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An Introduction To Pistol Optics

Pistol Sights – Optics

Earlier, we explored many of the different types of iron sights available for pistols – check it out if you haven’t read it already, then come back here for a whole new set of options.

Optical sights have been common in some competitions for decades, not to mention hunting, but are now starting to become popular for tactical, defensive, and non-competitive target shooting and “plinking” use. Without getting into the details of the technologies used to create optical sights, let’s talk about why you might want one, how you would use one, and how you can get one on one of your guns.

One of the tricky parts of using iron sights is having to properly line up the front sight with the rear sights, then placing those lined up sights on the correct part of the target, especially if your vision isn’t perfect. Since it is only possible for your eyes to focus on one plane at a time, something will inevitably be blurry.

With an optical sight, aiming is as simple as placing the reticle (usually a red dot) over where you want the bullet to land. You can focus your eyes directly on the target, because the dot will appear in the same focal plane. For most people, the process of using an optical sight is much faster and less prone to error while in the process of completing the shot. There are even a few magnified options, generally for long distance shooting with hunting revolvers. While astigmatism can cause the dot to “star”, the optical sight can still be effective.

The sight picture for a relatively standard optic mounted on a slide, with backup iron sights

You should know that it’s possible to have both regular iron sights and an optical sight on the same gun. The iron sights are normally used as a backup if the optic fails (such as by running out of battery), and are best zeroed independently, so that each sighting system, when used by itself, gets you the hits you expect. That may or may not result in the iron sights being visually lined up with the dot when you shoot with the optic. For that reason, you should completely ignore the sighting system you are not using, when shooting with one or the other.

There are currently a number of options for getting an optical sight on your pistol.

You may be able to mount the optic on one of your existing guns using an adapter that slides into the dovetail for your rear sight or attaches to the frame of your gun (usually via the accessory rail under the barrel). These methods are low-cost and easily reversible, but can result in a less than optimal relationship between the optic and the barrel, which can make shooting close targets challenging because of the offset between point of aim and point of impact.

A set of adapter parts to allow an optic to be attached via the rear sight dovetail
Some pistols, particularly precision target or hunting guns, may also have an accessory rail on top that can be used for an optic

Alternatively, there are services that will mill your slide to accept an optic, carving material out so that the optic can be installed. You need to make certain that the gunsmith who does the work is experienced with this type of modification, to ensure that the strength and functionality of the slide are not compromised, but the results are usually better than a dovetail or rail mount. It should go without saying that this option will void your pistol’s manufacturer warranty.

An easier option would be to buy a gun that already supports adding an optical sight. Right now, these are most commonly available as part of the Glock MOS and Smith & Wesson C.O.R.E. lines. You still need to choose the exact optical sight that you want, but these pistols support most of the popular brands and models through adapter plates that are fitted to the slide. If you aren’t already invested in these platforms and guns, that can be a downside, but it’s a convenient and relatively affordable option, especially because you can buy the gun and save up to add the optic later.

The two screws on top of the slide here are used to attach the adapter plates seen underneath

The easiest option is to buy a pistol that comes with an optical sight. As of right now, the only relatively major manufacturer choice is the SIG Sauer P320 RX. Otherwise, you will either need to find a complete package of gun with optic mounted in the second-hand market or from a custom gunsmith. Many of the “race” guns in competitive shooting that use optical sights come from custom gunsmiths, with costs ranging into the thousands of dollars, but there are lower cost options available too.

This customized Glock by ATEI comes as a complete package with an optic and other modifications

Have you tried an optical sight? Are you looking to get away from the world of irons? Tell us about your experiences! Then, if you haven’t like Gun Carrier’s Facebook page yet, make sure you do it now.