I just looked on two popular websites that offer red dot sights for handguns. I was surprised to see the width, depth, and extent of the various product lines and options offered for these handgun sights. There are many related and involved decisions necessary for those who decide to use red dots for concealed carry and self-defense. When I searched, there were at least 85 different categories related to handgun red dot sights, options, and accessories, with 161 different brands priced from about $125 to over $1,000. The buyer must decide what they specifically want to buy and their preferred features and options. So a red dot user and/or a concealed carrier must do their research, shop around, and be especially informed.
Without any doubt, red dot sights, reflex sights, for handguns are very prolific now, and there are many important decisions and considerations to be made by the user when selecting one. I personally prefer, make that demand, that my red dot optic sight system allows me to easily co-witness with my iron sights as an emergency failsafe alternative. If the red dot malfunctions or the battery drains and is dead, the mounting hardware breaks, screws become loose, the zero for the red dot does not hold, electronics fail, and the dot is not there, or there is a very bright light, a back-up sight is available. The shooter’s life may depend on this backup. Now remember that backup iron sights can also break, but their malfunctions are usually more readily and quickly identifiable and not as severe as an electronic optic malfunction.
A Critical Consideration: Co-Witnessing
A major consideration when using red dot sights is co-witnessing. When used in reference to red dot sights, the term “co-witness” means how the red dot sight’s optical tube lines up with the backup iron sights (BUIS.) It is determined by the height of the red dot’s mounting above the bore. It must be mounted high enough for the shooter to see it and use it comfortably, as well as see the iron sights. For me, co-witnessing is a very important must-have for my red dot optics. Having a backup iron sight can be critical life-saving support in case the red dot fails.
Co-Witness with Iron Sight Alignment Options
Generally, there are two options for aligning the red dot and the iron sight: Absolute Co-Witness and Lower 1/3 Co-Witness.
1. Absolute Co-Witness: Sometimes this is called “Full Co-Witness” and means that the sights and the red dot are aligned perfectly at the same height, so when you look at the top of the gun, you see both the iron sights and the red dot aligned on the target.
2. Lower 1/3 Co-Witness: This means that the red dot sits a bit higher than the iron sights, so when the shooter looks along the top through the red-dot sight, the shooter only sees the red dot. The sights sit lower at the lower edge of the gun, so if the shooter drops his/her head a bit lower to aim through the iron sights, the red dot should still align with the target, assuming the fundamentals of aiming are followed.
TIP: The amount of iron sight that occupies the sight picture of the shooter’s red dot is the main difference between the Absolute and 1/3 Co-Witness.
With Absolute, there is 100% of the iron sight present, while this is not true with the red dot Lower 1/3. With the Absolute, the red dot reticle sits on the top edge of the front sight and is aligned with the iron sights. Some like this because it is an instant check to see if the sights have gotten off it’s Zero. Others say that the sight picture can be cluttered with this arrangement. With the Lower 1/3 Co-Witness, the shooter sees the bottom one-third of the iron sights through the red dot optic.
TIP: With either Absolute or Lower 1/3, the red dot will be on the top of the front sight post. The key difference is where the iron sights are within the red dot optic, either the lower one-third or the center.
Critical Decisions for Handgun Red Dot Sights
So other than price and intended use, a shooter buying a handgun red dot sight must decide on important things, such as:
- Compatible Gun Model/Type using the red dot, e.g., pistol, revolver, rifle
- Reticle, e.g., Single Dot, Circle with Dot, Circle, Triangle, etc.
- Red Dot Size, e.g., 2, 3, 4, or 6 MOA, etc.
- Battery Type, e.g., Lithium Ion, Alkaline, Nickel Cadmium, etc.
- Battery Life, e.g., 50,000 hours, one year, two years, four years, etc.
- Battery Location for replacement: remove the optic, or is it top loading?
- Brightness Settings desired, e.g., 0 to 20
- Illumination Color, e.g., red, green, amber
- Illumination Type, LED, Holographic, Tritium
- Eye Relief, e.g., Unlimited, 2-2.9″, 3-3.9″, 6-6.9,” etc.
