Take a look around the pistol section of a gun store and you’ll see that many of the modern handguns feature some manner of attachment system designed to accommodate a micro or mini red dot. Red dots are skyrocketing in popularity; there’s hardly a new model of handgun released that isn’t compatible with at least one type of reflex sight.
But, just because something is popular doesn’t mean it’s always the best choice. Braced pistols have similarly undergone a meteoric rise in recent years, but that doesn’t make 16” barrels obsolete. Your tools should always match the task at hand, regardless of popularity.
It’s inarguable that red dots do offer certain advantages. Most shooters will see an increase in speed and accuracy with a red dot over traditional iron sights. But, reflex sights are not without their drawbacks either.
Below, we’ll take a look at some of the primary considerations you should weigh before deciding if a red dot is the right choice for your pistol.
Properly aiming your firearm with iron sights involves aligning three different points within your line of sight: your rear sight, your front sight, and your target. To land an effective hit, not only do you have to have your sights properly centered on the target, but you also have to have them properly aligned with each other.
For experienced marksmen, much of this process happens subconsciously. After thousands of rounds, presenting your pistol becomes muscle memory, a proper sight picture becomes almost instinct, and all you really have to focus on for everything short of bullseye shooting is centering your sights on the target. However, a certain amount of time and attention is still being dedicated to maintaining proper sight alignment.
Red dots simplify this process by reducing the aiming equation to two points: the dot, and the target. Assuming your optic is properly zeroed, your shots will land precisely where the dot is located at the moment of ignition, with negligible possibility of misalignment. If you can see the dot, you’re aligned properly enough.
The simplicity of red dot aiming is particularly beneficial to new users, as it removes one of the variables from the shooting process, allowing them to spend more time, effort, and ammo developing other skills, such as perfecting their trigger press.
The aforementioned simplicity lends itself well to fast target engagement. By eliminating one of the variables involved in the shooting process, we shorten the process in its entirety, even if only by fractions of a second. Shaving a few fractions of a second off every shot can add up to significant gains over the course of a match or drill–not to mention the vast importance a few fractions of a second can have in defensive use.
Reflex sights offer other advantages to speed, as well. The bright red or green dot works to draw the eye during target acquisition. Your eye naturally goes to the brightest object in your line of focus; by making the brightest object your aiming point, you can capitalize on this process to hasten your acquisition speed.
This strategy is nothing new or unique to red dots. Competitive marksmen have been using fiber optics for decades to illuminate their front sight to better draw their focus.
Together, the simplified aiming process and the natural advantages of a bright dot as an aiming point combine to achieve faster target acquisition both from the holster and when reacquiring after recoil.
Most users find that reflex sights provide superior feedback during live- and dry-fire training. This is especially beneficial for new and intermediate users, as the improved feedback makes it easier to diagnose the cause of missed shots, flyers, or general inaccuracy.
Part of this is, again, due to the simplified nature of the aiming process. With iron sights, you have to pay attention to how the sights are moving in relation to each other, as well as to the target. With a reflex sight, your only concern is how the dot is moving.
Say your shots are consistently hitting low and left. With iron sights, the cause may be an imperfect trigger press or tightening of the grip during the shot, but it’s also possible that you’re not lining up your sights properly before firing, or that your sight picture is compromised during firing. With a red dot, it’s much easier to diagnose the issue firsthand.
Red dots also provide a smaller, more precise aiming point than most front sight posts, and are viewed against the target rather than in relation to the rear sight. This allows users to see finer variations in movement, giving you a more precise understanding of how your firearm moves.
It goes without saying that red dots are the superior choice for low-light performance. Tritium night sights can be very bright, but they simply can’t match the light output of a battery-powered optic.
The larger advantage to reflex sights is not just low-light capability, though, but all-light capability. Tritium iron sights are perfectly sufficient for most low-light applications. Similarly, fiber optic sights are very effective in bright daylight. The trouble is, you really can’t have both at the same time. There are a few models of irons sights that embed a tritium vial within a fiber optic to try to provide the best of both worlds, and they’re somewhat successful, but such designs cannot be as bright in daylight as pure fiber optic models or as powerful at night as pure tritium.
Reflex sights can be both daylight-bright and nighttime-capable. Some models of reflex sight even auto-adjust to ambient light conditions, ensuring that your dot is always at an appropriate brightness level without any manual input required.
Night vision compatibility should not be overlooked either. Handgun use with NODs is a niche application, but if it’s relevant to your situation, you should seriously consider an NVD-compatible red dot. Passive aiming with iron sights is possible but is an order of magnitude more difficult than using a dot.
The single largest advantage of reflex sights for self-defense and competitive applications is the target-focused approach of the sighting system.
