Sighting In Tips

from Tom Hogel:

Do you know where the actual point of aim for your gun is?

As an instructor with KR Training in Central Texas, I see several hundred new or beginning students every year, most of them with new guns.  It has been my observation that I can count on one hand, the number of students who actually know where the actual point of aim of their gun is at 25-15-7-3 yards.

With the tremendous amount of new interest in shooting, there seems to be a piece of old gunny knowledge that somehow has not been passed along to the current crop of new shooters – the necessity to “zero” a new pistol or revolver and then to recheck it from time to time.  There seems to be this mistaken assumption that a new gun is going to be able to shoot groups and that the sights are going to be adjusted correctly right from the box.

One of the very first things you need to do with that shiny new gun is to take it to the range and shoot 3 to 5 shot groups FROM A BENCH REST (see our Group Shooting Tips here) at 25 yards.  Any gun suitable for defensive purposes should be able to produce 6 inch or better groups centered on the target from a bench rest.  If the gun cannot shoot groups then get it fixed. The typical mechanical accuracy of most pistols is 3-4" at 25 yards. Ammo makes a difference. Premium ammo should produce better groups, low cost ammo from commercial reloaders, China, and Russia will produce larger groups.

If the gun “groups” but the shot placement is not centered on the target, then you need to either adjust your sights or, more likely, replace the sights that came with your gun from the manufacturer.  Your particular gun is very likely mass produced and has not been individually test fired and had the sights adjusted for accuracy by the manufacturer.  For higher end guns, shipping and rough handling before the gun reached you may have rendered the sight alignment inaccurate.

We also see “name” manufacturers who believe that everyone shoots NRA Bullseye, where the top of the front sight is aligned with the bottom (6 O’Clock position) of the X ring at 25 yards and intentionally ships their guns sighted in this manner. The Springfield XD, for example, has factory sight geometry intended to group 3" high at 25 yards. I will leave it to you to extrapolate what this does when you use a combat sight picture at various distances.

Even with all the recent technology and ergonomic advancements made by the firearms industry, the sights that are provided by most gun manufacturers today are still the cheapest thing that they can install on the gun and still put it in the box.  I was reminded of this recently when I purchased a new revolver from a “name” manufacturer and found the front sight blade was actually .015" wider than the width of the rear sight notch!

Three dot sights seem to be the current rage but I don’t like them and I don’t know many serious shooters who use them.  The theory is that the dots are supposed to draw your eye to the sights faster. In practice, under pressure the shooter will often try to align the dots instead of the top edges of the sights with predictable results.  Even if you insist on trying to retain the 3 dot sights that came with your gun, you should experiment with using a black “Sharpie” to black out the rear dots.

A well designed sight setup will provide the shooter with a high contract ratio, meaning that there will be as much light as possible between the edges of the from sight post and the edges of the rear sight notch. Usually, these sights are offered in either all black or as a black rear and a red fiber-optic rod front.  I have found that a good general purpose pistol sight is the Charger series offered by Dawson Precision. Have the correct sights for your gun professionally installed and aligned.  The average home shop does not have the necessary equipment to mechanically align the sights to the bore axis of the gun within several thousandths of an inch. Many of the sights produced by Dawson Precision, Sevigny, Warren, Heinie, and other vendors are designed to have a front sight that is narrower than the standard 0.125" used by most gun makers. This increases the light on both sides of the front sight. Because of the default size of tritium inserts, there are no narrow front sights with tritium on the market. The way shooters that want tritium sights get the same extra light around the rear notch is to install a rear sight with a wider rear notch. Several vendors, most notably Dawson Precision, sell front sights of varying heights to allow the shooter to get the gun hitting to the desired point of aim, and some sight sets, such as the Sevigny and Warren, default to a sight geometry that 'corrects' point-of-aim problems designed into factory sights.

If you aren't capable of shooting a 6" group at 25 yards from benchrest, the first place to spend your money is not on new sights; it's on training and/or range time, and a LOT of dry fire time, to improve your trigger control skills. Don't start trying to move your sights left or right, or replacing front sights to get different heights, until you have eliminated shooter error -- particularly if you are a right handed shooter and your shots are hitting low-left, or low-right for a left handed shooter. When in doubt, get someone that you know shoots better than you do to shoot some groups with your gun to doublecheck it.

Now that you have a gun and sights that will produce adequate shot groups and shot placement at 25 yards, you need to also shoot groups at 15, 7, and 3 yards.  Measure how many inches low and/or high YOUR gun shoots at these distances and MEMORIZE it so that you can compensate for this at your next training session (i.e. 1 high at 15 – 2 low at 7 – etc.). You might just find that you are a lot better shooter than you think you are, once you know where the point of aim of your gun actually is.

- Tom