Firearms technology

How important are good pistol sights to you?

bowen-sight - caleb

The sights on our guns are the windows through which we see whatever it is that we’re shooting at; and as you track the development of the shooting sports you can see a lot of development in sights as well. Take a look at the sights on pistols and revolvers from the 30s and 40s, describing them as “puny” would be quite charitable. It was the Modern Technique and parallel development of practical shooting that really lead us to the modern pistol sights we have today.

But then, things basically stopped. Yes, we have night sights filled with tritium so we can see them in the dark, but the concept of the pistol sight hasn’t really changed significantly. The much argued about XS Big Dot sight is just an express sight, a concept that’s been on big game rifles forever. There are some ghost-ring pistol sights, which…seem like a gimmick and don’t really offer any sort of improvement over the classic notch and post sight.

So is that it? Is a notch and post system really the best mechanical way to aim a pistol? Or have we not bothered to try and come up with something better because the notch and post works well enough that there isn’t a point? Now, I do think that in the near future, electronic sights will be ubiquitous on pistols just like they are on rifles, but we’re not quite there yet. But it is interesting to think about; when you look at firearms in general, it’s a very mature technology. The 9mm Parabellum cartridge is over 100 years old, and the iron sights on a frontiersman’s flintlock rifle function exactly the same as the iron sights on a Ruger M77 Hawkeye.

If you take technological advances in machining (polymers, casting, MIM, etc) out of the equation, firearms technology hasn’t really changed a lot. We’ve had huge advancements in optical and laser sights…but not much else. Do you think that there are still advancements to be had in the areas of sighting technology? If so, what do you think they are?


  1. Yup, there are things in the work that will change sights drastically. They have lenses that are created so that the rear sight, front sight, and target are all in focus (the last I saw of that, it was still in the process of being made smaller so it would fit).

    I can see red dot / holographics being made into smaller & smaller packages too. I like the concept of “See that dot? That’s pretty much where the bb is going”. Projected onto target or visible only to your eye, the concept is the same.

    I think though, that before you see massive changes in sighting, you’ll need to see massive changes in firearms, and currently, ‘long tube sealed at one end with some sort of propellant’ is what we’re stuck with. I’d bet before we see effective gaussian type weapons, we’ll forgo the projectile and switch to phaser-like energy weapons.

    Then the Brady Campaign to Prevent Laserbeam Violence will complain that nobody “needs” a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range.

  2. While I lust Rob’s 40 watt plasma rifle – how many of the kids know the movie reference – I shot something more practical on a handgun years ago. Simple, fiber optic front as we have now, rear looked like a cut-down Lyman Globe Front sight for a rifle. Had a plastic insert with a black circle. Center the f/o dot in the black circle and the f/o dot on the target. Fast and worked great. Builder apparently couldn’t make enough sales to make it profitable and dropped out of the market.

  3. I believe the technology is already here. What is missing is demand from the marketplace for this technology. That demand will likely need to come from one of three “communities”:

    – the military–not likely in the near term as long as the handgun is considered a secondary weapon.

    – law enforcement–the most likely source of demand for incorporating currently available technology on service-size handguns.

    – CCW holders–while this group wold likely jump at this technology, they won’t until it is available on small, concealable handguns where it doesn’t increase their bulk or size.

  4. That is a great picture of a sight combo on your post and it made me think , this is the picture view of a sight exactly the way I would like to see it in the advertisements trying to sell me one.All the manufacturers and dealers hawking sights show a side view of how it will look on my gun( akin to saying ‘ see how pretty this will look on your gun)and to that I say pfffttt! Not interested in a racing stripe.Your post showed me how I will see that sight ( fiber optic?) now I want one.

  5. I’m a firm believer in the MRDS for pistols. In the near future I see them being much more common on LE pistols. I am currently running an RMR on my Sig duty gun. Holster manufacturers need to keep up in order for the MRDS sighted pistols to thrive.

    Having said that, what rear sight is on that revolver? I need a new rear for my 686 SSR.

  6. Great article.

    My first pistol was a stainless steel Ruger Single-Six. The sights were the same style as the Colt SAA, so there was a narrow groove with a half-moon front. The white finish of the stainless steel made it extremely difficult to align the sights, especially in very bright conditions. My next pistol was a USP9F, and while the sights were much more visible, I eventually found the 3-dot layout was busy for me, and called too much attention to the rear sights. Additionally, I came to perceive that the front sight was too wide, and made placing accurate shots more difficult than I would have liked. I then ended up with a pair of 1911s, one a Springfield with adjustable rears and a fiber optic front, the other a Colt Delta. I blacked out the rear dots of the Delta.

    In the sense of post-and-notch sights, I enjoyed reading Yur’yev’s competitive shooting book, and find that the recommendation of a front and rear sight pair that generates a sight picture with a rear notch 2-3 times the width of the front sight works for me. I like the “drive the dot” concept for shooting at speed. The Warren concept of straight lines only along the sides and top of the rear notch are appealing, and I’d like to eventually modify the rear sights 746 of the pistols that I have to incorporate this concept. I also like that SVI is now offering rear sights that are cut-out as much as possible, as this was something that I appreciated about the USP sight picture.

