Seeing Clearly—Defensive Handgun Sights - NSSF Let's Go Shooting

Seeing Clearly—Defensive Handgun Sights

By Eve Flanigan

When it comes to carrying a handgun for defense, there are good reasons to consider an upgrade from traditional target sights. Good sights can dramatically affect one’s ability to aim quickly and fire accurately, and accuracy is critical when an encounter may require you to discharge your gun in self-defense.

Adjustable Sights, a Step in the Right Direction

Old-fashioned steel sights that are integral to the slide (or barrel and frame, in the case of a revolver) can prove difficult to use quickly. They tend to be low-profile and often blend into the slide when aiming. If that’s the case for you, the first upgrade I’d suggest is a firearm that has an adjustable rear sight. The higher profile of such sights offers a faster sight picture, and their ability to be raised or moved left or right to affect point of impact can help to overcome the propensity for a particular gun (or its shooter) to shoot left or right, high or low.

Night Sights Are Even Better

While upgrading existing sights or changing firearms to one that has adjustable sights are smart moves, when it comes to self-defense, it’s almost a no-brainer to choose sights that glow in the dark. Night sights leave no doubt as to where the muzzle is pointing, and they contribute greatly to accurate aiming in dimly lit conditions.

Assuming your firearm is a common model that is or has been in mass production in the last 15 or so years, it should be easy to find night sights to replace the ones that came with the gun. Of course, many, many handguns these days come with night sights as standard equipment, and the use of day/night sights—those that have features that help the sights stand out in bright light and in low light—are increasingly popular. That said, choosing from material options and sight configurations are the real decisions.

Night Sights

Phosphorous sights are especially bright after a brief charge under a light bulb.

Night sights glow in darkness because the “dot” indentations contain either phosphorus or tritium. Of the two, tritium is slightly preferable because it provides a consistent level of brightness. It can also be purchased color-treated so as to make the rear sight dots glow a different color—usually yellow—as compared to the front sight—usually green. At night, it can take a moment to distinguish rear versus front sight when all three dots are the same color, and differently colored dots eliminate that problem. Another option is to choose a luminous front sight with a non-glowing rear, though extreme accuracy with this arrangement can be a challenge in extremely low light circumstances. My personal favorite is the Truglo TFO tritium/fiber optic sight set for its ease of use and longevity. Other quality brands include Novak, Trijicon and XSSights.

Fiber optic sights are sometimes confused with night sights. Although fiber optic sights appear very bright in daylight, they offer no advantage in the dark. In the day/night market, some sights employ both fiber optics and tritium.

Tritium sights

Tritium sights glow brightly in a dimly lit room.

Some argue that sights are not important because most people never see them in the heat of a defensive encounter. There is some truth to that. Without regular training for such scenarios, there is a natural inclination to focus on an imminent threat rather than the sights. However, practice with sighted shooting is a building block of excellent, accurate aim even when ambient light is dismal. In other words, the habit of using proper sight alignment and sight picture through habitual practice increases the likelihood of proper aim under stress.

Lasers—Know Their Limitations

A laser can serve as a backup for top-of-gun sights and can be especially useful for shooters with weak hands who find it necessary to make major adjustments to a normal grip to operate certain guns. Generally, though, a laser should not be relied upon as a primary aiming device due to its limitations.

Being battery operated, lasers are subject to failure at inopportune times unless regular attention is paid to the power source. Another limitation is the difficulty or impossibility of seeing the laser dot on target in daylight conditions or at longer distances. There is truth to the adage “you get what you pay for” with lasers. If you plan to rely entirely on a laser as an aiming device, opt for a daylight-piercing green model rather than red—and plan on spending a little more dough.

Handgun Sights - Lasers

Like any other sight, lasers must be zeroed. At typical defensive distances of seven yards or less, this is not usually a big consideration. As distance increases, however, it’s helpful to be aware of any differences between point of aim and point of impact.

One of the most important things to keep in mind is that lasers are not capable of and should never be used for identifying a target in dim light. For that, an auxiliary light is necessary.

Lasers simplify the challenges of aiming and are a partial solution to the problem, during a self-defense situation, of it being more natural to focus on the threat than the sights. But they are not a replacement for a solid foundation of firearms handling skills, so it’s advisable to consider and use them as a back-up to traditional sights, rather than relying in them outright.

Red Dots—Still the New Kid on the Block

Electronic red dot sights offer faster target acquisition compared to iron sights and, like the laser, eliminate the mental struggle of whether to focus on the sights or the target during a defensive situation. Any red dot optic on a defensive gun should allow for the use of the gun’s iron sights in case of electronic failure.

Luepold Red Dot

Leupold Delta Point red dot on a Glock.

The red dot sights (RDS) market for concealment guns is in its infancy—they reign in the world of speed-shooting competition such as IPSC and 3-GUN—but promising developments are underway. A partnership between Crimson Trace and SCCY has produced their sub-compact pistols equipped with a concealment-friendly RDS that has an integral rear iron sight. Holosun makes RDS models with solar panels in case of battery failure. But the potential of lenses fogging due to atmospheric moisture or temperature changes, not to mention their incompatibility with many concealment holsters, still presents a barrier to widespread use of the RDS for everyday carry. They can be a sound choice for self-defense guns kept in the home in a nightstand safe, for instance, where a holster isn’t required.

Safety Considerations

Tritium and phosphorus glow thanks to ionizing radiation. Both substances are safe for wearing next to unbroken skin, as concealment guns often are.

Lasers have the potential to permanently damage eyes. If your dry-fire practice—gun has been triple-checked as being unloaded and all ammunition has been removed from the practice area—involves using a mirror, never activate the laser during such practice. Guns equipped with lasers should also never be used in force-on-force training, no matter what other safety measures are in place.

An Investment in Security

This writer and instructor generally takes a dim view of gadgetry, having seen many add-ons and modifications impair reliable performance. Some products mentioned here, especially night sights, represent exceptions to that opinion. Invest in these products with confidence in their advantages and awareness of their limitations. Then practice, practice, practice, because it’s your skills that will save the day should they ever need to.