Handgun Mini Red Dot Sights: Basic Considerations & Opinions

Handgun Mini Red Dot Sights: Basic Considerations & Opinions

The latest and greatest for handguns seems to be Mini Red Dot reflex sights (MRDS.) Have they replaced laser sights or even the respected iron sights for handguns? No, not yet, but? What do you primarily use handgun MRDS for? Concealed carry, home defense, mostly competition, long-distance shots for hunting, short close quarters defensive shots, or all of the above, none of the above, or just some of the above?

While they have been around for what seems like forever in long gun use, especially for hunting and competitions, is there a steep learning curve to effectively adapt to the handgun MRDS concept and effectively use them? Would we or should we use them for concealed carry? Should we abandon our iron sights altogether? Co-witness?

Well, to save you some time, I want to share with you my informal subjective research and give you a brief introduction and opinions from me as a newcomer with very limited experiences with handgun MRDS. So this is not meant to be a formal test, field trial, and experienced evaluation of MRDS. Just a fundamental and general overview to get you started for your own discoveries and tests. Two leading manufacturers have promised me field tests later. But for this article, I want to give you the basic MRDS concept and its terminology, some of the types of MRDS systems, some current market examples, and some pros, cons, and general tips about MRDS the way I see them.

For Mini Red Dot reflex sights:

  • Do NOT focus on your front sight
  • Do focus on the target or threat
  • Do NOT do your usual sight alignment
  • Find and focus on the dot
  • Do NOT worry about your head, eye, and body movement from side to side
  • Do NOT hesitate to take that 50-yard shot, since the inherent accuracy will be there.

I wondered about the shaking and repeated recoil movement of the slide that might affect the zero and accuracy and then require frequent zeroing of the gun and MRDS? Well, as a 45-year iron-sight-entrenched handgun shooter, minor-league competitor, and instructor who learned to focus on the front sight, minimize movement, and do my proper sight alignment when appropriate, I wondered if these fancy new MRDS were for me and my handguns. Could this aging old codger quickly adapt to them? Would I have a long and steep learning curve? Would I be able to smoothly transition to target/threat-focused shooting and “finding the dot,” rather than primarily using my front sight focus and sight alignment with my iron sights? What would it cost me to transition to MRDS? Are they outrageously priced now? Should I get MRDS milled and mounted to my slide I already own or buy a new slide with MRDS mounted? Should I get a gun already mounted to receive MRDS and buy the MRDS separately? Should I get a complete gun system with the MRDS already mounted and ready to use? What types of MRDS systems are available and for what purposes?

Most importantly, would I use the Mini Red Dot Sights for Every Day Carry (EDC) on my concealed carry  gun? Will the benefits outweigh the disadvantages and what are they? Now as the imminent jester and genius quipster Seinfeld says, “not that there is anything wrong with” technological advancement, progress, improved effectiveness, and change, the questions still lingered for me. Probably for you as well.

Something that got my attention from the “experts” were that several handgun MRDS users say that when using MRDS you SHOULD focus on the target or threat (rather than the front sight), do NOT need to line up your front sight, rear sight, and target (just find the dot), and that within 5 years or less MRDS will certainly replace almost all iron sights.

These were bold statements that immediately not only grabbed my attention, but caused me to think and question the validity of MRDS up front. Was the demand there? Was this merely  “snakeoil” to sell a new product or a valid improvement for aiming and accuracy help? I sincerely believe now as a neophyte to optics and MRDS on handguns that mounting a MRDS on it is NOT a magic solution that will have shooters hitting the 10 ring every time. I hope I learn I am wrong, as I gain more MRDS experience.

At this point, I know very few concealed carry  folks who carry MRDS. So I want to help by sharing my unscientific research, trying to be as objective as possible, but forming my subjective opinions to help determine if I am ready to switch to MRDS for concealed carry. Hope it helps you also.

