“I Can’t See My Gun Sights!”

Image of a man with classes very close view

One of the most common complaints people have about their guns, particularly as they get into their 40’s and beyond, is that they can’t “pick up” their gun sights as well as they used to. This is usually the opening salvo that ends with, “Can I buy something to fix this problem?”

Unfortunately it’s more complicated than just plopping the charge card on the gun store counter. Whether or not the problem has a solution — and what that solution might be — depends on the individual and to what use the gun is being put.

It's easy simply focus on the target...

The Root Of The Problem

Here’s something you probably know even if you don’t want it to be true: we’re all getting older, which means our body parts are getting older too. I don’t like it any more than you do, but it’s a fact of life! We can get plastic surgery and hair transplants to give us the outward appearance of youth, but mechanisms like our eyes can’t be as easily overhauled. As we age it becomes increasingly difficult for our eyes to rapidly change focus, to focus on objects that are close to us, or to differentiate between colors.

Our eyes focus on objects by changing the shape — the curvature — of the cornea and the lens that sits behind it. This process is called accommodation, and as the years pass, our corneas and lenses become less elastic and less able to change shape. This condition is called presbyopia, which is defined as the loss of accommodation. It starts to occur around age 40 and means that our eyes can’t deform as much as they used to, which in turn means their minimum focus distance becomes farther and farther away.

Even if we can still focus closely, it takes more time to do so. That’s because our eyes don’t change shape as quickly. When we’re young, our eyes can change their focus point very rapidly, but they slow down over time. It takes longer for our eyes to get to any given focus point, and eventually they don’t get there at all. Diabetes, high blood pressure, and smoking aggravate this degenerative process.

That’s not the only problem. The muscles that open and close our pupils also age, making reactions to changing light conditions slower and less precise. While that’s happening, the cells in our retinas lose some sensitivity, causing colors to appear dull and reducing the contrast between different colors and brightness levels.

I don’t know about you, but I could live with all of this except for one tiny detail: it makes shooting harder!

How Does This Affect Shooting?

This normal degeneration of our eyesight certainly makes recreational shooting less enjoyable, but can make defensive shooting less reliable. The former is an annoyance, but the latter is a serious problem.

In those cases where we need to use our gun sights (remember that not all shooting problems require that we do), the standard procedure has always been to focus on the front blade and let the rear sight and the target blur. As presbyopia sets in, the ability to rapidly shift focus from the target to the sights is reduced, and sooner or later the minimum focus distance exceeds the length of our outstretched arms. This means that the front sight is always blurred and it’s not possible to focus on it without glasses.

Focus problems can happen in conjunction with, or separately from, a reduction in contrast and color perception. This makes the sights harder to distinguish from the target or from each other (front to rear).

A person with normal eyesight finds it’s generally easy to tell that the sights are darker or lighter or a different color than the target at which they’re aimed, and that the front sight is separate and distinct from the rear. As contrast and color perception decline, it becomes harder to separate where the sights end and the target begins. Even if the shooter can focus on the front sight, it’s hard to tell where the sights are actually pointed!

Combine a loss of accommodation with a reduction in contrast and it can be nearly impossible to see and align the front sight, rear sight, and target. In other words, for those times when we need to use our sights, we’re not able to do so!

Man demonstrating normal defensive shooting stance

Normal defensive shooting stance is aggressive, with weight forward for maximum recoil control.

Man demonstrates an unstable shooting stance

Trying to look through bifocals results in a leaned-back, unstable stance that gives far less control over the gun.

Image showing how painting front sight can help with contrast issues

One solution for contrast issues is simply to paint the front sight with bright, tough acrylics.

Image showing how filing out a narrow rear notch improves contrast from front and rear sights

Carefully filing out a too-narrow rear notch often dramatically improves contrast between the front and rear sights. Use a fine jeweler’s needle file and go slowly.

Image of fiber optic sights

Fiber optics are a popular choice for high-contrast sights, but have significant disadvantages.

Some Hardware Solutions

When someone says, “I’m having trouble picking up my sights,” it’s important to know exactly what he means. Is he having a problem getting the front sight in focus, or is the problem that he can’t differentiate the sights from each other or from the target? The answer will determine if there is a hardware solution.

If the sights are out of focus, it’s possible to simply wear prescription glasses cut for that distance (reading glasses). That works fine on a nice, calm range — but in a defensive encounter, there may not be time to put the special glasses on, or they might get knocked off during the fight. This leaves the shooter right back where he started, and perhaps in worse condition!

