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Mini Reflex Sight Comparison Essay

In short, quality modern red dots are durable, handgun mounted red dots allow the shooter’s focal point to remain on target, and handgun mounted red dots drastically improve accuracy.

Handgun red dot sights are all the rage these days, but also the source of a lot of controversy – much like red dot sights for rifles not that many years ago. As technology improves, micro red dots durability improves, and batteries last longer – the pistol red dot is only going to get more popular. At this rate, red dots on a pistol will be as ubiquitous as optics on a carbine.

To prove that point, Aaron Cowan from Sage Dynamics has spend the last 4 years conducting a study on the use of handgun red dot sights, specifically for police duty handguns.

The full study: “Miniaturized Red Dot Systems for Duty Handgun Use” – by Aaron Cowan.

It is a very comprehensive 64 page overview of everything Aaron found out within the study. For those who don’t want to read the entire study, then keep on reading here for my summary.

Original hypothesis

a MRDS is not only more efficient than traditional iron sights for the duty handgun, but that the MRDS would provide distinct advantages not possible with proper iron sight use.

If you want the conclusion now, Aaron has concluded that modern micro red dot sights for handguns improve speed and accuracy and are sufficiently durable.


The testing conducted drop tests, impact tests, hot and cold tests, submerging in water, and live fire testing. The study includes specific numbers on page 16/17 for those who are interested, but it concluded the Leupold Deltapoint Pro and Trijicon RMR are the two most reliable micro red dots, which are often called reflex sites.

Interestingly, this handgun red dot study also found Energizer and Sony batteries cannot reliably withstand the handguns’ recoil, but Duracell’s batteries held up to a handgun’s recoil. Are many shooter’s pistol red dot reliability issues actually battery reliability issues?

Fast target acquisition

One of Aaron’s primary cases for the use of red dot sights on handguns is the focal limitations of the human eye – or as Aaron calls it, “focal plane confusion.” With iron sight shooting, we’re taught to focus on the front sight, leaving the rear sights and target blurry. This allows for accuracy, but does not allow the shooter to maintain ideal situational awareness – which is naturally quite important for self defense use. A red dot on a pistol allows the shooter to focus on the target and simply place the red dot on the target. In the case of police officers, this is useful for watching a suspect’s actions, while still keeping the pistol sights on target.

Handgun accuracy in force on force

For this test, the study used a Glock 17 with iron sights and another Glock 17 without backup iron sights and only a Trijicon RMR with 6.5 MOA dot. 12 students were put through 4 consistent scenarios with the iron sights or red dot sight. The following is a graph of force on force testing.

Clearly, the pistol mounted red dot provided greater accuracy, both in total hits as well as hits within the vital area. The shooters with red dots even had to put less shots on target due to the increased accuracy. The drastic improvement in vital hits is more clearly illustrated in the two contrasting hit maps comparing shot placement.

Both iron sight and red dot shooters very consistently reported they focused on the threat. However, the vast majority of iron sight shooters reported they did not see their sights. In contrast, the vast majority of red dot shooters reported they did use their red dot. That can quite clearly be seen in the graphs showing shot placement – red dot sights consistently improved accuracy in these force on force scenarios.

Addressing optic failure

All mechanical and electrical devices can, and eventually will, fail. A red dot failure is possibly the most often reluctance for its adoption. If an optic fails, back up iron sights are easily used, and the window of the red dot can act as a ghost ring for close distance accuracy.

In the case of optic view obstruction, particularly fogging, both eyes open shooting can still be used to obtain fairly accurate shooting in self defense shooting distances. Aaron explains it extremely well starting on page 59, I recommend his explanation over a short summary from me. Red dot fogging is quite unlikely except in the most hot and humid of environments. It is also almost entirely preventable through treatments such as Cat Crap.


The study goes into much greater detail as to how the study was conducted, relevant information from the findings, and more detail about the findings. It also goes over recommended training regimens and suggestions on how to get a police department to adopt handgun red dots. I intentionally kept my summary short to provide a digestible overview of the extensive study.

In short:

  1. Quality modern red dots are durable
  2. Handgun red dots allow the focus to remain on target
  3. Handgun red dots improve accuracy

In closing, the validation for MRDS as an increase in officer effectiveness has been well established by this white paper and will assist in adoption of MRDS on duty handguns, it is now up to law enforcement to further their never-ending efforts to increase officer efficacy.

Thank you so much Aaron Cowan for this comprehensive 4 year study on pistol mounted micro red dots.

What do you think about handgun mounted red dots?

A Trijicon RMR (far l.) is mounted on the S&W Performance Center Ported M&P. Leupold’s DeltaPoint, shown atop the FN America FNX-45 Tactical, is thinner than other reflexes and is the only unit that fits the Kahr Arms Gen2 Premium TP9 and TP45. 

It wasn’t that long ago when Picatinny rails were new to rifles. What did we do before them? Well, we didn’t mount riflescopes on our ARs very swiftly, for one. Yet competitive shooters would not be denied the vast benefits of optics, and so they rigged them to their guns however they could—often with the help of professional gunsmiths and custom-machined mounts. Manufacturers took note and began integrating slotted rails atop AR receivers, and the Picatinny design was more or less accepted across the board. Now optics on ARs are as common as white on rice.

A similar evolution is happening right now with handguns. Again, it was the competitive shooters who started it, but the movement required the miniaturization of reflex, or red-dot sights, to make them practical for everyone else. Today, about a half-dozen companies offer handguns with integral mounting solutions for a growing catalog of mini-reflex sights, and the trend is snowballing as shooters of all disciplines discover them. Indeed, when we look back in 20 years, 2015 may just be the year of the mini-reflex revolution.

