Concealed Carry

Red Dot or Iron Sights for a Self-Defense Encounter

Female competition shooter shooting a 1911 pistol topped with a red dot sight

Red dot sights are becoming too prevalent to ignore. As an experimenter and trainer, I keep on hand as many of the popular handguns as is economically feasible. At a minimum, I have a selection that is representative examples of most action types.

I also have a couple of red dot sight-equipped handguns. Slide-mounted red dot sights are a neat trick, and in some cases, reliable enough for duty use. While red dot sights have come a long way, I still prefer a unit that allows the shooter to co-witness with iron sights — in case the optic fails.

Holosun red dot sight on a SIG Sauer 9mm semi-automatic handgun
The Holosun sight offers a sharp picture and proven reliability.

Most of the popular handguns are now offered with optic-cut slides and even optic-mounted handguns from the factory. Red dot sights do seem to be simpler to quickly learn and may be effective in personal defense situations. While I have seen trends come and go, including gun-mounted lasers, the red dot seems here to stay.

A few decades ago, the old tube-type dot sight was strictly a competition-style sight. Today, we have small, but reliable, red dot sights from SIG, Holosun, Trijicon, and others. Rather than focus on both sights and the target — front sight, front sight — the red dot allows the shooter to place the dot on the target and only focus on one thing.

The red dot also invites firing with both eyes open. With a moderately well-balanced handgun, the red dot is brought up and quickly on target. I stress again, get on target with the red dot laying on the threat, press the trigger. and you’ll have a hit. Since you do not have to close one eye, and instead fire with both eyes open, the area observed is larger. Therefore, you are less likely to be blindsided by a threat.

Another advantage is a view of the whole target, the entire threat. With conventional iron sights, the target is partially obscured by the sights. With a red dot, the target is much more visible.

The red dot is simply superimposed on the target. For shooting in daylight conditions, you may need to jack the light’s power up to ensure the red dot is visible. In dim light, the red dot should be at a lower setting. Otherwise, the brightness will affect your visibility.

Sight picture of a pistol equipped with a red dot sight co-witnessed with iron sights
The red dot sight picture takes some getting used to.

At ranges much past seven yards, you will probably see the entire target. When you are using the red dot, I like to compare it to an aperture sight. The red dot housing tends to fade from focus and the red dot is highly visible. This takes time to achieve real speed and focus.

I recently worked with a senior citizen whose eyes were not what they once were and who had some difficulty mating the proper prescription to his shooting skills. I took the time to explain red dot brightness settings. After a few hours in personal drills, he was thrilled with the results. The red dot is a godsend for older eyes with less visual acuity. However, as experience has taught, he was an exceptional student.

The Downsides of Using Red Dot

There are downsides to the red dot. Older pistols are not easily modified to red dot mounting. It is best to purchase a red dot-equipped pistol from the factory. Red dot sights are not inexpensive in the best examples. Glass and batteries are downsides, and we should always deploy a pistol with backup sights visible through the red dot (co-witness) for serious use.

Browning Buckmark pistol with an early model electronic sight
First generation electronic sights were pretty hefty. We have much better choices today.

For many years, riflemen have understood that a quality optical sight should cost as much as the firearm or more. A competent red dot sight is in the same category with few exceptions. As an example, the Holosun is priced at about $300 and represents a best buy among red dot sights.

Bright Light, Low Light, and Batteries

I have mentioned the need to set the red dot for bright light or dim light. There is a certain sweet spot that may be found that sets the red dot at the best medium for most shooters. Too much light is bad in the home, too little is bad in the outdoors.

Battery life may extend to several years, but it is best to change the batteries at regular intervals, if the red dot is used for critical duty. Red dots are subject to damage in inclement weather or when dropped or damaged. Finding a holster for your pistol with an optic sight is no longer a concern. Virtually all the major makers have redesigned their gear for optics-mounted handguns.

sight picture with the red dot co-witnessed to the iron sights
Some prefer the red dot to be an exact co-witness.

Experience Matters

There is one difficulty that, in my experience, is more difficult than some acclimations in firearms. I think moving to an optical sight is easier with a rifle than with a handgun. However, for those like myself who have used iron sights for many decades, we may find the move to a red dot sight a bit difficult.

