Pistol-mounted red dots: useful tool or distraction?
Red dot optics on pistols are nothing new. I was at a local USPSA match circa 1995 when World Champion Jerry Barnhart showed up with a prototype red dot sight on his compensated 1911. That optic became the Bushnell Holosight, which then became the EOTech HWS. But competition shooters had been mounting Aimpoints and other red dot optics on their pistols for close to a decade by that time.
Red dot optics small and durable enough to put on carry guns, however, are relatively new.
Optics manufacturers by the 1990s had begun to make their optics durable enough to survive practical pistol competition and as a result they were seeing combat use on ARs by elite units, such as the Aimpoints fielded by Delta Force in Mogadishu in 1993.
Sights like the CMore Serendipity (which everyone just calls the CMore) have for years been more than durable enough to handle the rigors of tens of thousands of practice rounds a year. And battery life keeps improving. But those larger sights are mounted on the pistol's frame.
Modern micro red dot sights are small enough that they can be mounted on carry guns, and those guns remain small enough to conceal. I'm talking about optics such as the Docter, Trijicon RMR, and Leupold Delta Point. However, these sights are mounted on the slide of the pistol, which is a whole new level of crazy. An optic mounted on a reciprocating pistol's slide experiences 10,000 Gs every time the trigger is pulled. For comparison, a steady 10 Gs is usually more than enough to make a person pass out. The NHTSA standard for a sudden impact acceleration that would cause severe injury or death 50% of the time is 75 Gs. Ten thousand Gs would turn your brain to jelly, so electronics tough enough to survive that kind of abuse have to be damn tough.
Sounds like a lot of work. So why do people even bother with red dot sights?
Anyone who has ever thrown a red dot on an AR can see the immediate benefit. Instead of lining up the front sight with the rear sight with the target as you have to do with iron sights, (all the while keeping the front sight in focus), with a red dot all you have to do is put the dot on the target and pull the trigger.
To a certain extent, the same thing is true for red dot sights on pistols. All things being equal, due to the higher visibility and easier sight alignment of a red dot versus iron sights (dot on target, pull trigger), a red dot will be a few hundredths of a second faster for each shot--if you're intimately familiar with the pistol and optic. Remember that caveat, because it's important.
For those competition shooters to whom a hundredth of a second can mean the difference between winning and being first loser, any advantage, no matter how small, makes a difference. The average USPSA match requires firing over a hundred rounds, and a few hundredths of a second multiplied by 100+ adds up.
The second reason red dot sights on pistols are popular is their visibility. I remember going shooting with my father when he was 50. He kept tilting his head up and down...because he had trifocal eyeglasses at that time, and was trying to decide what he wanted to focus on. For many people whose eyesight is aging, they just can't get that front sight in focus. A red dot sight solves that problem. The red dot is on the same focal plane as the target. You simply put the dot on the target and pull the trigger. I've inherited my father's eyesight and in just a few years will be 50 myself, so this is not simply a theoretical problem for me. How the heck did I get so old?
Also, don't forget their utility in low-light situations. If you don't have night sights on your pistol and it's too dark to see them, a red dot optic will provide you with a very bright red dot, which is even easier to see in low light conditions.
And yet for all the tactical gurus suddenly discovering the value of red dot sights on pistols and advocating their use on carry guns, I don't think they're a good idea for 99% of the people out there.
Why? Simply put, unless you practice your draw as much as an avid competition shooter, so that when the gun comes up the sights are automatically on the target, a red dot-equipped pistol will actually be slower to get on target.
I've seen it probably a hundred times--someone shooting a red dot-sighted pistol brings it up.. .and then begins twisting it this way and that, trying to find the dot in the window. You can watch the front of the gun doing a figure 8--in the business it's called the IPSC wobble. This is why most pistol manufacturers making a red dot ready pistol equip the pistol with taller iron sights.
These types of sights were developed for use with a suppressor, but they work with mini red dots in that they are tall enough to be used through the window of the sight. Those tall iron sights help you get the gun pointed close enough to the right direction for the red dot to appear in the window. Roughly line up the iron sights, and the red dot magically appears. Then put the dot on the target and pull the trigger. But, does that sound faster than just using the iron sights?
Once you fire--if you're using a standard carry gun-- that red dot jumps up out of the window and disappears from view. If you have a good grip and stance, when the pistol comes back down out of recoil the red dot will probably be visible once again in the window. Probably. If not you'll have to line up the sights to get the red dot into view.
See, the thing with the competition pistols mounting red dots, they're all equipped with compensators (muzzle brakes) and are big and heavy to boot, which means that there is much less disturbance of the sight picture than you'll get with a non-ported carry gun. Their recoil is often so tamed the red dot never leaves the window; it just wiggles like on an AR.
