Ammo & Gear Reviews

Massad Ayoob: A look at handgun sights

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By Massad Ayoob, GUNS Magazine

Any tool has to be chosen primarily for its suitability to the task it is expected to perform. But there are other factors in the selection process we can’t ignore. Two of them are particularly subjective: vision and personal habituation.

I just got home from a month on the road, teaching a class a week. The guns I had with me were 1911 Nighthawk pistols. One is a full size, 5-inch barrel 9mm Falcon with red fiber optic front sight and black square notch rear, which I’m trying out for competition. The other is a T3 .45 compact with 4.25-inch barrel and Heinie Straight Eight night sights, which has been my carry gun for the tour. The 9mm is strictly a match gun, with a 3-pound trigger pull perfectly tuned by Bob Houzenga. The .45 is out of the box, its pull going 4.4 pounds on a Lyman gauge.

Logic says the 9mm, with its longer sight radius and lighter recoil, should have been the most accurate in the same shooter’s hands. However, on 60-shot qualification courses, I consistently grouped tighter with the .45. My .45 groups were running an inch or more tighter than those with the 9mm, and benchrest testing showed me the difference wasn’t in the guns.

I’ve been shooting plain black-on-black, post-in-notch sights for more than 50 years, and habituation may certainly have something to do with it. Since the ’80s, my duty guns have worn night sights, including the last three .45s I was issued by the police departments I served. That’s generally the arrangement I prefer on my personal concealed carry guns, too. Over the years, I’ve habituated to aligning the glowing dots in dim light, and ignoring them in daylight to take the silhouetted post-in-notch sight alignment I learned from the marksmanship manuals as a kid in the 1950s.

Shooting a Qualifier in Maryland with the Nighthawk 9mm with fiber optics (above), Mas’ group is roughly 6 inches for 60 shots, one almost escaping the 8-inch center zone of the IDPA target. Shooting the same qualifier course in Connecticut, 2 weeks later (below) Mas’ shot a much tighter 4.375-inch group with the shorter-barrel Nighthawk T3 .45 and Heinie night sights (ASAA target).

I find I can’t do that with fiber optic in daylight. The glaring brightness of the colored front sight dot overpowers the silhouette of the front post and the rear notch. The result, at least for me, seems to be less precise sight alignment. Of course, for very close and fast work where I’m really just indexing on the front sight anyway, that bright fiber optic comes into its own.

Vision. Habituation. Both highly dependent on the individual shooter, which is why what works for me, may not work for you, and vice versa.

For very fast, close shooting another worthy option is the XS “express” sight, a humongous big globe over a very shallow “V”-shaped rear sight with a central line in the middle. I’ve seen some folks who can make that work very well for accuracy at distance, and at least two of my students have placed “top shot in class” with XS sights over the years. I have the XS Big Dot on my favorite backup gun, the J-frame S&W Model 340 M&P revolver, largely because the front sight is mated in that model alone with a proportionally large square rear sight. It allows head-shot accuracy at 25 yards which I for one can’t achieve with the “lollipop sight picture” of the XS rear sight, but is just as fast as the “express” style in close. Best of both worlds. And I’ve written here before of the Tactical Advantage sight, which shows your eye a pyramid with bright slopes on the rear sight and a different bright color comprising the top.

Sight choices are personal and depend on your eyes and willingness to learn the systems.
Systems include (left to right) the XS Big Dot sight on a S&W 340 M&P, fiber optic front
on Nighthawk Falcon and Trijicon front on Nighthawk T3.

Heinie Straight Eight night sights, seen here on the Nighthawk T3, work for Mas
and gives him visible sighting, day or night. “Your mileage may vary.”

The best express sight shooters I’ve seen told me it took them a lot of shooting to get comfortable with the concept. I needed a few hundred rounds to get to where I was winning IDPA matches with the Tactical Advantage sights on a Glock 17. Habituation is a critical factor.

Red-dot reflex sights? I never did get comfortable with red dot optical on match guns, and am still trying to bond with the new generation of compact ones for carry pistols; stay tuned to this space for more on that. But I know folks who swear by them for both purposes, and for handgun hunting, too.
The bottom line? It isn’t about theory. It’s about what works best for you. That may be determined by habituation, by eyesight, or by other factors. If you’ve chosen the sights you shoot best with, you’ve made the right decision for you.

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Nighthawk Custom
1306 W. Trimble, Berryville, AR 72616
(877) 268-4867

49385 Shafer Ave., Wixom, MI 48393
(800) 338-0563

XS Sight Systems
2401 Ludelle, Fort Worth, TX 76105
(888) 744-4880

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