There is no front sight, so “front sight, front sight, front sight” as has been ingrained into our skulls for so long, goes out the window. There really is no sight alignment. You simply find the red dot.

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However, trying to acquire the dot and chasing the dot for each succeeding shot, isn’t fast at all. You will be slower during this acclimation period. I have stressed that the presentation from concealed carry leads to the correct stance and sight picture. With the red dot sight, this is especially important.

If you draw the pistol smoothly and move into the firing stance, you will move the pistol to the eye and find the dot. If you have a strong consistent grip and follow-through, you will be able to keep the red dot in sight and on the target as the pistol cycles and recoils. This makes for real speed.

While I believe that co-witness iron sights are good to have, don’t rely on them to lead you to the red dot. That makes for slow, slow shooting. Rely on one sight system or the other and rely on the red dot as intended.

Many shooters who are new to red dots or out of practice have line-of-sight issues. They are used to bringing the pistol to the eyes and acquiring iron sights. Many are very fast at what they do.

N8 Tactical holster cut for a handgun equipped with a red dot sight
N8 Tactical offers quality holsters with an optics cut.

The problem is, after switching to a red dot, the line of sight is confused. They have trained and this is a good thing. Their training is good.

They simply must move to a different type of shooting and raise the pistol to a different sight line. It is similar to acclimating to a rifle scope. A cheek pad or a rise in the stock is necessary. This works well for most shooters.

With the pistol, however, muscle memory tends to have the shooter aiming over the top of the slide. As a result, the shooter is fishing for the red dot, unsure of whether to bring the gun up to the eye or to bring the chin down and fire.

There are experienced pistol shooters running into problems at this point. This could be deadly in a self-defense situation where speed and accurate shot placement is everything. You must retrain yourself.

Shooter holding a red dot equipped pistol
Service grade gear is important. In the end, though, the shooter is most important.

The presentation, firing grip, and trigger press are the same. The sight picture is different. Very few self-defense shooters employing a red dot sight have a pistol with backup iron sights.

I would guess very few are as skilled as the competition shooter who uses a red dot sight to win the match. The self-defense shooter’s natural point of aim conflicts with the point of aim and line of sight they must adopt to properly use the red dot sight. After all, there is a lot of pressure in a personal defense situation. You will revert to muscle memory, not the shiny new red dot.

Red Dot Sight Test

I attacked the problem head-on by using two similar Smith & Wesson Military & Police 2.0 10mm pistols. Go big or go home, right? I began with the draw stroke. The draw stroke is the same to a point. The divergence is largely in the support hand. Get the support hand up, the thumbs pointing forward toward the target. This makes a huge difference in target acquisition speed.

Bob campbell learning to shoot a red dot sight mounted on a S&W 10mm handgun
The author found the red dot sight fast and accurate but confusing at first.

With iron sights, the front sight is the focus. With red dot sights, the focus is on the target. The red dot simply rides on the target. When the eye is on the target the pistol comes up and breaks the plane between the eye and the target. This is like the old Applegate Drill, a fast and deadly technique.

The Applegate Drill is executed by the shooter bringing the strong-side foot forward and facing the target. As the front sight breaks the plane between the eye and the target, the shooter fires. Similarly, the red dot sight, as used for personal defense, breaks the plane between the eye and the target.

Here is where the problem comes in. I am an experienced shooter and trainer. I do this full-time. The only thing that makes for success with a red dot sight is repetitive practice.

Consistency and Muscle Memory

Consistency and dry fire practice are important. Are you transitioning to red dot sights on all your handguns or only the carry gun? It takes both time and application of proper aiming skills to become proficient with the red dot.

Smith and Wesson M&P 2.0 10mm handgun opposed to a Smith and Wesson M&P
The Holosun red dot added little to the pistol’s weight but offered advantages in speed and accuracy.

As I see it, shooters who have the most problems with red dots do not have a shooting problem. Instead, they have not committed to developing new skills — the relationship between the top of the slide (iron sights) and the higher sightline for a red dot.

