Guest Post: A Pistol Sight for the 2020s

High Standard Clark Custom Model 106 with Red Dot. Photo from icollector.com

High Standard Clark Custom Model 106 with Red Dot. Photo from icollector.com

This guest post was written by SO of the Defense and Freedom blog.

The biggest challenge with pistols in emergencies is the decision whether to shoot or not.  Yet once the decision to shoot has been made unconsciously, the most pressing challenge that remains is to hit. To hit a target with a pistol is so very difficult at all but knife fight distances that training with pistols is usually much more about the hitting than about the decision-making and safety rules.

Technology did help a lot in this regard, and it is predictable that it can help much more in the future.

The sights used by fighter pilots evolved from simple ‘iron’ sights to simple holographic sights in the late 1930s. This is where pistol users are today.

Only a few years later, around 1943, fighter pilots began to benefit from holographic sights which used gyroscope to correct for the acceleration of the own aircraft and aerial gunnery became much more accurate against maneuvering targets. The modern pistol shooter can only aim steadily or rely on subconscious skills as did the pilots before they got their gyroscopic sights.

The introduction of ranging radars to daylight fighters few years after the Second World War enabled even further refined sights, which also take into account the distance to the target, and compensate for the projectile drop. The modern pistol shooter can do so manually with some  pistols by choosing discrete range settings as did some pilots in the 1960’s whose radar-supported sights failed to cope with ground clutter.

Finally, a sight with input from a canting sensor would allow a correction for bullet drop independent from the canting of the firearm; even ‘Gangsta’-style poses could permit accurate aiming.

Technologies often flow from high end applications such as aviation and bulk applications such as ships towards applications in land vehicles (such as tanks) and finally into the tools of individuals. This happened with wireless sets, for example. Also known as “radios” or “mobile phones”.

The technologies required to create a holographic and/or laser dot pistol sight that corrects for canting and firearm movements is available and in use in mobile phones and video game console controllers today. Laser range finders are in use with golfers. In fact, even automatic target recognition, tracking and resulting target movement measurement akin to modern fighter radar or tank fire control system performance are easily possible with the tiny, tiny cameras now used in mobile phones.

It is obvious that a pistol sight which corrects for range, canting, gun movement and even target movement is technically feasible today and may be as common in the 2020s as are holographic and laser dot sights today.

The question is: Are we really that much interested in the little extra accuracy offered by such a package?



Steve Johnson

Founder and Dictator-In-Chief of TFB. A passionate gun owner, a shooting enthusiast and totally tacti-uncool. Favorite first date location: any gun range. Steve can be contacted here.


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  • Lance

    Think do to durability I still don’t like computer sights replacing iron sights. What if your laser or computer sight loses power or is broken you have a worthless pistol then.

    • iksnilol

      Back-up sights.

      I find it quite ironic that all Russian guns with scopes have back-up sights (especially since they are known for reliability). While Western guns with a less than stellar reliability record don’t.

      • Yellow Devil

        Please elaborate. If you are talking service rifles, almost every M4 with CCOs I’ve been issued or encountered in theater had backup (or flip up) iron sight. And judging from photos with Russian soldiers (or backed militias) during this little Crimean “exercise”, looks as if most of the AKs still used old fashioned iron sights. Our allies may be different, but you said “Western guns with less than stellar reliability” so I used the much arm-chaired maligned M4 example.

        • iksnilol

          Wasn’t thinking of the M16/M4, when it comes “less than stellar” I meant the M110 (though it is still a fine rifle).

          What I was thinking of specifically was the fact that no matter how reliable you make the rifle the scope can fail. Better to have some iron sights for safetys sake. I think some western sniper rifles have back-up sights, some variants of the Accuracy International and Sako TRG.

          I know scope failure is rare but having iron sights on can/will save lives and is too inexpensive to not include on a rifle of that cost.

          • seans

            You ever heard of rails. Ran my MK11 with a doctor site in a 45 degree offset. Two sets of optics. People love to rant about iron sites, but they are practically useless past 300 meters for actual combat. Dudes popping up and down who are spraying and praying giving you around a second to take a accurate shot or pain enough to hit with a optic. And have you actually ever used the SR-25, MK11 or M110 platform?

