A discussion on Pistol-Forum.com recently broached the topic of night sights and their utility in low light situations. If you look around you’ll find that a number of respected professionals swear by night sights. Other respected professionals say that they don’t find them useful, preferring straight black sights or fiber optics. Dueling expert opinion often confuses the dickens out of folks who are just trying to figure out what they need to capably defend themselves. How do you know which camp to listen to?
The simplest answer I can give is: Experimentation. We each see the world uniquely through a bespoke set of hardware issued by the factory. Genetics, diet, age, and use all factor in to how well our hardware functions at any given point in time. This means that a low light sighting system that works splendidly for one individual may be utterly useless for another individual.
Human beings have relatively poor night vision capabilities. If you shine a light on most animals at night you can see their eyes glow in the darkness as the light is bouncing off of a reflective membrane in their eyeball which exists specifically to gather light for low-light vision. Human beings have no such membrane, relying entirely on a photosensitive pigment called rhodopsin embedded in the rod cells of our eyes. The number of rod cells you have in your eyes and the efficiency with which they operate is going to be dictated by genetics and condition. As humans age, their night vision degrades as the eye changes (pupils grow smaller, etc) and we begin to lose rod cells. A study done some time ago found that the eyes of recently deceased older adults showed a greatly diminished number of rods compared to the eyes of young, healthy adults.
All of this variability means that what you need in terms of a low-light sighting system may be radically different than what someone else needs…so the fact that a championship level shooter like Bob Vogel or a combat experienced instructor like Kyle Defoor don’t use tritium sights on their guns might be completely irrelevant to your situation. They’re both very accomplished shooters with a great deal of knowledge, but you don’t have their eyeballs. Thus what you need on your gun to make a shot may differ considerably from what they need on theirs.
The only way to figure out what you need is to experiment. Live fire in the dark is, unfortunately, difficult to accomplish on most shooting ranges. Thankfully you don’t necessarily need a lot of live fire experience to make the determination for yourself. A pretty simple way to do this is to unload your gun (if you fail to do this and end up shooting the wife’s cat, don’t come crying to me about the divorce), set up some targets around your house (different locations are key), and then in the evening when it’s starting to get dark try and line up a shot on the target. See how well your sights are working for placing an accurate shot. If you had to take this shot right now, could you do it and make the hit? Repeat this process in all the locations as the light level changes.
Speaking personally, I need tritium sights to be able to deliver an accurate shot in any lighting condition. There are some low light situations where I can shoot just fine without them, but experimentation, training, and experience in force on force exercises (using Simunitions and airsoft) have taught me that there are some situations where I absolutely require tritium to have any hope of delivering an accurate shot on demand. Am I likely to be involved in a gunfight under those conditions? I have no idea. As a general rule I try to avoid gunfights because gunshot wounds suck. Odds are I’ll have little say in when a gunfight happens or what the conditions are if it does, so I want to have the equipment that’s going to give me the best shot at putting a bullet exactly where I need one to go with as little fuss as possible. I don’t assume I’ll have a lot of time to solve a shooting problem because of incidents like this:
Now I may never face the requirement to bail from a moving car that’s being riddled with bullets, roll to my back, and then engage a guy blasting at me with a shotgun like the officer in that video…but about 45 seconds prior to getting shot at I don’t think the officer thought he was going to have to do that either. Sometimes life drops a great big bucket of suck in your lap and you have to just deal with it. I’ve tried point shooting from awkward positions in the dark and I can’t hit spit that way. I need some sort of reliable aiming reference and preferably some sort of aiming reference that I’ll be able to pick up after the muzzle flash from my first shot damages my night vision. For me, at a bare minimum, that means at least a 2 dot tritium arrangement. I greatly prefer the 3 dot tritium arrangement offered on Warren Tactical sights. A good laser is even better.
Do you need night sights? I encourage you to do the homework and find out.