A beam of variable-energy positrons, whose back-diffusion probability is measured as a function of positron implantation energy, is applied to studies of depth distribution of sputtering damage in aluminum. The defects are produced by argon ion bombardment of an Al(110) surface in ultra-high vacuum. We have varied the Ar+ energy, incident angle and dose, as well as sputtering and annealing temperatures. The extracted defect profiles have typically a narrow peak at the surface with a width of 10-20 A and a broader tail extending down to 50-100 Å. The shape of the defect profile varies only slightly with the sputtering energy and angle. Defect production at less than 1 keV Ar+ energies is typically 1-5 vacancies per incident ion. The defect profiles become fluence-independent at about 2 × 1016 Ar+ cm-2. The defect density at the outer atomic layers saturates at high argon fluences to a few at%, depending on sputtering conditions. The sputtering temperature (below or above the vacancy migration stage at 250 K) has little effect on vacancy profiles. Defects anneal out gradually between 100 °C and 400 °C. Sputtering damage was also evaluated with the molecular dynamics technique. The shape and depth scale of the simulated collision cascades are in agreement with the experimentally extracted quantities.