Fiber-optic sights render the front and rear sights more visible during the day and in brightly lit environments, enabling more rapid sight alignment for competitive or defensive shooting. But are they worth buying compared with other options on the market?
Why Handgun Sights Matter
When you buy a semi-automatic pistol, you have a wide variety of options regarding sights. Standard three-dot fixed combat sights, drift adjustable, are simple, durable, and effective. However, they don’t self-illuminate when the ambient light is dim. The brightness varies according to your environment.
Fiber-optic sights use a series of fiber strands to gather, amplify, and direct ambient light toward the rod’s endpoints. In bright daylight, these glow, producing brightly lit sight alignment. The ideal combination is a fiber-optic front sight and a non-illuminated black rear sight. This delivers maximum contrast — the front sight serves as both an index of elevation and windage — ensuring that your eyes naturally focus on the front sight where they belong.
While tritium produces a familiar green glow, you can choose fiber-optic sights in a variety of colors, from green and yellow to red. Whatever you find more appealing. Diameter options also abound, and the length of the rod directly influences brightness. A longer rod has more surface area for light collection, so it will appear brighter.
Fiber-optic sights typically use a low-profile body because the fiber rod must be exposed for increased visibility. This allows more of the rod’s surface area to collect light and transmit it. As a result, a sight manufacturer can mill away most of the front and rear sights, reducing weight and bulk in the process.
As the fiber-optic rod is smaller in diameter and requires less material for shielding, it allows for increased precision compared with tritium sights. Fiber-optic sights are also brighter during the day. These factors, combined, explain why competitive target shooters tend to favor fiber-optic sights over competing designs.
Durability and Cost
Unlike tritium sights, fiber-optic rods are fragile. They are not capable of enduring impact or rough handling to the same extent. If the rod breaks or becomes loose due to recoil, however, you can easily replace it. They’re also relatively inexpensive. If the rod breaks while you’re shooting, you can usually shift to the tip of the sight blade.
While increasing the fiber-optic rod’s length corresponds to an increase in visibility, it also makes them easily vulnerable to accidental damage.
Fiber Optics vs. Tritium
Firearms enthusiasts are constantly comparing the merits of tritium and fiber optics as sighting solutions. A simple breakdown may help clarify a few points.
Fiber-optic rods do not produce their illumination — they are the inverse of tritium sights. In low-light conditions or total darkness, the rods will not glow. As the light decreases, fiber rods become progressively dimmer.
Tritium sights are self-illuminating because tritium, a hydrogen isotope, undergoes radioactive decay. In the process, it emits electrons that interact with phosphorus, causing it to glow.
Image from Trijicon
That’s why weapon sight manufacturers sometimes combine fiber-optic rods with cylinders filled with tritium-phosphor gas. In the day, fiber-optic rods illuminate your sight picture, drawing your dominant eye toward the front sight. At night, the tritium glows brightly, but the fiber-optic rods will be dim.
Tritium doesn’t glow during the day. Furthermore, as tritium relies on radioactive decay to illuminate phosphorus gas, the intensity of this brightness diminishes over time.
Typically, you can expect a set of tritium sights to remain visible for a decade. Due to the shelf life of approximately 10 years, few shooters find this diminishing brightness to be a liability. By the time they become too dim to see clearly in the dark, you can replace them. Fiber-optic sights, however, have a virtually unlimited lifespan.
The tritium-phosphorus gas lamps must be protected from impact. The result is increased metallic or plastic bulk to shield the tritium inserts from damage. The larger footprint of tritium sights can make it easier to find them, but the increased width can also interfere with precision aiming at longer distances.
Finally, while tritium sights are mostly used for night sights, the usefulness of night sights is rather specialized. If you’re in darkness and the threat is illuminated in some fashion
— vehicle headlights, for example — tritium night sights can enable you to see your sights clearly and enable you to focus on the target.
To ensure that the front and rear tritium gas lamps are correctly aligned, they must be precision machined. If the manufacturer fails to implement proper quality-control protocols, accuracy will suffer.
Related to durability, you must be careful when cleaning fiber-optic rods. Don’t use acetone — this chemical can bleach the rod.
Neither fiber-optic nor tritium sights are a substitute for weapon or handheld flashlights. All either system can do is use ambient light or radioactive decay to illuminate your sights for correct alignment and reference. If you can’t see your target, your sights won’t help you.
Don’t neglect the sight design. The simple presence of fiber optics or tritium will not determine the efficacy of the set.
Most iron sights for handguns consist of a rectangular front blade that you align, vertically and horizontally, with a rear V- or U-shaped notch. However, some companies use a prominent round front sight that you center in an express-type rear V. You’ll need to experiment with a few different sight designs to see which one you find the easiest to acquire and use.
The Bottom Line
If you need a set of handgun sights that will remain bright during the day, fiber optics are an inexpensive and effective choice. However, don’t expect them to light up in the dark.
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