Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Red Dot Update: Are mini red dots the next generation of combative pistol sights?

Recently I had a young students take me off to the side at a class and try to "explain" to me the benefits of the mini-red dot optic on a handgun over traditional iron sights. I had to catch myself as this young man just wanted to be heard. When he finished, he looked at me and said "you should really get into the 21st Century." This kid was in his twenties and it took every bit of patience I had not to throttle him for trying to lecture me on pistol craft. I took a deep breath and told him, "You have told me nothing that I did not tell you first." With a puzzled look on his face he said, "What do you mean?" I then handed him a copy of the LAW OFFICER MAGAZINE in which the article below appeared. He read it and trying to save face said, "Well, I still think I made several good points." Sigh...

I think MRDS are here to stay, though they have not reached the level of popularity many thought for the very reason I state in the article...they are expensive! I have opted not to use the MRDS due to the many years I have shot iron sights, plus, I really like the Ameriglo CAP and Spaulding sights with their VERY high visibility front sight. The attached photos are of the pistol I used in my year long trial. The Caspian Slide was cut for the MRDS by Caspian while I was on a visit to their plant. This was done before other gunsmiths got the idea. The reason I had them cut it was because I wanted the rear notch in the sight to line up with the front sight. David Bowie of BOWIE TACTICAL CONCEPTS took the idea and made the red dots more streamlined and then started adding irons along with the MRDS, something many lay claim to but I truly believe David did it first.  The second photo is a custom gun Bowie built for Kelly McCann as Kelly's original gun was getting "rough"...

Note that Pete McGrath from Trijicon cites my original study in his report to the Trijicon Board of Directors. Below is the article...please enjoy! 

I’ve dropped the ball. In my January 2009 column of Law Officer, I wrote about using a mini red dot sight on a handgun and how I intended to use it during the coming year to determine its validity on a combative pistol. I had told readers that at the end of the test period, I would report back about what I had found. But I forgot. Then I was reminded at the 2011 SHOT Show by an officer who attended my Enhancing Combative Pistolcraft Skills lecture. The officer asked, “What did you discover about mini red dot sights on pistols? You said you would report back, but I never saw it!” As Charlie Brown would say, “Rats!”


The first time I saw a compact red dot sight on a combative pistol was on the Glock 19 of trainer Kelly McCann. A former Marine with an extensive background in special ops, as well as a master in hand-to-hand combat and firearms skills, McCann left the Marines in the early 1990s and started his own training company called Crucible. He and his staff train military special mission units, security contractors, teams and individuals who are deploying around the globe for high-risk environment operations, operations in which they are not supposed to be where they are.

McCann wanted to have the same visual sight on his carry pistol that was on his carbine, so he placed a Docter optic on his Glock and began to run the gun. McCann presents his reasons for changing to a red dot sight in his video training series Inside the Crucible, from Paladin Press. His use of the sight led a number of others to place compact red dots on their combat handguns—including me. The concept is becoming so popular that a number of custom gunsmiths are now mounting these sights into (cutting a dove tail) a pistol’s slide to offer a lower profile and allow for co-witnessing with iron sights in the event of failure.

Personal Experience

During the year that I used the red dot, I used a fixed-sight slide as a control. I carried the red dot (I selected the J Point from J.P. Enterprises) in all weather conditions, as well as a few competitions and training courses, all in an attempt to see how well the sight would hold up. Although it takes time to get used to the red dot and not look for the front sight, after an officer grasps the concept, the red dot sight is fast and accurate even at a distance and allows the shooter to look at the target through the sight. I passed this gun around during SWAT training for a local team, and all who shot it liked the idea that the pistol sight looked the same as their rifle sight. Such continuity would be a real plus during training and operations.

My Two Cents

Do I believe these are the next generation of pistol sights? It will depend on how the sights develop and what their cost will be. Very few people are going to spend $700 to $1,000 on a pistol and then another $500 to $1,000 for a sight. Those who purchase a less expensive gun are even less likely to do this. If the gun comes from the factory with the sight attached and the cost is built into the gun, then I think there may be a possibility that this sight system will be what the YouTube generation will be using on their combative pistols.

Will iron sights go away? No more than they have for carbines. A contingency plan is always a good thing and having sights to fall back on in the event the optic fails is just good practice.

