How to aim with iron or open sights

A guy in his 50s a few benches to my right was thumbing .40 cal cartridges into a pistol magazine.

He had arrived when I was about to box up my gear and head home. But, I had seven rounds of .22 leftover, so instead of letting them roll around in my gun box, I loaded them into a magazine. I already had 10 shots in my paper target at 25 yards, so instead of causing problems with scoring that target, I decided to find something else to shoot at.

I rotated slightly to my right, raised my right arm, and lined up my iron sights on a 12-inch diameter steel disc about 125 yards away. It was painted yellow. As I steadied my breath, I raised my Ruger Mk II pistol a little to account for the bullet’s drop at this longer distance, and let off the first shot.

I was pleased to hear the distant ding of the hit against the steel plate. I released the remaining six shots and they each dinged off the plate. I was pleased, but, frankly, surprised. That was a fair dose of luck.

I packed up my guns, and let the the older man know that the line was safe for him to go down range.

I could tell he was curious where the dinging noises had come from. He was scanning the range right in front of us, but there was nothing metallic there.

“So, what were you shooting at just now?” he asked.

“See that yellow disc out there?” I pointed to the steel plate hanging at the 100 yard line.

He was incredulous, except that he had witnessed it. I felt fortunate that I was packing up and wouldn’t be pressured to repeat it, but, hey, why let on.

It turned out that he was a federal agent from downstate on vacation. I was pleased that a federal cop from downstate would have an appreciation for how a kid from the Upper Peninsula can handle a pistol. Strange vanities.

That was about twelve years ago, and while I don’t shoot as much now as I did then, I still appreciate the look of a good sight picture.

Aiming is one of the fundamentals of good shooting, right? But there is actually a lot of complexity to talking about it. There are many different kinds of sights, and some are electronic like red-dot scopes or laser sights. Those have the benefit of being completely obvious on how to use. Put the dot on the spot you want your shot to land. That’s all there is to it.

But for those without a dot, knowing your iron sights is pretty crucial.

I shot a dot-scope for a few years, but gave that up and went back to open sights on my pistols. I like them, and I like that it takes more practice and discipline to use them.

So, here’s what I know about shooting with iron sights.

The fundamentals are that you have a front sight, probably a block or a post, that makes an “I” shape and a notched rear sight that makes a “U” shape. You put the front sight right in the middle of the notch of the rear sight. The tops of the front and rear sights should line up perfectly, and the front sight should have the same amount of space within the rear sights to the left and right.

Proper sight alignment has the front sight in focus and rear sights slightly blurred.

Good sight alignment: Front sight in focus, rear sights slightly blurred. Focus on the front sight, not the target.

When you aim, you focus all your attention on the front sight, observing it’s alignment with the rear sight. The rear sight should be slightly blurred, but the front sight should be crystal clear. Study it. Meditate upon it. Let everything else vanish.

The front sight on my Clark .45 has a slight ding on the top right corner, and when the sun shines at a certain angle, it stands out to me. These are things that you only appreciate if you find yourself studying the geometry of a front sight for long enough. It’s a good thing.

Please note that I have not spoken about the target. If you find yourself looking at the target, you are probably not going to fire a good shot. This is the counter-intuitive part about aiming: in order to hit your target, you must not look at it. It is the front sight and its alignment with the rear sights that should have your attention.

Of course, as you acquire your sight picture, you will probably need to glance at the target in order to line up the sights in the first place, but once you have that, forget it and focus on the front sight.

Focus on the front sight.

Update: May 3, 2010

Here’s a nice image of a variety of types of open sights with a legend. This image does not show the rear sights and target blurred like they would be to your eye, but it’s still a nice resource.

Update: January 10, 2014

The illustration and ideas in this blog post have been included, with permission, on page 59 in a recently published book by Andrew Smotzer, Guns for Personal and Home Protection. Thanks Andy, and congratulations on the new book!

13 thoughts on “How to aim with iron or open sights

  1. TRIED LIKE YOU SAID BUT SHOTS ARE ALL OVER THE TARGET
    AND WHEN I GET THEM TO GROUP —–AND CHANGE BRANDS OF AMO ITS START ALL OVER AGAIN
    IS THERE ALOT OF DIFFERENCE FROM BRAND TO BRAND

  2. Hi Gary, yep, it’s possible that you’ll see differences between ammo brands.

    Two major factors are the weight of the bullet itself and the amount and type of powder used, which will change the speed of the bullet. There are other factors like shape of the bullet, length of the case, the crimp of the case to the bullet, etc.

    That said, when my groups open up, I tend to look back to the fundamentals before I get too suspicious of the ammo. There’s more to shooting well than just aiming. There’s also stance, grip, breath control, trigger control, and follow-through. Shooting pistols accurately has got to be one of the hardest shooting sports.

    For more on the fundamentals, take a look through the U.S. Army Marksmanship Unit Pistol Marksmanship Guide. Use the links on the right side of the page to read the chapters of the manual.

