University Study Reviews Pistol Red Dots vs. Iron Sights

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The first formal university study (that I know of) has concluded that for new shooters the use of red dot sights on a pistol leads to statistically significant higher hit ratio on paper and higher accuracy over irons.

Authors James E. Ryan and Robin Adler or Norwich University provide the following Executive Summary:

This project examined the comparative effectiveness of traditional iron pistol sights with
Trijicon, Inc.’s red dot optic sight. Twenty-seven students from Norwich University participated by undergoing a simulated training course of fire using International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) silhouette targets for four different stages. Thirteen students used iron sights and 14 students used the optic. The results of the project indicated that there was a statistically significant difference favoring the optic for “hits on paper” in Stage 1 (15 yard slow fire) and for accuracy (hits near the center mass of the target) for all four stages of fire.

Of note, the shooters were all students simulating new recruits for military or law enforcement. To help account for the small sample size (only 25 shooters), the authors used surveys to gauge shooting experience. Detailed breakdowns of survey results and analysis of shooting performance are included in the study text.

You can read Soldier Systems‘ original post here and download the full text of the study.

Cover page for the study. It is a fascinating read.

Cover page for the study. It is a fascinating read.

What do you think? Do you think the results would apply equally to experienced shooting? Do you believe that RMR’s or similar red dot sights are more effective that typical irons?

Feature image provided by Trijicon’s community.


Nathan S.

TFB’s newest resident Jarhead, Nathan is currently working in the Defense industry in international sales. A consecutive Marine rifle and pistol expert, he enjoys local 3-gun, bull-pups, and high-speed gear. Nathan has traveled to over 30 countries in the last three years working with US DoD & foreign MoDs. You will likely find him either in an international airport or on the local range in NE Indiana.

Nathan can be reached at [email protected]


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  • Lance

    Be very careful to conclude Iron Sights should be obsolete. It depends on the person on a person to person basis. Some kick butt with red dots or scopes others do better with iron sights. not one system can be perfect for all. I shoot very well with iron sights but I seen some who cant and must need a scope. Iron Sights are still way more durable for a combat pistol for cops or solders where your pistol (holstered and Unholstered) is being constantly banged around you want a simple sight to take a beating not some fancy red dot to be knocked off target or break.
    I wouldn’t let some University study be your own guide feel what’s right for you.

    • jazure

      i agree. I’m new to shooting myself and found I have a hard time focusing with iron sights. So there is a red dot or a scope on all my guns. But my dad is more accurate with iron sights then red dots. Although i found having just a front sight with fiber optic post helps me.

    • Geodkyt

      I would be JUST as careful to conclude that dot sights are not tough enough to survive service use, or that dot sights somehow mean you cannot have or use iron sights.
      With a low mount, low profile dot sight, you can have dot sights that co-witness with the irons, so if the sight’s battery fails (or the sight just plain falls off), you still have irons immediately available. You still get the benefits of the dot, with the durability of the irons as a backup. Also, reports indicate that, even in the absence of a rear iron sight, the usual low mount dot sight’s hood (especially if combined with an absolute co-witness front sight) makes an adequate (albeit huge) “ghost ring”, enabling reasonably accurate fire under stress conditions at realistic combat ranges, even if the sight quits. Admittedly, you won;t be taking home the Bianchi Cup with such a rig, but you may be GETTING home after being on a two way range with Icedog, Sumdood, or Ollie Akbar.

    • HSR47

      “Iron Sights are still way more durable for a combat pistol”

      I don’t know that I buy that argument. If a pistol is getting banged around enough that you’d worry about damaging an optic mounted to it, then it’s likely that it’s getting banged around enough to deform the iron sights. Iron sights that are bent out of shape are just as useless for effective shooting as is a broken optic.

      Also, there’s a reason why most pistols with slide-mounted optics come with iron sights: The iron sights are not there only as a backup, they’re there to get you on target in the first place. Having used multiple pistols with slide-mounted optics, I can tell you that the iron sights serve a very real and very important purpose.

  • hami

    I believe the high price of a reputable handgun-sized red dot sight is the only reason they are not more common.

