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How to Sight in a Gun

Updated on April 30, 2012

Navy Firearms Training

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Sighting in a gun, whether it be a rifle or a handgun, is a pre-shooting tradition that has evolved through the ages. Shooting a firearm produces a myriad of forces on different parts of the gun, and the delicate sights tend to take the brunt of them. It is prudent to make sure your firearm shoots where you aim no matter what distance you're shooting at or what your target is. There are numerous products on the market that may aid in targeting with or without ever shooting your firearm, and in this how-to we'll look at different methods for sighting in both rifles and handguns.

The Basics

The most important aspect of sighting in a gun is finding a sight picture that shoots on target and that you can easily find again. The sight picture, simply put, is the way that the sight(s) line up as you look through the gun at your target. With optical sights there may only be one indicator of your aim (some sort of crosshairs for a scope, and a small reticle for other optical sights, for example). With a more common open sight system, the sight picture will be a combination of the front and rear sights. Once the firearm is shooting exactly where you want it to, it is important to remember what the sights look like as you’re shooting so you can find that same sight picture for each and every shot you fire.

Ar-15 Sight Picture

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Common Handgun Open Sights

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Sighting in a Handgun

Almost all handguns will come with a front sight and a rear sight already affixed to the slide. The most common factory sights consist of small post on the front of the slide and a notch in the back. This allows the shooter to align the post in the notch and set the combined picture either just below or covering the point they want to shoot. Generally only the rear sight is adjustable, and will have a small screw to adjust windage (if you’re shooting too far left or right). Some rear sights may also have a screw for elevation (shooting too high or low), but because the rear sight has a very low high to low range, many rear sights forego this additional adjustment. Because of the small size of the rear sight, the windage screw is designed to be loosened to allow you to push the entire sight to the left or right in its channel on the slide. If your sight also adjusts for elevation, there will probably be a larger screw in the center of the sight. Loosen the screw to move the sight upwards, or tighten the larger a bit to shift the rear sight downwards.

Quick Sighting Reference

You're shooting too far...
Adjust the rear sight....
Left
to the Right
Right
to the Left
High
Down (if elevation adjustment possible)
Low
Up (if elevation adjustment possible)

Sighting in a Rifle

If your rifle has open sights as pictured above, refer to the handgun section. Because rifle barrels are much longer than handguns, there are many more options for sights or sight combinations. Typical rifle open sights are the same front post and rear notch design pictured above, but the rear notch may have a ramp for adjusting elevation instead of a screw.

Older rifle iron sights usually consist of a notch mounted on a slightly springy tongue of metal which rests on a variable-level ramp. The elevation is changed by holding the notch portion up and moving the ramp forward or back to rest the notch on a higher or lower part of the ramp. Rear sights on more modern rifles will likely have a screw just in front of the rear sight's notch that can be adjusted to change elevation. If you want to shoot lower, loosen the screw to allow the notch to sit closer to the barrel and therefore lower. In order to shoot higher, tighten the screw to put more space between the barrel and the sight, heightening it.

If you have an optical sight on your rifle, there will most likely be notched adjustment wheels present, one on top of the sight and one on the side. The top adjustment changes windage while the side adjustment changes elevation. With either your fingers or a screwdriver, you turn the dial in the direction you want the bullet to go. Standard dials will move the bullet’s point of impact 1/4” per turn of the dial at 100 yards. This means that if you’re shooting 1” low at a target 100 yards away, you’ll want to adjust the elevation dial 4 clicks in the up direction (which is commonly indicated on the face of the dial). When sighting in a rifle you’re not familiar with, 100 yards may be too far to begin at. Once you’re shots are on the paper or target you’re shooting at it is easy to adjust the sights little by little until you’re point of impact is what you’re looking for.

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Example of a Sighting Target

Taking your first few shots at 25 yards or closer may make it easier to sight in a rifle might be grossly off-target. Once you adjust the sights to hit your target at 25 yards, you’ll only need fine adjustments when you move the target farther away. Because 25 yards is 1/4 of the distance of the recommended sight adjustment distance of 1/4” at 100 yards, you’ll need to turn the dial 4 times more to adjust for the same distance at 25 yards (and twice as many times at 50 yards). Therefore, if you shoot 1” below the target at 25 yards, you would turn the elevation dial 16 clicks in the up direction (4 clicks = 1/4” at 25 yards, 16 clicks = 1” at 25 yards).

Tools to Aid in Sighting a Firearm

When sighting in a firearm that hasn’t been used in a while, it may be very expensive to shoot enough ammunition to get on target. Luckily, there are various products on the market today that help to sight in a rifle or handgun without ever firing a shot. Bore-sighters are laser pointer devices that emit a laser that shows the point of aim on the target. For larger caliber firearms these lasers may be in the shape of a cartridge so that it fits right into the chamber of your gun. For smaller calibers, the bore-sighter often connects the laser part to a smaller ‘arbor’ that fits inside the muzzle of the barrel.

When sighting in your gun, you’ll want to use a target that has clearly visible labelled measurements. The sighting process will be quicker since you can easily identify how many inches off the target your shot is. With a spotting scope or binoculars, you’ll be able to easily tell how far the shot is off and in what direction.

Things to Remember...

  1. Sighting in a firearm that hasn’t been used in a while may be a time-consuming process. Start at short ranges to ensure you hit some part of the target rather than longer ranges where you may miss it altogether.
  2. Move the rear sights in the way you want the bullet to go. For example, if you want the firearm to shoot more to the right, move the rear sight to the right. When adjusting an optical sight, the dials should have indicators to show how to adjust for each direction.
  3. Use a target that makes it easy to discern where your shots are going, and that has measured labels to aid in adjusting your sights.

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