If you are skilled and willing to train, the red dot will work for you. If you are looking for something to improve lackluster shooting skills, it simply will not work. In the end, the question becomes whether red dot sights will outshoot iron sights for speed overall, given equal effort with good solid training?

Yes. In the limited few weeks that spent jumping into the problem, I saw my skills improve. I still shoot iron-sighted handguns well, and this is my primary concern.

In a personal defense situation, the time to react is mercilessly short. It comes at you like a car wreck. You must be decisive, and you must hit the threat hard. While a prolonged struggle is possible it is not likely.

Bob Campbell shooting combat drill with a red dot equipped handgun
Combat drills were faster with the red dot after a few weeks of acclimation.

Movement and taking cover are important, and so are shooting skills. If you have practiced enough to have the skill set firmly in place on a subconscious level, then you have a high chance of survival. The fundamentals of marksmanship are the same with the red dot and include a firm grip, aiming, and trigger press.

Conclusion

The Smith and Wesson/Holosun 10mm setup and 480 rounds of 10mm taught me a lot. The combination is viable. The improvement is real, but it only comes with hard work and attention to detail. Otherwise, you are better off with iron sights.

Does your carry gun have a red dot sight? Does it have iron sights as a co-witness? How much training do you do exclusively with the red dot sight? Share your answers in the comment section.

  • SIG Sauer pro shooter aiming a competition pistol with a red dot sight attached
  • N8 Tactical holster cut for a handgun equipped with a red dot sight
  • Smith and Wesson M&P 2.0 10mm handgun opposed to a Smith and Wesson M&P
  • Female competition shooter shooting a 1911 pistol topped with a red dot sight
  • Red dot sight mounted in place of the iron sight on a handgun
  • Aiming at a target with a iron sights
  • Sight picture of a pistol equipped with a red dot sight co-witnessed with iron sights
  • Holosun red dot sight mounted on a semi-auto handgun
  • front view of a Holosun red dot sight
  • Bob Campbell shooting combat drill with a red dot equipped handgun
  • Bob Campbell using a two-handed grip to shoot a gun with a red dot sight
  • Holosun red dot sight on a SIG Sauer 9mm semi-automatic handgun
  • Man holding a pistol equipped with a red dot sight and combat light
  • two eyes open shooting a handgun with a red dot sight
  • Kel-Tec PMR 30 .22 Mag pistol with a red dot sight
  • Browning Buckmark pistol with an early model electronic sight
  • sight picture with the red dot co-witnessed to the iron sights
  • Shooter holding a red dot equipped pistol
  • Smith & Wesson 10mm pistol topped with a Holosun red dot sight
  • Bob campbell learning to shoot a red dot sight mounted on a S&W 10mm handgun
  • Sight picture with the red dot hovering just over the iron sights

About the Author:

Bob Campbell

Bob Campbell’s primary qualification is a lifelong love of firearms, writing, and scholarship. He holds a degree in Criminal Justice but is an autodidact in matters important to his readers. Campbell considers unarmed skills the first line of defense and the handgun the last resort. (He gets it honest- his uncle Jerry Campbell is in the Boxer’s Hall of Fame.)

Campbell has authored well over 6,000 articles columns and reviews and fourteen books for major publishers including Gun Digest, Skyhorse and Paladin Press. Campbell served as a peace officer and security professional and has made hundreds of arrests and been injured on the job more than once.

He has written curriculum on the university level, served as a lead missionary, and is desperately in love with Joyce. He is training his grandchildren not to be snowflakes. At an age when many are thinking of retirement, Bob is working a 60-hour week and awaits being taken up in a whirlwind many years in the future.


Published in
Black Belt Magazine
Combat Handguns
Handloader
Rifle Magazine
Handguns
Gun Digest
Gun World
Tactical World
SWAT Magazine
American Gunsmith
Gun Tests Magazine
Women and Guns
The Journal Voice of American Law Enforcement
Police Magazine
Law Enforcement Technology
The Firearms Instructor
Tactical World
Concealed Carry Magazine
Concealed Carry Handguns



Books published

Holsters for Combat and Concealed Carry
The 1911 Automatic Pistol
The Handgun in Personal Defense
The Illustrated Guide to Handgun Skills
The Hunter and the Hunted
The Gun Digest Book of Personal Defense
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911
The Gun Digest Book of the 1911 second edition
Dealing with the Great Ammunition Shortage
Commando Gunsmithing
The Ultimate Book of Gunfighting
Preppers Guide to Rifles
Preppers Guide to Shotguns
The Accurate Handgun
The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (7)

  1. Bob, great article. I bought a red dot for my carry pistol, and gave a solid 2 months of practice. While I found the accuracy to be nice, the time it took me to get on target was never as fast as using my standard iron sights. I have abandoned the red dot for carrying purposes. I do keep one of my target pistols set up with a red dot for fun and practice, however, I still prefer the old standard.