    • hami

      I also believe that the lack of an obviously visible attachment point (picatinny rail) leads new and inexperienced shooters to not even know an optical sight is an option. I imagine the visual cue of, for example, an AR15’s rail system leads new shooters to seek out accessories. I think there is something left to be desired in regards to how optic-capable handguns are being marketed.

    • http://www.thefirearmblog.com/ Nathan S ” Staff Writer, TFB”

      Very interesting point.

    • El Duderino

      I think they have their niche given the technology. Target shooters and hunters like them, the former doesn’t care about a holster and the latter can get one big enough to accommodate. For a defensive pistol, the time needed to employ the sight is a negative, along with lugging around something extra on your handgun. Most of us non-LEOs realize that if we’re engaging at ranges where a red dot would be most helpful, something is seriously wrong.

      Someday, maybe not in the far future, someone will develop a holosight that lays flat and creates a reticle that floats above the optic (no tube). If small enough to mount to a rear sight, and automatically turn on when the pistol is held, it will be the one to have. Check back in circa 2020.

      • hkryan

        Perhaps a folding, spring loaded reflector that folds flush with the slide for holstering?

      • Nicks87

        “Most of us non-LEOs realize that if we’re engaging at ranges where a red dot would be most helpful, something is seriously wrong.”
        ————
        First of all, what does being an LEO have to do with engaging targets at a specific distance?
        Second, the reason for putting a red dot on a pistol is not for increasing the effective range but more for faster target aquisition and follow up shots.
        I’m sorry but putting a red dot on a pistol is not a niche or just reserved for target shooting and hunting. It very much has a defensive application and does not require extra time to “employ”. I have an RMR on my Glock 17 and I carry it almost every day. I have not noticed the extra weight or size and it has not effected the concealability of the pistol at all. The people that are against putting red dots on pistols sound just like the people that were against putting them on rifles and now look at where we are today. Everybody and their brother has a rifle or shotgun with some sort of red dot attached so its just natural that pistols would eventually follow suit.

        • El Duderino

          It has a lot to do with it. The number of defensive encounters by us regular civilian types where a reflex or red dot sight would be useful is very small. Stats prove they are nearly all at “bad breath range”. It’s great that you’ve decided to put a $550 optic on a $550 pistol, and become proficient in its use, but you’re still in the minority. Eventually the technology will be more mainstream but we’re not there yet.

          • kevinp2

            While this may be true in a general sense, it should demand that we all carry small compact revolvers that are only accurate at very short distances (< 7 yards), e.g. snub-nosed .38s.

            Most of us prefer to have firearms that are more capable in more circumstances, even if the probability of encountering those circumstances drops off.

            Heck, to take it to an extreme, most people and LEOs don't need to carry guns anyway since statistically, most citizens and LEOs will never need to fire a gun at someone.

          • Nicks87

            ^^This. Why even have sights on a handgun at all? Keep scrolling down for the response to that question.

      • HSR47

        “For a defensive pistol, the time needed to employ the sight is a negative”

        As someone who carries an RMR-equipped pistol, I have to disagree with this. If you have to spend time searching for the dot, you’re doing it wrong: Either your pistol is not set up correctly (e.g. no iron sights) or you have not trained sufficiently. With proper iron sights, you draw the pistol, acquire a sight picture using iron sights (just as you normally would) and the dot is right there. If it takes longer than with a more traditional pistol, then you’re probably doing something wrong.

        “along with lugging around something extra on your handgun.”

        Generally speaking, pistol slides are machined from steel, while slide-mounted reflex sights are typically aluminum (or other lightweight alloys). Typically, the weight of the sight is roughly equal to the weight of the material removed from the slide. While it does make the pistol slightly bulkier, it doesn’t really have an effect on the weight.

        “Most of us non-LEOs realize that if we’re engaging at ranges where a red dot would be most helpful, something is seriously wrong.”

        Slide-mounted optics tend to make sighting a firearm accurately much easier to do. It offers a simpler sight picture (put the dot where you want to put a bullet), and it also means that the shooter doesn’t have to worry about constantly switching visual planes (identify the target, and then refocus on the front sight) while shooting.

        Slide mounted optics really are the wave of the future; The arguments against them are really just the same tired arguments that were used against “combat” optics (eotech/aimpoint/acog) on rifles.

