Photos by Q-Division / Wally F. Words by Wally F.
Overcast and deceptively hot, no better way to spend a Friday rolling into the weekend than at the range. My equipment is checked, pistol is clean, brand new red dot installed and rough zeroed, lastly a brand new 1000 round case of 124 grain 9mm begging to be expended on this three day Red Dot Pistol User/Instructor course. I was ready… No I wasn’t.
As an on-again and off-again pistol shooter with very little RDS experience on pistol red dot shooting, rolling into the ABD Concepts and Q-Division Red Dot Pistol User/Instructor Course was a daunting three days of eye opening training. I was extremely fortunate to be able to attend and absorb the TTPs, applied knowledge, and varied background of experience from not only the instructors but the participants as well. What a difference 72 hours can make.
The three day course was anchored by SVT from ABD Concepts along with Jay Hsu from Q-Division. SVT has a long laundry list of qualifications spanning over a decades plus career in law enforcement the majority of it in specialty units including Tac/SWAT. What makes SVT effective is his disarming approach to instructing and breaking down teaching points with evidence based examples from multiple sources. He distills discussed items down to what we as an individual student needs to take away and apply it on the range.
Day one rolled into an itinerary of what to expect, SOPs and protocols and a dive into equipment nomenclature and comprehension. Discussions on blue on blue safety, Simunition, and use of force as it relates to the Canadian Criminal Code were discussed very early on in the day. As the majority of student instructors on this course were LEO, discussion was heavily police oriented. That’s not to say there was nothing to take away from the discussion from the two military guys in attendance (myself and a Combat Engineer). Much of what was discussed can easily translate to the Laws of Armed Conflict and applied in a military context as well.
There are those dinosaurs and “Boomers” out there who believe that nothing should be on your pistol but a set of iron sights and a set of polished pearl grip panels and that should be good enough because “they never fail”. You shoot long enough and everything will fail including iron sights. Red dots on pistols is the natural progression of red dots on rifles, it’s a not sci-fi concept. The future is now and this isn’t an isolated train of thought from the fringes. More and more agencies in law enforcement and the military are running red dots on pistols as a standard load out. Red dots aren’t a new concept and it’s historic use goes back well over twenty years. Aimpoint rolled out the first production red dot in 1975, USPSA competition shooting with red dots started in 1990, the US Army adopt general use of the Comp M2 in 2000, with the first American agencies adopting RDS pistols into service in 2015/2016, a handful of Canadian agencies followed shortly after in 2018.
Much of the first morning had us occupied in some meaningful discussion of traditional iron sights versus red dot sights. The cost implications versus reduction in new officer training cycles and the training benefits associated. Since this was an instructor class as well, a good chunk of candidates were either agency firearms trainers, Tac Team members, or member from specialty units that in one way or another has input with developing training doctrine, budgets, and implementation with their home agencies. While we didn’t dive into the weeds of cost and budgets, it is worth noting because as a trainer if you can justify and prove the benefits of pistol red dots effectively, the technology and training will sell itself.
The breakdown of advantages and disadvantages of Irons versus RDS was wrapped up neatly into two power slides which is a great tool to include in any budget, training, procurement proposals. What caught my eye was the fact that introducing RDS pistol training right away at the cadet level in training actually helped reduce overall training time on pistols by 2-3 days*, only not having to sacrifice content, but including the fundamental building blocks to being an effective RDS pistol user. This savings in time also allowed for more time to spend on low-light, inured shooter, and malfunction drills. All said, resources were allocated to a wider range of skills to be taught with time to practice.
Three key points driven home early on day one was: 1) Find the Dot, 2) Track the Dot, and 3) RDS specific malfunctions. To the first point, SVT referred to Aaron Cowan’s (Sage Dynamics) white paper on “Miniaturized Red Dot Systems for Duty Handgun Use”** which deep dives into a multitude of topics including zeroing, considerations during training cycles, and general factors. A starting factor I dialed in on which rolled naturally in others was occlusions on your RDS either in front of or behind the dot on the lens which makes a difference and the various malfunction drills to apply to defeat the malfunction. This lead into alternate aiming positions and on the instructor side observing, diagnosing, and coaching shooters with corrections on-the-fly.
