My eyes are getting older, along with the rest of me. I just celebrated a birthday…which one, I won’t say but if it were the last two numbers in a year in the 20th century, the Beatles’ “Sgt. Pepper” album would have just been released. What does this have to do with red dot sights? I am finding that I am having a little trouble at times focusing on the front sight. Trying to keep that ever-shrinking front sight centered in the rear notch, with both of them in some sort of focus is getting to be more difficult. That doesn’t even take into account the target…at some point you want it to be in focus as well. Even the fiber optic front sight on my Springfield XDM hides itself at times. Maybe it’s time for a red dot sight.
The advantage, in a nutshell, of red dot sights is that they don’t make your eyes focus on more than one focal plane at a time. Trying to keep the target (not to mention the front sight) in focus while aiming through the rear sight is harder than it used to be, since it involves at least two focal planes. With a red dot, all one has to do is put the dot on the target. One focal plane. All your eyes have to do is just look at the illuminated dot superimposed on the target. It makes the target easier to hit for some people, and can be faster in the target acquisition department. Can you mount a red dot on any handgun? Well, no. You will need either an MOS-ready (modular optic system) pistol with a removable plate that allows the sight to be mounted flush with the slide, or a Weaver or Picatinny rail on top of your slide or receiver.
A lot of .22 pistols are coming with rail sections already in place – these make it easy to mount a specialized optic. What if your pistol or revolver is not red dot-ready? A visit to a gunsmith can make most handguns able to accept a red dot or other optic. The top can be milled, and in the case of a revolver, the rear sight replaced with a slot cut for a specific red dot model with mounting holes or a rail added to the barrel.
An autoloader can have an MOS-style slot cut where the rear sight sits. In terms of adding a sight to a semiauto, I don’t believe you’d want to try to add the rail to the slide – the sight’s mounts probably wouldn’t stand the recoil forces. The one exception to this might be that .22 I mentioned earlier, where the barrel and receiver are solid with only the bolt reciprocating…think Ruger’s Mk II-III-IV series and others. A rail could be added. Or even better, the new Ruger Mk. IV 22/45 Lite has one built in:
I think that a .22 pistol or revolver with a red dot would make a great squirrel gun. I’ve done my share of hunting bushytails and can tell you that the hardest part of it is keeping that front sight in position as your eye follows the squirrel along a limb, all the while wanting the silly tree rat to just stop and stand still for a second or two.
With me, this is usually with one eye closed as I use the sights in the “traditional” method (as stated in many of my articles I’m very old-school but open to new-fangled ideas). A red dot would allow me to keep both eyes open as I wait for the critter to stop, all the while keeping the dot on him. I could definitely see an advantage in using an optic over iron sights here.
In order to use iron sights, your eyes must attempt to focus on more than one focal plane at once…the rear sight, the front sight and the target. (If the rear sight is an aperture sight, that helps by eliminating the need to consciously focus on it – your eye automatically centers the front post as you look through the rear aperture, but you still have to be able to see the front sight).
Red Dot Optic
The red dot sight, like a traditional scope, places the reticle and the target in the same focal plane which makes it easier to place the reticle on the target. Another plus – you can keep both eyes open, which helps with situational awareness.
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How Do Red Dot Sights Work? A Simple Explanation…
Before I list some of the better sights out there, it may not hurt to do a quick refresher on how these sights work. It’s pretty simple, really. An LED transmits a beam of light that hits a special, spherical mirror. This piece of glass is coated to reflect only red light (or green, if it’s a green light optic) back to the lens in front of your eye. The size of the beam, in minutes-of-angle (MOA) is controlled by an aperture hole in front of the LED. Add in some controls that give you the ability to adjust where the red dot appears in the lens (windage and elevation) and you have a basic red dot (reflex) sight. It is important to remember that these optics are not scopes – they do not magnify the target. They offer 1X magnification, which is to say none. They don’t “bring your target up closer” like scopes do…they simply overlay a red dot on your target.
So…What About Holographic Sights?
