Is it time for your agency to move to red dot sights?

How San Mateo County is rolling out the latest tools and training for success


Red dot sights, RDS, or “optics” are some of the hottest products in town. First used in competition, they are starting to show up on many cops’ sidearms. But slapping on an RDS before rolling is not a great idea. As I covered in this article, even mounting an RDS takes a lot of planning and the right tools. And after getting it mounted, Scott Reidy, director of training at SIG Sauer Academy, recommends a minimum of two days of training before anyone can carry a firearm with an RDS.

Some agencies let officers purchase and mount any personal RDS, some have a list of approved RDS and some, like the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department and San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office issue a fully integrated sidearm system with mandatory training.

Courtesy of San Mateo County Sheriff Carlos G. Bolanos and San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office Rangemaster Sergeant David Weidner, I was able to participate in the agency's RDS training program using my Glock 19 with Aimpoint ACRO P1.

Briefing: (L-R in red) Deputy Lorenzatti, Rangemaster Weidner, Deputy Marcussen.
Briefing: (L-R in red) Deputy Lorenzatti, Rangemaster Weidner, Deputy Marcussen.

As an NRA-certified pistol instructor, I had a good grasp of the basics so the chances of me putting holes in the ceiling of their indoor range were low. And the fact that I am a volunteer first responder for the sheriff’s office…well, that may have helped.

Progressive can be a good word

In the current vernacular, “progressive” has become a negative word. But in the traditional sense of someone who wants to “favor or promote change or innovation,” Sheriff Bolanos is up there with the best by listening to command staff, administrators, deputies, and yes, even his volunteers.

While his budget isn’t infinite, the safety of staff and the public alike is the overarching goal and a guiding principle of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office. As Sheriff Bolanos says, “As the sheriff, I am committed to providing our deputies with the best training and equipment possible. In doing so, we can better serve the members of our community and make San Mateo County a safe place for everyone. “

Sheriff Bolanos meets with community members during a Coffee with a Cop event.
Sheriff Bolanos meets with community members during a Coffee with a Cop event.

Background

RDS let you focus on the threat, not the front sight.
RDS let you focus on the threat, not the front sight. (SMSO)

One of the keys to accurate shooting with iron sights is to focus on the front sight. But to do that, you lose focus on your suspect and surroundings. Many shooters need to close one eye, losing 50% of their vision. While focusing on the front sight and preparing to squeeze the trigger, your suspect could have dropped their weapon or complied with your orders, and you might not notice.

With an RDS, the suspect is your front sight, and you are now “threat-focused” instead of weapon-focused. The RDS allows an officer to take in additional information to make the best possible decision and potentially avoid an unnecessary shooting. By testifying in court that you never took your eyes off the suspect, you can reduce your liability and add credibility to your testimony by stating that you were focused on the threat and not just a “fuzzy blur.” 

And if you are like me, right-handed but left eye dominant, you struggle to maintain a sight picture. I either need to cant the gun to my left eye or close my right eye to ensure my dominant left eye properly aligns with the sights. RDS virtually eliminates this by allowing me to put the dot where I want the round to go – with both eyes open.

Why did the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office make the switch to RDS now? The agency's current Smith & Wesson M&P Gen 1 pistols were issued nearly nine years ago in 3 calibers: 9mm, 40 and 45 and were approaching the end of their service life. The safe move would have been to purchase M&P 2.0 pistols in the same configuration. But being progressive, Sheriff Bolanos was open to hearing other options and Sergeant Weidner wanted to ensure he would be recommending the best to his boss.

Different RDS have different window sizes and shapes, different dot sizes and different mounting “footprints,” which means that some RDS will only mount to specific pistols. The differences are not subtle and choosing which system of firearm and RDS your agency commits to is key to your program’s success.

Important factors for Sergeant Weidner included:

  • How the RDS would hold up to everyday use;
  • Battery life and auto-off;
  • 3 MOA dot so as not to cover a suspect at close range;
  • Top replaceable battery;
  • Time from order to deployment.

He told me that the company you choose is just as important as the RDS. What is their support like? Do they cross-ship for a defective product, or does it go back to the factory in Europe for repair? Are replacement parts readily available such as mounting screws, battery caps and dust covers? If they come out with a newer product, what is their upgrade policy?

He and his 18-member range staff carried, attended training classes and ran with deputies for a year with multiple firearms, RDS and holster systems before settling on three finalists: Glock/Trijicon, S&W/Holosun and SIG. Some folks might make fun of Holosun as an inexpensive wannabe, but Sergeant Weidner has put them through exhaustive testing, and they keep on running.

