Why So Many Sights?

We still argue over what’s best. We’re all correct!

In the frontier West, a Peacemaker proved effective without sights. Aiming was sometimes optional.

As the story goes, William Bonney and Tom Horn met in Las Vegas, New Mexico. Tom was just 15, Billy not much older — though he had five notches on the butt of his Colt. Tom had teethed on pistols in Missouri and didn’t like Billy. A shooting match ensued. Both teenagers were said to have drilled aces out of playing cards, then split them edgeways. Airborne bottles didn’t stand a chance. Legend has it Billy then took Tom around to the Baca Corral, where they’d have some privacy, and lined up 12 matches on a rail. “You go first,” he said. “Light a match. I’ll go next. Like that.”

Perceptive beyond his years, Tom removed two matches. “We’ll shoot five,” he said. “When I’m done, we’ll each have a bullet left.”

The reported sequel is credible as the preamble. From 30 feet, Tom lit two matches. Billy ignited one, clipped two. More certain: each man went on to live by his guns, and to die at the hands of the law.

Arms-length accuracy was the rule for 19th-century revolvers, even among people who used them a lot. On October 26, 1881, the Earp brothers and Doc Holliday met the Clanton gang at Tombstone’s OK Corral. Gunplay was a foregone conclusion, so all combatants should have brought their best game. But after some 30 shots, fired at ranges that averaged six feet, only three men of the eight lay dead!

Despite such abysmal accuracy, short-range shootouts carried grave risk. Medical care couldn’t always stop peritonitis, or infection from dirt adhering to greased bullets. Derringers (after Philadelphia’s Henry Deringer, Jr., whose small percussion pistols evolved under Colt and other makers into cartridge arms) could cause wounds all out of proportion to their power. President Lincoln’s assassination showed that desperate men relied not on bullet energy, nor on accuracy. They simply got close to kill.

Rather than refine their sights to ensure center hits, gunslingers of that era speeded up the actions of their revolvers to put more bullets aloft. English-born Texan Ben Thompson filed off his front sight to quicken his draw. The modification proved useless when he was ambushed.

John “King” Fisher, another pistolero, was also bushwhacked. Self-proclaimed “shootist” Clay Allison got no help from his revolver when a wagon rolled over his neck.

Handguns are still hard to shoot accurately, and distance drains precision. But beyond ranges at which pointing is more practical than aiming, the type of sight on a pistol affects its handling, speed onto the target and accuracy. Experience has a lot to do with preference. And the more you use any sight, the more effective it becomes for you. Of course, application matters.

Early DA service revolvers retained the grooved strap as a simple rear sight. Accurate enough, mostly.

Sights should add precision far off without compromising speed up close. Short shots are still the rule.

Compact autos are best fitted with low-profile sights that afford quick aim. Here: a Springfield 1911.


For bullseye, the best iron sights are probably a black front blade, angled back to yield a shadowed dead-black image, in a square rear notch allowing a sliver of light either side of the centered blade. Take a six-o’clock hold with a gun zeroed to shoot into the middle — and it will. Popular sights are usually good choices, and this combo has served bullseye shooters well for decades.

Some months ago I fired a custom revolver outfitted with a fluorescent green bead up front and a shallow V notch in the rear. Fluorescence — in target or sight — can “burn” into your eye and is no help to me in formal target shooting. But I found this revolver’s set-up quite useful afield. It’s essentially what I like on a dangerous-game rifle. A big bead catches your eye, and it settles fast in the belly of a shallow V, which obscures very little of the target, much less than a square notch. Zeroes putting your bullet at the top of the bead afford you instinctive aim on targets of various shapes and sizes at unmarked distances.

A red plastic insert appears bright when front-lit. Back-lighting puts it — and the target — in shadow.

Wayne likes a square notch/square blade for bullseye shooting. A white notch rim helps in the field.

Fluorescence isn’t always desirable, but these dots show better in dim light than does white paint.

High Visibility

Fluorescence has become popular on handguns for defense as well, partly because it grabs your eye fast, partly because it helps you aim in light so dim you’d not otherwise see the sights at all. Williams Fire Sights, Truglo’s Brite Sites and others employ fiber-optic rods front and rear to provide a three-dot image. Green seems the most popular up front, leaving you with red in the rear; but you can choose either arrangement, or one color for both. In poor light, these sights trump three dots with white paint. Aiming at backlit targets, you’ll find paint fades into the shadows of the sights. Ditto the red plastic inserts common on front sights of DA revolvers. Like white dots, they’re fine if your target is front-lit.

As my eyes age, optical sights give me more hits. I can’t say they have more appeal — surely not on compact autoloaders, 1911’s, small- and mid-frame DA’s and historically correct SA revolvers. Optics on these handguns not only seem tacked-on; they impair carry and handling. Hitting more often is a great palliative, of course.

Swedish inventor Gunnar Sandberg knew that 50 years ago, as he finished work on a tube sight you didn’t look through. You engaged its dot reticle with one eye, while your other found the target! Aimpoint sights resulted. These rugged, high-quality optics are parallax-free, so you hit where you see the dot, even when your eye is off-axis. A 1x Aimpoint affords unlimited eye relief and roughly the same field as a 4x rifle-scope. With 12 brightness levels, the dot brings MOA precision beyond 100 yards.

