Red Dot Revolution
November 21, 2017
In the firearms training world, I've seen many of the "next big things" fade away into obscurity or be replaced by another new product that comes down the line purporting to give the end user some small peace of mind.
The reality is that people who depend too much on their equipment are setting themselves up to fail at the same rate as people who depend too little on it. As a trainer, I'm accustomed to being part of the machine that turns out the large quantities that meet the minimum standards. I'm used to spending less time with the middle-of-the-road competent recruit or the recruit who is knocking on the door of greatness so that I can spend more time with the recruit who is struggling just to get by. My job is to get police on the street, not to build great gunfighters. Great gunfighters take the fundamentals they are given, use them as building blocks and build themselves. Gunfighters' gear selection should reflect that principle, a building block. The red dot sight (RDS), whether on a pistol or rifle, does not make one a better shot. It does not make one perform better under stress, nor does it make up for a poor grip, lousy trigger control or lack of situational awareness. However, it does do a couple of things that I believe make it an indispensable addition to any fighting rifle and will eventually make it that way on a fighting pistol.
The first thing is that it streamlines the fight by eliminating the need to line up the sights. It does away with sight alignment completely. You simply place the dot where you want the bullet to go and press the trigger. Repeat as necessary. All that craziness that trainers have been preaching about for years, things like focusing on the front sight? Gone.
Shooting at speed with an RDS-equipped handgun from three to 25 yards, I can tell you with authority that I was acutely aware of the dot, but I was focused on the target with a red dot on its center, not one or the other. It was strange at first, but it was effective and fast. Most important, this puts you one step ahead of your opponent, who probably still needs to line up his sights. This is a key to being successful in a fight and a basic premise of Boyd's OODA loop, as it narrows the gap between decision and action. Another important factor is that it will reduce the amount of time needed to train personnel to become competent with their duty weapon. Anybody who wants to argue the efficacy of training large amounts of unskilled personnel to quickly become competent with an RDS-equipped firearm need look no further than the U.S. Army, which just ordered more than 560,00 new Aimpoint RDSs to augment and replace the ones it has been using since 1997.
On the opposite end of the spectrum from the wet-behind-the-ear recruit is the aging warrior. The lack of necessity of a clear front sight is an aid to those warriors whose eyesight has started to go. I have had conversations with several guys in this camp, including Dr. Gary Roberts, who has forgotten more about guns and ammo than I'll ever know. Doc told me that after a head injury caused some sight issues, the addition of an RDS to his social guns has kept his qualifications high and his confidence even higher. He was also kind enough to send me some pictures of some of his favorite setups, so thanks, Doc!
Getting back to the topic of training, let's talk about commonality of sighting systems. When you have too many of anything to chose from under stress, it can cause entropy (a fancy word that means it will cause an overload leading to increased friction and less available energy, or, for my fellow LAUSD graduates, less efficiency), which will reduce your effectiveness under fire. From the standpoint of a professional trainer, I love the idea of teaching the same sighting system for multiple platforms. Increased efficiency leads to more quality trigger time, which leads to better results against the enemy.
OK, so the theory of why an RDS on your fighting handgun is a good idea is evident, but what about the application? Theory doesn't kill bad guys, application does. I have shot fairly extensively with pistols that have both the Trijicon RMR and also the Leupold Delta Point installed with a dovetail adapter and also with an RMR installed on a specially milled Glock slide.
The specially milled Glock had large, suppressor-size iron sights installed to cowitness with the RDS. The Glock with the combination of lower RDS and high iron sights was the easiest for me to shoot fast and well. I found myself using the irons to get on target fast, then letting the RDS take over once I was on target. Split times (time between shots) on the same target hovered between .14 and .18 second with the RDS-equipped Glock with iron sights, which was a little faster than splits with an iron-sighted Glock, which hovered between .16 and .21 second. I also noticed that my target-to-target acquisition sped up as well, with my splits between targets in the .30s.
