I recently read an ongoing discussion about red dot sights on defensive rifles, and it got me to thinking about their utility to the defensive shooter.
First off, I like red dot sights when I’m shooting. My eyes are unable to focus cleanly on the front sight of a 16-1/2″ barreled AR-15, and the red dot makes it easier for me to shoot. Not that I can’t shoot with irons, only that it takes a little more effort. Red dots are a great invention, and they’re fun (and almost obscenely easy) to shoot.
Despite that, none of the rifles that I use for serious purposes carry red dot sights. Why? For the same reason that most building codes don’t allow battery operated smoke detectors in new construction.
Hard wired smoke detectors have been required in new buildings for nearly thirty years (depending on the locale.) It’s not that battery operated detectors don’t work, but rather that they require maintenance. It’s not a whole lot, mind you: check the batteries twice a year, replace once a year. Despite not being a huge burden, it often doesn’t get done and the consequences are dire. Hard wired detectors eliminate that maintenance and guarantee that the devices are always ready to operate at any time. They should still be tested, but the risks associated with not doing so are reduced to nearly zero.
The cost (in terms of effort and attention) of keeping a battery-operated detector operational is therefore higher than that of the hard-wired variety. Not a lot, but it’s enough that lives are routinely saved. Because of that cost, the predictability of operational readiness is lower with the battery operated detector than with the hard wired variety. (This predictability is the reason the trucks and engines in your local fire station are hooked into “shore power” when they’re not in use, even with trained firefighters there at all times to check them.)
The same principle applies to the red dot sight. Yes, some models have batteries that can last years, but that means one has to remember to check them frequently. There is a risk it that the batteries will have failed since the last check, or that the electronics may have failed even if one has been extremely vigilant about the batteries. Though I handle my handgun on a daily basis, it’s often many months between the times I pick up the rifle and thus many months can elapse between the necessary maintenance checks.
Here in rainy Oregon, we have increased risks due to the climate: when in use, optics occasionally get obscured by water drops and we’re often discovering that a device’s waterproofing has failed. I could go on, but you see the point: unpredictability.
Iron sights suffer no storage degradation nor do they suffer unexpected or unpredictable failures. Unless they’re damaged to the point of not being usable (in which case I can tell before I fire a shot that they’re not working), there is no doubt that they’ll be there and ready to work when I need them. They’re predictable, and predictability is a Good Thing in defensive firearms.
It’s not Luddism, just an admission of the increased difficulty of keeping a complex device ready for use at all times and under all conditions. I want the rifle to be ready, now, regardless of the last time I checked the batteries or remembered to turn it off/on or any electrical/mechanical faults it may have suffered since I last shot the thing. I’m not claiming that I’m “just as good” with irons as with the scope, only that the mechanism of the iron sights is more reliable under more conditions for a longer period of time.
I can hear the refrain now: “but guns break, too!” Yes, they do. We accept that as part of the risk of using the things, but I see no reason to compound that risk by an order of magnitude (maybe several) for what is really a small benefit.
I like red dots, I like shooting them, my eyes thank me when I do, but for the gun that has to be capable of being run hard without warning or preparation? Give me iron sights.
-=[ Grant ]=-