Trijicon Red Dot Reflex Sight

Trijicon Red Dot Reflex Sight

The Basic Mini Red Dot Reflex Sight Reflector Concept

The reflector-type sights have been around for a while, since their 1900 invention as reflex or reflector sights, and are used on all kinds of weapon systems where the operator has to engage fast moving targets over a wide field of view. Think fighter aircraft and anti-tank gun sights. There are civilian applications as well, like camera viewfinders and optical telescopes. Essentially, the dot stays on the target even though the viewer’s head and body move from side to side. The bright MRDS serves as your aiming point. Wikipedia defines a reflector or reflex sight as:

“An optical device that allows the user to look through a partially reflecting glass element and see an illuminated projection of an aiming point superimposed on the field of view.”

An oversimplification is that these sights are based on a simple optical principle that anything at the focus of a lens looks like it is right in front of you at whatever distance. Through the reflector lens process of bouncing images off a slanted or curved glass (e.g. illuminated reticle), the viewer can see the infinity image and the field of view at the same time, without most sighting errors and regardless of the viewer’s eye, head, and body position. With MRDS only ONE FOCAL POINT is needed, rather than front and rear sight alignment. A MRDS places the dot in the same focal plane as the target, so BOTH are in focus. The concept and application does seem to work. In the late 1970s, the red dot sight came along with a red light-emitting diode (LED) as its reticle. Using an LED as a reticle greatly improves the reliability and usefulness of a sight and there is no need for other optical elements to focus light behind a reticle. 

Common Helpful Mini Red Dot Reflex Sight Terminology

Types of Reticles-MOA Sizes

 

Here are some basic terms that will help you with MRDS sights.

Reticle

The arrangement of lines, shapes, and images in the eyepiece of a sighting device, such as your pistol, telescope, and microscope. There are many patterns, shapes, colors, and illumination options for reticles. Above you can see some common reticles, the cross, circle, and dot. Usually the color of a pistol reticle is red or amber for visibility against most backgrounds, but orange and green are available. The reticle shape can be like crosshairs or intersecting lines and in many different shapes like a triangle, ring, post, as well as a cross, dot, circle, mini dot, etc. to help with precision aiming, range estimation, etc. Most sights have either active or passive adjustments for reticle brightness for adapting to various lighting conditions.

1 MOA = 1 Inch PER 100 Yards

 

MOA

Sights that use dot reticles are measured in Minutes Of Angle (MOA) and are angular measurements. MOA is a convenient way for shooters to measure accuracy and ballistics at various distances using English units, since 1 MOA indicates the extent or spread of the angle and varies by distance. The size of the dot is measured in MOAs. 1 MOA spreads about 1″ per 100 yards. 1 MOA equals 1/60th of a degree or .1666667 degrees. A 3 to 5 MOA dot is small enough to not obscure most targets but large enough to quickly acquire a proper sight picture. For some type of action shooting, e.g. precision rifles at longer distances, a larger dot is preferred. I think a shooter should think in increments of 1 MOA at whatever distance they are shooting. For example, assume you are shooting at 200 yards. You know that a MOA spreads out 1″ per 100 yards, so then 1 MOA at 200 yards is 2.” So, for your calculations at 200 yards, you should think in 2″ increments. So a 2 MOA is just two of those 2″ increments, or 4″ total. And 1/2 MOA is 1/2 of those 2″ increments, or 1.” You simply divide the distance (in yards) you are shooting by 100 to know how big 1 MOA is in inches. So, if you are shooting at 250 yards– 250/100 = 2.5 MOA at 250 yards is a 2.5″ spread. Above shooting at 50 yards at 3 MOA there is a 1.5″ wide angle or tight spread.

Tube or Open Sights

Today’s optical reflector sights for guns have these two housing configurations. Tube sights have a cylinder-shaped tube that contains the optics, similar to standard telescopic sights. Some Tube sights have various options, like interchangeable filters, glare-reducing sunshades, or flip-up lens covers. Open sights (also known as “mini reflex sights” and “mini red dots-MRDS”) are low profile in that only the optical window is configured, not any housing. So just a base for mounting and the necessary reflective surface for the reticle are used, usually without filters or other extra accessories like with tube sights.

