by Frank Ettin
Jeff Cooper used to say that the only modifications a reliable 1911 needs are “sights you can see, a trigger you can manage and a dehorning (a smoothing of sharp edges).” A manageable trigger and softened edges are pretty straight forward and won’t concern us here. Today we are interested in the sight question and my personal seduction by a [bright shiny] gold bead in the front sight.
Sights and the Modern Technique of the Pistol
To be sure, there are shooting doctrines in which sights play but a supporting role. And the various schools of point shooting and target focus systems have their application. But a cornerstone of the Modern Technique of the Pistol, as formulated in the hills above San Bernardino, California in the days of the Southwest Pistol League and propagated by Colonel Cooper, Ray Chapman, et al, is the flash sight picture.
As described by Gregory Morrison in The Modern Technique of the Pistol:
“...Sight-alignment is simply the proper alignment of the front sight with the rear sight. Sight-picture combines sight-alignment with superimposition upon a selected target. These basic principles common to all sighted fire are applied much differently, however, with the Modern Technique.
“The flash sight-picture involves a glimpse of the sight-picture sufficient to confirm alignment....The target shooter’s gaze at the front sight has proven inappropriate for the bulk of pistolfighting. However, the practical shooter must start at this level and work up to the flash, which becomes reflexive as motor skills are refined. With practice, a consistent firing platform and firing stroke align the sights effortlessly. This index to the target eventually becomes an instantaneous confirmation of the sight-picture.
“...Using the flash sight-picture programs the reflex of aligning the weapon’s sights with the target instantly....There is good reason for sights: one needs them to align the barrel with the target reliably....” (Morrison, Gregory, The Modern Technique of the Pistol, Gunsite Press, 1991, pp 87 - 88)
A Brief History of Sights
So what can we do to make the sights more visible. The obvious answer is: make them bigger. The sights on the early 1911s (and on pretty much all handguns) were quite small.
But it’s not just a matter of seeing the sights. The doctrine of the Modern Techniques calls for seeing them quickly -- especially seeing the front sight quickly.
Personally, I’ve found that some of the ways that are used to make sights more visible don’t necessarily help me see the front sight any faster. The various combinations of white or colored dots or outlines do make the sights more visible, but I’ve also found them kind of busy and distracting for fast sight acquisition. They can help line everything up. but the idea is to not have to line everything up -- rather to just be able to confirm alignment at a glance.
Another part of the challenge is being able to see the sights not only quickly, but also when there’s not much light. Events that might require that one use a sidearm for self defense often occur in dim light. After all, those who tend to precipitate such events seldom prefer brightly lit places for their enterprises. So night sights were born.
Night sights have tiny glass vials, in various patterns, inserted into the front and rear sights. The tiny vials contain a minute quantity of tritium gas, a radioactive isotope of hydrogen, with a phosphorescent substance that glows slightly when excited by the products of the radioactive decay of the tritium atoms. This produces a very nice, bright glow in low light. And in my experience there’s the rub.
Night sights are nice and bright in very low light -- especially when it’s too dark to identify your target, so you won’t be shooting anyway. It’s the “in between” dim light where, at least for me, night sights don’t seem to offer much advantage.
Another downside of night sights is that they wear out. Since they are “powered” by radioactive decay, the “fuel” that makes them glow gets used up. Although they’ll be good for a reasonably long time, ten years, give or take, the the tritium vials will eventually need to be replaced.
The Fiber Optic Front Sight
I recall in about the mid 1990s I started to see front sights with fiber optic inserts on Limited Division guns at my USPSA club. A brightly colored plastic rod mounted in a front sight would gather the light and produce a highly visible glow. The front sight would just jump right out at you.
I put one on the gun I was using for USPSA competition, and I liked it a lot. Out of doors, that red spot on the front sight drew my eye right to it. I saw it quickly and so was able to shoot quickly.
But one difficulty was that while it was great out of doors, on overcast days or indoors, the fiber optic element didn’t seem to pick up enough light to stand out. Another possible downside disqualifying the fiber optic front sight from consideration for use in a service pistol is that the plastic element is fairly fragile.