- Waterproof and/or Fog Proof
- Shake Awake; Auto Turn Off and wait time
- Night Vision Compatible
- Co-Witnessing Capable with Gun Model
- Mounting Type/Attachment; Housing Material
- Warranty, e.g., Lifetime, Limited, One Year, Two Years, only for First Owner
- Elevation & Windage Adjustments for Zeroing; Discernible Clicks; Knobs
Tips: Zero Distance: My experiences tell me that generally, a 10-yard red dot zero distance serves best for most self-defense and most competitive shooting scenarios. About a 7-yard zero works for me for most up-close combat tactical encounters. But you never know the distance of your attacker, so be prepared. I can hold center for most silhouette-size targets from 5 to 20 yards. For smaller targets, like practice head-size boxes, which are 3 yards or so, I just hold the red dot just over the area I want to hit. Make certain the red dot optic you choose will “Hold its Zero” regularly, and check and keep those mounting screws tightened.
Pros and Advantages of Using Red Dot Optics
1. The time from draw to shooting is usually quicker.
The time from drawing and presenting the handgun is usually shortened with a red dot, given sufficient practice. Target acquisition time is quicker, and so is the first shot. So, competitive shooters and those in tactical and combat situations usually prefer red dot optics. Transitioning from one target to another is simply faster and easier because you do not have to align your front sight, your rear sight, and your target. When the red dot is on target, you are on target. If your sight is properly zeroed, there is no need to even center the dot.
2. Red Dots offer simple and natural focus on the threat.
Instead of focusing on both the front and rear sights and then solely on the front sight after glancing at the target, red dots allows the shooter to merely focus and place the dot on one thing, the target or threat. There is only one focal plane required with red dots, with no confusing 3-focal-planes or shifting your focus from the target to the front sight and back. The shooter views the whole target or threat, which is much more visible than sighting with irons. It is natural for a defender to focus on the threat, so the red dot enables the shooter to focus on the attacker and the red dot without having to shift the distance focus of the eyes. Red dots are more intuitive when engaging the target and automatically place the reticle on the target.
3. Both eyes are open with a wide peripheral view of threats.
Since one eye is not closed for sight alignment and sight picture placement of sights, and the shooter fires with both eyes open, the target area seen is larger, and the shooter has a wider, less restricted perspective with more peripheral vision of possible threats and the situation.
4. The aging shooter’s eyes from ocular aging can focus easier on the dot to help with accuracy.
Due to mere aging, the shooter may not be able to focus on the front sight clearly. Focusing on the red dot is easier for an aging shooter with adequate practice. And simpler to quickly learn and use since the red dot is simply superimposed on the target. Even if the red dot is not really crisp for older shooters, the dot can be easily aligned with the target, and effective target hits are usually made.
5. Visibility in low-light situations is generally improved by adjusting the dot’s brightness.
The shooting environment’s level of light can be matched with the reticle through brightness adjustments, enhancing visibility in low-light situations. Red dots stand out in dim and dark light when night sights are invisible or more difficult to see. For daylight shooting, the red dot’s brightness can be increased to ensure the red dot is visible.
6. Red dot sights have no magnification or optical distortion and are safe.
Red dot sights are all totally internal, allowing only the shooter to see the red dot on the target. There is no magnification or optical distortion. Unlike lasers, which project a red dot onto a target, red dot sights are all internal. A red dot sight uses a Light Emitting Diode (LED), which is completely eye-safe compared to a laser which produces an emission that can be harmful to your eyes. A red dot sight is an optic without magnification, while a scope is an optic with magnification.
7. Long-range shooting advantages.
Shooting at longer distances may be much easier for best target hits if you are using a red dot and using a larger size MOA dot. Some say that the most popular red dot MOA size for handguns is a 6 MOA reticle since it is easier to find the dot when you look through the glass window, which allows for quicker target acquisition. Recognize that most handgun defenders are not typically shooting further than 100 yards… usually closer than 25 yards.
