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Guide to Pistol & Handgun Sights

If you've ever shot a pistol with factory sights, you may have noticed that they leave a lot to be desired. In fact, one of the most cost effective and user-friendly upgrades you can make to any handgun is the addition of aftermarket sights. Aftermarket sights can make the shooter more accurate, and make the experience far more enjoyable.

But there are so many options available when it comes to upgrading the sights on handguns, that it can be a daunting, confusing task. Because of the different specifications between gun manufacturers, models, and years of production, there is no simple answer to the question, "Will these sights work on my gun?" This guide covers types of pistol sights, how to choose the correct sights for your gun, and what sights are best for the type of shooting you do.

Disclaimer: We'll use the terms "pistol" and "handgun" interchangably in this guide. We're not interested in the semantic differences between the two. If we're specifically referring to a revolver or semi-automatic pistol, we'll use that term. Otherwise "pistol" and "handgun" are used interchangeably.

Safety Warning: Always make sure your pistol is unloaded before performing any maintenance or sight upgrades. If you are unsure of how to install pistol sights, have the job done by a qualified gunsmith.

How do Pistol & Handgun Sights Work?

This may seem rudimentary to some shooters, but for the sake of beginners, we'll start with the basics.

Most pistols have a front sight post and a rear sight. The front sight post can be as simple as a piece of metal, or it can be made from space age polymers or glow-in-the-dark materials. At the rear, there is a notched rear sight - either at the back of the slide on semi-automatic pistols, or the back of the frame on revolvers. The operation of open sights on a handgun is as simple as lining up the front sight post with the notch on the rear sight. There are some differences in point of aim between manufacturers, but this is the basic method used to aim a pistol with open sights.

Before we get into the options available for your pistol, let's look at how pistol sights fit onto your handgun.

Rear Sights

Before choosing a rear sight for your pistol, take note of how the sight attaches. This is critical, because while a rear sight might be made for your particular make and model of pistol, it's not always guaranteed.

Dovetail Rear Sights

Most rear sights on semi-automatic pistols fit into a dovetail. This is a trapezoid-shaped notch that uses friction to hold the sight into place. The notch itself is measured using the length (front to rear) of the bottom of the dovetail (in inches), and the degree of the slope on the sides. For example, some 1911-A1 models utilize a 55 degree X .331" dovetail. For this reason, you should always measure the base of the dovetail using a set of calipers.

Due to manufacturing tolerances, rear sights commonly need some degree of filing and fitting to sit securely into the dovetail. A few thousandths of an inch can mean the difference between a perfect fit, or not fitting at all.

Dovetail rear sights will require a sight pushing tool for removal of the old sight and installation of the new sight. Rudimentary sight pushers can be made from a C-clamp, but to prevent damage, we recommend a purpose-designed sight pusher for all modifications.

Note: Measureing is very important, especially if your pistol has had smithing work performed in the past. Repeated fitting of sights can widen factory dovetails, to the point where they are out of factory spec. Always measure your dovetail before purchasing new sights if you can. A difference of a few thousandths of an inch can make a huge difference.

Screw-Attached Rear Sights

Revolvers commonly utilize a screw-attached rear sight instead of a dovetail. This doesn't make a difference in performance or usability, but it does simplify the process of choosing a rear sight, simply because it's more likely that a sight designed for a certain make and model pistol will fit out of the box.

Different revolver manufacturers will have different screw hole spacing for their rear sights, so you should always buy sights designed for your specific model. However, if you can see two attachment screws on top of the factory sights, or two open screw holes on top of the frame, you know that you need a sight that attaches with screws.

Front Sights

Much like rear sights, front sights utilize a number of different attachment methods, and you should pay attention to the type of front sight attachment your pistol utilizes. The good news is that front sight fitment isn't necessarily as complicated as rear sight fitment. If your pistol was designed to take a specific type of front sight, most sights manufactured for that model of firearm should work without issue.

Spring Loaded Front Sights

Many revolver models, and some semi-auto pistols, will utilize a spring loaded front sight. This is a sight that is held in place by a spring mechanism, and usually does not require any special tools to replace. For example, the Ruger GP100 front sight can be removed and replaced by pushing a small screwdriver into a pin above the barrel.

