Returning readers and those who interact with me on social media know I’ve been all about the pistol mounted red dot life for a couple of years now. A short while back, I mentioned on social media that I am constantly surprised by the number of folks I continue to see resisting pistol optics and got some interesting replies. The most common replies were either related to the acquisition cost or a general distrust of the technology. I won’t be addressing those in this post. Instead, I want to focus on an uncommon response that caught my attention. That is some folks simply don’t know where or how to get started. So if you happen to be wondering where or how to get started, then this blog post might be for you.
The process, after grossly oversimplifying it, comes down to a few steps:
- Pick a pistol.
- Pick a red dot sight.
- Mount red dot sight to pistol.
- Get familiar with shooting the pistol with the mounted red dot sight.
The challenge with this process is that all but the last step are intrinsically intertwined. Nevertheless, I’ll go through each of those steps, discuss some options and considerations, and make a suggestion. One thing to keep in mind as you read on is that some of these decision points should be driven, or at least influenced, by the intended primary application for the pistol. I’ll do what I can to point out application specific considerations, but I will undoubtedly miss something here and there because I don’t know everything. Take that for what it is. At the end of the day, the best person to decide what is best for you is… well, you.
Let’s start with the pistol. Theoretically, any red dot sight can be mounted to any pistol (or revolver for that matter). Granted, the pairing may require some questionable “engineering” and a combination of JB Weld and duct tape which I’m willing to bet is not what anyone reading this post desires. The point is that the selected pistol will heavily limit the optic mounting options and will play a factor on the red dot selection. So let’s break down some common mounting options.
The most common optic mounting option is to mount a red dot sight to the slide of a pistol. This is a suitable option for just about any pistol application and is the most likely option for most folks. There are two ways to approach this option. The first, which is by far the easiest and the only approach I’ve used to the only mounting option I’ve tried, is to purchase an “optics ready” pistol (or in some cases an “optics ready” slide). Given the rising popularity of pistol mounted red dot optics, one can pretty much find an “optics ready” variant for any popular pistol in the market. The downside to this approach is that one must invest in a new pistol and most likely an adapter plate for the selected red dot sight. Another downside is that available mounting plates in the market for that pistol may limit red dot selection to certain red dot footprints (that is the placement of the mounting screws and recoil lugs). A benefit of this approach is that if the shooter decides to change to another optic that has a different mounting footprint (that is the placement of the mounting screws) is that they only have to invest in another mounting plate instead of a new slide which would be required if the second approach is used.
I mentioned that acquiring an “optics ready” slide might be an option for an existing pistol. While this can be less expensive, new slides usually don’t include the internals, such as the firing pin and spring, the extractor, the barrel, or recoil spring. This means that one will have to assemble the slide themselves or have a gunsmith do it. It’s a good option, but it is more involved and less straightforward than purchasing an “optics ready” pistol.
The second approach to a slide mounted red dot sight is to have the pistol slide milled to accept the selected red dot sight. This process involves removing material from the slide to match the mounting footprint of the red dot, refinishing the slide, and may include sealing plate or cover plate. This is usually the most affordable approach to mounting an optic to a pistol slide, but it’s not without its downsides. The first challenge is to find a reputable gunsmith who can do the work. The more reputable the gunsmith, the longer the lead time and higher the cost. Another thing to consider is that this approach generally voids manufacturer warranties. Additionally, the process of removing material from the slide can decrease the structural integrity of the slide which could result in a failure that can not be repaired such as a cracked slide (all the more reason to find a reputable gunsmith to do the work). Even though these downsides exist, this is a very popular approach to a slide mounted red dot sight and reputable milling most often doesn’t impact the guns lifetime or reliability.
Frame mounting a red dot is another option that is very common in certain competitive shooting sport divisions such as the USPSA Open division. The folks who are looking at this option usually already know what they are looking for and which guns work well for this option and are suited to competing in these types of divisions. Even though this mounting option is the second one I see most often, it’s not one that I would suggest to folks who are looking to get started with red dots. I only mention it because the red dot and pistol shooting journey leads some folks to this mounting option and I figured it can’t hurt for folks who are looking to get started with red dots to know this option exists.
The third and final mounting option that I will mention is replacing a rear dovetail sight with a dovetail mounting plate. I rarely see this mounting option in use and it isn’t an option I would recommend or suggest. However, it has some merits that are worth exploring as it might be an avenue that some folks might opt for in order to dip their toe in the red dot life with minimal investment. Assuming one can find a dovetail mounting plate that fits a pistol they already own, this option will be less expensive than any slide mounted approach and doesn’t require any permanent modifications to a pistol. Simply remove the rear sight. Install the dovetail mounting plate and install the selected red dot sight. Again, this isn’t something I would suggest for anything other than recreational shooting or red dot life exploration as I have concerns about the durability of this option and this option removes the ability to use iron sights.
At this point, I’m guessing most folks who are trying to figure out where to start with the red dot life still don’t know which pistol to mill, get a new slide for, or to buy. That’s okay. As I mentioned, pistol selection, red dot selection, and mounting are intertwined. Keep reading. While I can’t guarantee it, I suspect things will become clearer for most.
There are a lot of pistol mountable red dot sights in the market to choose from. We have open emitter sights and enclosed emitter sights. Green dots and red dots. Different window sizes, reticles, and dot sizes. To make matters worse, the new options keep hitting the market day after day. As such, there is no way that I can cover all the different options. Instead, I’m going to make a few suggestions based on my experience which might be helpful.