    A sight that I thought never got enough interest was the Middlebrooks “Circle-Dot” sights. I remember reading about them in an issue of the now-defunct GunGames magazine. A ghost-ring type sight, the rear aperture seemed much larger than any of the other “ghost-ring” style sights that I’ve seen, and actually had a glass insert. The lack of popularity of this sight seemed to be due the majority of competitions requiring that any non-post-in-notch sighted pistol be shot in Open. The author of the article was enamored of the Circle-Dot, and seemed to rank it as superior to post-in-notch in both speed and accuracy. It seems if you’re going to me Open, though, most shooters would just as soon have an electronic sight as opposed to a Circle-Dot.

    I’m encouraged by the number of serious shooters, yourself included, who have been investigating the use of the latest generation of mini-Red-Dot-Sights. The Aimpoint T-1/H-1 sights seem to be just on the outside of a desirable form factor, but most of the Aimpoint reviews appreciate the relative durability and battery consumption of the sight. Most of the reviews also seem to indicate that the T-1/H-1 can get a slightly quicker first shot than the RMR/Deltapoint/Doctor/etc.. sights, and are also more usable in wet, rainy conditions. The RMR-style sights have an advantage in form factor, and it seems as though there are some very impressive things being accomplished with them.

    The reviews of the red dots seem to consistently identify a slower first shot as an issue, offset against drastically better performance against small or distant targets. I think that it is interesting that even way back when, Cooper protested against the slower first shot of the RDS, but was also trying to extend the useful range of the pistol with such experiments as the 10mm. I know that some people have suggested speeding up acquisition of the RDS sight picture by including a laser. I think that the increased availability of the daylight-visible green lasers and longer run-times/battery lifetimes in the newer green lasers should lead to shooters trying such RDS/laser combinations out to see if they really would work. I remember Pat Roger’s article that argued a green weapon-mounted laser was superior back-up to the long-gun mounted RDS than even flip-up irons. Perhaps the concept will translate to our handguns.

    As far as the current state of pistols, it does seem that aiming is the “long pole in the tent” as far as getting more performance out of the guns. With modern ammo, anything in the 9mm/.40/.45 class will have very good terminal ballistics past 100 yards, and the trajectories are flat enough to permit reasonable use out to 100 yards and further. Modern magazine design allows capacities of 10-25+ with reliable magazines. The problem becomes getting the hits. Most quality defensive pistols can keep shots on USPSA/IPSC-style targets out to 100+ yards, and I’ve read articles in couple of magazines that mention shooting pistols out to these long distances. I think the RDS will be a significant part of increasing the range that we can hit at with our pistols, but I think that there will probably be one or two more generations of RDS design before this capability becomes more fully realized.

    I do think that chemically operated guns is where we’re going to be for a while. Electromagnetic launch is still an experimental technology for Naval cannons, and I bet that technology will be fully weaponized before it trickles down to small arms to permit electrical/electro-chemical launch, and that will probably hit long guns way before handguns.

  7. I think the next big thing will be heads-up displays showing the gun’s POV projected onto a Google Glass-type setup. A red dot shows point-of-aim on your target and, depending on local computing power, calculated bullet drop and wind drift, image enhancement and weapon recognition, etc.

  8. Next sighting technology will work in an GUID encoded IR laser to tell your laser apart from all the others and a HUD system that shows you what you will hit if you think ‘bang’.

  9. The issue is momentum.

    Modern pistol shooting revolves around using a certain type of sight system. “Front sight” is literally the first part of almost every command and concept for aiming and hitting a target. In order for something new and different to become proven as actually BETTER, it would need serious people performing serious practice and study to provide serious feedback and evaluation. Add in the fact that — as mentioned by another comment — most of the popular gun games won’t even allow such sights to play and one of the broadest, most technically apt evaluation opportunities disappears.

    That problem is greatly exacerbated by the number of gimmicky sight systems that people come up with trying to reinvent the wheel without thinking about how wheels are supposed to work. A sight that makes it easier for a total beginner to line up and get a slow, deliberate hit at close range on a static target isn’t necessarily going to be better for a skilled shooter trying to make more challenging hits.

    I think that MRDS, even separate from the durability issues, are still a long way off from dominating at the deep end of the skilled shooter pool. They’re a godsend for folks who aren’t as disciplined about using the front sight as they might think but at the end of the day their limited vertical field of visibility makes them harder to track when going fast. There is a big difference between a T1 atop a heavy, light recoiling AR that is attached to your body in three places and RMR or Docter zipping back and forth on a recoiling slide while bouncing up in down in your hands with each shot.

    Probably the most innovative sight to come around in the last decade was the TRUGLO Tritium Fiber Optic. If it had worked as advertised it would have been a game changer in terms of a great day/night sight. But its width, durability issues, and relatively weak visibility under common lighting conditions led to disappointment for many.

    In simpler terms, subtle shifts toward wider rear notches and shorter sights seem to be happening, both of which challenge conventional wisdom from just a decade or two ago.

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