How are holographic sights different from reflex sights? These sights use a laser that projects a hologram of the reticle which is reflected back to your eye. The mechanism is, by nature, fairly complex and can be a bit bulkier than a standard red dot. Here are some comparison points:
- Red dot reflex sights produce their reticle by using an LED while holographic reticles are produced by using a laser.
- Holographic sights are perhaps a bit less susceptible to parallax error (a situation where the reticle seems to shift its position as you move your eye around behind the sight) than red dots. Most military holographic sights are guaranteed to be parallax-free to 100 yards. Parallax is not usually a problem with 1X magnification optics, but it can rear its ugly head in some optics.
- Holographic sights tend to go through batteries faster than red dot sights.
- Holographic sights can be a little more temperature-sensitive than red dot optics.
- Holographic sights tend to cost more, on average, than red dot sights.
These are just some general points that may not apply to each and every holographic sight produced but are by and large true for the majority of them. The holographic sight has been adopted by a lot of military and police units because of their quick, both-eyes-open target acquisition. Two of the biggest players in this game are EOTech and Trijicon. We will stick with reflex sights for the purposes of this article.
A question that pops up from time to time when discussing various-sized dots in reflex optics is MOA, minute-of-angle. In the most basic terms, a small MOA dot (1-3 or so) covers less of the target than a larger one. One minute of angle is equal to 1.047 inches at 100 yards, usually just rounded off to 1 inch. So, a 1-MOA dot would cover 1 inch of the target at 100 yards, while a 6-MOA dot would cover 6 inches. As the range increases, the area covered gets larger. In the examples above, the 1-MOA dot would cover 1 inch at 100 yards, 2 inches at 200, etc.
The 6-MOA dot would cover 6 inches at 100 yards, 12 inches at 200, etc. So, if you’re choosing a sight for hunting that will be mounted on a hunting handgun or rifle, you’ll want to stick with a smaller dot. If your purpose is shooting steel targets at 25 yards or less, a larger dot works best. For self-defense or competition purposes, very fast target acquisition is needed so the larger dot would be easier to see quickly. The converse is true if you have a lot of time as you’re tracking a game animal at close-to-medium range…a smaller dot covers less of the target and allows more precise bullet placement.
What’s Best For Me?
For the majority of us who are not military or police, a plain red dot sight with a 3- to 8-MOA dot should work well. A lot of competition shooters use them (where allowed) and thousands of casual plinkers are discovering that a red dot sight with a medium-to-large MOA size dot can make shooting more fun. Let’s not forget that many folks who carry a concealed weapon have some sort of compact red dot sight on it, to name another use. These sights are not limited to handguns, but are to be found on rifles and shotguns as well. A small red dot sight doesn’t break the bank, is easy to mount on a Weaver/Picatinny rail or MOS plate, and will probably help you to score more hits.
Let’s look at some specific sights that I think are a good value.
Burris FastFire 2/3
The Burris FastFire 2 is a very popular red dot optic, along with its brother, the FastFire 3. I had a FastFire 2 loaned to me for this review by Burris, so I got to know it pretty well. I got the Picatinny mount version, although you can get it with a Weaver mount, or no mount. Here are some of its features:
- 4-MOA dot
- Automatic brightness sensor matches dot brightness to ambient lighting
- A rather interesting warranty. See below…
- Waterproof and shockproof
- Windage and elevation adjustments
The FastFire 3 is probably the more popular of the two even though it costs a little more…here are a few of the differences:
- The FF 2 has a 4-MOA dot, while the FF3 has a 3- or 8-MOA dot
- The battery on the FF3 is available from the top of the sight, while the one on the FF2 requires the sight to be removed as it loads from the bottom
- A special screwdriver is needed to adjust windage/elevation on the FF2 while the FF3 has larger screws with hash marks on the sight itself
- The FF2 has a black plastic cover, while the FF3 has a clear plastic one
- The FF3 has an 8-hour battery shut-off feature
So, you have a choice depending on your budget. The FF2 worked well and would fit right in on top of a pistol or long gun…you have to decide if the other features of the FF3 are worth it to you to spend the extra money. According to Burris’ web site, the FF2 lists for $251 while the FF3 goes for $299.
