The Importance of ‘Zero’

I shot quite a bit on unsupervised, state-maintained public ranges a few years ago and watching this new generation of handgunners has convinced me that accuracy, in the classic sense, isn’t important to many of them. I watched in wonder as groups of 2-3 shooters would take turns loading magazines, while one of them would step to the line and empty those magazines as fast as they could jerk a trigger. 200 rounds would go downrange in a matter of 15 minutes, with volume of fire being the obvious goal. They were having just a hell of a good time exercising their Constitutional rights and I got a kick out of watching them.

I was usually one bench away, at the 50 yard line, busting cans or clay birds on the dirt berm with whatever handgun I happened to be carrying and/or hunting with. The hose-monsters sometimes noticed I was actually hitting something and a few even came over and asked for help on how to do it. When they did, the first thing I did was check their zero.

The importance of proper ‘Zero’, AKA sight regulation, cannot be overstated. If your zero is off, you’ll never reach your potential as a pistolero.

If our sights are properly aligned, a proper zero means that unless you ‘flinch’- each and every shot will go exactly to the center of the top edge of the front sight. But before we start- let’s get a proper sight picture.

Note that the front and rear sights are perfectly aligned for height and that an equal amount of light is visible on each side of the front sight. The front sight is in sharper focus than the target, which is a little blurry. This is to expected because the eye simply cannot focus on the front sight, rear sight and the target at the same time. That’s OK because we don’t need to see a fly speck on the target. We do need to align our sights perfectly in relation to it.

If our goal is ‘bullseye’ pistol shooting, we’ll adjust the sights to move the Point of Impact (POI) to the center of the target with a six o’clock hold, as illustrated below:

That’s great if you’re shooting standardized targets at known ranges with one load- as in NRA competition. The six o’clock hold is easy on the eyes and since ‘bullseye’ is fired over a fairly long course with one hand, minimizing strain on the human component translates into higher scores.

Many of us however carry a handgun for hunting, defense, or duty and we need to be able to hit something small, over various ranges. In those applications we are better served by Direct Zero- where the POI exactly centers on the top edge of the front sight:

I set mine up exactly as illustrated above, at 50 yards. Using that zero and a careful hold, you can hit damn near anything you want out to 75 yards or so. Pistols shoot a lot ‘flatter’ than many people think and the trajectory of even the slower rounds, like the .45 ACP, can be optimized by zeroing at the longer distance.

‘Zeroing’ involves adjusting the sights and that means means moving the rear sight in the direction you want the bullet to go. With adjustable target sights, you just turn a couple of screws.

Champion’s excellent 860-002 Classic Target Sight
for the ‘Bo-Mar cut’

But most defensive/service handguns have fixed sights, which require drifting or arbor-pressing the rear sight to accomplish ‘windage’ (left-right) adjustment. There are various gee-gaws designed for moving fixed sights and gunsmiths usually offer this service, for a fee. Personally, I just use a hammer and drift punch.

Elevation adjustments are accomplished by changing the height of the front or rear sights. If you’re handy, and unafraid to alter your sidearms, a few file strokes can often pull it off.

Some closing thoughts-

You zero to a single, specific load. If you change bullet weights, your zero will change right along with it. Pick a ‘zero load’ that’s readily available and does what you need. I stick with 158 grain in .38/.357, 180 grain in .40 and 230 grain in .45 ACP.

When zeroing your pistol, SHOOT OFF A SOLID REST! We are not showing off here; we are removing as much human error as possible.

Be CONSISTENT in your hold, sight alignment and trigger squeeze when zeroing. You need to learn these things anyhow and the bench is a good place to start.

I said in the beginning that the importance of proper zero cannot be overstated. I’ll guarantee you that there is not a top-ranked competitive shooter in any discipline who cannot tell you exactly where his match gun shoots, using his match load. It drives me nutz when a poor internet newb posts that he’s shooting low-left with his new blaster, then some retard posts one of those ‘shooting error charts’ – without ever asking if the newb’s sights are zeroed! Proper zero is an absolute of fine shooting, and if you ain’t got it then all the ‘Error Charts’ in the world won’t get it for you.


So get with it folks… get Zeroed! After all, the object of shooting is hitting something- and we wouldn’t want to look silly while trying do that, now would we?


11 Responses to The Importance of ‘Zero’

  1. Thomas Roges says:

    have sig equinox 229 shooting way to left ,notice rear sight a little to right of center, was told I needed to move rear sight more to right to get back on target, at 25 yards I`m hitting about 1 ft to left,just seems going wrong way with rear sight, can you offer any advice. thanks T.E.

    • Sarge says:


      Available imagery would suggest that your pistol has the long, fiber optic front sight mounted in a dovetail. Why on earth Sig chose such an arrangement is beyond me because the further the front sight protrudes from the dovetail, the easier it is to get bent. Were it mine, I’d replace the front sight with a MeproLight night sight.

      My guess is that your front sight is at least part of your problem. Make sure it is centered before you do anything else. Moving your rear sight to the right will indeed move your point of impact that direction; moving your front sight to the left will achieve the same goal.

      Your pistol should zero with both sights in the center of the slide. If one of them has to sit far to one side or the other, while the other is centered, you’ve got another problem.

