A reader, who is contemplating a new everyday carry (EDC) pistol, asked, “Is it a good idea to get a red dot?” Initially, I wanted to react with an affirmative response. However, I took a moment to think through my response while attempting to remove my pro pistol mounted red dot sight bias from the equation and the best I could come up with was an “it depends” answer. I’m not a fan of the “it depends” answer, but the thing is that it depends on a lot of different things. It depends on the individual’s previous pistol experience. It depends on how motivated the individual is to learn how to effectively use that sighting system. It depends on the individual’s commitment to perform routine preventative maintenance. Heck, it depends on the individual’s eyesight. So yeah, it depends. Sorry. Not sorry.
As I mentioned, I have a strong pro dots-on-pistols bias. That bias is predominantly based on my own personal experience over the past two years in my journey to improve my pistol craft with… checks notes… primary with dot equipped pistols. To some extent, I attribute my most recent accomplishments to red dots. I’m not sure I would have improved at the same rate I have without pistol mounted optics since they helped resolve some of the vision limitations I was experiencing with iron sights. However, I didn’t put in the same level of effort into skill development using iron sights prior to switching to using red dots. As such, my experience is anecdotal.
Aside from my personal experience, we need to consider the research that’s been done on pistol mounted red dots such as the red dot study conducted by the Texas A&M Huffines Institute in partnership with KR Training (which I’ll refer to as the KR study from here on out) and the research conducted by Sage Dynamics whose findings are documented in their white paper. The gist of it is that there are advantages over iron sights, but the advantages aren’t immediately available without putting in the necessary work and effort in order to unlock them. In some cases, performance levels of accomplished iron sight shooters may initially lower with a pistol mounted red dot sight when the transition begins.
So, is putting a red dot on a pistol a good idea? It certainly can be and in many cases I think it is, but it may not be. Let’s take a closer look at some situations.
For folks who are just getting started with shooting pistols or really anyone who is looking to improve their pistol marksmanship abilities, I tend to think that optics are a good idea. The main reason for this is that the learning curve tends to be easier with a dot. Don’t get me wrong, learning to shoot a pistol well is still very challenging. However, feedback from a dot is easier to discern when compared to feedback from traditional iron sights. This is a pretty big benefit from red dot sights. Again, slapping a dot on a pistol won’t magically make a person a better shooter instantaneously, but it should help one become better at a slightly faster rate. So in that sense, putting a dot on a pistol is, in my opinion, a good idea.
Folks who are already quite capable with a pistol using iron sights can benefit from a dot in a couple of ways, but are likely to first experience a decrease in their shooting performance. The reality is that optics are a different sighting system. The presentation is different. As the KR study results indicated, many shooters, regardless of their experience level, will likely have a hard time finding the dot when presenting the pistol. Additionally, some shooters will experience “losing the dot” in a string of fire due to deficiencies in their grip and recoil management technique. The net effect of these issues is lower hit factors due to the time added on by having to find the dot. The additional time will diminish with training, but it will require training nevertheless. As such, if one isn’t obliged to re-learning their presentation, grip, and recoil management techniques, then putting a red dot on a pistol is probably not a good idea.
On the other hand, if one is willing to put in the time, they may benefit from the faster skill development rate and ultimately see an improvement of their hit factor by a few percent as indicated by the comparison of hit factor difference between the hit factor division differences seen in pistol competitions such as USPSA and IDPA. For example, consider the abbreviated method for IDPA classification. To earn a Master classification in the Carry Optics (CO) division a shooter must complete the classifier stage with a time of 18.47 seconds or less. In comparison, to earn the same classification in the Enhanced Service Pistol (ESP) division, one would have to complete the classifier stage with a time of 18.75 seconds or less. The equipment requirements for the CO and ESP divisions are virtually identical except for the optic which is allowed in the CO division but not in the ESP division. This indicates that the optic is an equipment advantage that allows a highly skilled shooter to maintain the same level of accuracy with a higher rate of fire. This benefit is also supported by the findings in the Sage Dynamics white paper which suggest a red dot sight offers an accuracy improvement over traditional iron sights. I take this to suggest that putting a dot on a pistol is a good idea for those who are willing to put in the work needed to capitalize on this advantage.
