Handgun Low Light Essentials (p2)

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GEAR – Handgun Sights

At a bare minimum you NEED a tritium dot in your front sight. Ever since the handgun was invented people have been trying various methods to make the front sight easier to see, especially in low light. In the old days guys used to paint their front sight a loud color to help it stand out. Somewhere along the line somebody thought of putting a small gold insert in the front sight and buffing it to a high shine so that it would be more visible in low light.

Today practically every maker out there offers a weapon with tritium sights pre-installed from the factory. While this is a good thing, unfortunately the dominant sight configuration is to have three “dots”, each with a tritium vial in it that is the same size, color, and brightness. This, as it turns out, isn’t an ideal setup.

When you look through the sights of a handgun, the rear sight appears to be bigger than the front sight of the handgun. This is because it is closer to your face. In low light with tritium sights that are all the same color and brightness when side by side, the rear sights are actually going to appear to be bigger and BRIGHTER than the front sight, making it harder to find and focus on the front sight under stress. Thankfully there are sight makers who have realized this and who offer sights in various color combinations to try and help a shooter to distinguish between the front and rear sights under stress.

While this is progress, it still isn’t ideal. Even with orange or yellow rear sight “dots” you can still end up losing the smaller, dimmer front sight. As a result I’ve pretty much transitioned all my carry guns to a plain black rear sight and a tritium front like the plain black Warren Tactical rear sight you see here (below) on my M&P. With this arrangement I have found that even when shooting in almost no light I can make A zone hits without problem using just my glowing front sight out to 25 yards.

A plain black rear sight is useable and more accurate than a traditional three dot setup under stress, but still isn’t ideal. Some folks have examined the problem and have come up with a great solution: Make the rear sight “dots” smaller and dimmer. Scott Warren is one of those folks and he created a rear sight with a smaller subdued dot and a front sight with a green dot of standard size and brightness, and the result is the best night sight setup I’ve tried. You can see the rear sight on my Glock 19 here. The rear dot doesn’t distract from the brighter front dot but it does allow you to figure out where your front sight is in relation to the rear sight…and at least in my experience the vertical dot-on-dot arrangement seems to align very naturally for me. Currently this setup is only available for Glocks, but as soon as he makes it available for the M&P family of weapons I am going to change out my plain black rear sights.

Plain black Warren rear

Warren rear with smaller, subdued tritium element.

The following pictures attempt to illustrate some of the differences in sighting setups. They are fuzzy because the camera wasn’t at all happy with the level of light being used, and the fact that I was trying to snap the picture with one hand while holding the weapon with the other didn’t help any either. Still, while they aren’t 100% true to life, they do help illustrate the point.

First up, plain black sights as found on a S&W K frame.

Next, the plain black rear with a tritium front.

Next, the Warren tritium rear with tritium front.

I know what you’re thinking…where are the 3 dot sight pictures? Well I couldn’t get the camera to take a useful picture of the 3 dot setup.

Lasers –

The best available option for low light shooting with handguns these days is the laser. While lasers aren’t as durable or reliable as iron sights with tritium vials in them, they are MUCH easier to use in low light than even iron sights that glow.

Our natural instinct when we perceive a threat is to focus intensely on the threat itself…and yet to be accurate with a handgun you have to focus on some sort of sighting reference (like the sights) rather than the threat. The laser, on the other hand, allows someone to see a valid aiming index that is literally ON the target, working more in line with how we operate under stress. The laser is to the handgun what the red dot is to the carbine, a simpler aiming index that allows for more accurately placed fire under stress and especially in low light. I know that some people have regarded lasers on handguns as unnecessary “gadgets” and something that shouldn’t be used for any serious purpose. Many of those people have changed their tune and now heartily recommend lasers to their students.

Lasers are really something that you can’t fully appreciate until you’ve given them a shot. Explanations invariably fail to communicate the true benefit they offer. The best example is the little S&W J frame.