Tracking the dot had us working on presentation which needed minor skill set adjustments to take advantage of the dot system. This was practised on as well both as a student and instructor with the draw and presentation designed to place the dot on target as early on as possible. This progressed naturally into cadence drills with the tried and trued 1-1000, 1&2&3, and 1,2,3 timings to help build a consistent rhythm for completing strings of fire depending on the distance you are shooting at.
Without even consciously knowing it SVT was demonstrating the difference between Block and Interleave training on the class. The military is famous for block style teaching, explain, demonstrate, and imitate one skill, practice it, then move on to the next thing. While it is a solid SOP to start with, it’s not great for bridging multiple TTPs and learning to understand the relationships between each skill being taught. SVT conducted the whole first day and in fact the whole course in the interleave style of instruction with a nice natural flow of understanding moving from one topic to the next. Now as a student you might not need to know the difference between block and interleave training other than to say “Hey that instructor really had it together and I learned something that will stick.” But as a trainer, coach, or instructor, knowing the difference will determine whether building a training program is effective or not.
I’ve always told myself that if I can walk away from a course and learn even one new skill or technique, I’d call it a win. By the end of day one I absorbed a mountain of information and two full pages of notes. Key points to take away from day one:
- Find the Dot (presentation)
- Track the Dot (don’t chase the dot though)
- Embrace the Wobble (it isn’t Call of Duty or Halo, your pistol red dot will not be stable)
- Draw and presentation
- Your focus with a RDS will always be threat focus and no longer front sight focus (this is in turn helps with both eyes open, better overall situation awareness)
- Cadence for varying distances
- Block versus Interleave training (very important as an instructor)
While the first day on the range was a little deceptive with the cloud cover while rolling into training and covering of the basics of red dot operation with a pistol; Day two started with a few sunburned candidates and a clear sunny day. After a quick review from day one we dialed in more on draws, presents, and malfunctions. A red dot sight is asymmetric, what does that mean? Your red dot, even though is on the same plain as your iron sights, the two are not mutually inclusive and should be treated separately, they’re not married together like Desi and Lucy, they’re more like Affleck and Garner where you as the pistol user are the J.Lo in the relationship driving them apart and the pistol itself is the child you have to co-parent. To break it down barney style, don’t treat your RDS like your irons.
Regardless of whether you have an open or closed emitter red dot, you should know the difference and the types of malfunctions that accompany them. We did testing with direct sunlight into the dots, water on the lens, front and back, fogging, obstructions or occlusions, and low light dot washout with weapon and hand held lights. Depending on the issue, transitioning to alternate means of aiming was a worthwhile drill and skill to pick up. Whether it was using the guillotine/arm pit indexing, using the RDS housing, or the corner of your slide when your dot fails and your irons are obstructed is something that needs to be practised, a lot.
Prior to stepping back on the range again the course received a detailed presentation from Jay Hsu with Q-Division and Black Box Customs on the technical side of red dot optics, mounting options, types, a brief history, and most commonly used systems. With over eight years of experience in red dot optics which includes providing services to the law enforcement agencies as well as the military in Canada, Jay is the subject matter expert on the nuance and science behind what red dot systems work and don’t work depending on your application. His presentation was geared towards what would work best for your agency or unit in terms of budget and operational need. The more you know about the systems the more you can anticipate questions from higher regarding your potential propose for employing red dots at the unit or agency level, Jay helped clarify many points on the technical side of things and it’s great information to have in general even as a user.
