Upgrade Your Iron Sights

posted on May 7, 2024
Upgrade your iron sights

People love modifying and customizing their guns. As a firearms instructor, new gun owners often ask me what upgrades or modifications they should make to their new handguns for concealed carry and home defense. I generally discourage new gun owners from modifying their guns with one exception: My most common answer by far is to upgrade the sights. Many quality handguns ship from the factory with sights that are less than ideal, and given the important role sights play in getting good, rapid hits, it is one area I feel we should consider optimizing through customization. While electronic red dot sights are en vogue and I like and use them frequently, I still also make regular use of iron sights. In this article we will examine iron sights and how to decide whether you would benefit from a different set of sights on your defensive handgun, and how to choose the best option.

Why Bother Upgrading Your Sights?

To determine whether we ought to upgrade our sights, and if so, how to choose our sights, we must first examine what iron sights are intended to do and evaluate them according to their function. We align the sights to themselves in “sight alignment,” and then place our aligned sights on the target for the so-called “sight picture.” When we have sufficient sight alignment and a sufficient sight picture, and press the trigger without disturbing the sights, we score quality hits. So the sights we want are those that we find it easiest to properly align the front and rear sight, and with which we find it easy to obtain a quality sight picture. So what does that look like?

Front Sight. Front Sight. Front Sight.

Fiber Optic Front SightSights for defensive shooting align easily, and help draw our eyes to what we want to be seeing during rapid target engagement. The most important factor to assure this is a highly visible front sight. Modern defensive handguns rarely ship from the factory with a plain black front sight, and at a minimum typically at least have a white dot painted on the rear of the front sight blade that we can use to find our front sight during pistol presentation. Are there better options? Certainly. Common upgrade options include fiber-optic front sights, brass or gold beads or night sights which glow in the dark thanks to a tritium vial inserted in the front sight. Which is best?

Whichever one helps you see the front sight the best. Fiber optic sights are excellent options for most conditions, and have a fiber-optic filament running through the sight that picks up ambient light and is illuminated according to the ambient light. Brass or gold bead sights, though less common, have a bright metallic bead on the rear of the sight that also reflects ambient light and helps draw the eye to the front sight. Tritium night sights are a very popular option, which are illuminated even in complete darkness and last several years before they lose brightness.

Rear Window

Wide Rear SightAnother way to make the front sight more visible is to have a generously wide rear notch that allows us to easily pick up the front sight through the “window” of the rear notch. Perhaps the least talked about way to enhance the visibility of the front sight and the speed with which we acquire it and align our sights is by having a plain, black rear sight, which is my strong preference. Three-dot sights are overwhelmingly popular and by far the most common factory sights, but I’m simply not a fan of them. While different schools of thought debate about focusing on the front sight making it crisp in the visual plane and leaving the target slightly blurry, or focusing on the target with the front sight slightly fuzzy, there is no credible school of thought I am aware of that teaches shooters to look at the rear sight. Think of the rear sight notch as a window through which we look to find the front sight and the target. Any bright and shiny objects on the rear sight only serve to distract me from where my focus should actually be: on the front sight and the target. Fortunately some makers of night sights have started putting small tritium inserts in the rear sight with a larger insert in the front sight surrounded by a large colored circle.  This is a step in the right direction, but I’ll still take a plain, black rear sight over any other.

tritium front sightOne might ask, “What about tritium night sights that allow us to align the illuminated front dot with the illuminated rear dots in low-light/no-light conditions?” To which I would reply, “If it is too dark to make out the outline of the front sight within the rear notch without the aid of the tritium vials, it’s probably too dark to positively identify your target and you shouldn’t be shooting without the aid of a handheld or weapon-mounted light.” Even in my defensive handguns with a tritium vial in the front sight blade, I still have a plain black rear, and the tritium vial and colored circle surrounding it helps to draw my eye to the front sight during the presentation of the pistol and the act of shooting.

Sharpie Hack

If you already have three-dot sights and want to experiment with the concept of a plain black rear sight, I have a no-cost trial option for you: During my Army days when I didn’t have the option of swapping the factory three-dot night sights out on my issued Glock G19, I’d take a permanent marker and black out the marks on the rear sight so I only had the front sight vying for my attention. The cheapest way to turn a pair of three-dot sights into what I consider a better option is to just color over the rear dots with a permanent marker.  If you don’t like it, you can remove the marker with an alcohol swab and have three-dot sights again with no harm done. 


So we’ve chosen a set of aftermarket fixed sights that have a highly visible fiber-optic, gold bead, or tritium front sight and a plain black rear with a wide-notch that we want to put on our defensive handgun. How do we go about doing that? First off, make sure you order a sight set manufactured specifically for your handgun. Not only does this ensure a proper fit, but ordering the correct set ensures your sights will actually cause the gun to hit where you aim them. Some sight manufacturers have an option for you to ship them your slide, or the whole gun, and they can install the sights for you. Otherwise the simplest option is to purchase the sight set and take them and the gun and drop them off with your local gunsmith, who may even be able to install them while you wait. Many choose to install their sights themselves, and the internet is full of instructional videos on how to do this. But, be forewarned this can lead to headaches and frustration, as hand-fitting of sights into dovetails is often required and can be a tedious process, particularly for the inexperienced.


Ultimately, you may be perfectly happy with the current set of sights on your defensive handgun. Then again, that may simply be because you’ve never experienced something better. If you’re looking for a low-cost upgrade to your defensive handgun that can provide a considerable boost to your shooting, consider purchasing a set of pistol sights with a highly visible front sight, and a plain black rear sight with a wide notch that provides a large window through which to see that shiny new front sight. 


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