Wearing bifocals is a fact of life for many of us with vision issues. The problem with bifocals is that they force the shooter to tip the head back, which in turn forces him to stand up straight. Not only is that posture not congruent with what human beings do in a fight, it’s also impossible to maintain any sort of multiple-shot recoil control.

Some shooters have bifocals ground at the top of their lenses so that they look through the bifocal when in a good defensive shooting stance. This solution has the same drawbacks as the separate reading glasses, and is more expensive to boot!

Other than specially made glasses, there’s not a whole lot that can be done about a focus problem. Some people buy larger sights (“Big Dot” and “Express” sights are common examples), hoping that the bigger the sight, the easier it will be to focus. That really doesn’t work; the focus problem is a matter of distance, not size. Installing a bigger front sight just means that the out-of-focus blob will be bigger — not sharper!

The issue of insufficient contrast, however, does benefit from sight change or modification. The easiest solution is to paint the front sight a different color than the rear — preferably a very bright color. This increases the contrast between the two and makes it much easier to separate them when in the field of vision.

The bright color also makes differentiating the sights from the target, as very few targets are fluorescent orange or green. There are kits available containing several colors of bright, tough paint designed specifically for sight applications.

A variation on the painting trick is to have a plastic insert milled into the front blade. This was the primary factory configuration on many S&W, Colt and Ruger guns up through the turn of the century, though much less common now. A gunsmith can easily install such an insert on any ramped front blade.

Sometimes slightly widening the rear notch by itself is enough to increase the contrast between the blades. This can be done by a gunsmith using a mill, or at home using a fine-tooth Swiss pattern file. Great care must be taken to remove exactly the same amount of material from both sides of the notch, or the windage of the gun will be affected.

One time-honored way to make the sights easier to differentiate is to have a gold bead installed in the front blade. Commonly referred to as a “McGivern Bead,” from famed gunwriter and shooter Ed McGivern, the gold bead stands out in a wide range of lighting conditions and against a wide variety of targets.

It’s important that the face of the bead be flat instead of domed, and finished with a non-glare matte surface. If this isn’t done, light reflections from various parts of the curved shiny surface will cause dramatic changes in either windage or elevation as the light changes. It’s also important that the bead be actual gold — 14k or better (I much prefer a 22k bead) as opposed to brass. Gold has a unique quality in that it seems to stand out no matter what the light conditions, and it certainly doesn’t darken the way brass does.

A modern and very popular version of the gold bead is the fiber optic sight. The front blade is drilled and milled to accept a brightly colored acrylic rod that collects and channels light to the ends of the rod. One end is left unobstructed and pointed toward the shooter, producing a very bright-colored dot of light. These are remarkably effective in surprisingly low light levels but have the drawback of being fragile. The light pipes can break and/or fall out, rendering the front blade nearly useless.

The fiber optics also have a tendency to “bloom” in very bright light, meaning that they appear to have a halo of diffused light around the dot. This makes them seem less sharp and makes it much more difficult to judge their centering in the rear notch. Some colors are worse than others for some shooters, and it’s a good idea for each individual to test the sights under the conditions they’re likely to be used.

Image of a gun clear and a blurred target

Tradition calls for a sharp front sight, with the target blurred in the background.

Image of blurred gun sight and clear target

Excellent shooting can still be done by focusing on the target and letting the sights blur.

The Software Solution

One strategy that works well with both focus and contrast issues is to stop trying to focus on the sights themselves! I know, we were all taught that if we didn’t focus on the front sight, we wouldn’t be able to hit anything, but as it happens, that’s not entirely true. Something has to be in focus in a sight picture — but that something doesn’t have to be the sights!

If the sights are aligned and placed on the target normally, but focus is kept on the target instead of the sights, it’s possible to make accurate hits on surprisingly small targets at surprisingly long distances. Everyone can focus on the target, and it greatly reduces problems with contrast loss.

It’s easy: simply focus on the target and align the sights as you normally would. I call it “looking through” the sights: you still see them, but they seem to be superimposed on the sharp target. The hard part is forcing yourself to do it.

As my vision changed, I spent years trying to get my sights in focus, even though I simply couldn’t. The result was that nothing was sharp in my field of vision — neither sights nor target — and my shooting suffered. When I finally figured out that something needed to be in focus for the gun to be aligned, I forced myself to focus on the target. It took some doing to break decades of “Front sight! Front sight!” habituation, but once I did, my shooting improved dramatically.

