All or Nothing: Red Dots

3-Apr-15 – 12:03 by ToddG

178061_01_lgA never-ending topic of discussion these days is the pistol mounted MRDS (mini red dot sight) that is becoming more popular among shooters. As with so many things, it’s yet another “All or Nothing,” with too many people believing they’re best or worst under all circumstances for all shooters. And as usual, that’s just stupidly wrong.

For those not familiar with the MRDS, it is an optical sight that has no magnification and produces a red dot (usually battery powered) as an aiming point on the lens. The optic is mounted to the pistol’s slide and moves just as the slide does during recoil.

There are some undeniable benefits to an MRDS. The biggest is that it allows a shooter to focus on the target yet still see an aiming reference. There is no need to choose between the front sight and the target. You look at the target and the red dot is just there. For the majority of pistol owners who aren’t going to achieve the level of skill & discipline to choose the front sight under extreme stress, it essentially combines target-focused shooting with aimed shooting.

The MRDS also benefits shooters whose eyesight no longer allows them to get a clear sight picture with iron sights, particularly those who are far-sighted. Any sight is better than no sight.

There are some undeniable disadvantages to an MRDS, also. And the biggest of those is that the sight has a fairly narrow “viewable angle.” When the gun fires, the dot disappears as the slide cycles and rises in recoil. It comes back into view once the slide is back in battery and is relatively level along the eye/target line of sight.

This is a video I was quickly able to find on YouTube that demonstrates the “disappearing dot” quite well. You can skip to the 8m 30s mark to see exactly the problem.

YouTube Preview Image

Advocates of the MRDS often try to compare it to a rifle red dot scope, but that’s invalid. A rifle’s recoil arc is substantially less because the rifle has four (thanks SLG!)  points of solid contact rather than being controlled solely by the arms. Similarly, comparisons to IPSC Open-style guns are wrong because (a) the red dots on Open guns aren’t moving back and forth on a reciprocating slide and (b) the Open guns have compensators which keep the muzzle level during recoil.

For beginning and intermediate-level shooters the “disappearing dot” is no problem because they normally lose track of iron sights in recoil, too. But for more experienced shooters who understand proper sight tracking — keeping visual control over the gun through the entire arc of recoil — the MRDS actually slows them down. Instead of following the aiming point as it comes down from recoil as they’d do with an iron front sight, they must wait until the gun is level enough to make the red dot visible. Only then can they adjust their aim as necessary and press the next shot.

We all agree that blinking every time you fire the gun is bad. But somehow MRDS proponents don’t mind that their sight blinks in and out of sight with every shot. Curious.

The dot also disappears as things other than recoil make the gun move around. The best example of this is, not surprisingly, movement. While it’s easy to keep the gun very level when moving in straight lines (forward, back, left, right) at a controlled speed, it’s a lot more complicated when you’re moving in more realistic and dynamic ways. The drill where I’ve seen students get really frustrated with the MRDS is the Figure-8 Drill:

YouTube Preview Image

When the dot isn’t visible, you have to wait on it before you can shoot. With an iron sight, the front sight is always right there where it’s supposed to be. With the MRDS, the dot is only visible when the gun is relatively level.

The other major issues with MRDS are their visibility under certain weather conditions and their durability. These are problems which are both likely to be addressed as the technology advances.

For the vast majority of shooters, the MRDS is an advantage. It allows them to aim precisely when they’d otherwise get too rough (or no) sight picture for the needed shot. If I were outfitting a large police department or military unit with pistols, I’d want to put MRDS on those guns. It simplifies teaching and delivers acceptable performance with less time & effort expended.

But the MRDS, because it appears and disappears as the gun moves in recoil, has a lower performance ceiling than iron sights. In other words, your maximum potential speed with the MRDS is less than your maximum potential speed with an iron sight. That’s why pistol shooters tend to eschew the MRDS as they get more skilled, at least for close to moderate range shooting where speed is as much a factor as accuracy. (at longer distances, even the best pistol shooters tend to find that they can extend their bullseye range using the more precise, smaller aiming point from the MRDS compared to an iron front sight)

Of course, many fans of the MRDS don’t want to be told that their improved performance is due to a lack of shooting skill. I’ve even had one proponent claim that sight tracking was impossible and made-up! Seriously. They don’t want to hear that they’re not yet in the top five percent. Because as I’ve said before, 95% of shooters believe they’re in the top 5%.

If the MRDS lets you do what you want to do better than an iron sight, than the MRDS is good for you. That doesn’t mean it’s the best choice for everyone under every circumstance. And the reverse is also true. Just because you might have the skill level to eek a little more performance out of iron sights than an MRDS doesn’t mean that everyone is being held back the same way. Find what works best for you and don’t fall into the trap of assuming it’s the best for everyone else.

Train hard & stay safe! ToddG

(Smith & Wesson M&P C.O.R.E. photo from;

  1. 15 Responses to “All or Nothing: Red Dots”

  2. I haven’t done much but mess with a buddy’s MRDS, but it really screwed with my flash sight picture (Our whatever the hep lingo is for ‘almost a sight picture, but more that unsighted’). I found myself searching for the dot when I had an acceptable shot.