Co-Witnessing

Co-witnessing means that you can still see and use your iron sights along with or instead of a MRDS which is placed at the appropriate height so you can see both. Placement of the iron sights at the appropriate height is the key. These iron sights are also called BUIS (back-up iron sights) and are often used on military guns like the AR-15 and offer a secondary sighting system in case of red dot failure. MRDS are almost always zero power or one power. This means they do not magnify and are not for precision shooting, but our military uses them on their small arms because the hit percentage is drastically higher than with iron sights. Competitive speed shooters also use MRDS on their handguns for the same reason and because the larger the dot, the quicker they can find and shoot their target. 

Burris Fastfire 3 Red Dot Sights-on Pistol

 

General Types of Mini Red Dot Reflex Sights

Most MRDS are defined as Reflex sights, as opposed to Holographic sights, like the EOTech sights which are Holographic ones. EOTech is the only company that makes them because they own the patent. There are basically two types of Red Dot sights, Reflex and Holographic.

Reflex

This refers to the fact that the aiming LED (light-emitting diode) reticle shape is projected forward from a point behind the lens and then is REFLECTED off the back of the lens assembly toward the shooter’s eye. The lens serves as a partial mirror that does not allow as much light to pass through it as would a regular lens like in a telescope. The reflective lens coating is carefully tuned to reflect a specific amount of light from the reticle illumination system, which is usually an LED (light-emitting diode). Some Reflex sights use ambient light from a fiber-optic system and others use a tritium unit for reticle illumination in low light conditions, e.g. some Trijicon and Meprolight reflex sights use tritium. Since the lens coating reflects exactly the color of the reticle, the reticle is very efficiently reflected back to your eyes and is clearly visible against the target. This is true even for colorblind folks, like me. There are two types of Reflex sights: one compact one where the beam is exposed… and one tube-shaped with its beam contained.

Holographic

With this type sighting system, a reticle is superimposed on your view of the target by way of a laser transmission hologram. Simply, it means a photograph of the reticle is taken using a very precise application of laser light. This layman understands that the hologram is sandwiched in glass and forms a window through which you view your target. The laser light coming through the hologram is polarized. A Holographic sight will probably not alter the usual light going through it’s sighting window because there is no reflective coating. Usually Holographic sights cannot mount as low on the handgun as a reflex or tube-type sight. Also, wearing polarize shooting glasses may alter viewing of the hologram due to the laser light polarization, but this is not my area of expertise.

Best-Red Dot Sight Picture

Some Mini Red Dot Reflex Sight Considerations

10 General Advantages:

  • Faster Sight Picture Acquisition
  • Precise Long Range & Short Range Accuracy – no need for Sight Alignment – just Find & Place the Dot & press trigger
  • Effective in Night-Low Light Conditions – with proper dot brightness
  • Help for those with Poor Sight & Aging Eyes – since Dot always in focus & no front sight focus
  • Help for maintaining Focus on Threat & Situational Awareness – no shifting focus between sights and target
  • Maintains Peripheral Vision – since can easily shoot with Both Eyes Open
  • No concealed carry  Open – Top Holster fit problems- since MRDS does not extend past ejection port
  • Infinite Field of View – makes locating & transitioning among targets easier
  • Can concentrate more on Key Shooting Fundamentals (trigger press & breath control) – since do not have to do sight alignment
  • Shooting Techniques Enhanced – since slight imperfections in trigger press & hand steadiness are made obvious by movement of bright red dot

11 General Disadvantages:

  • Battery life length (although improving) and Unexpected Failure under stress
  • Must continue to maintain proficiency with Iron Sights as Backup, for MRDS failure
  • Costly to upgrade present handgun system or to modify existing gun-variety of expenses: gun, MRDS, slide milling, many possible Adapters, higher Iron Sights, new slide system, etc. (wide variety of prices- about $900 and up)
  • Extensive training required and somewhat long learning curve to transition to MRDS
  • Many MRDS systems and possible modification options to choose from – takes planning & time
  • Finding the Dot can take time when in unusual shooting positions or on the move
  • Must remember to Check or Change the Battery regularly – May be cumbersome to have to remove MRDS to change battery
  • May be necessary to Re-Mount the sight or Re-Zero the handgun, due to heavy recoil
  • MRDS set screws may have to be frequently tightened or secured for safety
  • May have to acquire special higher Iron Sights beyond OEM sights to allow Co-Witnessing
  • May not adapt well to various wet weather conditions – waterproofing concern

