The Dark Tides of Night and Pistol Sights

A couple days ago I had a long back and forth with a buddy about sights on handguns and what worked in altered light conditions. The prevailing wind at this moment in time seems to be to run fiber optic sights on defensive pistols. I have to admit, I like fiber sights and have them on one of my handguns. The benefit to running a fiber sight is that the front post can be narrower than a tritium night sight. The Dawson sight on my G23 is .105″ wide. The narrowest tritium sights that I am aware of are.125″ wide. The narrower front post allows me to see more of the target around and through my sights, letting me place the sight picture more precisely. As an accuracy oriented shooter, I certainly appreciate that quality.

The downside to fiber sights, and really any sight that doesn’t have tritium inserts, is that they can be difficult to pick up at speed in altered light conditions. The old argument is that if it is dark enough to need tritium sights than it is dark enough to also need a white light for positive target identification (PID) and that light can also be used to back light the sights. Often times the assertion is that tritium sights are only useful in a very narrow window at dawn and dusk where there is just enough like to PID a threat and not need a white light, but not enough light to get a quick read on the sights. What that argument fails to understand is that we don’t live in a this or that world. When it is dark at night, if you live in an urban environment at least, there are gradients of light all around us from street lights, porch lights, lights on commercial buildings, etc. There will be varying degrees of light with shadows to go with it. In these conditions, it is certainly possible to have enough light in one area to have PID of a threat, but not enough light to get quick alignment of the sights because you are actually in a different light condition than your target.

I am not the only one to notice this. The late Todd Green wrote about this on his blog several years ago when he was running a 1911 that came with fiber sights. That article is available HERE, be sure to read the comments too. That dude was one of the most analytical minds in the firearms training industry, hopefully his torch can be carried on by others that he has inspired.

Getting back to the point, in the conversation I was having with my friend, I took some pictures to help illustrate my point. These pictures are with my G23 with the Dawsons and another pistol with tritium night sights. The picture is a close representation of what I was seeing in person. The target, an angry birds toy, is clearly visible, even details. In the picture on the left, the sights are easy to see. The picture on the right, if you really look, you can still see them, but it takes a little work. That isn’t exactly the ideal for a quick and precise alignment of the sights under duress. The more visible the sights are, the better off I will be.

tritium-vs-fo

The ability to pick up the tritium sights in altered light conditions is significantly easier, and the easier something is, the more likely we will be to actually do it right? I think this clearly demonstrates that conditions exist to establish a need for tritium sights. If you spend much time in a urban environment, it is fairly easy to find lighting conditions where you can get a good ID on a target, but not have enough light where you are standing to get a quick read on the sights, or enough light at the target to back light the sights sufficiently to see their outline. This is especially true if the target background is the same color as the sights. Are night sights the end all be all, no, they aren’t. You still need a good white light for those times that you can’t get good PID on your target, but night sights do make life a lot easier.

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