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Are Pistol Optics Ready For Duty?

Handgun optics offer faster target acquisition and improved accuracy. So experts say they will be adopted by law enforcement; the only question is when.

May 04, 2016  |  by - Also by this author

Photo: Straight 8 photography 
Photo: Straight 8 photography 

It's often true that American law enforcement adopts technology that has been first battle tested by the military. This has certainly been true for rifle optics. But the next great innovation in law enforcement firearms accessories is not coming to you from the military, it's coming from the world of competitive shooters who participate in speed and accuracy events. That innovation is the micro reflex sight on a duty pistol.

Predicting the future is a hazardous occupation, but barring some unseen events, reflex sights will likely be on many law enforcement duty handguns within the next five to 10 years. The reasons why this transition from iron sights alone to co-witnessed pistol optics will probably occur are about the shooting skills new recruits bring to the academy, the needs of aging officers, and the benefits of improved accuracy and faster target acquisition in critical incidents.

Easier Training

Firearms instructors have long groused that many of today's law enforcement recruits have little or no experience with handguns. From an instructor point of view that can be both good and bad because those recruits don't have a lifetime of bad habits that the instructors have to correct. However, it can make it difficult for them to grasp concepts such as sight alignment between the front and rear sights.

Reflex sights—defined as single-power optics that reflect an illuminated reticle such as a red dot back to the shooter's eye as a single point of aim—eliminate the need for sight alignment. All the shooter has to do is put the dot on the target, then use proper trigger technique, grip, etc., and the bullet will hit the target. Of course that does not mean recruits won't have to learn sight alignment as well, but it will help them become more comfortable shooting.

Not only is it easier to teach new shooters how to aim with an optic, it also likely matches their experience. Many new recruits have no background in shooting handguns, but they do have video game skills. And in most video games, aiming involves a single point of reference.

Presbyopia

And it's not just new officers who could benefit from the single point of aim offered by a red dot sight on a handgun. Veteran officers often find their shooting skills diminishing as their eyes find it hard and harder to focus on the sights.

Most people around the age of 40 start to experience an age-related vision problem called presbyopia that makes it more difficult to see things close up. This is why most older people use reading glasses or bifocals, and it's also why you'll sometimes see older shooters push their handguns out as far as possible in an attempt to see good sight alignment.

Reflex optics on handguns can make it easier for these officers to shoot well. Brown says one state agency he works with has numerous older officers and has been very receptive to the Glock MOS models. "Before we launched the MOS models, they were sending their guns out to have the slides milled for mounting optics," he adds.

Long-Range Shots

Pistol optics could also help minimize collateral casualties in police shootings. It is not unheard of for innocents to be wounded and even killed when officers open fire on a threat. The improved accuracy and faster target acquisition offered by handgun optics could help prevent such tragedies.

There is no doubt that a shooter with basic skills can improve handgun accuracy substantially through the use of an optic. And proficient shooters can extend the effective range of their pistols substantially by adding an optic. "A skilled shooter with a Glock MOS (Modular Optic System) and an optic can hit a six-inch steel plate at 100 yards all day long," says Glock East Coast regional manager Jamey Brown.

Of course many officers would say they will never have a need for making a pistol shot at 100 yards in a police operation. Frank Martello, Trijicon's assistant manager of law enforcement programs, has a response: "When are you going to need to shoot a handgun that far? When you need to," he says, speaking of the capabilities of the company's RMR pistol optic.

Brown says the Glock MOS with a mounted optic is popular with some school resource and campus police officers who believe they may one day have to make a long-range shot with a pistol to stop an active shooter. "They know they can't carry rifles on the job, but they also know some of the hallways where they work are long," Brown explains.

Guns Made for Optics

More and more duty-style and off-duty handguns are being offered in optics-ready versions.

In 2012 Smith & Wesson announced that it was offering four M&P Pro pistols in an optics-ready line called C.O.R.E. (Competition Optics Ready Equipment). The M&P Pro C.O.R.E. pistols offer mounting options for a wide variety of accessory optics. These were the first duty-style handguns to come from the manufacturer ready for optics.

Glock entered the market in 2015, debuting four pistols—G34, G35, G40, and G41—in the MOS (Modular Optic System) line. Then earlier this year the company added the G17 and G19 to the MOS line. Each MOS pistol comes with four plates that can be attached to the slide in order to accommodate a variety of optics. The optics do not come with the pistol.

SIG Sauer is taking a different tack with its optics-ready pistols. The company has established an Electro-Optics division in Portland, OR, and is producing its own optics, including a handgun reflex sight called the Romeo1. SIG says the Romeo1 will be available as a separate product later this year, but it will first launch sometime this quarter in a special P320 pistol combo designated as the P320RX. The P320RX package includes the pistol with milled slide, Romeo1 reflex sight, and suppressor height sights that are co-witnessed with the optic, in addition to the standard P320 accessories such as magazines.

