fragile than their fixed combat counterparts, and many examples have sharp edges that can catch on or damage holsters and clothing. It’s important to remove these sharp edges or corners if you want to carry a weapon with adjustable sights.
The priority in a set of adjustable sights is the rear. An adjustable handgun rear sight usually has a vertical screw that you can tighten or loosen to lower or elevate the point of impact.
A horizontal screw lets you adjust the windage, shifting the point of impact left or right. While adjustable sights are good for target shooting and those interested in experimenting with different ammunition types and bullet weights, they’re less critical for self-defense.
If you don't know how to adjust these fixed pistol sights, we have the perfect guide for you.
Front and rear sights, whether fixed or adjustable, often have serrations or another type of texturing. The purpose of this is to reduce glare, ensuring that you’re able to see your sights clearly in broad daylight.
Handgun sights have historically been low profile. Minimalist front and rear sights reduce the likelihood that your weapon snags on your holster, clothing, or accessory equipment (e.g., suspenders, webbing) as you draw.
Unfortunately, low-profile combat sights, such as those that adorn the WWII-era M1911A1, are difficult to see, especially in low-light conditions.
If the front and rear sights are all black, they provide no contrast. A lack of contrasting color can mean that your sights disappear when you align them to a dark-colored background. As black, dark brown, and dark blue clothing are popular choices; this can be a serious problem for target acquisition.
The trend in handgun sights has been toward high visibility. Three-dot fixed combat sights are the norm, but there are other ways of achieving this. A front sight that is brightly colored or highly visible with a blackened rear sight can be a quick combination to acquire. The front sight should naturally draw your dominant eye.
High-visibility sights can also be elevated for use with suppressors. This allows you to acquire a sight picture over the suppressor’s outside diameter.
Tritium and Fiber Optics
Besides contrast, you can often find in three-dot sights, two materials are common in handgun sights: Tritium and fiber optics. Tritium, a radioactive isotope, produces a familiar green glow in low light due to radioactive decay. This material is commonly used in night sights to maximize visibility in the dark.
Fiber optics collect and amplify ambient light. While not as useful at night, these can brighten your sights during the day. Some night-sight configurations combine the two, providing a day-or-night sighting system.
Because of the close-range nature of self-defense shootings, some firearms enthusiasts emphasize point shooting. This is also known as reflexive shooting — unsighted shooting from the hip or chest. Unsighted shooting has its place when firing from retention with one hand while defending with another. However, aimed fire from eye level is still your best shot at landing accurate hits.
Since you can only focus on one object at a time, focus on the front sight, keeping both the target, once confirmed, and the rear sight out of focus.
If the rear sight is elevated and has an abrupt front face, you can use this for one-handed emergency charging. This means that you can retract your pistol’s slide by hooking the rear sight on your belt, holster mouth, or some other surface to charge the weapon. If you’ve been injured or your support hand is otherwise occupied, this can allow you to reload or clear stoppages.
Miniature red-dot (MRD) sights have exploded in popularity in recent years, especially among competition shooters. While you may consider these for your shooting needs, provided that your pistol is compatible with them, iron sights are the preferred choice.
They’re comparatively inexpensive, lightweight, more durable, and don’t require batteries or electronics to work. Iron sights are simply the most reliable option. In addition, they don’t contribute the same amount of bulk.
What Sights to Get
Iron sights are important for accurate shooting, regardless of the circumstances.
However, defensive shooting poses unique challenges. You need sights you can see, preferably in variable and low light. Your front sight should be highly visible because you’re focusing on this part. If your rear sight has markings, they should be minimal — you don’t need any distractions.
If you carry a handgun for self-defense, the sights you use play an important role in your ability to fire your weapon accurately. Without sights that you can see and acquire quickly, you won’t be as effective in the unfortunate event that you’re forced to use your weapon.
To learn more about the different kinds of pistol sights, visit this page.
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