The most basic sights worth writing about are the classic patridge sights: black front sight post, black rear sight. No markings at all. If you’re doing bullseye shooting, these will work fine. If you don’t have good lighting conditions or if you’re going for speed, these leave much to be desired, usually. Note that we can get some better speed with these if the sight post is narrower than the notch, but this almost never happens. These are usually marketed to the bullseye crowd, so the post is kept as wide as the notch to maximize precision.
I should probably mention three-dot sights now. You know, three little white dots, it’s about the industry standard. I can’t stand them. I hate three-dot sights. I don’t like them at all. I don’t think “lining them up” is a very good decision, because there are a couple different ways to do it. Really, you have to line up the tops of the sights, but I don’t think this is very intuitive, unless you actually look to line up the post and notch, not the dots, and then what’s the point of the dots? I also don’t like that there’s nothing distinctive about the front sight here. Your focus should be on the front sight, even though it’s dot is smaller than the other two. There’s nothing to draw your eye forward, and maintaining that front sight focus is hard. Don’t help novice shooters, sight designers. Probably because nobody actually likes these sights, you can’t really get these customized with a smaller post at all. These are placeholders that you should rip off your pistol and replace at the earliest opportunity.
I should also cover XS big dot sights. I don’t like these either. They’re supposed to be super fast up close, which is almost certainly true. But there’s no precision. It’s a needless specialization–you can only make one kind of shot with these, and close in shots are where you can index off the frame if you need to, because close. Or, you could get crimson trace lasergrips (which I’ll discuss later) and have something even better in close, and still be able to have sights that work at range. Don’t get these.
Next, let’s talk about tritium. Lots of people think you should put tritium sights on your gun in case of a low-light encounter. I have two problems with this. First, the only body of statistics I have on CCW holders involved in gunfights indicates the vast majority of them occur in well-lit areas. And in well lit areas, tritium dots suck, since usually the rear sights catch light and are pretty bright and annoying. The front sight will catch light too, but it’s further away, and it will look smaller. So you’re focus is drawn to the wrong place. My other problem with tritiums is that, if I am fighting in poorly lit areas, I’m going to need a light. Preferably a weapon-mounted light, which is going to wash out the tritiums. The white light is to identify a target, but it will make the tritiums not help at all. And no, the light will not give your position away. Don’t be stupid. The light has an off switch. If you do want tritiums, I actually prefer three-dot tritiums to the weird two-dot ones out there. Three dot lets you get sights lined up in both dimensions. I also like subdued rear sights, preferably in amber, so that in poor illumination the brightest dot will be the front sight. I also only like a white outline on the front sight, so in better illumination the rear dots won’t be lit up too much. If your tritiums aren’t set up this way, you can give it a try by running a sharpie over the rear sights a few times.
What I really like in iron sights are a narrow fiber optic front and a plain black rear with a wide notch. It gives me a nice balance of speed and precision, and my eye is drawn to where it should be. In well lit conditions, like the range, or outdoors or the well lit areas that most CCW gunfights have happened in, fiber optics work great. Bright front sight is easy to see and easy to keep focus on. In low light, it’s much less helpful, but if you’re using a light, poorly illuminated fiber optic sights look a lot like washed-out tritium sights. I don’t like any fiber optics or dots on the rear, because that’s my reference. I don’t want it complicated. I don’t want anything competing with the front sight for focus.
Let’s talk technology. First, crimson trace laser grips. I really like these, mostly because of the instinctive activation. I grab the gun, the laser is on. No switches to forget about. Nothing to fumble with. Lasers aren’t very good in bright light, at long range. But that’s okay. They compliment traditional irons, because they excel where other irons suck, in low light, in unusual positions. Lasers are way better than tritium in low light. And if you have to engage from a weird shooting position, lasers are there to help. Works great if you want to cheat a little on the Tueller drill. Oh, and if you think lasers will give your position away, you’re stupid. Just like lights, lasers have this fancy new thing called an off switch. Also, for the CCW users, you’d have to defend your use of force as justified, which almost certainly involves being threatened, which probably means that the bad guy knows that you’re there already.
Finally, we come to my favorite overall choice: the mini red dot (on the slide). I won’t lie, these are stupid expensive, especially if you do it right and get your slide milled for a particular red dot. But the red dot is great. No sight alignment to worry about. No focus to worry about: you focus on the target, bring up the dot and just let it float in your vision. It’s great at range, and it won’t obscure your target. For 95% of shooters, it’s easier to run a red dot fast and well than any kind of iron sights. Those top shooters, the guys who can visually track the rear sight through recoil, might see a loss of speed, even after practicing. For everyone else, I think the mini red dot is by far the superior choice.
I’ll probably write up my red-dotted S&W M&P 40 sometime soon.