  • Slim934

    Finally research I can really get behind!

    Although to be honest there is really only 1 population (outside of HRT’s) who I think would really benefit from pistol optics: home defense for users of full-size pistols. Not a huge market given that they have to compete against home users of shotguns/rifles, which I think are more appropriate tools for that role.

    • kevinp2

      Assuming that optics can be mounted on a carry pistol without getting banged up, I think they would be useful on a carry pistol too.

      I have a laser on my carry pistol, but it washes out in bright sunlight.

    • Uncle Charlie

      Not much of a test. They should at least had the groups switch from iron sites to red dots and vice versa. I would expect better from a University.

  • Jeff Zanooda

    They don’t measure time, just accuracy. And chi-square tests assume all shots are independent, even though there are only 27 shooters.

  • Ben

    It’s not surprising that new shooters would show improvement with a red dot optic. The problem is that new shooters really need to learn how to use iron sights on a handgun, rather than be given a crutch that encourages them to avoid it. Iron sights are virtually universal on handguns, and using them is a basic core skill.

    Jerry Miculek has race guns with optics mounted on them, but what he actually carries for SD is a couple of J-frames.

    Think he as optics on those?

    • El Duderino

      Miculek is a mutant though. Give him a J frame and, shooting with the gun upside down, he’d outdo any of us using any handgun.

      • Giolli Joker

        He actually hit a balloon @200yards shooting exactly like that.

  • S O

    25 is as a rule of thumb too few for statistical significance. You can calculate your statistics metrics with 25, but there’s little reason to pay attention to the result.
    This very small sample sound like a quick Bachelor’s study to me.

    • Eric S

      You can achieve statistical significance with a sample of 2, it’s just the value you have to beat would be bordering on improbable. Many moons ago I read a study on gesturing and language acquisition in children that got significant results at p < .05 and n= 5. I took issue with their methodology, but they had numbers to back it up.

      With that, this study would've wouldn't be able to be pass muster for an undergrad thesis. Maybe Sociology has looser standards than other social sciences.

      • S O

        As a rule of thumb don’t bother with anything below 30. Studies with less are only useful as ‘a real study may be worthwhile’ pointers.

        • Eric S

          Any particular reason? Is there math to back it up, or just from a peer review perception? Been a decade since I took research methods, but I don’t recall ever hearing that.

          And really, the sample size for this paper is the least of the confounds. Who decided to use a chi squared model?

          • S O

            It’s a rule of thumb, not a special mathematically defined point.
            It was devised to save us the many calculations which would otherwise be necessary to judge nonsense statistics.
            I didn’t make this rule up myself, nor did I get it from questionable sources. I passed statistics classes at a German university.

          • Eric S

            Well there’s the problem, I passed stats at an American university. It’s probably a metric vs english issue. Actually it probably has something to do with behavioral stats. I was a psych student so we focused on populations and it’s a bit difficult to find a minimum of 30 schizophrenics with similar levels of the disorder. What I was taught was that as n increases so does b/power until you reach n = 100 where you get significant diminishing returns. So it’s easier to reject the null with a large sample, but it can still be rejected with a low sample size, if your experimental group has results that far exceed 1.96 STDEV.

            But as they say, there are white lies, damned lies, and stats.

          • S O

            My classes were part of economics studies.
            Microeconomics uses statistics a lot in psychology/econ crossover studies, as much of micro attempts to understand how people make choices.
            The typical test setup for such research would either be questionnaires+interviews or groups of paid students doing tasks (usually about choices, but you want to distract them from the real research intent).

          • Cymond

            There is math to back it up, but I don’t actually remember the math. The professor in my Stats class emphasized that there are problems with small samples. The larger your sample, the more confident you can be about your results. For some reason (based on math), 30 is generally accepted as a minimum sample size for statistical analysis.

  • David

    I built a handgun with a Triji red dot and do NOT like it for defensive shooting. The red dots works great if you have a perfect draw presentation and the dot is in the screen. However, if your presentation is not perfect, which is very common with unusual shooting positions and shooting while moving, the dot will not be visible and due to the nature of red dots, you won’t know if the dot is right, top, or left of your screen. You will then need to transition to irons to get it aligned. Also, the dot bounces quite a bit during recoil and is quite a bit more evident than irons bouncing around. I agree that its faster for static shooting, but I don’t like it at all for defensive shooting. I am sticking with irons.