I Discover the Gold Bead
Of course the rest of the world discovered the gold bead long before I did.
The use of some bright color on the front sight is certainly not new. Rifles have used front sights with bright beads for years. The normal set up on rifles intended for African dangerous game has for many years been a large bright bead front sight together with a wide “v” rear sight. Similar arrangement have been introduced for pistols in the last several year, and many folks have tried them and liked them. Of course, Smith & Wesson, among others, has used bright plastic inserts on the front sights of revolvers for some time.
But it does seem that of late the gold bead front sight has started to show up more frequently on carry pistols. So I decided to give it a try. And this is how it happened.
I’d been toying with having some trigger work done on my Ed Brown Kobra Carry. At 3.5 pounds, the trigger was a little light for my tastes. About a year ago I decided to send it to John Harrison (Harrison Design and Consulting) to get that attended to. But as long as I was sending the gun clear across the country, I wanted to think up more stuff to have done -- both to make its long journey worthwhile and to better utilize Mr. Harrison’s talents.
So it came to pass that after some email correspondence with John, I sent off my Kobra Carry for a trigger job (4.5 to 5 pounds) and some new sights (and to have the right side of the slide stop pin countersunk). For sights I chose an Heirloom Precision Professional Grade rear sight, plain black with a 0.140 inch notch paired with a 0.120 inch front sight with a 14k gold bead. The gun with the new sights was to be zeroed at 25 yards with point of impact at point of aim. (I also sent John my Les Baer Super Tac to have him replace the adjustable rear sight with his Harrison Design Hard Use fixed rear sight, plain black, also paired with a gold bead front sigh.)
I received the guns back within a little less than a month. The work was beautifully performed.
How They Work
Short answer, I really like this arrangement. Doing some quick dry fire drills at home, I found the front sight very quick to pick up. My eye was drawn to it immediately. I also found that the bead showed up well as long as there was enough ambient to allow identification of a target. And of course, in bright light it stood out well also.
A few days later I was able to get to Reed’s Indoor Range. Since I’m holster qualified there, I was able to work drawing from the holster. Here’s 50 rounds with the Kobra Carry, drawing from a Milt Sparks Vera Max 2 and firing strings of 2, 3 and 4 rounds, at ten yards with a flash sight picture.
Over the last year I made quite a few trips to the range with both guns and fired quite a few rounds with these sights. I even took both the Les Baer and Ed Brown to Nevada when I took the Nevada CCW class, and qualified with both guns (among others). That’s really not much of a test, of course. But all in all, I’ve come to really appreciate the gold bead in the front sight.
In fact, I liked the gold bead front sight so much, last March I sent three of my Nighthawks, a Talon II (Commander size), a Talon III (compact grip frame and Commander size top end), and a Talon IV (Officer ACP size), to John for the same sights as on the Kobra Carry.
I received them back from John Harrison in a little less than a month.
At the range, they performed (or allowed me to perform) as I expected. The Talon IV seemed to handle especially nicely.
But I managed okay with the Talon III.
I’m also happy with the Talon II.
Some Parting Thoughts
The gold bead certainly worked out well for me. But everyone sees color differently and perceives things differently; so while a bright color on the front sight can be helpful, it doesn’t necessarily have to be gold. Red, yellow, white and orange, for example, to my knowledge have all been tried. One might work better for you than gold.
A downside of a bright bead is some loss of precision. The beads on my sights are slightly raised and rounded. That helps them gather light. But if the light is coming from an angle, it won’t be reflected off the bead uniformly, i. e., one side might look a little brighter than the other. Thus in some lights the front sight might look centered in the rear sight notch, but it will really be a little off.
The loss of precision is small, but if you’re looking for X ring hits at 50 yards, a gold bean may not be your best choice. But precision seems to be fully adequate for practical applications. A flat bead flush with the back surface of the front sight would probably reduce this effect, but at the loss of some light gathering efficiency.
John Harrison is a fine gentleman and first class craftsman. I enjoyed working with him and would be happy to find another project to work with him on.
You may use this thread in our Forums Site to discuss this article.
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