More handguns come optics-ready, but are reflex sights really better than irons?
Almost every manufacturer is offering optics-ready handguns. Some are even offering handguns with miniature reflex sights installed at the factory.
This I’m sure has a lot of folks wondering if an optical sight is better than standard sights, and if they need to have one installed on their carry gun.
This is a good question. Unfortunately, the answer is not that simple.
Reflex Sight Advantages
There are several obvious advantages to reflex sights on defensive handguns. The first is that they allow you to shoot with both eyes open, easier.
This is important because keeping both eyes open enhances your peripheral vision. The dot in a reflex sight is also easier to see in low light and easier to see if you have vision issues such as presbyopia.
Presbyopia is a common ailment that comes with age and is the inability to sharply focus on objects that are up close like standard pistol sights.
Another advantage a reflex sight offers is that the illuminated dot is easier and faster to align with precision on a target.
Drawbacks of Reflex Sights
Of course, miniature reflex sights also have disadvantages. There’s always the possibility that the battery will be dead when you need your handgun the most.
Holster selection becomes an issue and sometimes so does having standard – back-up sights – that you can see if the reflex sight stops working.
In addition to these concerns, reflex sights do not deal with light which is directed at them very well. Sometimes this can cause a glare that is hard to see through.
Also, miniature reflex sights are an open system. If excessive dirt or debris find its way onto the surface of the lens or the dot emitter, they become unusable until cleaned.
Maybe the most common complaint with red dot sights is that shooters struggle to find the dot quickly.
How To Pick Up The Dot Fast
Finding the dot is something that can be overcome with training. The simplest way to find the dot quickly is to draw the handgun and look for your sights as you normally would.
If you do this, and if the reflex sight is zeroed to hit at the same point as the standard sights, you’ll automatically see it as you address the target with the handgun.
If you don’t see that bright red dot, just use the sights as normal. In fact, this is the way you should always use a reflex sight on a defensive handgun just in case it’s not working when you need it most.
Are Red Dots Really Faster Than Irons?
Red dot sights, which are similar to the modern reflex sight, gained prominence when IPSC competition shooting was at its zenith.
Competitors in the unlimited division paired them with compensators and the combination proved to be lighting fast. Today’s mini reflex sights are just the natural evolution of the gear that was used in formal competition.
But is it really faster for practical defensive handgun work?
To answer this question with any certainty you would need several shooters who were just as good with dot sights as they are with standard sights, and you would need several handguns that were identical, except for the sights that were attached to them.
If you could assemble this probably impossible combination of shooters and gear, and if you could subject them to a wide range of practical exercises, you then might discover the answer.
I tried to conduct a similar experiment with an SDS Imports Bantam Carry, lightweight 45 Auto handgun for which I have two slides.
One slide is outfitted with a good set of combat sights and the other is outfitted with a top-of-the-line miniature reflex sight. The results were somewhat interesting, but you must keep in mind that I’ve been shooting standard sights all my life.
Only in the last several years have I began regularly shooting handguns fitted with miniature reflex sights with.
Speed Vs. Accuracy
What I discovered was that inside 10 yards, I was faster with the standard sights, if all that I needed to hit was a torso size target.
This was mostly because at these short-range distances I was simply indexing the gun on the target and hammering the trigger – I was not using the sights.
On the other hand, when a more precise kill-zone shot was needed, my performance with the dot sight – no matter the distance to the target – was more accurate and faster.
From a pure on-target performance standpoint, I think a well practice shooter with a reflex sight can be faster and more accurate. However, this ability to shoot better does not discount the other concerns associated with reflex sights.
The bottom line, when it comes to a defensive handgun, is that it must work all the time and every time you need it too. You simply cannot count on a reflex sight to do that.
So, as a minimum, you will want back-up standard sights to go with one. There’s no question the red dot sight on a defensive handgun is the future, but that future just might not be here quite yet.
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