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Pistol Red Dot Considerations

Red dots have made their way into the mainstream. So much so that many consumers are now criticizing new guns that don't come "red dot ready". There's so much industry pressure now that it seems like this shift is as necessary as the move to smokeless powder.



Why or Why Not? If you've not coughed out the cash to try one yet we can't blame you. Though prices have come down, it's an easy $200-$400+ investment assuming the pistol you've got is ready to accept a dot AND the mounting footprint is compatible. Before getting into that mess let's look at the basics about dots.


Pros:

  • Simplified Aiming. This is the biggest reason. Once the proper presentation height is learned you need only ensure the dot appears on the target, hold the pistol steady, and fire. Once learned this is much quicker and simpler than aligning iron sights. The human eye only wants to focus on one thing at a time. With red dots you can focus on the target while acknowledging the dot versus focusing on the front sight while aligning a blurred rear sight and tracking a blurred target. Red dot shooting can be more instinctive and quicker to learn than traditional iron sights.

  • Age-Defying, Eye Doctor. We've already covered the core ways red dots make sighting simpler, but this effect is amplified for those with imperfect vision. For the far-sighted a red dot can make a difference because your eyes are focused at target distance.

  • "Sight Radius" Be Gone! No longer does having a short-barreled pistol mean it's tougher to aim. This ironically makes smaller guns very tempting to make bigger by mounting a dot to them.

Cons:

  • Added Expense. Most modern pistols come ready for dots, but you've still got to find a dot and possibly any adapter plates needed to mount it on your pistol. Some pistols won't require an adapter, and some come with a dot included. Regardless of which way you start, you'll need to be sure the dot and pistol you chose are compatible. There are four main footprints (and a number of exceptions) that most modern dots follow.

  • Added Failure Point. This one is a point of contention. Modern dots have become incredibly reliable and feature battery lifespans measured in years, but they remain an electronic that could fail. In the event of failure there are a number of work-arounds that may or may not solve your issue depending on application. Most arguments for defensive use drill down to "point shooting" or simply using the frame of the optic to aim through for an approximate shot.

  • New Gear = New Training As with anything, you'll need to learn your equipment. Depending on your particular sight and pistol combination you may find you need to relearn firearm presentation height. The dot rides on top of the gun. Bring the gun up as if to aim through iron sights and the dot will likely be too high. The more time you have with iron sights the more you'll have to break the habit. It's not impossible, just a fact of changing equipment.

Not all Roses and Sunshine Depending on your intended application (ie range vs carry vs home defense) red dots are generally a smart upgrade. There have however been a few instances which made us take pause before going all-in with dots. These are isolated incidents, and all happened with different dots, but they did highlight some of the risk to becoming completely dependent on dots.

  • A speck of ash was all it took to create our first failure encounter. While reviewing a red-dot equipped pistol during one of Oregon's forest fires we noticed a sudden change with our dot. The dot was clear one shot, then a starburst the next, then clear again, then gone. At first we thought the device itself had failed. Upon closer examination we found a speck of ash had landed on the emitter. It was nothing to blow it off and continue shooting, but an alarming reminder of how susceptible a red dot could be to foreign debris, and how immediately disabling the experience felt. What about carry lint? dust or dirt in a fight? Not every dot is designed as openly as that one was, but that openness is also what made it so easy to clear.

  • No Shooting for Four Hours: Another time, with a completely different dot and pistol, I was out to group and test a gun for a magazine article (the gun never appeared on the channel). After setting up the target and chronograph I took my position to shoot and could see nothing other than a burst of lights on the window. Everything had been fine just moments before, and while holding the gun pointed towards the ground, but as soon as I leveled on target the dot burst into half a dozen pieces. It wasn't until I tried pointing the pistol in other directions that I figured out what happened. The sun! On that day, in that location, at that time, and in that direction the sun was angled just right to overpower the emitter and make the dot useless. I could turn 30 degrees and see the dot, but no matter what could not aim downrange and see the dot. We ended up waiting four hours for the earth's rotation to make the dot visible in that direction again. That may have been the only date/time/location combination I'll ever encounter that produces those results, but were I to have been at a competition or trying to protect my life I'd have been stuck aiming in a general direction unable to make a precise shot.

  • Rain/Snow rendered Teya's dot nearly useless when we attended Thunder Ranch late December, 2021. The large, soft flakes that began to fall has made contact with her lens and somewhat melted turning the whole lens into a blurry mess. The tactics crowd says in an instance like this you can simply use the window as a general aiming device, or use backup irons (which her pistol had) however since she couldn't see clearly through the lens neither of those options worked. Teya's solution was to use the whole lens as an aiming point and shoot with a rough aiming solution. This worked as we were just making body shots and at close range, but should the situation have called for a precise shot she'd have been out of luck.

  • Quitting Without Warning A pistol I had in for another magazine article came equipped with a dot. I completed the review and was impressed enough with the experience to add the gun to my carry rotation. While picking up the gun for its maiden voyage on my hip I checked the dot to find the battery had lasted only long enough for my review and had since gone out. Luckily I had the time and option to grab another gun before heading out the door, but the moment hung with me. How do you really know when the dot will die? Modern dots advertise tremendous battery life, but that's assuming the battery you have is a good one. What if it had been good the moment I checked and then the dot died as I headed out the door? I consider myself highly trained (16 handgun courses from 4 different schools) but drawing under duress to find my dot is dead is not something I've trained for. Would it really matter at defensive distances?

Is it worth it? So far I can't say I'm converted. All four of our failure experiences would not have been failures with classic iron sights. If you're looking to shoot tighter groups during good weather red dots are the way. If you've got vision challenges red dots can also be the solution, but they certainly aren't without risk.

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