Are Night Sights Really Necessary?

I fear this article may stir up some controversy.  This is not, however, my intention.  Rather, I intend to outline a portion of my own journey in the area of pistol sights, share my own conclusions, and invite you to do your own testing.  Be warned:  the choice of pistol sights—just like the choice of the pistol itself—is a highly personal decision.  As with most things we purchase, when others do not share in our opinions, the need for us to defend our purchase choices can be strong.  Hence, my fear about controversy. 

Be warned that the word “necessary” is one I use loosely here (if that is possible).  Obviously, in the history of handguns and gunfighting, night sights are a relatively recent invention, and countless gunfights have been won in low-light situations without the use of night sights.

Much has been written about night sights and their utility in recent years, a lot of it by people with a lot more experience (military, law enforcement, etc.) than me.  Just because I co-founded a blog centered on self-defense does not make me a subject matter expert (and I think our long-time readers recognize my description of all of this as a “journey” that I am choosing to share rather than a “this-is-how-you-should-do-it” thing.).  However, just because I am not an expert does not mean that I lack critical thinking skills or the ability to conduct my own experimentation.

Expert Opinions

Tom Givens IS a subject matter expert on these matters.  Few would disagree with that point.  I have listened to him on countless podcasts, own and have read at least one of his books, attended both of his lectures at the Rangemaster Tactical Conference in March of 2017, and plan to train with him at least twice (finally!) in 2018.  His opinion was outlined very clearly in an article he wrote for the October 2017 edition of the Rangemaster Newsletter (here, opens to PDF).  I would urge you to check out that article before moving forward in this one.

Did you read it?  Givens makes a lot of sense, doesn’t he?  He tends to do that.

For further confirmation by a Givens disciple, check out this article by Dr. Sherman House from the Civilian Defender blog.

Did you read it?  It is very similar, and he makes a lot of sense as well.

My blog partner John and I have either read or directly elicited the opinions of other experts in this field.  Mike Pannone, Mike Seeklander, Kyle Defoor, Frank Proctor, and several others all generally come down in the “night sights are not necessary” camp.  The argument generally goes something like this: 

  • If it is too dark to see your sights, it is too dark to identify a threat;
  • If it is too dark to identify a threat, then you need a light, and if you use a light, your sights will be illuminated;
  • Night sights are really only useful during a few times of day, such as around dusk and dawn.

Combine this with what Givens and House discussed/showed in their articles, and there is a strong argument that night sights are superfluous.

Other Expert Opinions

Ah, but it is not so cut-and-dried.  There are also Subject Matter Experts who I know from experience (or from their writings/videos) carry handguns with night sights (and this is by choice, not by some bureaucratic decision).  Examples of such experts include Paul Howe (Ameriglo Hackathorn sights), Jeff Gonzales (using Trijicon HDs in this class), Dave Spaulding (Ameriglo’s Spaulding sights carry his name, after all!), and I will assume that Travis Haley and Jason Falla, both of whom have night sights that carry their surnames, also use them at least some of the time (?).  As with so many things in life, whose expert opinions do we go follow?

My Own Experiences

My own opinion is partly shaped by my experience in at least one low-light class.  In that class, I was using a Glock 19 equipped with plain black Defoor sights by Ameriglo.  Shooting at some distance—more than 20 yards—and even at some closer distances, and even with a flashlight or weapon-mounted light, I had trouble getting GOOD hits on the targets, which featured bad guys dressed in black.  I could get hits, but my accuracy was not what I would have preferred.

Also, in reading Sherman House’s article linked to above, I noticed that the black (red painted) sights on his Glock 34 are quite visible, but in a few cases, if he had shifted the sights to be over a darker area in the photo (or over a foe dressed in dark colors), this would not necessarily be the case, especially if aiming at a person dressed in darker shades.

