Learning How to Master Red-Dot-Equipped Pistols By: Mike Pannone



Photos By Rob Curtis, Steven Kuo, and Kris Leblanc/SureFire

Red-dot optics on pistols are everywhere nowadays. I resisted for a while, as the bulk of my civilian and law enforcement students still used iron sights. But over time, that’s changed.

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Whether in special operations, competition, concealed carry, or specialized law enforcement units, shooters now commonly use pistols with red-dots mounted on their slides.

So, I needed to identify the challenges of running a red-dot-equipped pistol, diagnose common mistakes, and establish the best techniques in order to compete and instruct students.

The methodology I used was to carefully analyze the effect using a red-dot sight (RDS) on a pistol would have on the fundamentals of marksmanship. I made some interesting discoveries along the way and developed some drills to address them.


By far, the greatest challenge is to properly orient the pistol so that you can find and maintain the dot in your sight picture. Thus, we first focus on grip. When using a pistol with iron sights, it’s easy to make adjustments to the gun as you present it on target, because you can perceive the orientation of the sights as soon as they appear in your periphery. It becomes subconscious.

However, it’s not nearly as efficient with an RDS. Some will say you can use the hood of the optic to make corrections as you present your gun, but the feedback it provides is very minimal and rough compared to iron sights. These optics have small windows, and you must position your eye directly behind an RDS to be able to see the dot.

The area behind the RDS where you can see the dot is referred to as the “eye box.” Because hitting that eye box every time is so important, proper and consistent grip and presentation become extremely critical. This is initially far more challenging with an RDS than iron sights.

If you’ve ever been at the range watching a new shooter on a pistol with an RDS, you’ve surely seen them moving the gun around in a small circular motion, fishing for the dot.

Orienting the support hand thumb parallel to the bore axis — and pointed at the target — helps you find the dot immediately upon presentation. It helps you to consistently and properly align the pistol during your draw. Additionally, use tactile index points — spots on the pistol that allow you to identify your grip orientation — and it’ll become very efficient and intuitive.

When your support hand thumb points upward, the dot tends to disappear from view. When your thumb’s pointing up rather than parallel to the axis of bore, it allows for a gap at the base of the grip — and the gun will begin to shift orientation as you attempt to regain a secure grasp on the pistol.

Thumb position can have a tremendous effect on your ability to immediately find your dot. When your thumb is parallel to the bore axis while presenting your gun, you’ll be pointing it straight, with the RDS window square to your vision and the dot in view.


The next crucial facet of your grip is the amount of tension you exert and your ability to control your pistol in recoil. One of the benefits of iron sights is that during recoil, it’s easy to identify the orientation of the bore based on the sights at opposite ends of the slide.

With an RDS on the gun, that’s no longer possible, so even a minor grip failure can make you completely lose sight of the dot and force you to fish for it again.

Grip tension is very important, but you don’t have to crush the gun and try to squeeze the bullets out of it. Try gripping more tightly with your bottom two fingers, on both hands.

The appropriate level of tension will allow you to efficiently exert energy on the gun in a manner that maximizes control. Overall, you may not need to hold the gun any tighter than you normally do, but recognize that you must maintain a proper grip, with less margin for error.


Many shooters tend to stare at the dot like they do with the front sight of a pistol. This is counterproductive. Don’t look at the dot like the front sight; look through it at the target. You should focus on the target and superimpose the dot when you want the bullet to go.

Also, many folks crank up the brightness on their sight too much. This is also counterproductive, drawing your vision to the dot and away from the target — effectively replicating iron sight shooting.

In low light, an overly bright dot can obscure the target because it’s so much brighter than the ambient conditions. Again, the eye will focus on the brightest object in its field of view. So, make sure you set the brightness of your dot so it isn’t distracting based on current conditions.


Here are my recommendations for training with a red-dot-equipped pistol, both for those trying to achieve, as well as those who want to maintain, proficiency:

1. Dry-fire the draw and presentation.

With an unloaded weapon, practice your draw and presentation. Start methodically and be as precise as you can. Use tactile index points on your pistol to identify proper and consistent orientation of the gun. For instance, on my pistols, I touch the front of the slide stop with my thumb to verify it’s properly pointing forward and parallel to bore axis.

Once you’re confident in your draw, go into a pitch-dark room. Check to see if the dot is immediately visible upon draw and presentation. This will validate your technique. Since you can’t see your pistol during the draw in the dark, you’ll discover if you’ve been handicapped by making even the slightest corrections off the optic’s hood during presentation.

Keep practicing your draw and presentation until the dot appears centered every time. Then practice the same drills with strong hand only and support hand only using the same concepts.

2. Dry- and live-fire exercises to practice coming in and out of the eye box as well as maintaining and reestablishing proper grip.

When working with new RDS shooters or practicing on my own, I do a lot of draws and presentation, reloads, and target transitions. In addition to reinforcing the dry-fire exercises above for immediately finding the dot, the goal is to practice coming in and out of the eye box and utilizing a proper and consistent grip. Do these drills with both dry- and live-fire.

Working on reloads forces you to come in and out of the eye box. If you need to break your grip to hit the magazine release, it’ll also require you to reestablish a proper grip after reloading. Practice target transitions to work on leaving the eye box and reentering it rapidly and consistently.

Finally, do multiple shot drills to practice keeping your dot in the window. This will test your recoil management techniques and indicate whether you’re maintaining a proper grip. Try my 18-in-10 drill — it’s basically three bill drills shot at 20, 10, and 5 yards. Grab 18 rounds and a timer. At each distance, start with your gun holstered. At the start signal, draw and fire six shots as quickly as you can get good hits — no more than four C-zone hits, with the rest in the A-zone; no D-zone hits or misses. Record your time for each string; your goal is to have a maximum cumulative time of 10 seconds.

3. Marksmanship drills to teach your eye to accept the wobble and understand what level of stability is necessary to make a precise shot.

Marksmanship drills are the final step and sometimes more challenging than you might expect. Practice slow fire at 25 yards on a B8 target. This will emphasize how much feedback and information an RDS immediately delivers to the shooter.

The problem is that every movement, every wobble, and every imperfection is immediately visible and appears exaggerated. This often causes visual overstimulation, whereby the shooter receives more information faster and at a higher level of precision than he needs.

As a result, shooters often excessively overcorrect in an attempt to stabilize the dot. For years, shooters of all precision disciplines, both rifle and pistol, have been told to “accept the wobble” and press the trigger smoothly to the rear.

This refers to allowing the sights to float in the desired target area, understanding that you’ll never be able to keep your weapon completely still. This mantra still holds true, but the information you receive from your RDS is far more pronounced and leads to mistakes if not taken in proper context.

By practicing at distant targets without any time pressure, you can learn to manage overstimulation of your vision, avoid overcorrection, and understand how much stability you really need to make precise shots.


A final benefit of shooting an RDS is that it’ll improve your skills with iron sights. The enhanced grip technique translates directly to shooting iron sights; it’ll help you maintain a proper sight picture much more effortlessly and consistently.

In the early stages, you should shoot your RDS-equipped pistol until your technique is consistent, comfortable, natural, and intuitive. Otherwise, you’ll face challenges switching your focus between the front sight with iron sights to the target with a red-dot.

Red-dot sights on pistols are here to stay. In five years, seeing a pistol without an RDS outside of competition will be like seeing an AR without an optic on it.

The learning curve is steep, but the benefits are stunning. It’s not complicated; it just takes time, knowledge, and a truly dedicated effort. As my well-known mantra goes, “the magic is … that there is no magic.”

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