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Pistol Red Dots: What Happens When They Fail [EDC Guide]

OPTICS ARE THE FUTURE AND IT'S CRITICAL TO KNOW WHAT TO DO WHEN OPTICS FAIL

We knew that the Micro Red Dot Sight (MRDS) was finally becoming more normalized once Kimber began releasing factory options for them. This is a company that mostly makes its nut from a pistol designed over 100 years ago, and now you can get one red-dot-ready from the factory. It’s like your great grandfather joining Facebook and knowing who Lady Gaga is.

For decades, we’ve seen crossover from the competitive shooting world into the more practical/tactical/duty world. While military training has gotten better/faster/stronger since the first few years of the war on terror, the bleeding edge of performance often originates from the competition community.

Those on the bleeding edge of competitions are willing to accept narrower performance envelopes and more risk regarding the longevity and durability of their competition guns, which makes sense because while they may lose a match, someone on the other end of the equation may lose their life.

Often, when something proves beneficial in competitions, a more ruggedized version is employed for use downrange. JP offset sights become Dueck Defense Rapid Transition Sights. A precision-tuned three-gun trigger becomes a Geissele SSF. An awkward C-More sight becomes an Aimpoint Micro on a 6-Second Mount.

And so it goes with pistol-mounted red dots, with more military and LEO agency approvals happening every year.


The transition from gaming-to-tactical took a considerable amount of time. Doug Koenig was the first IPSC world champion to win using a pistol-mounted red dot rather than iron sights, and he did it in 1990. Our own Iain Harrison made extensive use of pistol-mounted red dots in competitions in the ’90s as well.

THE LEAP

One of the first people to publicly advocate for a pistol red dot for defensive or offensive use was Kelly McCann, a former Marine Corps officer, largely lauded for the standardization of tactics for counter-terrorism, hostage rescue, and close quarters combat for the Department of Defense and Department of State.

But he wasn’t alone. Steve Fisher of Sentinel Concepts was running a Tasco Optima 2000 on a Smith & Wesson 5906 in 1999.

It wasn’t until 2003 when McCann released a training DVD featuring a slide-mounted red dot on the cover that the idea began to gain weight. What started as a way to have the same sight picture on a pistol as a rifle turned into something else completely a decade later.

People were skeptical, to put it mildly. Fisher and McCann may have been early, but they were right. It would be more than a decade after these early efforts before slide-mounted red dots gained real momentum.

The name Gabe Suarez may be a dirty word in some circles, but he helped push the second wave of red dot adoption in 2008 to 2009. Specifically, Suarez popularized recessing the red dot sight into a pistol slide via milling, which allowed for a co-witness when used in conjunction with taller suppressor sights.

This permanent modification makes for a larger commitment, but the training and shooting community’s unease about electronic failures were calmed somewhat with the availability of usable backup iron sights.

And their concerns weren’t unfounded.

THEMS THE BREAKS

Red dots on gaming guns would often break — Iain tells us he replaced Tasco PDP2s every couple thousand rounds, simply because the early red dot sights couldn’t handle the recoil. In the world of competitive shooting, this is partially why larger custom frame-mounted, non-reciprocating dots gained in popularity.

Physically mounting a red dot to a pistol slide is rough as hell on an optic. How rough? 10,000Gs with some setups. That kind of force can make a whole helluva lot fail, especially when an optic gets hammered for thousands of rounds.

Raceguns may look ridiculous to some, but they were the precursors to the practical.

Many of the red dots we use on pistols weren’t specifically designed for that use; they were for piggybacking on an ACOG or offset on a scope ring, or perhaps a lightweight primary rifle sight — in other words, general-use optics.

From the time it was released, the Trijicon RMR became the most popular option for pistols. In-line enhancements occurred over several years to address issues that came up. Initially, glass would delaminate, or windows would fly out completely.

Motherboards would break. Battery contacts would be hammered loose. Inconsistencies in body size meant that in order for the least stress to be put on the optic during firing, slides had to be custom-fit to the optic by people like Doug Holloway at ATEi.

