February 17, 2023
By J. Scott Rupp
Red dots are a big thing these days. But many shooters have questions about whether a dot sight is right for them or unsure about what they need to consider when looking for one. Here are some considerations.
1. Should You Get a Red Dot?
Red dots simplify the aiming process and permit a target focus. Rather than trying to align rear sight and front sight and place that proper alignment on the target—while maintaining focus on the front sight—a red dot allows you to just paste the dot on the target and fire. Plus red dots can be a godsend for aging eyes that have lost or are losing the ability to shoot irons well.
But nothing comes for free. Red dots can be slower to use because you have to find the dot in the sight window. With practice you can be faster than with iron sights, but I’ll be the first to tell you that even though I’ve trained with them quite a bit, I still have instances where I lose or fail to pick up the dot.
Takeaway: If you’re willing to train regularly, a red dot is superior. If you’re not, maybe stick with iron sights.
2. What Type of Sight?
In the beginning, all red dots were what we call enclosed styles. At least for handgun use, these were quickly superseded by open or reflex style of sights. However, the enclosed style is making a bit of a comeback, as they’re sometimes preferred by law enforcement and the military.
Reflex styles have the advantage, especially for concealed carry, of being smaller and lighter. Their windows offer nearly unobstructed fields of view, and their low profiles conceal easier. On the downside, especially those built on polymer bodies are not super tough, and this style is more prone to disruption from moisture and dirt, which can interfere with the dot being projected on the window.
Enclosed styles are on the whole more rugged, and while their lenses can be less than clear due to moisture or dirt, that little dot inside is still able to do its thing inside the tube. Flip side is bulk.
Takeaway: Both types get the job done. Enclosed styles perhaps have the edge if your sight will be subject to hard use in all kinds of weather.
3. Which Dot Size?
Dot size is expressed in minutes of angle, and manufacturers offer dot sizes that generally run from two m.o.a. to six m.o.a.; some makers give you different size options in the same sight model. A small dot will cover less of the target and allow for more precise shot placement. A big dot covers more of the target and can be faster when you just want to get a center-mass hit.
There’s another option, and that’s the circle/dot. It combines a large circle that doesn’t obscure the target with a small dot in the center. The circle provides a super-fast way to get on target, with the dot giving you precision aiming.
Takeaway: For defensive uses, I think bigger is better when it comes to dots, but that’s subjective. The circle/dot may represent the best of both worlds.
4. Power Considerations?
Battery life matters. Many handgun red dots these days feature an auto-shutoff/auto-on feature, the sight powering down after a certain period of time when it’s motionless. When it senses motion, the sight powers back up.
Other sights may not offer a shutoff but have long runtimes, some measured in years. That’s a plus should you forget to turn off the sight when you’re not using it. Just pay attention to what power level the advertised runtime is tied to. If you have a sight powered up to full but the promised runtime is given at half power, you’re not going to get the life you thought you would.
There are a few sights that offer either dual power sources, a combination of battery and solar, or dual illumination with fiber optics. That can add peace of mind.
On some types, the battery can be accessed without removing the sight, which means you can change the battery and not have to rezero. I prefer this style, but these tend to be a little more expensive because they require extra parts and machining.
However, for sights that have to be removed, I’ve not experienced significant zero shifts after changing out a battery—although you still definitely need to confirm zero.
Many sights offer auto intensity; the dot gets brighter in bright environments and dimmer in darker environments. The obvious advantage is you don’t have to remember to adjust a dot based on current lighting conditions.
Takeaway: I like auto shutoff and auto intensity in a defensive handgun sight, and I’m willing to pay the extra to swap out batteries without removing the sight.
5. Which Footprint?
Some pistols offer interchangeable plates that allow different sights to mount to the gun. Some, especially today’s microcompacts, have settled on a single attachment footprint. The latter is going to limit your sight options if you’ve got your heart set on a particular gun, although perhaps not as much as you might think since many sights share the same footprint.
However, just because a sight has a particular footprint that should match your slide cut or adapter plate, that doesn’t automatically mean the provided screws are going to work. Research ahead of time—or asking a knowledgeable counter person at your favorite gun shop—will save you headaches.
The compromise is to go with a combo deal where the gun and the sight are sold together. You may not get every single feature you want, but at least you know the sight fits.
Takeaway: Unless you go the combo route, putting the sight you want on the gun you want isn’t automatically plug and play. Do your homework.