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Results of a 4 Year Handgun Red Dot Study by Sage Dynamics

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?

Handgun Red Dot and Iron Sight Target Aquisition

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.

Handgun Micro Red Dot Sight vs Iron Sights Accuracy Graph

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.

Handgun Iron Sight Hit Map

Handgun Red Dot Sight Hit Map

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?

Brian Purkiss
Written by

Brian Purkiss is a Christian, husband, competitive shooter, firearms instructor, proponent for individual liberty and Second Amendment rights, and a web developer. He primarily focues on USPSA and Run & Gun competitions, but enjoys most other forms of shooting competitions as well.

Photo via Leupold Optics

Categories: Firearms

18 responses to “Results of a 4 Year Handgun Red Dot Study by Sage Dynamics”

  1. Jim Simpson says:

    Next thing, try the Goshen Enterprises Hexsite. This is an “iron sight” consisting of a normal sized (yet altered) front sight and a hexagonal aperture rear sight. It fits in a conventional holster, has no batteries or glass but it’s meant to be used target-focus like a red dot. It works despite front and rear side being blurry, solving the focal plane problem. It works in any light under which you can identify a target by being “exceptionally black” (with no glinting) by using polymer coatings over steel cores and bases.

    Best sight I’ve ever used by far.

    • Silence DoGood says:

      Wow, Jim, thanks for that. Post-purchase rationalization trumps some silly four year scientific study any day. I’m buying the Hexsite instead!

    • Chuck T says:

      Not to be rude, but, have you ever shot a handgun, Jim?

  2. JD Carpanzano says:

    The Goshen Hexsite looks like the freekin’ bomb! I see them for Glocks but I’m a 1911 guy. I’ll keep searching.

  3. Jake says:

    Very good write up! I think MRDS are probably going to be the norm for duty weapons in a few years. One thing they haven’t really figured out of the optic with the lights. I think as long as you’ve got some decent back up sights it shouldn’t be an issue, and honestly at normally shooting range you can point shoot pretty well.

  4. John Holschen says:

    I have used MRDS on my primary handgun for over 6yrs, averaging about 7K rounds/yr. (Early years had a higher round count than later years.) My experience is consistent with this study. One issue that should be addressed however is that a MRDS on a duty handgun must have self-adjusting dot intensity. This is critical if you move between indoor light levels and outdoor light levels at night. The current Delta Point Pro does NOT self adjust. The Trijicon RMR does.

  5. That would have been my only drawback on a RED DOT, intensity of the Dot from outside to inside and room to room. When I was using them for Bullseye Competition you had to remember to turn them OFF and ON.

    • Harold Finkel says:

      Red dot sights are for fighting and killing guns, not bullseye.

    • Harold Finkel says:

      My gosh, the level of denial in some of these responses is disturbing. I guess it is human nature to resist change regardless the evidence. You folks do realize that your kids, or kid’s kids will not be driving combustible engine powered personal vehicles in the future, right?

  6. Cliff says:

    A concern I have is what distance do you zero the pistols at? At my agency we zeroed our rifles at 50 yards due to the 50/200 yard POA/POI with the 5.56 round. What do you zero at with a pistol? 5 yards,7,10, what?? At least with irons they are generally POA/POI at most reasonable handgun engagement distances.

  7. Jeff Tillman says:

    Who caries a 4 inch full size gun everyday except law enforcement. This is great for law enforcement success, but for everyday CCW carry not so much.

    • I know a lot of civilians who daily carry full size handguns – myself included. The G19 is a massively popular CCW gun and it is a great red dot host, and many popular conceal carry guns from other brands are a similar size to the G19.

  8. Larry says:

    G19 is a compact and I do carry one all the time. The G17 is its full size brother. I know a few people that actually CCW a G17 but not many. Most use smaller guns.

  9. M.Ford says:

    Red dots are a fad.

    Anyone here ever use deadly force?

    I have. You’re not going to even notice your red dot.

    Great for shooting steels. Not so much for people trying to kill you.

    And they aren’t dependable

    Did I mention gimmick?

    • Why don’t you remove your iron sights from the pistol if you think dots are so useless? Also, do you think everyone is going to have the same experience as you? Or maybe do you think different levels of training and skill will have different outcomes.

      On top of that, it sounds like you didn’t read the study and you could use some extra training.

  10. salhosp says:

    I like Sage Dynamics and can appreciate the amount of thought and time that was put into this data set. However, you would not want these data reviewed by a statistician, you wouldn’t want to try to publish a research paper in a peer reviewed journal with data similar to these. It would NEVER cut the mustard. But, take it for what it is worth. It provides good evidence that crappy shooters do better with an RMR than irons. Shooters under stress? Who don’t see their sights? Well we didn’t test them in a practical situation we just justified, in theory, that the RMR type sights would be better than irons. I would like to see a CONTROLLED study using CAPABLE shooters (not students at Norwich-I know them) with a stress variable and 4 different platforms: RMR, Night sights, no sights, or laser. Get mad if you like, but I think police officers would do better with lasers. The vast majority of police officers (who I truly respect immensely) are not gun guys and they’re not very good shooters. And Brian Purkiss -for any target under 10 yards I’d be fine with removing my iron sights.

    • Aaron did perform tests with skilled shooters and there were tests in practical situations. If you want further data comparing skilled shooters – look at USPSA. The Carry Optics division always out performs the Production division, even when comparing equal stages such as classifiers.

      The data is there in many different forms showing the superiority of dots.

      As for the laser, I’ve seen lots of people try to shoot using a laser and when you use the laser as a primary aiming device instead of a secondary aiming device, it always goes poorly. People spend forever wiggling the laser around trying to find it. The laser is most useful as a secondary aiming device to confirm clearance and alignment or useful for confirmation in hip firing.

      for any target under 10 yards I’d be fine with removing my iron sights.

      I’d be curious to see you put that on the clock to the test. Hit factor scoring comparison between no sights and sights at 9 yards.

      I guarantee you that you won’t like the “no sights” results compared to the with sights results, and I’m betting some theoretical bystanders wouldn’t like them either.

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