by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This report covers:

  • History
  • What goes with what?
  • Square post and notch
  • Tapered post and Vee notch
  • Putting this together
  • Summary

One of our readers named Mike U. asked a lot of questions about open sights. In fact, he asked more questions than I can address in one report. I did a report on the different types of open sights in 2012, but that was about the different designs — not how to use them, which was what Mike wanted to know. Today I will look at the subject from that perspective.

This subject is both simple and also very complex. I will attempt to cover the basics for you, and if any of you have more questions you can ask them in the comments to this report.


Guns did not come with sights at first. There were several reasons for this. First, the guns were not accurate. Hitting a man 20 feet from the muzzle was only possible if the gun was fired into a phalanx of men. Guns didn’t have triggers. They were like cannons attached to poles. In fact, they were called hand cannons.

But the design technology advanced rapidly to the point that guns started being held more or less like they are today. When that happened, sights were needed. At first there were only front sights, because the guns were still inaccurate, but eventually they added rear sights and it became possible to hit a man at 60 feet from the muzzle.

Then the rifle came into being and the distance at which men could be intentionally hit stretched out to 600 feet — a tenfold increase almost overnight. Now sights became vital and this is when the open sight took off.

The first practical sights were a combination low front sight and a wide shallow rear vee. These were found on Kentucky rifles starting about 1730. They were vast improvements on what had gone before, and shooters soon learned how to use them well beyond their design parameters. For example, if a rifle was hitting away from the target, the shooter could move the front sight, relative to the rear vee, and get a different impact point. This was called Kentucky windage.

Kentucky sights
The front sight, seen from the side here, and the rear Vee of a Kentucky rifle were huge improvements in the development of sights.


Kentucky windage
To move the impact of the bullet, simply hold the front sight in a different place against the rear sight.

What goes with what?

Mike asked which front sight elements go with which rear sight elements. Today I will show several classic parings that belong together.

Square post and notch

After the Kentucky rifle, sights exploded in many directions at the same time. One of the most common types for handguns and also for target rifles is the combination of a square post front sight and a square rear notch. With this combination it’s easy to keep the top of the front sight level with the top of the rear sight and to keep equal amounts of light on both sides of the front post.

square post and notch
Square post and notch was used for target shooting for many years. When the rear peep sight came into the picture, the front square post was still used for a couple more decades.

These two elements, front and rear, go together. Other elements such as a tapered front post or a post and bead do not work as well in the square rear notch, because it’s harder to guesstimate when they are aligned. And the square front post looks odd when seen through a rear vee notch, or a U-shaped notch.

Tapered post and vee notch

The tapered front post can be used with the square rear notch, as long as the top of the front post is squared off. But it gets paired with the classic rear vee notch most often. The top of the post is held even with the top of the rear sight. This combination of sights (tapered front post and rear vee) is harder to use for target shooting. Often a post and bead front sight is substituted for the tapered post. That makes aiming easier and faster.

tapered post and Vee notch
The front tapered post works like a square post. It’s held level with the top of the rear sight.

A front post and bead is often combined with the rear vee notch. This is where things become confusing. Where you position the bead, relative to the rear sight — at the top of the notch, or at the bottom? And the Vee can also be a U-shaped notch. It works in exactly the same way as the vee.

Vee notch with post and bead
The front bead sight is better-suited to the rear vee notch. But where do you put the bead — top or bottom?

Vee notch with post and bead bottom
Put the bead at the bottom of the notch when the sights are adjusted so the pellet goes to the center of the bead.

Putting this together

Mike — here is what to do. When you have a sight that can be used in several different ways like this, you choose how to use it. I use the post and bead as my aim point (where the pellet will go) for general shooting and hunting, and I use it with a 6 o’clock hold when I shoot targets. Obviously the sights need to be adjusted for each of these options.

bead with bull
When shooting at bullseye targets, sight the bead for a 6 o’clock hold like this.

The question of which sight elements go with which rear sight notches becomes simpler when you look at it this way. There is no one prescribed way to use the elements that is always going to be right. It’s up to the shooter to choose how he wants to use the sights, and then select the option that best supports him.

bead general
When shooting at general targets and when hunting, sight the gun so the pellet goes to the center of the bead and hold like this.


A shooter has a lot of different ways to use open sights. This brief tutorial has explained the basics, I hope. But you must realize there are many more options to using open sight elements. It’s your preference.