TIP: As you can see above, the smaller the MOA dot size, the harder it is to see. The larger the MOA dot size, the easier to see, but usually less precise. Those with less-than-perfect eyesight, like aging seniors, can struggle with locating the dot, not only in the device’s window but also on the target. They may prefer a 6 MOA dot or close to that size dot. A 6 MOA at 50 yards will hit within 3 inches or at 100 yards within 6 inches, for example. For defensive purposes by design, a 6 MOA red dot size will work just fine, hitting within 3 inches at 50 yards or 1.5 inches at 25 yards.
One Minute of Angle is about equivalent to 1 inch at a 100-yard distance. So if you are shooting a handgun to hit a target 100 yards away and you are using a 3 MOA red dot, all your shots will hit within a 3-inch area (if the shooter is aiming at the same exact point on the target for each shot.) So, a 3 MOA at 10 yards will hit within 0.3 inches, while a 2 MOA at 10 yards will hit within 0.2 inches by design. Of course, the shooter has to do his/her part following shooting fundamentals.
A larger red dot, a 6 MOA, for example, could be helpful if you are hunting for a fast-moving target at a closer range. But a smaller red dot will give you higher precision for long-distance shots. A personal trade-off you must make; a difficult decision.
Decide your priority for your use of the optic. Either you want to hit fast-moving targets at a closer range, or you want higher precision at further distances.
Tips: I believe (strictly my opinion) that most self-defenders shoot at a distance of about 7 to 10 yards, so a 3 to 6 MOA dot-size range is generally probably best overall. Keep in mind that with a 3 MOA reticle, it is more difficult to acquire the dot rapidly, especially at longer distances. Practice and more practice are key. Keep in mind that a 3 or 3.5 MOA reticle may allow you to be just slightly more precise within the standard parameters of a handgun.
Tip: Generally, red dots with 3, 3.5, or 4 MOA will work for target shooting and for self-defense since precision and accuracy are most important. Red dots with 4 MOA to 5 MOA are a safe middle-of-the-road alternative for fast shooting and precision. 6 MOA or larger are great for aiming and shooting fast at close range, like when hunting a fast-moving target or addressing a near threat, or for those with failing vision.
Since there is no right or wrong answer when choosing between a 3 MOA versus a 6 MOA, etc. red dot, one may work best for you depending on your preference, the strength of your eyesight, your marksmanship skills, the distance to the target, the nature of the target, and other factors. Keep in mind that if you have practiced and know your fundamentals for shooting accurately, you will discover you can make those long-distance shots with a 3 to 4 MOA.
Cons and Disadvantages of Using Red Dot Optics
1. Red dot sights use batteries, and at some point in time, batteries will die and fail.
Shooters using red dot optics must be disciplined enough to regularly set a schedule for changing the battery in their optics. Having a regular maintenance schedule for replacing the battery, whether or not it needs it at the scheduled time, will help ensure an operational battery in a life-and-death deadly-force encounter. It may very well save your life for a small cost. Research battery life for your red dot.
Editor Tip: Order batteries on Amazon on a 6-month subscription so that when the batteries show in your mailbox, you know it is time to change them.
2. There is a steep learning curve to learn how to operate effectively and find the red dot.
For those shooters who have learned the front sight focus method of sight alignment and sight picture, have been shooting for several years, and are accustomed to front sight focus, it may be difficult to switch and unlearn your years of training, practice, and shooting with the front sight. With a red dot, there is no sight alignment between your front and rear sights. Just find the dot’s position in the window. Shooting with a red dot optic takes time to learn, takes some getting used to the concept, and is difficult and frustrating for some. It takes time to achieve speed and find the dot for effective hits on target. Some give up learning to shoot with a red dot after only one attempt because it is unnatural and counter-intuitive to their previous training. But expect to do more training for your red dot.
3. Shooters with astigmatism may not adapt well to the red dot.
Those who have astigmatism or other eye vision problems may have a difficult time getting a sharp, clear sight picture when using a red dot sight. The red dot might appear blurry or differently shaped, like a teardrop or question mark, or as two dots for some shooters with eye problems. A proper reticle can sometimes fix this distortion, as can trying various brands and models of optics.
