Optical Sights on a Handgun? One Guy’s Experience

posted on June 27, 2016

There’s been much hullaballoo over the use of red dot sights like the Trijicon RMR, Shield MiniSight, Leupold DeltaPoint, and SIG Sauer Romeo on handguns. Some credible trainers claim they’re the best thing since sliced bread for defensive use. Other equally credible trainers have found the exact opposite—that searching for the red dot can cause confusion and slow reaction. Actually, this type of contradiction among experts happens a lot, so how do you figure out which advice to take?

When I face this type of quandary, I like to test things out on my own. Why? Because what works for one person may or may not work for me. Our brains are all wired differently (thankfully) and our eyesight and coordination skills are all over the map. We all dedicate varying degrees of our life to things like practice and training. Planting a stake in the ground that claims expert-recommended method X is the only possible right answer while expert-recommended method Y is the stupidest idea ever is short-sighted. Oh, it's also intellectually lazy.

I recently decided to give the whole concept of optical sights on a handgun a semi-formal test to see if they were a good idea for me. Here, I’ll share my experiences and learning in detail, not to convince you that one method is better than the other, but rather to provide some food for thought for your own decision-making process. I went into this little experiment not really having a horse in the race. Sure, optical sights are cool, and I’m always open to new technological solutions provided they’re reliable. On the other hand, I’ve been shooting iron sights for a long time so the optical sights would have to deliver a convincing performance for me to encourage a switch. I’m writing this introduction before firing the first shots of my test, so we’ll see what happens together.
To figure this thing out, I decided to use two identical guns, both Glock 17s. One is a standard Glock 17 Gen 4, and the other is one of the new Glock 17 Gen 4 MOS models that include a slide milled for optics mounting. On the MOS, I mounted a Shield MiniSight. This is a nifty little red dot that’s perfect for pistol use. It always stays on and adjusts for differing light conditions so as not to blind your view of the target and preserve battery life. One of the unique things about it is that it’s made from polymer—both the frame and the lens. The idea is that a little flex in the design allows for better durability and lighter weight. In part, the intent is similar to that of polymer frame pistols like the Glock. This one has a crisp 8 MOA dot, so it’s easy to pick up even in bright conditions. It also features a notched cutout so you can still see your front sight as a backup option. Cool idea.

For my testing, I wanted to shoot a lot so my results weren’t skewed by learning curves or which gun I shot first. I did the shooting over numerous outings over several weeks—plenty of time and rounds down range to learn the new optics system. I figured that would help avoid any skewed results.

I set up two different scenarios with the idea of emphasizing target acquisition, target transitions, and precision with speed. I wanted results to reflect any differences in the time it took to align sights with a target while factoring out other variables so I always started from a low ready position. I did plenty of miscellaneous shooting at various ranges too, and I’ll talk about learning from that in a bit.

Speed and "Good Enough" Accuracy
For the first scenario, I set up two target stands seven yards down range. On each stand, I stapled a bunch of paper plates. The idea was to raise the gun, fire one shot at a plate, transition to a plate on the other target stand, then back to the first plate and so on. Each run would include six shots, three on each target. So, each run gave me one initial sight acquisition followed by five fast target transitions. Oh, distance was 21 feet—far enough to need sights, but close enough to simulate an acceptable range of average defensive use. I made it a point to slow down my shooting pace just enough to ensure hits on the plate, or stated another way, I shot as fast as I could go without missing.

I should also note that I chose this scenario because I didn’t really care about precision—provided all shots landed on the plate. I wanted to begin to explore which scenario was faster and more intuitive for potential defensive use, not bullseye or competition shooting. I figured my paper plate targets were good enough for that.

Make sense? OK then, here’s what I found. The all-time average scenario times for the iron-sighted Glock, including the early learning curve runs, was 5.15 seconds for a 100 percent hit rate. For the parallel universe Glock with the Shield MiniSight, the overall average was 4.98 seconds. That’s a .17 second difference for the whole drill. That's a 3.3 percent speed increase using the red dot sight configuration. There are plenty of caveats to this finding. First is the shooting pace. I could shoot the drill faster, but when I did, I added misses into the mix. I also found myself firing with a pretty rough sight picture in either configuration when I was going for pure speed. So the gross times are a little subjective as I shot at a pace where I felt I was getting a good and crisp sight picture for each and every shot. 

