Ordinary fixed combat sights are fast, reliable, and tough. But you still need to see where they are relative to the target. There are a few ways of increasing sight visibility in the dark, and night sights are one option among several.
Why Consider Night Sights?
Your firearm’s sights are critical to you hitting your target. Handguns are no exception. However, if you can’t see your sights, you’ll have a harder time using them. Night sights offer one of several options for sight illumination and sight alignment, but there are other factors to consider. Can you see your target? This is arguably more important.
Traditional all-black handgun sights provide little in the way of contrast or visibility. Align your sights on a dark background, and your sight picture disappears. One way manufacturers remedied this was to add white or brightly colored inserts or paint. This works well in broad daylight.
Image from Wikimedia
However, in the dark or under low-light conditions, the same problem arises. When there’s so little ambient light that you can’t detect the sight markings or see elevation and windage, verifying sight alignment can be difficult or impossible. You may have difficulty seeing them with sufficient clarity to correctly align them.
Dedicated night sights allow you to see your sights regardless of the ambient light. Dawn, dusk, or the dead of night, you can see the front sight alone or the front and rear sights together.
Night sights use tritium, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, to deliver illuminated sight alignment. When tritium undergoes radioactive decay, it releases electrons that interact with phosphor, causing it to become photoluminescent. This produces a familiar green glow in the dark.
A good set of night sights depends on the make, model, and what you need them for. Iron sights are durable and don’t rely on batteries or anything other than your eyes to work.
What Night Sights Don’t Do
Night sights don’t allow you to see your intended target. This is often overlooked. If you’re searching for a suspect in a dimly lit alley or the source of a loud noise in your living room at 3 in the morning, night sights will not illuminate the environment for you.
All a set of night sights can do is increase the likelihood that you’ll be able to see your front and rear sights, enabling you to align them correctly.
However, if the environment is so dark that you can’t see and positively identify your target, you shouldn’t shoot. That violates Rule 4 — “Be aware of your target and what’s behind it.” It could be a family member, a friend, or someone who doesn’t pose a threat.
You should seriously consider a high-quality weapon light or handheld flashlight. You should always be able to clearly identify who you’re aiming a firearm at. It’s true that shining a light will draw attention to you, which is why there are various techniques for using a flashlight tactically.
Some manufacturers use a wide front sight to accommodate the tritium-phosphor cylinder. This can interfere with precise sight alignment in brightly lit conditions, reducing your accuracy as ranges open up.
Tritium has a half-life, so its ability to induce photoluminescence runs out, eventually. Tritium-illuminated night sights will usually maintain their brightness for 10-12 years. As a result, this is of limited importance.
If the tritium insert falls out because of a manufacturing flaw or impact, the sights will be no more visible than unmarked combat sights.
One option is a red-dot sight. The miniature variety of this popular sighting technology has become a mainstay on competition handguns. As manufacturers continue to shrink this tech, it’s popping up more outside of a competitive setting. Red-dot sights are now in use by the military on combat pistols.
Modern red-dot sights are rugged and reliable. The bright red (or amber) dot contrasts well with the environment; you can acquire it quickly, and aiming a red dot is intuitive — simply place the dot where you want the bullet to go.
If you’d prefer for your sighting system to not rely on batteries, you can find red-dot sights that use a combination of ambient light in the day and tritium at night. Otherwise, 1-2 coin cells are usually enough to power one of these sights for several years on a medium-brightness setting.
While the miniature varieties are less prone to snagging than their long-gun counterparts, iron sights are still less bulky. For home defense, the added bulk isn’t necessarily an issue, but the increased height can be a problem for concealed carry.
Another option is a set of fiber-optic sights. Unlike tritium night sights, fiber optics don’t provide their own illumination. Instead, they collect and amplify ambient light. This reduces their effectiveness in total darkness, but they can still enhance what light exists. Some manufacturers combine fiber optics with tritium for a day/night sight combination.
Should I Get Night Sights?
Night sights can have their place, as they illuminate iron combat sights for increased visibility in low light. However, they are not a substitute for the illumination that a flashlight provides. If you can’t see your sights, there’s a chance that you won’t be able to see your target well enough to justify shooting. If you can see your target but not your sights, you can still use your sights’ silhouette as a guide.
Are night sights worth it? It depends. Increasing your sights’ visibility can be beneficial. But be aware of how the sights are manufactured.
Your priority, however, should always be on training. Find a firing range that allows you to shoot at dusk or in the evening. Practice under poor lighting. In many self-defense scenarios, the lighting conditions are far from perfect. See how well you can distinguish your target and how accurate you can be.
Tritium night sights can allow you to see your sights more clearly in the dark. But whether they’re worth buying depends on their quality. Their usefulness also depends on your ability to see your target. Don’t neglect the importance of illumination devices and training for identifying and responding to your targets in the dark.
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