I will admit that I have been a holdout in terms of embracing new technology. While I moved to optical sights on long guns decades ago, I have only recently put in the work on the pistol red dot sight to truly gain proficiency with it. Do I think you should put a red dot on your handgun if you have not done so already? Maybe. Maybe not. I am agnostic. There are, indeed, some significant benefits to be gained with a red dot, but there are also the complications that come along with the added technology that must be considered. I firmly believe that the technology is now solid enough to be reliable for concealed carry and duty use. Therefore, deciding to go with a dot or not comes down to your preferences and your priorities.
First, Consider the advantages and disadvantages of a red dot optic on a pistol:
Concerning advantages, first, distance shooting is made significantly easier for most people compared to iron sights. Second, if you have issues seeing iron sights, a dot may solve visual limitations. Third, a dot makes it easier for most people to quickly aim because only one plane of focus is necessary since you are not aligning sights. Fourth, they are good in low light (with the caveat that they can actually add some complication to shooting with a white light). Fifth, an argument is often made that the dot allows you to stay target focused, and this may be a benefit for many shooters, but high-end iron shooters have been using target focus for a long time, so this purported advantage may be user-specific.
First, obviously, when moving to a dot, you have added expense. The good news is that there are some solid red dots on the market for much less money than what used to be required to get something reliable. Still, you are generally going to spend as much on the dot and mounting system as you did on the gun. Second, the dot adds another point of failure. Now, again, the good ones are at the point where they are very reliable, and the battery life is long enough that it is less of a concern. Still, any machine can fail, but a red dot also introduces other points of failure, such as moisture occluding the lenses, debris occluding the diopter (an issue that is mitigated with “closed diopter” sights), and the lenses fogging up when going from heat to cold or vice versa. The benefits may certainly outweigh the disadvantages, but one must honestly assess the full picture, and these things are disadvantages.
Do I need a Dot?
The only way to answer the question of whether you would, personally, benefit from a dot sight is to use one and compare your performance against iron sights. Generally, most shooters find a significant advantage in the dot for shooting at distance, typically beyond fifteen yards, as the dot generally provides more accuracy than iron sights. Many will argue that the dot is “slower” at closer ranges, but this is a training issue. The dot can be just as fast in close, but it demands the required cross-over training. Ultimately, the aiming process is the same whether using a dot or iron sights, but there are some nuances in the presentation of the gun that most shooters need to fix when going to a dot.
What I have found is that, unless dealing with visual limitations, really good shooters see less of a difference between irons and a red dot at closer distances, and even further range accuracy is less stark among good shooters. While the dot will still prove advantages for fine accuracy, a very good iron sight shooter may find the difference negligible at realistic engagement distances to the point of questioning the added value of the dot. Newer shooters typically find a significant accuracy advantage with a dot, but they struggle to pick the dot up quickly at close range (again, a training issue), so the only way to determine if a dot is beneficial for you, personally, is to spend some time with one. If your do work with a dot, then you need to spend adequate time with it, because on first impression, you will not like it. It takes some work. With that said, here are some tips to get you started working with a red dot on the pistol:
Get the Presentation Right
The single biggest challenge that most face when moving to a red dot is that they “can’t find the dot” when they present the gun. Upon pressing the gun out to target, the dot is not visible, so the shooter fishes the gun around until the dot appears in the optic. This is typical. The reason for this is that, unlike when a red dot is on a rifle that makes multiple points of contact to the body, thus getting the alignment right, the dot on a handgun will be misaligned to the eye unless the handgun presentation is perfect. Building the perfect presentation takes time and work. Iron sights are always visible during the presentation process, so the shooter can make adjustments to visually align the sights. With the dot optic, if the dot is not visible, then the shooter needs to fish around and search for it in the window.
To overcome this problem, you need to practice so that your presentation to this perfect alignment is consistent. Fortunately, most of this practice can be done dry without firing a round. A key element to acquiring a perfect presentation is to have the grip solid before the gun is aligned on the target. You must build the ability to consistently execute the same grip, same presentation, to the same spot in relation to your eye every time. It takes work, and there are some techniques to aid in this that can be taught by any of the experienced red dot trainers. Single-handed alignment is even more challenging, and one should not neglect building this competency as well.
The truth remains, however, that to have a good presentation with iron sights, the same consistency is necessary, yet most shooters never realize this with iron sights because irons provide a crutch with the ability to make a visual adjustment. To shoot quickly and accurately, however, the initial presentation should have the dot visible or iron sights already aligned, so the principle remains the same.
The Dot is Always Moving
The second challenge that most shooters face when transitioning to the red dot is the fact that the dot never stops moving. The truth is, iron sights never stop moving, but the dot is more visually precise, so the movement is much more perceptible with the dot. Many new shooters, when using a dot, feel the urge to get the dot perfectly aligned with the target area and then rush to break the shot when they sense the dot stops moving for an instant. Rushing the shot leads to a poor trigger press which results in a bad shot. You must get accustomed to the fact that the dot is always in motion. When the dot is in the required target area, the shot needs to be made with a smooth trigger press, and the dot does not need to be still to do this.
If you do decide to dabble with a red dot, you will find that you will gain confidence in it when you get the presentation sold and learn to track the always-moving dot. Once getting past these nuances of the dot sight, you will find that shooting is shooting, and the fundamentals remain the same whether using irons or a dot. Adopt using a dot on your carry gun, or don’t, based on your honest assessment of the benefits versus the disadvantages.