Speed and Precision
I decided to set up another scenario that focused more on speed with precision. In the first test, I found that even at seven yards, when I was focused too much on the clock I was shooting with less than perfect sight pictures to be fast. To force myself only to shoot with a perfect sight picture, I set up small 2.5-inch targets at a distance of 10 feet with the idea of not allowing any misses. The timed scenario started from a low ready position with a clock stop after one hit. If I didn't hit the target, I threw out that time.

I shot hundreds of these sequences with the timer and found a noticeable difference in favor of the red dot. I was easily 1/10th of a second faster hitting a target with the Shield MiniSight Glock 17 than I was with the standard sight version. It was obvious and consistent improvement. I’ll talk about why in the next section.

My Learning
The key word in “My Learning" is the “my” part. As stated earlier, your mileage may vary, but perhaps a review of my experience will provide some insight for you too.

Recoil makes things interesting. The same gun moves identically regardless of sight configuration, but I did find the recoil-induced movement of the red dot more distracting. When moving fast, reacquiring the red dot after recoil was a bit unnatural at first. Maybe I’m less sensitive to the iron sight moving because it’s not as bright and crisp as the red dot, so my eye doesn’t care about the movement as much. I did get used to it over time. Also, I’ll note that when shooting the Glock 17 9mm guns, I didn’t “lose” the dot from view during recoil. With a firm two-handed grip, the recoil never knocked the dot out of my field of view. With a less sturdy grip, that could certainly be an issue.

When shooting with optics, I was able to make hits while focusing on the target. An optical sight basically places the dot in space, focused at infinity. So unlike an iron sight scenario, my brain was able to focus on the target, at any range, and the dot was also focused while superimposed on the target. I really liked this experience because it allows your brain to focus on what it wants to see—the target or threat. We’re wired to focus on a threat and the optical sights seemed to support that natural instinct rather than force me to train to focus on the front sight instead.

I was able to increase the speed of precise shots. I found that, at any range, making a “precise” hit was easier and faster with the optical sights. I suspect that a couple of factors enabled this result. The single plane of focus between target and sight certainly helped. There was no need to line up front sight, rear sight, and target. I could simply look at the target, and if the dot was there, I was good to go. I didn’t catch my brain trying to shift focus back and forth between sight and target. Also, even in bright daylight conditions, the dot was more visible to me. Maybe that’s a function of my aging eyes. In any case, it was a significant factor in favor of the optic configuration.

At short range, the optics vs. irons issue was moot for me. When shooting for speed at really close ranges, say three yards, it didn’t matter what sighting method I was using. While I would like to say that I always developed a perfect sight picture, counting serrations on my front sight blade, that just wasn’t the case. I observed myself simply getting a rough sight picture over the slide and firing. It’s pretty darn easy to hit a paper plate-sized target from three yards that way. While under time pressure, I think my brain said, “The heck with the sights, I can hit this thing just as well without them.” When I was shooting fast and close with the optics, the entire optic frame was my rough sight picture and the dot really didn’t matter a whole lot. 

Practice is everything. The more I shot the optical configuration, the better it worked for me. No surprise there, right? More specifically, the more I presented the red-dot Glock, the more frequently the dot appeared directly in my line of sight without needing adjustment. Ipso facto e. Pluribus Unum, I got faster with practice.

The bottom line? I most definitely had an acclimation period, but once I stopped worrying about trying to find the dot, it was very natural for me. My habits already have me looking for the front sight as I raise the gun, so allowing my brain to keep doing that worked just fine. As I looked for the front sight, the red dot appeared in my vision. I really, really liked how my eyes were able to focus on the target and have a crisp sight picture. I also really liked the ability to crank off precise shots more rapidly. It’s the high rate of speed at “relatively” easy targets that I’m not quite sold on—yet.

Am I ready to switch my carry gun to optics? Not quite, but it could happen. The red dot option is promising for me, and there are definitely things I prefer over iron sights, but I'll decide whether to switch or not after couple thousand more rounds.


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