The Reality of a Red Dot Sight
Ever since man first mixed black powder and made a gun we have been working on them—modifying them and improving them. We have worked on better powder, better projectiles, better guns, and better sights. We have also worked hard on the other half of the system—the human end—which comes down to training and practices. Every invention on the gun has required us to invent new practices and new ways to teach them: red dot sights, on any weapon platform, are no different.
The Red Dot Sight (RDS) is the most recent wide-spread change in handguns…or more accurately, the RDS bleed over from rifles and competition handguns is the most recent change.
There was no doubt the change was coming. A red-dot-sighted rifle is no more accurate than an iron-sighted one…but it sure is easier to learn and easier to use in adverse conditions like moving targets, moving shooters, low or variable lighting, less than ideal body positions, and, well—stress.
Basically, a red dot sight makes it easier.
And that’s why we want them on handguns—to make things easier. Handguns are already harder than rifles. They offer fewer contact surfaces, slower rounds, and a more unstable platform. Now, add in the adverse conditions we talked about, like, say you are a cop armed with a handgun, clearing a building, or searching for a subject who has fled on foot… Yes, I’ll take any advantage, any small bit of EASIER that I can get.
Which leads us to red dot sights (RDS) or micro red dot sights (MRDS) mounted on handguns. Competition shooters paved the way, starting with low-powered scopes and early RDS, constantly testing for a small leg up, for any piece of an advantage. The manufacturers also kept redesigning and building, fixing the two major problems with red dot sights—battery and fragility.
One of the biggest technological advancements manufacturers have taken advantage of is batteries. Batteries have made advancements from the old AA and AAA alkaline batteries to today’s lithium-ion batteries. Modern RDS and especially MRDS utilize tiny coin-sized batteries which deal out a trickle of power evenly and have a shelf life of a decade or more.
Battery life has been a plague on everything driven by batteries. So much so that even the reason a clock ticks is to save battery life. Seiko invented the second hand ticking every second as a way to extend the life of a battery on the very first quartz watch in 1969.
RDS manufacturers have gone to the same great lengths to get more time out of each battery. They keep using more and more advanced LEDs for lighting, they use dual and, in some cases, triple sources of light (LEDs, tritium tubes, and fiber optics to gather ambient light).
They have also gone to using a cutoff switch which detects motion and cuts off when the sight (and the gun) sits still long enough. That way the power is only being used when the gun is in use and not when it’s not needed. Other methods have been to ramp down the brightness in low light, not just to save power but also to give a better sight picture—a twofold benefit.
Shelf life is important. Did you ever buy a new watch and have it die within a month? Most likely the watch sat on a shelf for a while, and the battery sat for a while before that. By the time that watch made it to your wrist, it was already on its last legs. When that watch died it probably made you late. An RDS dying on a defensive handgun…. well, those results could be worse.
The other issue with red dot sights is fragility. Well, it’s been worked on by the best of the best—the military. From the first time a soldier bolted an RDS onto a rifle, the issue of fragility, or rather—durability, has been tested by the largest, roughest, and best-funded group imaginable. They have made it well worth the efforts of RDS manufacturers to build products that withstand a beating, not break, and hold a zero. Companies like Aimpoint and Trijicon have seriously stepped up and built rifle sights so tough they have become staples in every military in the world.
Certainly, they have solved the durability issue for RDS rifle sights, even tested them on shotguns. But a pistol is another issue. I’ve heard it said that the recoil impulse of an AR15/ M16 generates more G’s than the catapult-assisted launch of a jet from the deck of an aircraft carrier. That seems to be stretching things, but there’s no doubt a handgun puts substantial punishment on a red dot sight.
A slide-mounted micro RDS sight must withstand more than that on its sudden rearward motion, the sudden stop, the return ride back to battery, and the sudden stop there.
I was the first officer in my area to adopt an RDS mounted on my patrol carbine.
