In this guide, we will detail all the differences between iron sights vs. red dot sights for concealed carry.
Adding a red dot to your concealed carry handgun can be expensive, so this decision should be made with careful consideration.
Most people I talk to want to know, “Is it really better?” Some people struggle initially with red dots and give up too quickly.
Our team has over 25 years of experience shooting concealed-carry handguns. While I started shooting iron sights, I have used many red dot sights (RDS) in competition and for concealed carry over the past few years.
Keep reading to discover a unique advantage of RDS (hint: it’s not so you can shoot faster) and if it makes sense for your concealed carry handgun.
Iron Sights vs Red Dot Sights for Concealed Carry
When considering iron sights or a red dot sight specifically for your concealed carry handgun, there are key differences to remember.
Sight Focus vs Target Focus
This was the hardest thing for me to manage between iron sights and red dot sights.
Iron Sights – Sight focus
For iron sights, my eye focus is near the front sight. Notice I said “near.” When I shoot with iron sights, where I am actually focusing is variable. I do not strictly focus on the front sight all the time.
For longer distances, when I need to be as accurate as possible, my focus then is very much on the front sight. I need it to be perfectly centered in the rear notch and on the target to get a good hit.
For close-range shots, I may not need to focus so closely on the front sight. My focus is probably somewhere between the target and the front sight.
For very close-range shots, I hardly look at the front sight at all. I can tell I am aimed well enough to get a hit just from how the handgun slide is aligned.
So, if you are told to focus on the front sight with iron sights strictly, it is not completely true. However, this is a good guideline for those new to shooting.
Red Dot Sights – Target Focus
With Red Dot sights, my eyes are always focused on the target. I line up the dot in my vision over the target.
Initially, I was used to using iron sights, so this change with a red dot was the hardest for me to master. I still wanted to focus on the dot instead of the target. Over time I had to do a lot of training (almost 90% dry fire training) to learn and make this distinction between the two.
We will see that only having to focus on the target has some advantages.
Durability and Reliability
Iron sights are certainly more durable and reliable than red dots.
Red Dots have many ways they can fail that iron sights do not have. Some of these are:
- Red Dots have electronics that could fail.
- Red Dots need a battery that can die.
- Red Dots have a glass scope that could break, fog over, or get dirty.
- Red Dots have an emitter that could get blocked with debris or water.
- Red Dots are mounted to the handgun slide with screws which can come loose.
- Some handguns need an adapter plate to mount the red dot, so there is another set of screws that can fail.
Iron sights have a huge advantage over red dots for durability and reliability. I can throw my handgun in the mud and still aim it with iron sights. If my red dot is too dirty to see through, I am just out of luck.
Long Distance Accuracy
I find that red dots can be aimed more accurately at distances than iron sights.
Norwich University did a study with students using iron sights and red dots in four different courses of fire. They determined that the students with the red dots sights were faster and more accurate, especially at 15 yards.
With a red dot, I am focusing on the target and placing the dot in the center of it. I can also zero the red dot at a long distance.
With iron sights, I must align the front sight in the notch and on the target. There is much more going on and more opportunity not to get them aligned properly. In addition, since I really need to focus on the front sight to get a good hit, the target gets fuzzy and not as easy to see.
Some irons have no adjustment, so it is not easy to zero at long distances.
There are some nuances like the size of the red dot reticle itself (large dots cover more of the target than small dots), but for self-defense scenarios, shooting at a long distance is not very likely.
In a defensive situation, one concealed carry responsibility is to be just that, defensive. The first priority is to escape or avoid the situation. Shooting an attacker at 25 yards will not be your last resort except in a unique circumstance.
So, for concealed carry, shooting more accurately at a long distance is not a must-have.
Aim with Both Eyes Open
I think it is easy to understand that aiming a handgun with both eyes open in a defensive situation is better than closing one eye. With both eyes open, my peripheral vision is wider than with one.
Most people are taught to shoot iron sights by closing one eye. I think this goes back to the “target shooting” focus that most instructors have been taught through the years (same as focus on the front sight.) Many shoot a rifle with one eye closed as well.
Aiming iron sights with both eyes open is possible, but for me, it is more difficult to do than with a red dot. This is mainly because when I focus with my right eye (dominant eye), my left eye can also see the front sight. This creates a sort of double picture with the rear sight not lined up in one of them.
With a red dot, my left eye can’t see the dot, so there is no “double picture” of sorts that my brain has to deal with.
Everyone is different, it just depends on how “dominate” one eye is over another. I have found it can be trained, though, and it took me some time to transition away from closing one eye with iron sights. But, in the end, I still find it is easier with a red dot.
