Don't Blow It When Replacing Pistol Sights

The sights a shooter uses on his pistol can be an individual preference, with strong opinions about what is the “best.”
Don't Blow It When Replacing Pistol Sights

The “best” pistol sight will actually depend on the needs of the individual shooter. Some shooters have vision problems to overcome, other shooters will want a contrasting sight picture in comparison to the game or terrain they might be hunting in, and others might want something best suited to competition shooting or defensive pistolcraft. Bottom line — you are going to get requests for custom, or at least different sights from your retail customers. Let’s discuss your options as a gun retailer.

First of all, what kind of pistol gets the most requests for custom sight installation? I would guess it would be the 1911 autoloader. People who gravitate toward the 1911 are commonly people who also have an interest in custom features to suit their individual needs and preferences. Let’s start with some 1911 pistol sight discussion.

High-quality, low profile, high-visibility sights are a requirement to get the best performance from your 1911. The sights can be fixed, adjustable or even optical, but fixed will be the most durable.

Originally the 1911 was issued with extremely small and hard-to-see fixed sights. They had to be replaced with more visible sights to be more effective in high-speed shooting situations. More recent versions of 1911 sights have become more visible, but many still suffer from poor durability. This is especially true of factory-installed front sights — their failure rate is simply too high. Rugged installation of pistol sights is certainly required if you expect them to withstand firing many thousands of rounds of full-power loads without failure. This is especially true when the sights are fitted with night inserts. Losing your night sights in the field can be troublesome and expensive.

Low-profile (but still highly visible) sights tend to be much more rugged and tend not to snag when you’re carrying your pistol concealed. Well-dehorned sights are less prone to cut the shooter’s hands and clothes. It should be mandatory for the sights to give a clean, crisp, clear sight picture. Poor-quality cast sights are not recommended. Cast sights often shear off during recoil. Professionally installed machined-steel sights should be considered mandatory.

Your customers who have already gone through the disappointment of losing their sights in the field can relate the problems they had in hitting targets after their sight loss.

There are a variety of iron sight shapes and contours available these days, as well as square notches, “U” notches and tunnel sights. Be sure to ask your customer at the time of installation if he wants night inserts now or wants to add them in the future, as some sight designs will not accept night inserts. Choosing the wrong design in the beginning will require base-sight replacement if night inserts are requested at a later time.

Many shooters have gotten away from plastic inserts dovetailed into front sights, as they have durability problems. Some shooters prefer black serrated sights, while others will want white dot highlights on the sights. Tactical shooters will want night inserts, some with a specialty installation of white rings around the night inserts for day and night use. Others will prefer a gold bead front sight. If you decide to get into the sight installation business, you can expect to see all these requests and more.

Seeing durability problems with pistol sights for decades now has led me to design and develop my own line of sights to overcome the durability problems. One development has been a lengthwise dovetail front sight that is machined into the slide. The final shape of the sight can be machined into a post, undercut hook, or serrated ramp. It will also accept a night insert.

The lengthwise dovetail sight blends with the lines of the slide, and it is bolted all the way through the slide to give it complete security from coming loose. It is certainly recoil-proof.

Another design is easier to replace if it is damaged or you need to change it out to change the zero of the pistol. It is machined into a long oval then triple-screwed in place. The precision-machined, lengthwise oval takes all impact and recoil forces on its shoulders, while the three screws are only required to hold the sight down into the oval machine cut. It will also accept night inserts, white dots, or fiber-optic rods to suit the needs of the shooter. It is a very effective and practical sight design.

An improved front ramp sight with night insert has become a very popular front sight setup. Combined with a deep-notch rear sight with twin night inserts, it will provide you with a very effective sight picture, day or night. This sight setup will present a sharp sight picture while creating little danger of snagging on clothing.

When it comes to revolvers, many of the same issues apply. Even though the revolver does not have a slide cycling back and forth with each shot, revolvers are often chambered for magnum cartridges, so sight durability is still critical. I have designed sights to overcome revolver sight weak points I have observed over the years.

A couple of the most problematic issues tend to focus on the very sharp edges and poor durability of adjustable revolver sights. Some of the biggest complaints came from shooters who carry a magnum bear defense revolver while fishing in bear country. The sharp-edged factory sights would cut through their waders, and the screwdriver-adjustable sights would not hold zero.

The solution was a dehorned fixed rear sight that would save the fisherman’s waders from damage and hold a rock-solid zero. No problem, mission accomplished. But serious shooters still wanted their pistols precisely zeroed. This is accomplished by installing the sights, then shooting the revolver on paper at the required distance, with the owner’s ammunition of choice. Once this is done, the sights are then machined in the correct direction to move the bullet’s point of impact into exact zero on target. Then the sights are refinished, fitted with night inserts, and re-installed on the revolver.

Whatever sights your customer decides on, be sure you can accommodate his next request — a holster that will accept the pistol with his new sights installed. This will typically mean a holster with a molded-in sight track — something you should keep in inventory if you plan to install custom sights.

OK, there must be some kind of catch to providing sight installation service to your retail customers. There is: It does require professional precision machinery and refinishing skills to make this happen. Precision machining of hardened steel is no cakewalk. It takes the right machinery, cutters, knowledge and experience. There are more botched sight jobs and irritated customers in the firearms arena than I care to think about.

The message is clear — do it right, or refer the work to skilled craftsmen who specialize in sight installation.

If you are the owner or manager of a retail shop that does a bit of gunsmithing, it is a good idea to ask your smiths a few questions, including what are the speed and feed requirements for using dovetail cutters to install custom sights on hardened steel slides. If you get a bit of a blank stare, it’s time to get your smiths more training, or pass the work on to sight installation professionals.

Keep in mind pushing ahead with a job that your shop is not qualified to perform runs a high risk of being held responsible for the damage done to your customer’s gun.


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