November 18, 2022
By Richard Mann
When it comes to the modern defensive handgun, the current trend is ultra-compact pistols with optics compatibility. There’s no question that the more compact the handgun, the easier it is to carry and conceal. But what about modern defensive handgun optics like the miniature reflex sight? Do these make a defensive handgun easier to shoot faster or more accurately? The general consensus is yes, but is that a matter of fact?
First, let’s look at why reflex sights are even being attached to defensive handguns. To do that, we’ll have to go back to the last century. In 1976, an organization called the International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) was founded. The impetus for this organization was Gunsite Academy founder, Jeff Cooper, and the competitions he had previously organized. Cooper felt that through competition, the best techniques, guns, and accessories for the application of the defensive handgun could be found.
His premise was rooted in logic, but IPSC was eventually overtaken by gamers more interested in how they could win than how the practical defensive handgun could best be elevated. The result was the race gun – generally, a highly modified 1911 – outfitted with a compensator and a red-dot sight. These guns allowed for some fantastic performances but were impractical for everyday carry.
Since then, optical sights have evolved. Many weigh only ounces, are no larger than a ping-pong ball, and the batteries seem to last forever. We now have optical sights for defensive handguns that do not negatively impact their ability to be carried concealed. So, how they compare to traditional sights is something worth investigating.
To conduct a definitive test, you would need to assemble a group of shooters just as experienced with reflex sights as with standard sights. You would need two identical guns: one with standard sights and another with a reflex sight. Then, you would conduct a series of drills and compare the results. Short of using new and untrained shooters, this is probably an impossible task. However, for most who are carrying a defensive handgun, it’s probably not the best way to address the question.
I say this because most shooters are like me and have more experience shooting with conventional sights. The question I believe most want answered is, will an optical sight help me shoot better and faster? Since I have a Tisas Bantam Carry 1911, and since I have one slide outfitted with standard sights and another with a miniature reflex sight attached, a lot of ammo and a shot timer was all I needed to discover the answer, at least as far as it relates to me.
For the first drill, I engaged three steel torso-sized targets at 10 yards with the goal of drawing from the holster and getting two hits on each as fast as possible. I ran this drill five times with the standard sights and five times with the reflex sight. I had no misses with either, and my average time with standard sights was 3.71 seconds. The average time with the reflex sight was 3.77 seconds. Let’s call it a tie.
For the second test, I ran a six-plate plate rack at 10 yards. I did it five times with standard sights and five times with the reflex sight. Out of 30 possible hits, I had two misses with the standard sights and twice as many misses with the reflex sight. My average time with the standard sights was 5.88 seconds, and the average with the reflex sight was 6.30 seconds — advantage: standard sights.
After digesting the results, I went back to the first drill and painted an 8-inch kill zone in the center of each steel torso target, then repeated the first drill. With a more precise shot required, the results changed. Average time with the standard sights was 5.42 seconds, and the average time with the reflex sight was 5.12 seconds. As for kill zone hits, I had 29 out of 30 with the standard sights and 28 out of 30 with the reflex sight. Every run with the reflex sight was faster, and the two misses were just at the edge of the kill zone — advantage: reflex sight.
Then I re-ran the six-plate rack five times with each sight system but this time at 20 yards. At this distance, the reflex sight had a tremendous advantage; it was 30 percent faster and 20 percent more accurate. I also attempted single shots on a 4-inch steel plate at 20 yards. Starting from the holster, I did this drill five times with each sight system. I managed four out of five hits with the standard sights with an average time of 3.8 seconds. With the reflex sight, I got six out of six hits in an average time of 2.78 seconds.
Deciphering the Data
After all this shooting, I reached out to Dave Biggers — head of marketing for SDS Imports and a talented handgun instructor — to get an opinion. Dave has been a proponent of reflex sights on defensive handguns for a long time. In my 2013 book, “Handgun Training for Personal Protection” — available on Amazon — I wrote, “…when you see this system on a handgun and you realize how effective it is, Dave Biggers will be the man to thank.” But, also speaking of reflex sights, I wrote, “The future is coming. When it gets here, we will all shoot better and faster.”