Finally, I really started to look at point number one outlined above and asked myself if it is really true.  Is it true that if we cannot see our sights that we cannot positively identify something or someone as a threat?  What if we are positioned in an area of darkness but the threat is in an area of more relative light?  Could such a situation arise?

My Experiment

Based strictly on the amount of time I spend in my home, it stands to reason that one of the places I am most likely to need a firearm is, in fact, at home.  Accordingly, I began to look around my home for places where I could potentially find myself in a position of relative darkness, but where I could identify someone as a threat without the use of a supplemental light source (such as a handheld or pistol-mounted light). 

One of the most obvious was the master bedroom.  We have a relatively open floor plan, with the door to the master suite up a half-flight of stairs from the living room.  We generally keep a couple of smaller lights on downstairs at night.  If I was to hear a crash or was alerted in some other way to the potential of an intruder in the home, I would most likely position myself at or near the door to our room.  In darkness.  However, with the ambient light in the living room, it would be relatively easy to identify a person as a threat (i.e., is the person wearing a ski mask?  Carrying a weapon or crowbar?) or not (drunk college student from down the street?  Old guy with dementia who got the houses mixed up?). 

The I Dot Pro front sight on one of my Glocks had gotten a little loose, so I took the opportunity to remove it completely in order to experiment just a bit.  I chose a spot in my house that had similar lighting characteristics to what I described above.  I set up a target stand in my lighted garage and put a black fleece jacket over most of the target, representing a bad guy in dark clothing.  I then took photos (as best I could, so apologies now for the less-than-stellar pics) of me aiming the pistol with two different sight set-ups in two different lighting conditions.

I began by aiming the Glock 19 (cleared and checked several times for safety, of course) from an area inside the house with some available light.  The Glock was, at this moment, equipped with the rear I Dot sight, but with the tritium vial taped over with black electrical tape.  The front sight was a plain black Defoor sight from Ameriglo that had had its top serrations painted fluorescent red/orange, using a technique I outlined in this article

20171114_132237_37705659924_o
Glock 19 with Ameriglo Defoor plain black sights with orange-painted front sight.

As can be seen, the sights are visible enough to get good hits.

20171114_133620_38364613436_o
This works

I then moved back into a darkened (not totally dark, but the light in the was off) closet, making no other lighting changes to the rest of the area.  As can be seen here, the exact orientation of the sights relative to the target is difficult to determine.  I assure you, there is no trick of the camera at play here.

 

20171114_133930_38420532341_o
Where’s my front sight?

Next, I removed the electrical tape from the rear sight and replaced the front sight with the I Dot Pro front sight.  As can be seen, the sights can be aligned and a hit on particular places on the “bad guy” all but guaranteed. 

20171114_134147_24549294448_o
That’s better!

Now, I will grant that, in the second photo and at the distances involved here, I could, no doubt, get decent “point” or “indexed” type hits without relying on the exact alignment of the sights.  Alternatively, I also could have deployed a flashlight in a cheek or temple-index position, which would illuminate the sights and make their alignment on target much easier.  Finally, I could have utilized a weapon-mounted light which might have backlit my sights superimposed on the target.

However, I have a few problems with all of those techniques.  In the former case, why should I, someone who practices a fair amount and who holds himself to a pretty high degree of accuracy in my shooting, settle for less just because it is dark where I am standing?  Why should I choose to settle for less accuracy just because of my sights?  I want my hits where I want them, not “somewhere” on the bad guy.  In the latter cases, why should I give up the element of surprise and also make myself a target against what we are assuming here is an identified threat?  And along those same lines, if I am using a flashlight (as opposed to a weapon-mounted light), then I would be shooting one-handed with a likely diminishment of accuracy.  All of these issues are eliminated in a lighting scenario such as this with the simple addition of a set of night sights.

I realize that the chances of these lighting conditions coinciding with a potential defensive gun use may not be high, but, as noted, I found several areas of my own house where such a combination of factors could occur.  Out “on the street”, there could be a situation where a bad guy is backlit by a streetlight, car headlights, lighted signs, etc., and has made it clear through words, actions, or whatever might discerned in his hands, that he represents a threat.  In such a situation, I would love to have night sights and both hands on my pistol.