The J frame is probably the single most difficult handgun to master. It’s got a heavy trigger, a short sight radius and stock sights that are almost impossible to see even in bright daylight. With a laser attached, however, it suddenly becomes easier to get a good sighting index. Ask anyone who has used the Crimson Trace grips on a revolver for serious evaluation and they’ll tell you that they have used them to make shots they never could have made without the laser. My own personal testimony is that I and several other shooters were able to use a S&W J frame at about 15yards in almost pitch blackness to make solid center mass hits on a target with the laser activated. Everyone who tried it was sold on the utility of the CT lasers.

As an example, this is what it’s like to try and aim the J frame in dimming light.

This is what it looks like when you use the laser.

Which one looks easier to you?

It takes some dedicated training and practice to learn to use the laser properly, but it’s worth it. They are also tremendous training tools. The laser offers you instant feedback on your trigger control. If you see the laser making a checkmark or a U while you shoot, you are snatching the trigger. It’s much more difficult to get that kind of feedback from iron sights.

GEAR — Ammunition

Something VERY few people ever stop to consider is how their carry ammo performs in low light. Most people have never shot their carry ammo at night and have no idea what sort of issues it can cause for them. I talked earlier about the “flashbulb” effect that too bright of a light can cause and why that happens. The same concern exists with the muzzle flash from various ammunition.

Believe it or not muzzle flash can end up flashbulbing you and in some extreme cases everyone else within a 10 yard radius, rendering you temporarily blind. For a long time US military ammo had a flash retardant in the powder mix, but recently that practice was discontinued in the name of cutting expense.

Muzzle flash falls into four basic categories:

1. Red — this is the most desirable type of muzzle flash because the rods in our eyes don’t respond to light in the red wavelengths…meaning that a red muzzle flash won’t damage your night vision at all.

2. Orange — This is not as good as red because it can actually effect your night vision somewhat, but it’s still quite manageable most of the time.

3. Yellow — This is where you start to get into flashbulb territory. Yellow muzzle flash is bright and typically interferes significantly with your night vision. Most of the FMJ practice ammo on the market that I’ve tried has a yellow muzzle flash. A number of duty/defensive ammo choices also have a yellow muzzle flash.

4. White — This is the worst. A white muzzle flash gives you the full flashbulb effect and temporarily blinds you. It takes at least half a second if not longer for you to recover any useful vision. When you are in a dynamic situation it’s really bad to have yourself blinded for a second or more. It can also make it almost impossible to pick up your tritium sights for several seconds after you are flashbulbed.

While muzzle flash is not the most important factor in selecting ammunition for your carry/duty weapons, it is nevertheless an aspect of ammunition performance that needs to be weighed in as part of the decision.

For handguns the Winchester “Ranger” line of ammunition includes a flash retardant that gives it a very mild red muzzle flash from most weapons. Speer’s Gold Dot ammo tends to give a reddish-orange muzzle flash that isn’t bad at all from most full sized guns. It’s a bit more objectionable from compact guns. If I remember correctly Federal’s HST is a bit worse than Gold Dot. The absolute worst muzzle flash that I’ve seen from ANY ammo, carbine or pistol is Remington’s 230 grain .45 ACP Golden Saber JHP load. That produces a HIDEOUS white muzzle flash that flashbulbs EVERYONE within a 15 yard radius. It’s insane…and it just happens to be the FBI choice for their 1911s.

This demonstrates that just because agency X uses load Y it doesn’t make it ideally suited for your needs or for all situations. In fact, it might be a pretty stupid choice for your needs.

Now for handguns there aren’t many things you can do to tone down muzzle flash beyond using a full sized handgun and selecting ammo that doesn’t have too much muzzle flash. Generally ammo selection is going to be the most powerful control you have over muzzle flash in your handgun.

Carbines are a much different animal. There are a number of muzzle devices out there that are aimed at dealing with muzzle flash. The standard A2 birdcage hider works pretty well. The Vortex also seems to work pretty well. Some other muzzle devices don’t work as well.