Selected Mini Red Dot Reflex Sight Manufacturers:

  • Trijicon RMR & Adjustable Reflex
  • Leupold DeltaPoint
  • Burris Fast Fire 3
  • Vortex Razor & Venom
  • Sig Sauer Romeo 1 & 3
  • Aimpoint Pro
  • Shield Sights
  • Bushnell First Strike
  • Doctor Sight C
  • Truglo Dual Color Open Red Dot
  • Meopta M-RAD
  • EoTech MRDS
  • Insight 261/PVS

Conclusions for Mini Red Dot Reflex Sight and for Carry

Well, there are a lot of considerations in deciding to go with a MRDS. Making the decision is a very personal one and there is no single best answer, because we have different needs, preferences, physical abilities, training processes, learned behaviors, eyeball age, and credit-card limits. I wish it were easy, but it is not. Some of the disadvantages (and advantages) above may not apply to you and every situation or use, so consider your unique use and factors. Sadly, we cannot just add a red dot to our concealed carry  gun, because there are so many variables, options, factors, and prices, so I have given you just a few to think about.  At least, I hope my research and information here helped you some and saved you some time my friends. For me, I believe they are a great technological advancement and help, but now is not the time for me for my concealed carry  purposes and for many personal reasons. Maybe they are for you? Remember, your moments of decision affect your entire life, so go through the process carefully and choose wisely! Success!

Photos by Author and Manufacturers.

* This personal opinion article is meant for general information & educational purposes only and the author strongly recommends that you seek counsel from an attorney for legal advice and your own personal certified weapons trainer for proper guidance about shooting & using YOUR firearms, self-defense and concealed carry. It should not be relied upon as accurate for all shooters & the author assumes no responsibility for anyone’s use of the information and shall not be liable for any improper or incorrect use of the information or any damages or injuries incurred whatsoever.

© 2017 Col Benjamin Findley. All Rights Reserved. This article may not be reprinted or reproduced in whole or in part by mechanical means, photocopying, electronic reproduction, scanning, or any other means without prior written permission. For copyright information, contact Col Ben Findley at [email protected].

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  • looks cumbersome for carry

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    • Col Ben

      Hey Jim! There are a lot of factors to consider for any optic for any use, especially for CC. Yes, bulk and weight are some considerations. I just bought one combined RD sight/pistol package and will probably buy another. Most have 6-7 optic adapters for your preferred optics. They just help so much with accuracy and mine works brightly in both daylight and nighttime. They help with precision & fast sight picture acquisition, but you do have to practice a lot with them to improve your learning curve and accuracy. But, the RD sight does help and it’s fun to shoot. “Finding the dot” takes practice, but it is worth it. I’m not certain, given my basic experience level with them at this time, that they are for me for CC. As my experience level with the RD sights improve, I’ll reevaluate. Great now for home defense, range plinking, & competitive shooting. This is a great technology and a wave of the future for handguns. To each his own decision for their particular goal, priority, skills, use, and wallet. Best Decisions & Be safe!

      • I wonder if there is an advantage for older shooters. I am not old, but older and my night vision is getting worse and I am far sighted, although I could see that changing to being neither, meaning I’ll need bifocals at some point. Red doesn’t work as well for me as green in some circumstances. Again, if it helps, we can adapt. Just wondering your take.

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        • Col Ben

          Jim, I am an old codger with diminishing near & far eyesight, wear bifocals, am color blind, have 2 developing cataracts, but my night vision is alright so far. When I use my present optical red dot sight with 3 MOA (recently acquired), it is very bright for me at night time as well as in the daytime conditions… and I can see it fine with my bifocals. I was really surprised at this & I have the RD just set on the medium-low brightness setting, not the brightest. Like you, I prefer by far the green dot and even fiber optic green. The problem for me is “finding the dot” but I have not practiced this a lot. I know it will improve with practice. So for this aged dinosaur, the RD sight works fine, but I am just slow at picking it up due to lack of practice. You should borrow a friend’s RD or rent one before you buy, to see how it works for you. Hope this helps my friend.

          • Thank you, I appreciate the reply.

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