I saw what successes the military had with theirs and I adopted one after what felt to me like a long standoff with a murder suspect in variable light
Following the old adage of buying once and crying once, I went with an Aimpoint Comp M3 in a SWAN mount. It worked extremely well and still to this day the same sight rides my rifle even though it now sits in a LARUE mount. Over a decade of service out of an electronic piece of gear. Aimpoint has more than earned my money, and the money of several other officers who followed suit and put Aimpoints on their rifles.
Micro RDS sights have followed behind.
I delayed getting into a pistol-mounted RDS specifically until there was an option tough enough to risk my life on. I’d had successes and failures with the Aimpoint on my rifle and I wasn’t going into it blind.
Then I saw a video of a shooter testing and basically abusing a Trijicon RMR type 2. I had a slide and barrel from Grey Ghost Precision and I ordered the RMR type 2 to drop on it.
Before I even considered running an RDS on a pistol I had to make sure the gun it was going on was 100%. I built the Grey Ghost up and dropped on some suppressor height sights from Ameriglo. Ameriglo makes my absolute FAVORITE handgun sights for a duty gun in their CAP series.
So, when I went looking for sights for the new gun, I went with the company that had done me right. The Grey Ghost ran perfectly, eating every type of 9mm ammo I threw at it, including aluminum and even steel cased ammo. It wasn’t just a good gun; it was an outstanding one.
For any company to build a slide that runs as well as a factory Glock, that’s one thing, but for it to run flawlessly and to be an improvement in accuracy, that’s a high bar.
I mounted the RMR type 2 and I specifically chose the non-adjustable version. I haven’t heard anything bad about it but I didn’t want the rubber side button. I knew from experience it could be a wear point, so I avoided the issue altogether. I bolted the RMR on and adjusted the sight to match the irons. I followed the instructions and let it sit for a full day before I took it to the range.
Now, if you want one of the hardest things to do in shooting, try zeroing a pistol.
I mean really zeroing. If you want to do it properly you bolt the thing into a ransom rest and take out the human component. If you don’t have that you do the next best thing and use sandbags, patience, repeated shots, and time.
The whole process went smoothly and I fine-tuned the RDS to exactly the point of impact at 25 yards. Then we went back the next day and confirmed it with fresh eyes.
That’s when the fun started.
We had the equipment ready, now it was time to work on the shooter. An RDS on a pistol makes precision easier, but you pay for it in the speed. Like all problems, it helped me to look for the reason before looking for the solution. After some thought and practice, I think I figured it out. It was because my body was trying to shoot iron sights.
Basically, during the extension of the pistol, I would catch the front sight in my vision and as I completed the extension, I would track the front sight into the rear notch. Now I had worked for years to prevent “dolphining” during my extension where you run the muzzle off target and high to see the front sight then tip the gun down at the very end.
So, I bolted on a laser and found I wasn’t tracking off target with an iron-sighted gun. Yet when I tried the RDS sighted gun I had a significant upward bob at the end of my extension and I had to HUNT the dot.
I spent about a week trying to figure out the why until it dawned on me. I was subconsciously looking for the front sight and when I didn’t see it because the hood of the front sight obscured it, I thought I was muzzle low and I overcompensated by raising the muzzle high. It was always the same—the muzzle was high every time.
I fixed it by practicing my draw and extension and pointing my HANDS LOW. I would set up my dry fire target and during each draw, I would AIM my HANDS about six to eight inches below where I aimed my eyes. I continued practicing that until my natural draw had the dot right where I wanted it.
I found a duty holster that would work and got a CCW holster that would work and I put the Grey Ghost to use. My first qualification with the RDS-equipped Grey Ghost was on one of the hottest days of the year and I was sick to my stomach.
Now the state qualification isn’t hard. What it requires is focus. Focus on the front sight and press. You focus on each and every shot and a 100% score is going to happen. What is hard is getting that fine focus on your front sight in 100% humidity, in 120-degree weather on the range, when you are about to lose your lunch. Grey Ghost and an RDS to the rescue. I shot 100%.
It honestly surprised me. Now it was ready for the road.
The VERY first time it came out of the holster at work it easily proved its worth.
