Are Your Pistol Sights Off? Let’s Find Out How To Tell If They Are

Pistols are great because they are pretty basic in terms of how they’re designed. That means there’s not much on them that can go wrong. Pistols generally live quite a hard life, especially the carry guns. The only weak point, if there is one, is the sights. These are the highest point on top of the pistol’s slide and bear the brunt of many nudges and bumps.   

Pistol sights, particularly the adjustable types, can move out of line if bumped. This malalignment also happens over time, especially when a pistol is carried daily and gets bumped repeatedly. Inaccurate sights could potentially cost one dearly in a self-defense situation if your shots are not landing on target.

Pistols are designed for close-range shooting, although they are occasionally used in special long-range events. Therefore, their sights are more crude and robust than what would be found on, for example, a hunting rifle. Over time, ease of target acquisition and clarity of the sight picture has overshadowed the need for pinpoint accuracy from very fine sights. The sights remain a critical part of the weapon in terms of shooting accurately.  

Problems with the sights can become a big issue. Let’s explore what we can do about this.  

how to tell if pistol sights are off

Signs That Your Pistol Sights Are Off

Firstly, sights that are ‘off’ is a general term used to indicate that the sights are not aligned to the bullet’s point of impact. 

Shooting consistently and accurately with a pistol takes practice and good shooting technique. Few things are as satisfying as seeing a nice grouping of shots, right on the bulls-eye or x ring. However, when this doesn’t happen, doubt begins to creep in. 

The process of firing off a shot requires several factors to work in unison to ensure a favorable outcome, and the bullets strike exactly where you aimed. One of the most crucial elements is the sights of your pistol. If you don’t trust your pistol sights, you’ll be hard-pressed to shoot to your satisfaction, as confidence plays a big part in your shooting performance.

Begin by visually inspecting the sights of your pistol, looking for any signs of movement of the sights bases. Then check the sights themselves. Ensure that the sights are clean as debris could build up on one of the surfaces changing the original profile of the sights. 

When setting out to test your sights, you’ll need to shoot a few shots at a clean target. Five to ten shots will be ideal for this exercise. Be sure to focus on your point of aim and shooting technique with each of the shots. The aim is to shoot a tight or small grouping of shots.

Once the shooting exercise is done, we would need to get some information off the target.

When examining the bullet holes on the target, the aim is to identify a pattern or a grouping of bullet holes.  That will indicate where the majority of the shots are landing. Exclude any called flyers from the group. Use a pen to circle the majority of the shots on the target. That will further assist in providing a visual picture of the results of the exercise.

If your shots have landed randomly or are spread all over the target, this would indicate poor shooting technique rather than a problem with the sights. 

A more promising sign is if your grouping is tight or very well focused in a specific target area, even if they are not necessarily on the point. However, this doesn’t yet mean that your sights need adjusting. Technique may still be playing a role here. Many of us have the ability to pull the shot consistently, which results in good groups. But this comes from doing the same thing incorrectly with each shot. Fortunately, this can be resolved.

If your grouping is tight and in the area you were aiming to hit, your sights are on target, and you don’t need to adjust them.

The next step in determining if your pistol’s sights are off or if technique is the problem is to ask someone else to shoot a grouping using your pistol. This person should ideally be a competent pistol shot to avoid raising more questions. Also, use a new target to avoid confusion with your previous shots.

Once your assistant has fired off five to ten shots, examine the target. If your assistants’ shots landed in the same area of the target that your grouping landed, this would indicate that your pistol sights do require adjustment. This second opinion is always a good idea.

If your assistant’s shots have printed in a tight group but in an area other than where the shots you fired landed, you’ll need to go to the next step, which is to use a pistol rest. 

Are Your Pistol Sights Off? Let's Find Out How To Tell If They Are 1

Test If Your Sights Are Off Using A Pistol Rest

A pistol rest is a device used to rest your pistol on when shooting from a shooting table or the like.

 It does not need to be one of the many commercially available rests. A makeshift rest will suffice as long as the rest is stable. The purpose of using the shooting rest is to keep the pistol in a steady position when firing off a shot. 

The pistol rest greatly reduces the possibility of moving the pistol out of alignment from your point of aim while pulling the trigger. 

A pistol rest can also be a great aid when checking the alignment of the sights of your pistol when you are shooting alone and don’t have an assistant to shoot your pistol to verify its point of aim. 

Set yourself up comfortably at the shooting bench. Ensure that the setup is stable and you are in a comfortable shooting position. You will be shooting five to ten focused shots; the aim is to replicate each shot exactly. Now that the pistol is secure and has virtually no movement, your focus needs to be on your sight picture and trigger control.

When firing off the shots and you notice the shots landing in an area other than your point of aim, do not adjust your point of aim to compensate. Focus on the same point of aim for each shot. Once the shooting is done, examining the target will dictate your course of action.

Ideally, what you’d want to see is a tight group of shots somewhere on the target. If a group has been achieved but is not on the point of aim, then the sights must be adjusted accordingly. If no discernable grouping is evident on the target at this point, we’ll need to revert to the basics of shooting technique and build up from there.

