Believe it or not, one of the hardest decisions to make when ordering a custom pistol is which front sight to use. Options that range from a plain, black blade to sights with inserts of tritium, fiber optics or polished gold make selecting a front sight a difficult decision because all have their strong points.
A plain black blade is the first choice of most serious target shooters I know. Some shooters like a smooth face, but most opt for a serrated blade to reduce glare. A very thin blade is de rigueur on any serious target piece.
Plain black sights are great for shooting light-colored targets in bright light, but they’re terrible in low light and on dark targets, so a black blade is not the best choice for a defensive pistol or hunting revolver.
The first brightly colored sight insert I tried was on a Smith & Wesson revolver. My 686 had an orange insert in the front ramp that served me well for target shooting and hunting, and several of my hunting revolvers wear such colored inserts today.
Those plastic inserts, along with brightly painted dots (a la Sig) started the trend toward sights that worked better in low light. Those brilliant dots catch your eye and are exceptional in rapid fire. The white paint seems to last pretty well too, but they still don’t offer the low-light performance their designers hoped for.
Luminous paints made the earliest night sights. They work okay, but the luminescence doesn’t last, and the paint fades and chips over time. Harsh cleaners hasten the process.
The advent of tritium inserts made true night sights a reality. Tritium night sights come in several sizes. My own preference is for a standard-size dot. The big dot doesn’t allow the precision sight picture I like for long distance work, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t work for you. I have several friends who are hell on steel at any distance with oversize tritium front sight inserts. And for fast, close-up work, the big dot is the undisputed king of front sights.
White outlines around the tritium insert are another option. I like them because the white outline excels in lighter conditions. In low light, you still have the tritium dot, but the white outline allows more precision from daylight to dusk.
Tritium night sights are the most popular choice for concealed carry pistols because they’re rugged, readily available, and relatively inexpensive. If they have a downside, it is that tritium loses its luminescence. Most sights claim a shelf life of 10 years, but eventually they all lose their glow.
Fiber-optic inserts have become all the rage–and with good reason. They’re fast and easy to see, they come in a variety of colors, and they are fairly inexpensive. I think they’re the cat’s meow for competition, but I don’t think they’re tough enough for use on a daily carry piece.
Some people disagree with me on this, but I know of one case that illustrates my point. A friend of mine dismissed my concerns about their durability, and the fiber-optic sights (I don’t know what make) served him well for about a year. Then one day he drew his gun during a qualification shoot and discovered a black hole where his bright red fiber optic insert used to be. Now, only his competition pistol wears a fiber-optic insert.
My favorite front sight insert is a polished gold inlay or bead. Gold shows up well in low light and against dark targets, and if it fades, a quick polish will make it shine like a rapper’s gold tooth. They don’t perform as well as tritium in extreme low light conditions, but if it’s that dark, you can’t identify your target anyway. Unless the shadowy form is a sure-enough threat, I wouldn’t shoot without some sort of light, in which case the tritium would be a non-issue.
Flat gold inlays are nice because they allow a little more precision on long shots than a big bead. However, most of my pistols are built for daily carry, so I opt for a bright, polished gold bead on the majority of my custom builds. In all but pitch dark, that highly polished gold bead stands out like a tie-dyed Grateful Dead shirt at the Republican National Convention.
If they have a downside, it’s that gold inlays aren’t cheap. That has more to do with the effort required to form and install them than the price of gold, but either way, the end result is a fairly pricey front sight. Still, if you want the ultimate in front sight versatility and durability, a gold bead or inlay is tough to beat.
Whether you’re ordering a new factory gun, commissioning a custom or customizing an existing blaster, consider your mission carefully before selecting your front sight. It’s a lot more important than you might think.