When I was starting my law enforcement career, I had excellent vision. Since then I have been very lucky and was able to avoid needing glasses up until only a few years ago. Carrying a firearm as part of my job, and for self-defense when not on duty, I had a serious interest in being able to see my sights, and be able to quickly get them lined up on a target. Over the years I have seen
and tried a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, dots, dashes, and other modifications designed to help get your pistol on target, and to continue to be able to do so as your eyes age and your visual acuity is diminished. Some of these got a bit out of hand. As Wiley Clapp said – “When I am shooting, I want to see sights and not a geometry problem.”
Like just about everyone else, I started with the standard black sights. Front post lined up in the rear notch, with equal distance on each side. There are those who say this is the best and only way to have sights, anything beyond the standard black sights should be forbidden. I say if it works for you, that’s great – go for it. When I bought a Colt Officer’s model pistol in .45acp right after they came out, it came equipped from the factory with three dot sights. I soon discovered that for me, lining up the three dots in a horizontal row was quicker and somewhat easier to do under stress than to obtain the traditional sight picture using the black front and rear sights.
Working a lot of late evening and early morning shifts, I was very happy when I discovered Trijicon night sights a few years into my career. They used tritium, a mildly radioactive isotope of hydrogen inside a tiny metal tube with a clear sapphire end cap. The Tritium activates phosphors also in the tube, causing them to glow for about ten years of usable service life before growing dim. In low light conditions, you had three glowing dots to line up on the target. The tubes were also surrounded with a white ring, which helped them to serve as three dot sights in daylight as well.
At that time I was carrying a Heckler & Koch P-7 M-13 “squeeze-cocker” as my duty pistol. I sent the slide to Trijicon, they removed the white plastic inserts in the sights, installed the tritium filled tube modules, and because it was my primary duty gun, got it shipped back to me within only a few days. I can’t tell you how amazing it was to have this new capability. In darkness or any low light conditions, if there was enough light to see and identify a threat, I was able to line up the sights and hit the target.
I enjoy telling one particular story. Early one morning, my partner and I responded to an alarm in a building. We entered, and moved in a leap-frog pattern down a darkened hallway. He would move twenty feet or so, then stop, I would then move up, passing his position, and once twenty or so feet ahead, stop. Later the area was cleared, and we had determined the cause of the false alarm. My partner then said “you and those stupid sights!” “As we were searching the building, all I could see were those stupid three green dots as you were ahead of me. Good thing there was no one in there – I would have never seen them, all my attention was on those cool sights…”
Some have complained that the Trijicon sights should be improved by having different colors in the front and rear sights, or making the front sight noticeable larger or brighter – to help differentiate quickly and under stress which of the three dots was supposed to go in the middle. I have been lucky I guess, and didn’t have any problems with that particular issue.
I may be wrong here, but this next information is based on my best memory of what happened. About ten years ago, a gunsmith working at the Gunsite Academy in Paulden AZ, combined the front XS “Golf Ball” front sight with a modified rear sight (later using the 10-8 Performance rear sight) on a student’s pistol. Instead of a square notch on the rear sight, the modification was to create a “U” shaped notch (which was already build into the 10-8 sight). The large round white front dot on the XS sight fit perfectly into that rounded notch, and made it very easy to see, and line up the sights. Because of the big, easy to see dot, and the ease of lining them up, these were quickly termed “Old Guy” sights.
My eyesight was still holding up, and I was very happy with my white outline Trijicons – in the day and at night I had something I was used to, and had used and liked for at least 20 years. Then I hit age 50. It started with needing to squint to see the small things, then needing “cheaters” (the one or one-and-a-half magnification reading glasses) to see those little things. Later my wife insisted I go to the eye doctor, and she (who had worn glasses since she was 12 years old) was literally thrilled that I now needed to get glasses for visual clarity at distance. That was until she found out she now needed to get bi-focals.
It wasn’t long after that before I started to realize that my three dot sights were not as easy to see and as quick to line up as they had once been. I started doing a lot of research (wearing my reading glasses to see the text of course) into deteriorating vision and pistol sighting options. It was just about this time that Trijicon released their new “HD” line of pistol sights. I don’t know how they knew what I was doing, but they must have – because their new sights combined all the things I was looking for into one product.
The “big dot” used lets your eye see and identify that front sight very quickly. The bright colors (beyond the white or brass used by others) make it even easier to identify. The rods and cones in our eyes are more sensitive to certain colors, either in daylight, or low light conditions. Fluorescent orange and yellow-green are the colors easiest to see in daylight. In low and reduced light, the eyes are most sensitive to greenish-yellow colors. Look at the safety vests worn by construction workers and the “safety-lime-yellow” firetrucks as real world examples. If you are interested in more detail, the Journal of the American Optometric Association has published studies that explain in more detail how these colors are more easily perceived.
This information ties in with research I did years ago into the visibility of various colors of emergency lighting for our police vehicles. Yellow or amber is the easiest light color to see, followed by blue being good in rainy and stormy conditions, and red being good at night and in darkness. That’s why most emergency vehicles have some combination of the three colors to be seen regardless on the time of day or weather conditions.
The HD sights are slightly taller, making them more prominent on the top of the slide. The “U” shaped notch in the rear sight lets that big front sight center itself very quickly. While the sight has three dots for nighttime or low light use, the two tubes in either side of the rear sight do not have a white outline, making it easier to focus on the bright colored front sight. The front sight has a photoluminescent outline in fluorescent orange or the Lime-Yellow version I chose (these will glow for several minutes after exposure to bright light). I believe the Lime-Yellow ones will work best for my day and night carry needs – you might prefer the orange.
In actual shooting practice, with my less than “perfect” vision, that bright front sight dot centers itself in the rounded notch very quickly. After several range sessions, I decided the improvement was so clear, I began adding these sight to ALL of the pistols I carry for possible self-defense use. I removed several sets of perfectly good standard Trijicons, replacing them with the new HD versions. I currently have four of my self-defense pistols (three Glocks and a S&W M&P Shield) with the sights installed.
Understand that this is my story. The path I took was my own, and the product I ended up turning to may be different that the one you choose. However, I suspect a lot of people will end up with the same or a very similar answer, based on the popularity of these sights, and the science behind their development.