What do you think of when the term “express sight” is heard or read? For me, an image of a large bore rifle comes to mind. The rifle is unscoped and in the hands of a hunter, or more likely a professional hunter. The terrain hunted is tight bush after quarry that can do unto you just as much damage as you can do unto it. The animal knows that something is stalking it with malcontent. More than likely, the animal has already been shot once, yet unbelievably made it into cover tight for a mouse, with visibility measured in feet. One’s sense of smell is just as important as sight or hearing.
The action is sure to be fast, close and final for either the hunted or the hunter. This connotation for express sights seems right for a magazine concentrated on rifles. Here is the twist. This article is about express sights, but not for rifles. Dare I say that we will explore sights for handguns, and for added measure, I will not even be focusing on hunting or target pistols. Our emphasis will be personal defense weapons with ranges under 10 yards. Please keep reading, as the many similarities between rifle and pistol express sights will become evident.
The firm, Ashley Outdoors, introduced express sights for handguns. The company has undergone a few name changes, including AO Sight Systems, and it has added more than handgun sights to its product line. XS Sight Systems is the current name for the organization. My first hands-on exposure with AO/XS Sight Systems was the Lever Scout Scope base purchased for my Marlin 1895 (story in the March 2002 TAR). It was a quality product and this created high expectations for my new experience.
Express sights refer to a shallow “V” notch rear sight combined with an oversize front bead made of various materials, such as ivory, gold, etc. Express sights were first introduced in the late 19th and early 20th centuries on dangerous game hunting rifles, specifically ones made by the legendary rifle firms of England: Holland & Holland, Rigby, Westley Richards, etc. Other European and American companies followed suit.
The shallow “V” coaxes the front bead towards its center and the front sight is the dominant feature in aiming the rifle. No matter what the configuration is, if using open sights, the focus should be on the front sight. The express sight accentuates this. It is not designed for precise target shooting, as taking a fine bead is impossible with the oversize front bead. The express sight is designed for quick target acquisition and center mass hits on dangerous game, probably moving and in close quarters. Add to this low light conditions usually found in tight, close terrain and the shallow “V” and then a bright, oversize front bead is even more practical.
Another plus for the shallow “V” rear sight is that it obscures little of the target, unlike the classic buckhorn or notch rear sight that brings the front bead deep into its crevice, forcing the sides of the rear sight up and over the intended target. The express sight, with its shallow “V,” only has its large, front bead overlaying the target. This design also helps with hitting moving game, as more of the animal is kept in view. One more advantage of the express sight is its simple design. It is possible to make it much more robust. After all, there is no need for fine adjustment capability. These observations are all gleaned from personal experience, and more importantly, for credibility, from the writings of modern day hunters, such as Boddington, Carmichel, Matunas, and Capstick, with hunting legends like John “Pondoro” Taylor, Bell and Selous also scrutinized.
XS Sight Systems drew the proper conclusions and made the now obvious leap from dangerous, four-legged game to dangerous, two-legged predators. I became more comfortable and confident in writing on this topic when I noticed during my research the interchangeability of concepts, even the terminology comparing rifle express sights with the XS Sight Systems handgun sights. It is always the simple ideas that prove to be the most brilliant and cause us “other” people to bang ourselves on the head.
Unfortunately, two-legged predators are usually contested with handguns and not rifles. Clint Smith, the president and director of Thunder Ranch, stated that a handgun is what is used to fight ones way to a rifle. I think that this sums it up succinctly. Handguns are usually the primary defensive arm because they are more readily carried at all times, not to mention concealable. More than likely, this discrete portability translates into a short barrel for either the revolver or semi-automatic pistol. Short barrel means short sight radius, and thus surgical shooting is not likely. However, this short sight radius is not all that much of a handicap, considering that the typical usage range of a defensive handgun is 7 feet, with 10 yards being a long shot. Aiming is generally done over the frame or slide, with the front sight as the crucial factor.
XS Sight Systems’ handgun sights are designed with the basic express sight concept that is found on dangerous game rifles, with important additions as the product is refined. The front bead is either a “standard bead,” which is still larger than the typical factory front bead, or a “Big Dot” bead that is 5/32 of an inch in diameter. The idea was heralded as simple, yet brilliant by many of the defensive handgun luminaries, including Jeff Cooper.
One thing about XS Sight Systems is that their product line is dynamic and constantly modified and enhanced. Most handgun encounters are in low light or dark conditions. (Remember the similarities with our big game rifle.) XS quickly added tritium inserts to its front sights. After some further feedback, XS added tritium rear sights to complement its front sight inserts. One ingenious feature of the XS sight system is that the tritium rear insert is vertical and embedded in the center of the shallow “V” facing the shooter. This was designated the Ashley Pro Express.
XS Sight Systems has taken this one step further by highlighting around the vertical insert on the rear sight. This is an effort to maximize the sight in normal daylight conditions and not just dark or low light situations. They have named this their 24/7 Sight. The company literature expounds this sight system with the advertisement of “dot the i.” This illustrates the use of the large front bead and shallow “V” rear base tritium insert surrounded by the white overlay. As the illustrations show, this simple sounding advertisement sums up the sight picture when aligned on target.
There is no doubt that the large front sight helps to index one onto the target quickly and naturally.
