Speed and Precision: A Take on Pistol Red Dots vs. Irons

red dot vs iron sights pistol
August 7, 2017  
Categories: Guns, Learnin'
Tags: Red Dots

We’re gonna share another take on pistol red dots vs. iron sights today, courtesy of Paul Gardner. It’s been a while since Paul wrote for us (two years in fact) but we’re happy to have him back. He’s knowledgeable, a good man, and let’s face it — more than a little dreamy. Mad Duo

Pistol Red Dots vs. Irons

by Paul Gardner; Photos by inimitable Taylor Lange

Red dot sights on pistols are becoming ever more prevalent with each passing year, as the benefits are huge. I’ve personally been shooting some brand of red dot on a pistol since 2011, when Trent Zimmer, CEO of Unity Tactical, gave me a Glock 19 slide with a prototype cut milled in it that would become the ATOM. I ran an Aimpoint T-1 on it in a Magpul Dynamics Pistol II course with Steve Fisher and wound up taking top shooter in that class with the setup. I knew then that red dots mounted on handguns would eventually blow up. Over the past few years, they most definitely have, and for good reason.

However, many people are still hesitant about running red dots on their pistols for a variety of reasons. Two of the biggest often sound something like this:

“Red dot optics are slower than irons to acquire a sight picture in order to place that first, most critical shot on target.”


“Red dots are slower than iron sights up close, where the majority of gunfights take place with pistols.”

I recently attempted to address these assumptions with some (admittedly unscientific) testing of my own.

Paul Gardner Red Dots vs. Iron Sights Breach-Bang-Clear

Paul Gardner Red Dots vs. Iron Sights Breach-Bang-Clear

I put two weapons on the shot timer from 3 to 25 yards to see which sighting system I found faster (or slower) at each yard line, and also to identify the advantages and limitations of each.

Pistol 1 – Gen 4 Glock 17 with a Trijicon RMR-09 (1 MOA) red dot sight.

Pistol 2 – Gen 3 Glock 17 with Ameriglo Spaulding sights (square orange front and blacked out rear).

The slides on both were cut and/or milled by Doug Hollaway at ATEI. Each was quipped with an Apex Tactical trigger, safety plunger, and an S3F barrel. All other internal parts in the frames were identical. Thus, other than the sighting systems, the guns are essentially identical.

Paul Gardner Red Dots vs. Iron Sights Breach-Bang-Clear

Paul Gardner Red Dots vs. Iron Sights Breach-Bang-Clear

Courses of fire were conducted as follows:

I’d draw and fire 1 shot at a B8 pistol bull target, holster the gun, then repeat this a total of at least 20 times with each gun at each yard line — maybe a few more rounds if I felt it needed it.

I’d start off at each yard line with the red dot and follow up with irons. This was to give irons the biggest advantage by being “warmed up” so that no one would complain if I did it the opposite way.

I’d only take a rough average — this isn’t an absolutely precise baseline  — based on if I was consistently hitting in the black of the B8 target. However, because I fired so many rounds it was easy to pick up patterns within times. I also accepted a few hits in the 8-ring at 10 yards and beyond, so long as most of my shots were in the black. No hits outside 8-ring would count at any yard line.

I think my recoded times are VERY close, but will accept the possibility of a +/- .05 on each final time. In every case however, I noticed a reccurring time and logged that one after always rounding up (never down) if need be to keep it simple. For example, 1.18 seconds would get rounded to an even 1.2 seconds.

Keep in mind I was drawing and firing as fast as I could accurately hit the target, pushing myself hard. Your times may be much faster than mine, but I was shooting at my skill level. I did not record blazing fast times, because they were inconsistent. Overall times don’t really matter; try and focus only on the differences in time between the red dot and irons here.

I began the evaluation running the guns from concealment with a Raven Concealment Systems Eidolon holster.

Paul Gardner Red Dots vs. Iron Sights Breach-Bang-Clear


• 3 yards: irons faster by .20 (1.55 irons, 1.75 red dot)

• 5 yards: irons faster by .10 (1.65 irons, 1.75 red dot)

• 7 yards: irons faster by .05 (1.75 irons, 1.80 red dot)

In my opinion, a .05 difference is pretty much a tie because the slightest variance can make or break it –but still, those are the numbers.

• 10 yards: red dot faster by .10 (1.80 red dot, 1.90 irons),

Although still perfectly acceptable hits, accuracy deteriorated slightly with irons, while remaining essentially the same with the red dot. Don’t think for a second I can’t shoot as well with irons at this distance, I just can’t do it at the same speed I’m able to with the optic.

At this point in my experiment I switched holsters because I had to stop for the evening cease fire at my range, picking up again where I left off the next day. I didn’t think to bring the IWB holster until too late.

Paul Gardner Red Dots vs. Iron Sights Breach-Bang-Clear



• 15 yards: red dot faster by .25-.30 (1.80 red dot, 2.05-2.10 irons).

I did pull off a handful of faster times with irons, like a few 1.75-1.85, but not at all consistently. I’d try to go that fast again right afterward and miss badly…even had 1 round off paper. Consistency is the name of the game, and I could only consistently shoot and hit with irons in the 2.05-2.10 range.

• 25 yards: red dot faster by .70 (2.25 red dot, 2.95 irons).

Accuracy was much better with the red dot at 25 yards. I got both guns out of the holster at the same speed, but on average wound up presenting the iron sighted gun out for approximately .70 seconds longer before breaking the shot. This would have notionally allowed a minimum of 3.5 rounds to be fired at me in that amount of time from an adversary with a handgun (f averaging .20 splits from most shooters).