Today I need bifocals to read the newspaper, but I shoot better than I did before I got glasses — simply by focusing sharply on my target.

A rear sight with plenty of “light around it” works best, though I’ve found the stock ball-in-tray sights on Glock pistols work well with this technique too. (It’s also the only way I can get good accuracy out of the large dot-type express-style sights that some people prefer.)

Give it a try, but be sure to concentrate hard on not shifting focus off the target. It works, and you might be as surprised as I was when you find yourself shooting better than you have in a long time.

Don’t Give Up!

Whether you change your sights or change your technique, don’t give in to deteriorating eyesight. It’s possible to compensate for most losses and in some cases actually improve your shooting. Carefully analyze exactly what kind of a vision issue you have and make appropriate changes to compensate. You don’t have to give up shooting, or make yourself less able to survive a lethal attack, just because you’re a little older!

Discussion
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32 Responses to ““I Can’t See My Gun Sights!””
  1. Marsh

    where do you put the bulls eye in relation to front sight. ie: on top; hidden behind.

    Reply
    • Customer Service Techs

      If a person meets the eligibility requirement, passes the doctor’s screening process for laser eye surgery and has the procedure then yes it should.

      Reply
    • Al

      I got Lasik and it made it worse. I have this problem in a big way now. I have 20/15 vision which is great for all the outdoor activiities I love. I just can’t seem to deal with this lack of focus on the front sight. The sights are just a blur. It is frustrating. I read through these comments and will just need to practice more with blurry sights and a clear target.

      Reply
  2. jw

    I switched to trifocals, takes a little getting used to -works great, but would be an issue in a gun fight

    Reply
  3. Mark

    Good article. Filing the rear sight on my 1911 did the trick for these 64 yr old eyes Thanks!

    Reply
  4. Richard C Ely

    Sounds like something I need to try. The eye concentration should be dead center hold. Six O’clock
    or sub six

    Reply
  5. Billy Atkinson

    With dominate hand holding the pistol point index finger at target and line up front site on target. As pistol is leveled on target you are lined up for a torso hit. Try it, it works.

    Reply
  6. phillip euper

    I could not focus on my front sight and my groups were spraying all over the target.
    I purchased a simple pair of 1.5X reading glasses at a drug store and things are
    much better now. Don’t know how long this will last as I’m 72 going on 73 but my
    groups are much better now!

    Reply
  7. Richard

    Found this works great while shooting IDPA. With trifocals, and keeping the front sight in focus, I could not distinguish between the bad guy and a no-shoot beyond about 5 yards. Switching focus to target made all the difference in the world. I sometimes still shoot the no-shoot but that’s generally a trigger problem, not focus.

    Reply
  8. Dave Blunt

    There are eye exercises to strengthen the muscles and the shoulder and arm muscles as well and they do not take a lot of time out of your day. try this for a week and see ( pun) if it doesn’t help your aim. Sit down in a kitchen chairf or about 10 or 15 min. each evening and pickup your pistol or revolver (make sure its unloaded first 😉 ) take a couple of deep breathes, focus your thoughts on just your front site, then bring the weapon into the firing position slowly only focusing on the front site when you see the the front site clearly check your firing postion, look left then right without moving your head remember slowly is the name of the game. always come back to the front site then relax let your arms go back to your lap, take a couple of deep breahes and repeat the exercise again. You should be able to do about 4 reps a min the first day and buy the end of the week be up to 8 reps per min. but the really cool part you will notice a quicker site picture with both front and rear sites ( our bodies way of looking for more) I found this exercise by accident when I was practicing while healing up from a knee replacement surgery and wanted to do something so was watching a frontsite commercial on the PC and saw they were turning heads left and right after firing but sense I have a somewhat stiff neck I tried the eye movement instead and I found that my eyes (muscles) were getting stronger and by starting out focusing on the front site at first by the end of the week I had a full site picture with little or no difficulty and I’m 68 yrs young. try it , it works for me , it might just work for you. – DAVE

    Reply
    • Dale

      Hi Dave. This sounds like a cool thing to try. Even if it doesn’t work for me, I still get to benefit from the meditative aspect of the exercise. One question – with or without glasses? I’m thinking I should be learning to hit a target without my glasses for the simple fact that I may not have them or lose ability to see through them at the time.

      Reply
  9. Tom

    One thing to consider is reverse bifocals (and not transition). Have your optometrist set the near distant focal point for about where your front sight will be when you shoot. This will provide a sharp front sight (like the old days) and allow you to assume a combat shooting position with your head tilted slightly forward.