Andy York, president of SIG's Electro-Optic Division, says the Romeo1 was designed for hard use. The sight is made of magnesium and weighs only 21 grams, but SIG torture tests it above and beyond industry standards, according to York. "The testing is pretty brutal," he says. The torture endured by the Romeo1 includes firing of 2,000 rounds of .45 +P ammunition at 8,000Gs per shot.

Duty Use

Manufacturers of optics and optics-ready handguns contacted for this article say that early adopters of handgun optics tend to be tactical operators who want to use the same types of red-dot sighting systems on their pistols as on their rifles for faster targeting, enhanced situational awareness, and ease of transition.

Another reason why special law enforcement units are likely to be the first adopters of handgun optics is they tend to use non-duty holsters such as thigh rigs that can more easily accommodate pistols with optics. Industry experts say the availability of duty holsters for pistols with optics may slow law enforcement's adoption of handgun optics. But it won't delay the transition for long, as more and more companies are making retention holsters for guns with optics. And some optics-equipped duty guns don't require special holsters. "Where the Romeo1 lives is actually up above many holsters, so chances are it works with the holster you have now," York says.

Brown says Glock is seeing some of its law enforcement customers hedging their bets on the future of optics on duty pistols by buying MOS pistols to replace their current model guns but running them without optics using the cover plate on the slide. "They are doing the preparation in the event they decide to go with optics," Brown says, adding that the cost of buying Glock MOS pistols is significantly less than sending pistols out to be milled for optics after purchase.

SIG's York says he believes law enforcement's transition to handgun optics will follow the same path as its transition to optics on patrol rifles. "There was a time when I was with [another optics company] and we were trying to sell optics on carbines to police users, and they didn't want them. Everybody only wanted iron sights on their rifles back then."

Handgun Sights with Tritium and Fiber Optics

Numerous sight manufacturers offer tritium-powered sights, but only one—TruGlo—has a patented process for combining tritium with fiber optics. This combination of fiber optic and tritium is available in TruGlo's line of TF sights, with "TF" standing for "tritium and fiber."

"TF sights glow at night and in low-light conditions and pick up ambient light in the daytime. This is a huge benefit to anybody who values accuracy in a handgun. The sight picture is the same day or night," says Pliny Gale, TruGlo product marketing manager.
TruGlo's latest TF sights are the TFX and TFX Pro lines. They both feature what Gale calls "put the ball in the cup" sight alignment. The rear notch is "U" shaped and the front post has a relatively large illuminated circle called the Focus Lock ring. The combination facilitates target acquisition, and the TFX Pro features a green rear sight and an orange front post ball for even more speed under a variety of light conditions. "It's just a coincidence that green and orange are the colors of our logo. We experimented with a variety of colors and we just found the green-orange combination to be fantastic," says Gale.

Gale says it's not unusual for law enforcement customers to buy pistols that already have night sights and replace them with TFX sights from TruGlo. And he predicts the TFX Pro series introduced earlier this year will be just as popular. "I believe TFX Pro to be the best sight on the market now," he says. www.truglo.com

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Comments (5)

Displaying 1 - 5 of 5

Jay @ 5/13/2016 10:40 AM

I'd love to have optics on my duty. I'm an SRO in his 50s and a firearms instructor. Problem I'm having is the same one I did when weapons mounted lights became popular. Can't find a DECENT duty holster that's compatible with a light and MOS. Any ideas?

John @ 5/21/2016 8:43 AM

Jay, i found that Safariland is now making holsters to fit a few optics equipped pistols, primarily Glocks with the MOS. I have a G41 MOS with a Trijicon RMR and Trijicon suppressor sights, with a TLR2 light, and they made me a holster to fit it. The only problem was I had to swap to a TLR1 because their holster didn't have a channel to fit the laser portion of the TLR2. Otherwise the holster fits perfectly, and does a nice job of wrapping around and protecting the optic.

Alan @ 5/23/2016 6:57 PM

I don't think there is a comparison to be made with optics on a long gun and a handgun. Rifles and shotguns are generally used at longer distances and time is not as critical, allowing for an aimed shot. With pistols, a sight, any sight is less likely to be used in the common 3-7 foot distance that most police shootings occur. Don't misunderstand me, I am not against these optics. I just do not think they are ready for prime time. Battery life can vary. Changing the battery can be tricky on some models (sight has to be removed). And, security holster availability is limited. If it breaks, many of these sights are not cowitnessed with iron sights as on long guns. At the shot show I saw a really neat optic from Meprolight that just uses a rear sight in a standard height. It fits my ALS. That is more what I am waiting for.

John @ 7/1/2016 5:03 AM

I agree with Alan. You don't need optics for distance up to 10 yards. You are definetly slower with optics. Maybe you can have optics, but you have to see iron sights trough optics. That would be good option. However, I hope, that this kind of Division will be recognised in IPSC shooting. For shooters over 50, optics is "must have"...

Jimmy Muller @ 11/11/2016 4:44 AM

I love all these on my duty. I can't find a decent duty holster that compatible with a light and mos. The only problem was I had to swap to a TLR1 because their holster did not have a channel to fit the laser portion of the TLR2. Thanks for sharing.

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