Probably the two most changed items at the user level are grips and sights. While most grip replacements are pretty straightforward, sights can be more challenging, as most sights and their dovetails seem to come in two distinct sizes: too large and too small. Of course sights are supposed to come oversized, requiring fitting to the existing dovetail, and that’s typically the case.
Undersized sight dovetails create their own special set of problems, sometimes requiring imaginative solutions. What if the sight is so large it won’t even think about starting in that dovetail? First, think prevention, and try not to end up with a problem in the first place. Order the right sizes. I’ve seen my share of poorly installed sights over the years; bashed up, dented sights with brass residue hammered into the finish. And even worse outcomes — damage to the slide from over-cutting a dovetail, or missing with a punch and and wrecking the finish. All these scenarios are easily avoided.
As expected, Brownells sells an indispensable fitting aid in their specially ground dovetail files. Be sure to choose the correct angle for your sights/dovetail, and remember with any stock removal fitting method to go slow and test-fit often. First, check the sights in the dovetail to see if they’re really oversized and in need of further fitting. Then, using the dovetail file, gently flare the right side of both the front and rear angled surfaces of the slide dovetail. This gives the sight a leade to help you get it started.
But, how tight is tight enough without being too tight? Tough question, because it’s a matter of feel, not a measurable specification. I try to get the sight to start by hand and fill the first quarter of the dovetail before the resistance gets too much to push it any further by hand. If you’ve maintained the parallel sides of the slide dovetail, this is usually the perfect amount of tightness to ensure a durable fit. Then the sight is removed and cleaned.
While a tight fit is desired, just aggressively hammering in a sight that will only just start in a dovetail will more often than not cause the sight to fusion-weld itself to the slide, doubling the force necessary to move it further and making fine adjustments nearly impossible. You may have suspected there might be a miracle fix for this problem, and you’d be right! To be able to take advantage of a snug fit without galling or distorting the sight with a punch, just apply a thin coat of Bostik Never-Seez to the angled surfaces of the slide’s dovetail. MSC Supply sells this product, and I wouldn’t be without it. A drop of the right lube, and the problem is solved — that easily.
Never-Seez lube and applicator assure sights drift in easily.
Okay, we have the sight ready to install, so let’s not end up with a bashed-up sight, with brass residue, dents and gouges. This is all determined by how you move that sight, and more importantly, what you move it with. I’ve never been a fan of vise-like mechanical sight pushers, finding most expensive, hard to use, and not as “universal” as you might be led to believe. I also never use brass, aluminum or plastic as installation punches — they mark, bounce or break. The best solution I’ve found for rear sights is a small block of a really hard wood, such as Cocobolo or African Wenge. You can get these at any good woodworking store.
Keep the punch short, about 2″, with the grain running straight. They’ll get broomed-out on the ends, and sometimes they’ll split, but they won’t mark a sight! A common mistake is to use a small hammer so we don’t hurt anything. Nope, get a big one. A 12- or 16-ounce hammer allows a slower, more measured blow that will actually get a tightly fit sight moving. The Never-Seez aids the effort and allows the sight to be finely adjusted if necessary.
Ted likes to use broken,re-ground steel punches to
drift front sights. But be careful!
Front sights require a bit more finesse due to their size, and their shallower dovetails necessitate specialized punches. The best ones are made from broken or damaged steel punches. My two favorites are a slightly angled square face for fine adjustments, and a stepped punch that rests on top of a male sight dovetail, unable to reach the bottom of the slide dovetail and scuff it up. Remember to keep these punches short, just long enough so you don’t whack your fingers. A shorter punch delivers more of the energy of the blow with less chance to bounce or slip. Hardwood punches on a front sight can be a little risky, as the dovetails can split the punch, and the sight blade can be snapped off pretty easily if too much pressure is applied.
Mostly, go slow — and don’t tackle something you’re not comfortable doing.
By Ted Yost
Editor’s Note: With this issue, well-known custom pistolsmith Ted Yost will be taking the reins of the Pistolsmithing Column. Alex Hamilton, who took care of this page for the past 13 years, has semi-retired from writing, and might even have time to get caught up with chores around his iconic gun store, Ten Ring Precision, in San Antonio, Texas. If he finds the time, you’ll still see his byline in our pages now and again. Alex, thank you for sharing your insight over the years. Now … get to work in that store!
Ted Yost first hung his gunsmithing shingle out in 1984, building hunting rifles, S&W revolvers, sporting shotguns and doing restoration work. He’s taken about every armorer’s course ever offered, studied historical gunsmithing methods, written and taught POST-approved armorer’s courses, held a state college teaching certificate for gunsmithing and served on the Yavapai College advisory board for the gunsmithing program. In 1991, Jeff Cooper recruited Ted to run the Gunsite Gunsmithy, where Ted stayed for almost 10 years. He developed Cooper’s concepts to a higher-volume production program and supported the training side at the same time. He says, “I wouldn’t have missed it, but I’m glad it’s in my past!” In 2001, he opened his own shop and moved to his hometown of Tempe, Ariz. In 2007, Heirloom Precision was born and partners Jason Burton and Steve Bailey joined Ted. They have since become one of the country’s premier custom shops. Welcome aboard, Ted! RH