Just like the original express sight, the XS’ 24/7 sight with Big Dot is intended for close, fast target acquisition. The intent is to put a hole in the center of the target. However, the 24/7 and in fact, all the models offered by XS do not become ineffective past 10 yards, even with the larger front sight. The suggested sight-in arrangement is for the point of impact under 15 yards to be encompassed by the Big Dot. What the front sight covers is what receives the round. Longer ranges up to and including 25 yards have the front sight adopting the more traditional 12 o’clock position. The front sight is centered directly below the area that is targeted. This duality lends flexibility. Truthfully, most of the handguns used for personal defense weapons are not intended to effectively engage targets past 25 yards anyway.
Stephen Barron of XS Sight Systems was kind enough to forward two sets of 24/7 sights for testing. One set was for my Glock 27 and the other for an S&W J-frame. I have a large frame Glock 21, but I decided to test the smaller Glock 27, as it seems the more typical candidate for concealed carry, due to its smaller size. Suffice it to say that the Glock 27 has become the new standard for concealable handguns. The other handgun used, the S&W J-frame, is the classic snub-nose revolver that set the standard for the Glock.
I am not a “pistolero” and I point the reader to Jeff Cooper, Massad Ayoob, Bill Jordan, Ken Hackathorn, Clint Smith plus others far more qualified to expound on handgun tactics. However, I offer the following observations, based on using the two mentioned handguns. There is no doubt that the large front sight helps to index one onto the target quickly and naturally. While it is important to understand the theory behind the express sight and how it came to be applied to handguns, there is nothing like a hands-on demonstration to seal it into one’s brain. I am much more familiar with the Glock 27 and I always felt it performed fine with its factory sights. The 24/7 sight expanded my thinking and brought out even more of the Glock 27’s potential.
The largest surprise for me came with the use of the 24/7 sight in normal daylight conditions. The pistol was deadly on clay pigeons set up at 7 to 10 yards and it performed admirably at 25 yards. The rear sight seemed absent and the front sight covered the target nicely before the clay pigeon disappeared when hit. I arranged for some dusk/dark shooting in order to experience the effect of the tritium sights. The Big Dot sight glowed brightly and matched up with the vertical insert as advertised. Indeed you “dot the i.” If the target was visible, it was possible to make an accurate shot with the 24/7 equipped Glock 27. Here is the bane of all “passive” night sights: identifying the target. By passive I mean non-illuminating. A combination of the M-3 Tactical Illuminator white light on my Glock 21 and the 24/7 sight would be the ideal solution, but that is another article for someone more qualified.
An earlier experience of mine with an H&K USP45 (a top of the line weapon) and a competitor of XS’ night sights proved the soundness of the 24/7’s design. The competitor had bright tritium inserts in both the rear and front sights, but the arrangement was two dots on the rear sight’s flanges and a dot on the front sight that needed to be placed in between. Now I know this sounds simple enough. However, in dark conditions it was possible to transpose the dots in the wrong order. An experienced hand gunner would surely sense that the grip was wrong and adjust it, but in a high adrenaline situation there is no time to think, only to react. In combat, hunting, or other similar situations, it is best to keep one’s equipment as simple as possible.
The 24/7 equipped J-frame provided even more positive support in my mind. I am not familiar with this long proven, personal defense weapon, and therefore, it served as a more neutral test bed. Also, by fortunate coincidence, my father owns a similar style snub-nose Taurus revolver. This allowed for side-by-side testing of the factory-sighted Taurus—notch in the frame for the rear sight and front ramp—and the 24/7 Big Dot on the J-frame. (There is no rear sight insert with this type of revolver.) The ability for direct comparison really showed the advantage of the express sight concept for short sight radius defensive handguns.
My approach of evaluating the XS sight weighed heavily on my familiarity with express sights on rifles. I know that express sights work on rifles and now I am convinced that they work for handguns.
The daylight shooting found the Big Dot superior in aimed fire at both clay pigeons and dark silhouetted man targets. The factory sights on the Taurus required conscious effort to find, while there was no mistaking the Big Dot. As can be imagined, the dusk/dark shooting showed the factory sight to be totally outclassed by the 24/7. I spared you the intimate details of my testing, such as timed fire and accuracy, because I am not a pistolero and I am afraid that my data would only be skewed, based on my skill level. Secondly, the express sight is intended for hitting the center of the target and not for refined accuracy. In this regard, the 24/7 more than fulfilled its design criteria in all aspects. The sight allows one to “put a hole” where intended for maximum effect.
It is hard to argue with the use of express sights on handguns, considering the proven lineage on dangerous game rifles. XS Sight Systems should be given all due credit for applying the concept to handguns. (Actually, Ashley Emerson, the originator of Ashley Outdoor, should be given the credit.) The express sight is tailored to a specific function, to hit a threat quickly and efficiently. The express sight on both rifle and handgun is not intended for target shooting or precision fire.
My approach of evaluating the XS sight weighed heavily on my familiarity with express sights on rifles. I know that express sights work on rifles and now I am convinced that they work for handguns. Hands-on testing, testimony of respected and proven experts, and common sense analysis prove this. Confidence in one’s equipment is a large part of the equation for success in any hunting endeavor and even more so if confronted with a defensive situation involving a two-legged predator. The 24/7 Express sight by XS Sight Systems is one of the best, if not the best sight a person can have on a personal defense weapon.
Fort Worth, Texas 76105
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
[ Todd Burgreen is a freelance writer with work published in PRECISION SHOOTING, THE ACCURATE RIFLE, THE VARMINT HUNTER MAGAZINE, and SWAT. His topics have covered the gamut, including but not limited to, a CQB tomahawk article, long range rifle, single-shot rifles, full-automatic rifles, hunting handguns and defensive handguns. Todd lives in Winchester, VA with his wife and three sons. ]