Trijicon Trials

Do compact red dots offer any advantage over traditional iron sights? Trijicon instructor Pete McGrath partnered with criminal justice professor James Ryan of Norwich University to determine if the Trijicon RMR (RM02 8 MOA dot) optic enhanced the learning curve of new shooters. 27 students majoring in criminal justice from Norwich underwent a simulated training course of fire using the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) silhouette targets for four different stages of fire. Thirteen students used iron sights and 14 students used the RMR optic. The test subjects for this project group were thought to represent those likely to be entry-level police cadets or military recruits. The firearm used was a 9 mm Glock 19. The course of fire consisted of four stages with the subjects firing all shots from the standing position using an isosceles two-hand stance.

The Exercises

Stage 1: A slow-fire exercise at 15 yards with each subject firing 10 shots.

Stage 2: A rapid-fire engagement drill at five yards with students starting from a chest-ready position. When a signal from an electronic timer went off, each student engaged the target and fired two shots with their times recorded for each shot. This exercise was repeated nine times for a total of 20 shots.

Stage 3: Identical to Stage 2 except the distance was increased to 10 yards and the exercise was repeated five times for a total of 10 shots.

Stage 4: Exercise consisted of rapid fire with multiple threats at a distance of 10 yards. The test subjects faced two targets and after a timer signal, fired two shots—one at each target. Students alternated between shooting first at the target on the left and then shooting first at the target on the right, with shot times being recorded. The targets were placed about six feet apart. This exercise was repeated six times for a total of 12 shots.

The Results

Stage 1: The group using iron sights fired a total of 130 shots, 97 of which hit the target for a hit percentage of 75%. Those using the Trijicon RMR fired a total of 140 shots, 137 of which hit the target producing a hit percentage of 98%.

Stage 2: The group using iron sights fired a total of 260 shots, 248 of which hit the target for a hit percentage of 95%. Those using the RMR fired a total of 280 shots and hit the target 274 times for a hit rate of 99%. Note: This difference wasn’t statistically significant.

Stage 3: The group using iron sights fired 130 shots, 105 of which hit the target for a hit rate of 81%. Those using the RMR fired 140 shots, 136 of which hit the target, producing a hit rate of 96%.

Stage 4: Data for each group was limited to 12 shooters. Some subjects were confused regarding the changing sequence of aim points and shot at the wrong targets. Data for these shooters were eliminated from the analysis. The group using iron sights fired a total of 132 shots, hitting the target 110 times for a hit rate of 83%. The group using the RMR fired a total of 144 shots and hit the target 138 times for a hit rate of 96%.

Final Thoughts

Norwich University researchers readily admit the study was too small to be considered trend setting, but it does offer interesting research possibilities for the future. While I admit I’m not a statistician and don’t know how statistical significance is determined, I can’t help but notice that shooters hit their targets at a higher level of accuracy when using the mini red dot sight. To me, any tool that helps cops hit their target while under the stress and duress of armed conflict is worth studying. Red dot sights on pistols are the future of combative pistolcraft. It’s just a matter of when it will happen.

Spaulding’s Red Dot Trial Findings

• The sight is fast and accurate. Though I didn’t overly abuse the sight, it did hold its zero through normal-to-rugged use.
• When going from cold to hot environments, the sight would always fog over. I tried several different defog products and most worked as advertised. The only problem was knowing when I might have to defog. I found that wiping the sight with saliva worked just as well, and I always had a supply of that on hand!
• The sight got in the way of the rotating hood-style of the police duty/SWAT holster. A thumb break worked just fine, as well as open top concealment holsters, which is what I used most of the time.
• The sight window was chipped on several occasions by extracted brass that went back instead of out. This didn’t affect the sight or obscure the dot because the J Point has an acrylic window, not glass.
• Although the sight did stand up to abuse, I don’t know what would have happened if the gun was dropped with the sight top down. It’s doubtful that the sight would go flat, so the back-up fixed sights should work fine.
• The sight was no harder to conceal in a proper belt holster than traditional fixed-pistol sights, and was even faster to draw from the holster.

Red Dot Attributes

Pete McGrath offered some interesting observations and advantages in his report to Trijicon executives.  The following is taken directly from his report.

