Should you put a red dot on your pistol? It’s a fair question. We’ve seen an explosion of red dot optic systems mounted on handguns, but we haven’t really seen any compelling evidence that indicate what, if any advantage these sighting systems confer, until now. This article will cover the latest research on pistols with red dot sights, and will provide you with the relevant facts so you can make the best decision for yourself.
The bulk of this article will be based on an excellent piece of research that was published by a group called Sage Dynamics. They area a firearms training company that has great real world training.
They completed a 4 year study where they compared all aspects of shooting pistols with red dot sights vs shooting pistols with traditional iron sights. They looked at every aspect of red dot suitability for duty pistols, specifically for law enforcement. This included: durability, practicality, mounting methods, retraining considerations, accuracy, and speed.
This kind of in depth study is amazing and incredibly hard to find, as most firearms instructors simply pick up a new piece of gear, try it out, and that’s about as far as it goes. This is the gun magazine method, “Boy this thing sure worked well for the 45 min I tested it.”
I’m not saying that personal experiences don’t matter, but they only really matter to you. They don’t necessarily indicate what others might or might not find useful.
Now, lets get into their findings
Sage Dynamics looked at the 8 most popular red dots for pistol usage including: Trijicon RMR, JP enterprises, Burris Fastfire, Leupold Delta Point, and a few others.
They had a very rugged durability protocol
Drop testing: Optic dropped while mounted to handgun, optic directed towards deck for drop, from shoulder height. Drop test performed every 500 rounds beginning at 0 rounds
Impact testing: Optic used as manipulation device against objects to cycle handgun slide during malfunction drills and one-hand-only operation of handgun. Impact testing on going during evaluation.
Environmental testing: Optic frozen at 30-28F for 24 hours, heated at 150F for 24 hours. Optic submerged in 12” of ambient temperature water for one hour. Environmental testing performed every 500 rounds beginning at 0 rounds.
Round count: General target ammunition of 115 and 124 grain 9mm for 500 rounds, with 100 rounds of duty ammunition 124 gr +P, repeating until failure or end of evaluation.
They found that only two of the eight tested brands survived this abuse. They were the Trijicon RMR, and the Leupold Delta Point Pro. The RMR had survived over 13,200 rounds being fired through it without fault, and the Delta Point survived an incredible 14,300 rounds. Both links are Amazon affiliate links.
Check out this review of the top two red dot sights.
The cheaper optics such as the Burris Fastfire failed within 200 rounds, which shows you just how tough the Trijicon and the Leupold really are.
This is nice because there are literally dozens of optics on the market, and I’m sure that some of the newer offerings are probably good, but for a duty/carry gun you don’t want just good, you want nearly indestructible.
We now know which optics we should buy, but we haven’t really addressed the elephant in the room. Why should we spend our hard earned cash on them in the first place?
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Philosophy of Use
To address this question we need to speak about what a use of force looks like, from a physiological perspective, and why iron sights really don’t cut the mustard.
When you detect a threat, you naturally focus your senses on it, with your vision taking priority. Your brain is going through some fairly sophisticated threat processing in an attempt to determine just what action should be taken. The outcome of this processing is generally a fight, flight, or submit decision.
As a part of this processing your brain primes your body for action with a massive release of chemicals, namely adrenaline, and cortisol. This preps your body for the outcome of that threat processing.
Should you decide that there is a real threat to your life, you then make the decision to deploy your firearm. If you are carrying a gun, you have to face the task of presenting your pistol, as fast as possible, lining up your sights, and placing those sights where you want to shoot the threat. You then have to depress the trigger without moving the sights off target.
This is all hard enough, but if you carry iron sights you have extra steps that you must do. You have been taught, probably your whole life that you have to focus on your front sight. This goes against your biological programming of focusing on the threat. This is called a focal shift.
In this scenario you have to focal shift from the front, to the rear sights, and then onto the target. Let me tell you that this very rarely occurs in actual shootings. A large number of people report never seeing their sights, with most reporting that they had an awareness of them, but no hard front sight focus.
Wouldn’t it be great if there was a sighting system that allowed you to focus on the threat and still make accurate hits? Well there is, it’s called a red dot sight.
Advantages of Red Dots on Pistols
These sights take advantage of your natural instinct, to maintain focus on the threat, while still allowing you to make accurate shots. In fact, Sage Dynamics, did their own study which had fascinating results.
Their participants came from MIL/LE backgrounds, but some had neither of those backgrounds, which provided for a look at red dot usage across various skill levels.
More importantly, they ran their participants through four force on force scenarios, both in low lighting, and good lighting, to compare the amount of hits on targets and their overall accuracy and lethality.
Spoiler alert, the red dot crushed the iron sight. It not only crushed the iron sights, it wasn’t even close.
As you can see, accuracy is much higher on all red dot scenarios. In fact there were almost triple the amount of critical hits (center of mass) using the red dot vs iron sights. Not only were the hits better with a red dot, the amount of misses using irons were nearly twice as high.
This increase in accuracy is incredibly noticeable at distance, with a drastic reduction in group size. Practically this extends the combat range of your pistol. If you can hit a man sized target at 25m on demand and you double your accuracy with a red dot, well you can hit that same size target at 50m.
Sure you aren’t likely to have to make such a shot, but I would rather have that capability than be in that situation, wishing I did.
Disadvantages of Red Dots on Pistols
There is no free lunch. Which means that there must be some drawbacks to red dot usage, and there are. There the possibility of malfunction, because it is a piece of electronic equipment, and there is also a possibility of screen obscuration.
We can see that the Delta Point, and the Trijicon are very tough, and to my mind they are up to the task for self defense and duty carry. This risk can be mitigated by using some back up iron sights that are co-witnessed to the optic’s dot.
There are two real versions of obscuration that we are going to focus on here. The lens can become fogged if it is moved from a cool environment to a hot, and humid one. Say a nice cold patrol car to a summer in Atlanta.
This can be mitigated by treating the lens with anti fogging solution, but honestly with both eyes open the dot will be superimposed on the target by your weak eye.
Don’t believe me, try covering the lens on your rifle mounted red dot and shoot with both eyes open. You can still hit the target. I know because my department had us do this with our duty rifles just a month ago.
The other issue with obscuration is that caused by a weapon mounted light. If you happen to illuminate a reflective, or light colored background like a white wall with your pistol light, you will perceive some washout of the reticle. You should still be able to see it, it will not be as pronounced.
This also isn’t a huge concern, at most room distances aiming is really negligible. Don’t believe me, go to a range put a target 3 yards in front of you, present the gun and pull the trigger with no sight picture. Amazing, you can still hit a target!
Finding the Dot
This is probably most concerning for shooters that have a lot of experience on iron sights. Most shooters can quickly line up the iron sights faster than they can a red dot, if they have a lot of training on irons.
Check this video out for a demo of the time differences with an experienced shooter.
This is because the dot magnifies the natural movement that your pistol exhibits when you hold it. This is not so obvious with irons, but it can make it look like your pistol is wandering more than normal, which causes you to take longer to align the sights. This is a training issue that can be overcome with practice.
Does it look like old Robby Leatham is slowed down by his carry optic pistol?
Lets be real here guys, there is no comparison between red dots and irons. If you are good on iron’s you’ll need some practice to come up to speed with the dot, but it is the future. This is really the exact same as the revolver vs semi auto revolution. At first semi’s weren’t reliable and weren’t viable options even though they had obvious advantages.
Now dots are reliable and they do everything that we want as defensive shooters: increasing accuracy, decreasing misses, with little impact on speed, with good training.
Let us know what you think about red dots on pistols, and leave your comments below.