  2. I’m glad you guys like those things, and I will happily give you my share of them because personally I find them to be a nothing but a sheer annoyance. More clunky battery operated junk to get in the way. Same reason I don’t attach a light to my pistols. Carry one yes, but not attached to my sidearm. I was instructor for a State agency response team and I found red dot, holographic, reflex sights extremely distracting. Call me lazy or resistant to change but I just don’t want to bother with trying to completely alter the way I’ve trained to achieve my fast and reliable sight picture for a piece of equipment I don’t like. My brother has some $500 red dot thing attached to his Hellcat… I would’ve been lucky to hit the broadside of a barn if I was INSIDE of it… he laughed until I told him to take the sight off and then proceeded to outshoot him with his own firearm. One he’d owned and trained with for almost 2 years and was my first time shooting a Hellcat. Red dots might have their place, just not with me. Still a pretty good article though, Bob.

  3. On kind of a funny note, I put a vortex red dot on a Kektec cmr 30 which came with magpul flip up sights. The way I set it up the red dot is about 1 1/2″ in so I put the Magpul sights back on and sighted them in looking through the red dot to use them. Works way cool, sometimes you just get lucky. I flip them down and the red dot is clear to use.

  4. Have not had a red-dot until recently, however picking one up on a carry gun, and just seeing how it would be, seemed very awkward and wan’t sure I would want to depend on one for carry, so saw an adaptor for a Ruger Blackhawk (appended carry one of those LOL), and thought well now that should be interesting. Turns out it is an excellent combination if you want a tack driving .357 out to 25+ yards. Once I get a little more practice I will revisit the carry option, on something smaller. 🙂

  5. I’ve been carrying a Holosun green circle dot 2 MOA center dot and 32 MOA ring) on a Sig P229 for 4 years. With practice it’s easy to present the gun and have the near center. From unusual positions, a bit more difficult. I recently switched to the Holosun CVSS Vulcan reticule, which has a small center chevron with point up, the point being POA. The chevron is surrounded by a large circle that is not on the screen when the chevron is centered. When the chevron is off screen due to misalignment, a portion of the large circle will be on screen to show which way the gun POA needs to move to get the Chevron in view. This all sounds more complex than it really is. In practice, it’s fast and instinctive. With both circle dot and CVSS on auto brightness, the CVSS reticule is both a little thicker and brighter than the circle dot to make it stand out better. I like the CVSS a lot!

  6. Both I and the wife have 38 special, snub nose 5 shot pistols, as our carry weapons. Her’s has red dot, mine was old style sight. I occassionally practice sudden encounter shooting with mine. Accuracy was in the ok range. On a whim, I borrowed her red dot pistol to practice. I was amazed at the improvement in my accuracy with the red dot compared to the old style sights. Gave my 38 to a relative and bought a red dot. I am sold on them for carry weapons.

  7. Bob, very accurate description of the issues, problems and advantages of shooting with red dot sights. I have been shooting handguns with red dot sights for some years now. My favorites are the Delta Point Pro and the newer Trijicon SRO. Being a “seasoned citizen” my eyesight is getting worse every year. Looking at the iron sights on my Glock 19 – and closing my non-dominate eye – I see four front sights – no good at all. With the red dot, I just place the dot on the target keeping both eyes open.

    The learning curve for “finding” the red dot is steep. I practice drawing and dry firing with a shot timer every night. Eventually, I learned to present the pistol so that the dot was on target every time. That is about the only way to convert from iron sights to a red dot. I strongly recommend red dots for seasoned citizens. The improvement is dramatic.

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