    I could see its advantage on a competition pistol, where nearly every shot is taken from a repeatable and consistent stance/grip, but not in a carry piece, where ‘finding the dot’ sometimes interferes with ‘good enough’.

    By WoodyTX on Apr 3, 2015

  3. I don’t like them on a carry pistol but I do have one on my Super Blackhawk Hunter .44mag. I love it for handgun hunting.

    By Rupe on Apr 3, 2015

  4. With cowitnessed irons many of the disadvantages you mention are eliminated. The dot does bounce for me but I don’t lose it out of the window under recoil. I’ve never had a problem during movement and I just used it at competition class Kelly Neal taught doing similar movement drills.

    I’d also note that I saw a good portion of 2011 open guns at SMM3G last week with slide mounted red dots.

    I will agree red dots on handguns aren’t for everyone and require a more educated dedicated user.

    By Russell Phagan on Apr 3, 2015

  5. the MRDS or RMRS discussion keeps coming up at work. oddly, it is from the guys who already are very good handgun marksmen, but like stuff/gadgets. I’ve tried to explain what Todd pointed out, but they don’t want to listen.

    I think we, at least my work group, are better off focusing on fundementals and continued training is the better bet for us.

    By LCSO264 on Apr 3, 2015

  6. That is a pretty balanced view Todd and I would agree with a lot of it. You won’t remember it but I was one of the earlier people to use a MRDS in one of your classes in Indiana. The gun did fine the first day (I shoot much better now), but the second day which was movement, the wheels sorta came off. Practice and a lot of rounds have helped that somewhat. The type of shooting where the MRDS really shines for me is medium range where you need to get on your sight. Things like the Casino drill are much easier for me with the RMR.

    By Mike on Apr 3, 2015

  7. Fantastic article perfectly captures and articulates the issues with RDS on pistols…well done Todd!!!

    By Jose gordon on Apr 3, 2015

  8. Thanks, guys. As I said, it can be a boon for some and a limiting factor for others.

    Good to see you around, Joser!

    By ToddG on Apr 3, 2015

  9. Wow, the Suarez faithful are going to get their noses all bent out of shape……………

    By RickP on Apr 3, 2015

  10. I am close to getting an MRDS for the guns we keep for home defense and/or farm defense. I’ve had issues with livestock loss. We sometimes head out at dusk and at night with a shotgun, because our losses occur at these times.

    Trad sights are not doing it for us, and flashlights don’t help much. I tried a barrel-mounted laser and it is better, but it gets lost under the flashlight sometimes. We hold the flashlight because we don’t like the idea of pointing a loaded gun at things we need to light up. Again this is not “tactical” use – it’s purely functional farm management, but I can extrapolate the exact same issues in a home defense environment.

    So we’re looking at MRDS units for the shotgun, and then if we like it we’ll add some to the home defense pistols.

    That said, I would not add one to the pistols we use for competition, informal or otherwise. I agree with the author there. Those times I used a red-dot on a borrowed pistol, I slowed down. And I am not even a 5% shooter.

    There is a time and place for every tool, but that does not mean a given tool is for every time and every place.

    By Patrick on Apr 7, 2015

  11. Patrick — You get it *exactly*. There are times, circumstances, and/or people for whom it’s a better option and there are those for whom it’s not a better option. Knowing where it does and doesn’t benefit you is the key.

    It’s all the people who insist that EVERYONE should use an MRDS or NO ONE should use an MRDS that led to this post.

    By ToddG on Apr 8, 2015

  12. Good commentary. As an early adopter of handgun RDS and having run a multi-year study on the topic, you have hit many of the key points.

    Slide mounted RDS are NOT optimal; it is far better to have the RDS remain stationary, but that creates multiple issues, including duty holster compatibility.

    Slide mounted RDS are definitely slower at closer ranges. If I did not currently have vision issues, I would have preferred to remain with iron sights for shooting at ranges under 15 yds or so. However, beyond that, the RDS begins to allow me to be more accurate as will as quicker on target, especially as the range increases beyond 25 yds.

    Slide mounted RDS is an option–particularly for those with vision issues. Other folks may be better served with other solutions.

    By DocGKR on Apr 9, 2015

  13. I say use what works for you and don’t listen to all the “experts” out there. Having eye problems is for sure a good reason for using them. Anything that keeps you in the game is a great tool.


    By Rupe on Apr 9, 2015

  14. A MRDS on a low-recoil pistol with a fixed receiver (Ruger Mk II/III .22)is very user friendly. You still have to work on consistent grip and presentation to find the dot quickly, but keeping it in the field of view is not hard.

    By Lyford on Apr 11, 2015

  15. I just recently started carrying a MRDS on my duty sidearm while at work. I have iron co witness sights and find that at closer ranges I’m catching the front sight on target pretty quick and have enough experience to know when to shoot vs. waiting for the red dot to appear. Although subconsciously I am registering the red dot in my line of sight as well. At greater distances, out to 50 yards, which our qualification requires, I find the sight invaluable. Great article.

    By Frank Delgado on Apr 12, 2015

  16. Todd, thanks for this illuminating post. I had never thought about the disappearing problem before. In your experience do laser sights have the same “blinking out” issue as MRDS?

    By IsaacL on Apr 29, 2015

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