I’ll soon be doing a review and torture-test of a pistol optic, and this prompted some thoughts on my part. Painful perhaps, but necessary. I have fired a number of pistols with optics mounted since the 1990s. I’ve watched these sights go from bulky, impractical things to small, svelte and reliable systems. Now prices are dropping and more and more manufacturers are offering standard slide-cuts for them as stock on new pistols. Some even offer guns with them factory-mounted.
These were first popularized in IPSC and similar pistol disciplines. They were found to convey such an unbalanced advantage that their use was restricted by class. Over the decades they have gotten smaller, more robust and less expensive and are now practical for duty and even concealed carry, and are being used more and more often by civilians.
I write Science Fiction. I was an early adopter of personal electronics, cell phones and eBooks. I follow a lot of science and tech online. Nonetheless I still don’t have an pistol with an optic. Why not? It’s not because I disdain them, doubt their utility or effectiveness. It’s because on my limited income they are expensive, or at least the ones I would trust my life to are. Even relatively inexpensive ones can come down to a choice of buying an optic or buying ammo to test one or more guns.
Here’s What I Think
They have significant advantages for a duty weapon for police and military, reducing the chance of tunneling in on your sights, allowing freer peripheral vision and better situational awareness. That being said they do require specific training and familiarization to use effectively, especially for people highly trained to fire under stress with iron sights. They can be very, very fast but you have to train to take advantage of that speed. I have often said if by some catastrophic failure of judgement I wound up back on the street on duty I want a polymer-framed, high-capacity pistol with a red dot.
In action-shooting competition they offer real and substantial advantages. With training they are very, very fast and precise. They are also useful in hunting as they offer good precision even in low-light conditions.
They are neither useless nor Absolutely necessary for the average civilian concealed-carry user. In typical self-defense scenarios they offer no real advantage to the average modestly trained user. Most encounters happen at such close range that under stress these people tend to point-shoot, rendering the sights irrelevant.
This is not to say they don’t have utility; Their low-light utility can be excellent. Also in those rare scenarios that occur at extended ranges they can be a decisive advantage if the user has trained well with them.
Let’s talk a little about those scenarios. In a mall shooting last year an armed civilian was forced to engage at extended range, and his training allowed him to do so effectively. A red dot sight would definitely make this easier. Remember that civilians do in fact interrupt mass-casualty shooters. Imagine you are in a department store and an Active Shooter event occurs. Many of these have sight-lines of a hundred feet or more. If I were forced to engage at this sort of range I would probably prefer to have an RDS over iron sights.
In general there are few instances where it is likely to be useful, but on the absurdly small chance you find yourself in such a situation you might regret not having one.
The Bottom Line
Whether you opt for iron sights or a red-dot training is key. As always. You need to evaluate your own needs based on a realistic threat profile and an accurate estimate of your abilities. You might find that a red-dot sight offers a decisive advantage. Or not.
Michael Tinker Pearce, 17 September 2023