In 2015 & 2016 KR Training partnered with the Texas A&M Huffines Institute to jointly fund and conduct an academic study comparing shooter performance using iron sights, green lasers, and slide mounted red dot sights (with and without backup iron sights). This blog post summarizes the key findings from that work.
My motivation for doing the study was that I was one of the early adopters of frame mounted electronic red dot sights in the early 1990s, as a USPSA Open division competitor, and I had observed the benefits of use of a red dot sight in my own shooting and in the overall trends in scores at USPSA and other pistol matches. I also spent 23 years doing research, development, test and evaluation (RDT&E) on Navy-funded programs at the University of Texas at Austin, including writing and conducting tests comparing commercial equipment against mission requirements. I’ve been a firearms trainer for 26 years, teaching weekly classes, and the number of students showing up with both lasers and slide mounted red dot sights has increased over the past 5 years. I wanted to learn more about both so I could make recommendations based on data, not anecdote, sales literature or even my own experience using that gear. We received no funding from any vendors or manufacturers, and KR Training sells no laser- or red-dot specific training courses.
Over a two year period we collected data on 118 shooters, male and female, novice to Grand Master (top 5% in USPSA) level, from 18 to 76 years old, during KR Training classes, local shooting events, and the national A Girl and a Gun conference.
We designed the test based on the most likely defensive use of a pistol: effective first shot hits at 5 and 10 yards, using both hands or dominant hand only. Many advocates of the slide-mounted red dot sight point out that the real value of the RDS is beyond 10 yards. Our concern was in measuring performance gains or losses for the common case, particularly if optimizing gear for the 25 yard shot would cause significant performance degradation for the 5-10 yard usage.
Each trial involved starting at a ready position. One shot drill on an IDPA target in 1.5 seconds. We used USPSA points-based scoring because we wanted to study points and time separately. Actual first shot time was recorded. Late shots were scored as zero points.
The full data set and analysis is in a lengthy study that is still in review and will be submitted to a referred academic journal. I’ve presented the data at the 2016 Rangemaster Tactical Conference, at the national A Girl and Gun Conference, and to a MAG-40 class. The audio portion of my presentation to the MAG-40 class was recorded for a ProArms podcast episode.
I’ll show the highest level results here with some discussion of issues of more interest to shooters that won’t be in the academic paper.
Did shooters using the slide mounted red dots shoot better than those using irons or lasers? No.
Many, regardless of experience level, had a hard time finding the dot on initial presentation of the pistol from ready, with the most difficulty occurring when no backup iron sights were available.
There was not time in the testing to give participants significant training time to learn the red dot or the laser. They were allowed 10 or less dry fire presentations before testing began. Red dot advocates insist that finding the dot on presentation improves with training, and I found that to be true during summer 2016, when I put in the time to earn a Grand Master ranking in USPSA’s Carry Optics division.
The high hit factors for USPSA classifiers in Carry Optics, relative to those in Production division, are typically a few percent (less than 10%) higher, indicating USPSA’s own assessment of the value gained by adding a red dot sight. By comparison, high hit factors for Open division, where the red dot sights are mounted to the frame, can be as much as 20% higher than the Production scores.
(An example: a shooter that can run a 6 second “El Presidente” drill, hitting all A’s, would have a hit factor of 10.00: 60 points divided by 6 seconds. In Production division (iron sights), that score would be 97% of the high hit factor, a Grand Master level score. In Carry Optics division, that score would be 93% of the high hit factor, which is only a Master level score. And in Open division, that score would be 84% of the high hit factor, which is an A class score. Another way to look at it: to shoot equivalent scores in Production takes 6 seconds, in Carry Optics 5.76 seconds, in Open 5.21 seconds assuming 60 points on all runs.)
Those that want to explore this issue farther can do so using this classifier calculator site, where you can put in a hit factor for any classifier and find out how it ranks, relative to the high hit factor for that course of fire and division.)
A frequent “talking point” for those selling and promoting red dot sights is that they are better for older shooters who cannot focus on the front sight easily. Our data did not show that to be true.
Those with more experience and skill with firearms were able to use the laser and red dot more effectively, with those at the instructor level having the most success with the red dot sight and slightly more difficulty using the laser (likely because it requires a target focus). Those with moderate skill were able to use the laser as effectively as iron sights, indicating that the learning curve for the laser is much shorter than for the red dot.
In a 2016 article, Paul Howe observed that no one has yet passed his pistol standards using a slide mounted red dot sight, and in a recent podcast, Mike Seeklander (another trainer, USPSA Grand Master and experienced Open division competitor) advised listeners that the red dot sight was not an advantage inside of 10 yards, with some disadvantage associated with finding the dot upon presentation of the pistol.