I discussed the results with Biggers, and he said that they were typical of a shooter experienced with conventional sights who is learning to use the reflex sight. Biggers said when I was shooting fast, my training and experience took over, and I found the sights and pulled the trigger. However, when I took more time to make a more precision shot, the reflex sight began to (pardon the pun) shine.
However, I disagreed with Biggers slightly. I told him that on torso-size targets inside 10 yards, I did not use the sights at all. I simply indexed the handgun on the target and pressed the trigger. Biggers said he thought I was using the sights instinctively and just didn’t realize it. This prompted another test. I wanted to see if I was in fact using — and needed — sights for effective defensive shooting inside 10 yards. SIG Sauer’s new P322 handgun provided the perfect test vehicle for me to sort this out.
Though mostly interested in how well I could shoot a defensive handgun without sights in a self-defense setting, I figured the best place to start was by just shooting bullseye targets as 5, 10, and 15 yards. I fired a 10-shot group at each distance with the factory standard sights, and then I removed the sights and did it again. I also conducted this drill with a reflex sight on the P322. When precision matters, the better the sight system, the better you will shoot. But, even without a sight on the P322, I was still lethal out to 15 yards.
The next step was to see how well I could use the different sight configurations if time and multiple targets were part of the scenario. For this drill, I placed torso targets at 10 yards, and each target had an 8-inch kill zone. For a hit to count, it had to impact the kill zone. I clearly did better when I used the sights, but the difference is not as staggering as you might think.
It was beginning to seem that if I were to practice shooting without sights, I could probably closely crowd my times and hit percentage with sights. However, I felt the next drill would really show how important sights are. Working from the holster, I attempted a head shot on an IPSC target at 20 yards. I did about the same without sights as I did with conventional sights but better than both with the reflex sight.
Looking to find a separation between conventional sights and no sight, I went back to the plate rack, which is an unforgiving demon. I started at 5 yards and ran the drill three times with sights, then backed up to 10 yards and logged three more runs. Then I went to 15 yards and did it three more times. After that, I installed the front and rear sight and did the same thing again. I was better with the sights, especially at distance. But 10 yards and in, not so much.
I think this second test proved that at close distances, I was not actually using the sights for high-speed defensive shooting. What I was doing at close range was essentially target focusing shooting; I was indexing the gun on the target and pressing the trigger. But I also learned some other things that you may find of interest:
- For everyone who is moderately experienced with conventional sights, there will be a distance at which you do not need them to make effective application of a defensive handgun. For some, it may be 3 yards, and for others, it might be 10 yards or even more.
- In all circumstances where precision matters most, the reflex sight is the best option.
- When transitioning from conventional sights to reflex sights, you will find a distance at which they perform about the same for you. Beyond that distance, the reflex sight will reign supreme.
- Just as with anything else, regardless of the sight system, practice will make the difference. The more I shot without any sight at all, and the more I shot with the reflex sight, the better I became with both.
- A smooth, consistent, and repeatable presentation makes using any sight system faster.
There are some downsides to reflex sights. They’re powered by a battery, and all batteries eventually die. Also, electronics can fail. This means that unlike standard defensive handgun sights, there’s a chance your reflex sight will not work. Therefore, any pistol equipped with a reflex sight should also have standard sights that are useable while the reflex sight is mounted, and you should probably practice with them in that configuration.
Also, a reflex sight is an open system. On its base, there is an emitter that projects the red dot or reticle onto the lens. Should moisture, blood, dirt, or debris find their way onto the face of this emitter, there will be no red dot for you to put on the target. Another downside to reflex sights is their ability to deal with light. During daylight hours, direct sunlight can, in some instances, nearly obscure the sight window, making it hard to see through it or even see the dot. The same applies to unnatural light directed towards the sight, such as from a flashlight or a vehicle’s headlight.
When it comes to the reflex sight question, it is not just about how well you can shoot a handgun equipped with a reflex sight. You must also consider the operational limitations of the system. I still believe the reflex sight is the future of the defensive handgun. However, I’m not completely convinced the future is here just yet. That does not mean we shouldn’t be planning, practicing, and preparing for it.