Night sights are an invaluable tool for anyone who has a handgun for self-defense. They allow the user to see his sights even in low light situations. Realistically, any set of night sights of good quality will allow you to see your sights in low light but there are some considerations that may help prevent you from having a set of sights that are working against you.
What Are They?
“Night sights” are sights that have small vials of a radioactive element called tritium embedded into the sights. These vials or elements glow without having to be “charged” with an external light source. Tritium has a half life of 12 years so the sights will loose half their brightness in 12 years. It is not unusual to get 15-16 years of usable brightness from a set of sights.
Can They Work Against You?
There are two fundamental elements to accuracy. The accurate shooter must be to be able to control the trigger and align the sights. Your choice of night sights has no bearing on your trigger control, but it does affect your sight picture. Sight alignment starts at the front sight. The shooter must be able to focus on the front sight while maintaining sight alignment. Anything that obscures, obstructs, or interferes with this front sight focus is working against you and the fundamentals of accurate shooting.
For several years now, most night sights have been made in 3 dot configuration. This means that the front sight has a single tritium vial and the rear sight has 2 tritium vials (a total of three) on either side of the notch. The problem with this configuration is that the “dots” are usually identical in size, intensity, and color.
The two dots on the rear sight are closest to the shooter so they appear larger and brighter. This runs counter to front sight focus. The front sight should be the easiest to see since it is the sight that we must focus on but a traditional 3 dot configuration makes the front sight harder to focus on.
Since the dots are the same color, it can sometimes be difficult to differentiate the front from the rear sight. Some shooters claim that this can lead to situations where the sights are aligned improperly. The front sight can be aligned so that it is to the side of the rear sight and it can appear to be a good sight picture since all three dots will appear to be in a line. I am not sure how likely this is, but it is worth mentioning.
Traditional 3 dot night sights work, but, as with many things in life, they can be improved upon. Thankfully, there are several night sight manufacturers with excellent alternatives and many of them cost about the same or even less than traditional 3 dot nights.
Solution #1 – Different Colors
One solution is to make the two rear elements a different color, like yellow. The yellow tritium elements also have the added benefit of being slightly dimmer than their green counterparts. This allows you to quickly and easily differentiate between the front and rear sights in low light. It also makes the front sight easier to focus on since it is brighter than the rear sight.
Ameriglo has offered traditional 3 dot night sights with this option for years. Ameriglo also offers their Operator sights which do not have white outlines on the rear elements. The front element retains its white outline which promotes front sight focus during full lighting conditions.
Solution #2 – Single Rear Element
Another increasingly popular solution is a single rear tritium element. The element is located directly under the notch in the rear sight. Instead of lining up three elements horizontally, the shooter simply lines up 2 elements vertically.
Heinie and Warren Tactical offer sights in this configuration. Warren Tactical takes this a step further by making the rear element smaller, yellow, and without a white outline. This greatly improves front sight focus in all light conditions.
Solution #3 – Front Element Only
The least expensive option is to have a tritium element in your front sight only. Do not confuse less expensive with less functional. Many very serious shooters actually prefer this set up because of how simple and uncluttered the sight picture is. Some shooters find a rear element in nearly any form to be distracting.
Warren Tactical, 10-8 Performance, and Ameriglo all offer sights in this configuration. Additionally, Heinie sells all the parts you need to piece together sights in this configuration. You can also find a replacement front sight that has a tritium element that will work with the factory rear sight of many handguns. Ameriglo and Trijicon offer tritium front sights for several makes and models.
It is important to remember that night sights are not a replacement for low light training and they are definitely not a replacement for a flashlight/weaponlight and the skills to use them in conjunction with your handgun of choice. Night sights are certainly useful in some low light situations but not necessarily all low light situations. They will not allow you to ID a target. Get a light and get some training from a trainer that is experienced in low light training.
So next time you are shopping for night sights, choose a set that enhances your ability to focus on the front sight instead of working against it.
Good discussion of the topic. Per a discussion we had about gun selection: one of many considerations when selecting a gun is choosing one with pinned or dove-tailed front and/or rear sights which makes changing stock gun sights very easy without costly gunsmith services.