Another early red-dot optic was Bushnell’s HoloSight. I have one on a Browning .22 autoloader, a substantial pistol with a stout 6″ barrel. That HoloSight delivers tighter groups than I could ever get with irons. A herd of improved red dot sights have since stampeded to market. SIG Electro-Optics offers its Romeo series (4-7). Vortex has its Sparc and Strikefire II. They’re lighter and more compact than their forebears, optically superior and as waterproof and fogproof as full-size scopes. Most are 1x, with precise adjustments (usually ½ or 1 MOA), Dot size: 2 to 4 MOA. Battery life has grown by leagues. SIG claims up to 62,500 hours for its Romeo 7!

Any tubular red-dot sight adds considerable weight and bulk to a pistol. The Vortex Strikefire II scales 7.2 ounces. More to my taste are reflex sights like Meopta’s MeoSight III, a superb 1.3-ounce, 1x optic. Its 3-minute dot has eight intensity levels and an automatic shut-off. The Vortex Razor is another top prospect, SIG’s Romeo 3 another. This year Leupold announced its DeltaPoint Pro II with 2.5-minute dot or 7.5-minute delta, a motion-sensing on-off switch and Auto-Brightness sensor for optimal illumination. You can over-ride the latter for manual adjustment. A spring-steel shroud shields the alloy housing and aspheric lens. The DeltaPoint Pro II weighs less than 2 ounces.

Most shooters find aiming easier with a bright front sight. Green is now more popular than red.

Rugged And Good

An aiming device in the same apparent plane as the target, with nothing to line up on the pistol, is a great blessing. Riflemen have enjoyed it since the advent of barrel-length scopes before the Civil War. Handgunners were spared the dishwater images and the hairy, off-center reticles of those primitive optics, and their fogging and mechanical failures. By the late 1950’s, scopes had shed such liabilities.

Alloy tubes and positive adjustments married mounts that grimly held zero when firearms clattered down rocky steeps or rolled under horses in trail wrecks. LER (long eye relief) scopes helped hunters hit at long range with bottle-neck cartridges in single-shot pistols, and extended the reach of powerful DA revolvers.

When Smith & Wesson introduced its X-Frame 500, I carried one in Wyoming and sneaked up a ridge to peek into a basin thick with aspens. A deer moved. I bellied behind a rock, snugging my fists in a two-hand hold against it. The buck paused at 95 yards. Reticle quivering on rib, I pressed the trigger. The animal dashed downhill, then tumbled. That .500 and its 2.5x scope later laid low a pronghorn buck.

I’ve since used scopes on other hunting handguns and decided I’m not steady enough, even with a field rest, for magnification higher than 4x. Many riflemen dial up more optical power than they can use effectively. I suspect that’s true of handgunners too. You can’t hold either firearm perfectly still. If reticle movement appears so violent you’re tempted to yank the trigger to catch the target “on the fly” or delay the shot in a futile attempt to eliminate wobble, or if the field is so small you can’t easily find or stay with the target, you need less magnification! Remember, LER scopes deliver smaller fields than rifle-scopes of the same power — but rifle scopes have 3″ eye relief!

While optics can help you hit at distance, those as big and heavy as a tube-style red-dot sight or a scope transform handguns into rifles without butt-stocks. Flat-shooting rifles these days weigh as little as 5 pounds, and they’re far easier to fire accurately than any handgun. If you want to wring all the yardage from your Freedom Arms SA or your X-Frame Smith, a scope makes sense. But for most handguns, iron sights or an ounce-and-a-half reflex sight can give you all the reach you need afield. Practiced steel-plate shooters get remarkable results at distance with irons. If you can see the sights and the target clearly, your shooting technique, not the sights, will determine where your bullet lands.
Keeping shots inside a 2-minute dot at 100 steps isn’t a test of the sight, but of marksmanship.

In matches where speed and accuracy count, red dot sights rule. Target and dot appear in same plane.

At 5 to 8 ounces, some red dot sights add significant weight. But they crouch lower than scopes.

One of the best reflex sights, Leupold’s DeltaPoint II has automatic illumination setting and shut-off.

For hunting in dark cover, Wayne prefers a red dot sight to a scope. “1X magnification is enough.”

The bottom 1911 wears a Crimson Trace laser, its switch in that black pad. No extra weight or bulk!

Fitted with Leupold’s DeltaPoint II sight, this Performance Center S&W 460 is ready for the trail.

A Thin Red Line

One of the most ingenious pistol “sights,” and exceedingly useful in dim light, is the projected dot, or laser sight, as manufactured by Crimson Trace and others.

Lew Danielson, who founded Crimson Trace, got his first pistol at age 15, “…when I was working in Sacramento tomato fields.” In 1994, he and 16 other gun enthusiasts “spent weekends, mostly unpaid, designing handgun grips with a laser sight.” The resulting company, Crimson Trace, grew up in Beaverton, Oregon. It later moved south to Wilsonville. CT now employs 90 people. It owns over half the US market in laser sights.

“We think pistols bought for defense should wear laser sights,” says CT President Lane Tobiasson. “Only about 15 percent do. In the dark, you can’t see sights. With a laser, you don’t have to.”

A CT “grip” laser adds negligible weight to the pistol, and does not affect its balance or feel. The switch is in the grip; when your hand closes on it, a dot appears downrange. Windage and elevation adjustments afford a precise zero.

Danielson and his colleagues ponied up $8,000 to start. Then they bought one mold for a Glock grip. “It cost $90,000! We sold that grip for $600 when a new Glock listed for $370. And we had to drill a hole in the frame to mount it!” Now CT offers a remarkable array of laser grips for revolvers and autoloaders. The civilian market accounts for more than 80 percent of sales.

Other firms — LaserLyte and LaserMax come to mind — have developed competitive products, often using different technology. It pays to carefully examine all your options from any of these companies to find what works for you.

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