Night Sights on Handguns: Useful or Unnecessary?

Night Sights on Handguns: Useful or Unnecessary?

There is a staggering array of available sighting systems for handguns today. One variety, which have been around for some time, is night sights. These rely on small vials of tritium, a radioactive agent, that perpetually glow to illuminate the sights in dark environments. Night sights tend to be loved or dismissed depending on who you ask. There is a great deal of misunderstanding, however, regarding their role. I am very much in favor of night sights specifically on defensive handguns. All of my carry guns wear night sights because I like the advantage they offer for their intended purpose.

Night sights are, however, inferior for certain applications. For example, fiber optic sights, which gather ambient light, are hard to beat during daylight shooting, especially in bright sunlight. While most good night sights are designed with a fairly visible dot that accompanies the tritium vial, fiber optics are more visible in bright light. Therefore, I think most will find that night sights are not ideal for sporting purposes. Most match guns wear fiber optics or other sighting systems and if you are looking for sights for a competition gun nights sights are probably not going to serve you as well as other options.

Night sights, however, come into their own in conditions of low light. Most defensive gun uses do happen in conditions of low light, however, not necessarily of no light. Even in low light there are many situations that rule the advantage of night sights null. This is where the confusion as to their use comes in. Here I aim to share some information with you regarding the benefits and limitations of night sights and offer some considerations if you are interested in upgrading a handgun to this form of sight.

Do you need night sights if you use a flashlight?

Many make the argument that there is no need for night sights if you are using a flashlight. There is some merit to this, but night sights address an issue that the flashlight will not, and I will speak to that shortly. For now, let me say that in the world of civilian defensive gun use the white light is indeed a higher priority than night sights. We must identify threats. We cannot shoot at unidentified targets in low light. A handheld light is the tool for this and a weapon mounted light often proves ideal for home defense guns.

When a light is used in conjunction with a handgun the ambient light coming off the flashlight usually washes out any visible glow from night sights. This leads many to assume that night sights are pointless. After all, we must identify what we are shooting at. Therefore, if we must use a white light to identify the target why do we need night sights? We would not shoot at an unidentified target that is in the dark under the circumstances in which we could actually see the night sights anyway. Thus the possible conclusion that if we must use a white light to responsibly illuminate targets night sights are void. Not necessarily.

The Role of Night Sights

It is true that tritium sights serve little purpose when being used with white light, at least with most light techniques. However, there is a particular situation that night sights address that a flash light will not: when the target is already illuminated and you and your gun are still in the dark. This is when night sights work and this is a scenario that is very possible in the environments that defensive encounters tend to occur. What if you are in a dark room looking into a lit area where the threat is? What if you are behind a vehicle and the threat is in front of the vehicle and illuminated by the headlights? Under such circumstances you can see the target but not your sights; unless you have night sights.

I again gained an appreciation for night sights when some time ago I had a group of students shooting at night on a private range. I showed them how to use a handheld light and a weapon mounted light on the handgun, the usual stuff. However, upon using the car headlights to illuminate the targets for cleanup I threw it out to them, what would they do if the adversary was in front of the vehicle, illuminated by the headlights, and they were behind the vehicle in the dark? We tried it. We could see the targets plain as day illuminated by the bright headlights of the car, but the sights on their handguns were invisible. My handgun was perfectly usable in the circumstance as it was wearing Trijicon night sights.

In that scenario, target brightly illuminated by a light source yet myself in complete darkness (a good tactical situation by the way) the night sights worked beautifully facilitating fast and accurate fire on the target. Without the night sights I would have be forced to use a white light just to see my sights. This is a bad thing as turning on a light when you are in the dark only exposes your position if you have already located and identified the threat. This is the role night sights fill: when the target is already illuminated but you and your gun are in the dark. The only other solutions are a red dot sight, which is viable now even on handguns, or a laser. If you don’t like such electronic solutions then night sights solve this problem.

In the world of firearms there is not one solution to every challenge. Night sights are, in my opinion, not as important as having a good light source. Possible danger must be illuminated and identified. However, there are times when a white light won’t do anything more than make you more vulnerable (which is always the case in such a situation, but it is often necessary). If the target is in the light and visible yet you are still in the dark you would certainly want to maintain such an advantage. If you do need to shoot under such circumstances night sights will prove a valuable asset. Consider your personal defensive needs and plan accordingly. Night sights may end up an integral part of that plan.

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  • Grimsinger

    I use my guns for targeting and defensive purposes, so night sights are very useful. However, my sights are outlined with dayglow fluorescent rings, which help my target aquisition during the day, or if I use a flashlight in darkness. Anything which will give me an advantage is useful, whether if it’s speed, accuracy, efficiency or simple convenience.

  • Grimsinger

    I use my guns for targeting and defensive purposes, so night sights are very useful. However, my sights are circled on the outside with dayglow florescent rings, which help my target aquisition during the day, or if I use a flashlight in darkness. Anything which will give me an advantage is useful, whether if it’s speed, accuracy, efficiency or simple convenience.

  • ImOffendedTreatMeSpecial

    Patrol the projects for a few years of steady midnight shifts and won’t ever be without night sights again.

  • Ted Hatfield

    I like to think I’ve discovered ‘the best of both worlds’ vis-a-vis the sights on my full-sized and IWB XDs: I installed TruGlo TFO (tritium and fiber optic) sights on both pistols and really love the way they work in every lighting condition I’ve experienced.

    (Of course, I also carry a good-if-small flashlight and have a Crimson Trace laser installed on the smaller pistol …)
    {:-)

    Good article, by the way. Well written, factually rich, and logically argued.

  • GunzRloaded

    I like and use the XS dot night sights…!!
    Cheers.!!

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