Throwback Thursday: Red Dot or Iron Sights for a Self-Defense Encounter

Red dot sights are becoming too prevalent to ignore. As an experimenter and trainer, I keep on hand as many of the popular handguns as is economically feasible. At a minimum, I have a selection that is representative examples of most action types.

I also have a couple of handguns equipped with red dot sights. Slide-mounted red dot sights are a neat trick, and in some cases, reliable enough for duty use. While red dot sights have come a long way, I still prefer a unit that allows the shooter to co-witness with iron sights — in case the optic fails.

Holosun red dot sight on a SIG Sauer 9mm semi-automatic handgun
The Holosun sight offers a sharp picture and proven reliability.

Advantages of the Red Dot

Most of the popular handguns are now offered with optic-cut slides and even optic-mounted handguns from the factory. Red dot sights do seem to be simpler to quickly learn and may be effective in personal defense situations. While I have seen trends come and go, including gun-mounted lasers, the red dot seems here to stay.

A few decades ago, the old tube-type dot sight was strictly a competition-style sight. Today, we have small, but reliable, red dot sights from SIG, Holosun, Trijicon, and others. Rather than focus on both sights and the target — front sight, front sight — the red dot allows the shooter to place the dot on the target and only focus on one thing.

The red dot also invites firing with both eyes open. With a moderately well-balanced handgun, the red dot is brought up and quickly on target. I stress again, get on target with the red dot laying on the threat, press the trigger, and you’ll have a hit. Since you do not have to close one eye, and instead fire with both eyes open, the area observed is larger. Therefore, you are less likely to be blindsided by a threat.

Another advantage is a view of the whole target, the entire threat. With conventional iron sights, the target is partially obscured by the sights. With a red dot, the target is much more visible. The red dot is simply superimposed on the target. For shooting in daylight conditions, you may need to jack the light’s power up to ensure the red dot is visible. In dim light, the red dot should be at a lower setting. Otherwise, the brightness will affect your visibility.

Sight picture of a pistol equipped with a red dot sight co-witnessed with iron sights
The red dot sight picture takes some getting used to.

At ranges much past seven yards, you will probably see the entire target. When you are using the red dot, I like to compare it to an aperture sight. The red dot housing tends to fade from focus and the red dot is highly visible. This takes time to achieve real speed and focus.

I recently worked with a senior citizen whose eyes were not what they once were and who had some difficulty mating the proper prescription to his shooting skills. I took the time to explain red dot brightness settings. After a few hours in personal drills, he was thrilled with the results. The red dot is a godsend for older eyes with less visual acuity. However, as experience has taught, he was an exceptional student.

The Downsides of Using Red Dot

There are downsides to the red dot. Older pistols are not easily modified to red dot mounting. It is best to purchase a red dot-equipped pistol from the factory. Red dot sights are not inexpensive in the best examples. Glass and batteries are downsides, and we should always deploy a pistol with backup sights visible through the red dot (co-witness) for serious use.

Browning Buckmark pistol with an early model electronic sight
First generation electronic sights were pretty hefty. We have much better choices today.

For many years, riflemen have understood that a quality optical sight should cost as much as the firearm or more. A competent red dot sight is in the same category with few exceptions. As an example, the Holosun is priced at about $300 and represents a best buy among red dot sights.

Bright Light, Low Light, and Batteries

I have mentioned the need to set the red dot for bright light or dim light. There is a certain sweet spot that may be found that sets the red dot at the best medium for most shooters. Too much light is bad in the home, too little is bad in the outdoors.

Battery life may extend to several years, but it is best to change the batteries at regular intervals, if the red dot is used for critical duty. Red dots are subject to damage in inclement weather or when dropped or damaged. Finding a holster for your pistol with an optic sight is no longer a concern. Virtually all the major makers have redesigned their gear for optics-mounted handguns.

sight picture with the red dot co-witnessed to the iron sights
Some prefer the red dot to be an exact co-witness.

Experience Matters

There is one difficulty that, in my experience, is more difficult than some acclimations in firearms. I think moving to an optical sight is easier with a rifle than with a handgun. However, for those like myself who have used iron sights for many decades, we may find the move to a red dot sight a bit difficult. There is no front sight, so “front sight, front sight, front sight” as has been ingrained into our skulls for so long, goes out the window. There really is no sight alignment. You simply find the red dot.

However, trying to acquire the dot and chasing the dot for each succeeding shot, isn’t fast at all. You will be slower during this acclimation period. I have stressed that the presentation from concealed carry leads to the correct stance and sight picture. With the red dot sight, this is especially important.

If you draw the pistol smoothly and move into the firing stance, you will move the pistol to the eye and find the dot. If you have a strong consistent grip and follow-through, you will be able to keep the red dot in sight and on the target as the pistol cycles and recoils. This makes for real speed.


