In the scope of invention history, it wasn’t all that long ago that our predecessors had a big argument about newfangled contraptions intended to be stuck on rifles.
“So, you’re telling me that I’m supposed to attach a telescope to my rifle?”
“Yep. You’ll see better and be able to hit targets consistently from much farther away.”
“Sounds dumb. The glass is gonna break before it falls right off and it’ll probably give my horse bunions. Nothing will ever be as reliable as my iron sights!”
Yes, that happened, and with the possible exception of horse-bunion syndrome, that was the net-net of the argument. Few except some early adopters believed that some new invention could match the utility and reliability of iron sights, which had been in use for at least 19 billion years.
More recently, there was a decade or so of griping about how laser sights on handguns could never work. They’re electronic, and therefore prone to ill-tempered behavior, they would certainly break the minute they left the store, and the batteries would run dry at the worst possible moment 119% of the time and they're huge! Yet, here we are. You can hammer nails into a railroad tie with many of today's lasers, and I know a few rifle scopes that could do the job too. They’ve become a normal and accepted piece of gear, even by Delta Ninja Seal Operator types—and they're pretty serious about reliability.
So what’s next on the “it’s dumb and can’t possibly work better” horizon? Optical sights on handguns.
They’re not entirely new. Competitors have been using them with great success for years. What is a bit newer is the idea of regular people like you and I using them for concealed carry and home defense handguns. So, given the controversy, let’s take a look at some of the pros and cons of mounting an optical sight on a handgun intended for more than recreational or competitive use.
First, let’s be clear about what we’re talking about. For purposes of this article, let’s define handgun optics as red dot or holographic sights—a tube or window, mounted to the top of your pistol slide or revolver frame, that projects a red dot in the middle of the viewing area.
As a single dot sighting system, you simply place the dot where you want the projectile to strike and press the trigger. There’s no front to back alignment nor is it all that important for your head to be perfectly lined up with the optic. If you can see the dot, and it’s on your target, things are gonna work unless you jerk the gun off target as you fire. It’s really, really simple and foolproof.
• Aiming with a red dot is supremely easy. You don’t have to worry about lining up three different things: rear sight, front sight, and the target. If you see the dot, you're done.
• If you suffer from aging eyes and that front sight is getting harder and harder to see clearly, you’ll love a red dot. The ability to see it and pick it up quickly with or without glasses is a non-issue.
• It’s great in daylight, low-light, and dark conditions. Tritium-powered night sights do glow in the dark, but aren’t particularly bright unless it’s really, really dark.
• Red dot sights allow you to focus on your target. Human nature causes us to naturally focus on a threat and not the front sight, so this approach supports, rather than fights, our instinct.
• It takes some practice to “find the dot.” Hold this thought; we’ll offer some learnings in a bit.
• It’s electronic, and in theory, can break. The same goes for the glass or polymer “lens” although most will continue to work even if cracked as the dot is projected onto that surface.
• You’ve gotta be an adult and remember to change the batteries as recommended, so the optic doesn’t stop working at an inopportune time.
• If you plan to carry, it makes your gun larger. That might make concealment a bit more difficult.
• You might need to choose or modify an existing holster to work with the optic sight attached. I had to do a few minutes of filing work on the Kydex holster I use for the FN pistol, shown here.
Comparing Iron Sights and Red Dots on the Range
I wanted to see how the two approaches compared for me, so I devised some trials to give optic sights a fair shot.
I happen to have an FN FNX 45 Tactical Pistol that’s equipped out of the box for mounting optical sights, so it’s very easy to shoot with or without the sight attached. I picked up a Trijicon RMR sight for my experiments.
Since I’ve been shooting for years with iron sights, I dedicated some practice time up front to working with the optical sight so I could make an apples to apples comparison.
The first thing I found while practicing raising the pistol to target was that I tended to angle the muzzle up. Because I was focusing on the optical sight lens, I found myself raising the gun differently and I had to focus on pushing down the front sight to bring the dot into my sight picture. I think this was because my eye was wanting to focus on the rear of the pistol where the optic was mounted rather than the muzzle where the front iron sight lives.
There’s an easy fix for this. Don’t look for the dot. Keep on raising your gun and look for the front sight as always. You’ll find the dot will appear all on its own. This was the most significant learning “habit” to recognize and address. If you forget you have a red dot, you’ll find that dot naturally. If you focus on looking for it, you’ll tend to get wrapped around the axle.
Test & Evaluation
Once I got the hang of the setup over some home drills and range plinking sessions, I decided to formalize my comparisons to see how the optic compared to iron sights. [Using a shot timer[(http://www.range365.com/how-to-use-shot-timer), I ran through lots of timed “raise and shoot” scenarios to see which was faster for me. My target was a six-inch steel plate ten yards down range. I started from a low ready position with the pistol pointed at the ground about ten feet in front of me. I didn’t draw from a holster because I wanted to focus on just the speed of lining up sights on target and making a shot.
Using my shot timer, I counted hits only as I wanted to focus on time differences between successful shots on target. This approach of counting hits only forced me to slow down just a bit to the point where I was getting a hit, with either approach, nearly every time.
What did I find? After coming home and dumping all my notes and times into a spreadsheet, the overall overage time to raise, sight, fire, and hit the plate using iron sights was 1.26 seconds. When using the Trijicon RMR, the overall average time was just .96 seconds. That’s about a 24% speed improvement. Adding the subjective observation, I felt that I was shooting more accurately with less effort using the red dot.
While I didn’t go through the timing routine at longer distances, I did find that this accuracy and speed advantage increased with range. The farther out the target, the faster I was able to make hits using the optic.
One other observation was that I was easily able to spot shooting technique errors. If the black-on-black front and rear sights move while I'm breaking a shot, that's not so easy to see. With the red dot, you'll know before the shot fires if you messed up and moved the gun.
What I also found was that the closer and larger the target, the less valuable the optical sight was. When going for blistering speed at a target too close to miss, I actually shot better without the optic.
Being honest about the scenario, I was instinctively point shooting along the slide rather than using my iron sights anyway, so trying to use the red dot slowed me down. Something I’ll have to experiment with over time is using the optical sight window like I use the top of the slide at extremely close distances. Like a red dot tube on a modern sporting rifle, at very close range you can simply look through the window and forget about the dot. Will that help? Time will tell.
Your mileage will almost certainly vary. All of our eyes are different, and the way they interact with our brains varies. These results were obvious for me. As one of those folks who is facing the “front sights getting blurry” challenge, it’s possible that I might have experienced a more dramatic difference than my 20-year-old self would have seen.
All in all, I’m rapidly becoming a fan. With the red dot, I have a lot of confidence in my ability to precisely place shots with speed - noticeably more so than with iron sights. I also really like how the red dot approach supports the instinct to focus on the target or threat. Sure, you can train around anything with enough repetition, but if an option that reinforces your natural instinct is available, why not take advantage of it?