Aging eyes and modern optics: Can technology make cops young again?

If your fellow old-fart friends suggest you need a red dot sight on your pistol, you may want to listen

I recently reached a milestone: 2018 marks my 40th year as a police firearms instructor. I have seen law enforcement progress from 99 percent revolver sidearms to virtually 100 percent semi-autos, and from shotguns to patrol rifles. With those patrol rifles, optical sights are becoming the norm, but a pistol optic is still rare.

Last year I moved from “retired” status back to active LE. In my state this means extending the maximum distance of my mandatory annual pistol qualification from 15 to 25 yards. In my heyday, when my scores hovered around 100 percent, the 25 yard line was well within my comfort zone. Now, my groups at 25 yards are embarrassing. I tied for high score on our last quarterly qualification shoot, but only because of generous scoring zones on the targets!

The Glock G19/Trijicon RMR combination was very comfortable for all-day wear in the DeSantis holster.
The Glock G19/Trijicon RMR combination was very comfortable for all-day wear in the DeSantis holster. (Photo/Dick Fairburn)

Some of my fellow old-fart friends who are still active trainers told me, “Dick, you need a red dot sight on your pistol.” Sure, the iron sights still look solid at 25 yards, but old eyes simply can no longer cope with the three potential focal points: the target, the front sight and the rear sight.

Three phone calls got a Glock pistol, a Trijicon RMR sight and DeSantis holsters on the way for a test. The plan was to get familiar with the technology, carry it on and off duty for at least a month, and shoot enough to see if my scores improved.

The pistol was a Glock G19 Gen 4 MOS (9mm P), factory equipped with optics mounting plates. My officers carry Glock 22 sidearms, but the only Glock MOS available in .40 caliber was the long slide model 35, more of a competition configuration than I wanted.

I selected the Trijicon RMR based on advice from several colleagues who said the Trijicon has been proven to stand up to any abuse a duty pistol is likely to encounter.

For holsters, I checked out the vendor tables at the 2018 ILEETA conference where the DeSantis rep had both a plainclothes OWB and concealed carry IWB design, which would work with the optical sight and suppressor-height night sights I intended to add. The OWB holster did not quite clear the Trijicon sight on the Glock, but a few minutes with a sanding drum on a Dremel tool modified the Kydex holster for a perfect fit.

Many of us in the old-farts club distrust battery-powered devices on fighting weapons. Technology tends to fail when you need it the most, so all my friends related that they used both the variable brightness (battery-powered) Trijicon RMR sight AND a set of co-witness, suppressor-height, tritium-powered night sights for worst-case-scenario redundancy. My old friend Richard Heinie kindly mounted a set of his Heinie Specialty Products Straight Eight Night Sights, which I consider to be the Cadillac of pistol sights.

My findings

After a month of continuous wear, I find the optic-equipped Glock to carry as comfortably as any other pistol of like size. In the OWB holster I carry for 8-plus hours a day, the optical device is not even noticeable. For concealed carry, the optics did not get in the way or make the package more difficult to hide than my normal Colt LW Commander. The Glock 19 MOS/Trijicon combination was comfortable in the DeSantis IWB holster in either the 2 o’clock appendix position or behind the hip at the 4 o’clock spot, and an untucked shirt easily hid the hardware.

I have logged about 500 rounds through the test platform, spread evenly between close/fast work on paper and steel plates and deliberate slow-fire work at 25+ yards.

Getting used to the higher line of sight of the optical and co-witness iron sights took some work. Even with several range sessions, I have to concentrate to “find” the red dot in the field of view at speed.

My speed on steel plates has reached a point where the timer shows I am a bit faster than with simple iron sights, but only a bit. If the red dot sight was used without the co-witness iron sights, I think the system would become much faster. The tendency to want to “align” the sights and the red dot is a bit disconcerting. I am much faster with the red dot sight on my Colt M4 patrol rifle, but the fold-down BUIS aren’t in the field of view to confuse me.

If the high iron sights were left off – or if Mr. Heinie were to develop fold-down BUIS for pistols – a red dot on a sidearm would have more appeal for me.

Does the Glock MOS/Trijicon package give me better scoring performance at the 25 yard line? Again, a bit better.

My bench-rested groups at 25 yards are about 20 percent smaller with the red dot, but on practical training silhouette targets, either sighting system delivered 100 percent scoring in the central zone.

The red dot would help on a more precise target, say head shots, but no one should attempt head shots with a pistol at 25 yards.

The optical sight does offer a single focal plane and, once I learned to focus on the target instead of the iron sights, my speed at 25 yards got better.

The Trijicon RMR sight was combined with the Heinie Specialty Products Straight Eight Night Sight for a co-witness sight picture. When properly zeroed, the rod dot sits perfectly atop the front iron sight, allowing iron sight use should the RMR battery fail.
The Trijicon RMR sight was combined with the Heinie Specialty Products Straight Eight Night Sight for a co-witness sight picture. When properly zeroed, the rod dot sits perfectly atop the front iron sight, allowing iron sight use should the RMR battery fail. (Photo/Dick Fairburn)

I want to repeat some bench rest groups at long range – 100 yards – because my first go at that distance showed a big advantage for the red dot. How often do we need to use a pistol at 100 yards? Ask the Austin Police Department mounted officer who stopped an active shooter at 100+ yards with his (iron sighted) Glock one-handed while holding the horse’s reins with his off hand. Don’t mess with Texas!

Several departments have approved optic-equipped sidearms for duty use. I think the optics/iron sight combination might hold promise for recruits who are on the border of washing out for poor shooting. Often these shooters never fully grasp the idea of focusing their vision on the weapon’s front sight, so they fall apart at distances past 10 yards. The single focal plane of a red dot sight might make the difference.

One “con” to the red dot sight on a pistol is cost. Depending on your purchasing plan, a Trijicon RMR and a set of co-witness iron night sights will cost more than the pistol you mount them on, making the Glock/RMR/Heinie platform have a street price well over $1,000.

If we ever see fold-down iron sights on a pistol, allowing a “clean” field of view with just the red dot, optics may become commonplace in police duty holsters. Until then, I’ll send back the test pistol/sight and strap on my old 1911. The accuracy and speed advantage offered by the 21st century test package was not enough for me to switch. Your experience may vary.

The 500+ rounds of high quality practice ended up substantially improving my performance with my regular sidearm. As we have all probably learned several times, spending money on training ammo for your current sidearm is probably a better long-term investment than buying new hardware.

Or perhaps I am just too old a dog to learn new tricks. Share your experience using pistol optics in the comments box below.

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