The wait for the Trijicon RMR was a year after order and S&W/Holoson was 6 months. But Proforce was ready to ship 102 fully integrated systems, the SIG W320CA-9-BXR3-PRO-RXP, which includes a 3MOA Romeo1Pro as soon as the order was placed. A Streamlight TLR-1 HL and Safariland 6360RDS level III retention holster completed the issue package. After testing with 115, 124 and 147 grain ammo, a 15-yard zero was selected as the best for holdover purposes. Each sight is torque-checked and witness-marked before being zeroed with 3 touching shots taken for confirmation.

A weapon light is included because used properly, it can give you a tactical tool for de-escalation by causing the suspect to back down due to surprise, show their hands while covering their eyes and give you time to move to cover. But remember that light can give you away, so it is only for momentary use, and you need to move off the X as soon as you extinguish it. And no matter how tacticool it may look to tap your weapon light with your trigger finger, a weapon light should be operated with your support hand. Your trigger finger’s only responsibility should be to run the trigger. How do you release the slide after a reload? Slide stop or overhand slingshot both work, but be consistent.

Training

Sergeant Weidner and his team took a 3-day train the trainer class from Integrated Tactical Concepts, whose trainers are current and past operators for the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department’s SWAT. Upon returning to the agency, Sergeant Weidner created an 8-hour course that was authorized on overtime so deputies would not need to be pulled from their normal shifts.

Explaining the drill.
Explaining the drill.

Starting at 7:30 a.m. Monday through Saturday, the training starts with deputies filling in paperwork, swapping duty pistols and holsters, and dry firing their new weapons. After a presentation explaining what an RDS is, why the system was chosen and tuned in a specific manner, how to maintain and keep it clean, and why students should not unscrew the RDS, change the point of aim, use the RDS to rack the slide, or turn it off, it’s time to hit the range.

While his budget isn’t infinite, the safety of staff and the public alike is the overarching goal and a guiding principle of the San Mateo County Sheriff’s Office.
Early morning in the classroom. Note the obligatory donuts.
Deputy Ephraim Cheever with sidearms waiting to be distributed.
Each deputy’s desk has their new firearm, holster and paperwork.
Sample dry fire target.
Paperwork. Ugh! Pictured: Deputy Ballard.
SIG P320 carry, three magazines and weapon light.
Two-piece teaching aid helps students understand dot-and-shot placement.
New holster on duty belt.
Why 15 yards was chosen as zero.
Witness marks on mounting screws. Check them at start of shift.
Overview of the indoor range.
Drill 1: Marking the target.
Drill 1: Learning to find the dot every time.
Demo: Rangemaster David Weidner (L), Deputy Arthur Marcussen (R).
Drill 2: Takeup and trigger control phase 1.
Which LEO would you rather have on the streets?
Ready/fire drill overview. Note the flame.
Drill 2: Moving from target to target with precision.
Drill 3: Demonstration by Deputy Elias Urena. Note the mag in mid-air.
Drill 3: Two students on the same target, top and bottom.
Drill 4 in detail: If you see the dot, you can take the shot, Alyssa Lorenzatti (L), Arthur Marcussen (R)
Drill 10c: Shooting in the rain. Note the water spraying back from the sight.
Range Staff sighting in firearms for the next transition class.

With one Range Officer (RO) to three students, the first step is to have everyone grip the pistol properly then mark their hands with a Sharpie. Why? The deputies are moving from an 18-degree grip with a rounded trigger to a firearm with a nearly vertical grip and flat trigger. That means learning new hand placement.

Here are the exercises in order as taught by the Sheriff’s Office. After reading this course of fire, you should have no doubt that running an RDS without training is as big a mistake as having sworn staff carry empty revolvers with one round in their shirt pocket.