Leupold Deltapoints suffered similar complications. Both companies addressed the challenges as they occurred, only to find a new hole in the dike later down the line. Ultimately this led to a generation of better and more durable sights, namely the Trijicon RMR 2.0 and the Leupold Deltapoint Pro.

ALTERNATIVE SIGHTING METHODS

Some day we’ll reach the point where slide-riding red dots will be as durable as their rifle brethren. We’re not quite there, but it’ll come soon. These days, it’s not a matter of if you’ll break your pistol red dot, but when. Even if “when” is 10s of thousands of rounds for quality MRDS.

You can safely think of alternative sighting methods like practicing malfunction drills, because that’s where they rank in terms of importance.

It’s not just dots dying either. The window can become obscured from cracks, rain, an accidental drop in the mud, or merely severe fogging from rapid environmental changes like stepping out of an air-conditioned car into hot, muggy weather.

As with every secondary or contingency procedure, you need to physically hit the range and practice. You may find that one of them is more accurate or precise for you; once you do that, figure out your effective range with each using a man-size target. Like all failure drills, you shouldn’t rely on one single method.

AMPUTATION

With this method you use the optical body itself as a target reference. Depending on the distance to target, you can line up the top of the MRDS frame with the shoulders, guillotining the head off. Completely. The amputation technique works regardless of the condition of the optical window.

CORNERING

This technique works especially well with a Trijicon RMR; cornering involves rotating the pistol inboard and using an edge of the red dot itself as a rudimentary iron sight. The condition of the optical window isn’t important when utilizing this approach. It’s also noteworthy that cornering is especially useful when firing one-handed, as a slightly inboard cant makes for a more solid hold.

FAT UGLY GHOST RING

Also known as the Michael Moore, the Fat Ugly Ghost Ring method uses the optical window itself to square up with a target. This works especially well with relatively longer red dots like the Aimpoint Micro because any angular deviation is more readily apparent.

This can be performed with an optic that’s either dead or has a missing window, but not one with an obscured window.

BACKUP IRON SIGHTS

If you have them, this should be your immediate first choice in the event of a dead optic. However, if the glass in the optical window is cracked, fogged, or covered in mud, this isn’t always a viable option. Furthermore, many events that cause your optic to fail, such as a high drop on a hard surface, may also shear off a front sight.

INTENTIONAL REFERENCE POINT

Some will put a dedicated reference point on their optic to serve as a primitive sight. This can be as simple as a dot from a paint pen or high-vis nail polish.

AN OUNCE OF PREVENTION

You can start out your pound of cure with the proper installation of a latest-generation sight. Ensure you’re using the correct length screws, with the proper torque with the recommended thread locker.

Check your zero and change your batteries at regular intervals. Routinely inspect your red dot to ensure it’s not accumulating crud on the window or emitter.

Apply RainX or Cat Crap (yes, the latter is a real product — and it works great) to the window, not only to repel water but also to prevent fogging.

LOOSE ROUNDS

We won’t say that red dots are for everyone, but they absolutely are the inevitable future in the same way they came to dominate the carbine.

They’re getting smaller, stronger, and more affordable. Yes, they can be spendy at the moment, but we do find it strange that people who would otherwise spend thousands on a rifle and optic setup for home defense scoff at equipping a pistol they carry every day for a couple hundred dollars.

Iron sights won’t go away completely anytime soon — we still have plenty of soldiers and police without optics. But the pistol-mounted red dot has finally reached the phase of acceptance.

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One response to “Pistol Red Dots: What Happens When They Fail [EDC Guide]”

  1. Schmoe says:

    The “amputation”, “cornering”, and “put a dedicated reference point on [the] optic to serve as a primitive sight…as simple as a dot from a paint pen or high-vis nail polish” are great, common-sense, no cost (time or $) techniques. Good ideas to overcome some shooters’ reluctance. Thanks!

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  • The "amputation", "cornering", and "put a dedicated reference point on [the] optic to serve as a primitive sight...as simple as a dot from a paint pen or high-vis nail polish" are great, common-sense, no cost (time or $) techniques. Good ideas to overcome some shooters' reluctance. Thanks!

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