February 15, 2023
I have been a student of the gun for more than 30 years, and a uniformed professional for nearly as long. If you shoot enough, your firearm’s sighting system will fail. Law enforcement agencies, in addition to the public, are moving to accept the use of red-dot optics (RDOs), and there are many schools of thought regarding the need for redundant sights. The truth is they’re all correct — from a certain point of view.
In one camp, you have the Luddites. These are shooters who swear the RDO is a fad and offers no value to the shooter. The complaints and concerns of this group are that batteries die, the optics are prone to breakage, and they add bulk to the pistol while reducing reliability. Let’s review the first point, since it is true: batteries die. However, with a quality optic, batteries drain on a predictable timeline. Preventative maintenance is easy to accomplish. Some of the same shooters who complain about the battery life of a dot sight happily run one on their rifle and change its battery on an annual schedule. The battery argument, in my opinion, is low hanging fruit used by someone who fears change.
The next point is breakage. This concern was more valid five years ago than it is today. Pistol-mounted optics are subjected to tremendous shock as the pistol slide moves through its operational cycle. Early red-dot options struggled to stay operational because they were designed to be secondary optics on rifles, and not to endure the rigors of being slide mounted. As the demand for slide integrated red-dot sights increased, more engineering was applied to the topic. Durability became less of an issue. Of course, everything man-made will fail, but it happens far less often than most people realize.
I’ve been a regular shooter of slide-mounted optics since July 2011. It was then when I reviewed my first dot sight on a pistol, a Salient Arms G35 with an RMR. Since that time, I have had two red-dot optics go down while in use. One was an early Type 1 Trijicon RMR. The other was a first-generation Aimpoint ACRO P-1. (I’ll describe those issues later.) These data points are relevant, so stay with me.
Let’s consider how a red-dot optic affects handgun reliability. With older pistols not designed for an RDO, the few ounces of extra weight did indeed require some recoil spring experimentation. Those days are over. Nearly every modern manufacturer offers an RDO-compatible variant. If you stick to factory recommendations, and use a model developed for an optic, reliability is not an issue.
Another group is increasingly vocal in the red-dot conversation lately: These are shooters who advocate to use red-dot sights exclusively. They opine that electro-optics fail so rarely that iron sights are not needed. In some circumstances, with certain guns, I might agree! For instance, a very special group of very special people doing very special things specified a need for a pistol with a frame-mounted optic positioned so low that it wouldn’t allow the use of iron sights. That pistol was designed for one job, and it was used by people who rigorously maintained and trained with it. The lack of irons was not an issue because those users wore night vision during their missions and their pistols were outfitted with infrared (IR) lasers. Another example is the competition gun that utilizes an red-dot sight. In competition, the time to transition from optics to irons could force the shooter out of a good finish. I’d argue that this could and should be trained around, and I will address my personal experience later. However, since this paragraph describes a competition gun, I won’t belabor the point here.
Both groups are right, but only when viewed from their perspectives. Mine is that I don’t want to take chances with anything when it comes to ensuring that my life-saving gear is up to the task. Earlier I mentioned how I’ve had two optics fail me in the last 10 years. What I didn’t confess is that I’ve had irons fail me four times in that same period.
In two cases, the rear sight was moved so far to one side that the rounds were not impacting the target 7 yards in front of me. In one case, the front sight flew out of the dovetail during a stage of fire. In the last circumstance, the front sight wasn’t there when I drew the pistol out of my holster. Given that I’ve shot more rounds through iron-sighted guns than red-dot-equipped pistols, the fact that I’ve had more iron sights fail on me than RDO sights isn’t shocking to me. I’d guess that the failure rate on both was just about equal, and my experience seems to mimic that of many high round count trainers in the industry.
My latest failure was with an Aimpoint ACRO during my department’s Bonus Qualification, a challenging course with several fast stages. As I was shooting the first stage — four rounds in 3 seconds, two on the right target, two on the left — my dot disappeared between round two and three as I was transitioning targets. I’m not superhuman, and I wish I could tell you that my transition to irons was instantaneous, but it wasn’t. There was indeed some lag time and I ended up getting one shot into the target and one shot on paper as the target turned. Round three hit in the 8-ring and round four creased the white outside of the silhouette. I finished the qualification course with no problems and retained my expert status because I had redundant sighting systems. If it was a gunfight, I would have still been in the fight and had a chance to prevail because my training and equipment were set up to succeed. The after-action inspection revealed that the connection tabs were bent slightly when I changed batteries. The result was a poor connection. That’s a lesson learned.
Before the red-dot revolution, pistols had one set of sights. While they rarely failed, they still could. Now we can deploy a pistol with redundant sighting systems that allow the shooter to stay in the fight even after a catastrophic failure of one of the systems. If you’re a dedicated student of defensive pistolcraft, this alone should get you switched on to carrying a red-dot-equipped pistol.
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