Proper marksmanship with iron sights involves focusing on the front post while aligning your sights and maintaining that focus while centering your sights on the target. For bullseye target practice, that’s easy enough to do–all it requires is a bit of conscious effort.
That process becomes more difficult for action shooting sports like USPSA and IDPA. Now you’re not just focusing on the fundamentals of marksmanship—you’re also remembering target locations and stage rules, tracking your hits in case you need to reengage a target, and many other things. It’s easy to lose focus on the front sight and focus on the target instead.
With a reflex sight, this becomes a non-issue. The proper way to use a reflex sight is not to look at it, the way you do a front sight post, but to look through it. You should be focused on your target while aligning the dot. Since you’ll naturally tend to focus on the subject you’re engaging, rather than the tool you’re using to do it, red dots provide a massive advantage.
This advantage is even more pronounced in defensive applications. Your brain is hardwired to focus on threats. It’s part of our instinct, and while it’s possible to fight that and force your brain to focus on the front sight of your pistol instead, it’s extremely difficult.
Even if, after extensive training, you manage to inoculate yourself against the extreme stress encountered during self-defense and focus on your front sight, doing so gives up a certain amount of situational awareness. You can’t simultaneously be focused on two things; if your front sight is in focus, your target is not.
The target-focused approach offered by reflex sights is massively advantageous in that it doesn’t require copious training to use effectively in self-defense. You’re going to be focused on the target. With iron sights, that’s an impediment. With a red dot, it’s an asset.
Your favorite pistol almost certainly came with iron sights preinstalled. A few handguns are now offered from the factory with reflex sights, but the fact remains, red dots aren’t free. Even if preinstalled from the factory, you’ll usually see a price increase over a plain iron sight model of the same pistol.
In a perfect world, money would be no object when determining what tools we use to protect ourselves, our homes, and our families, but in reality, everyone has a budget. A quality red dot can cost as much or more than a handgun, and in many cases, that’s not even the only cost involved.
If you’re buying a new handgun, an optic-ready model will often come at a premium. Retrofitting an existing gun involves sending the slide off to be milled, drilled, and tapped so that an optic can be mounted. In either case, you may need an adapter plate which adds further cost. If you want to be able to co-witness with your iron sights, you’ll probably have to replace those as well.
All of that adds up to be a considerable investment, but if the advantages to be gained by getting a reflex sight appeal to you, then that’s exactly what you should think of it as: an investment. It can be a large amount up front but offers the potential to make your future practice better, faster, and more accurate.
Additionally, some of the cost can be offset by opting for a more affordable reflex sight, such as our SLx® RS-10 or the Mini and Micro reflex sights in our Classic Series®.
Red dots are very intuitive and easy to learn to use, but they do require a certain amount of retraining. During your first shots after installing a reflex sight, you may find yourself wiggling your gun slightly as you try to find the red dot in your optic’s window, especially if firing off the draw.
This is a common issue, and it’s one that’s easily solved by training, but the fact remains that becoming proficient with a new sighting system will require you to put in the hours.
If you’ve already spent years training to be effective with your iron sights, it can be tempting to dismiss red dots as a novelty gadget or a fad. It’s hard to move on from a system you spent hundreds of hours and possibly thousands of dollars mastering.
However, a sunk cost is a poor reason to ignore the positives offered by red dots. Marksmen who have become effective with iron sights generally find that they are even more capable with red dots, after spending a few range sessions getting used to the new optic. Good skills are good skills: there may be a rocky acclimation period, but afterward, you’ll likely find yourself performing better than ever.
Adding a red dot to your handgun comes with similar challenges to adding a weapon light. There are so many different models of handguns and optics that it can be difficult to find holsters that fit your specific combination, especially if you have a weapon light installed as well.
Additionally, not all handguns will accept all reflex sights, even those with “universal” mounting systems. Some handguns may not be able to be cut for certain screw patterns or attachment systems due to insufficient slide material or the location of internal components. Handguns that use adapter plates are often more versatile, but even they can be limited by the total length of their optic cut.
Compatibility isn’t the same issue for every setup, though. If you’re attaching a popular optic to a popular pistol, such as a Holosun HS507C-X2 on a GLOCK 19 MOS, you won’t need to look very far to find compatible gear. However, if you’re milling an old-model pistol or using a less-popular optic platform, you might also need to invest in a custom holster.
Not every handgun is for carry, but if you plan to conceal yours, you ought to consider the effect a reflex sight will have. Adding a red dot to your gun means increasing its overall size and weight.
With some micro red dots, the additional bulk may be negligible. Others, such as closed emitter models like the Holosun 509T, are much larger. Either may cause an increase in printing or overall visibility, depending on your firearm and how you carry. Those who carry strong-side will generally have more of an issue with concealability than appendix carriers, although a canted holster can sometimes cause the optic to sit below the waistband, eliminating the problem.