  1. Dry fire drill. Learn your sights: The goal is to obtain the dot in the optic window and superimpose the dot over a 2½” circle one step away 90% of the time.
  2. Live fire dot drill broken into two phases. 1. Trigger control (trigger take-up, striker take-up, trigger press). Proper trigger training during this drill will help prevent a negligent discharge (ND) during drill seven. 2. Students should be able to move from 2½” dot to dot hitting each one from three yards (20 rounds)
  3. Draw from holster. Draw from the holster, bring the gun onto a standard FBI target. If the dot is in the window and on target on the first time, the student takes one shot center mass then re-holsters. If the student does not have the dot, re-holster and try again. Do not cheat. (20 rounds)
  4. Alignment drill. As long as the dot is in the window, you can take the shot. Three rounds each with the dot on the bottom, top, left and right of the window. (12 rounds)
  5. Support hand shooting. 10 rounds each: strong hand supported, support hand supported, one-handed strong side, one-handed support side on a B8 target. (40 rounds)
  6. Quick fire. Learn about prepping the trigger and inflight reset. When the dot comes back down on target the shooter should be ready to take the next shot. Be very careful of ND above the target (see drill two).
  7. Ernest Langdon drill. This teaches the importance of a correct grip, recoil management and re-acquiring the dot after every shot when shooting fast and at distance.
  8. Shooting on the move. Students fire three rounds at each distance, moving as fast as is safe: 10-to-5-yard line, 5-to-10-yard line, 10-to-15-yard line.
  9. Blaze X. Teaches students to quickly acquire the dot from strong hand, off hand and two-handed timed shooting.
  10. Optic obstruction. Teaches students alternate ways to aim when the dot fails due to glare, water and other critical malfunctions:
    • Tape the front of the glass. You can still place the dot center mass and shoot if both eyes are open.
    • Tape the rear of the glass. Students need to learn how to aim without a dot: top of optic, side of the gun following line where slide touches the frame, put the optic window over the target if the target is bigger than window, guillotine (cut the head off the target with optic), pointing with thumbs.
    • Rain simulation. Spray the optic from behind the student as they fire 3-5 rounds then fill the optic with water and have the student shoot until the optic clears.
  11. Low light. Dot brightness is very individual, and each student needs to figure out what works for them. Run through multiple dot brightness settings at multiple levels of ambient light. Have students pick a brightness they think they could see in both light and dark conditions then fire three rounds with the lights off, then three rounds with the lights on. Repeat as necessary.

Sergeant Weidner also recommended that your off-duty weapon should have the same grip angle as your duty weapon. Your aim naturally will be off when you draw and present if they don’t match. And if possible, it also should have an RDS so that you aren’t searching for a dot under stress that you’ll never find.

Maintenance

Deputy Philip Hallworth watching over mag loading on the range.
Deputy Philip Hallworth watching over mag loading on the range.

Unlike iron sights, RDS need some TLC. Treat your RDS like your glasses. At the start of shift, check the window and emitter and clean if needed. Use a lens brush or canned air to clean the emitter and a clean lens cloth or brush on the window. Check the witness marks to ensure the screws haven’t loosened. Finally, check that the dot lights up and is at your preferred brightness. If there are any issues, let your shift supervisor know and don't deploy until they are addressed.

Hand marks for the new grip angle.
Hand marks for the new grip angle.

Summary

Ignoring or allowing officers to purchase and use their own RDS or simply publishing a list of approved RDS can be dangerous to the lives of your officers, the citizens you are responsible for, and even your own freedom if you are found guilty of negligence due to an officer-involved shooting gone bad.

Whether you have an approved list of RDS and the pistols they can be mounted on, or you distribute a standard package to your officers, training is mandatory for many reasons. While SIG recommends two days of training, there always are budgetary constraints when implementing a new piece of equipment, so use your training time wisely.

Do not make up your own curriculum. Work with experts who already have implemented successful programs and submitted them for certification, such as California’s Commission on Peace Officers Standards and Training (POST). Make sure that range staff can walk the walk by sending them to train the trainer courses and, if you’re like Sergeant Weidner, ensuring that they can qualify at 90% or better on a moment’s notice.

Offering extra 1:1 coaching if it is needed will help officers down the road.
Offering extra 1:1 coaching if it is needed will help officers down the road.

If you have special circumstances, such as a transition from air-conditioned cars to high humidity, which will cause the RDS to fog, spend extra time on the drills needed to help officers recover and be accurate. Don’t “set and forget.” If an officer just isn’t getting it, keep them on their current sidearm until they do.

And you may not need to pay for everything yourself. Look around for available grants. Police1 has an entire section devoted to helping.

Be progressive like Sheriff Bolanos. Have your recruiters work with your local academies to help them help you by showing why it is important to transition to RDS or give your prospective recruits an intro to RDS before they attend. If your neighboring agencies also want to make the transition, see if you can get better pricing if you all move at once or commit to moving in sequence.

Like Sergeant Weidner says, “We may have our challenges on the range, but I look forward to work every single day because I have staff who is competent and command staff who believes in what we do. And more importantly, they seek us out for advice, ask questions and listen to our answers.” Now, what could be better than that?

DOWNLOAD: How to buy firearm optics (eBook)

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