Field of View
When I aim with iron sights, the sights form a line across the center of the target. This means I can not see much below the center of the target because my gun is in the way (unless I have both eyes open!)
When I aim with a red dot, with perfect alignment, the dot is in the center of the scope, and the dot is in the center of the target. This means I can see more of the target or at least some below the center of it.
At greater distances, the target becomes smaller, and I can see even more of it with a red dot.
Again, while not a huge advantage at a distance, seeing more of the target is better than less.
I think that it is interesting how almost no one trains at the range with moving targets. In a defensive situation, will an attacker just be standing still, waiting for you to shoot them like a steel target?
They will almost certainly be moving in some fashion, probably towards you.
I have found that aiming and hitting a moving target with a red dot is easier than with iron sights. I think this is mostly because I can focus on the target and just put the dot over it.
With iron sights, there are many moving things that I must line up. The target, the front sight, and the rear notch must all come together. Not to mention I can’t see half the target and I can’t focus directly on it at a distance with iron sights.
Low Light Conditions
Red dot sights are more visible in low-light conditions. Some argue that night sights, or iron sights with glow-in-the-dark or tritium indicators, are easy to see at night.
I agree but there is a problem with this mindset.
If I am shooting at cardboard or steel targets at night, then yes, night sights are great.
In a defensive scenario, I must be able to identify my target. When I am in conditions dark enough to see night sights, I can no longer clearly identify my target. It is just a black blob. As you can see below, I can see that there is a target in front of me.
One of the basic rules of concealed carry gun safety is properly identifying my target. As you can see below, with a light on I realize there are two targets, a threat holding an innocent child in front of them. If I took the shot with my night sights above, I could have hit the child instead.
So, for concealed carry, night iron sights are pretty much useless and not needed. When it is bright enough to clearly identify the target, I can’t see the glow from the front sight.
A red dot is illuminated and is easy to see in all light conditions and I can stay focused on my target.
This is an easy one. All concealed carry handguns come with iron sights. Not to mention, some models that are optics-ready are more expensive as well.
Red dots can be anywhere between $250 to $500. In some cases, that is as much as the handgun cost.
Eyesight Over 40
I have been nearsighted since I was young. I can see close-up great, but farther out is a little blurry. I wear glasses, but sometimes I don’t wear them when I am at home or working on the computer because I don’t need them.
Shortly after I turned 40, I was at the eye doctor and told him that it was getting harder to see the iron sights on my gun with my glasses on. I could see them much better with my glasses off, but the targets past 10 yards were blurry. I asked if he could fix my glasses.
He explained that when we get older, the lenses in our eyes get “stiff”. This makes it harder for the muscles in our eyes to move the lenses and make our vision clear across all distances. He explained that he couldn’t fix my glasses; I was just getting older.
So, for me, focusing on my front sight for those long-distance shots has become harder. I can see a red dot clear as day since I can focus on the target instead.
Optics Ready Handgun
In order to mount a red dot on a handgun, it must be optics-ready. You may be able to find someone who can machine the slide of your handgun to accept a red dot, but I have found it to be not very common.
I have a Glock 19 that is not optics-ready, and to mount a red dot on it, really, my only option is to buy an aftermarket slide that is optics-ready.
If you already have a handgun that is not optics-ready, you have a decision to make. If you like it, train with it, and are familiar with it, I would caution against switching to a totally different handgun.
The reason is the grip angle. The presentation between a Glock and a Sig, for example, is slightly different. If you are used to the Glock, being able to find the dot on the Sig is going to take some time.
I find it is best to stay with the same platform or totally switch, don’t try to mix them.
Red Dot Mounting
For some reason, there is no industry standard on the mounting configuration for red dots. It is thoroughly confusing. Some handguns have a mounting configuration already machined, while others require adapter plates.
I can’t just order whatever red dot I want and expect it to bolt right to my handgun. It requires some study. See our guide on Red Dot Footprints – A Simple Guide for Handguns where we explain it to save you hours of research.
In addition to this, there is a proper procedure for how a red dot is mounted. The screws must be torqued properly, and the proper thread locker used. I have seen more than one red dot fly off shooter’s handguns in competitions, so it is important.
Because of these issues we have a full guide coming to help. For now, be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions and reach out if you have questions.
Iron sights require virtually no maintenance. I wipe them off when I clean my handgun, and they are good to go.
Red dots, however, are a different story. They have batteries that must be changed. The glass must be cleaned. The mounting screws must be checked. The zero must be verified.
If you decide to go with a red dot on your concealed carry gun, you must have the discipline to maintain it. If you think that may be an issue, iron sights may be best for you.
Practice and Training
When switching from iron sights to red dot sights, most people complain that getting the dot to appear in the window is difficult. Some give up entirely since initially they can’t “find the dot.”