4. Reticle/dot can wash out or become almost invisible when shooting in low light and not properly adjusting to certain lighting conditions.
When shooting inside a dark space into a lit outdoor space or when shooting inside a dark room with tactical light illuminating the target, for example, the reticle and dot may be washed out and be almost invisible to the shooter. Bright light also affects red dot visibility. Of course, this can be mitigated with the red dot automatically adjusting to the ambient lighting via an electronic sensor, if adjustable, or the red dot can be manually set to a specific brightness level by the shooter. There are varying levels of brightness adjustment. When the brightness level is too high, there usually is a flare, starburst, or glare around the reticle, appearing less crisp and larger than necessary for accuracy. Some red dots might not even be visible when pointed toward a strong light, such as the Sun.
5. The open sight window and exposed LED dot may allow rain, water, and debris to obscure and damage them.
The open design of several red dot sights can allow water, rain, debris, and loose fragments to collect and block the red dot emitter, alter its function, and possibly fracture or disfigure the dot. Also, this can lead to excessive fogging. Of course, if the red dot optic is accidentally dropped, it may not function or perform properly.
6. A basic, reliable red dot optic is expensive.
Reliable red dots are expensive. A proven, basic entry-level red dot optic that is reliable with acceptable performance will cost about $200. at this time, plus custom mounts. One with more quality options and very good performance ratings will cost from $200 to $700 now. While prices have come down a little in recent months, red dots have maintained their prices, and some find the expense to be a deal breaker. Remember, prices change almost daily, so do your current research.
7. Red dot optics are complicated electronic devices made with glass, metal housing, wires, circuits, solder, and batteries, subject to breakage.
While current generations of high-quality Mini Red Dot optics are fairly strong and durable, they are still complicated electronic equipment that is inherently fragile and subject to damage. And mounting screws and plates can break, and their parts can be dangerous projectiles, so be cautious around them. They are prone to breakage more so than simple iron sights, so a replacement can be costly.
8. Recognize that there are trade-offs for concealed carry.
While there are certainly advantages to using a red dot, specifically for concealed carry, each shooter/carrier must decide for their given particular needs, goals, shooting skills, risk situations, possible deadly-force risk encounters, personal preferences, and other variables whether or not carrying a handgun with a red dot attached is best for themselves. Concealed carriers want to consider that while most self-defense encounters occur at 7 yards or less, there are definite probabilities for longer distance encounters. Of course, situations vary, and there may not be a typical situation for generalizations.
Considerations for adding extra height, weight, and possibly width (especially for inside-the-waistband carry) for concealed carry of the gun and red dot must be recognized, and, perhaps, trade-offs made. There is also a possibility that the gun and red dot unit may snag on clothing during a quick draw. Without a doubt, consumer demand has resulted in improved electronic optics that are thin, light, and solidly built with low profiles, long battery life, better reticles, and other improvements for carry. Most definitely, your decision for your specific goals, priorities, and preferences.
Red dot sights for handguns are very prolific now, and there are many important decisions and considerations to be made by the shooter when selecting one. Know their pros, cons, and considerations. A critical decision is whether or not to have your red dot sight Co-Witness with the handgun’s iron sights. If the red dot malfunctions or the battery drains and is dead, the mounting hardware breaks, screws become loose, the zero for the red dot does not hold, electronics fail, and the dot is not there, or there is a very bright light, a back-up sight is available. The shooter’s life may depend on this backup.
It is of paramount importance that the shooter knows the advantages/pros and disadvantages/cons of red dot optics. Pay attention to my Tips. Most defensive handgun uses in self-defense situations happen at less than 7 yards, according to most research. Keep in mind that while red dots easily outperform iron sights at a longer distance, they may not perform the best for self-defense deadly-force close encounters at short distances. Using a handgun red dot sight is not for everyone. But take time to learn their pros and cons and shoot a handgun with a red dot sight, so you can make a well-informed decision.
Continued Success, and Be Safe!
Photos by author.
* 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.
© 2022 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 ColBFF@gmail.com.