Another extra-cost option includes the Burris mounting system. This allows the sight to be mounted to pistols, rifles or shotguns. This could come in handy for training, law enforcement or hunting purposes. I mentioned the warranty above – it is called the Forever Warranty. Basically, Burris will repair or replace the sight if it breaks. This is for whoever owns it…not just the original owner. No receipt needed, no questions asked…just send it in and they’ll fix it or replace it. That’s what I call a great warranty.
The 4-MOA dot is a great size for general shooting. It’s small enough that it only covers 4 inches of that critter you’re studying at 100 yards, but is large enough to allow quick acquisition if you’re trying to take down a row of steel plates quickly. I’ve found that this sight and the FastFire 3 are some of the best-selling red dot sights out there, with good reason. The company is easy to deal with – they are the only ones who sent a sight for evaluation – and that makes me think that if you had a warranty issue you would have them on your side.
TruGlo TRU-TEC Micro Sub-Compact Tactical Open Red Dot Sight
The TruGlo TRU-TECH sight is another popular choice. With a list price of about $235 and a discounted price of under $175, this sight has a lot going for it. Here are some of its pluses:
- 3-MOA red dot for fast target acquisition
- Digital push-button brightness controls with 10 brightness settings
- Lightweight – just over 1 ounce
- Made from aircraft-grade aluminum
- Auto battery off
- Water- and shock-resistant
- Picatinny rail and hard cover included
TruGlo has been making optics for about 25 years. It started out as a family-owned company that made products to improve sighting for bows and guns. They got into rifle scopes and then other optics. With the sight body made from aluminum and being shock-resistant, this sight will take a lot of rough usage. Add in the easily-changed brightness control, not to mention the windage and elevation adjustments, and you have a winner. The 3-MOA dot is a great multi-purpose size that allows precision yet is still pretty easy to pick up with your eyes. The included Picatinny rail mount makes it easy to set the sight up for your gun without having to have any gunsmithing done. It’s also compatible with MOS-equipped pistols. For not a whole lot of money you can get a 3-MOA dot sight that will do the job for you…the TruGlo TRU-TECH is a good buy for the money.
The priced-at-around-$50 Bushnell TRS-25 is a heck of a buy. Sure, it doesn’t have those streamlined, swooping lines that some of the other more expensive optics have but it works. Here are some of its features:
- 3-MOA dot
- Nitrogen-filled tube won’t fog over
- Waterproof, O-ring construction
- 11 brightness settings
- Shock resistant
If you are looking for an optic to put on a handgun or rifle that will see some rugged use, the TRS-25 may be worth a look. To put it simply, it works. I once bought a $32 red dot from a local box store. It seemed like a good idea at the time, right up to the point where I discovered that the “zero” of the red dot was capricious and moved with the winds. It would not hold zero. I learned that age-old lesson again – you tend to get what you pay for. However, as we look at this $50 Bushnell optic, maybe that old axiom isn’t true in this case.
This sight comes with a lot of good reviews. As we all know, there are always the naysayers who wouldn’t like something even if it were gold-plated and free but we don’t see too many of those reviews for this 4-ounce beauty. The mount that it comes with (according to the Bushnell website) is a Weaver-style, but other reviews I’ve read say it’s a Picatinny mount. I couldn’t really verify this, try as I might, but either way should work. (If you have experience with the mount situation, please leave a comment below). There are rail adapters out there that fit both handguns and long guns. Another advantage … with its nitrogen-filled tube, you shouldn’t have a problem taking your TRS-25-equipped gun out of your warm car into a wintry 10-degree field. It won’t fog over.
I have a pair of Bushnell binoculars, 50X, that I use to examine craters on the moon…OK, I exaggerate but I do love those binoculars. They are very clear, with sharp images and easily adjusted. Bushnell is known for its optics and the TRS-25 is no exception. If you are looking to get into red dot optics but are on a tight budget, you should give this one a look. You should be able to go to your local store and see it mounted on a shortened rifle stock – most larger stores have many scopes and optics mounted that way – and that will give you an idea about whether or not this optic will work for your application. Of course, you can check out any of these optics that way, but for some skeptical people, actually seeing a $50 optic that works is believing.