Why is it so much harder using a red dot on a pistol? When using a rifle your head remains in the same spot behind the sights, cheek pressed against the stock. With a pistol, you do not have that extra point of contact. The red dot stays in your field of view when firing an AR, just like on a competition pistol.
Also, that sight body prevents you from looking over the top of the pistol and pointing it at the target. As an example, the long, flat top of a Glock slide is like a runway, and it helps the shooter point the pistol at the target before the sights even come into focus. It is much harder--if not impossible--to do this with a slide-mounted red dot.
Advocates of red dots on carry guns will say that in a gunfight people are usually focused on the bad guy, and that red dot is on the same focal plane as the bad guy. I believe most people in stressful social encounters will be looking over the top of their handgun at the threat and be aware of their sights even if they're not actually using them, especially if the gunfight is at the average 6-8 foot distance. A red dot inhibits your ability to look over the top of the gun and point it.
If you are intimately familiar with both sighting systems and have practiced your draw until your sights/red dot pop onto the target every time, then red dots are very slightly (a few hundredths of a second for each shot) quicker in competition where you have multiple rounds on multiple targets. However, most defensive encounters are at short range and involve only one bad guy. If you happen to get into a gunfight where a half dozen bad guys line up in a row and don't start running when the shooting starts, then maybe a red dot will give you a slight speed advantage.
At least one big-name tactical trainer has stated that you can shoot a red dot-equipped pistol more accurately than you can an identical pistol with iron sights. You might be surprised to hear he sells carry guns with red dots on them. I would agree--if you can't see your front sight any more. However, if you can still get that front sight into focus I believe iron sights are at least as accurate as a dot if not more so.
Iron sights have sharp corners and crisp edges as opposed to most red dots, which are only vaguely round. If you follow the "equal height, equal light" school of iron sight alignment you'd be surprised at the distances at which you can get hits. In fact, I would say that a crisp and lighter than factory trigger will improve your chances of hitting a target much more so than mounting a red dot. This tactical trainer selling expensive red dot-sighted Glocks keeps the factory triggers in them.
Glock factory triggers are designed to be heavy and long enough that people with only rudimentary training are not likely to shoot themselves--which means they're not ideal. Most shooters raised in the Glock age have no idea what an actual light crisp trigger feels like--but it ain't a Glock factory trigger.
One caveat: a friend I spoke to told me he took a number of women to the range for training, and they all shot more accurately with a red dot-sighted pistol than ones with iron sights. These were all new shooters, still unfamiliar with sight alignment and trigger control. They were more accurate with the red dots--but slower. If you're that new to handgun shooting, maybe a red dot is easier to learn with. However, someone looking for a carry gun--much less one topped by a red dot--should have basic gunhandling skills already down.
During the first season of the Sportsman Channel TV show Handguns & Defensive Weapons we had a three-way competition between my co-host Rich Nance, me, and our guest Dave Spaulding, who is a nationally recognized firearms trainer. We all shot a plate rack for time using a Smith & Wesson M&P 9mm with iron sights, then shot it again using an identical pistol, except the second pistol was mounting a Trijicon RMR. All of us are very good shots (heck, we do this for a living) and I would bet that we shoot more than most avid shooters. And all three of us were faster using iron sights.
If you have a carry pistol with a red dot or want one, there is only one thing you can do to ensure it gives you that advantage you are hoping for--practice. Practice your draw and presentation until that red dot is visible not just in the window, but also on the target every single time. And you're better off practicing five minutes a day every day than half an hour once a week.
Do I advocate one brand over another? I don't have enough experience putting rounds downrange on red dot-sighted pistols to answer that, so I went to the experts--avid competitive shooters I know who run mini red dot sights on their pistols. Most of them are running Trijicon RMRs, and most of the rest are running Leupold DeltaPoints.
"Papa" Joe Rutkowski, who should be a Master-Class USPSA shooter if he wasn't such a sandbagger, fires thousands of rounds in competition every year. Last time I saw him he was running a Trijicon RMR on top of his USPSA Open gun, and now he's testing out a new German-made Docter. He told me, "I've broken every type of sight there is except the Leupold DeltaPoint. And I like it because it has a bigger window. But now they've changed the design with the DeltaPoint 2 so I don't know if it'll be as durable."
Trijicon is local to me, and I heard from a little birdie a few years ago that SOF-D (as in Delta Force) was breaking their AR-mounted RMRs so Trijicon did an electronics upgrade product improvement that they never made public--but the public has benefitted from it. I've also heard good things about the made-in-Germany Docter sights, as differentiated from the made-in-wherever Docters sold by some companies.
Most carry guns will never see the round count that Delta Force weapons or competition pistols experience, but rest assured your red dot is durable enough to take it. If you simply can't see iron sights any more, a red dot will help you shoot pistols once again. As for a red dot being faster or better on a carry gun than iron sights, I just don't think that's the case.