Field Test: Mini Red Dot Sights for Concealed Carry
December 10, 2014
Without a doubt, one of the most noteworthy "gun porn" moments from my youth was when Arnold Schwarzenegger acquired "the .45 longslide with laser sighting" in 1984's "The Terminator" (and you know you just read that in Arnold's voice). That 1911 longslide with the C-cell-flashlight-size mounted laser was the epitome of '80s-movie badassery, but, in truth, that pistol-mounted laser was a movie prop custom made by SureFire that wasn't yet ready for the real world.
Since then, pistol-mounted lasers have evolved in size and performance to the point that even non-Mr. Olympia winners can realistically utilize them on a concealed carry pistol. Nevertheless, regardless of the movie-script sales pitch of the Alamo Guns proprietor about how you just "put the red dot where you want the bullet to go," we know there's a bit more to it than that. Proficiency with a pistol is forged by a constant pursuit of the mastery and sustainment of fundamentals. The required redirection of the shooter's focus from the front sight to the target when using a laser aiming device is the primary reason I categorize them as a contingency-specific option when circumstances prohibit the use of a pistol's sights as opposed to a first-tier sighting solution.
That said, we've not been abandoned by technology in the pursuit of improved primary sighting systems, as electronic red dot sights (RDS) have found their way into the mainstream to the point of being commonplace on sporting, self-defense, law enforcement and military shoulder-mounted firearms. It's been no surprise to see a subsequent generation of optics evolving that are small enough to mount on a pistol and rugged enough to withstand not only recoil but also the massive forces transferred through a cycling semiauto pistol slide.
I've been watching the evolution of pistol-mounted mini red dot sight (MRDS) platforms with great interest, knowing that at some point a pistol/MRDS platform was likely to separate me from the contents of my wallet. I've been abstaining until I felt like the concept was ready for prime time and could be put to work with confidence as an everyday carry (EDC) pistol. Suffice it to say, when I was approached with the opportunity to evaluate the current viability of a pistol/MRDS platform for concealed carry, there was no need to ask me twice.
It's important to note that "viability" for me may not equate to your definition regarding this topic, but the following represents the tools that met my baseline to facilitate exploration of pistol/MRDS/concealed carry viability.
A polymer-frame/striker-fired pistol commensurate to my current EDC platforms was required, equipped with iron sights that could be co-witnessed through the MRDS in the event of an optic failure.
The Smith & Wesson M&P9 Pro Series C.O.R.E. (Competition Optics Ready Equipment) was selected. Although there are a number of pistols that can be configured to meet my criteria, this S&W is factory equipped with a milled slide, which is a purpose-built solid base for mounting an MRDS in addition to reducing the optic's height over bore. This, when coupled with factory-installed suppressor-height iron sights, makes co-witnessing possible in the bottom third of the optic's lens (optic dependent).
With a 4¼-inch barrel and 17-round magazine capacity, this pistol's dimensions are slightly larger than my usual EDC pistol options, but this didn't pose any difficulties in concealing the pistol while wearing seasonally appropriate clothing (it got cold).
I had the opportunity to utilize two optics, the Trijicon Dual-Illuminated RMR (RM08G) and the Trijicon Adjustable LED RMR (RM06-34).
The Dual-Illuminated RMR illuminates a 12.9-MOA green triangular reticle by means of a tritium phosphor lamp and fiber optic regulation of reticle brightness without battery power.
The Adjustable LED RMR utilizes battery power to illuminate a 3¼-MOA red dot, adjustable to eight brightness settings ranging from night vision compatible to "super bright." Reticle brightness settings can be selected manually, or an "automatic brightness mode" can be enabled, which will adjust reticle brightness dependent on ambient lighting conditions. Both models allowed iron sights to be co-witnessed in the bottom third of their respective lenses when mounted on the Smith & Wesson M&P9 Pro Series C.O.R.E.
I'm right-handed and prefer to carry strong-side appendix in Kydex inside-the-waistband (IWB) holsters. I regularly work in vehicles and feel that appendix carry gives me the most efficient access to my pistol in that environment, and it gives me a defensible position for overall security and weapon retention should I need to defend the pistol. I use Kydex holsters because they don't transfer body oils or perspiration to the pistol, and their rigid construction resists collapsing, so the pistol can be returned to the holster as efficiently as it was removed. I was initially concerned that a lack of a viable holster platform could kill my evaluation before it ever started, but that was not the case. I sourced four holsters that met my criteria for the M&P/RMR combo in short order, two from First Spear, one from NSR Tactical and one from Blade Tech.
As mentioned before, optics of this type have gained widespread acceptance on rifles and carbines, with obvious benefits. They provide rapid parallax-free sight acquisition with an illuminated reticle, eliminating the need to align front and rear sights and allowing for increased field of view due to their ease of use with both eyes open. Who wouldn't want that on an EDC pistol? It sounds like a no-brainer in theory, but execution isn't quite the apples-to-apples comparison you might think it is.
On a rifle, eye relief from the RDS is generally at a fixed point. Length of pull of the stock is a known quantity, and your cheekweld on the comb of the rifle stock is a consistent point of index, aiding in rapid acquisition of the optic's reticle. On a pistol, there are some noteworthy differences to that narrative. When I drive the pistol toward the target in the final stage of weapon presentation, my eye relief from the optic can be effectively doubled when compared with shoulder mounting an RDS-equipped rifle. In addition, the optic's lens is potentially smaller, and the ever-so-valuable cheekweld index point on the comb of the stock doesn't exist. Add a little adrenaline and the exigency of a critical incident requiring the rapid deployment of a pistol, and the potential for delayed reticle acquisition exists.