    • hkryan

      I agree and have had similar results. The dot just doesn’t feel as instinctive as irons. Perhaps I just need more time with the red dot. On a rifle, they are a breeze though.

      • David

        Correct. The four points of contact makes it very easy to find the dot Not so with the handgun

    • Nicks87

      Your presentation is the same whether shooting with a red dot or irons so I dont understand where the problem is. If your technique is consistant you shouldnt have a problem acquiring the dot. As far as unusual shooting positions are concerned I find that the red dot is more forgiving than iron sights especially when the weapon is canted or when shooting from behind barriers.

    • SAR

      I’m on the fence too – I think it would be neat to have one but personally I don’t see the need for one when it comes to self defense. Now David you don’t like dots because “… if you presentation is not perfect…”

      Doesn’t the same apply with irons if they too are not presented perfect? As for unusual positions that is a training issue not a dot or iron issue. The dot does not bounce more than the irons, they both experience the same movement from recoil but its more observable with the dot. Again a training issue.

      With that being said, I agree with you – I go with irons on my EDC. Most defensive shootings occur at 10′ and less = no need for optics/dots when your that close. Sooo… again it comes down to is where practicing point shooting comes into play = more training.

      As for saying dots are good for static shooting and not fast, that again is not an equipment issue but a training issue IMHO. Now will I be getting an RMR anytime soon? Only if I came into a bunch of money.

      The great thing is if your a dot or irons guy, we all support the 2nd amendment in the end.

      :)

      • David

        The is a tremendous difference between the two. With irons you can see your front sight if not lined up properly. Not so with red dots. The dot is off the screen.

        • Geodkyt

          Only if you are holding the pistol completely cocked to the side. And if you are using VISUAL clues to line up iron sights that are that far out of the eye-target line, you are doing it wrong.

          If you get the gun lined up well enough you could use a Cirillo Silhouette (which, incidentally, isn’t just for “point” shooting — it pretty much guarantees your sights are lined up pretty close before you even have time to look, and it’s useful if it’s too dark to see your non-illuminated sights but you still have a clearly identified threat target), the red dot WILL be somewhere near the middle of the sight, on or near the target. Just like the iron sights would be.
          This level of rough alignment can be done with your eyes closed — you can FEEL the gun is in position or not, and how to get it roughly lined up.

    • Geodkyt

      “Perfect presentation”?!? All you have to do is get the gun up in front of your face, with the back of the gun pointed at you, and the front pointed at the target.
      Presto! Dot shows up somewhere near the target. Move dot to target and press the trigger.
      If your “draw presentation” is so “imperfect” that you cannot find the dot, one of two things has happened:
      1. You selected a small tube sight, which is NOT the kind of dot sight designed or intended for defensive pistols — move the Aimpoint T1 back over to your AR, and get a pistol dot sight (BTW, you’ll also find getting a holster MUCH easier afterwards.) Or. . .
      2. Your presentation is so screwed up, you aren’t even pointing the gun NEAR the target. And don’t blame the “unusual shooting position”, either — if your position has driven you so far off target that you cannot even FIND teh dot, you cannot use the iron sights, either.

      • David

        Spoken by someone who obviously never tried it. Didn’t your mother teach you not to talk about thing you know nothing about?

        • Geodkyt

          David,

          Arrogant contempt works better when your target is absolutely ignorant. When you throw that attitude in the face of random strangers, expect it to fall in a messy puddle at your feet.

          I’ve never had any trouble getting the red dots visible in my line of sight with ARs, Glocks, etc.

          In fact, I had LESS of a problem getting the red dot in my line of sight on a Glock than I did getting the iron sights indexed swiftly on a Glock, given the difference in grip angle over what I’ve been carrying for 20 years (and shooting for 30).

          I had less of a problem getting the red dots lined up than I did getting a laser lined up, unless I was shooting from an absolutely “no sights” kind of position. . . where iron sights would have been JUST AS USELESS.

