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Are night sights useless?


Were the night sights installed on this pistol a worthwhile upgrade?

We see a constant fluctuation of ideas and techniques sweeping the firearms training community, the gunwriting community, and, of course, the counters of our local gunstores.

While ideas and techniques used to change a little more slowly, an explosion of local training companies has brought a rapid influx of new and often novel ideas to shooters. Some of these training companies are built on the extensive tactical experience of their instructors, while many are run by instructors with little or no real-world experience, and just a couple instructor courses under their belts.

One of the concepts now sweeping the firearms training industry and spreading out to those who write about shooting is the idea that night sights offer no advantage. There are a lot of very scientific sounding arguments mounted against the effectiveness of night sights, but it boils down to this argument:

Night sights are not useful because you do not need them in the daylight, when you can ID your target. If it is too dark to ID your target, then you should not be shooting at all. In the only time of day that night sights could possibly be useful, a couple minutes of twilight, they bloom in your vision and prevent your eyes from adjusting to the fading light. If you use a weapon light, you don’t need night sights. On top of all that, most people don’t even see their sights in a self-defense situation.

On the surface, it sounds like a very logical argument, especially when lots of cool scientific terms are thrown in.

However, if you look below the surface of the arguments against night sights, you can see that they are based on a very simplistic concept of fighting, one that is easy to accept when fighting experience is limited to training ranges, where we can expect a certain set of circumstances: well-lit training scenarios during the day or on a lighted indoor range, and sometimes night training in close quarters with weapon lights, on the same type of ranges. In both cases, the shooter has prepared for the training and knows what to expect.

As anyone who has fought in a city can tell you, circumstances and lighting can change rapidly. Fighting night after night in these circumstances quickly teaches you that you will never know what to expect as you are faced with each situation.

The law enforcement and self-defense shooter should also learn to expect the unexpected in every aspect of fighting, including dealing with changes in ambient light. Let’s take a look at the arguments against night sights in light of real combat lessons.

1. You do not need night sights in daylight conditions. This is generally true. Most people also do not carry a tactical light in the daylight. However, in the middle of the day, you can easily find yourself in dark conditions. Places like parking garages can have areas of deep shadows, even at midday. Many parking garages are underground and poorly lit. It is possible that a shooter could find himself in a building in which the lights were turned off. In fact, some businesses such as large stores have a policy that lights are shut off in the event of an active shooter situation. A person involved in a self-defense situation may suddenly find herself in a dark building when attempting to retreat from a threat, or a police officer may suddenly face the same situation while pursuing a suspect. In any of these cases there may not be time to retrieve a weapon light or tactical light. In any of these cases, night sights may make the difference between a hit or a miss.

2. If you need night sights, it is too dark to ID the target, and you cannot shoot for fear of shooting an innocent person. This is an argument that is hard to imagine any reasonably experienced person to believe. There have been many times when I have faced a possible target whose face I could not identify, whose clothing I could not really identify, but whose actions clearly identified as a threat or a non-threat. These were times when ambient light would not allow the iron sights of a pistol or rifle to be seen against the target, yet was enough to identify the actions of the potential target. In these cases, night sights are a clear advantage.

Imagine a dark parking garage, or an imperfectly lit street. You can see the dark shape of the person who is threatening you verbally and with a weapon, but you cannot see his face. He surprised you, and you just barely had time to draw your pistol. You don’t know who he is, what he looks like, what he is wearing, but you can see the knife in his hand and your night sights glowing in the center of his chest as he moves aggressively toward you. Your light is in your pocket; do you need to get it out to properly ID your target?

What about a situation in which you have nowhere to run, and someone is shooting at you from a distance too great for the light on your pistol to fully illuminate. You have a rest, and you are confident in your ability to get a hit at that range from a rest, but your light does not illuminate the target well enough to silhouette your sights.

Or maybe your light would work just fine, except that when you turn it on, all you can see is the swirling snow, not your target.

But maybe all conditions are right for using your weapon light, so you don’t really need night sights. Life is good, you have the advantage, and *%#@! Your light just failed!

3. If you have a weapon light, you don’t need night sights. We pretty much just covered this. Most people don’t carry a light mounted. Even if it is in your pocket or on your belt, you might not have time to access the light. In some circumstances a light may be a liability, and like all battery-powered electronic things, there is always a chance of failure.

4. A few minutes at dawn or dusk are the only times of the day night sights could be useful, and even then, they are not, since they cause your eyes to adjust improperly for the ambient light. This argument must have been conceived by someone who has never used night sights in dawn or dusk conditions. In these conditions, night sights work exceptionally well. Secondly, as we have explored above, during full daylight or all night hours there are still many situations in which night sights could be very useful and even required in order to effectively hit a target.

5. Most people do not use their sights in a stressful or self-defense situation. This may be true for many people. There are times when sights are not even required. However, we tend to fight as we train, and while most self-defense shootings take place at very close range, we cannot count on this. If we train to use our sights, we will tend to do so under stress. I cannot remember a time in combat or self-defense that I have not focused on whatever sighting system I was employing at the time. I will give two examples from the self-defense aspect. I shot a moose at point-blank range as it charged me unexpectedly from only 20 meters away. I lost hearing, had tunnel vision, fired without consciously thinking, and can distinctly remember the sight picture I saw. On another occasion I shot a bear at 8 feet as it came after my kids. I shot three rounds in a second-and-a-half, each shot was a kill shot, even though the bear was spinning around quickly after the first shot struck, and I used the sights with each shot. I can’t say I would use my sights the next time, but I know I have consistently in the past. So can you.

When you consider training courses on a range, it is easy to see why you could think that night sights are unnecessary. During daylight scenarios, target areas are well lit. For night scenarios, each shooter takes the time to prepare – checking his tactical light, getting set, engaging targets in controlled conditions. In real life, the conditions might control you. You will have to deal with what presents itself, and it might not be the perfect scenario. I want all the advantages I can get, and to me the advantages of night sights are undisputed.

Meprolight night sights ready for installation on a 1911.

Meprolight night sights ready for installation on a 1911.

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