At one time, reflex sights (or red dots, if you prefer) were the domain of law enforcement, military professionals and top competitive shooters. Over time, the rest of the shooting world slowly began gravitating toward reflex sights, and today most new pistols being rolled out today have slides that are pre-cut for optics.
Why this sudden shift toward pistol-mounted optics? Cool factor, for one thing. Imitation is supposed to be the sincerest form of flattery, and that’s certainly true in the firearm world. When the top shooters in the nation carry pistols with optics, it’s only a matter of time before the shooting public does the same. But, what are the real advantages of reflex optics, and can the average shooter benefit from reflex optics?
Reflex Optics: The Good and the Bad
It’s been proven in pistol competition that reflex sights can improve your speed and accuracy. The key word there is “can,” because odds are that if you start shooting a red dot and pistol having only ever fired guns with iron sights you likely will neither be more accurate nor faster. In fact, you may spend time looking foolish as you spend time craning your neck and wagging the sights as you try to find the dot.
Reflex sights don’t automatically make you a better shot, but once you learn to shoot them efficiently you’ll likely be better than you ever were with iron sights. That’s because reflex sights offer a precise aiming point that allows you to align objects on two planes (the dot and the target) as opposed to three (front sight, rear sight, target). Many new shooters struggle with the concept of front sight focus when shooting pistols equipped with iron sights, but they get the concept of positioning the dot where you want to strike the target.
Understanding the concept and applying that concept to real-world applications are very different processes, though. The concept of red dots is deceptively simple. However, making that dot appear quickly and consistently on your target following a draw stroke can be challenging.
Red-dot sights are allowing shooters with aging eyes to shoot better, too. A loss of visual acuity is a natural part of the aging process, and at some point it becomes difficult for most people to use iron sights efficiently. Sometimes even corrective lenses don’t help the problem. However, a reflex sight can help those shooters produce tight groups. And, of course, reflex sights offer a consistent aiming point in any light conditions, so as long as you can see your target you can shoot your gun accurately.
Convinced that reflex sights might be right for you? Well, you’ll need to know some basics before you begin if you want to shoot quickly, consistently, and accurately. These four tips will help flatten the learning curve when shooting red-dot optics.
Fit and Installation
To be accurate, reflex sights must be securely mounted to your pistol because any shift in the sight’s position results in a shift in point of impact. This all sounds very elementary, like telling someone that they need air in their automobile tires. However, a significant portion of the people who tell me their new red-dot-equipped pistol isn’t working simply have loose or ill-fitting optics. Sight security has never been an issue with their iron-sighted pistols, so they don’t think to examine their reflex sight.
First and foremost, read the manual for both your optics and your pistol. Determine which base is needed for your optic, and make sure that the screws you are using are the correct length and thread pattern. Perhaps most importantly, tighten optics screws to manufacturer specifications (which will require a torque wrench with an inch/pounds gauge, not guesstimation). One of the top optics manufacturers told me that overtightening and stripping screws is one of the primary causes of optics failures, both on reflex sights and magnified optics. Once your reflex sight is secure on your pistol it is ready to survive the abuses of daily carry and still perform consistently.
As with installation, selecting dot size, color, and intensity impacts your success with a reflex sight. Let’s begin with dot size. Dots are measured in MOA, so a 1-MOA dot covers roughly 1 inch of the target at 100 yards. That’s great for precise shooting, but it’s a very small aiming point for personal defense. Most pistols sights fall somewhere between 3 and 6 MOA, which is suitable for close to moderate-range pistol shooting. Which you prefer is a matter of personal taste.
Dot color is another matter of personal taste, but since the human eye does see green more clearly than red a green dot will be more visible to most people in a wider variety of lighting conditions, particularly full sun. The nickname “red-dot sights” is a pretty clear indicator that red is, in fact, the most common color choice for reflex optic dots.
Speaking of intensity, you don’t want a “halo” around your sight. If the dot does not have clearly defined edges it is too bright and accuracy will be compromised. Many reflex sights have an auto intensity adjustment feature, but you should always be certain that the auto adjust matches your eyes. If not, you should manually set intensity for maximum accuracy.