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Red Dot vs. Laser Sights – Which is Best for Pistols?

Red dots and lasers are both powerful options, but is one better than the other?

Red Dot vs. Laser Sights – Which is Best for Pistols?
Photos by Alfredo Rico

It is no secret that accurately shooting a handgun is more difficult than with a rifle or shotgun. Traditional pistol sights require you to shift focus from the threat to the sights. Then you have to align the sights and maintain the elusive front-sight focus so integral to accurate handgun shooting. That’s a tall order if you’re in danger.

In recent years, red dots and laser sights have become more popular with handgun shooters because each provides a distinct advantage over traditional pistol sights. Whether the dot appearing on your target is emanating from a holographic red-dot sight (RDS) or a laser beam, the aiming process is simplified by eliminating the need to shift your focus from the threat to the front and rear sights.

Overlaying the dot on the target shows precisely where your muzzle is pointed. Nothing is more intuitive. However, despite their similarities, there are some distinct differences between red dots and lasers. By considering the pros and cons of each, you’ll have a better idea as to which is right for you.

Red Dot Pros

Easy To See – RDSs are easy to see regardless of lighting conditions. Besides having manually adjusted brightness settings, some sights auto-adjust the brightness of the dot based on lighting conditions. While having the brightest dot possible usually makes the most sense, dimming the dot can make it appear smaller and sharper. This creates a more refined sight picture for enhanced accuracy.

Always On – Unlike most lights and lasers, a RDS does not need to be manually activated after drawing your gun. While something as mundane as hitting a button can seem like a gimme under normal conditions, the action can be surprisingly difficult when a person is under duress.

Red Dots vs. Lasers
If you use the red dot like a front sight, you’re missing the point. Instead, focus on the threat.

Size Variety – You can purchase a RDS with any one of a variety of dot sizes. A smaller dot that’s 1.5 MOA is great for precision shooting, while a larger 6-MOA dot enables you to zero in on a target faster. A 2.5- to 3.5-MOA dot seems to be the industry standard. Some red dots are even available with different reticles, although a round dot is by far the most popular.

No Trace – RDSs are not only easy for you to see, but they are also invisible to everyone else. This means that a red dot won’t compromise your position, which is a big deal in a tactical situation.

Red Dots vs. Lasers
This would be an effective shot. There’s no need to perfectly center the dot on the target.

Holster Fit – Since a RDS is mounted to the slide as opposed to the rail or your pistol, many holsters designed for handguns with traditional sights will work with a red-dot-equipped pistol. However, when you add suppressor-height backup sights, you may run into problems.

Red Dot Cons

Acquiring the Dot – Finding the dot isn’t as easy as it would seem. Most shooters who are familiar with traditional pistol sights will be considerably slower aiming with a red dot.

Mounting – Unlike a rail-mounted accessory, a RDS will require a slide cut (either from the factory or aftermarket) or a mount designed to attach to the rear sight dovetail.

Red Dot Pros

De-escalation – Since a laser is also visible to your adversary, there’s a chance that seeing the dot may prompt them to comply or, at the very least, make them less motivated to attack.

Attach and Go – Most lasers are rail mounted. This means as long as your handgun has a rail, you’re good to go. There’s no need to modify the gun by milling the slide, switching out the sights or purchasing a mount.


Red Dots vs. Lasers

Combos – While a laser certainly does not take the place of a light, there are a number of light/laser combos on the market. If you’re going to mount a light to your handgun, why not opt for one that’s also laser-equipped? In a deadly force encounter, you’ll likely need the benefit of each.

Unconventional Aiming – With traditional pistol sights and red dots, your head needs to be behind the gun to aim. With a laser, that’s not the case. You can shoot from compromised positions where you may not be able to bring your gun to eye level. You could also shoot from behind cover without needlessly exposing yourself to incoming fire.

Red Dots vs. Lasers
One advantage a laser has over conventional irons and red dots is that the shooter doesn’t have to be behind the gun to engage a target.

Training Tool – In addition to the benefits a laser can afford you during a self-defense scenario, a laser is also a valuable training tool. Using the laser to aim a pistol loaded with a combination of live ammo and inert training rounds can help identify when the shooter is anticipating recoil. If the laser dips wildly when the trigger is pulled but the gun doesn’t fire, that’s a clue. In close-quarter shooting when the gun is held in a retention position below your line of sight, the laser can ensure your muzzle is on target and that your offhand isn’t in harm’s way.

Red Dot Cons

Wash Out – The biggest drawback to lasers is that they are difficult to see in direct sunlight. Green lasers are easier for the human eye to see than red, but even green lasers can wash out in bright sunlight, particularly at distance.

Red Dots vs. Lasers

Beam Works Both Ways – Much like a weapon-mounted light, a laser emitting from your handgun points both to the threat and to you. A laser could compromise your position, exposing you to known or unidentified threats.

Red-dot sights and laser sights each offer significant improvements over traditional handgun sights. Each enables you to do what your body will tend to do instinctively — focus on the threat. Since all you need to do is overlay the red dot or laser onto the target, the aiming process is simplified and makes for faster target acquisition.

Other Recommendations

When purchasing a red-dot sight, look for one that’s durable enough to withstand hard use.

Consider having your slide milled rather than attaching a mount to the rear sight’s dovetail. Milling the slide is a more secure and lower-profile method of securing the sight to your gun.

Red Dots vs. Lasers
Since red dots and lasers can fail, backup iron sights (BUIS) are critical.

For convenience, consider a unit that can accommodate a battery change without removing the red dot/laser from that handgun.

Choose a laser that is automatically or instinctively activated so you don’t have to fiddle with it. Depending on the manufacturer, this can be achieved simply by establishing a proper grip on the handgun or automatically when the handgun is removed from the holster.

Whichever device you choose, you’ll be better prepared to face the unexpected. Just don’t forget to practice until targeting is second nature. 

Red Dot

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