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Do you need adjustable handgun sights?

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During a recent range session, I brought along two of my favorite handguns. The six-inch barrel Colt .357 and SIG Sauer 1911each feature fully adjustable rear sights. These sights allow the shooter to account for windage and elevation, and to fine tune the sights to the individual loading. There are many different bullet weights in each caliber, and they do not fire to the same point of aim.
Fixed sights may be zeroed to certain loads, but once zeroed, that is it. A handgun with adjustable sights may be zeroed for one load and then re-zeroed for another. If you are really good at the game you may even tune the elevation setting for different ranges. It isn’t just target and hunting handguns that need adjustable sights. Service guns may profit from adjustable sights. After all, for many years the Smith and Wesson Combat Masterpiece and Combat Magnum were front line police revolvers, and each featured adjustable sights. Some were knocked off the revolver when they contacted door jambs or vehicle doors, but at other times they allowed excellent shooting at very long range.

Colt .357 revolver with ziplock bag of ammunition
This Colt .357 has been sighted for 125-, 140-, 158- and 180-grain XTP loads, at one time or the other. This makes for confidence in your zero and good field accuracy.

Let’s look at reality. When you purchase an expensive hunting handgun or a target pistol, you expect to be able to convince the pistol to hit where it is aimed. The point of impact and point of aim will be in perfect sync. If you purchase a fixed-sight handgun for personal defense, and find it is zeroed for one load or the other but it will not be easily done.

Might we expect for any handgun to be zeroed for the load of choice?

Some makers make the effort to properly zero a handgun for the most popular service load. Most fixed-sight 1911 handguns are useful for the six o’clock load and 230-grain ball. However, if you use a 185- or 200-grain load, then you may not be so lucky. With the development of so many handgun loads during the past few decades there is hardly a thing such as a standard load. 9mm Luger defense loads may range in weight from 92- to 150-grains and 880 to 1,500 fps velocity.

Taurus 9mm semi-automatic handgun
The Taurus 9mm compact is zeroed for the duty load, thanks to factory standard adjustable sights!

Some decades ago, .38 Special revolvers were sighted for 158-grain loads. Later, most were sighted for 125-grain loads. The rub is, even if the bullets are the same weight, the load may not strike to the same point of impact, especially if the velocity isn’t the same. Even if you are able to zero the pistol for a standard 15 yards, the pistol is zeroed only for a set distance.

What if we want to sight the go-anywhere do-anything handgun for field use or taking on coyotes?

Another consideration is that the firing grip affects the point of impact. Shooters who change the stocks on a hunting handgun have long understood this. It is good to be able to zero the handgun for your personal use. Fixed sights are more useful in institutional or general issue handguns. They are close, good enough I suppose, for a variety of shooters and body types. A personal handgun should be just that, personal.

Colt Gold Cup on a white and blue grid target
This is a nice group, but it is low on target. The only thing to do is get out the file.

It is simpler to purchase a handgun with adjustable sights. I think that snub nose .38s and compact 9mm handguns should be snag free and useful for pocket carry. Once you move into all around handguns such as the 1911 .45 or a .357 magnum revolver, adjustable sights are an advantage. These handguns are powerful, but the full effect of their power will not be realized if shot placement is general not precise. Adjustable sights allow the shooter to make accurate shots. Hostage rescue might be one requirement. Another might be stopping a dangerous animal at 10 yards or more. Shot placement is critical.

Adjustable sights are more easily changed out. The adjustable sights on Smith and Wesson revolvers may be modified with different sight blades and the front sight on many modern revolvers may be changed. Different front sight heights are available.

Some say that adjustable sights are fragile. The Colt Gold Cup in early variations well into the 1970s features a rear sight held on by a hollow pin. It tended to fly off. Shooters quickly replaced the hollow pin with a roll pin. At the time, the staked-on front sight of GI 1911A1 handguns also flew off from time to time. The Bomar rear sight was markedly superior. Today, Springfield, Ruger, Kimber, and Colt offer much better and more durable rear sights. The Ruger fully-adjustable revolver sight is very rugged as well. Just the same, few of us are in the habit of banging our handguns on metal work benches, and these sights will serve well.

Have you ever adjusted the sights on your pistol for different ammunition? Share your experience in the comment section.


Bob Campbell is a former peace officer and published author with over 40 years combined shooting and police and security experience. Bob holds a degree in Criminal Justice. Bob is the author of the books, The Handgun in Personal Defense, Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry, The 1911 Automatic Pistol, The Gun Digest Book of Personal Protection and Home Defense, The Shooter’s Guide to the 1911, The Hunter and the Hunted, and The Complete Illustrated Manual of Handgun Skills. His latest book is Dealing with the Great Ammo Shortage. He is also a regular contributor to Gun Tests, American Gunsmith, Small Arms Review, Gun Digest, Concealed Carry Magazine, Knife World, Women and Guns, Handloader and other publications. Bob is well-known for his firearm testing.

Article posted with permission from Cheaper Than Dirt

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