Fixed Sights vs. Adjustable Sights

If you’re looking to buy your first centerfire handgun you may be wondering how concerned you should be about holding out for a model with adjustable sights.  Our expert, Dave Norman, offers everything you need to know. 


combat handguns

Fixed sights are just fine for combat handguns like the military’s M9…which is also used by police. Photo by the DOD


Here are the factors to consider while making your decision:


The main concern with fixed sights is that they’ll come pre-set accurately enough to hit center mass of a reasonably sized target at a reasonable distance. With quality modern guns, you can take this for granted…and bet that that factory setting will be based on popular ammunition designed for the pistol’s purpose. For instance, a Beretta 92FS (the civilian equivalent of the M9) can be expected to hit point of aim at seven to ten yards with 115 grain FMJ commercial ammunition—the analogue for the military’s standard ball ammo for the M9.


Further, you can expect police-issue full-size semi autos to have sights adjusted for popular defensive hollow point ammunition—the common denominator for ammunition, if you will. So if you plan to shoot commercial factory loads that approximate the ballistics of popular defensive loads, or plan to put FMJ ammo through a gun designed for military FMJ ammo, you can reasonably expect your rounds to strike “close enough for government work!”


Consider also the work you intend for your gun to do: recreational shooting. I’ll take that to mean that you’ll be happy if the gun (never mind your skill) can keep your rounds on a pie plate at 10 yards, which is very reasonable to expect of modern handguns (though might be a goal you’ll need to train yourself to achieve!). Adjustable sights will certainly help you move groups from one edge of that pie plate to the center…unless the problem is with your grip or form. That adjustability is crucial for competitors, especially in bullseye shooting…which it doesn’t sound like you intend to do.


fixed sight pistols

Competition-grade large, adjustable sights can be added to most quality handguns—even those that start life as duty-issue fixed-sight pistols like this M9. Photo by the DOD


Adjustable sights are important (though not essential) for reloaders, who often work up quirky pet loads and can be counted on to have at least two loads in their cabinet at any given time that have radically different ballistic performance. Adjustable sights help them reign in groups that print high or low (hits off to the side are generally from shooter error), rezeroing their gun as the ballistics change. Other reloaders painstakingly work their loads to print at point of aim from fixed sight pistols.


So, will you ever reload? Compete? Shoot oddball cartridges (with the expectation of precision)? If so, adjustable sights might important…but you should also know that sights are generally very easy to replace. Usually a gunsmith can swap them out for aftermarket adjustable (or another style of fixed) sights in just a few minutes.


The primary consideration, regardless whether they’re fixed or adjustable, as-issued or aftermarket, is how intuitively and comfortably you can use them. Hold a few different pistols—preferably radically different pistols—and see how different their sights can be…then find a gun with them, or plan to buy a set to swap onto whatever pistol you do buy. Sights are probably the most frequently “upgraded” component on handguns, so don’t let trepidation over fixed sights hold you back from embracing—and possibly customizing—what is otherwise your dream pistol!


By Dave Norman


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