When red dot optics first hit the market, there was a lot of debate on whether they were more effective than iron sights on rifles. That debate has finally been settled, and now red dots are a common sight on most carbines and rifles. And that has resulted in increased effectiveness of shooters all over the world. But now there is a new debate… are red dots effective on pistols too?
If you’ve been watching the gun industry, you’ve probably noticed many people starting to mount miniature red dots on their handguns. And I’m not talking big competition guns set up for the open division of USPSA or IPSC. I’m talking smaller red dots mounted into the slide with co-witnessed iron sights. A setup more practical for conceal carry and gunfighting.
I was unsure if the technology was practical for handguns due to the cost, but I decided to build a Glock with an RMR to see for myself what the hype was all about. Here are some of the benefits I have found:
Faster sight picture acquisition and easier long range engagement.
Because you’re not having to focus on keeping a front sight aligned with a rear sight, a red dot makes sighting in on your target faster and easier when making longer range or very precise close range shots. There’s a reason a number of hostage rescue teams have mounted red dots to their pistols. Shooting at hostage-takers who are in close contact with their hostages requires very precise and efficient aim.
More effective low light shooting.
Red dots can be very effective for night fighting, but there are a couple things to consider. The brightness of the dot has to be just the right brightness without being too bright or too dim. If you run a weapon light on your pistol that can have a tendency to wash out a dim red dot. A low-lumen weapon light isn’t as likely to do this but a brighter weapon light (like a Surefire X300 Ultra) at close quarters can render a red dot almost useless if the brightness is set too low on the red dot. With that said, a red dot can be much more effective than iron sights in a low light environment if the dot brightness is managed accordingly. Red dots are available with automatic brightness sensors or with manual controls. Each has advantages and disadvantages for these scenarios.
Easier one-handed manipulation.
A red dot mounted to a pistol creates a right-angled projection on the slide that you can use to rack your slide, reload, or clear a malfunction with one hand.
Ease of use with night vision.
There are pretty much only two ways to use a pistol effectively while employing night vision equipment. IR lasers like the X400V-IRc, LDI DBAL-PL system, or red dots. Red dots are very easy to utilize while wearing NVGs. Your firearm appears out of focus while looking through your tube, but the dot is in focus brilliantly. (image borrowed with permission from TNVC)
Sighting solution for people with poor eyesight.
It’s impossible for anyone to focus on a front sight post, rear sight, and the target all at the same time. That’s why we train to focus on the front sight post and superimpose that on the target. The target may be blurry and out of focus, but we can still make accurate hits. But as we get older, it becomes increasingly difficult to focus on a front sight post at all. A red dot solves all of the focusing problems since the dot always appears in focus regardless of how far you’re focusing your eyes on the threat. I won’t get into how the technology works, but many articles can be found online explaining this.
Increased situational awareness.
This is probably my favorite advantage. Because you’re not having to shift your focus from your front sight to the threat, and then back. You’re able to stay focused on the threat (or threats) as you take your shots. Having to focus back and forth between threat, front sight, threat, front sight, will make your shot times slower. There’s a reason why the fastest competition shooters are the ones with red dots on their pistols. Because they don’t have to shift their focus between every target and their sights.
But there are a couple problems with red dot sights. Some people get them thinking they can cheat on their training since shooting with a red dot is basically… cheating. That’s how great they are. But the fact is, you actually should train twice as much if you run a red dot. You need to train with your red dot and with your back-up iron sights (if you have them) in case your red dot fails. Because red dots – like any other technology – can fail. Which is why it’s important to have a backup sighting solution – and be used to using it. The battery life of miniature red dots from name brand companies is impressive. But even the best technology has a failing point. We have to train for the worst so we’ll be prepared if an optic happens to fail. I’m not worried that my optic will fail while I’m carrying with one, but I train for it anyway.
