An argument that is going around with the tactical community is whether or not the cost of illuminated night sights is worth it. At $100+ for a set of Trijicons, it’s an expensive piece of kit, at least enough to merit a serious discussion.
Few shooters ever really put their guns to the test under austere environments. Cold weather helps us test reliability, rain makes us test our grip techniques, and darkness helps us train for fighting with minimal visual references. An ideal carry kit should include a handheld flashlight (for searching for targets) and a weapon-mounted light (for ensuring positive target identification while shooting two-handed). But what about the sights?
Classic three-dot white sights are good for beginners but bad for serious shooting. Remember, in a high-stakes engagement, you won’t be looking ‘at’ or even through your sights. You will be 100% focused on the target and your sights will be blurry afterthoughts. It’s important to have gun sights that are easy to see and use for aiming reference, but not so distracting or large that they preclude good aiming.
Look at this image from Friedman Handgun Training. This is a ‘perfect’ sight picture. Do you see a problem with this? All three dots are roughly the same size so it’s difficult to tell the front from the rears. The front sight post almost completely fills the gap in the rear sight post notch. This means that correctly aiming this weapon will completely obscure your target from the point-of-aim downwards. You will have a much diminished sense of whether the front sight post is even properly centered between the rear dots.
Fiber optics, like this set from Tru-Glo, are a little on the ‘busy’ side for my taste. The front sight post is still somewhat large. But they create a greater visual distinction between front and rear sight, allowing for rough alignment of the sights while still being focused on the target. So even while you’re fully target-focused, you will bring your sights into view under your line-of-sight and be able to use them. This is what’s called “sight reference shooting”, and is a crucial skill in improving your shooting skills.
SKD Tactical has a nice comparison of three popular choices: black-on-black, fiber-optic, or over-under illuminated. At this point it’s worth mentioning that every shooter and their individual shooting needs starts to be a very personal issue. Some folks find green pops better than red, or that over-under alignment is easier than top/bottom. What all of these sights feature in common is a wide, deep notch with a relatively featureless rear sight so that the eye can focus more quickly on moving the front sight from target to target.
In a low-light scenario, blackout and white-dot sights almost disappear from view. Fiber-optic sights pull in ambient light and pipe it back towards the shooter. Illuminated night sights have a small vial of tritium embedded in the sights which requires no external light to be visible.
In extreme darkness, fiber optic sights quit working. Tritium sights, however, are still visible. But remember our rules of gun safety: Never point at something you aren’t prepared to destroy, and properly identify your target and what’s behind it. If you are shooting in a situation where it is so dark that you can ONLY see your pistol sights, then you are acting in a fundamentally unsafe manner. As you can see from this image by North-Central Illinois Kydex, a WML allows for excellent sight reference even in a very dark environment. Functionally, those Tritium sights are no more or less useful than classic blackout target sights.
Does this mean that tritium sights are an expensive waste? I don’t think they are. A set of Dawson Precision (my favorite brand) fiber optic sights are about $70-$90. A set of Trijicon sights are around $100-$120. That’s not a huge distinction in terms of price when deciding on an upgrade over the useless three-dots.
A crucial part of the design of fiber-optic pipes is that they work best when the light is perpendicular to the pipe. If the light is only ahead of, or behind the sight, then it doesn’t work as well. Personal experience has shown me that aiming exclusively with my fiber optics while using a WML completely washes them out.
On pistols with illuminated sights, I can have some visibility even under very low-light scenarios. The tritium shines just enough to contrast against the metal around it. So I can have excellent target identification with my WML and still maintain ‘some’ sight reference with my illuminated rear sights. Additionally, if I’m in a situation where I can’t– or won’t– use my WML while making a shot, I have a much clearer sight reference picture than I would running fiber optics or blackouts.
Is it worth an extra thirty dollars for illuminated sights? I think so. But with all things being equal, that’s after a laundry list of other concerns– flashlights, WMLs, holsters, and plenty of time on the range. You must also evaluate your own tactics, techniques, and procedures. Peace officers are more likely to see daylight encounters than civilians, so fiber optic sights offer a very significant advantage.
The best way to know for sure is for you to find out on your own. Find what works best for you, your weapon, and your situation– and then go out and put your hypothesis to the test in a controlled, safe fashion.
Remember: There is no amount of internet opinion that is a substitute for real-world experience.
Erik is a private gunsmith living in Boise and a retired veteran of the US Army (OIF 09-11). He maintains a firearms related blog at threegunguys.wordpress.com, where many of these articles can be found.