The Case for Night Sights

The ability to engage and hit targets in low-light scenarios is critical to officer survival.  The majority of officer-involved shootings take place between dusk and dawn. According to the FBI, 72% of assaults on officers and 62% of officer deaths occur between the hours of 6 p.m. and 6 a.m. The importance of low-light shooting skills isn’t diminished during daylight hours. During the day shift, there will be many situations in which officers are faced with reduced or inconsistent light.

Although they have only become popular recently, night sights have been available for over 30 years. Today, tritium night sights are available from a number of manufacturers and it is common to find tritium night sights included on many models of handguns as they come from the factory.

Night sights differ from lasers and flashlights or tactical lights in that they are passive aiming devices. They don’t illuminate either the target or the shooter. Night sights are entirely self-contained and don’t require any external power or exposure to an external light source.

Night sights contain special radio-luminescent inserts. The inserts consist of small glass capsules filled with tritium, a radio-isotope of hydrogen. The inner walls of the capsules are coated with a phosphor compound. As the tritium decays, beta rays are produced. The beta rays strike the phosphor particles on the inside of the glass, exciting the phosphor particles and causing them to emit visible light.

The color of the light emitted is determined by the type of phosphor that is used. Green, yellow and orange light-emitting capsules are available. Green is the brightest color and the easiest for the human eye to see in low light, followed by yellow and then orange.  Although other colors could be provided, they would be too dim to be practical for use in night sights.

Night sights are available in a variety of fixed-sight and adjustable-sight models in both three-dot systems and bar-dot systems. Although green three-dot systems are the most common, many shooters prefer two-color night sights with green front and yellow rear dots. The use of two colors provides more distinction between the front and rear sights and helps avoid the possibility of momentary confusion as to which dot is which. Also, many shooters find that two-color night sights make it easier for them to concentrate on front sight in low-light conditions, aiding accuracy.

All night sights have the same life. Tritium has a half-life of 12 years. As the tritium decays over time, the brightness of the capsules will diminish. At the half-life, the sights will have lost approximately 50% of their illumination. From a practical standpoint, night sights may remain serviceable for up to 15 years.

Night sights don’t pose any health hazards whatsoever. The amount of radiation emitted is minuscule. It is classified by the NRC as “below regulatory concern.” The exposure is approximately one-thousandth of that which one would receive from a watch. Even if the capsules were to rupture, there would not be any hazard. A typical three-dot night sight contains approximately 50 millicuries of tritium.

For an officer to accurately aim a weapon, the officer needs to be able to clearly see the sights, something that is often difficult or impossible to do with standard sights in low-light situations. Night sights have proven to be a valuable aid in delivering precise and accurate fire in low-light conditions. Tests that were conducted at the FBI Academy demonstrated an increase in night-firing accuracy by as much as 500% when tritium night sights were used.

Due to their advantages, night sights are rapidly becoming considered to be essential equipment for law enforcement firearms. Nevertheless, the fact remains that most firearms today aren’t equipped with night sights. The primary reason undoubtedly is their cost, so, just how much of a tactical necessity are night sights?

Night Sights In Perspective

Statistically, 60–80% of officer-involved shootings take place at distances of 20 feet or less. Many of the shootings may be classified as spontaneous shootings? that is, the officer had no warning and the weapon was in the holster at the outset. From a practical standpoint, there was often little or no time to see the sights (even if the sights were visible), nor any real opportunity to use them.

At these short ranges, a trained, practiced shooter shouldn’t have any trouble getting center-of-mass hits in low light, even with the ability to see or use the sights impaired.  The reason is “muscle memory.” Every time a shooter draws and aims a handgun, the action becomes imprinted in the shooters. Eventually, typically after several thousand repetitions, the conscious execution of skills becomes subconscious and automatic. The weapon’s sights are instinctively aligned and little or no sight correction is needed.

Do night sights improve hit ratios on the street? The answers are not clear cut. Studies are presently being conducted by Tom Aveni and the Police Policy Studies Council. The studies are not yet completed, but the very early numbers show that night sights are not improving hit ratios.

Most officers involved in spontaneous shooting scenarios report either not using their sights or not remembering if they did. When faced with a threat, the human mind instinctively focuses on the threat. Also, the physiological effects of extreme stress can make it difficult if not impossible for the eyes to get a clear sight picture.

This isn’t to say that night sights aren’t advantageous to have in close-range, spontaneous shooting scenarios. Night sights allow the officer to use a flash sight picture in situations where this would otherwise be impossible due to low ambient lighting. The flash sight technique, also known as the front sight method, is, according to proponents, easier to learn than point shooting and inherently more accurate. With practice there is very little loss of speed by using this technique. 

At longer distances, or in situations where there is time to use the sights, night sights really come into their own. However, it needs to be recognized that in many situations where there isn’t enough ambient light to see standard sights, there also isn’t enough ambient light to clearly identify and evaluate threats. Under these circumstances, the officer will need the illumination of a flashlight or a tactical light, irrespective of whether the officer’s weapon has night sights, standard sights or a laser aimer.

Night sights excel in non-spontaneous shooting scenarios where the target is clearly identifiable and standard sights could not be seen or wouldn’t be silhouetted against the target. Night sights are invaluable in these situations. Although they certainly aren’t without their limitations, night sights are a valuable tactical aid.

Eugene Nielsen provides investigative and tactical consulting services and is a former officer. He may be reached via e-mail at  For more articles geared to the tactical officer, see, or subscribe to Tactical Response Magazine, brought to you by the editors of LAW and ORDER.http://www.theppsc.orghttp://www.meprolight.comhttp://www.kimberamerica.comhttp://www.trijicon-inc.comhttp://www.ptnightsights.comhttp://www.mmcsight.comhttp://www.expresssights.comhttp://wilsoncombat.comhttp://www.ameriglo.nethttp://www.heinie.comhttp://www.hecklerkoch-usa.comhttp://www.glock.com

Published in Law and Order, Jan 2004

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