Many people are disdainful of red dots for pistols because of the cost. Yes, they are currently expensive. But I believe that as they become more common, and more and more pistols are made to accommodate them right out of the box, red dots will come down in price. Another reason people frown on putting a red dot on a pistol is that they don’t think a lot of pistol upgrades are necessary. Well, look at it this way: I can’t carry my rifle everywhere I go, I carry a handgun. This is the weapon I’m most likely to use in an emergency situation. So why not have a good handgun setup to make me more effective?
When many people try a red dot on a pistol for the first time, they don’t see the benefits. It took me 2-3 weeks to become very comfortable and proficient with mine. Now it’s a breeze to use. It’s a unique piece of equipment that requires some getting accustomed too. (Like night vision, which also isn’t easy to use at first, but gets more comfortable with time.)
The first thing you need to do is determine which red dot best suits your needs. There are a variety of red dots tough enough and small enough for mounting on pistols. Durability is key because the slide of your handgun is rocketing back and forth at very high speeds over and over again. A poorly-manufactured red dot won’t be able to take that kind of stress to the internals. So a $75 mini red dot from a sports store mounted on your Glock probably won’t work well for very long. And most companies don’t make mounting solutions for the inexpensive/unpopular ones anyway. The most popular options are (not listed in any particular order):
Trijicon RMR (the most common)
DoctEr (one of the earliest optics mounted to pistols)
Aimpoint T1 (this is a rarer optic choice because there are only a couple solutions for mounting it to a pistol. I have an article about this optic choice here.)
The next thing is find a company that can cut the slide of your handgun to accommodate your chosen red dot. What this entails is a specialist armorer (not many people do this procedure) cutting a slot out of your slide that fits your red dot perfectly, and then inserting a mounting solution to screw your optic into it. So basically the red dot sits in the slide. Slides are usually cut for specific red dots, so you can’t switch to another one from a different manufacturer down the road. I had Fire 4 Effect down in Texas cut my Glock 19 slide for my RMR.
Below are some estimated price breakdowns if you go with slide cutting. Depending on who you go with you might save a little money or spend a little more than the amounts I have listed below. These are just average prices. Since the Glock is normally the most common weapon system to receive red dot optics, we’ve chosen that platform for the estimates.
Glock = $500
Optic = $500
Slide cut = $150
Suppressor height sights = $50
TOTAL = $1200
As you notice, I listed suppressor height sights as part of the cost. Regular OEM sights on Glocks and M&Ps are not high enough to co-witness with an optic mounted to the slide. For co-witnessing irons, you will need to buy a set of suppressor height sights from a company like Trijicon or Ameriglo. And those are anywhere from $50-150 for a set. I have an Ameriglo blacked out sight set on my Glock 19 which cost $50; that’s the cheapest option that I know of.
Another option, instead of slide cutting, is getting a dovetail mounting adapter that replaces your rear sight. This, however, will mean you have no backup sights, and the red dot sits much higher up on your handgun. Which means you will run into zeroing issues and, I’ve been told, a slower sight acquisition speed compared to a red dot closer to the bore. So dovetail mounts are not optimal, but they work.
Or you can spend some extra money and get something really cool. The ATOM slide system from Unity Tactical. It features a unique modular plate that can be added or removed so you can mount different kinds of red dots on the same slide. It’s a little more pricey than slide-cutting a gun for one specific optic, but it’s a good option for folks wanting to try out different optic systems or who will want to upgrade their red dots in the future as new technology is developed and improved.
Unity Tactical ATOM Slide (no internals) = $485
Unity Tactical specific optic plate = $50
Optic = $500
Slide parts kit = $80
Barrel = $130
Glock Frame = $250
TOTAL = $1495
In conclusion, I think red dots for pistols are a worthwhile piece of tech that many people should consider as a viable option. Does everyone need a red dot on their pistol? No. But if you can afford it, and it would benefit you based on your operational/carrying needs, then you should consider one.
If you have any questions, feel free to email me at team AT trex-arms.com. I will try to answer questions if time allows. Thanks for reading. -Lucas