How to Aim a Gun

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Aiming a Gun is a Simple Process, and it's Easy to Learn

Photo of pistol with three-dot sights.
This pistol has three-dot sights, almost properly aligned (front sight is a hair too far left in the rear sight notch). The front sight's white dot appears huge, but it's not that big. Usually, the bullet should strike at the top edge of the front sight. Photo © Russ Chastain

When it comes to the basics of shooting, whether you're a hunter, plinker or target shooter, the most important skill to learn is how to aim a gun. There are other skills that you must develop in order to become accurate, but aiming is the place to start. Fortunately, it's quite easy to do. 

But first, take a minute or two to review the ten most important gun safety rules. Even if you're an experienced shooter, it never hurts to be reminded of good practices. We all screw up from time to time, myself included.

Types of Gun Sights

Next, determine what type of sights your gun is equipped with. Most gun sights are open sights, consisting of a rear sight with a notch of some sort, and a front sight. Some rear sights have holes in them, and these are called peep sights (or sometimes aperture or "ghost ring" sights). The gun may otherwise be equipped with an optical sight of some kind.

Optical Sights

The most common optical sight is a scope, which usually magnifies whatever's viewed through it and includes some kind of reticle or crosshair for aiming purposes. Other types of optical sights include red dot scopes (the dot color may vary, but the term"red dot" is often used generically) and holographic sights, which project an image onto a transparent screen.

Aiming With Optical Sights

Aiming with optical sights is the easiest kind of aiming there is, so we'll talk about that first. Just look through the scope or sight and position your head and the sight so you can see through it clearly. Ensure there's no blackness around the perimeter of your viewing area (you might have to move your eye closer to the scope or farther away), and that the reticle (the graphic markings you see in the optics; it may be crosshairs, single or multiple dots, an X, a circle, etc.) is centered in your view.

In a conventional scope, you will usually see a cross formed of two lines--this is known as the crosshair. Your aiming point is the intersection of the hairs, which should lie in the center of the scope tube. If your aiming point is an electronically-projected dot, you may cover your target with the dot or adjust your view so the target is positioned just above the dot. Personally, I prefer to adjust red dot sights so that my bullet will strike the target at the top edge of the dot, if the dot is large. If the dot is small enough for fine aiming, or if the gun is to be used for close-range work, I'll adjust it so the bullet strikes at the center of the dot.

If your aiming point is an X, use the center of the X for aiming, as you would do with a crosshair. If it's a hollow circle, the center of the circle should be your aiming point.

Aiming Using "Iron" Sights

The term "iron sights" has long been used generically for any non-optical sighting system, but actually, the sights themselves may be made of steel, aluminum, brass, plastic, or another material. 

Open sights:
With open sights, the idea is to line up the front sight with the notch in the rear sight. The front sight should be centered in the rear sight's notch, and the top of the front sight should usually be level with the top of the rear sight (see the next paragraph for an example of an exception to that rule).

Shapes of the notches and front sights will vary from square to round, or can even be triangular. In most cases, proper alignment of these sights is intuitive. The thing to remember is that the top of the front sight is usually held even with the top of the rear sight, but some rear sights with rounded notches have "ears" that stick up somewhat. Front sights for such guns are usually round when viewed from behind. When sighting these guns, position the round front sight so that it sits in the rear sight's notch the way a ball might settle into a low spot on the ground.

Three-dot sights, such as those shown in the photo of the pistol above, help by providing a series of dots. Line the dots up horizontally, and your sights are properly aligned. The same principle applies when using fiber-optic sights, as found on many modern rifles.

Peep (Aperture, Ghost Ring) Sights:
In most cases, peep sights are easier to use than open sights, because they require less thought. Look through the hole (or "peep") in the rear sight, center the front sight in your view, and find your target. For most people, centering the front sight is automatically done without conscious thought, which allows one to simply look through the peep, place the front sight on target, and squeeze the trigger. The peep is a very fast and accurate type of sight.

I prefer to zero peep sights so that the bullet will strike the target just at the top edge of the front sight.

The Front Sight:
When using iron sights, you won't be able to focus your eyes on the rear sight, front sight, and target all at the same time. Younger eyes adjust focus back and forth very quickly, but they still can't view all of them sharply at all times. Concentrate most on the front sight in relation to the target. This is easy to do with a peep sight, but it's a little more difficult with open sights, since you also have to be mindful of the relationship between the front and rear sights. Just keep in mind the importance of the front sight.

The Hold, or Sight Picture

Your sight picture is the visual arrangement that includes your gun sights and the target. Align the sights and place them in proper relation to your target, and your bullet should hit where you intended to put it (as long as the gun is properly zeroed and "likes" the ammo you're shooting). Different shooters prefer different sight pictures.​

Some shooters prefer a six o'clock hold, which places the entire round bullseye atop the front sight in your view;  the bullets strike somewhere above your sights, hopefully in the center of the bull. I dislike this way of sighting, because it's fairly imprecise--and because the diameters of bullseyes vary. I prefer what's known as the hunting sight picture, which places the top edge of properly-aligned sights in the center of the target; here, when everything works as it should, the bullet will strike at the top edge of the front sight.

Aiming Shotguns

Shotguns are another matter entirely--usually.  Some shotguns are equipped with open sights or scopes, and these can be aimed in the same manner described above. But most scatterguns have one or two beads to use for sighting. Many people say that you don't really aim a shotgun; this is largely true, though the beads definitely have their use

Simply adjust your hold and eye position until you are seeing the bead(s) and perhaps a tiny bit of the top surface of the barrel or rib, which will provide you with proper hold for elevation. For windage, align the beads if you have two, or simply eyeball the rib or top surface of the barrel to make sure that you're looking straight down the top of it.