High-Stakes Necessity: Good Sights

The Sheriff discusses what he looks for when choosing to install a set of aftermarket handgun sights.

Back when I first started carrying an autoloading pistol, most of them came with sights that were a pretty dismal affair. The front and rear sights were so small that you nearly had to carry a magnifying glass with you just to make sure the sights were still there. Given enough time--and a healthy set of eyes--you could eventually get the sights lined up and on target. But I'm telling you, it wasn't a very speedy proposition.

High-visibilty sights are a must for the defensive handgun. One option is TRUGLO's Tritium Fiber Optic (TFO) technology that combines tritium and fiber optic inserts.

On the other hand, there were various target pistols, the Colt Gold Cup comes to mind, that came with accurate and precise adjustable sights. I never could figure out why they put good sights on target pistols but not on fighting pistols. You'd think that good sights would be most important when you're facing a target that can shoot back.

Still, those adjustable sights weren't all that handy. To begin with, they were pretty fragile and would often go flying off after you'd run a couple of magazines of hardball through your gun. And they stuck out like a set of fins on a 1960s-era Cadillac. Naturally, they'd hang on holsters, shirts, coats, and just about anything else that got in the way.

Fortunately, handgun manufacturers have listened to their customers and are now offering defensive handguns with good sights. However, it might be worthwhile to examine what constitutes a good set of combat sights and to look at some of the better examples that are available to today's shooters.

To begin with, a combat pistol sight ought to be rugged. Just about anything that can happen to a handgun happens to fighting pistols. They can get dropped, knocked against things, thrown around, and even used as clubs. Some companies persist in building sights from aluminum or even hard plastic. In my view, these are pretty poor choices of sight material. The smart defensive handgunner will do very nicely with a set of hard steel sights on his pistol.

Within reason, combat sights ought to be large enough that a sight picture can be quickly obtained. The "Modern Technique of the Pistol" has taught us that sighted shots can be delivered quite rapidly. But to do this, the shooter has to be able to pick up his front sight in an almighty hurry. High-visibility sights are a must for the defensive handgun.

Defensive pistol sights should also be as smooth as possible, devoid of all sharp edges. This keeps them from snagging in the holster and on clothing. And it keeps them from cutting up the shooting hand when the shooter aggressively clears some sort of pistol malfunction.

Adjustable sights are not all that necessary on the combat pistol. The precise shot placement of the target shooter is not the task of the combat shooter. Sight manufacturers have done a good job of determining the exact height of front sight to use based upon the make and caliber of a chosen pistol. Fixed sights are just tougher and should be the sight of choice for the combat carry gun.

In spite of the fact that today's handguns come with very useful sights, the serious shooter may feel the need to install a set of aftermarket sights that come closer to suiting his individual needs. I've found that one of the leaders in the combat sight business is Novak's, Inc.

Novak's Lo-Mount Carry Sights give an excellent sight picture and are extremely smooth and snag-free. The company offers white dots on front and rear, tritium inserts, or just plain black. Recently, Novak's customized a Colt Combat Commander for me, and I had them install a plain black rear sight and a post front sight that has a gold dot on it. When I'm working on speed delivery, it seems that the gold dot draws my eye to the front sight a bit more quickly. You can order Novak sights for your own installation, or you can send your gun to them for the job and other custom features. By the way, a lot of the major handgun makers are offering their pistols with Novak's sights already installed at the factory. Companies like Smith & Wesson, SIG, Kahr, Nighthawk, and Rock River Arms are just a few that come to mind.

My friend Richard Heinie has earned a well-deserved reputation for building great sights for combat handguns. His SlantPro and Straight Eight SlantPro rear sights sit as far back on the pistol's slide as possible, thus lengthening the sight radius just a bit. His rear sight blade is smooth and rounded but stands up just a bit, and some shooters prefer this style because it can be an aid in one-handed cycling of the auto pistol. As I write this, Heinie is customizing another of my Colt Commanders, and when the job is done, you can bet this .45 will be sporting a set of his good sights. Like Novak's sights, Heinie sights are now being offered as options directly from the pistol makers, including Springfield, Rock River Arms, STI, and Taurus.

Some years ago, Ashley Emerson became intrigued with the express sights found on most of the double rifles that are built to deal with dangerous African game. The rear sight has a very shallow V-notch, and the front sight generally has a bold white dot. It's a setup designed for the shooter to quickly get on an African buffalo before that very same buffalo can get in your front pockets. Emerson reasoned that if this combination would work on dangerous-game rifles, it ought to work on fighting pistols. He was exactly right, it did.

Emerson's design is now marketed as the XS Express Sight, and it is available for most popular defensive handguns. Some time ago, I had a set of the XS Express Sights fitted to my .380 Walther PPK, and I opted for the large white-dot front sight with a tritium insert. I've never regretted that move because it's an excellent sight and very quick to get into action.

You may have noticed that as you get older, the front sight begins to look a little fuzzy. Fortunately, sight companies have begun to address this common ailment. Chief among these is TRUGLO, Inc. TRUGLO has been a leader in developing pistol sights using fiber-optic inserts. These colored inserts draw available light and can be a real aid in the return to a nonfuzzy sight picture. Like the the others I've mentioned, these sights are made of steel and are designed to be snag-free. They also come in various combinations of fiber-optic inserts and tritium inserts so that the shooter can design the sight setup that works best for him.

Another solution to the fuzzy-sight problem is to install a rear sight that has a larger opening. Most combat handgun rear sights have a .125-inch rear opening. By installing a rear sight that has a .140- or .156-inch opening, the shooter sees more light on either side of his front sight and can get

it on target more quickly.

Just about any good pistolsmith can swap out the sights on your defensive handgun for you, but if you have just a bit of mechanical skill, this may be a job that you are qualified to handle yourself. My advice would be to visit MidwayUSA and Brownells websites. Both companies offer a large assortment of combat-pistol sights, along with the staking tools and sight-drift tools that would be necessary to make the switch. Just be sure to pay close attention, and order the sights that are specific to your handgun. That way, the sights will fit the existing dovetails, and the front sight will be the proper height.

It has been said that all a fighting pistol needs are high-visibility sights, a manageable trigger, and utter reliability. Thanks to modern technology, decent combat sights are just not a problem anymore. Your modern defensive handgun will usually come with decent sights, but if they just don't happen to suit you, they can be swapped out for another set quite easily. It doesn't get much better than that.

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