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How to Adjust Pistol Sights: Step By Step

L.p. Brezny | Updated February 25, 2024 | Why You Should Trust Us | How We Earn Money
How to adjust pistol sights cover photo showing two hands holding a fired pistol

Adjusting iron sights on a pistol can be confusing, especially if you have a handgun that only allows adjustment on the rear sight. Even worse, some handguns don’t allow any adjustments at all.

Here, I’ll teach you what to do for any kind of handgun.

Best Pistol Sights

For more on pistol sights, see our article on the best handgun scopes. We cover the best optics made specially for pistols, perfect for those looking for target practice hunting or whatever suits your fancy.

How to Adjust Pistol Sights

Before you start adjusting your pistol’s sights, you need to know if they can be adjusted at all and, if so, what those adjustments are. Iron sights for pistols come in three categories:

  1. No adjustment at all
  2. Rear-only adjustment
  3. Front and rear adjustment

Regardless of what kind of iron sights are used, the direction you change the sights is always the same. Now, bear with me for this next part, as it might sound simple and repetitive, but you’d be surprised how many people mess it up.

Rear – If you’re shooting low, the sight goes up. If you’re shooting high, the sight goes down. If you’re hitting left, the sight moves to the right. If you’re hitting right, the sight moves to the left.

Front – If you’re hitting high, raise the sight. If you’re shooting low, lower the sight. If you have a handgun with front windage adjustment, move it to the right if you’re hitting right. If you’re shooting left, move it to the left.

If you have a scope or a red dot, follow the instructions on the adjustment knobs or buttons.

No Adjustment

Pocket pistols often have fixed sights that cannot be adjusted at all. The front sight, if it has one, is machined from the same piece of steel as the barrel. The rear sight, if it has one, is machined from the same material as the frame.

Some pocket guns, like snub-nose revolvers, may only have a groove on the top strap.

Two hands loading a pistol

Any adjustment to a gun like this requires a competent gunsmith. The top strap can be tapped for a rear sight. Changing that strap can create a dangerous-to-shoot gun unless the work is done by a professional.

Now, the front blade can be filed down, but that’ll need to be done carefully. After filing just a tiny bit, you’ll need to shoot the gun to see if the blade is low enough. Repeat until you’re on target at the distance you’re shooting.

The best thing to do if your pistol sights will not adjust is to just learn to shoot it as is.

Rear Only

Rear-only sight adjustments can be windage only or windage and elevation.

Elevation is always changed with a screw somewhere on the rear sight (keep in mind the elevation instructions from above).

Changing the windage depends on the sight. Some have the same screw arrangement to change it, but follow the windage instructions from above just the same to adjust it properly.

Rear sights that allow windage-only changes are usually forced into a dovetail groove on the strap or the slide. Adjusting these is done one of two ways:

Adjustments for Dovetails

  1. Take a bronze punch. Hold the punch against the slide. Tap the punch with a hammer. The slide will gradually move.
  2. Get a sight adjustment tool and use it to slide the sight back and forth.

In either case, you may want a gunsmith to do this.

Front and Rear

Sometimes a front sight can be adjusted for elevation by turning it. This is common in AR-15-style pistols. A screw will adjust the windage.

In some handguns, the front sight is a blade inserted into a dovetail in the slide or the barrel. In this case, you adjust the windage by pushing the blade to either side ever so slightly, like mentioned above.

If you need a taller front sight, you’ll have to replace the front completely. This is best done with a sight adjustment tool, or you can take it to a gunsmith. 

If you need a lower front sight, you can either swap it for a shorter one or gradually file it down.

Tritium front sight on a pistol

However, if you have fiber optic, white dot, or tritium sights, you cannot file the sight down without ruining it. In this case, have a gunsmith change the front sight for you.

Rear sights that can be adjusted will have the same procedure as I mentioned above in the “Rear Only” section.

Check out these tips you should know when making pistol sight adjustments:

Common Mistakes

Here are the biggest mistakes I see as a gunsmith:

Wrong Direction

The biggest mistake people make when adjusting sights is they move the sight in the wrong direction. Just remember the instructions from above.

Over-Correction

The second most common mistake is an over-correction. You’re working with hundredths of an inch here. A .01 adjustment to a rear sight can be a difference between being on target and missing at 25 yards. As the distance to the target increases, the magnitude of the miss increases.

If you’re using screws, make a 1/8th of an inch turn. Shoot the gun and see how much the point of impact moved. With that as a guide, you can move the sights again as needed.

Some front post sights only move a quarter-turn at a time. Short of changing out the front sight, you’ll have no choice but to get as close as you can and then adjust your shooting.

Not Shooting

Each time you adjust the sights, you need to shoot to see where the bullet hits vs. how you’re aiming. This is almost the second most common error. Some people might even say it’s the most common mistake.

So, go out and shoot. Learn where the gun hits. 

With some sights, you may not be able to make all the needed adjustments. If so, you’ll have to adjust your line of sight and the sight’s position. The only way to know this is by shooting.

I carry a snub nose hammerless .38 Special. The sights will not adjust, so I had to shoot it to learn how the sights lined up on the target.

Damaging the Gun

Do not use an iron punch to try to push either side of the gun. You will damage the sight. If you slip, you could gouge your gun.

Bronze punches are soft and will warp well before you damage your gun.

Also, go slow. Gentle taps may not seem like they are working, but they are moving the sight. (Reference: How to adjust handgun sights)

FAQs

Do you have to adjust handgun sights?

You do not have to adjust handgun sights. You can learn to shoot the gun with the sights set where they are. If the sights do not adjust, you must adapt to the gun.

Are pistol iron sights adjustable?

Some pistol iron sights are adjustable. If the sights have adjustment screws or are set into a dovetail, you can adjust them. If the sights are machined with the barrel, slide or strap, you cannot adjust them.

How far should you sight a pistol in at?

How far you should sight a pistol in at depends on your use. If you use it for hunting, I suggest 50 yards to 100 yards (45.7–91.4 meters). If you use it for self-defense, 15 yards (13.7 meters) is ideal. You will be on target anywhere from point blank to 25 yards (22.8 meters) away.

References

  1. Mark Dye, What to Know About Handgun Sights. Retrieved from https://www.shootingillustrated.com/content/what-to-know-about-handgun-sights/

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