In 1995 I placed sixth in the Night Fire Event at the Secret Service Combat Match using night sights, so I always felt well-equipped when I ventured out at night with a pistol that had tritium sights. That was until two years ago at the Rangemaster Tactical Conference in Memphis. Lighting conditions were set at twilight and I couldn’t see my night sights. Fortunately, the gun also had a laser.
Pros and Cons
his taught me an important lesson, the majority of gunfights may take place in low light conditions, but not all low light environments are dark enough to see night sights. If you don’t have a laser, the only choice for precise aiming is to pull out your tactical light and use it to illuminate the target. Lights make target recognition easier, and iron sights stand out very well when the target is well-lit. On the other hand, the flashlight techniques that work best for me all involve shooting with one hand and that’s why training should always include single-handed shooting for options such as this.
There’s another important drawback to night sights. When a handgun with front and rear night-sights is carried in an open holster, the glow from the rear sight makes it very easy to track the person with the gun. Trainer Gabe Suarez calls this “fireflies.” This isn’t as much of a problem when the gun is carried concealed, but the minute it’s drawn, anyone behind the shooter has a clear shot. Always remember that light discipline is critical during tactical operations at night, especially when the “good guy” is outnumbered.
Lasers, on the other hand, aren’t all sweetness and light either, because most lasers are not mounted co-axial with the bore. Because of this discrepancy, I sight the laser so that the dot on is dead-on the bullet’s point of impact at the farthest distance I can easily see the dot on-target during the day in light shade. Usually that’s about 15-20 yards. This distance that covers most self-defense shootings. If you need to make a truly precise shot in low light night sights are better because they’re closer to being co-axial with the bore. But if you can’t see your night sights because it’s not dark enough your choices are to know your laser’s offset at different distances or wait, if you can, until you get a better sight picture.
Finally, there are red dots. Like lasers and night sights they don’t do much for target recognition unless they are used with a light, but they do clearly place a dot on target under almost all lighting conditions and most of these sights are 1X which provides a wide field of view. It’s a pretty good solution, especially when used with a gun-mounted light.
Know Your Needs
The military has access to other more elaborate low-light sighting systems, but as civilians our choice between lasers, red dots and night sights gives us quite a bit of room to solve the problems we might reasonably anticipate. And that’s the important element. The key to making a good low-light sight choice comes down to knowing your specific tactical needs and setting up your equipment to give you the best chance of surviving the threats you anticipate. Of course, once you get comfortable with your set up, some new piece of equipment may come along and offer a better solution. So be prepared to change your equipment as your needs change and as the available technology evolves. That also means changing or adding to your training as repetition and good muscle memory is sometimes the only thing shooters can quickly find in sudden, self-defense events when something goes bump in the night.