If you are of a large enough size that you can effectively conceal and carry a pistol with a weapon-mounted light, then by all means do so, as that will eliminate some of these issues (backlighting your sights superimposed on the target via reflection of light off the target), but for me and my diminutive size this is not a realistic option.  Accordingly, despite some of their drawbacks (wider front sights, more expensive, etc.), I have chosen to use and carry handguns with night sights as much as possible (not an option on a pistol like a Ruger LCP, etc.). 

I hope you found this article informative.  It should by no means represent some sort of “end of discussion”.  It is merely the decision that I have reached and my rationale for doing so.  But I leave it to the readers to decide for themselves the best sight options based on preferred size, sight picture, materials used, price, availability, etc.  So, to answer the question posed by the title of this article:  night sights may not be necessary, but they are nice to have.

As always, thanks for reading.  If you have any questions or comments, please post them below or on our Facebook page, as we always welcome civil discourse. 

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6 thoughts on “Are Night Sights Really Necessary?

  1. Interesting look, and thank you for the mention.

    One thing that I’ve explored more about this, from further training with Tom, and by applying some of Gabe White’s work…I think of the conventional, “sight picture,” now as more of a, “sight motion picture.” So, whatever we examine in these snapshots in time aren’t really completely accurate or a suitable analog for real-life, since even under stress, we don’t only see our sights in one frame snapshots, or, “pictures.” Rather, we see the sights and the possibly changing light scheme around them, progressively evolving. This is somewhat analogous to the difference between a skill drill and a tactic. Sure, in a static environment, where you are backed into your closet and making a shot on a threat in your garage, your sight visibility is limited, but do you see enough of the sights and the gun to make a hit at that distance? Probably. On the other hand, if there is a threat in the garage, and you’re in the closet, is he coming towards you, or you towards him? If yes, then most likely the light dynamics will change, and that can even be as simple as the threat becoming much larger (as it closes on you) or the threat becoming larger and the light dynamics changing as you close the distance on him.

    You’ll remember that Tom talks about in every one of his classes, interviews/podcasts, and books, that he teaches his students to get, “solid, upper chest hits, using a two handed grip with the gun up at eye level,” (or words to that effect). Just because the gun is in the eye line, a coarse, or even silhouetted sight picture, can often be appropriate and really all that is necessary to get your hits. A fine, precisely aligned front sight hard focus, is rarely indicated or required at the distances we are concerned about.

    Good article, and thanks again for the shout out.

    Regards,

    Dr. House

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Dr. House,

      Thanks so much for the comment. Ack, I got cut off!

      Thanks! I think you are right about this and so many things. As I tried to stress in the article, this is not meant to be the be-all end-all on the topic, and I reserve the right to change my opinions later! To date, I can only really speak as related to what training I have done, and in those classes I found plain black sights inadequate.

      Of course, as a critical thinker, I have to also ask myself “were the scenarios presented in class realistic in terms of conditions presented (lighting, distances, etc.). And that’s a question I keep asking myself.

      I’ve still not found my ideal sights, and as my article from earlier this week indicates, I’m willing to go with something that covers “most” bases and get as good as I can before I move on to find my “ideal”.

      Thanks again!

      Robert

      Liked by 1 person

    2. Please note I edited my reply above. Just wanted to alert you to that, in case you just followed an email alert that said “Thanks” but sounded completely unthankful!

      Robert

      Liked by 1 person

  2. It’s not hard to paint a tritium front sight blade bright orange-red. If a little paint gets on the tritium vial, scrape it off with a toothpick. You get both red-orange and a glowing dot for a penny’s worth of paint or nail polish. Mine has the top edge of the sight painted too, for shooting from lower than optimal sight alignment.

    Liked by 1 person

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