While I believe that co-witness iron sights are good to have, don’t rely on them to lead you to the red dot. That makes for slow, slow shooting. Rely on one sight system or the other and rely on the red dot as intended.

Many shooters who are new to red dots or out of practice have line-of-sight issues. They are used to bringing the pistol to the eyes and acquiring iron sights. Many are very fast at what they do. The problem is, after switching to a red dot, the line of sight is confused. They have trained and this is a good thing. Their training is good.

N8 Tactical holster cut for a handgun equipped with a red dot sight
N8 Tactical offers quality holsters with an optics cut.

They simply must move to a different type of shooting and raise the pistol to a different sight line. It is similar to acclimating to a rifle scope. A cheek pad or a rise in the stock is necessary. This works well for most shooters. With the pistol, however, muscle memory tends to have the shooter aiming over the top of the slide. As a result, the shooter is fishing for the red dot, unsure of whether to bring the gun up to the eye or to bring the chin down and fire.

There are experienced pistol shooters running into problems at this point. This could be deadly in a self-defense situation where speed and accurate shot placement is everything. You must retrain yourself. The presentation, firing grip, and trigger press are the same. The sight picture is different. Very few self-defense shooters employing a red dot sight have a pistol with backup iron sights.

Shooter holding a red dot equipped pistol
Service grade gear is important. In the end, though, the shooter is most important.

I would guess very few are as skilled as the competition shooter who uses a red dot sight to win the match. The self-defense shooter’s natural point of aim conflicts with the point of aim and line of sight they must adopt to properly use the red dot sight. After all, there is a lot of pressure in a personal defense situation. You will revert to muscle memory, not the shiny new red dot.

Red Dot Sight Test

I attacked the problem head-on by using two similar Smith & Wesson Military & Police 2.0 10mm pistols. Go big or go home, right? I began with the draw stroke. The draw stroke is the same to a point. The divergence is largely in the support hand. Get the support hand up, the thumbs pointing forward toward the target. This makes a huge difference in target acquisition speed.

Bob campbell learning to shoot a red dot sight mounted on a S&W 10mm handgun
The author found the red dot sight fast and accurate but confusing at first.

With iron sights, the front sight is the focus. With red dot sights, the focus is on the target. The red dot simply rides on the target. When the eye is on the target the pistol comes up and breaks the plane between the eye and the target. This is like the old Applegate Drill, a fast and deadly technique.

The Applegate Drill is executed by the shooter bringing the strong-side foot forward and facing the target. As the front sight breaks the plane between the eye and the target, the shooter fires. Similarly, the red dot sight, as used for personal defense, breaks the plane between the eye and the target.

Here is where the problem comes in. I am an experienced shooter and trainer. I do this full-time. The only thing that makes for success with a red dot sight is repetitive practice.

Consistency and Muscle Memory

Consistency and dry fire practice are important. Are you transitioning to red dot sights on all your handguns or only the carry gun? It takes both time and application of proper aiming skills to become proficient with the red dot.

Smith and Wesson M&P 2.0 10mm handgun opposed to a Smith and Wesson M&P
The Holosun red dot added little to the pistol’s weight but offered advantages in speed and accuracy.

As I see it, shooters who have the most problems with red dots do not have a shooting problem. Instead, they have not committed to developing new skills — the relationship between the top of the slide (iron sights) and the higher sightline for a red dot.

If you are skilled and willing to train, the red dot will work for you. If you are looking for something to improve lackluster shooting skills, it simply will not work. In the end, the question becomes whether red dot sights will outshoot iron sights for speed overall, given equal effort with good solid training? Yes. In the limited few weeks that spent jumping into the problem, I saw my skills improve. I still shoot iron-sighted handguns well, and this is my primary concern.

In a personal defense situation, the time to react is mercilessly short. It comes at you like a car wreck. You must be decisive, and you must hit the threat hard. While a prolonged struggle is possible it is not likely.

Bob Campbell shooting combat drill with a red dot equipped handgun
Combat drills were faster with the red dot after a few weeks of acclimation.

Movement and taking cover are important, and so are shooting skills. If you have practiced enough to have the skill set firmly in place on a subconscious level, then you have a high chance of survival. The fundamentals of marksmanship are the same with the red dot and include a firm grip, aiming, and trigger press.


The Smith and Wesson/Holosun 10mm setup and 480 rounds of ammo taught me a lot. The combination is viable. The improvement is real, but it only comes with hard work and attention to detail. Otherwise, you are better off with iron sights.

Does your carry gun have a red dot sight? Does it have iron sights as a co-witness? How much training do you do exclusively with the red dot sight? Share your answers in the comment section.

Editor’s note: This post was originally published in September of 2022. It has been completely revamped and updated for accuracy and clarity.

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