Is it Necessary to Zero a Pistol? When and How to Do it?

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Last Updated on July 30, 2021.

Writer for Minuteman Review, handgun aficionado and artisan firearms reviewer. 

Is it Necessary to Zero a Pistol When and How to Do it

You may already know that zeroing a rifle is necessary to ensure precise and accurate shooting. But what about a pistol? Pistols are short-ranged compared to rifles. Does zeroing them matter that much?

Learn why zeroing may be essential when testing a new pistol, find out when you can do it, and which methods you can use.


Zeroing a Pistol? Why?

When setting up a rifle, particularly for activities where you need the most accuracy and precision possible (e.g., hunting, long-distance target shooting), you must zero your specific combination of rifle, ammunition, and sights at a preferred distance

However, many shooters believe that zeroing is only necessary for rifles. After all, handguns are rarely effective beyond 25 yards, and the average person is only likely to shoot them at distances ranging from 3 to 15 yards. So why bother with zeroing if the expected distances are going to be this close?

To help you answer this question, imagine trying to shoot your favorite handguns with the sights removed or filed off. You might be able to hit targets at very close distances, but you will be pretty inaccurate in most situations, and your groups will open up - wildly.

Zeroing a firearm is primarily about ensuring consistency (as close to zero deviation as possible) between the point of aim and the point of impact. Therefore, it is necessary to zero your pistol with the sights you have and the ammunition you expect to use, even on handguns.


Zeroing Process

The process of how to zero a pistol involves multiple steps, which you should follow carefully.

Initial testing

The first part of the zeroing process is to test your handgun as it currently is without making adjustments. This process will allow you to get a good idea of how the pistol performs and what to expect down the line.

The best way to begin testing your handgun is to try different ammunition brands (or at least the brands you shoot the most often) at a specific, set distance.

  • The gold standard of pistol shooting distances is 25 yards, ideal for handguns intended for combat or self-defense.
  • For competition shooting pistols intended mainly for slow-firing, accurate disciplines such as bullseye, your zero distance should be 50 yards.
  • For concealed carrying pistols and small handguns in general, a 10-yard zero may be more realistic.

After selecting your target distance, practice shooting with it slowly and deliberately, going for the most accurate shots you can comfortably take. Check the group size and location for each brand you’ve tested and note how far off the center the groups are.

Point of aim checking

Once you have a general idea of how well your pistol performs, select the ammunition you intend to use for the handgun’s intended application.

For example, if you’re zeroing a self-defense pistol, you should load it with your preferred brand of defensive hollow-points.

Afterward, use a target with a specific, easily distinguishable aiming point (a piece of tape, a colored dot, the letter “A” on a USPSA target, etc.), set the target at your preferred distance, then shoot 5-shot groups as accurately as possible.

Check for each group’s size and location between each five-shot string.

  • If your group appears to be consistently dead-on, your sights may already be adequately tuned for your ammunition and set distance. This outcome is relatively rare, but it can happen, and no further adjustment may be necessary.
  • Otherwise, if possible, you will have to adjust your sights between each 5-shot group until your groups are consistently on the point of aim.

What Sights Do I Have?

Before learning how to zero a pistol, you must first check whether the pistol’s sights are adjustable. Not all pistol sights are created equal.

Non-replaceable sights

If your sights are completely non-replaceable (e.g., physically cut or molded into the slide), you may not be able to adjust them without making permanent alterations to your slide.

Such alterations involve cutting, filing, or otherwise permanently removing material from your handgun, which may be undesirable. If you own such a handgun, consider using it at close distances only (no more than 15 yards) instead of attempting to alter your sights.

Replaceable sights

If your pistol possesses specific slide cuts for installing and removing sights, you have more options at your disposal. There are two types of replaceable pistol sights: fixed and adjustable.

A typical duty, combat, or concealed carrying pistol features fixed sights, possessing a set height and shape. Fixed sights are intended to be set and zeroed for a single, specific distance (typically 25 yards). They are more rugged and durable, making them better suited for duty or concealed carrying.

Competition and target shooting pistols may feature adjustable sights instead, which are more complex but allow the shooter to make precise adjustments. You can easily recognize adjustable sights by the presence of screw heads with flat or circular notches, compatible with a corresponding key or screwdriver.


How to Adjust Sights

Once you know what type of sights your handgun possesses, you are ready to learn how to zero the pistol’s sights.

Adjusting fixed sights

If you possess a set of fixed sights, you can usually only adjust them for windage by drifting the rear sight’s position on the slide.

You can perform basic drift adjustment with just a small punch and a hammer. However, this method is relatively imprecise and inconsistent. Dedicated tools such as the sight pusher are a better choice, as they produce consistent and repeatable adjustments.

Configuring adjustable sights

If you possess a set of adjustable sights, the rear sight is likely the only fully-adjustable element.

Most sets of adjustable sights let the user adjust for both windage and elevation. Depending on the model, you may need a specific key or screwdriver to perform your adjustments.

Specific models may only allow for windage adjustment, but they remain easier to configure than fixed sights. Typically, the windage elevation screw is on the side of the rear sight, whereas the adjustment elevation screw is on the top end. You may also find markings around each screw indicating which direction you need to turn the screw to adjust up/down or left/right.

Adjustable sights typically let the user change the rear sight’s position in small, fixed increments in either direction. Every incremental change produces an audible click. You can use the number of clicks as a guideline when adjusting your sights, allowing you to make precise changes between each 5-shot group until you reach the desired accuracy.


Final Thoughts

You may have noticed that the process of zeroing a pistol involves making accurate shots at 25 yards. If you are not skilled or confident enough to shoot offhand at that distance, or if you want to remove as much human error as possible from your zeroing process, you may want to invest in a handgun vise designed for sighting-in.

Don’t hesitate to train as often as possible after zeroing your pistol. Having a pistol you know is accurate and shoots to the point of aim will boost your confidence and enable you to focus on the fundamentals.