Enclosed emitter sights are growing in popularity. My understanding is the key benefit is they reduce the chance of having debris interfere with the LED emitter on the optic. I think there is value in that. Unfortunately, I haven’t had the opportunity to try out an enclosed red dot sight on a pistol yet and I have yet to have a single issue with debris interfering with the exposed emitter on any open red dot sight I’ve used so far. Granted I haven’t crawled through mud or rolled in the dirt with them either. As such, folks who are likely to get dirty with their pistol might consider leaning towards an enclosed emitter. Otherwise and for the most part, open emitter sights are fine.
Reticle color is part preference and part battery life. A long battery life is an important characteristic for dot sights that will be used on defensive or duty pistols. Personally, I would look past dot sights that have a battery life of less than one year for defensive or duty use since I’m in the habit of replacing batteries on optics one a year on my birthday. Some folks might be okay with replacing batteries more frequently, but I think it’s important to get into a rhythm that is hard to forget so the sight is unlikely to have a dead battery if and when it’s needed. Green colored sights tend to have a shorter battery life than red colored sights. However, technology has improved to the point where there are some green colored sights with a long enough battery life to make them viable for defensive and duty use.
Window size matters. Larger windows make tracking dot movement between shots easier. This makes dots with larger windows particularly useful skill development when practicing and training in addition to being very desirable for competitive shooting sports. The downside to dot sights with large windows is more weight and bulk which can make them less comfortable or harder to conceal for defensive carry. Additionally, the larger dot sights in the market, like the Trijicon SRO, may cause reliable ejection problems with some pistols when it hangs over the exposed barrel hood of a pistol making them only suitable for larger full-size pistols. On the other hand, small frame subcompact pistols may only have enough real estate on the slide (and available optic mounting plates) for the smaller red dot sights available in the market.
As of writing, the only red dot sights available in the market today that offer a reticle other than a plain dot are the 500 series red dot sights from Holosun, like the Holosun 507C. The 32 MOA ring, often referred to as the “doughnut of death”, often receives accolades from highly respected and qualified armed self defense instructors and is very popular among competitive shooters as it lends itself well for fast and accurate shooting at distances around 25 yards or less.
Consequently, dot size matters. As I learned from the Red Dot Sight Essentials class I attended at KR Training, smaller dots are more difficult to steady, but allow for more precise shooting. As such, smaller dots are better suited for slow bullseye style shooting at longer distances (25 yards or way beyond). Larger dots are less difficult to steady and are much faster to see. This makes larger dots better suited for faster accurate shooting at shorter distances (up to 25 yards or so). For this reason, it is not uncommon to see accomplished competitive shooters using red dot sights with dots ranging from 6 MOA to 10 MOA in size. Middle of the road dot sizes aren’t a bad option for a general purpose red dot sight.
So what dot do I suggest? Well, it depends. I’ve only used a handful and have a bias towards suggesting them. My suggestions are also heavily influenced by specific applications in activities I frequently participate in.
For defensive pistols, I look for durability, ruggedness, and a long battery life. My top suggestion and the optic I rely on the most for this application is the Trijicon RMR. A close second, which some may prefer because of the 32 MOA doughnut of death, is the Holosun 507C which happens to be significantly more budget friendly. However, these medium sized red dot sights may not be an option for slimline smaller pistols like the Glock 43/43X/48/48MOS or the Sig Sauer P365. For those, I suggest the Trijicon RMRcc or the Holosun 507K. In terms of dot size for the Trijicon suggestions, I have relied on the 3.25 MOA dot which is in the middle of the road. That said my preference has recently been shifting towards their larger 6.5 MOA variant options. However, I’m hesitant to make the switch because, however unlikely, the possibility exists that a defensive encounter may require a longer distance precise shot.
For competitive pistol shooting, my first suggestion and the optic I use is the Trijicon SRO due to its large window and long battery life. While I initially went middle of the road with the 2.5 MOA variant, I would pick up the 5 MOA variant for this purpose given I mostly participate in USPSA and IDPA matches where the target distances rarely exceed 25 yards and if they do it’s not by much. Smaller dot sizes might make sense for folks competing in long distance pistol shooting or bullseye shooting matches. While I don’t have any experience with them, the C-More RTS2B and the DeltaPoint Pro are worth mentioning as they are popular among competitive shooters. Be aware the DeltaPoint Pro has a much shorter battery life than I care for and may require keeping spare batteries on hand.
As I mentioned, there are plenty of other options. However, I don’t know enough about them at this time to offer them as a suggestion.
I hope that at this point readers who are looking to get started with the red dot life have at least an idea of where to start. Perhaps one has a gun in mind and has an idea of what dots will work with it. Or maybe one has a dot in mind and has an idea of what pistols will work with it. So let’s shift gears and talk about that to expect as one gets started and beyond.
Along the lines of a getting started discussion, we frequently find ourselves talking about initial investment. Given the discussion up to this point, it is likely apparent there are a few variables that impact the cost of acquiring a pistol mounted dot. Dots themselves will range from just south of $200 to north of $600 with an average cost of around $400. Mounting the dot to a pistol can range from as little as $40 for a dovetail mounting plate to as much as the cost of a new gun which can reach or even exceed $1200 without taking into account the cost of a new holster, accessories, and additional magazines. The wide range of mounting costs is a prevalent reason why many folks opt to mill an existing pistol slide since it more often than not provides a reliable and durable mounting option for an average cost of $150 plus or minus $50. Hence, one is looking at an initial investment around $250 on the low end to $1800 on the high end which makes an average milled slide with a quality dot investment of $600 a very attractive proposition. However, there are a couple of additional expenses that are likely to follow. These are red dot specific training, a red dot compatible holster, and back up sights.
Is the investment worth it? I firmly believe so for most folks. There are a number of benefits to a pistol mounted red dot sight, some of which I’ve mentioned in other blog posts and others which I’ll cover in future posts.