  3. Thank you, that is a clear description of where the front & rear sights should appear to be, relative to each other, but you haven’t said where the target should appear to be, relative to the sights! Should the target be on top of the front sight? Should it be hidden by the front sight? The Wikipedia article linked to, above, in your post of May 3, 2010, shows the target as a round ball appearing some distance ABOVE the top of the front sight, with some empty space between the front sight and the target. Is that the way you aim at things?

  4. Hi Wayne, thanks for the question.

    For clarity, I want to point out two related concepts: sight alignment and sight picture. Sight alignment is the balanced relationship of front sight to rear sight. Sight picture is sight alignment plus the target. So, what you’re asking for is what should the sight picture look like, where should the target be in relationship to the sights.

    Many precision shooters use what’s called a six-o’clock hold. That’s when the circular target appears to be sitting right above the front sight. The reason I like that is because I can see the space between front and rear sights better (so I can get better sight alignment) when the sights aren’t superimposed on a black background. If you can’t adjust your sights, you generally don’t get this kind of luxury.

    That said, most non-target handguns (think your average Glock, Springfield XD, etc.) you take out of the box seem to be zeroed for a point-of-aim sight picture at what is a reasonable distance for the gun (generally no further than 25 yds). That is, wherever you line up the sights, that’s where the bullet ought to go. So, you’d line up the sights to point directly at the center of the black (or center-mass). Consider this a general rule, but I’ve shot some of these guns out of the box that seemed to shoot more to one side or the other, although perhaps the cause was something I was doing with my grip or trigger finger placement.

    Here’s a post on another website that has a couple decent pictures that explain the idea. http://www.abovetopsecret.com/forum/thread497622/pg1

    I hope this helps answer your question.

  5. Hi. Yep, this concept generally applies to iron/open sights on any gun. Sight alignment is pretty crucial. My experience is that most shooters presume a point-of-aim impact, not a six o’clock hold like described previously, so zero in the sights for what you need.
    Here’s a link to instructions on sighting-in an AK http://www.ak-47.net/ak-47/sightingin.php

  6. Pingback: Iron sights
  7. This was pretty helpful, thank you. I’m still a bit confused about one thing, though. For sights like on an SKS or AKM variant, I don’t know where to align the tops of both front and rear sights. The rear sight blurs like you describe, but are you supposed to line up the front sight with the solid part of the blurred rear sight? The reason I ask is that when I do that and then focus on the rear sight, the two wings fill in and raise, and I find the front post no longer in line with them at the top. It then rests at the middle, like I am aiming low. I have a few milsurps with similar arrangements and I’ve never found a definitive answer on that. It may be negligible, for all I know. I appreciate any advice on this.

  8. Hi Fred, I’m glad you found this helpful. It’s been a long time since I’ve looked at the sights on an SKS, but from what I remember, the rear was a wide blade with a notch to find the front post through, and the front sight was a post, maybe inside a tube or with those wings like you mention. I’m sure I just ignored the wings and focused on the front post, trying to maintain a consistent sight alignment.

    It is weird to get a feel for a sight picture, because the rear sight does get mushy, right? So where precisely do you line it up when it isn’t a visual hard edge anymore? I’ve thought about this problem, and all I can say is that I know that at this point I’m just lining it up consistently for me, roughly where the fuzzy edge becomes more solid. It’s tough to say, because whenever I try to analyze it too hard, I screw up my sight alignment because I start looking more at the rear sights.

    I’ll bet other people who shoot my guns will be shooting either high or low because of that fuzzy rear sight problem. So, I hope it helps to simply say that you’ll get comfortable with a sight alignment for the rifle, and just start aiming the same way every single shot.

    Then, with that consistent aiming, if you need to change the zero on the gun, remember you can raise or lower the front post on an SKS to get it dialed in. (I’m going from memory here on the specifics of the SKS, so please understand if I just got that detail wrong.)

  9. You are correct, the front post screws up and down just like on an AKM but within a globe (unless it was cut by someone). Focusing on the front post is A-OK for me. I wonder if the producers of these rifles sighted them in using one perceived edge versus another… I would have imagined that they would take the blur into account and say to line it up with what solid part you do see when the rear sight blurs. I’ll try a few rounds to see where it hits at the 100 meter setting and go from there.

    As for the ‘wings,’ I was trying to describe the rear blade on each side of the notch. The top of the blade should line up with the top of the front post. The rear blade blurs and some material appears to be shaved off, so I compensate. I think I mixed terms there, but I think you got what I was trying to get at. This does answer something that’s bugged me for a while. Safe travels to you, and thanks again.

  10. Nice and interesting story. Message taken very well. Taking permission to copy your illustration for my airgun blog in Indonesian. Thank you very much.

  11. Your tips on sight alignment are well taken. They prompt me to wonder if the handgun rear sight were a round hole (aperture), instead of a notch, would it then be more natural to focus mainly on the front sight, something similar to the peep sight principle on rifles, even allowing for the much shorter distance between the sights. I plan to experiment!

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