There was a time when optical sights were considered trendy gadgets that only showed up on rifles and some oversized, tricked-out race pistols. They became popular with competition shooters who were looking for an edge, and they did prove to be an advantage.
Mini Reflex Sight
But these days, more and more shooters are putting miniature reflex sights on their defensive handguns. What changed? For one thing, many who are familiar with the use of reflex or red-dot sights on rifles are deciding to try them on their handguns. Also, reflex sights are getting smaller, more rugged and more reliable. Add to that the fact that the cost is coming down while the selection is increasing substantially. Finally, more and more handgun makers are producing pistols with optics-ready slides. That saves the considerable expense of hiring a gunsmith to mill your pistol’s slide—a no-going-back proposition that many were unwilling to risk with their favorite defense guns.
In fact, there are several benefits to mounting a reflex sight on your defensive pistol. The first would be single-point aiming. Simply look at your target, superimpose the red dot over it as you present the pistol, and pull the trigger. There’s no need to line up a front sight post in the center of a rear sight notch, and no chance of misaligning the sights.
Red Dot Benefits
The red dot of a reflex sight is also highly visible day or night. You can’t say that about a laser sight that’s all but invisible during the day or tritium night sights that need near complete darkness to stand out. And the battery life is worth mentioning, too. When carrying a defensive pistol with a reflex sight, you turn on the sight before you walk out the door and not have to worry about it. The Vortex Razor, for example, will run for up to 30,000 hours. So, by leaving the sight on, you don’t have to worry about fumbling with a power switch during the sudden onset of a deadly conflict.
Defensive pistols typically come with fixed iron sights, adjustable for windage only if you drift the rear sight in its dovetail. Reflex sights are fully adjustable for windage and elevation to get you on target no matter what bullet weight you use. Holster makers are also responding to increased demand and making more rigs to accommodate handguns with reflex sights installed. And finally, you don’t have to mount a reflex sight on an optic-ready slide, as most come with cover plates if you would prefer to use the iron sights.
There are a few things to keep in mind about mounting a reflex sight on your handgun. If possible, you don’t want to give up your iron sights altogether. Reflex sights are an electronic device and failure, though not likely, is possible. It’s good to have iron sights as a backup.
Most optics-ready pistols allow you to keep your iron sights in place with the reflex sight mounted just in front of the rear sight. The trouble is that most iron sights aren’t tall enough to view through the reflex sight’s window. The good thing is that most sights these days can be replaced with suppressor-height sights with a higher profile, so you can use them without removing the reflex sight.
Another thing to consider is the size of the dot. Reflex sights are available with dots ranging in size from 1 to 8 MOA. The lower the number, the smaller the dot. A big dot is great for getting on target quickly—perfect for short-range defensive situations. But if you’re looking for pinpoint accuracy at distances beyond the majority of confrontations, you might want to choose a small dot. Somewhere between 3.25 and 5 MOA might be a good compromise.
The brightness of the dot is important, too, but that’s something you can adjust. Obviously, the dot has to be bright enough to see quickly and clearly, but if it’s too bright, it will look like a distorted, fuzzy blob of light that is more distracting than helpful. In bright daylight, you’ll need the dot to be brighter. At night, you don’t need it as bright to really stand out. Some reflex sights feature a mode where the brightness of the dot automatically adjusts to different ambient lighting conditions. Others allow you to manually adjust the dot’s brightness. Some feature both manual and auto modes.
For this article, I fired four handguns equipped with different reflex sights. I put in some range time with each to get some overall impressions.
Glock 40 With Trijicon RMR
Glock and Trijicon are both standards in the gun industry. All others seem to be judged against them. I purchased my 10mm Glock 40 Gen4 MOS primarily for hunting soon after it was introduced. For a reflex sight, I installed the Trijicon Ruggedized Miniature Reflex, or RMR, with an adjustable LED.
This has proven to be a formidable combination. The gun offers good power in a lightweight, easy-to-carry package. With its 3.25-MOA red dot, the RMR ideal for short-range hunting situations, especially in the low light of dense woods. Yet the dot is still small enough for accurate shooting at longer distances. While I normally limit my shots on game to 50 yards with a pistol, at the range I can regularly hit a 12-inch steel plate at 100 yards with this pistol/sight combination.
