How to Zero a Pistol Red Dot – 5 Critical Tips

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In this guide, we will provide detailed steps on how to zero a pistol red dot.

Zeroing a red dot on a pistol is different from zeroing a rifle red dot sight. This confusion makes it challenging for many.

How to Zero a Pistol Red Dot
Jason at the range zeroing his pistol red dot
I’m ready to get this red dot zeroed

I have been using red dot sights on pistols for the past decade. Initially, I struggled with getting what seemed to be a good zero, but over the years I found the best way to get it done quickly and accurately.

I learned some critical steps and tips that make the process easy to understand. I found that watching a video of someone shoot a super tight three-shot group with their pistol was not helpful.

Keep reading to find the critical tips that will help you. I will also step through the process of zeroing one of my red dots.

Tips for Preparing to Zero a Pistol Red Dot

Before we get into the steps, there are some key tips to remember.

  • Zeroing a pistol red dot is not the same as a rifle
  • Use a dot reticle on a dim setting
  • Fire five shots per group instead of three
  • Use a rest if possible, but it may not be helpful
  • Do not necessarily zero at your “typical shooting distance”
  • Don’t line up your dot to your Iron Sights
  • The zero adjustment on a red dot is the opposite of the adjustment on a rifle scope

Some of these need a little more explanation.

I’ve noticed that many people who have experience zeroing a rifle scope assume that the process for zeroing a pistol red dot is the same. However, this couldn’t be further from the truth. Shooting a handgun consistently and accurately is a challenge for most individuals, which can make it difficult to shoot a tight group. Even for someone like myself who practices regularly, it can still be a challenge.

This difference is what makes zeroing a pistol red dot challenging, and it’s why many people say they can’t do it. We’ll explain the distinctions below.

Dot and Brightness

If your red dot sight has multiple reticles, I recommend to switch to a single dot for zeroing. Additionally, you should adjust the brightness to a level where the dot is clear but not too bright. This will be particularly helpful for red dots with a larger MOA dot, as it can improve your accuracy.

Number of Shots in a Group

When shooting a handgun, it can be challenging to create tight groups. To improve your accuracy, try firing five-shot groups instead of three. I have found that typically, one shot in each grouping will be slightly off-target, and this is usually due to my mistake rather than an issue with the gun or sights.

By firing five shots, it will be easier for you to identify these “flyers” and eliminate them from your adjustment decisions.

Using a Rest

While many people suggest using a rest to achieve tighter groups while firing a handgun, I believe that the main reason behind not being able to fire accurately is due to the shooter moving the gun while pulling the trigger.

Personally, I find that using a rest does not aid me in case I pull a shot by anticipating recoil. The rest only helps me stabilize my aim before I pull the trigger, and even then, I tend to move the gun.

If you’re struggling to shoot tightly grouped shots with your handgun, try slowing down and practicing dry fire. I personally prefer to start with dry fire as a warm-up, which helps my subconscious forget the fact that there’s an explosion happening in my hand.

After warming up, you can alternate between live shots and dry shots while going through the zeroing process for better results.

Also keep in mind that the handgun is going to rise when you pull the trigger. There is nothing you can do about it. Maintain a tight grip and wait for the gun to rise, and then fall back into your sight picture. This will help eliminate recoil anticipation.

Zero Distance

A logical way to zero your red dot is to do it at the distance you plan to shoot at. Then, it is argued that most defensive situations occur within seven yards or less.

I agree that this is a reasonable way to zero a rifle. However, when it comes to a pistol that is intended for defensive purposes, the approach is different. We’re not aiming to hit a small target at a long distance like a rifle.

When aiming at close distances, resolution becomes a problem. Adjusting the zero of the dot by one inch at a distance of five to seven yards requires a lot of effort. It is challenging to zero at such a close range unless you can shoot very tight groups with each shot overlapping the next.

I prefer to start at 10 yards and then verify at 15 yards. This gives me enough room to work the zero in, and then I can fine-tune it. It is much easier, and in the end, I can bring my target back to seven yards to check, and it is dead on.

Zero to Your Iron Sights?

While this is also a logical way to think if you have co-witnessed iron sights, it really doesn’t make sense.

As we discussed in our iron sights vs red dot article, aiming with a red dot gives me a lot of feedback on how I am moving the gun. I can just barely move it, and the dot moves a lot. Iron sights do not give a fine level of feedback. I can move my gun and can hardly tell the sights moved at all, especially at close distances.

So, trying to match up the coarse level of aim with iron sights to the fine level of aim with a red dot doesn’t make sense. Yes, you can get it in the ballpark, but once you concentrate your aim at 10 yards with the red dot, it will be considerably off. Then, you will be playing the “I can’t zero my red dot” game again.

How to Zero a Pistol Red Dot

Now that you understand the tips and the basic methodology, let’s get your red dot zeroed.

Here are the items that you will need:

  • Pistol with Properly Mounted Red Dot – See our How to Mount a Pistol Red Dot Guide to ensure you have done it properly.
  • Ammunition – Preferably your self-defense ammo or similar (not cheap stuff)
  • Targets – Preferably plain without a bunch of lines or rings
  • Black Sharpie
  • Indoor or Outdoor Range that you can shoot at least 15 yards
  • Adjustment Tool for your specific red dot

I like to keep all of this in my range bag so I don’t have to search for it and I always have it when I am shooting (see our guide on the Best Range Bags for my favorites.)

Step 1 – Prepare Your Target

When I’m zeroing my target, I like to use plain cardboard at an outdoor range or plain paper without any bullseyes or markings at an indoor range. These markings can be confusing when aiming and can make it difficult to see the dot through my sight.