1. Both eyes open shooting: The benefit of both eyes open shooting has become mainstream in the military combat world in recent years with the addition of illuminated reticle optics on service rifles. It increases situational awareness, reduced tunnel vision and the ability to transition much faster between targets.
2. Elimination of “eye sprint”: Citing an article written in Law Officer Magazine January 2009 by Dave Spaulding, eye sprint is a term often used to describe exactly that: the eye sprinting from the target to the front sight to verify alignment and then back to the target while maintaining awareness of the location of the front sight between the rear sights. The process can be slow and takes practice to get faster. With that in mind, it’s widely known that one of the physiological effects of imminent danger instinctively forces someone to focus on the threat, not the front sight as is required in a three-dot sight set-up. The red dot sight allows a shooter in a gunfight to do what is natural, focusing on the threat, while superimposing the red dot on it.
3. Decreased training time: It costs departments and agencies money to conduct initial training and subsequent annual training in firearms. The traditional three-dot-style sight takes training and practice to get a shooter used to lining up all three dots and bringing them to a level of proficiency where they can qualify. If you eliminate the three-dot-style sight and simply have one dot, you can very possibly cut training time and ammo costs associated with training.
4. Old eyes: There are many law enforcement officers who have been “on the street” for  many years and have skill sets that only come with age and experience. Often, these very officers struggle as they get older because their eyes simply cannot focus on traditional pistol sights as well as they used to. A red dot style pistol sight would significantly reduce this problem by placing the dot on the same focal plane as the target, possibly buying these professionals some more time in public service. 
5. Increased effectiveness in low light: In a low-light situation, where an officer may struggle finding his sights to engage a threat, a red dot illuminated-style sight would ensure that speed and officer survival wasn’t compromised.


  1. KR Training was funded by the Texas A&M Huffines Institute to do a study comparing shooter performance with iron sights, green laser, RDS alone and RDS w/ backup irons. We are about 75% complete with our 100 shooter data collection effort.

    The McGrath study has flaws. They did not compare performance of individual shooters with each sight option, which makes it impossible to truly assess whether one option allows an individual to shoot better or worse. They did not measure time, which masks the most common problem of "dot hunting" upon initial presentation of the pistol to the eye target line. And the study was funded by an RDS maker, which gives the appearance of bias in the development of the test protocol and results. Our study received no industry sponsorship and had no vendor involvement.

    Our study has each shooter doing multiple one shot drills, bringing the gun to target from ready, two handed and one handed, within a par time of 1.5 seconds, at 5 and 10 yards. Every shooter runs all 4 sighting options, allowing us to compare shooter performance across sighting systems as well as across shooters grouped by skill level and other factors.

    Results will be published later this year after data collection and analysis is complete. One result that's clear from the data: RDS without backup irons is not a viable configuration. A surprising number of shooters failed to find the dot within the 1.5 second par time, and many who fired admitted they point-shot with no dot simply to make the par time.

  2. As I recall, the Norwich study showed that pistol optics had the most value for inexperienced shooters. This has been borne out by my own experience. With 27 years of LE experience and admittedly “older” eyes, I looked to the optic as a possible solution for my rapidly-decreasing ability to get a hard focus on my front sight. I recognize how essential being able to get that first shot off on target quickly is, so I was very concerned that “chasing the dot” would slow me down. And, at least initially, it did. I have come back to my normal speed, and my groups are now tighter than they were previously.
    For all of the reasons cited in Mr. Spaulding’s excellent article, I believe pistol optics will become more and more common-place. To that end, I am seeking out whatever training tips, programs, courses, etc. I can find, so that I can make sure my officers are properly prepared. Any direction you could give would be greatly appreciated.
    Good luck with your study; I am looking forward to hearing about the results!

  3. I've been running an Trijicon RMR on a Glock 23 for over a year now...mostly positive feelings about does get dirty when carried daily, needs to be wiped off occasionally, with lint and dust mostly. The biggest issue is when using it in a dark room, looking out into a well lit dot is sometimes impossible to see. My RMR isn't battery powered, use's fiber optic and tritium. fwiw I still carry it daily, just always make sure I pick up the front site too.