Within the last couple of years, micro red dot optics on pistols have gone from “early adopter” status to accessibly mainstream. The technology is continually improving and the costs keep dropping. That has a lot of shooters considering for the first time whether a red dot might make sense for their everyday carry pistol. Today, we’re looking at a couple of the major pros and cons of making that transition.
Details are in the video below, or scroll down to read the complete transcript.
Hey everybody, Chris Baker here from LuckyGunner.com. Do you need a red dot sight on your carry pistol? The main barrier to entry used to be cost. But the price of reliable red dot optics has dropped significantly in the last couple of years. And lots of affordable handguns now come from the factory with slides already cut to accept optics. So, if you haven’t already, is now the right time to finally take the plunge into the world of the dot-equipped pistol? Are you missing out on being as prepared as you can possibly be if you don’t have one of these on your personal defensive handgun?
Well, I cannot answer those questions for you. But I want to talk about a few issues to consider that might help you decide.
Now, right up front, I need to point out that I am far from an expert on the topic of pistol optics. I still consider myself relatively new to this. If you’ve been following me for a while, then you probably already know that the vast majority of my experience with pistol optics has been over the last year with this gun — a Sig P365 XL. I’m not going to go a whole lot into specific hardware today, but since I know some of you will ask, I’ve used it with a Shield RMSc, a Sig RomeoZero, a Swamp Fox Sentinel, and a Holosun HS507K. For what it’s worth, I think the Swamp Fox and the Holosun have been the best two, by far, out of that batch.
Anyway, I’m usually pretty good at offering a perspective that makes sense for regular, everyday citizens who happened to be armed. But I am not an accomplished red dot instructor. If you’re looking for some solid tips on actually shooting optic-equipped handguns, you should look up Scott Jedlinksi, Steve Fisher, Aaron Cowan, or one of the other guys who have been actually teaching this stuff professionally.
Pistol Optics Advantages
To start off, let’s focus on the advantages of a red dot. Forget about cost, durability, holster compatibility, or any of those other related issues for now. When you narrow it down to simply making holes exactly where you want them as fast as you possibly can, there’s no question, a red dot is superior to iron sights. That doesn’t mean everybody always shoots optics better than irons. There is some learning involved. And there are special cases, like people with astigmatism who might have some issues with the dot. But in general, given the right guidance and adequate time practicing, the evidence seems to indicate that the overwhelming majority of shooters perform better with a red dot.
There are a lot of reasons why that’s the case, but it basically comes down to the fact that a dot sight more naturally integrates with how our eyes and our brains normally function. We can keep our vision and our attention focused on the target and simply superimpose the dot over that. It’s not an abstraction of our point of impact represented by lining up squares or circles. The dot is more intuitive and less work for our brains and eyeballs to do.
What that means in terms of shooting performance is different from one person to the next. Someone who has the kind of vision issues where they can see a red dot, but have trouble with iron sights might experience some huge improvements in their marksmanship ability right away. A shooter who is already performing at an extremely high level with iron sights might not benefit as much from a red dot right away, or the benefits might be more situational.
I can only speak for myself here, but I don’t think my experience is unique. The first and most dramatic benefit I noticed when using a red dot was shooting at 15 yards and beyond. The difference really is night and day. It’s not an exaggeration to say that I can almost cut my group sizes and times in half when I’m shooting drills at 25+ yards with a red dot.
Inside of 15 yards, the performance starts to even out a bit and the red dot advantage is less noticeable. Statistically, the majority of defensive shootings take place at less than seven yards. So it’s totally fair to ask whether the benefits of the red dot really translate to the real world.
Real World Relevance
I think the advantage that’s probably most relevant to the armed citizen is that the dot allows you to stay target focused. We don’t always realize the full benefits of being target focused when we’re at the range. It might help with things like target transitions. But, generally, when you’re shooting static cardboard and paper, there’s not necessarily a massive advantage. On the other hand, in a violent confrontation, seeing the sight without compromising your visual attention on the threat has some huge benefits.
We don’t have any real world data on this yet that I’m aware of. It’s kind of hard to quantify. The best hard evidence I’ve seen so far comes from the white paper (PDF link) that Aaron Cowan from Sage Dynamics published a few years ago. As part of his extensive red dot sight testing, he ran 24 students through a few force on force scenarios. Half of them had red dots on their sim guns, half of them had iron sights. Each group, on average, had a similar level of skill, training, and shooting experience.
