By John Krupa III
There are many different types of sight systems that are available for use on defensive handguns. While some sight systems are manufactured with materials that are not practical for rigorous use and combat applications, others are designed in a way that can impede the shooter from obtaining a fast sight picture. Sight systems that don’t conform to the physiology of how the human eye functions in combat can actually hinder or delay the shooter from finding the front sight under duress and lead to loss of combat accuracy. This article will explore handgun sight design and provide technical information on how to select a sight system that will work best for your personal defense handgun. There are five primary elements that affect how we see and use handgun sights during combat: vision, sight design, lighting, movement and applications.
Vision is important in gun fights as we use it for target discrimination and area scanning. When it comes time to fire the handgun, we need to find the sights, develop sight alignment and establish a sight picture. This becomes even more complex when you factor in how vasoconstriction (oxygen deprivation of the eye) impedes the ability to control what we can see and focus on.
The quality of materials used is important, especially when choosing sights for use on a handgun that you intend to carry for personal defense. Avoid using polymer sights or sights with plastic components. While many manufacturers offer basic pistol packages with polymer sights as "standard issue," those need to be replaced with reliable metal sights immediately. Other sight designs include Tritium capsules, contrasting colored dots or circles and various sight heights and widths.
Lighting affects our ability to see handgun sights, especially in diminished light or darkness. Bright light affects the ability to see or use the sights due to glare. Selecting a sight system that allows the shooter to find the front sight in ambient light is just as important as selecting a sight system that reduces glare effects as well.
Various types of movement will affect sight alignment, sight picture and the ability to follow the front sight. Heavy breathing will cause the sight picture to wobble. Dynamic movement while firing the handgun will cause the front sight to wobble independently of the rear sight and will affect the sight picture. And firing the handgun will cause the front sight to rise out of sight alignment during recoil.
When selecting handgun sights for personal defense, the sights must have reliable accuracy for distant shots and surgical shots. The sight design should allow for a wide rear sight box and an easy to find front sight so the front sight can be observed wobbling in the rear sight box while using the flash sight picture. The front sight will also need to be designed in a way where the shooter can see the location of the front sight out of focus for front sight proximity verification. This occurs during vasoconstriction when the shooter is restricted to focusing on the target and temporarily loses the ability to focus on the front sight.
Understanding that these five elements influence how we see and use handgun sights, let’s review presentation of the handgun and what to look for during the firing sequence.
Presenting the handgun into line-of-sight begins with looking at the target and identifying the area you want the projectiles to strike. The line-of-sight is a straight line from the eye to the target area. Once the target area is identified, the handgun is presented in a straight line to the target and into line-of-sight. The shortest distance between two points is a straight line. To deliver shots on target (using the sights), the eye, rear sight, front sight and target all must be aligned in the line-of-sight to establish a sight picture on target.
As the handgun is being presented into line-of-sight, focus will change from the target area to the front sight. Remember, the human eye can only focus on one thing at a time, so here is where we start to address not only what the eye is focusing on, but how we get the eye to the front sight quickly and how we keep the eye focused on the front sight during the shooting sequence.
To get the eye to focus on the front sight quickly, the first thing we need to do is eliminate a "busy rear sight." A rear sight is considered "busy" when there are colored circles, dots, squares or bright fiber optics that attract the eye to the rear sight instead of the front sight. Basically, anything on the rear sight that attracts focus away from the front sight is a bad thing in a gunfight.
Busy rear sight.
Keep in mind that when the handgun is in-line-of-sight, the rear sight is closer to the eye than the front sight. So not only will the rear sight appear larger, the eye will naturally be attracted to it first if it’s busy. Focus will then need to be deliberately changed from the rear sight to the front sight. To make this adjustment costs time.
This distraction can result in up to one or more seconds of additional time added to the shooter’s overall reaction time. In a gunfight, that’s a long time to be standing around trying to get past the rear sight when you should be on your front sight and firing to stop the threat!
The second problem that exists with distracting rear sights is sight glare. This occurs when a bright light source comes in directly above the rear sight or from behind the shooter. This has the tendency to create a glare effect on protruding Tritium capsules, fiber optic ends, bright white dots and squares located on the face of the rear sight.
When a glare or haze like this occurs, the shooter has to concentrate on getting past it and force focus to the front sight. This also increases reaction time in finding the front sight and getting on target to fire the shot.