Enter a low-tech solution to a high-tech problem. As you drive the pistol to the target and begin to track the front sight post, it becomes an effective point of index to lead you to the MRDS reticle, thus demonstrating the value of the sights not only as a redundancy in the event of optic failure but also as a complement to MRDS deployment.
That raises the question: If I'm going to keep using the pistol's iron sights anyway, why would I want an MRDS? For many, this tool's greatest value won't lay in accelerated speed from the holster to address a target at close range versus what the pistol is already capable of with iron sights. However, the ability to effectively defend yourself with a pistol is not entirely measured by a shot timer from the holster. In the enduring words of Wyatt Earp, "Fast is fine, but accuracy is final." In some circles, there has been somewhat of a paradigm change of late regarding caliber selection for defensive cartridges, partially due to improvements in caliber-specific ballistic performance, and partially due to embracing the concept that the rapid termination of hostile aggression by way of ballistic intervention is highly dependent upon hitting something vital as opposed to just hitting something. To that end, the pistol/MRDS platform can bring something to the table.
A pistol equipped with a parallax-free MRDS eliminates potential errors in pitch and/or yaw that can occur when aligning iron sights, thus increasing the potential of accurately and rapidly engaging multiple targets or targets at increased range once the reticle has been acquired. Yet, 30 years after "The Terminator," this still doesn't exactly equate to "put the red dot where you want the bullet to go." Even with the M&P C.O.R.E.'s milled slide reducing MRDS height over bore, there's still slightly more mechanical offset than a "traditional" pistol/iron sight combo, so there's a parabolic arc effect for the projectile that you should be aware of if you strive to wring out the full potential from a pistol/MRDS platform.
I settled on zeroing the C.O.R.E./RMR for point of aim/point of impact (POA/POI) at 15 yards, making POA/POI no greater than the mechanical offset within 15 yards, and providing a flatter trajectory within what I consider to be viable pistol range for the potentially densely populated urban environments in which I live and work.
Evaluating the Platform
The S&W M&P9 Pro Series C.O.R.E. offered no surprises and functioned flawlessly, oblivious to the MRDS riding on the slide.
The first optic to take that ride was the non-battery-powered Dual-Illuminated RMR. Without a doubt, the concept of an illuminated-reticle optic that doesn't require a battery is an attractive one, but that desirable "pro" also comes with a "con," as the Dual-Illuminated RMR's performance wavers in some lighting conditions. When ambient light is abundant, the green, triangular reticle shines brightly, but when ambient light fades, the reticle can dim and become more difficult to locate against light-colored or illuminated backgrounds. I never felt that the 12.9-MOA reticle was too large (given the application). Its dimensions are similar to a front sight post, and the larger reticle size was actually beneficial for acquisition in low-light conditions when the reticle began to dim.
Next up was the Adjustable LED RMR, which requires a CR2032 3V lithium battery to illuminate the 3¼-MOA red dot reticle. Battery life expectancy has improved markedly on illuminated-reticle optics when compared with earlier generations. Per the manufacturer, the Adjustable LED RMR can remain powered on for more than four years of continuous use at brightness setting #4 of #8, but it drops off substantially to 25 days of constant-on runtime if left on "super bright" #8 (which I've yet to need). I made extensive use of the Adjustable LED RMR's automatic brightness mode and was generally pleased with its performance-managing reticle illumination levels in changing lighting conditions.
Training on reactive steel targets with the M&P/RMR seems a little like cheating and drives home the strength of the platform to rapidly traverse and accurately engage multiple targets. The lenses of both optics are coated to enhance their respective performance and/or battery life, with the result for the shooter being a slight tint that can impact sight picture when ambient light fades. This didn't cause great concern for me because it coincides pretty well with the appropriate time to integrate a flashlight for target identification. Anecdotally, introduction of a flashlight to the M&P/RMR platform had the potential to wash out the reticle, with the Dual Illuminated RMR being more vulnerable to reticle washout, particularly against lighter-colored backgrounds. In the event that the Adjustable LED RMR's "automatic brightness mode" were to land on a less than ideal setting in that scenario, reticle brightness can be increased manually with relative ease. However, there is no means to manually increase reticle brightness for the Dual Illuminated RMR. My appreciation for a non-battery-powered optic became eclipsed by a need for consistent performance in ever-changing, real-world lighting conditions, and the Adjustable LED RMR took its position atop the M&P and was not to be deposed.
What was my verdict? Is the juice worth the squeeze for an MRDS concealed carry pistol? My answer is a resounding '¦ maybe (served up with an analogy). If a baseball pitcher adds a pitch to his repertoire, he has increased the depth of his effective performance, but he has also increased his burden for sustainment of his expanded skill set. The same applies here; an MRDS is not a turnkey solution for proficiency with a EDC pistol, but it can provide a beneficial return on investment for a shooter who is sincere about "adding a pitch."
Time will tell if demand will drive other manufacturers to follow Smith & Wesson's lead and offer platforms similar to the C.O.R.E. pistols, or if MRDS pistols will predominately remain in the "custom" realm. In the meantime, my primary EDC is getting the slide milled and suppressor-height sights installed. Disappointingly, I'm still waiting to hear about a phased plasma rifle in the 40-watt range.