Pistolsmithing Let’s
Talk About Sights


A custom gold inlaid “staked” front sight with added JB Weld epoxy,
making the fit secure and seamless.

Sight issues are probably number two in my shop after function problems. It’s frustrating not to hit where you are aiming.

Let’s focus on iron sights, no pun intended. This category includes night sights, fiber optics, gold beads, etc.

The most common issue is adjustment. On the pistol production line, the sights are typically set in the middle of the dovetail slot or staked/pinned into the barrel or slide. If a shooter finds himself shooting off-center, he will elect to move his rear sight. This is typically where the trouble starts. Most factory-installed sights are set in the rear dovetail with a hydraulic press, frequently making moving the sight with hand tools almost impossible.

The front sight staking tool from Brownells and an EGW tenon front sight for a 1911.
Greg cut the sight with a “V” notch to help swage the tenon into the mortise.

Sight Movement Tips

I’ve found the key to moving sights is not the tool but holding the slide. The slide or frame must be held securely in a vise. I use a large Wilton bench vise with 5″ aluminum jaws. I never hold a slide or frame in the jaws without padding. The padding can be hard rubber or leather to prevent scratches or metal transfer from the vise. I also avoid over-tightening the vise. Too tight, and I could crush a frame or slide. I want the jaws just tight enough that energy from my drift punch is transferred to the sight, not to the vise.

You may think, “Why not mention a sight pusher at this point?” I work on so many different pistol models a pusher would be impractical. I prefer a drift and hammer. The key to using a drift is it’s made of softer material (like brass or aluminum) than the sight. It must also be the correct size. You can buy drift punches from Brownells. I make my own from round stock of both brass and aluminum. I make the drift to contact the strongest part of the sight — usually the base, not the blade! Hitting the blade can easily damage it or even snap it off.

After loosening a set screw or removing an elevation screw, the drift punch should move the sight with easy blows from the hammer on the punch. If it’s too hard to move, hit a little harder. Some sights might have been set using adhesive like Loctite. They should be heated with a hair dryer to soften the glue.

Using an aluminum drift to remove a front sight. Note the
drift is on the sight base, not the blade.

A small detent drilled in the bottom of the dovetail accepts
the sight set screw to prevent movement.

Installation Secrets

Once the sight is zeroed or replaced, I want to ensure it does not move under use. Most rear sights have a set screw. I like to drill a small detent on the slide for this screw to “nest” in to prevent movement.

There are three main types of front sights: dovetailed with a pin, dovetailed with no pin and staked. For dovetailed and pinned front sights, the pin must be removed beforehand so the sight can be moved. This pin is usually a 1/16″ roll pin; it can be pushed out with a “roll pin punch.” Now it can be removed and changed for a new type. Check with your supplier for a suitable replacement.

Staked front sights are not designed to move but are known to fall off on occasion. This is usually due to poor installation. I have a few tricks that make staked front sights stay in place.

First, I ensure the sight fits snugly in the slide mortise — the square pocket milled in the slide. The sight has a stud on the bottom; this is the tenon. The tenon should fit in the mortise with taps from a non-marring hammer. If it won’t fit, file a small amount off the tenon and try again. Once it slips in, remove the sight. Staking requires a special tool like the ones sold by Brownells. Before staking, I make a “V” notch in the bottom of the tenon with a file. This “V” allows the tool to nest and not slip. It also makes swaging the steel tenon easier.

For added security, I will add a small amount of JB Weld to the mortise. The adhesive will fill any voids in the fit and add security to the staked sight. Hammer strikes to the staking tool spreads the tenon. These are not heavy blows that could snap the sight. The “V” notch gives the process a good head start. After spreading the tenon, I clean up the excess JB Weld with a cotton swab and solvent. After a drying period, sand the excess tenon flush with the slide.

For more info: Brownells.com, WiltonTools.com, JBWeld.com

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