The Mini-Reflex Concept
The reflex, or reflective, sight is more than a century old and grew into a better gunsight for aircraft and anti-aircraft gunners because it didn’t limit field of view and eye relief like telescopic sights of the time. The sight relied upon an optical system that formed a visual collimator to superimpose a reflected image of a reticle onto a curved lens in the shooter’s line of sight. Whereas a simple reticle that’s etched or wired onto a lens moves in relation to the target as the eye moves, an image of a reticle that is reflected stays on target. What this means is that parallax is minimized. 

Reflex System requiring ambient light

With this invention, gun sights needed only one focal point rather than a front and rear sight that must be aligned on the target. Its only limitation as a heads-up sighting device was that it depended on light to work. 

In the 1970s the reflex sight as we know it was brought to market by the Swedish firm Aimpoint. It contained a battery-powered, light-emitting diode (LED) that allowed these compact, tube-enclosed reflex sights to function in darkness. Its glowing “red dot” soon became this sight’s nickname. It took a little while longer for a few cutting-edge handgunners to discover the red-dot sight’s advantages.

As reflex sights have gotten smaller, they have become more unobtrusive on carry or personal-protection guns. As can be seen through the Burris Fast Fire 3 with an 8-m.o.a. dot on a Glock G40 MOS (Modular Optic System) pistol, the dot is readily visible. Once you have the dot aligned, then you can concentrate on other fundamentals, such as trigger press and breathing.

Red Dots On Handguns?
In 1990, a young Doug Koenig won the Bianchi Cup pistol championship, and he did it with a contraption bolted atop his pistol. He was the first to win the cup using an optic of any kind (since then he’s used Aimpoint, Tasco Pro Point II, Leupold/Gilmore and Leupold models), and he’s done it 16 times over. He’s taken 10 world championships and countless other titles. There is no more qualified or outspoken advocate of reflex sights on handguns. Quite simply, Koenig thinks they’re superior to open sights. 

“I knew my times with irons, so I had a baseline to test against—the red dot was faster. It’s faster because your focus isn’t bouncing back and forth [between sight and target], and there’s nothing to align,” Koenig said. “You just focus on the target and put the dot on it, just like pointing your finger.”

But speed isn’t the reflex’s only advantage.

“Back in those days we shot a lot of indoor matches in low light,” Koenig said. “The red dots were optimal, and we [fellow red-dot user and pro-shooter Jerry Barnhardt] shot just as well as we did in daylight. Night sights don’t cut it.” 

Still, most pros were skeptical of their accuracy; for recreational shooters they were overly bulky and too difficult to mount. Protruding nearly 3" above the bore and averaging more than a pound with mounts, only race gun holsters could accommodate them. Batteries were suspect. Concealability was a joke. 

Twenty years later, advancements in circuitry and battery technology allowed engineers to redesign the sights. Deciding that they were more robust than necessary, they stripped them down to the bare minimum of parts—a lens to reflect the reticle image, a power source, LED, circuit board and frame—and tossed everything else. The remaining “mini-reflex sight” (MRS) weighed under 2 ozs., was an inch tall and featured greater field of view thanks to its single lens and tubeless design. 

Three-gun competitors latched onto them for a quick, short-range option to mount on their rifles in tandem with their riflescopes. Naturally some advantage-seeking soul realized one would be perfect on a handgun where it would only minimally hamper his vison and the gun’s handling. After all, an MRS is only about 3/4" taller than standard irons. There is no problem holstering MRS-equipped pistols with most open-top, carry-style holsters because the sight doesn’t extend past the ejection port, and as such, holsters have no bearing on it. So, just like that, optics became a viable option for all handgunners.

Mini-Reflex Sights On Practical Handguns
As Koenig described, red-dot-style sights are faster than irons and better in low light. But they’re also more accurate, particularly at ranges past 50 yds., thanks to fine dots and triangles, generally representing 2 to 13 m.o.a., that are more precise than the front posts of modern pistols. The U.S. Army bought thousands of Aimpoints for its service rifles because research showed that it made the average soldier more accurate with less training. Additionally, an infinite field of view makes locating targets and transitioning between them easier. What’s more, with their zero magnification, MRSs are best used with both eyes open to maximize peripheral vision, depth of field and low-light capability. Eye relief is also unlimited, so there’s never worry about mounting locations or getting “scope eye.” But perhaps most notable of all, mini-reflex sights make accurate handgun shooting possible for more people. 

Smith & Wesson supplies different mounting plates (l.) for most standard (and some not so standard) reflex sights on its M&P C.O.R.E. (Competition Optic Ready Equipment) Military & Police pistols. Attach the plate to the slide and then the reflex to the plate.
Can red-dot sights help your shooting? Ask 16-time NRA Bianchi Cup Champion Doug Koenig. He says its faster because you have only one focal plane and your eyes are not jumping back and forth between the front and rear sight. Just put the dot on the target.

Presbyopia And A Game Changer
Presbyopia is the inevitable eye condition caused by aging that prevents the eye from focusing on close objects. I remember when my father said he could no longer see the rear sight, front sight and the squirrel all at the same time and so he had to defile his engraved Browning .22 by topping it with a 4X Weaver scope. Fortunately for him and millions like him, optics “flatten” the sight picture, allowing shooters to focus only on the target and then superimpose the reticle onto it. Focusing on the target is desirable for obvious reasons, such as target identification and anticipation of its movement. For shooters over the age of 40, the advent of mini-reflex sights for handguns may prove to be a game-changer.

What’s more, I’ve found that reflex-style sights will make you a better shooter, because slight imperfections in trigger squeeze and steadiness of hand are made obvious by movement of the glowing red dot. Koenig agrees. 

“Red-dots simplify instruction because they allow the student to concentrate on the fundamentals—not keeping the sights aligned,” he said.

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