  2. Eric says:

    I am just getting serious about shooting fundamentals, after having some limited experience in Boy Scouts (20+ years ago) and some range days with friends over the years. Just purchased my first firearm, a 2 1/4″ SP101. Testing out various loads in both .38 and .357, I’ve definitely watched my groupings move around with each type of ammo. This article is very helpful- it seems I’ll want to settle on a particular load so that I can get used to its characteristics if I want to master hitting targets at more than 7 yards.

    With the fixed sights of an SP101, what are my options to obtain zero on this revolver? Or will it be a matter of applying “Kentucky windage” once I know where it likes to shoot? Also, I was thinking of having a Meprolight or Trijicon mounted on the front, and wonder if there are any rear sights available for it?

    Thanks for this excellent resource.

    • Sarge says:

      Hi Eric. I’ve got an old article that describes the process of dialing-in fixed sight Rugers like the GP100 and SP101. I’ll try to get it uploaded this weekend.

  3. Biggfoot44 says:

    I’m not Sarge , but I’ll offer some sugguestions.

    It is the laws of physics that you have different POI vertically with different loads. As general rule of thumb lighter bullets and/or higher vels will strike lower, and heavier or slower bullets will strike higher. Fixed sight revolvers in .38spl “usually” are factory intended for 158gr. Fixed sight .357s are sometimes set also for 158gr .38s , sometimes for 125gr magnums , sometimes “somthing else” .

    Often times a fixed sight revolver can be useful with more than one load, once you know where various loads will impact . Such as ” Load X is dead on at 10yd, while load Y is 6’O clock at 25yd ” or whatever.

    If the groups are shifting left and right , the first step is to concentrate on shooting fundamentals , particuly grip and stance. If you are not sufficently controling the gun, or inconsistant , the gun will move about inconsistantly in your hands while the bullet is still in the barrel.

    If if still having issues, have another shooter who is experienced in accurate revolver shooting test it for you.

    If the barrel is truely misaligned it will rrquire the attentions of a gunsmith , or the factory service department.

  4. GG says:

    I enjoyed your article very much. If you have the opportunity, I would like you to consider expanding the article to discuss the differences between target sights and combat sights.

    My Sig P226 with Trijicon night sights are combat sights which uses a different sight picture than the target sights discussed in your article. As one who wears corrective lenses, combat sights improve my ability to hit my target if I ever need to defend myself and family at night when I don’t have an opportunity to wear corrective lenses.

    • Sarge says:

      Thanks for writing, GG. My Dept.-issue Glock has Trijicons on it so I’m familiar with them. Here’s the thing… I zero them exactly like target sights. This allows me to shoot them as well as standard sighst in good light. The light tubes will still be ‘close enough for government work’ for night shooting, particularly at the ranges involved.

  5. Mindy says:

    Hi there,
    I’ve only recently started shooting, despite having grown up with a father and brothers who hunted quite a bit. I’ve been going to the range about once a week for three months to practice. While I mostly go for relaxation, part of the joy of it is in getting better. I want to zero in my gun, but I know next to nothing and the Internet is full of people/companies willing to give advice despite their knowledge base being only marginally greater than mine. You clearly know your stuff. My question is this, what kind of rest should I get? There are a LOT of them out there, &-while I don’t want to spend a huge amount of money-I also don’t want to throw money away on a piece of crap. I’m a 5’2″ woman with small hands and I have a Ruger sr9c. Any help would be greatly appreciated.

    • Sarge says:

      Most of the time Mindy, I just shoot over a range bag I have set on an old folding table that lives on my home range. A lot of folks use shooting bags or some type of commercially manufactured rest. I’m not ducking your question but I would be hard pressed to recommend one since I don’t have first-hand experience with them.

      What’s important is that you remove all shooter-induced movement possible and that the rest supports your wrists or hands, but never the gun. This allows the pistol to recoil normally in your unique grip and insures your zero won’t change in unsupported shooting.

      And thank you for your kind compliment.

  6. JS says:

    What distance should a revolver be zero’d at? I just bought a New Model Ruger Blackhawk 357 and have been working on zeroing it at 10 yds. using Winchester Whitebox 130 grain ammo. I’d try at 25 yds, but, with my darn near 57-year-old eyes, it’s a tad difficult to be sure I’m aiming on target, or, even reasonably close! After reading your article, I’ll probably switch to 158 grain ammo after reading your article. Any recommendations on a brand?



    • Sarge says:

      To answer your question, a handgun should be zeroed at the farthest distance you might reasonably need to hit with it. With a good 357 and quality 158 grain ammo or reloads, I’d expect 2-4″ at 50 yards from a rest. And that’s another important point- zeroing should always be done from a rest, to remove as much human error as possible.

      Of course there are variables and the ammunition you’re using is one of them. Winchester USA .38 Special 130 FMJ is some of the poorest shooting .38 ammo I’ve ever tried- and I generally like and recommend WW/USA ‘white box’. Still, you should be printing silver dollar size 10 yard groups with it from a Blackhawk. It sounds like your vision is your most limiting factor and to obtain any real accuracy, you’ll have to correct it. A good optometrist can do wonders for you if you can make him understand you have to focus on the front sight, at arms length, and still see the target well enough to place a correct sight picture on it. Beyond that, I’d consider having a pistol scope mounted on that Blackhawk. That will get you down to one focal plane, which will help a lot.

      Each gun will have it’s ‘favorite’ bullet weight that shoots best in it. I’ve had good luck with 158’s in various 38’s and 357’s, but it can only be determined by shooting.

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