Pistol Sights and How I choose them.
Originally published 01NOV2018
I am sure my journey is a lot like other folks who want to find the best tools to fight someone with. Possibly we are on a different leg of this journey but be sure, most folks are on an entirely different trip. On this journey, people will talk ad-nauseam about what firearm is “best” and they know because they own 35 different ones.
But that's not what I want to talk about today. I want to talk about the sights that go on top of them, and specifically pistol sights. From my time plinking, into my first rudimentary military firearms training, to my foray into competition shooting, on to my study of violence and into my career as an instructor, I found a lot of my time consumed with looking through sights. At those different points in my life, I evaluated all the different sights that passed in front of my eyes (see what I did there?). It was more obvious when I didn't like something than when I did. But I kept notes. A few years ago I finally settled on what features are important on sights and found what products had those features.
When I evaluate sights, there are a few things they must do and a few things it would be nice if they did. The top priority for any sight is that it has to be reliable. Steel construction without moving parts is all that will do. I’ve broken a fair amount of Bo-Mar style sights. Enough to know that they don't belong on a fighting gun. I want front and rear to fit in a dovetail. When I install them, I use Loctite and stake the dovetail to prevent them from coming loose. The Glock style front or GI 1911 style front is a recipe for being broken. Admittedly, these are a choice made by the gun manufacturer, not the sight company, but that certainly influences what guns I buy.
If we go on the assumption that we are only going to compare reliable sights, there is a feature that stands above the rest. A highly visible front sight in variable lighting conditions.
By “variable”, I mean a little dark, a lot dark, super dark and potentially pitch black. Oh yeah, and then daylight too. Two features dictate this: size and color. For size, it needs to be big. How big? Bigger. I haven't yet found a front too large, nor a rear with too wide of an opening yet. I imagine that a front site can be made that obscures a person at a certain distance, but the widest front sights I’ve seen are .191” wide and they don't cover a dude at 100 yards, which is a shot that is a tall order for most gun guys with a pistol. I have made that shot, with that sight, in front of students, on a gun without a rear sight at all. So for those that are screaming at their screen that it has to be super thin in a narrow notch, I don't know what else I need to ask my sights to do.
So if it’s big, it’s easier to see. Like the front you chose to set your screen to read this. Why would this be important? When you need your sights on a bad guy, like right fucking now, easier to find would be good. If we’re also watching that bad guy move, like they do, easier to find would be good. If we are also moving (like we should be doing) and shits bouncing everywhere, easier to find would be good. Big is the key to this in any lighting, but really important in low lighting. I’ll get to that in the next paragraph.
Now let's talk color. Straight color with no energy source first. The human eye has rods and cones. I know you learned it in 10th-grade health. The cones that are in the middle are great at finding small stuff and focusing on it. They also see colors well. The rods around the outside are what give us low-light vision. They don't focus like a cone and they are naturally color-blind.
So what's that mean in the dark? They have a hard time focusing on small things (I told you I’d get tot hat) And all those fancy colors we like are just a shade of grey. You know what the brightest shade of grey is? White. Yep, the color of the dots that came on the gun. Who knew that the gun companies would actually give us the highest visibility sight color when they put the cheap sights on at the factory. I can hear the gnashing of teeth now.
People are saying “Garry, at the well-lit range, those orange, green, blue, purple sights are easy to see.” Yeah, they are. But so is plain black. I don't know what the percentages are, but I can point it out with simple words. Black sights are very easy to see in daylight. White dots are a smidgen easier to see. Some bright colors are even easier than that, but only by a little. In the dark, black sights are quite hard to see, those fancy colors AKA grey sights are a fair amount easier. The whites are really easy to see. Orders of magnitude easier than the various greys. If we remember the various lighting conditions I mentioned, daylight ranks dead last. Just because that's all the average gun dude shoots in, doesn't mean that what a martial gun handler should focus on.
But what if we add an energy source? Something like tritium or photoluminescent dots. Tritium stores energy from the factory and slowly releases it, letting your sights glow 24/7. The only downside is that the tritium is usable in a very narrow set of circumstances. Often it is too bright to see the glow, or too dark to identify your target. But the downside? None. Photoluminescent is pretty neat. They store energy after you charge them. For some amount of time. There are a number of colors in the spectrum that can be made to glow after some outside source of light has been shined on them. They generally emit much more light than tritium does. The downside is that white is not currently one of those colors. So in darkness, prior to being exposed to a light source they are orange, green or yellow. Which is less than ideal as mentioned above.
I've talked to some leading scientists that study eyes. They tell me that there are colors that are easier to see in the dark than others. Some yellows and even some oranges that are closer to the yellow end of the spectrum are much closer to the visibility of white in human night vision. One of these colors in a photoluminescent might be a viable option. Fiber optic is another option that requires energy to work. The downside is that the energy is not stored at all. The energy source must be directed at it while being used. Generally, these require good lighting to make them more visible than the surrounding black sight. They shine awesomely in the daylight, but that's not what we’re looking for. Being a little bit better in ideal conditions is not an adequate trade-off for being the worst choice in common conditions. The last option for a sight that requires an energy source is a red dot. The energy is stored in a battery and is usually bright enough to be seen in all conditions. I haven't written an article about red dots on pistols yet, and this one isn't going to be it. But like anything that is battery powered, a mechanical backup is a priority and that backup should meet the above criteria.
Down my list after size and color, I look at the shape of the sight. I need the sights as I’m aiming to not be overly intricate. Lining up triangle inside of diamonds or any craziness in unwanted. Some way to grossly align the front to the rear and possibly a way to finely align them for precision shots. However, being able to hit a dude-sized target at 100 yards with no rear sight at all limits my belief in the importance of finely aligning sights. From a side profile, I like the rear sight to have a ledge that I can use to rack the slide with and not be so sharp I cut myself on them. If it doesn't, it’s ok. I own a file and can make a ledge and soften the edges.
Beyond that, the sight needs to be made for all the pistols on my approved list. Not really a concern since currently, only 4 guns have managed to get on that list. That's the entirety of my requirements. When I try a new set of sights, the first thing I do is a bunch of dryfire in random parts of my house at night. The basement, the hallway with the nightlight in it. The Living room with a streetlight seeping in around the curtain, the kitchen with the blinking clock on the coffeepot. That's the lighting I’m focused on. If they look ok there, I’ll install them on a UTM gun and use it for force on force. The lighting covers all possibilities, and the target and I are always moving. That's it. No live-fire required at all to test sights. I heard one of the best pistol shooters in the world talk about sights. He said every single shooter he had seen, and he has seen all of them, shoots better with new sights. Not because the new sights are good, but because they focus more on the front sight when it's different than they are used to. In essence, live-fire testing of new sights is more likely to give us false-positive results than actual useful results. So I skip it. I urge you to do something similar. When you want to try new sights, get those sight pictures in the dark. Try them in as many different levels of dark that you can and then get in a shoothouse and try them in some force on force.