I have found the main issue most people have is in the way they are presenting the handgun in front of their eyes. This requires many repetitions of dry fire practice of presenting the handgun from a low-ready position to a target.
However, I argue that this is also true for iron sights.
One easy way to test your presentation is to start at a low-ready position. Look at your target, then close your eyes and present the handgun like you are aiming at that target. Open your eyes, and your gun should be aimed close to where you are looking. If the iron sights are way off or you can’t see the dot, you have not practiced enough.
The reason people can get away with it on iron sights is that they can visually see the slide and sights from the top and move them to where they need to be as they are presenting the handgun. This in itself is a problem since instead of watching the target, they are watching the gun sights as the gun comes up.
With a dot, it forces you to keep focus on the target, and not “cheat” by looking at the gun as you are presenting it.
Essentially, I find many that don’t present their handgun with iron sights properly will struggle with a red dot.
If you do not want to take the time to train with your handgun (including dry fire), then a red dot is not for you.
It is easy to understand that a red dot mounted to the top of a handgun is more mass to conceal.
It is also easy to understand that a red dot with a larger viewing port will be easier to use than a small one.
Depending on how you chose the best concealed carry position for you and your body shape, it could be a non-issue or a big one.
In general, smaller people with smaller waists will have a harder time concealing a bigger red dot on a bigger handgun, especially with an appendix holster.
I find that most people do not have much of an issue, but pay attention to the size of the red dot you are considering. If concealing your handgun is borderline now, it may make it worse.
Assuming that presenting the dot isn’t an issue, I have found that aiming with a red dot can be quicker. This is obvious at competitions, shooters with red dots have consistently faster times.
I found this to be especially true with multiple targets that are out beyond seven yards or so. Transitioning from target to target is easier with a red dot since I can focus strictly on the target. I don’t have to vary my focus out to the next target and then back to the iron sights.
I find at close distances, there really isn’t a difference between the two. As we discussed, close shooting distances are what we will typically face in a defensive situation.
Emergency Slide Manipulation
If I am injured during an emergency or an attack, it is important to be able to manipulate my handgun with one arm disabled.
With iron sights, this can be tricky or impossible, depending on the shape of the rear sight. If you choose to stay with iron sights, be sure the rear sight has a 90-degree shape so you can rack the slide on your belt or another object in an emergency.
Red dots have a nice big face on them that I can easily use to rack the slide in an emergency. It is so big I can use my knee or thigh instead of trying to reach my belt or another firm object.
Red Dot as a Training Tool
I believe this is the number one reason to have a red dot on a concealed carry gun or to at least train with one.
When I aim a handgun with a red dot, I can see every small movement of the handgun. With iron sights, I can see the larger movements, but it is much harder to see the small movements.
Seeing the feedback of how the gun is moving while aiming, pulling the trigger, and when the shot breaks is a huge training tool.
During dry fire, I can see if I am moving the gun when I pull the trigger.
During live fire, I can see where the dot is just as the gun goes off. This helps me call my shots much easier than with iron sights.
See our full guide on the best defensive handgun training program for more about calling your shots and how to train for defensive situations.
Iron Sights for Concealed Carry Pros and Cons
No Extra Cost
Can “Get By” with less Training
Accuracy and Speed
Feedback During Training
Red Dot Sight for Concealed Carry Pros and Cons
Great Training Tool
Aim With Both Eyes Open Easier
Good Field of View
Good in Low Light
Are Iron Sights or a Red Dot Better for Concealed Carry?
Now that we understand all the pros and cons, which is better?
For me, the answer is both.
I feel the number one advantage of having a red dot on a concealed carry gun is it forces me to train. It also gives me excellent feedback on the movement of the handgun.
For me the ultimate is to have a red dot and iron sights co-witnessed in the lower 1/3 of the sight. This way, I can train with both. I can turn off the red dot and train with the iron sights.
I like to have iron sights with no markings since dots or lines on them interfere with my sight picture with the red dot. Too much information is not good.
I also prefer them to be in the lower 1/3 of the window. This maximizes the amount of space I have to see the target in the red dot.
For me, a full co-witness iron sight defeats the entire purpose of having the red dot on the handgun. I think a full co-witness on a rifle is desirable, and some naturally think it must also be true on a handgun.
Now that you have decided which is better for you check out our guides to the best pistol red dots for concealed carry and the best concealed carry handguns. Also see our tips on how to mount a pistol red dot. There are some critical steps you don’t want to miss.
After you have your red dot mounted, see our guide on how to zero a pistol red dot for a quick and easy way to get it zeroed.
If you have not been following our concealed carry guide, be sure to check it out. Everything about concealed carry is in one place and easy to find with info you won’t find anywhere else.