The RMR is easy to adjust for windage and elevation. On auto mode, the brightness of the dot changes according to lighting conditions. You can manually set the brightness, too. Glock MOS pistols come with four adapter plates so you can install reflex sights from several different manufacturers.
Glock 19 With Burris FastFire 3
The Burris FastFire 3 is a very compact sight available with either a 3- or 8-MOA red dot. I chose the larger dot to see how it would perform against the smaller dots. The FastFire 3 has a single control button to power it on or off and move through the auto, high, medium and low brightness settings. The unit shuts down automatically after nine hours of inactivity. The FastFire 3 will also run for 5,000 hours on one CR1632 battery. The battery compartment is on the top of the sight for easy battery replacement, and it’s easy to adjust the windage and elevation using the included screwdriver.
I mounted the sight on a 9mm Glock 19 Gen5 MOS. I consider the G19 to be about the perfect balance of size and performance. The sights are of the standard height, but I normally replace the plastic sights on Glocks anyway, so if I decide to keep a reflex sight on this gun, I’ll swap out the sights for a higher-profile set. With the Burris FastFire 3 mounted, the pistol handled well, and the large 8-MOA dot was easier to acquire and put on the target out to 25 yards than with the smaller dots. It would be excellent for close-range defense.
I carried the G19 in a DeSantis Thumb Break Scabbard leather belt holster specifically designed for this handgun with a reflex sight installed. The gun proved no more difficult to conceal or carry than a similar-sized pistol with only iron sights.
A minor gripe about the sight is that in auto mode, the dot appeared a bit brighter than I would have liked. Each time I tried it, I ended up manually toggling down to the medium brightness setting. When I tried this gun/sight combo on steel plates at 100 yards, I found the dot just about covered the plate, making long-range accuracy a bit more difficult. Admittedly, that’s not much of a concern for a defense gun.
FN 509 Midsize MRD With TruGlo Tru-Tec Micro
The FN 509 Midsize MRD is a 9mm pistol that’s going to see much more range time. It has excellent ergonomics and handles very well from shot to shot. The optics-ready MRD version comes with high-profile sights that can be used with a reflex sight mounted.
TruGlo’s Tru-Tec Micro lineup of reflex sights includes a standard red dot, one with a green dot, one with a 45-degree offset Picatinny mount and the one I tested that’s compatible with RMR-style mounts. Each model features a 3-MOA dot. There is no automatic brightness mode on this sight, but there are 10 manual brightness settings to handle nearly every lighting condition. Upon activating the dot, it goes to the last brightness setting used. It shuts down automatically after being idle for four hours.
This gun/sight combo was a joy to shoot. The sight was easily zeroed and showed no effects from the recoil. The large window provided a good field of view. While perhaps not as quick on target as the large dot, I felt I was quicker with the TruGlo than I would have been with iron sights. The sight also comes with a Picatinny mount for use on a long gun.
Springfield Hellcat With Shield RMSc
I recently tested the new Springfield Armory Hellcat OSP—a 9mm that is basically a pocket pistol without an optic. I had never thought of putting a reflex sight on a pistol this small, but this gun was an eye-opener. When you think about it, a single red aiming dot negates the disadvantage of having a short sight radius on a short-barreled handgun. With the tiny Shield RMSc reflex sight mounted, I found I was getting quick hits on targets as easily as with many larger handguns I’ve fired.
The OSP version of the Hellcat comes with an excellent AmeriGlo Pro Glo front sight with a tritium insert surrounded by a luminescent ring. It’s paired with an outlined U-notch rear sight. The sights are high enough to be used with a reflex sight mounted. The Shield RMSc features automatic brightness control. My test model had a 4-MOA red dot. A model with an 8-MOA dot is also offered.
I tended to be faster at close range with the larger dot of the Burris FastFire 3 on the G19. But I tended to be more accurate at longer ranges with the smaller dots of the Trijicon RMR on the G40 and the TruGlo Tru-Tec Micro on the FN 509. I shot the Springfield Hellcat much better with the Shield reflex sight than I could with iron sights alone.
These are obvious conclusions, but I tend to be stubborn about things and had to prove them to myself. What I proved to myself most of all is that there are definite advantages to reflex sights on defensive handguns, both in theory and in practice. There’s no sense in fighting it any more. I’m sold.