          Got it — you hate red dot sights. Guess what? I don’t like them on my defensive pistols EITHER.

          NOT because I find them useless or think they suck, but because I am plenty used to iron sights, it’s cheaper to run irons (especially buying holsters), and I prefer to carry IWB with the back of the slide at belt level do to relative arm length vs. torso length (and a red dot installed on the slide stuffed inside your pants and having teh tension of the belt bearing directly on the RDS is NOT an optimum employment of these sights).

        • Nicks87

          C’mon David, no need for disrespect. Just because you cant figure out the red dot on a pistol concept doesnt mean that others havent been more successful. Sorry it doesnt work for you but it does work, if it didnt people wouldnt be putting $500 optics on their pistols.

  • Ken

    February, 2011? Is this thing just seeing the light of day or has it been out there for a while. A LOT has transpired in the interim regarding RDSs on handguns.

  • derfelcadarn

    I would like to observe that at the range where most defensive shots are fired, not including warfare, sights of any kind should not be a factor. If at seven yards and under you cannot point shoot your weapon effectively more practice is needed. Shooting your weapon at these distances should be like pointing your finger. All sighting options have strong followings and all are solid performers. Shoot the way YOU shoot best, but all sighting systems have potential for failure. If you cannot put two or three shots in the chest at 14 feet without really thinking about it go with the golf club because you are going to hurt somebody and not the intended target.

    • Nicks87

      That is just total nonsense. Folks, please use your sights at any distances further than arms reach, speed is nowhere near as effective as a well placed shot.

  • Nimrod

    I believe that a red dot on the target is easier to acquire and focus on than the process of lining up iron sights and focusing on the front one. My experience as a rifle instructor tells me red dot sights aren’t all that good for long range precision shooting but they are good for fast target acquisition and thus good on pistols.

    • David

      So, since they work well on rifles at close distance the are good for pistols?? Maybe you should limit your comments to experience rather than conjecture

    • David

      I can easily hit 300yd targets with 6 inch groups with my red dot on my rifle. While not as good as magnified optics, they are very easy to use at distance

  • http://www.krtraining.com Karl Rehn

    I ran my own test with 33 students, assessing their ability to get first shot hits at 5 and 10 yards, 2 handed, strong hand only and weak hand only, using irons, red dot only, and red dot combined with irons. My data gave very different results from the study’s results. Instead of dividing the shooters into irons and red dot users, I had all participants fire all 3 guns, comparing individual performance differences, which is a better approach. If you end up with 15 trigger slappers in the red dot group and 15 bullseye shooters in the iron sight group, you cannot truly measure the performance difference related to the difference in equipment.

    What I found was that use the red dot by itself (no irons) had the worst results, and iron sights alone produced the best results. Some students could not find the dot and make the shot within the allowed 1.5 seconds, particularly one handed. The critical problem is that there is no “coarse” visual information when the red dot by itself is used. Visually, we use the slide of the pistol as a 70 MOA coarse “sight” at close range, and we adjust the alignment of the pistol with the target by using the complete visual image (slide, rear sight, front sight). With the dot by itself all you have is a blank lens, until you get the alignment close enough to see the dot in the lens. Mounting the dot lower to the slide and adding backup irons makes a measurable improvement in performance, because those changes enable use of the slide and the backup irons as the visual information necessary to get the gun indexed well enough to find the dot initially.

    I presented the data at the 2014 Polite Society conference but as of yet the complete work is unpublished.

  • Jamie Clemons

    I can see how it would be faster to acquire a sight picture with a red dot scope because you don’t have to line it up with the notch as with the iron sights just look at the dot. I can’t see how a red dot would be more accurate at longer distances over iron sights, The gun is as accurate as you can hold it. I have seen people shoot something the size of a cell phone at 100 yards with iron sights on a pistol. however I don’t have any experience with a red dot. So take my opinion for what it is worth, however a 25 student sample of inexperienced shooters is not large enough for an accurate say in the matter. I would like to see a larger study done with people of all range of experience for more conclusive results and would like to try one out myself before coming to a definite conclusion, but I probably won’t be buying one this year as I have already bought a new gun and I like to keep my spending down.