A History of Pistol-Mounted Red Dots
September 07, 2016
Our editor, Eric Poole, made the mistake of asking me an open-ended question: "What do you remember about the early use of red dot sights in IPSC?" I had to manfully resist the temptation to launch into full lecture mode.
You see, I was there. Red dot sights were not new in the late 1980s; they had been around. The first-generation Aimpoint Electronic was a red dot originally meant for rifles in the late 1970s. However, in IPSC, Jerry Barnhart was the first to figure out how to use a subsequent model on a handgun.
He showed up at the 1990 USPSA Nationals with a red dot sight and beat us so badly it was embarrassing. Two months later, Doug Koenig mounted a scope on his gun, practiced with it and won the World Shoot with it that same year.
Looking back, those first sights that followed Aimpoint were almost ludicrous. Field of view of the original Aimpoint we used, the third-gen Electronic, was narrow. It made current red dot tubes look like the Holland Tunnel by comparison. All red dots in those days had an appetite for batteries and offered only a dim, tiny dot that occassionally disappeared under recoil. However, when it worked and you worked, you were untouchable on the leaderboard.
We had just gotten to the point (1990) that most competitors had switched from .45 ACP to .38 Super (or some variant of it), and now this?
As I explained all this to Eric, I was fiddling with a new mini red dot sight that had just arrived. Out of curiosity, I tossed it onto a scale: 1.3 ounces. We would have killed for a red dot that light in the '90s, because the ones we used also needed a mount to attach them to the frame of the pistol. When combined with the mount to bolt them on, they weighed more than a pound. That's right; we were adding 16-plus ounces to 38-ounce pistols, and we were glad to do it.
I still have my 1991 Open competition gun. I built it on a very nice single-stack Colt chambered for .38 Super. I was already in the process of building it as an iron-sighted Open gun, but when red dots came out, that was that. I took off the rear sight (leaving the front sight on, as it wasn't in the way) and installed a mount and red dot.
It was obsolete in less than two years, but back then two years was forever in R&D. I shot it with hardcast lead bullets of 150 grains, and I posted some pretty good scores in the 1991 nationals. Then the high-cap frames arrived. Suddenly, it wasn't enough to have an accurate, flat-shooting .38 Super with a red dot on it; your pistol had to hold lots of bullets.
I had to start over, and I built mine on an all-steel Caspian frame with an early mount. It was an anvil. It still is. Twice later, I changed mounts to get it lighter, but it started, fully loaded with a high-cap magazine, at close to 60 ounces. You can still see some of the old mount holes, filled and silver-soldered back closed.
Then magazines leapt up again. We went from 18 to 19 rounds to 27 because of a ruling on overall length. I had to invest in a pair of sacrificial magazines to have them cut, soldered together as one longer magazine, tuned, fitted.
By then, we were shooting 115-grain bullets at close to 1,550 fps, and everything was breaking. We wore out barrels fast. We loosened slide-to-frame fit in a season. Magazines needed constant tuning, and the scopes?
To give you an idea of just how bad things were back in the development phase of IPSC competition, it was customary to have three guns: the game gun, the spare gun and the gunsmith gun. When the game gun wore out, broke, or was used up, you'd ship it back and rotate in the spares. You also had spare red dots in your bag because yours would quit at some point, inevitably during a stage.
I have a clear memory of someone who was on my squad at the 1992 nationals. It was an open secret that he was a "secret squirrel" guy, but we didn't know just how secret. What we did know was that, like the rest of us, he had to dive into his gear bag to replace his red dot scope more than once in the course of the match. (He said so, repeatedly.)
I had one durable enough, and even relatively light enough, but making it light had broken its weather seal, and when the humidity got too high I had to retire to a Safe Area to heat it with a Bic lighter to drive out the moisture. I've always had the impression that he was Randy Shugart, but since the shooter in question was a "no photos" guy, I don't have any proof of this.
Alas, the match records didn't tell us who he was.
There was no question that the guys on the pointy end of the spear were, in some instances, IPSC competitors back then and heavy into the game-y gear, at least for experimentation.
Just to make our lives a little bit worse, the scope manufacturers were also learning and changing. You could figure out the best red dot and mount, and ship them to a gunsmith for assembly. By the time they got back, there was something better, sometimes both dot and mount, and you had the choice of reshipping with new gear or just shooting what you had until you could afford/justify the new dot and mount. Most of us just shot ours until it was clear that we were at a disadvantage, and then we bit the bullet and upgraded.
This went on for years as red dot optics went through generation after generation and mount makers cranked out design after design. Looking over Aimpoint alone, between 1987 and 2000 it had almost a dozen models you could choose from, some lasting only a couple of years in the lineup.
While this was going on, we were endlessly experimenting with bullets and powders, comp designs and recoil springs to find the fastest, flattest, softest load that improved our scores. By the time we were done, we had found combinations that didn't consume guns. You could go an entire competition season and not have to overhaul your game gun.
Along the way, the red dots took it in the neck. The blast and vibration of an Open gun going off make for a harsh environment for a red dot scope. We just kept buying and breaking them, complaining and rebuilding them. We'd ship them back to the makers, the rebuild specialists, who would take them apart and resolder the joints. Springs and shock absorbers may have extended the life of a red dot, but the guns were too heavy already.
This churning of gear went on for quite a few years. Those of us who could build would simply stuff the old gun in the safe, build a new one and get back to shooting. Those who had to have them built usually had theirs over-hauled and upgraded in the off-season.
My singe-stack got back into the mix after being replaced by the high-cap when I needed it for Second Chance. I took off the mount and scope and put the rear sight back on for the Handgun Pop-and-Flop. The tricky shot was the 90-yard bowling pin, and that Colt was like a laser. It won me loot in that event all three years it was held. Then I put the mount and scope back on just to keep from losing them.
I explain this to give you an idea of how wondrous it is to have a red dot sight for handguns that is so light that you can mount it directly to the slide, one durable enough to withstand the pounding, a combination so tough that it's now being considered as a suitable companion for daily carry and duty guns. So, when you see your new pistol, ready for a red dot to be mounted on it, thank old-time IPSC shooters. Their insistence on performance is what got us here.