Trijicon RMR Type 2 With Low-Mount Picatinny Rail
Now we’ll discuss a couple of pricier optics. Trijicon is a well-known supplier of optics to the military and other organizations. They have a great reputation…their ACOG optic is almost legendary. Here, we have a professional-quality reflex sight. The MSRP is $699, but it is available for less than that. Let’s look at some highlights:
- 3.25- or 6.5-MOA dot
- Built with a patented housing that distributes shock away from the lens
- Waterproof to 66 feet
- Adjustable RMR LED
- Easily-adjustable controls
- Button-lockout mode and battery saving features
- Upgraded electronics over the Type 1 optic
- Battery life is rated at 4 years of typical use (lithium battery)
- Side buttons allow easy access to the following functions: power down, brightness adjustment, and switching between manual and automatic modes
The RMR Type 2 optic is a versatile, very well-built piece of equipment. Trijicon is a company that is dedicated to quality, as its many military and police customers can testify to. If you are looking for a solidly-built, shock-resistant red dot to mount on a heavy-recoiling pistol’s slide, give this one a look. It was tested and manufactured so as not to be affected by the recoil forces that a reciprocating slide generates. The forged aluminum housing doesn’t add much to its weight, which is 1.2 ounces with battery.
If you are a person who generally wants the best of whatever you buy, give the Type 2 RMR a look – you would probably get years of service from it. By the way, RMR stands for “ruggedized miniature reflex”, in case you were wondering.
The Vortex line of optics has earned a great reputation. I know I keep saying this, but I did try to choose only the best sights at different price points to include here. So, if I didn’t say the bit about their great reputation, you might wonder about the sight’s quality given the other fine optics mentioned in this article. So…Vortex has earned a great reputation, to repeat it.
Here’s a quick, personal recommendation…I was talking to the optics specialist at a local gun store (a huge, dedicated gun store in the Midwest with its own indoor range that sells more than a million dollars’ worth of guns a year, not a “box” store … you know these guys know what they’re talking about). He said his favorite optic to show customers, out of the dozens they sell, is the Vortex Venom. The features help sell it. They include:
- 3-MOA dot
- Adjustment graduation: 1-MOA
- Max windage adjustment is 100-MOA; max elevation adjustment is 130-MOA
- Machined aluminum housing
- Fully-coated lens
- Battery compartment is on the top, which makes swapping batteries easy
- Weight: 1.6 ounce
- Includes Picatinny mount
The Venom is a light, bright (10 brightness settings or auto brightness that adjusts for ambient lighting) optic that has been installed on thousands of guns of all types. The thing that I like about this sight is, if you look at the photo above, they make it very clear how to adjust windage and elevation changes. Plus, a normal screwdriver will do that job nicely.
The Vortex VIP (Very Important Promise) warranty will repair or replace the sight if needed and is basically a “no questions asked” warranty. It is good no matter if you are the third owner of the sight and have no receipt – they’ll fix it anyway. So, you really can’t lose with Vortex.
My old eyes could surely use a boost when it comes to sighting and hitting that target, and iron sights just aren’t the answer. It would seem that there will be a red dot optic of some type in my future. One really cool thing about doing an article like this one is the research you get to do and what it turns up. I have to limit what I write, of course, but I find out some pretty interesting facts when I dig into a subject. Sometimes, it’s what you can’t find that’s important. I tried to find comparative sales figures for red dot optics versus other sights; I couldn’t find anything helpful. I DO know, however, that these sights have grown immensely in popularity with the general shooting public over the past 10 years or so. They are also the military’s most-used rifle sight (along with holographic sights), so they are not going away anytime soon.
I think my main take-away from looking at all these optics is very basic and obvious: they truly do extend your ability to hit your target at speed and I want a couple of them.
Perhaps one of the best uses for a red dot sight might be on this pistol (yep, it’s legally a pistol):
Put one of the above five sights on the EP9, buy a bucket of 9mm ammo, go to the range and smile all the way home. The red dot optic is here, in force, at any price point – maybe it’s time you added one to your inventory if you haven’t done so already. As usual, please leave me a comment below. Happy Shooting!