So how do we fix the rear sight? Rear sights with protruding fiber optics and Tritium capsules that glare should be replaced altogether. Painted white/bright dots and squares can be removed with a small scraper tool or dental pick, or they can be covered over with black paint. This should leave a totally black rear sight and kept flat black to reduce glare even further.
Side profile of rear sight with angled forward face and square cut back.
Optimally, using a rear sight that has an undercut face will also reduce glare as the slant angle of the rear sight face will be angled away from light sources above or behind the shooter. I also recommend using a larger rear sight notch between .165 and .180 inches.
This will allow the shooter to use a thicker front sight and still be able to pick up ambient light in low light conditions on either side of the front sight when it is centered in the rear sight notch.
Front profile of rear sight with large notch.
When replacing the rear sight, make sure you select a rear sight that has a square back as well so you will be able to use it for hook and cycle capabilities during one handed reloading and one handed malfunction clearance manipulations.
Now, let’s talk about the front sight. The front sight is an important piece of equipment on handguns used for personal defense. It has to be made of durable metal that can sustain exposure to extreme heat conditions and take abuse. Thick, so it won’t bend or snap under rigorous conditions. (Yes, I’ve seen front sights on handguns bend and snap off.) I recommend using a front sight that is .140 inches wide for this job. Tall enough so it’s easy to find and with a contrasting face that can be picked up by the eye quickly.
The front sight should be finished in a non-glare black and the face of the front sight should be a flat surface. The outline of the face of the front sight should be square or rectangular and have very sharp, easy to distinguish edges that define the outline of the face of the front sight.
Spartan Operator Pro Glo front sight.
A florescent circle or dot should be in the center of the face of the front sight to attract the eye to the front sight quickly. This dot will also allow the shooter to easily track the front sight during aggressive movement, rapid multi-shot applications and tracking the front sight during multi-target engagements.
It’s perfectly fine to use Tritium capsules in the front and rear sights. I recommend using sights that have sapphire design Tritium capsules that are embedded, low-profile and inconspicuous until low-light conditions exist. I find that green Tritium sights are easier to pick up than yellow Tritium. If you decide to use yellow Tritium, keep yellow in the rear sight and green in the front sight. My personal preference is to keep the Tritium on both sights green.
The Tritium capsules embedded in the rear sight should be outlined in black. The Tritium capsule embedded in the front sight should be outlined in a florescent color that can be picked up by the eye quickly. While florescent yellow and green are bright colors, those colors tend to get lost quickly in smoke like the color white. I find florescent orange on the front sight to be the most consistent color to pick up quickly and track in heavy smoke, during rapid fire, multi-target engagements and diminished light conditions.
I have also taken the color blind shooter into consideration. As the sight colors addressed in this article cannot be distinguished by a color blind shooter, the sight setup for a color blind shooter will be the same front and rear sight design, but the front sight will have a white circle instead of florescent orange.
Correct sight picture, on target, with front sight in focus.
Based on what I consider to be the most effective handgun sight design for personal defense, I consulted with the Ameriglo sight company to develop sight systems based on these concepts. The result was a series of sight sets addressing the issues presented in this article: Spartan Operator night sights for vision unrestricted shooters and the Pro Operator nights sights for color blind shooters.
Spartan Operator night sight set.
Pro Operator night sight set.
If you carry a firearm for personal defense, you have to think like a gunfighter. Part of being ready to defend yourself with a handgun is selecting a reliable handgun you have confidence in. Selecting high performance personal defense ammunition that will stop the threat and selecting handgun sights will allow you to be fast and accurate during deadly force confrontations.
Are you ready to go into battle with the sights you have on your handgun? As always, stay safe, remain vigilant and fight to win!
JOHN KRUPA is a police officer with the Orland Hills (Ill.) Police Deptartment and has more than 24 years of experience in law enforcement. He has previously served as a patrol officer, FTO and firearms instructor with the Chicago Police Dept. He is a recipient of the Award of Valor, Silver Star for Bravery and Distinguished Service Award for his actions in the line of duty. He is a certified Master Firearms Instructor from PTI and graduate firearms instructor from the Secret Service Academy, FBI, DEA and FLETC. He holds the rating of Distinguished Weapons Expert with the Department of Homeland Security and has presented numerous courses at training conferences across the country including ASLET, IALEFI and ILEETA. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org