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How to Aim a Pistol Using Iron Sights or a Red Dot Sight

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How to Aim a Pistol

In the world of pistol shooting, knowing how to aim a pistol effectively is the difference between hitting your target and missing it altogether. Whether you’re a beginner just getting started or a seasoned shooter looking to polish your skills, understanding the fundamentals of aiming is crucial.

This comprehensive guide will teach you how to aim a pistol using iron sights or a red dot sight.

Basics of Aiming

Before we dive into the specifics of aiming with iron sights and red dot sights, let’s touch upon the fundamental aspects of aiming, eye dominance, and iron sights versus red dot sights.

Aiming your pistol involves more than just pointing and shooting. It requires a keen understanding of sight alignment, sight picture, different holds, and the ability to adapt to the type of sights you are using.

When you aim, you align your eye with the sights on the gun and the target. This alignment enables you to accurately point your gun at the target with the intent to hit it.

Aligning eyes with your sights and the target.

However, successful aiming isn’t just about alignment. You also need to consider the distance to the target, the size of the target, and external factors like wind and light conditions.

Moreover, aiming is not a static action. It’s a dynamic process that requires constant adjustment and correction. Your aim can shift as you breathe, your heart beats, and your muscles tire.

Learning to control and minimize these shifts can significantly improve your shooting accuracy.

Eye Dominance

Understanding your eye dominance is crucial when learning how to aim a pistol for several reasons.

Firstly, it’s all about accuracy. Your dominant eye is naturally better at delivering accurate information about an object’s location to your brain, which can greatly influence your aim. When you’re shooting, your dominant eye is essentially guiding your hand and helping to align the gun with your target. If you were to aim with your non-dominant eye, your aim could be off, resulting in missed shots.

Secondly, knowing your eye dominance can help you position yourself correctly when shooting. For example, if you’re right-eye dominant, you might prefer to hold the gun in your right hand and align your right eye with the sights. This might feel more comfortable and natural, helping you to shoot more effectively.

Lastly, understanding eye dominance can be particularly important if you’re one of the many people with cross-dominance, where your dominant hand and eye don’t match up (for example, you’re right-handed but left-eye dominant).

In such cases, you might need to make adjustments, such as tilting your head slightly to align your dominant eye with the sights or even learning to shoot from your non-dominant side.

The following video will share a method to determine your dominant eye, and it will cover what you can do if you are cross-eye dominant.

Iron Sights vs. Red Dot Sights

Iron sights versus red dots

For pistol shooting, iron sights are the traditional type of firearm sights, consisting of two metal pieces mounted on the firearm. The front sight is usually a single post, while the rear sight has a notch or aperture to align the front and rear sights.

On the other hand, red dot sights are an optic system that reflects a reticle image (in this case, a red dot) onto a lens to create an aiming point. Red dot sights have gained popularity due to their ease of use and the speed at which shooters can acquire their target.

Each type of sight has its benefits and challenges. Iron sights are more reliable and don’t require batteries, but they can be difficult for some shooters to use, especially at longer distances or in low light conditions.

Red dot sights are easy to use and excellent for quick target acquisition, but they can be more expensive, and cheaper models might not hold their zero well–more on zeroing later in the article.

Mastering Sight Alignment with Iron Sights

Iron sights are the traditional aiming method for pistols and offer a reliable way to enhance your shooting accuracy.

When using traditional handgun sights, the concept of sight alignment is paramount. This refers to the proper positioning of one’s dominant eye, and front and rear sights. Think of it as aligning all the elements in a straight line – your eye, the rear sight, the front sight, and the target.

For accurate shots, the front sight should be centered within the notch of the rear sight, forming an equal amount of light on either side – this is known as “equal height and equal light.” The top edge of the front sight should be level with the top edge of the rear sight, creating a clear, focused sight picture.

Proper pistol sight alignment

A common mistake beginners make is focusing on the target instead of the front sight. While it might seem intuitive to focus on what you’re trying to hit, doing so can lead to inaccurate shots–at least when someone is first learning to shoot.

Your eyes can only focus on one plane at a time, and when aiming, that should be the front sight. This technique, known as front sight focus, allows for a clear view of the front sight while keeping the target and the rear sight slightly blurry but still aligned with the front sight.

When shooting, you initially want to focus on your target. Your target should be clear, and your sights will be blurry.

Hard Target Focus

Then, once your gun is in the target zone, you will quickly change your focus to your front sight to ensure your sights are properly aligned over your target. Once you’ve confirmed proper sight alignment, you can take your shot.

Front Sight Focus

I already alluded to that as you gain more experience, you may break from this traditional technique for a more hard target focused approach. However, if you’re a beginner, we highly recommend learning by focusing on your front sight.