I think the reason the RDS-equipped, milled-out Glock with iron sights was faster on target for me was because I was able to drive the gun onto target the same way I do with my duty gun, front sight slightly higher than rear sight. The RDS-only guns were dovetail mounted, which necessitated a slightly different grip angle due to the height of the dot over the bore. Because of this, the rear of the gun had to be slightly higher than the front, which is totally opposite for me. That really makes this a training issue, not an equipment issue, but it is an issue that needs to be addressed before the RDS-equipped pistol becomes a viable everyday carry gun.
The best solution right now is the one that trailblazers in the field, such as Doc Roberts, have been experimenting with and using, the milled slide. This solution offers all the benefits that one could want, including the option of Back Up Iron Sights (BUIS), something that most professional trainers (including me) strongly feel every RDS-equipped fighting gun should have. Another huge advantage is the ability to keep the dot itself as low as possible in relation to the bore, thus keeping the presentation on to target as natural as possible. There are several great gunsmiths out there doing this type of custom work right now, but David Bowie from Bowie Tactical Concepts is doing some amazing functional artwork when it comes to the milling of the slide and installation of RDS and BUIS systems. I've had a chance to handle some of his work, and it really is fantastic. My pennies are being saved for one of his custom Smith and Wesson M&Ps. While talking about quality 'smiths, I would be remiss if I didn't mention Mark Housel at One Source Tactical, who's also been doing some great stuff with the RDS-mounted concept. My only experience with the BUIS and RDS setup is with the BUIS installed behind the RDS, but several people who I respect have great things to say about installing the rear sight in front of the RDS. However, I'll have to give that setup a try before I start singing its praises.
What about holstering, you ask? Glad you did. There is a huge amount of options out there right now. For soft carry (my work range uniform) and carrying under a light jacket, I used my Safariland 5188 with a paddle. In a pinch, I also use a beat-up old Uncle Mike's Kydex rig, and it works just fine. For carrying in a little deeper concealment, I think I'd probably just cut down the front on one of my DeSantis Intruder holsters to allow room for the RDS. Since the RDS-sighted pistols that I used weren't mine, I didn't feel like cutting up my favorite off-duty rig. It would absolutely work, though, and I plan to do it when I get enough cash to buy myself one of those Bowie masterpieces. If you're not into cutting holsters by yourself, the Fricke Seraphim comes highly recommended, and having used Fricke holsters in the past, I can tell you that the quality of these rigs is top notch. For more deliberate, tactical use, the Safariland 6004 works, but it may need a little bit of trimming down in the front depending on the individual pistol's setup. As of now, the Safariland ALS systems don't work, but I've heard from a well-placed source that a group of very special men have received an ALS variant designed to work with their RDS-equipped Glock 22s. Hopefully, it will be available to us mortals fairly soon.
Before I finish, I want to address something I've discovered as a parent. I have an 11-year-old boy who likes to play video games when he's not in trouble. Because some of the first-person shooter games involve characters using firearms equipped with an RDS, I've found that the psychomotor skill of placing a reticle on the target and pressing the trigger has carryover from video games to the range. My son has shot different guns all his life, but I recently took him out and had him work steel on the move from 15 to 100 yards with an RDS-equipped Smith and Wesson M&P 15-22. After about 20 minutes of instruction on movement and shooting, he was downright deadly. Sure, it was only a .22, but this carryover from the video games can't be discounted when it comes to training the next generation of military and police personnel. I think the military is a bit ahead of LE, mostly because it deals with a younger recruit and faster training turnaround, but this is something that modern LE needs to embrace. As recently as 10 years ago, if you had told me that just about every LAPD patrol rifle would wear an RDS, I would have called you a cockeyed optimist. Here we are 10 years later, and the RDS-equipped rifle is the rule rather than the exception. It is going to happen for pistols as well, because from training commonality to combat effectiveness, there are far more pros than cons.
In the tactical world, change usually comes slowly. It's more often than not a matter of evolution rather than revolution. This, however, is a revolution that will make the next generation of warriors even better than ours. Sign me up.