  • bbmg

    Some interesting thoughts, but at what range and in what specific circumstances is the author envisaging that such an advanced sight would be useful?

    • S O

      That’s going to be seen once it can be tested. In theory only windage remains a problem. bullet drop and canting would be corrected by the sight, after all.
      I suppose a holographic computer sight could double effective pistol ranges and the effect would be most pronounced with inexperienced shooters or at rather long ranges (with little wind). There would be no noticeable gain at 25 metres unless the firing stance is very ‘unorthodox’, for example.

      • iksnilol

        What about long range (for pistols/revolvers), as in 100 or 200 meters?

        • S O

          Long ranges require much steadiness – which means a low-tech buttstock.
          Closed bolt operation submachineguns can already shoot usefully past 100
          metres today with iron sights.

          Windage becomes a factor at such distances (and possibly the coriolis effect, which would require a digital magnetic compass for correction). It’s possible, and difficult, to measure wind using laser-based systems. That might be rather for a long-range pistol for the 2030’s.

          Finally, it could in theory be possible to use an electronic trigger which doesn’t let the firearm shoot when triggered, but rather uses the triggering as a permission to shoot. The actual shot could then be released when gun pointing, gun movement, target vector and target movement align for a hit.
          That’s a feature of modern fighter aircraft gunnery if I’m not mistaken. Aviation tech even applies this to flight controls; high authority autopilots use stick movement s only as a clue what the pilot wants, and the software then figures out how to achieve this through rudder movements.

          • Phil Hsueh

            That, I believe, is how the TrackingPoint system works, it does all the various calculations (except for windage) and tells you when you are on target and doesn’t allow the weapon to fire unless you are actually on target. However, it will be a long time, if ever, before something like the TrackingPoint makes it way on to a pistol as it’s currently a fairly large system although it’s bound to get smaller as time goes on, assuming, of course, that it actually sells well enough for the developers to continue working on it.

          • S O

            The article is about the next decade, and I suppose everything can be in a nice tiny package by then. The early GPS receivers were bulky boxes, now they’re a tiny circuit board routinely built into mobile phones. Same for accelerometers, inclinometers, lasers and digital cameras.

            This http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/LN-3_Inertial_Navigation_System is now matched by many smartphones in performance and accuracy now – among many other functions.
            That’s how technology propagates; down from applications which tolerate high cost, bulk and/or weight down to tiny applications, even portable devices.

            The amazing thing is that the components for such very high-tech sights are all already available in very cheap, small and light form.
            It only takes the steps towards “cheap shock resistance” and “cheap in small quantities” any more.

    • iksnilol

      Maybe .357 or .44 mag pistols/revolvers with spitzer bullets.

  • allannon

    I don’t see anything more complex than a basic paralax sight as useful for a pistol.

    A pilot needs to make extremely precise and accurate shots in complex 3-dimensional environments against juking opponents, while conversely having relatively long periods to actually aim. (A plane’s a big target, but they’re also potentially damned far away.)

    Pistols are used is much quicker and shorter-ranged environments. I don’t see how all the added capability in the sight would really help.

    Now, carbines and rifles are a whole ‘nother thing; I can easily see how such capabilities would benefit marksman-style shooting.

  • Gidge

    Nice in theory but for the distances you’re shooting with a pistol I don’t see any significant advantage over a reflex site. If you were shooting past 50m then maby

  • LCON

    A number of good thoughts SO, however I am not sure that the canting and ranging options would be needed. I do believe that red dots will become more and more standard on pistols by the next decade. The primary issue as I see it for them will be size and power. The optic has to not only work and have a long duty life but also be scaled to fit a holster. The pistol for military and law enforcement agencies in uniform would not need as small a option as those in the civil society who conceal carry.
    as I picture it the military pistol will continue to evolve as we see it today. It like the carbine gained one set of rails and will now gain a second. The combat optic will become as standard as the lights and lasers now seen in use. For law enforcement the same.
    but for the civilian with concealed carry a new type hand gun, compact with a small LED light or a laser and perhaps a folding holographic sight. One that slips away smoothly when holsters but pops up to the ready for battle.
    the more sophisticated ranging and canting optic I feel would be better for carbines, LMG gunners and PDW types, roles beyond100 meters, Fully integrated with trigger control for snipers, DMR types and explosive devices like grenade launchers.