There was not much difference in the number of rounds fired by the two groups. But the iron sight shooters missed completely about 41% of the time. The red dot shooters missed only 27% of their shots. But here’s the big stat that stands out to me: the iron sight shooters landed 28% of their hits in the head or upper chest — what we typically consider “good hits.” For the red dot shooters, that number was 70%.
Now, that’s just one study and it was with a pretty small sample size. I would love to see more studies like that in the future and I’m sure there’s a lot more research being done on this as we speak. For the time being, I’ve seen enough to convince me that the real world benefits of a red dot on a pistol are probably not just theoretical.
Challenges for Making the Switch
Even with that in mind, I am reluctant to say that you “need” a red dot sight on your carry gun. There are some downsides. I think a lot of the most common criticisms of pistol red dot sights are overblown. Things like durability or battery life are really minor issues at this point if you are careful about hardware selection. But there are some challenges involved in transitioning from iron sights to a red dot that I think deserve some attention.
I want to talk about two of the biggest of these challenges today. One is a hardware issue: simply figuring out which pistol to mount an optic to and what method to use to mount it. That seems like it should be easy, but it’s often not. The other big challenge is more of a software or training issue: learning how to find the dot when you’re shooting. Let’s tackle that one first.
Finding The Dot
In particular, the presentation is often the tough part — getting the gun on target, either from the holster or from a ready position. The shooter looks through the window and they don’t see the dot right away. They have to move the gun around and hunt for it. This problem is unique to pistol optics. With a long gun, you’ve got the shoulder mount and the cheek weld that position your eye in the same spot relative to the optic every time you mount the gun. You don’t even have to think about it. You bring up the gun, and the dot is always right there.
With a handgun, we don’t have those third and fourth points of contact. The gun is just kind of floating out there in front of us without a reference point. With iron sights, we can usually see enough of the front sight to clean up our sight picture if we need to. We can’t really get away with that when we’re using a red dot. If we don’t present the gun to the right spot, the dot won’t be visible at all when we look through the window.
n a pistol with an optic and iron sights, we can kind of cheat. We can find the iron sights first and then look for the dot. That’s really not ideal, though. It doesn’t allow you to take full advantage of the target focus and speed you can get from the dot. The key is to learn how to draw directly to the same spot every time so the dot is just there.
There are a few different ways to learn how to overcome this issue. I’m not going to get into that today. You can look up one of those instructors I mentioned for that info. For right now, the question is not whether you can learn to find the dot, it’s whether you will. If you’re going to make the transition from irons to optics, you have to be willing and able to put in some work. Fortunately, most of that work can be done in dry practice. But it takes time and dedication that not everyone wants to commit to.
Another reason this can be challenging is that pistol optics are still a pretty new thing in the firearms training world. If you’re struggling with something specifically red dot related, it can be tough to find an instructor locally who has enough experience in that area to really coach you effectively.
Okay, now back to that hardware issue: getting a dot on your gun. Assuming you already have a pistol that you carry on a regular basis that you can shoot fairly well, ideally, you would just add a red dot to that gun. If it doesn’t have an optics-ready slide, then you’ll have to find out if there’s an optics-ready version of it available from the factory or look into having a custom shop mill the slide for you. For some guns, you can also get an adapter plate that fits into the rear sight dovetail. But that’s really not an ideal way to mount an optic if you can avoid it.
At this point, most modern semi-autos can be milled for a red dot sight. It’s more difficult and expensive for some than for others, but it’s usually possible. The major exceptions are if you’re carrying a true pocket-sized pistol — something like an LCP or a snub nose revolver, you’re probably out of luck. You will have to switch to a different firearm if you want to try a red dot sight. But in a lot of cases, concealment and comfort might trump having the best sighting system available. That’s totally legitimate.
You guys know I am a fan of pocket pistols. They make sense for a lot of situations. Fortunately, laser sights are available for many of those smaller guns and they will give you some of the same advantages you might get from a red dot optic..
That said, in general, if you can, you should probably stick whatever gun you’re already carrying when you try out a red dot. We want to make this transition as smooth as possible. The switch to a red dot is going to be much more challenging if you’re also switching to a totally different handgun model at the same time.
If you’ve been on the fence about the red dot thing, I hope I’ve helped you get a little closer to making a decision. I’m sure I will have plenty more to say about pistol optics in the future as I continue to learn more about using them myself. If you have a question about red dot sights or any other topic you’d like me to cover here, be sure to mention it in the comments, or even better, send me an email via our contact form.