Guns and Gear

Hoober: Why Night Sights Aren’t As Great As You’d Think

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By Sam Hoober

One of the supposed “musts” for a carry gun is allegedly night sights. You have to have them for a low-light environment, the story goes, or else you’ll get killed in the streets.


First, the tritium actually does you less good than the conventional wisdom suggests, and second, most tritium sights actually suffer from a less-than-optimal design.

If you want ’em, get ’em…

…but if you don’t have them yet, and were wondering if you should, let’s temper the supposed “need” for tritium night sights.

Tritium doesn’t actually give off that much light. It’s a passive form of illumination, rather than active. You can’t see it in daylight (yes, yes, there are day/night sights, but that’s not the point) and in a low-light environment, tritium vials either do you no good at all or not enough.

How does that work?

In darkness, all you can see are the three little tritium dots, or one or two tritium dots, depending on the sight set in question. That’s presuming, of course, that you’ve kept the tritium activated by shining a flashlight on them every so often.

In other words, they’re next to useless in total darkness, and they’re also useless in daylight unless you have day/night sights with the fiber optic inserts.

When are they most useful? Near dawn or near dusk. In daylight or darkness, they’re useless, but in the failing light they illuminate just enough to make your sights more visible.

Unfortunately, what they don’t illuminate at all is the target itself, and so the point here is that what you’re better off with is either a flashlight or a weapon-mounted light.

In conjunction with a light source, night sights aren’t totally useless, but it’s not like you can’t see different types of sights either.

In short, they don’t give off much light, they aren’t really useful except for about, maybe an hour or two of the entire day, don’t do anything in daylight and don’t illuminate the target. Ergo, it can be safely said that the same amount of money is better spent on an actual light source.

Just to illustrate the difference, Trijicon Bright and Tough sights retail for about $125.

A TLR-7 compact weapon light, a decent enough entry-level weapon light (a TLR-1 or Surefire X300 is better, sure, but they’re most expensive) goes for about $115 on Amazon.

You can also get any number of 1,000+ lumen flashlights for a lot less. Some for less than $50. That’s a light plus a bit left over for ammo, which is actually starting to trickle back into stores and list for prices that are almost tolerable again.

Not quite, but almost!

Point being, the problem of visibility is better addressed with an actual light source, and you can get a decent one for the same or less cash than the cost of a set of night sights. Then again, the mistake a lot of people make when it comes to sights is they forget to add the cost of a sight pusher or punches while they’re at it!

On top of the issue of illumination, there’s the issue of night sight design compared to other sights, and this is something not everyone necessarily gets.

Most night sight sets are the “combat” sight style, the signifying feature of which is that the front sight post will totally fill in the rear notch when the sights are perfectly aligned or at least close to it.

Now, what’s presumed is that’s a good thing. It makes the sights simpler to use. Put block between other blocks fast, press bang switch.

Unfortunately, what that doesn’t do is give you is the greatest amount of information about how well the sights are aligned. A narrower front sight post does, which is why the standard target sight set is a skinny front fiber optic (which also uses passive illumination) with a black rear sight, with a wide notch.

The point can be raised that you won’t take as much time in a gunfight to use the sights, that you can’t, that you need to just get the sights somewhat aligned and light up the threat.

Perhaps there’s an element of truth to that, but it’s also true that the only way to guarantee a stop is to shoot one of a few vital parts of the body (the heart, the brainstem or the C-spine) and all of them are not very big.

Therefore, being able to place shots precisely can – in a life or death situation – matter, and at that a great deal. Therefore, having a sighting system that makes that easier rather than harder is a good idea.

Not that you can’t do good work with night sights, anyone can, but it’s more that they make it harder than target sights do. And the idea is to work smarter, not harder.

Sam Hoober is a hunter and shooter based in the Inland Northwest.