One of the biggest concerns the firearms community at large has about micro and mini reflex sights is durability. The common perception is that adding an electronic sight increases the potential chance for failure, offsetting the increased performance. Glass lenses can break, mounting screws can come loose, and batteries can die. Iron sights, on the other hand, are rugged, infallible bits of metal.
That’s the perception, but reality doesn’t quite match up. Red dots can and do fail, but so do iron sights. However, while all failures are bad, not all failures are equal.
What matters most are catastrophic failures–instances that render your firearm unable to be effectively aimed. A complete malfunction of your red dot so that it stops emitting light would be a catastrophic failure.
The most common culprit is kinetic damage, either from a fall or some other sort of impact. With sufficient force, red dot lenses can crack, but so too can iron sights be broken or shifted off-center. The average concealed handgun carrier is unlikely to encounter conditions sufficient to break either.
Still, concerns remain about other potential sources of failure, such as a battery dying or an electronic malfunction.
Battery failure can be almost entirely avoided by regular maintenance. Most modern reflex sights measure their battery life in tens of thousands of hours, meaning that if you change your battery even just once a year, you’ll never have to worry about running out of juice.
That leaves us with electronic malfunction. It’s a valid concern, but one that’s been overexaggerated by subpar optics. Spontaneous electronic failures in quality optics are extremely rare, so there is little reason to be concerned with them. You could have your optic randomly fail at the exact moment you need it, just like your ammunition could fail to ignite when you pull the trigger. Both are possible, but so long as you buy quality products, neither is likely enough to justify concern.
However, electronic failures caused by moisture are worthy of consideration, especially in optics that are not fully sealed. A pistol carried inside the waistband all day is going to come into contact with a certain amount of sweat and oil from your skin, especially if you live in a warm climate. Your sight may also encounter lubricants or solvents during cleaning.
For that reason, open-bottom optics like the Trijicon RMR should be used with a sealing plate when mounted on a pistol. Optics that use a fully sealed design are usually sufficiently water resistant to make sweat or gun oil a non-issue.
After durability, misalignment feedback is probably the most common complaint regarding pistol-mounted red dots. With iron sights, when your sights are misaligned, it’s immediately clear how they are misaligned. If your front sight is high, for example, you know you need to lower it.
With a red dot, if you are sufficiently misaligned such that the dot is not visible in the optic’s window, it’s not always immediately obvious what the issue is. A quick glance at your iron sights or down the length of your slide will usually give you the answer, but that does take a second longer, and as we previously covered, sometimes seconds count.
The primary solution for this is training. The more you practice and drill with your reflex sight, the better you will get at presenting your pistol with the dot properly located in the window. So long as the dot is somewhere within the window, it’s easy enough to see how you need to adjust to center it perfectly.
That’s how it works under ideal conditions, but sadly, not all shots can be taken under ideal conditions. Engaging a target from an unorthodox position, such as under a car or with your non-dominant hand, can make it impossible to complete a perfect draw and presentation. No matter how well you train, there is always going to be some scenario you are not prepared for.
Backup iron sights can help alleviate the issue, but a purpose-designed reticle like our ACSS® Vulcan® can eliminate it entirely. Backup irons sights provide a second point of alignment feedback; if the dot isn’t in the window, you can glance at your iron sights, see how they are misaligned, correct it, and acquire your dot. The entire process takes less than a second.
With the ACSS Vulcan, your eyes never leave your red dot or your target.
The Vulcan uses a large outer reference circle that is not visible during proper sight alignment, but becomes visible when your firearm is misaligned, indicating how it is misaligned. The function is similar to iron sights; instead of seeing how your front post is positioned relative to your rear sight, you’ll see a fraction of a circle. The direction of the curve indicates how you are misaligned, allowing you to correct and engage just as fast, if not faster, than with iron sights.
This last aspect is not a fault in red dot sights themselves, but rather in certain users. Astigmatism refers to a malformation of the eye, which causes red dots to be imperfectly perceived. The exact nature of the imperfection will vary from person to person.
The most common form is a starburst effect around the perimeter of the dot. In some users, this is only a minor annoyance, but for others, it can obscure the target and make it difficult to see the exact center of the dot, reducing precision. Other users may see multiple dots, or a streak of light instead of a round dot.
Many users with astigmatism still find red dots to be a net improvement to their ability to engage targets quickly and accurately. Still, in some extreme cases, astigmatism can cause red dots to be a greater hindrance than an asset.
Pistol red dots are surging in popularity, and for good reason, but they are not a panacea for every user. Handgun carriers who prize concealability above all else may not find the increased footprint to be worth the tradeoff. Those with astigmatism may simply not be able to use red dots at all.
For the average user though, handgun red dots represent the next level of shooting technology, which may become the standard within the next decade, just as rifle-mounted optics have.