Achieving the Perfect Site Picture with Iron Sights

Now that you’ve got your sight alignment down, the next step is understanding sight picture.

In layman’s terms, sight picture is how you place your properly aligned sights on the target. There are two popular holds for sight picture with iron sights and practical shooting applications: the center hold and the combat hold.

Center Hold vs. Combat Hold

Center Hold
Combat Hold

Center Hold: With the center hold, the front edge or top edge of the front sight bisects the center of the target. In other words, your properly aligned sights are placed directly over the bullseye, splitting it in half. This hold is typically used for more precise shooting applications.

Combat Hold: The combat hold, on the other hand, is slightly different. Here, the front sight completely covers the target, obscuring it from view. This hold is commonly used in high-stress, tactical situations where speed is more critical than pinpoint accuracy.

Take note, these holds will not matter at close distances, but you they will once you start shooting beyond 15-yards. Also,

the hold you should use is influenced by the specific firearm and sights you’re using. Some manufacturers, like Sig Sauer, design most of their firearms to have a combat hold out of the factory. Always check your firearm’s manual or consult with the manufacturer for optimal results.

Alternatively, you can always test things by shooting a target at 25 yards using both holds. Take ten shots from a stable platform using one method and another ten shots using the other. The ten shot group that is most accurate is likely the hold for your firearm and sighting system.

Aiming Made Easy with A Red Dot Sight

If you’re seeking a more intuitive way to aim a pistol, a red dot sight might be the answer.

Aiming with a red dot sight is generally considered easier than iron sights. Instead of aligning two sights, you place the red dot on your target and pull the trigger without disturbing the dot.

With a red dot sight, you can maintain focus on the target – a technique referred to has hard target focus that offers significant advantages, especially in fast-paced shooting scenarios.

While most red dot shooters keep their focus on the target, allowing the red dot to superimpose over it, there might be instances requiring a shift in focus.

For instance, when dealing with small or distant targets, you might need to momentarily shift your focus from the target to the red dot to ensure precise and accurate shot placement.

This isn’t necessary in most cases but can be beneficial for those high-stakes, accuracy-dependent shots.

Ensuring Your Sights or Red Dot is Zeroed

Regardless of whether you’re using iron sights or a red dot, it’s crucial to ensure they are properly zeroed. If your sighting systems are not zeroed, you won’t hit your intended target.

Zeroing is the process of aligning your point of aim with your point of impact.

In simpler terms, it means setting up your sights so that when you aim at a target, your shots will consistently hit where you’re aiming.

If you’re unfamiliar with zeroing, refer to your firearm’s manual or seek advice from a professional. Below are two videos that might help as well.

Zeroing An Iron Sight Gun

Zeroing An Red Dot Sight

Should You Shoot with One Eye or Two Eyes Open

Should you have one eye or two eyes open when shooting?

We’ll address this with more detail in another article, but the most common answer is if you can shoot with both eyes open comfortably and with great accuracy, shoot with both eyes open.

We know, however, that everyone’s vision is different. Some people may not physically be able to see their sights clearly without closing one eye. If this is you, then you will need to do what you have to do, i.e. shut your non-dominant eye.

Most instructors advocate keeping both eyes open, specifically for self-defense situations, so that you can take in more information from your environment and fully use your peripheral vision.

If you’re not shooting for defensive purposes, shooting with one eye can be more acceptable.

Shooting Drills for Iron Sights and Red Dot Sights

To refine your aiming skills with iron sights or a red dot, incorporating specific dry fire training and live fire shooting drills at a shooting range can be helpful.

As a beginner, you will have to consciously think about everything you’re doing because you’re learning and the mechanics of aiming are not yet part of your subconscious (or as some will say ‘muscle memory’).

To aim faster and more automatically, you need to practice a lot. The drills discussed in the following video will help you achieve proper sight alignment or alignment with your red dot faster.

How to Aim a Pistol [VIDEO]

In Summary

Aiming a pistol effectively is a skill that requires understanding, practice, and patience. With iron sights, you need to master sight alignment and sight picture and understand when to use either a center or combat hold. Red dot sights, while simpler, still require a good understanding of focusing techniques and shot placement.

As with any skill, proficiency comes with practice. Developing good mechanics, such as a steady grip and smooth trigger control, will significantly improve your shooting accuracy. Understanding different holds and their appropriate applications can further advance your shooting capabilities as you progress.

Safety should always be your top priority. Always follow proper firearm handling procedures, whether you’re practicing at the range or in a real-life situation. Remember, the key to becoming a better shooter is not only about hitting your target, but doing so safely and responsibly. Practice, learn, and most importantly, enjoy the journey.

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About the author


Myles is the Founder of Tactical Hyve, a competitive shooter, and a life-long student of all things dealing with the tactical and self-defense worlds.

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