For LE, Innovation in Houston Could Bring a Revolution in Handgun Sighting

Aftermarket optics for pistols are hardly a new advancement among civilian firearms enthusiasts, but their law enforcement presence beyond specialized use cases has historically been so rare as to be nonexistent. An agency simply switching calibers is noteworthy enough to garner headlines. Happy to adapt and utilize new technological tools in other contexts, the industry’s reluctance to tinker with its service weapons illustrates a deeply conservative thought process anywhere firearms are involved; a combination of philosophical deliberation and “if-it-ain’t-broke-don’t-fix-it” practicality that keeps organizations from frivolously changing what is, arguably, the most important tool on an officer’s belt.

This reluctance gives an immediate sense of gravity to any changes a department makes, and often carries implications that major change is afoot in the industry. Both occurred in 2018, when the Houston (Texas) Police Department (HPD) announced a policy that opened red dot sight (RDS) training to all personnel and allowed all officers to self-purchase RDS optics hardware for use on their service weapons. Today, the HPD remains the single largest department with a blanket policy allowing some sort of optic use on a service weapon, and is among the first to expressly allow it instead of just failing to prohibit it. Demand for the training course is so high, training personnel within the agency say the department could soon make it a required part of cadet curriculum.

If an agency of more than 5,000 officers is an unusual first for such a dramatic change, it is just as difficult to imagine the HPD being the last to authorize expanded use of optics. In a field where even the smallest decision regarding firearms is bound to draw fierce criticism from some corner of the world, the devices have garnered relatively little pushback on one side and ample support on the other. This goes hand-in-hand with research surrounding the devices, which has long praised red-dot optics for their ability to improve accuracy, target acquisition, and other key performance metrics.

In all, then, RDS may have the industry footing, support, and data needed to do what laser almost achieved in the mid-to-late 1990s: significantly changing the way departments use their firearms. Departments interested in joining the ranks of early adopters (or simply staying abreast of the trend) should ideally take this time to identify their current practices and the projected costs of making a change relative to the potential benefits, with a focus on the following points.

Examining the differences: RDS, miniature reflex sights, and law enforcement context

Though the term “red dot sight” or “RDS” is accurate enough as a high-level descriptor and catch-all, it does not actually describe a specific type of scope. As one industry blog notes, it actually covers “any kind of weapon optic that uses a red dot as an aiming point.” With long rifles, this covers a variety of scopes and sights, each with its own strengths and weaknesses; in terms of law enforcement handguns, someone talking about an RDS is usually discussing a miniature reflex sight.

This point matters, if only to clarify the purpose of the miniature reflex sights. By far the most popular aftermarket handgun optic — enough that some industry-watchers think they will soon overtake standard iron sights — they command such market attention that firearm manufacturers have increasingly designed their handguns to accept them out of the box, with little or no need for milling or other costly customization. In a city like Houston, which allows officers to add their own departmentally approved RDS at their own expense, this means officers can still enjoy the optic’s benefits without spending $600 or more on additional machining.

The miniature reflex is designed for defense, making it an asset in a high percentage of encounters that would require officers to draw their service weapon. Officers with an RDS can aim quickly and accurately without closing an eye or taking time to line up iron sights. In essence, all they must do is put the red dot over the target and fire. Though it does not provide magnification, the sight’s speed, accuracy, and simplified operation make lining up targets at some distance (relative to a pistol’s operating range) faster, safer, and, most importantly, more accurate.

In terms of downsides, officers used to the reliable, low-tech iron sights may wince at the idea that their new RDS requires power. Something must make that dot glow, after all. Here, the notion of co-witnessing — in other words, the ability to use iron sights independent of the installed sight — is worth considering. If the sight’s batteries fail at the worst possible time, the officer can revert to standard iron-sight aiming, with no impact on functionality or usability.

Other possible downsides follow the same track. Although manufacturers have continually improved against fog, smearing, and other problems that come with viewing a target through a panel, they still have potential to occur. As survivalist retailer and online content maker Imminent Threat Solutions (ITS) notes, jostling, repeated firing, and other equipment abuses common to law enforcement can damage the sensitive electronics powering the dot. Agencies must also weigh the rare, but possible, chance that a sight fails, and do everything they can to safeguard against that possibility.

Can training improve upon the benefits of an RDS?

To the last point, training inarguably provides the most important safeguard at a department’s disposal. As with standard iron-sight shooting, effective, accurate shot placement with an RDS requires skilled instruction and hours of practical repetition at the range. At high level, this points to three considerations law enforcement departments will have to make as miniature reflexes become more popular:

  1. Ensuring every officer utilizing the sight knows how to get the most from it, including aiming, maintenance, and care, and that the department can, when needed, prove the training was taken.
  2. Ensuring newer officers trained in using the sight are also proficient enough in iron sight shooting to make a seamless switch in a failure situation.
  3. Ensuring more tenured officers do not carry best practices from iron sighting to the new sight, where they essentially become detrimental.

Addressing the last point first, it would appear the best way to keep veteran officers performing at their best is to let them choose the kind of aim they wish to use. Those officers who wish to utilize the newer sight should be monitored and instructed to avoid iron sight habits that get in the way of effective red dot utilization. Aiming with two eyes is a different experience than lining up three dots with one, and officers with ample range/field shooting time may correct perceived “deficiencies” in a way that severely limits improvement with the red dot.

To the second point, expanded range time for rookies is likely to be needed in a department making the switch. At minimum, the cadet should be able to comfortably switch between co-witnessed formats without a significant reduction in key performance indicators. While no hard numbers on the matter could be found, this also suggests added POST-mandated training with a focus on “blended shooting” may be beneficial.

In both cases, officers must take particular care to account for the type of sight they use when a situation requires them to fire immediately upon drawing. As the ITS piece notes, the relatively small lens atop the scope may make users inadvertently “hunt for the reticle at the end of a presentation,” reducing speed and potentially placing the officer using the sight in danger. The article continues:

The nature of iron sights, specifically the front sight being visible in our peripheral vision as the pistol is indexed to the target, makes final correction of sight alignment simple, even at speed. In fact, this has resulted in a degree of acceptable “slop” in the presentation of many shooters. It’s this slop that will betray you with [a miniature reflex sight], resulting in frustration until you correct the deficiency and present the pistol with more consistency.

Finally, although training should be an immediate answer to helping officers learn about use and maintenance of a new sight, the way in which training and documentation are handled is also important for the departments guiding the activity. As with any major change — let alone one touching on firearms — stakeholders should consider the thoroughness of their current training record-keeping efforts, their historical footprint, and how easy they are to reference in case a question arises or litigation occurs.

Conclusion: The RDS is coming — is your department ready?

It is fair to call RDS/miniature reflex sights more than just a trend. Qualified sources believe red dot sight use will become commonplace, and manufacturers will continue to add mounting features directly to their firearms as a matter of course, a cycle that ultimately results in the hardware being more accessible to all handgun users.

Just as the HPD laid out their pioneering change based on the relative high-reward, low-risk proposition red dot sights offer, other departments will undoubtedly soon begin their own initiatives. If the results hold true, they will report favorable results, leading even more departments to catch on, policies to be refined and revised, and grants to be offered, each contributing to an environment increasingly friendly to miniature reflexes.

Low-risk does not mean no-risk, however. Updating training will also be an essential part of the transition, and can make the difference between a trend that saves lives and one that creates more danger and resultant litigation. Weighing the costs against the benefits, each department must develop its own timetable and processes when adapting to any change in technology that affects its performance in the field.

Posted on Oct 7, 2019