I will then use a sharpie and make a dot about 1 inch in diameter on the target. It does not have to be perfect; you just need to be able to see it at 15 yards.

I make about six dots in various places at least six inches apart, so I have multiple aim points. You can always add more dots later, too. I use a new dot for each five-shot group.

Red Dot Target Zero Setup
This is how I set my target

I find that if I try to shoot multiple groups at the same target, it just gets confusing. Paper is cheap, but time is not.

Step 2 – Set Target at 10 Yards

I like to start at 10 yards. I find this is far enough away that I can see how far off my zero is but not so far that my groups are too large. It also makes adjusting the dot a certain distance easy to calculate.

Step 3 – Fire a Five Shot Group

After I fire a few shots to warm up, I fire five shots at the first dot (or the second dot if I used the first one to warm up.)

These are slow, deliberate shots that are as accurate as I can make them. Remember that this is also a good drill that will help you train away anticipating recoil.

Jason's first shot grouping on the target
My first grouping

You can see my first shots above. I wasn’t perfect, but in general, they are high and to the left.

Step 4 – Adjust Red Dot

It is likely that you will have a few shots fairly close together and one or two that are outliers. Eliminate the outliers since you likely moved the gun just before the shot broke.

Now, use the center of the closely grouped shots to make a decision on how much to adjust the red dot. I prefer to move one direction at a time (left and right or up and down.) This is so in case I make a mistake, it is easy to see and correct.

Remember that this is not a precision calculation that needs calipers and a calculator. You are not going to be able to shoot a pistol that accurately! I go with the closest whole inch to start.

Jason adjusting the zero on his red dot
Here, I am adjusting the horizontal impact of the bullet to the right

Most red dots are adjustable in one MOA increments. This means that each click will move the dot one inch at 100 yards. Since we are shooting at 10 yards, it will be one-tenth of that or 0.1 inches. So, to move the impact of your shots one inch, you will need to adjust the red dot 10 clicks.

When making adjustments, remember that the direction of adjustment on the red dot is the direction you want the bullet’s impact to move. This is different from adjusting the scope on a rifle! Normally, for a rifle, you adjust the scope reticle to align with where the bullets impact the target. Don’t get confused and do the same here.

In my case, I decided to move the impact of the bullet 1 inch to the right. So, I turned the adjustment 10 clicks toward the right arrow. This is to the left, or counter-clockwise on my red dot.

Step 5 – Repeat

After you make your first adjustment, fire a slow, steady group of five more shots at the next black target dot. Hopefully, they moved in the direction you wanted and roughly the distance you wanted. If not, stop and think about what you intended versus what actually happened. If you are unsure, shoot another group at the next dot you made.

In my case below, you can see that my five shots moved to the right, almost centered with the black target dot. I did have a bit of a flyer high and maybe one low.

Jason's second shot grouping on the target
My second grouping

Using the same process as step 4, decide how much you need to move your dot closer to the intended target in the direction you did not adjust in step 4.

Jason adjusting the zero on his red dot
Here, I am adjusting the vertical impact of the bullet down

For me, I decided to move the bullet’s impact down one inch. So, I moved the adjustment on my red dot down 10 clicks. On my red dot I rotated the adjustment to the right or clockwise.

Keep repeating this at 10 yards until your groups are within about one inch of the target.

Jason's third shot grouping on the target
My third grouping

Above is my third grouping. These are all pretty close together but still a little high. I decided to adjust down one inch or another 10 clicks.

Jason's fourth shot grouping on the target
My fourth grouping

Above is my fourth grouping. You can see it is closer by my grouping is not as good as before. It felt like I may have pulled those two low shots slightly.

I decided to not make any adjustments and fire another grouping to see.

Jason's fifth shot grouping on the target
My fifth grouping

Above is my fifth grouping. Much tighter, which is nice, and slightly to the left. I decided not to make any adjustments here and move on to the next step.

As you can see, shooting at a new black dot on the target each time is much easier than trying to shoot at the same one over and over. I like to be able to see for sure what is going on.

Step 6 – Set Target at 15 Yards

Next, make sure you have more black dots marked on the target and move it to 15 yards away. Shoot another 5-shot group.

Since the target is 50% farther away, your shot groups will likely be larger. Again, if you see any fliers, eliminate them. Your remaining shots should be fairly centered around the mark you made on the target.

You can adjust here just like you did at 10 yards, but now 7 clicks will move the dot one inch on the target. (Yes, the math here is not perfect, and I rounded. We are shooting a pistol, so fractions of an adjustment do not matter.)

Repeat this a few times if needed, making sure you are moving the gun as little as possible when you pull the trigger.

Jason's sixth shot grouping on the target
My group at 15 yards

Above is my grouping at 15 yards. You can see that the shots are not as tight as some of the others. Overall I am happy with this zero and decided to not make any more adjustments. I could try to tweak it more, but in the end, this is “close enough” for defensive purposes.

Checking Your Red Dot Zero

I like to start my training sessions with a target that is 15 yards away. I use my Sharpie and make a dot in the center of the target. I shoot as steadily as possible just to check my red dot’s zero and practice my accuracy. This also checks my ammo and my gun before I start my session.

Now that you have your red dot zeroed, be sure to check the other red dot guides that are part of our full concealed carry guide.

Also, read our guide on the best defensive pistol training program, as it has a bunch of tips on how to train with your red dot.

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Jason has an engineering and problem solving background. He is an avid outdoorsman, survivalist, and competitive shooter. He enjoys researching the best and most practical solutions for the problem at hand, studying stoicism, and finding innovative ways to be prepared.