Since the question was posed in the context of an EDC weapon, we have to consider that a dot adds another layer of maintenance and care to the pistol. This begins with getting in the habit of replacing the battery that powers the optic proactively. For most high quality optics, this means changing out the battery annually. Additionally, one also must ensure that the optic is mounted properly and remains in that condition in order to avoid potential mounting failures. That means making sure the screws are properly torqued, using threadlocker, applying witness marks and checking them regularly. It’s not a tremendous amount of work, but it is an additional commitment that can have serious consequences if it isn’t performed routinely. So, if one is likely to stuff the pistol with a mounted optic in a sock drawer (or other location) for lengthy periods of time, then putting a dot on that pistol is probably not a good idea. If one has a tendency to put off routine maintenance or isn’t willing or able to acquire the specialty tools needed for it, then putting a dot on that pistol probably isn’t a good idea.
One more thing to consider is eyesight. I find it amusing that older folks, many of whom have aging eyesight ailments and could benefit the most from a red dot optic, are among the least willing to apply this new technology to their pistols. This mostly comes from a deeply ingrained fear of technology failing when they need it the most. You know, good ole Murphy’s law. Yet, these same folks have no qualms about putting optics on their deer rifles. Selecting a high quality rugged and durable optic addresses the failure concern, but that’s beyond the scope of this post and I digress. Being able to maintain target focus and seeing a clear aiming reference point, the dot, on the target address most visual issues for most folks. The exception here is certain types of astigmatism which result in seeing starburst or blurring effects on the red dot. Unfortunately, I’m not an ophthalmologist and I haven’t done the research to be able to articulate which specific types of astigmatism yield these effects. I’ve heard that using a green dot instead can mitigate or alleviate the problem. Nevertheless, it may not be a good idea for a person with astigmatism to put a dot on their pistol unless they have found a dot they can see clearly while maintaining visual focus on a target.
The concern about failure isn’t entirely misplaced either. While failures from high-quality optics that are properly mounted aren’t common, they do exist and do occur. Thankfully, there are methods and techniques to deal with them, but that means learning additional things to address these malfunctions. If this is more work than one is willing to do, then putting a dot on that carry pistol is probably not a good idea.
While we’re on the subject of failures, it’s a pretty good idea to put a set tall backup iron sights on a defensive pistol as they provide an additional aiming system that can not help with some specific types of hardware failure, but also with software failure. And by software failure, I mean human error such as finding ourselves in a situation where the pistol has been presented and, for whatever reason, we can’t find the dot. It follows then that if one isn’t also willing or able to put a set of tall back up sights on that EDC pistol, then it’s probably not a good idea to put a dot on it.
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again. I believe pistol mounted optics are here to stay. Maybe I’m wrong, but I can’t imagine that they are a fad or a trend in any way, shape, or form. The technology is available and is only improving. There are plenty of high quality durable options available in the market today at a fair number of price points ranging from affordable to borderline obscene. Furthermore, they do offer a number of advantages over traditional iron sights. However, they aren’t a panacea and they add additional maintenance, introduce new skills to learn, some relearning of old skills, and should be paired with a set of backup irons (at least in the context of a defensive tool). Even if one is willing to commit to all that, one’s eyesight may make them a nonstarter. The good news is that pistol mounted optics aren’t absolutely essential. Iron sights have worked well for a very long time and I’m unaware of any reason indicating that they will not continue to be a variable option.
Update (5/16/2023): About 12 hours after publishing this post, Annette Evans pointed out a concern that I completely overlooked in this post: how a red dot may impact one’s ability to sufficiently conceal the firearm after slapping a red dot on it. This is an important consideration for folks whose stature and size limits on how much gun one is able to adequately conceal. However, it may also be a consideration for those who prefer to not (or can’t) dress around the gun or for those important moments in life when certain attire is involved. Sure, we may be able to compromise and opt for a smaller form factor optic, but that doesn’t change the fact that any optic will increase the dimensions of the pistol. So in this context, putting a red dot on that carry pistol may not be a good idea when the increased overall size of the gun becomes too large to conceal.