How To Adjust Your Pistol Sights

When deciding that your pistol’s sights require adjustment, it is essential to remember that you will be adjusting the sights to align with a point of aim at a specific distance and for the specific brand of ammunition. Therefore, if you’re going to be sighting in with FMJ ammo, but your carry rounds are hollow points, it’s important to shoot them both before verifying their respective points of impact. If there is a significant difference in impact, you’ll have to decide which ammo to sight in with.

When adjusting the sights, do so in small increments. Take a shot and move the sight again if necessary, bringing the sight in slowly onto the point of aim.

Are Your Pistol Sights Off? Let's Find Out How To Tell If They Are 2

What Direction Do You Move The Sights To Adjust Them?

Lateral Adjustment (Left and Right)

If your grouping of shots has landed to the right of the point of aim.

Adjusting Rear Sight: To the Left.  (Grouping on the right, rear sight moves left)   

Adjusting the front sight: To the right. (Grouping on the right, front sight moves right)

If your grouping of shots has landed to the left of the point of aim.

Adjusting Rear Sight: To the right.  (Grouping on left, rear sight moves right)   

Adjusting the front sight: To the left. (Grouping on the left, front sight moves left)

Vertical Adjustment (Up and Down)

Assuming your grouping of shots has landed above the point of aim.

Adjusting Rear Sight: Down.  (Grouping is high; rear sight moves down)   

Adjusting the front sight: Upward. (Grouping is high; front sight moves up)

Assuming your grouping of shots has landed below the point of aim.

Adjusting Rear Sight: Upward.  (Grouping is low; rear sight moves up)   

Adjusting the front sight: Down. (Grouping is low; front sight moves down)

Physical Adjustment Of The Sights

Many of the compact carry pistols do not have adjustable sights because they are designed for very close quarter shooting. Should you wish to adjust the point of impact for these pistols, a gunsmith will be required to work on the sights to effect the adjustments required. 

A more cost-effective way of adjusting the point of aim in this instance would be to try different types of ammunition, effectively through trial and error, until a bullet brand or type is found that prints to your satisfaction.

Fortunately, most modern pistols do have adjustable sights. The rear sight is sometimes fitted with either a click adjustable sight element. It is adjustable by using a small screwdriver which is very convenient. The most common type is a sight mounted to a base pressed into a dovetail type groove that is machined into the slide. This feature facilitates the movement of the rear sight. It can be moved in the left and right direction by tapping the entire sight base in the direction needed. Some pistols also have the same arrangement for the front sight allowing left and right adjustments. For height adjustment on the front sight, replacement of the sight may be needed to achieve the desired height.


Does The Point Of Impact Change When Using Different Ammo? 

An important point to remember when sighting in your pistol is to do so with the ammunition you intend to use for a specific purpose. Should your weapon be used as a self-defense carry gun, the pistol should be sighted in using the same defensive rounds that you’d be carrying in the pistol.

Why is this important? Different brands of ammunition generally shoot to a different point of aim. With pistols being used primarily at short range, this difference is not always as noticeable. Extend the range that you’re shooting at, and the difference will become more apparent. This difference is significantly more noticeable when shooting a rifle due to the longer ranges being shot. Rifle users will avoid mixing ammunition or even shooting ammunition for which the weapon has not been sighted in. The same principle is true for your pistol. 

Are Your Pistol Sights Off? Let's Find Out How To Tell If They Are 3

Why Do Different Brands Of Ammunition Shoot To A Different Point Of Aim?

A multitude of factors come into play when comparing ammunition types. Ammunition is made worldwide using different propellants, primers, bullet heads, shell casings, and materials in general.

Several factors determine velocity; however, the primary ones are the propellant and bullet head design variations.  All propellants or gun powders are not equal and are manufactured to different specifications and standards. These factors all affect the bullet’s point of impact.   

For example, to highlight only one-factor affecting accuracy, let’s look at the bullet head designs. Bullet heads are made from many different metals like lead alloys, copper alloys, or a combination of metals. Some even have steel inserts. Add to this the differences in bullet weights and shapes. Every bullet shape has a different bearing surface, which is the amount of metal engaging the rifling. This affects the amount of resistance encountered in the barrel as the bullet travels along the grooves and lands until it exits the muzzle. The shape of the bullet directly influences the velocity of the bullet head, which in turn affects its point of impact. 

Types Of Pistol Sights

The discussion so far has been based on the traditional iron sight configuration. Of course, today, we have a wide variety of factory and aftermarket sight options. These include elaborate modifications of the traditional iron sights or open sights as they are sometimes called. 

Other options available are fiber optic sights (iron sight with bright fiber-optic inserts), night sights (iron sights with tritium or photoluminescent inserts), micro red-dot optics, full-sized red dot sights, and laser sights. All of the mentioned sights have an adjustment facility affording optimum accuracy.  


Being able to shoot to a specific point of aim consistently with your pistol is hugely satisfying and builds confidence in your shooting ability.  Pistol owners have never had it as good as we currently have in terms of the vast options available for shooting equipment and components. 

Of course, none of this helps if the sights do not allow you to shoot accurately. Personal ability in terms of placing a shot where needed is undoubtedly vital. Checking if your sights are off is a simple exercise for the average shooter and is quickly resolved by taking the necessary steps. 

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