• Approximately 1 out of every 20 to 30 draws with the red dot equipped Glock, I’d have to waste approximately half second or so searching for the red dot because I couldn’t initially see it after presentation. This never happens with iron sights because, unless you do something extreme, you can always locate the front sight upon presentation.

Red dots have very little room for error in any direction before the dot disappears from view.

This is definitely an advantage for the iron sights. Really, it’s the only advantage provided by irons that does not have something to do with “turning off” or being “too dim” to see, and being ever so slightly faster up close. This is absolutely a training issue and should be a very limited problem, so long as a shooter puts in the work on drawstroke and presentation. However, the need to search for the dot is something that could happen on occasion, and should be prepared for.

• I always knew my red dot Glocks were slightly slower up close, from 0-10 yards. However, by testing my equipment at the limit of my abilities, I learned they were at most just .2 seconds slower. How much time is that? It’s roughly enough time for 1 round fired from your adversary’s pistol to come at you; possibly 2 rounds if fired from a carbine.

Is the juice worth the squeeze time-wise, up close with the red dot? I think so. Hell, at 3 yards I’m probably going to begin engaging as I’m pushing the gun out, before even getting to full presentation, unless of course there’s a hostage or some other environmental factor dictating the need for a very precise shot. That would certainly cut back on the time if I could break shots as soon as possible into the high center chest of my opponent, thus negating the slight speed advantage of irons that close.

The red dot Glock lagged behind by just .1 seconds at 5 yards. This is also acceptable to me, especially considering I know I can continue working on my skill set to narrow the gap with my iron sight times as I improve.

Paul Gardner Red Dots vs. Iron Sights Breach-Bang-Clear

I am very aware that these times are just my times. I personally believe they’re representative of most shooters, but that certainly doesn’t mean plenty of you reading this can’t shoot just as fast, or even faster, at all distances with a red dot sight. I can actually shoot faster and more accurate follow-up shots past 5 yards whith a red dot sight. However, until I get to 10 yards and beyond, my first shot on target is almost always faster with iron sights (as of this writing).

Paul Gardner Red Dots vs. Iron Sights Breach-Bang-Clear

• 10 yards is where I’ve always thought the red dot (for me) has pulled ahead in time over irons, and sure enough I proved this to be true in my testing. Once past 10 yards, the red dot just continues sprinting away from iron sights on both speed and accuracy. It’s no contest and is awesome to experience.

It’s once you get to 25 yards that you’ll flat fall in love with a red dot on a handgun. The speed and precision in which you’re able to engage targets at that distance, and far beyond, flat crushes iron sights in comparison. Follow up shots can be achieved much faster as well.

• I personally do not care whose statistics say what with regard to majority of gunfights taking place within 10 yards. That’s certainly good information to know, but I’m not going to count on it. I’m not going to give up the advantages of a repeatedly proven accessory that can, a) measurably improve my accuracy at all distances, and b) increase my first round hit speed on targets at 10 yards and beyond (and increasingly so at greater ranges).

This is no an an-all encompassing test. I didn’t run it in low- or no-light and did not utilize moving targets, nor was there any shooting on the move or off axis positions. This is just one facet of testing both sighting systems. I have performed drills like that in the past, and so can subjectively say with confidence that the red dot will more often than not outperform iron sights under those conditions as well.

I will conduct additional drills in the future. In the meantime, please let me know your thoughts on this, as well as your personal experiences. Do any of you shoot as fast or faster using a red dot sight? If so, at what distances? Have any of you found irons to be your preference? If so, how and why.





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Paul Gardner

Paul Gardner

About the Author


  1. Travis Powell

    Great info. Exactly the kind of info I was interested in.


    I’m old fashioned (I’m almost 70) and a believer in iron sights, simply for their durability. At the range, and in competition, scopes and red dots are fine. For the most part, they don’t get rough handling. But iron sights are less likely to get knocked off zero when the firearm receives the type of rough handling it can receive in the field (diving for cover, hitting obstructions when deploying the firearm, etc.). Of course, someone can argue that at “how do you do” range, being off zero shouldn’t make that much difference, but being on zero means one less variable to worry about.

  3. Randall Beavers

    Thank you for writing this article. I really appreciate the time and effort you put into it!

    I’ve been on the fence about converting my EDC pistol to a red dot sight for a long time. My biggest concern is finding my target for that extremely important first shot. I’m fairly quick and accurate up to 15 yards or so. I only carry for personal defense. I’ve never been a competitive shooter. Not yet any way.
    Before (or if) I make the change, I think that it would serve me well to borrow/rent a pistol with a red dot sight system on it. It would be a shame to waste all of that time and money if I wind up not liking it, or if I’m simply not as efficient with it as I am with the iron sights that I already have!

    Thanks again for the time and effort that you spend writing your articles! I consider the reading that I do to be an important part of my training.


  4. Jack (jack864 on LF)

    Good info here, thanks for your insight Paul.

  5. strych9

    My issue with optics on pistols isn’t speed or anything like that.

    My problem is that, for the most part, it means I’d have to acquire optics then modify my pistols to accept them and then probably get new holsters to accept the modded pistols.

    That sounds like a lot of time and expense to me and since I don’t shoot competitions the likelihood I’d ever *really* use such cash consuming modifications is vanishingly small.

    • Richie F

      I agree. I would love to have an optic on one of my guns, but for now I use a red laser and find it extremely useful for target acquisition as well as dryfire training, I can see precisely how my grip and trigger pull changes the direction of fire and adjust accordingly

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