There are many different styles of sights available but the two main styles you’ll find on production guns are either Fiber Optic or Tritium. The standard line is “Fiber optic sights are for competition/range use and Tritium is for carry/defensive guns.” I held to that same perception for many years until I took a low-light class, CSAT’s Advanced Individual Tactics. It challenged my preconceived notions and gave me a new perspective.
Rear Sight: Even though this article is focused on front sights I wanted to share what I use for a rear sight as well. All my pistols (except for my most recent P320 RX purchase) run a blacked out rear sight, which just means it’s a plain black sight with no dots. My job when shooting is to focus on the front sight, having a black rear means I don’t get distracted by any rear dots.
Pictured below are standard 3 dot Tritium sights. When shooting with this setup it’s more difficult to keep a hard focus on the front sight, especially during rapid fire, since all 3 dots look exactly alike.
A nice advantage to this setup is black rear sights are usually much less expensive than their counterparts.
Fiber Optic Sights: I initially bought a fiber optic sight as I was trying a few different height combinations of sights and fiber optics were much less expensive than Tritium. I figured that once I had my combination figured out I would then order the Tritium version. The first time I stepped onto the range the green fiber optic sight glowed so brightly I was blown away. While running timed drills it was so easy to find and focus on the sight it felt like I was cheating.
The weak point of fiber optic sights is if you whack the front sight on something you can break the fiber optic tube. I personally don’t consider this an issue. I don’t go around whacking my gun on stuff. I also don’t drop them. But if a person were to drop their pistol it will typically rotate due to it’s balance and impact toward the rear of the gun. Worst case scenario with no fiber optic tube you still have a black sight to aim with.
In contrast to Tritium sights, fiber optic offers no advantage in darkness.
Tritium Sights: Since defensive use of firearms often occur during the night people regularly favor Tritium sights for their carry pistols. The Tritium vial is usually circled by a white ring to help draw the eye when there is light. In darkness the Tritium vial will glow allowing you to line up your sights and fire with reasonable accuracy.
Tritium sights don’t share the same physical vulnerability of fiber optics but you can still break the Tritium vial in the sight. I consider their weak point to be an overall lack of brightness. Compared to other options out there the little white circle isn’t particularly eye catching.
Hybrid Sights: We’ve started seeing more options come across that try to bring the best of both worlds together. A well known option is Trijicon’s HD series:
SIG also came out with their X-RAY3 sight, standard on the Legion models. Both operate under the same general idea, with a semi-blacked out rear and higher visibility front sight. I say semi-black rear because they hold Tritium vials but aren’t distracting like the traditional Tritium sights pictured above. The front sight is noticeably brighter in daylight, a welcomed change. With options in either green or orange a person can pick what they see best.
Homemade Hybrid: For quite a while I created my own hybrid sights. Taking a standard Tritium front sight I would first clean it well with alcohol. I’d then put a spot of tape on the Tritium dot to ensure it didn’t get painted. Next I would put down a layer of white enamel paint and let it dry. Once dry came a layer of Testors fluorescent orange enamel paint. Depending on the sight I would then remove the tape covering the Tritium dot, or scrap off the paint.
It’s not pretty up close but the sight glows in the dark and highly reflects any direct light. It’s functional and inexpensive to replicate.
Low-Light Shooting With Handheld Lights: In the aforementioned Advanced Individual Tactics class we learned how to shoot using a handheld light. Whether using a right or left barricade position our light would be directed toward the target but would also illuminate our front sight. You can see this in practice in the first part of this video where we’re shooting steel in pitch black at a healthy distance. The sight in the video is one of my homemade hybrids.
Using a handheld light there’s no advantage given to the Tritium sights. Since your flashlight lights up the front sight the fiber optic can be fully utilized.
Low-Light Shooting With Weapon Mounted Lights: Shooting in low light with a high power weapon mounted light simply doesn’t get any easier. Nearly every modern pistol has the capability for attaching a light, even if it doesn’t have a rail. I saw recently where Streamlight now offers their TLR-6 for 1911s without a rail. I have one on my M&P Shield.
Back on point though, how does a weapon mounted light effect your sights? Pictures reveal all. Left is a Surefire X300U attached to my P226 with fiber optic sights and right is my P320 RX with Tritium night sights. Please excuse the cellphone pictures.
Suddenly all you’re left with is black sights. My full set of Tritium sights are no more visible than a fiber optic and black rear. At this point the extra expensive of the Tritiums should be questioned.
Low-Light Shooting Without Lights: Don’t. It’s basic firearms safety to identify our target and what is behind it. To quote from my Best Home Defense Guns article:
A light is an absolute must have. There is simply no debate about it. As responsible gun owners we don’t go shooting at shadows or figures in the night. Many irresponsible gun owners have learned this the hard way. They awake to a noise and half asleep with adrenalin pumping they didn’t think there was any reason for a person to be in their house. The shoot the figure moving in the dark, turn on the lights and discover it was a loved one they weren’t expecting to be there. I can’t even imagine such a horrible event. Even if it’s not a loved one and it’s the neighbours bone-headed 12 year old being stupid, while you may be legally justified in shooting them wouldn’t you want to avoid that if possible? Please use a light.
I can hear some people saying “But I don’t want to give away my position by shining a light before shooting, I’ll stick with my Tritium and surprise them.” I get it, I used to think that way myself. Go see what it likes at the end of a 600 – 1000 lumen light at night, you might reconsider your position. I can’t recommend enough how valuable it is to take a low-light class and get some professional instruction. There’s no substitute for clearing a shoot house at night and putting your gear, and preconceived notions, to the test.
The Best Sight: During the day fiber optic is clearly superior. I’ve seen many shooters with aging eyes comment on how much easier shooting is for them with fiber optic. At night with a handheld light the fiber optic prevails with it’s ability to absorb the light. At night with a weapon mounted light all things are equal. Since I don’t fire rounds into darkness the glow of the Tritium never comes into play.
Moving forward I’m going with fiber optics when at all possible. They’re typically a good deal less expensive and for my use offer what I consider significant advantages.