Back to Basics: Zeroing Your Pistol Sights

Zero your pistol sights? Say what?

To many, the idea of zeroing a pistol may seem strange. Rifles? Sure, they all need to be zeroed. But a pistol? Many might argue that at the range a pistol is likely to be used, zeroing is not necessary, or necessarily even possible. Indeed, on my RM380, the sights are literally milled protrusions on the top of the slide and adjustment is not possible. However, on most duty sized guns, and on many popular concealed carry choices, the sights are able to be drifted or replaced to change the point of impact. This is important for a number of reasons.

Read Robert’s article on training at distance. Take a class from Kyle Defoor or Steve Fisher and the need to know where exactly your shots are going to impact at various distances becomes readily apparent.

While the skill sets involved, or at least the necessary sight picture, will be different between close range and long range shots, if you can make the hits at distance, then the hits up close should be easy.

Imagine a worst case scenario, such as a hostage shot where a family member is at risk in a home invasion or robbery gone wrong. Knowing EXACTLY where your shot will impact might be of critical importance. If you haven’t been to the range and haven’t shot a walk back drill, then how can you guarantee the necessary hit? If your shots aren’t hitting where you’re aiming, wouldn’t you want to adjust your sights accordingly?

To be sure, this process requires a modicum of skill with your pistol. If at the end of your shooting session your target looks like it was hit with a shotgun (and I’ve been there), then your fundamentals need work. But if you’re able to discern a grouping or pattern to your shots, then perhaps some adjustment of sights might be possible and warranted.

By way of example, I’m going to describe my own experience with my Glock 19. The photo below shows how far my rear sight needed to be drifted to match my point of aim with my point of impact. After I put the plain black Defoor sights back on my gun, I was able to fine tune my pistol zero over the course of about three trips to the range, starting each session at 25 yards and shooting 10 shot groups at a B8 repair center. Kyle Defoor frequently posts targets with scores in the 90’s and times under 30 seconds. I’m not there on the time standard yet, but just recently I accomplished my first score of 90 and a subsequent 91 at 25 yards. I could not have done that without zeroing my sights, and I have a little more confidence at that distance now.

G19 zeroed

I’ve mentioned this previously, but my experience has been that the Defoor sights from Ameriglo serve as a benchmark for accuracy for me against which all other sights are measured. The more I shoot, train, and practice, the less concerned I am with having night sights or a prominent front sight. Indeed, recently I have been finding tritium front sights to be almost distracting. I will concede that a prominent front sight may allow incrementally faster shots at close distances, but I’m not convinced that that’s the end all be all of pistol sights.

The remainder of this post is going to be relatively specific to Glock pistols, as that’s what I carry and have the most experience with. I’m going to describe how exactly to zero your pistol sights. Most pistols should come from the factory with sights zeroed, but if you change your sights, then some adjustment may be necessary. Begin by firing a 5 or 10 shot group at 25 yards (or whatever distance corresponds to your current skill level). If the center of your group does not coincide with your point of aim, then you will need to adjust your sights.

Windage (or horizontal adjustment) is relatively easy to adjust. To move your point of impact right, you will need to drift the rear sight to the right. Conversely, to move your point of impact left, you will drift the rear sight to the left. You can buy a sight adjustment tool, such as this one, or you can simply use a padded vise and a brass punch and hammer. I’ve never invested in the sight adjustment tool, so I just use this hammer and punch set and pad my vice jaws with cardboard. A trick that I first learned at a class with Kyle Defoor is to mark the rear sight and slide with a ballpoint pen to judge how far you’ve moved the sight. I actually tend to use a mechanical pencil with 0.5 mm lead to mark the sides of the rear sight inside the rear sight channel. This allows me to see exactly how far right or left the sight has been moved. I have generally found that covering one pencil mark width corresponds to roughly 2 inches at 25 yards.

Elevation is a little trickier, and much more dependent on ammunition choice. The easiest thing to do might be to just learn your hold offs at distance, and learn where to aim to achieve your desired point of impact. You may find that you need to use a six o’clock hold to hit what you’re aiming at. Or, you may need to hold the front sight directly over your point of aim. The former option is what I discovered I needed to do with my Glock and my current stockpile of ammunition. If you want a more definitive change in your point of impact, then a few different sight manufacturers offer different height front sight blades. Ameriglo, Dawson Precision, and 10-8 Performance are just a few examples that immediately come to mind. To move your impact down, you will need a taller front sight post. To move the impact up, you would need a shorter front sight post. If you follow the 10-8 Performance link above and read their page dedicated to choosing pistol sights, you can find a formula to calculate the necessary sight height. In my opinion and experience, it is better to have your pistol hitting high instead of hitting low. At least if you’re hitting high, you can better judge the windage of your shot. That’s hard to do when your pistol has to be held so high that it is completely covering a distant target. The counterpoint is that if your pistol hits too high above your point of aim, it will be very difficult to hold both the needed elevation and the correct windage to make hits (ask me how I know this). Finally, as the Glock front sight is secured in an oblong mounting hole with a screw, it may behoove you to take a straight edge ruler and hold it against the front sight post to verify that it is indeed aligned parallel to the slide. If it’s not, it is simple to fix by using a pair of needle nose pliers to gently rotate it ever so slightly.

Needless to say, your ammunition choice matters as well. Cheap ammunition that gives inconsistent results will make the zeroing process difficult if not impossible.

We put sights on pistols in order to better aim them and achieve better accuracy. Zero the damned things! After all, iron sights are simply a sighting system. If you put a red dot sight on your handgun, I guarantee you would spend some time zeroing it to achieve the desired results. Why are iron sights any different?

Be advised, some of the above links are Amazon Affiliate links. We appreciate it when you use our Affiliate link for your Amazon purchases, as it helps us maintain this blog and doesn’t cost you anything extra!

Finally, feel free to comment with your thoughts on this first “Back to Basics” piece. If the feedback is positive, I may write more about subjects that are simple, but that I think every gun owner should understand.

Thanks for reading!

3 thoughts on “Back to Basics: Zeroing Your Pistol Sights

  1. John, thanks for the article. Had a follow-up question. I’ve heard conflicting advice from good shooters on this topic. One suggestion has been to zero your sights based on your specific trigger pull and ammo. Meaning, the rear sights may be drifted wide to the left or right and not actually centered on the slide. Second suggestion has been to get the sights either factory zeroed or use a bench rest to zero them and then learn to shoot properly and so that you fix any habitual mistakes that move your clusters to the right or left. Any thoughts?


    1. Caleb, thanks for your comment. Before I say anything further, I want to reiterate that I am far from an expert. Having said that, I think the issue can be addressed by looking at consistency. Start with the sights centered. If you consistently hit left or right, then drifting the sights is probably warranted. But you have to be a good enough shot to have that consistency to make that judgement. One good idea I’ve encountered is to shoot groups strong hand only and then weak hand only. If your group moves, it’s you. If it doesn’t, it’s the gun. I have a G19-3 that has factory sights that I’ve never messed with, and it’s accurate if I do my part. But on my G19-4, I’ve had to drift every set of sights I’ve ever tried to the right. When I have guys like KD4 and Daryl Bolke suggesting that I drift my sights, I tend to listen. Unfortunately, I’m not sure there’s a definitive answer here. But, consider that there are adjustable pistol sights. There’s a reason for that. Hope this helps.


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