Pinned Front Sights

Other revolvers, such as most Smith & Wesson revolvers, will utilize a pinned (staked) front sight. This is a little more complicated than the spring loaded sight. Removal of the front sight will require punching out the pins. Installation of the new front sight will require fitting and drilling of the front sight so that new pins can be inserted. Inserting new pins can be frustrating, as you'll need to be precise.

Screw-Attached Front Sights

Many semi-automatic pistols, Glock especially, utilize a screw-attached front sight. These sights are easier to remove than staked or pinned front sights, since the screw goes up through the slide and directly into the front sight. All that is needed for these types of front sights is the correct screwdriver or hex driver.

Adjustable Sights vs. Fixed Sights

One thing to consider before purchasing sights for your handgun is whether or not you want a fixed or adjustable rear sight. Each has their own advantages and disadvantages, and your choice should be made depending on your needs and the type of shooting you'll be doing.

Fixed Sights

Fixed sights are what you'll commonly find installed from the factory on most pistols. They perform well in most scenarios, but any adjustment will have to be done by physically pushing the sight right or left in the rear dovetail. Also, you won't get any vertical adjustment with fixed rear sights. Again, this isn't always a detriment to your shooting experience, because you won't always need vertical adjustment in some scenarios.

For example, a nightstand gun with fixed sights that is used for home defense will function perfectly well, and some will argue more reliably in a critical moment, than a pistol with a rear sight that has windage and elevation adjustment. Likewise, a pistol that is used for concealed carry should utilize a low-profile non-adjustable rear sight, both for ease of concealment and to prevent the possibility of a snag when drawing under pressure.

Adjustable Sights

Most competition shooters will opt for an adjustable rear sight. This is so that the sight can be modified for distances in competition, and to be fine-tuned for precision. Much in the same vein, a larger sight won't cause the same kind of concealment and drawing issues when carried in an external holster during competition as it would when carrying concealed.

Marked vs. Unmarked Sights

When we say marked vs. unmarked, we're referring to the dots, underlines, or lack thereof on the sights themselves. Many pistol competitions prohibit a marked rear sight, which means that a flat black or serrated rear sight is required. In other applications, a shooter may opt for two dots on the rear sight with a dot on the front, an underline on the rear sight with a dot in front, no markings in the rear with a fiber optic front sight, the list goes on. Any combination you choose is a matter of personal preference, or in the case of competition, what the rules will allow.

Illuminated vs. Non-Illuminated Sights

Non-illuminated sights are the unmarked or painted front and rear sights that are meant for daylight use. They are perfectly acceptable for range use in the daytime, and are included from the factory on most civilian market pistols.

Illumination can mean any number of sight types, and the list keeps getting longer.

  • Trititum Illumination - Tritium is a radioactive compound that emits a glow in low light and darkness. You won't see the glow during the day, so tritium is often used in combination with a painted dot. Tritium has a half life of about 12 years, which means that your sights will lose about half their brightness every 12 years after they are manufactured. Also referred to generically as "night sights," these glow-in-the-dark sights are often used by law enforcement and for home defense.
  • Fiber Optic/Lexan Illumination - Fiber optic illumination (commonly grouped with Lexan light pipes) are colored pieces of plastic or glass-type compounds that collect ambient light, causing the dots to appear illuminated. These are great for daylight use, and can provide a benefit when shooting in low light. Fiber optics will not glow at night, since they need light to perform. These types of sights are available in many different color combinations, as well as ghost-ring sights (Dead Ringer GP sights, for example).

What Sights Do I Need?

That's a complicated question, but here are some questions to ask yourself before buying:

  • What purpose are they serving? Is this a home-defense nightstand gun, a concealed carry pistol, a range toy, or a competition pistol? Each one has different needs.
  • Do I need adjustable sights? If you're using this pistol for concealed carry, you'll probably want a fixed rear sight that is compact and won't snag on clothing. If you're looking for precision and versatility at the range, an adjustable rear might be what you're looking for.
  • Illuminated Sights? In case of self defense, illuminated sights can make a huge difference. If you're only shooting at the range in daylight, they may not be necessary.


While this hasn't been a totally comprehensive guide to pistol sights, we've hopefully helped clear up a bit of confusion surrounding the world of handgun sights.  If you have any questions about pistol sights, or the type of sights you need for your firearm, please contact us or call us at (888) 978-5330.

Stay safe, and happy shooting.