    Reply
  10. Leon Miller

    Hi, good points all around. I have the bifocals focus problem too. Try this, go to the Dollar Store and buy several different powered bifocals. take out the lens for your non site eye. You will be able to focus on the target and your sites. If your dominant eye is your right, and you are right handed, this works very well. If dominant eye is left and you are right handed, you’ll see the target on an angle from your right eye looking at the sites. Give it a try.

    Reply
  11. Martin

    Hi Grant,
    Thank you for this excellent article. I have exactly the problem that you have outlined and resolved. I am 64 years of age and although my long sight is almost as good as it was years ago,my vision over short distance(front sight to rear sight) has deteriorated quite a bit. I was trawling the internet searching for some form of eye glasses that might help with the problem when I discovered your article. You may have saved me a lot of time and possibly quite a bit of money.

    Reply
  12. chris

    It’s funny. I have always been a target shooter, instead allowing the sights to blur. I just got back into long range shooting after 15 years out of the sport. Nearing 50, not able to see the rear sights like I used to, I still shoot as well as I ever did with my rifles. Thanks for putting some fears to rest regarding aging eyesight.

    Reply
  13. Brad

    I’m new to pistols, but I’ve had this same issue shooting open ridle sights for years. With practice, I now shoot with both eyes open, and it helped a ton. My dominant eye sees the sights, and my other eye sees the target. This causes you to see double on the front sight, but once you know which of them to use, it works great dor me. Is there any reason that I should use a different method shooting pistols?

    Reply
  14. Terry

    At 67, I have this problem and appreciate your potential solutions. I will certainly try them. Would the addition of the Crimson Trace laser grips solve this problem?

    Reply
    • cst

      Before spending money on a laser try the methods recommended in the article. Changing out your sights so that you have a wider rear notch combined with a highly visible front (such as a fiber) can do wonders in helping with traditional sight alignment and sight picture (SA/SP). If you’re still not able to get sufficient SA/SP then the threat focused technique described in the article should work well with some solid practice. If you still want to add a laser after you have developed the ability to hit targets using the threat focused sighted method then go for it. Keep in mind the laser is considered a tertiary aiming device and you need a maintain that reliable primary method of hitting targets which require high degree of precision. Also, keep in mind that lasers have limitations in effective distances, washout in bright light, battery failure, and depending on the type they can be difficult to get turned on in that worst case scenario. I have included some PDN videos that cover laser sights on defensive handguns.
      http://www.personaldefensenetwork.com/video/side-mounted-laser-sight-for-revolvers-000603/
      http://www.personaldefensenetwork.com/video/night-sights-lasers-and-firearm-mounted-lights-as-shooting-aids-003406/

      Reply
  15. Steve Winn

    In a defensive situation, getting a good sight picture in milliseconds under the stress of the situation is going to be difficult even for the best eyes. Learn point shooting and practice often at differing distances, shot placements, follow ups, lighting and weak hand. Much faster and more accurate.

    Reply
  16. Tom Wills

    This is a great subject. I wear tri-focal lens in my glasses. That makes it even harder to get a good view of the target and/or the sights. I find it exceptionally hard to use a rifle, but now I see there are better sights (Red Dot, etc). I just might try that some day. As to my revolver, maybe getting a laser pointer and concentrating on that would work.

    BTW, getting my cataracts removed helped to a point. It seems that things are sharper, but still blurry (either the sights or the target). So far practice seems to help a little, but only a little. What seems to work one time doesn’t the next time. Frustrating to say the least. 🙁

    Reply
  17. Sean

    I have always found looking at the target to be natural. At age 53, I decided to try looking at the front sight and it feels completely unnatural. This is the first article I have read about focusing on the target. Nice article.

    Reply
  18. Don

    Well written article that really works. Before reading this, I found myself letting my sights go out of focus and concentrating on the target (53 year old eyes). It really does work. The last time at the range, I had nice tight consistant groups. Give it a go!!

    Reply
  19. Roger

    What’s your thoughts on lasers? I wear Trifocals and do have the issue you described. I have to tilt my head back to focus on the front sight. This is very uncomfortable and as you said not practical in a real world situation.

    Reply
  20. SARA MELLADO

    These Glasses were designed at the request of pistol shooters and instructors. These are designed for people who are far sighted and need readers to help see things up close. This product even has interchangeable lenses that allow you to switch out one lens with a regular “pano” lens to still see your target while the other lens can contain the bi focal at the top of the lens to help you see your sites.

    Reply