I spent this past week in Phoenix shooting the Superstition Mystery Mountain 3-Gun Competition. I finished somewhere in the middle of the pack, which isn’t bad considering that I borrowed all of the equipment. And the guns. And hadn’t practiced with any of it. Or at all, really, for months. Anyway, I was competing in the new “stealth” division, which gives shooters the freedom to have red dots on all their guns — handgun included. I hadn’t spent much time with a red dot-equipped handgun before. Now that I have I can say this with absolute certainty: meh . . .
Let’s start with this: I’m an okay pistol shooter. Nothing special, but I get the job done. I don’t have a problem using the iron sights normally found on a handgun, and my vision is good enough that getting a proper sight picture isn’t an issue. That said, I’m always looking for ways to cheat. If I can buy something that will enable me to be just that much faster or more accurate, I’m all in.
At first glance, a red dot on a handgun makes a lot of sense. There’s no longer any question about whether you’ve got your sights properly aligned — simply put the dot on the target and squeeze. It also can provide some significant assistance for those with poor eyesight, allowing those who normally need special glasses just to see the front sight to focusing on the bigger picture.
Which brings me to benefit #3: the added situational awareness that comes from looking through a red dot and observing everything around you instead of focusing on a tiny front sight post and whats behind it.
It makes sense on paper, but in the field things don’t always match up.
Personally, I found that it was really difficult to find the red dot under the clock. With standard handgun sights it is dead simple to find the sights and line them up, but when there’s a holographic floating dot that you need to find instead things get difficult. I definitely spent a good deal of time after the buzzer started just finding that little red dot.
That’s something that apparently can be fixed with practice — the red dot GLOCK pros claim that it takes a while to re-train yourself to find that dot, and then you get faster. But when I’m already doing just fine with my existing setup (and one that directly translates between my competition gun and my concealed carry handgun) I’m struggling to understand why the average shooter would want to go through that trouble.
Once I did find the dot, I didn’t notice any real differences in accuracy. I was just as accurate with the red dot as without, mainly due to the fact that the fundamentals of handgun shooting don’t change when you trade out a sighting system.
It didn’t feel like putting a red dot on the gun made me any more accurate. What it did instead: exaggerate every movement I made and showed me how I was aiming at the target. In that sense I could definitely see a red dot-equipped handgun as a great training tool, giving real time feedback to shooters about how their grip and stance was impacting their point of aim.
I also felt more confident about my shooting. While I might not have been any more accurate I was a heck of a lot more proficient at calling my shots and making follow-up shots. That’s probably due to the fact that I had a visual confirmation of exactly where the gun was pointing at the instant I pulled the trigger thanks to the red dot.
The dot makes sense for precision shots like a plate rack. When it comes to a “hose ’em down” array of paper targets the dot isn’t really all that beneficial. With a standard handgun I can get a “good enough” sight picture and let the bullets fly. With the red dot I couldn’t visually see how far off I was. All I could tell was that I was looking through a big circle with no indication of how far off that floating red dot was.
I don’t think I ever actually saw that red dot for the paper targets, with the sole exception of when I needed to make a headshot — and then it took me a couple extra seconds to find the dot, put it on target and pull the trigger.
Another issue that comes up when you start adding things to a handgun: reliability. Even when sopping wet from a fresh application of lube, the GLOCK 19 I was running had constant issues with a failure to go completely into battery. You can see that happening a couple times throughout that stage where I needed to tap-rack the gun or just smack the endplate to seat the round.
The added mass of the red dot on the slide was throwing off the delicate balancing act that is the operating system of a handgun and making it much more susceptible to failure. It’s definitely a problem that varies from person to person; my buddy Russel never had the same issues I experienced with that gun. Since that doesn’t happen with a standard issue GLOCK the red dot’s definitely an added point of failure.
Full disclosure: this specific handgun is a pre-production very early alpha design. KE Arms is still working on the final design and won’t release it until it is perfect, but it shows how mich work it takes to make a gun work with a red dot attached when it wasnt designed that way.
As a generally competent shooter trying a red dot handgun in competition for the first time, I’ve got some mixed opinions.
On the one hand it makes taking an accurate shot a little easier, but it’s also harder to get an acceptable sight picture for close-in work and can cause issues with the reliability of the gun. Personally I’m planning on sticking with standard iron sights on my FNS-9 competition handgun, but there are definitely people who would benefit from this kind of setup.
Those with less than perfect eyesight (like Fearless Leader Farago) might see an improvement in their shooting due to not having to pick up the tiny front sight anymore to hit the target. And newer shooters might find it a good practice tool to refine their shooting technique.
Don’t get me wrong, there’s definitely a market for this kind of thing. I’m just not part of it.
Special thanks to KE Arms for providing the shooting slot for the competition as well as all of the guns (like the example of their Aimpoint affixed GLOCK 19 slide), and Fiocci Ammunition for providing the ammunition.