We pulled up on a fleeing subject and blocked him in. It was low light, and with the headlights of my work vehicle it was worse—it was heavily variable light with extreme dark right next to extreme bright.
The gun came out of the holster before I was completely out of the vehicle, my pistol-mounted light (Surefire X300UB) turned on and the dot appeared in my vision directly over the bad guy’s heart. He went hands up and my partner at the time cuffed him up no problem. It was easier than doing the same thing with irons.
Since then the Grey Ghost has been a constant companion.
I only rarely swap out to anything else to carry. I do, on special occasions, carry a nice big revolver with a suit, and sometimes when I’m on vacation I may carry a small revolver, but the chances are I have the Grey Ghost on my hip. I transitioned from patrol to investigations and the Grey Ghost came right over. On duty or off, this has been my go-to gun.
I’d like to say it has been perfect, but there have been slight hiccups. One was a bad 9mm round. Just wouldn’t fire. Another was a holster issue, I scrapped that thing and moved on. And a full two years and several months after I first mounted the RDS the battery monster reared its ugly head. It didn’t get low or flicker. No warning at all…. I went to load up for the workday and it was dead. Not low, not slow…DEAD. So much so that I worried it wasn’t a battery issue at all but a dead RDS.
What did I do? I went to my safe and pulled out my old duty weapon. I have over a decade with that gun, and it fits my same holster. It runs like a top and it’s still on my approved carry list with my agency. I dropped my RDS sighted gun into a bag and my old duty weapon (which I purchased from my agency when given the opportunity) into my holster.
I dropped the Grey Ghost off with my local gunsmith (I was too busy to take time out to work on it and Gunsmith Ed is a lifesaver) and in less than a week I picked it back up. The diagnosis was a 2.5-year-old battery that was dead, AND my front sight was loose. He fixed both and after a quick range trip to rezero, and a second trip the next day to verify, everything was back in action.
The lessons learned from the experience were simple and clear:
•Batteries eventually die. Have backup iron sights on the gun.
•CHECK YOUR SIGHT at the beginning of each day of service.
•Have a spare gun for when the batteries die.
•Have a plan to put the original weapon back in service when corrected.
Red Dot Sight Considerations
A big weak point of the Trijicon RMR is having to pull the sight off the gun, and remount it, allow it a day for the Loctite to dry, and then rezero it. I allow an extra day so I can go back with fresh eyes and verify my zero. Be ready for it to fail and have a backup plan.
When you transition to an RDS-equipped pistol DO THE WORK. Practice your draws and presentations until the dot appears where your eyes are looking without having to hunt it. CONTINUE practicing the entire time you are running that gun. It never goes away.
That first presentation and the first window you have for a shot may be the only one you ever get and it’s not going to be on your best day. It’s going to be in the rain, in bad light while you are dealing with an adrenaline dump after having run a quarter-mile sprint, and you just got smacked in the head, and REAL LIVES are on the line. Keep up the practice.
It’s expensive. The price is coming down, but it is expensive now to properly equip, setup, test, holster, and run an RDS-equipped gun. You can get more out of it and EVENTUALLY, we will see it as the norm for police officers and soldiers.
IRONS ONLY will go the way of the revolver and fade away until it’s a lost art. Newer technology will make the sights lighter and smaller or with bigger windows. Already, there is a sight where they added a HUGE illuminated circle around the dot that you only see if the dot is not in the window. It’s a genius idea and it will make training even easier.
They have sights with removable trays to swap out the battery without removing and remounting (and re-zeroing). We are also seeing the first guns designed around the RDS sight where the sight does not reciprocate with the gun. This is where we are headed.
The reality of a red dot?
It’s not a magic trick, but when done properly it looks like one from the outside. It’s EASY for us to believe that we can buy this piece of gear and become good shooters.
In reality, it’s the next step we are taking into the future, but it still requires the shooter to practice. It still requires diligence and maintenance. And you still, as of right now, need iron sight skills, so that when and if your red dot sight DOES fail, you can go right back to business.
It is definitely a better tool, but ONLY if you do the work. If you do, it’s magic.