Training – Hand-held light techniques

If you’ve read the thread to this point you’ll remember that different handheld light techniques have been mentioned but not explained. I want to take some time to describe some of the most used flashlight techniques. The general idea behind the use of a handheld light and a handgun is to index both the hotspot of the light and the sights of the handgun in the same place. The terms I’m using are fairly standard terms, but it’s possible that some folks have learned a different technique with the same name as one of the techniques I’m describing. Term creep happens in the “tactical” world moreso than just about any other, so don’t be surprised if you see some.

The FBI Technique – The FBI technique involves holding the flashlight in your weak hand and holding it above your head and to the left or right at the full extension of your arm. Think of the Statue of Liberty and imagine that instead of a torch in her upraised hand that she has a flashlight and that instead of a tablet in her other hand she’s instead pointing a handgun at eye level and you’ve pretty much got it.

Strengths: The FBI technique allows you to sometimes get a light behind objects so you can’t get a light behind any other way. It’s also a very free technique, meaning that if for some reason you need to radically alter the orientation of the light you can very easily move it around to the position you need. One of the oft-stated advantages of the FBI technique is that if the light is up and away from your body if someone shoots at the light they will be missing you. This is of dubious value, in my opinion, because while there are some guys who will probably take dead aim at the light and shoot it, most will simply shoot in the general direction of the light.

Weaknesses: The FBI technique is one of the most difficult techniques for indexing the light and the sights of the weapon together, in my opinion. It is also easy to end up backlighting yourself using this technique if you aren’t careful because a fair chunk of your body is in front of the light source. It also assures that if you have to shoot you will be doing so with one hand, and one handed shooting is no small task under stress in low light.

The Neck Index Technique – The neck index involves holding the light in your weak hand along your jaw line. Your arm is pulled back into the body and it remains locked in place as does your neck. The general idea here is that when you turn you turn your entire torso sort of like the turret on a tank. In theory this essentially indexes the light wherever your head is turned, making it easier to index the light and the sights of your weapon in the same place.

Strengths: This technique makes it easier to coordinate the hotspot of the light and the sights of the weapon, in my opinion. It is also a very free technique, allowing you to quickly adjust the orientation of the light if you need to do so. It’s very easy to transition between this technique and the FBI technique.

Weaknesses: The neck index technique is also easy to get wrong. The most common failing I see is folks who end up improperly indexing the light so that it ends up shining on the rear of the handgun, which partially backlights the shooter AND makes it nigh unto impossible to see the sights properly…especially if they are using a face melter like we discussed in the gear section. This is also a technique that limits you to one handed shooting. Another mentioned weakness of this technique is that it directs incoming fire at your head and upper chest area if someone shoots accurately at the light.

The Harries Technique – The Harries technique is one of the more popular techniques out there, probably the single most popular technique among law enforcement. The Harries technique involves holding the flashlight in your weak hand, crossing your weak hand under your gun hand, and then pressing the back of your weak hand against the back of your strong hand. In this position you push your strong hand against your weak hand while pulling the weak hand against the strong hand utilizing the stabilizing power of isometric tension. (Similar to how the Weaver stance works)

Strengths: The Harries technique is more stable than the FBI or neck index techniques because it gives some extra support to the shooting hand. Personally I find that my accuracy is much improved using the Harries over the FBI or neck index methods. When used properly the Harries also makes it very easy to index the light and the sights in the same place. The positioning of the hands tends to make it fairly easy to get the indexes aligned right off the bat.

Weaknesses: The Harries technique is fatiguing. While the isometric tension used in the technique helps to stabilize your shooting platform, it also requires muscle tension, and that gets old real quick. The positioning of the hands is also pretty un-natural and it takes a good deal of muscle energy to simply hold the Harries position even if you aren’t using the isometric tension. As a result you’ll watch guys on the line start to drop the light and the weapon down to about a low-ready position and try to bring the light and the weapon up when they have to shoot. The Harries is more of a committed position than the FBI or neck index. It requires slightly more time and effort to get out of so you can transition into the FBI or neck index techniques.

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