Low-Light Handgun Sights

A variety of sights for use in dim light are available, such as these tritium sights, but actually being able to see the sights is only one consideration.

Choosing handgun sights for low light encounters may seem like a simple decision, but it’s not as cut and dry as it may seem. Some sights specifically designed for low-light encounters aren’t necessarily constructed for the demands of personal safety. I’ll take sights that meet personal safety needs over reduced light conditions any day of the week.

When I began my career as a police officer, everyone on the force was mandated to have night sights on our firearms. It seemed to make sense at first. Honestly, I had never given the topic much thought until I became the Range Master for the department. Then I found myself questioning the policy and the intent behind it. It didn’t take long before I came to the conclusion that this policy didn’t make as much sense as I had originally thought.

The police required that every gun carried on duty be equipped with a specific brand of night sight. When the guns were about eight years old, the sights were noticeably dim, if not completely. The sights contained tritium, which has a half-life of 12.5 years. This should mean that the sights should only lose half of their brightness after 12.5 years, but ours were dimming more significantly. Our policy didn’t require functional night sights, and officers refused to buy new ones, stating that they would always have light when they would shoot. Suddenly, I saw this policy was antiquated. So I suggested some changes.

I initially recommended eliminating mandatory night sights. I was told in response that officers needed to be able to “see their sights in the dark.” I countered with what the officers told me… that there must be some ambient light in order to identify a threat. My recommendation was declined. I found it ironic that we mandated night sights, but not lights.

Tritium night sights glow brightly when they're new, but as the radioactive material inside breaks down, the glow gradually dims and will lose half its brightness or more in 12.5 years.

About a week later, I approached the topic again, only this time I took a different approach. I suggested that the policy be changed so that a specific night sight brand would not be mandatory. This suggestion was timely because we had a financial dilemma regarding replacement of all the dim night sights. There was an unforeseen and unbudgeted cost for the department-owned firearms and, for officers needing to replace the sights they personally owned, backup firearms. This approach gained more traction.

Identifying the Threat Requires Light

The fact of the matter is that it’s our responsibility to identify any threat before engaging. Either there must be sufficient ambient light to make a threat identification, or we must provide an external light source to illuminate a threat. Either way, any sight will work. So instead of focusing on the visibility of a sight in low light conditions, we should focus on sights that have features that will aid in personal defense.

Below is a list of popular handgun sight styles for personal defense. I’ve listed the potential benefits and challenges each sight could produce. After reviewing these popular sighting systems, I will suggest additional criteria that someone purchasing sights for concealed carry or personal-defense functions may want to consider – beyond just glowing in the dark.

Sight Selection Criteria Beyond Low Light Capabilities

Selecting handgun sights shouldn’t just be about whether or not they glow in the dark. Not to sound like a broken record but there has to be some light for threat identification. When choosing sights, it’s helpful if we don’t just look at it as sights for low light shooting, but rather sights for personal defense.

The qualities that I look for in my sights (from a personal defense standpoint) take into account an encounter with a threat and all of its possible scenarios. Here are the things I ask myself before buying sights:

• Am I able to pick up my sights quickly?

My personal preference in sights is green fiber optic. My eyes just pick them up so much easier than white dots or black sights. Likewise, I really have a hard time with multiple colors. The green sticks out from my target and it glows. Whatever color scheme – or lack thereof - that your eyes are able to pick up the quickest should be what you invest in.

• Am I able to align my sights quickly?

There are a lot of sights available, and many makers tout the fact that the user will be able to align their sights quicker and therefore be more accurate. I have a box of sights that I will never use because I can’t align them fast. Maybe I didn’t spend enough time with some of those sights, but for me, aligning sights the way I have been doing it from the start works best. If some other system works well for you, then use it. Just be honest with yourself.

• Are these sights durable?

I do like fiber optic sights, but I only buy sights where the fiber optic tube is encased. I have lost far too many sights while shooting and drawing from the holster to put some flimsy sights on my firearm. Whatever sights you choose should be sturdy enough to withstand skidding across the pavement or being dropped.

Reflex sights like the Deltapoint from Leupold allow for extremely quick target acquisition, but are reliant on a battery for power, and are useless without it.

• Do these sights serve a secondary function?

I know that many gun companies are producing firearms with “low profile” sights for the concealed carry market. This might be important for someone wanting to avoid snagging their gun on their clothing during the draw. The only problem with low profile sights is that you can’t snag them! There are no sharp edges, which might be helpful during the draw but problematic in other circumstances. (Some will argue that my scenario is unlikely; my response is that needing to use your firearm for self-defense is unlikely.):

If, by some chance I was involved in another lethal force encounter, and if I were to get shot in my strong side arm/hand, it is likely that my handgun would eventually suffer a malfunction from shooting one-handed from my support side. There’s the possibility that my magazine could pop out, or that I would need to conduct a magazine exchange. If I have rounded or low profile sights, how will I rack my firearm? Maybe I could come up with some creative way to rack my gun, but from my experience, those ways are more likely to result in a malfunction as opposed to fixing one. Since I know that I may need the 90-degree angle that sights provide in order to rack my firearm on my holster, belt, shoe, or some other object with an edge, I make sure the surface of any sights I select allows me to do that without a problem.

If you are faced with a deadly force encounter chances are it will be so close you won’t even need your sights to hit your target. So when it comes to selecting sights for your concealed carry firearm, don’t select them based on how much they glow in the dark. Instead, select a sight that is durable and has features that allow you keep your gun running, and invest in an external light source.