Those observations track with our study results. Adding a slide mounted red dot sight typically doubles the cost of the pistol, providing at best a 10% gain for those at already high skill levels. For those not already at the USPSA B class, IDPA Expert, 80% on FBI qualification test or higher skill level, particularly those that do not dry fire regularly and do not practice getting the gun from ready (or holster) to target under time pressure, adding a red dot sight to the pistol in an attempt to buy skill with equipment will likely not produce the desired result. Trying to go the cheap route and removing the rear sight, replacing it with a red dot sight, leaving the user with no backup iron sights is particularly poor decision. That configuration produced significant performance losses in all users in our study.
The biggest takeaway for me from the study was the value of the green laser (not the red dot sight). There are far more people carrying laser equipped pistols than there are using red dot sighted pistols as carry guns, and in classes I’ve seen older shooters with limited ability to focus at front sight distances gain more capability from the laser than the red dot sight. I shot the 2016 Rangemaster Tactical Conference match using a Viridian light/laser, never getting a traditional sight picture on any target, placing 7th out of more than 150 shooters. Shooters running lasers in my low light shooting classes have done very well. New light/laser combo units from Crimson Trace, LaserMax, Viridian, and others are smaller than red dot sights, and can be added to a carry pistol in a way that traditional iron sights can also be used. The rail mounted units allow momentary ‘on’, similar to lights, which solves the “always on” issue associated with lasers activated by gripping the pistol.
The failure of both of the practical/defensive pistol sports, IDPA and USPSA, to allow the use of lasers in their matches makes no sense to me. USPSA, in particular, has tried to maintain Jeff Cooper’s original ideal of being the testbed where all types of innovations in gear can be used and evaluated, to the point of going beyond his original concept of testing street-worthy gear. So frame mounted red dots, magnets worn on belts to hold magazines, and many other gadgets only relevant on match day are OK, but lasers are not. Given their practicality, and actual use by people who carry, lasers should be the obvious choice for IDPA to recognize in any new “carry optics” division.
My advice to those considering the investment in a slide mounted red dot sight on their pistol is:
- Baseline your current performance level. Use the IDPA classifier or the FBI qualification test as a thorough assessment of what you can do with iron sights. IDPA Expert or 80% on the FBI qualification test are good goals.
- Analyze your skills (part 1). If you can get the gun aligned with the target and are missing because of poor trigger control or grip problems, spend your red dot sight money on training or other gun modifications (trigger upgrades, for example), and invest some time in dry practice. Purchase a SIRT pistol, Laserlyte pistol, dry fire mag, or other dry fire training gear. Purchase of a red dot sight will help you aim at longer distances a little better. It will not make your draw faster nor will it fix any other problem with your fundamentals.
- Analyze your skills (part 2). If your primary challenge is difficulty getting a sight picture, I would look for opportunities to try a laser and a red dot sighted pistol before spending money. Many (most) of the highest skill level shooters I know and have trained with use a solid black rear and narrow fiber optic front sight, like these from Dawson Precision. A narrow front sight provides more light around the notch, and only having a dot on the front sight, as opposed to dots on front and rear, makes it easier to maintain front sight focus. A cheap way to try this is simply to black out the rear dots on your existing rear sight and replace the front sight. I don’t recommend the fiber optic sights sold at retail stores, as they are all standard width (.125″) and generally not as rugged as the pro-grade sights that can be ordered from online vendors. Get a front sight that is .100-.115 in width. Switching to monovision glasses (dominant eye corrected for front sight length and non-dominant corrected for vision) is another option that can work not only on the range but for everyday wear. All of my glasses are set up for mono vision. That made a big difference in my scores after I turned 50.
- If you want to explore the slide mounted red dot sighted pistol, configure your gun with tall backup iron sights, and commit the time in dry and live practice to getting your skill with the red dot pistol up to the level you measured with iron sights (or beyond). Spend time getting the dot sighted in at 15 and 25 yards, and check that zero at 5, 50, and 75 yards, so you understand how the dot and the trajectory of your carry or match load align at those distances. Closer than 15 yards your bullets will strike lower than the dot, similar to holdover with a red dot on an AR rifle.
- Evaluate your skills. After you’ve put in the work to learn the dot, retest yourself using the same drills you ran in step 1. If the scores show improvement using the dot, keep using it. If not, either put in more work, try other sighting options (laser, different irons, different glasses) until you find what works best for you.