As with any piece of equipment , regular maintenance is always a must. Where as the military is obsessed with constantly cleaning weapons to the point where you’re taking machine gun parts into the showers and scrubbing gun parts so often that the factory bluing is rubbed off; All the way to the other side of the spectrum where not every patrol officer cleans their pistols regularly, and everywhere in between; Having an RDS mounted on your pistol is a double edged sword. As Uncle Ben says: “With great power comes great responsibility”. A quick checklist for your RDS:
- Date you batteries (never have to second guess when you need to replace them)
- Torque drive your optic screws to the recommended manufacturer poundage (common mistake is over torquing which can break heads and/or cross thread the screw)
- Use thread locker (combined with proper torquing you’ll never worry about screws backing out)
- Place witness marks on your screws after installation (a good visual check for yourself if the other parts of the check list are missed or neglected
As day two progressed, we moved on to moving and shooting, alternate shooting positions, and taking turns at RO’ing a dynamic range. As with any course I attend, I also always try to glean as much information from the staff, but from other candidates as well. This course was filled with Academy instructors, Tactical and SWAT unit members, specialty unit officers, and all from various agencies. I learn as much from them as I do directly from the course. One of the Tac-Team officers on the course gave me a huge helping hand with some really bad habits I’ve been trying to shake for a long time and took the time to iron out some pretty useful drills for me to take away and practice with on and off range. The end of day two had us covering a lot of ground, but everything taught and applied on the range had a very logical progression that layered on more TTPs as the day went on. It was challenging and proved to myself that interleave training is more meaningful in the long run than straight block training. Key points I took away with me at the end of day two:
- RDS is independent from iron sights (be like J.Lo)
- Threat Focus (finding the dot is the hardest part)
- Malfunctions (transitioning to alternate aiming methods)
- Not every mounting solution or RDS system is created equally (make informed considerations for agency and unit proposals, anticipate the questions from higher)
- Regular maintenance (shouldn’t need to be said, but it always does)
The final day of the course had us back in the classroom again with a recap of the previous days activities and rolled us into low light, no-light, IR considerations which included various deployment techniques with weapon mounted lights as well as hand held illumination. Much like in the military the reasons for use of white light as a LEO are similar if not exactly the same: a) Get a PID on a person/s or object, b) Locate a person/s or object, c) Navigation, d) Command and Control, and e) Signals and Communication. A quick review on Harries, FBI, Syringe, Neck/Temple index, and the pinky grips for hand held lights were discussed and how employing them in conjunction with an RDS pistol influences the split second decision making process on low/no light situations and scenarios. These techniques were then used on the range to demonstrate how adding on another piece of equipment in a shooting situation increases the amount of inputs to process on-the-fly but also increasing the amount of incoming information you’re receiving with your light. Decisions decisions, right?
Progression training was touched on, with plenty of practice moving from dry, force on paper, force-on-force with Simunition, as well as shoot/no-shoot scenarios. The end of training was capped with an instructor shooting qualification along with a written exam. The culmination of everything taught, discussed, and practised over the three days distilled into a nice and well packaged course of fire.
Plenty of concepts, TTPs, and drills were packed into this three day course and it was worth while. For myself as a novice red dot pistol shooter it was an eye opener, everyone around me put on a clinic with their competency and consistency of their shooting which allowed me to pull a lot of information from the other participants on course, that was the value add for me. I believe for the agency trainers and people in attendance with the power to push a red dot program to their agency, their value add was the in-depth information pushed out regarding data-driven recommendations, testing, financial obligations, equipment, training program development, and skills and gear upkeep. All the knowledge a trainer would need to successfully pitch an RDS program to their department, agency, or unit.
Obviously, the larger the organization the longer the implementation of a program would take to materialize and vice versa smaller agencies and units are more nimble to adapt the advancements of red dot service pistols as a standard. That being said many agencies in North America have already adopted RDS pistol setups and not just for SWAT or Tac-Team units but for patrol level services like Houston, Nashville, Brentwood, Daytona Beach, as well as several specialty police units in Canada and the military. Over the three days I took in an immense amount of information and need to hit the range again to practice the TTPs taught. As I said earlier, if I can walk away from a course and even learn one thing, I call it a win. Here are my biggest take away from the RDS Pistol User/Instructor course:
- Much like red dots on patrol rifles and carbines are standard now, so should RDS on pistols. It’s the next logical step and natural progression.
- Work and adjust presentation so I can “find the dot” earlier.
- Track the dot but don’t chase it like the white rabbit.
- “Embrace the Wobble”. You’re not android or Robocop, your red dot sight will naturally move around in your sight picture and that’s OK.
- Make sure your red dot is installed properly to manufacturer specs and tolerances.
- If you can, go enclosed emitter and make sure all controls settings are on manual so you always know the status of our RDS.
- Practice for the worst case scenario for dot failures, get accusromed to a possbile full occlusion on your optic and work around it.
- Practice low/no light interactions with your red dot. It’s not the same as with iron night sights.
- Like optics on a rifle, optics on pistol requires you to be mindful of your mechanical offset, know the distance and range you’re shooting at and adjust accordingly.
- The average front iron sight is around 30-32 MOA, the average red dot ranges from 2 to 8 MOA depending the application you need an RDS for.
- Find your cadence when shooting at long distances.
- Threat focus, your target is now your front sight.
By the time of publishing ABD Concepts and Q-Division will have already ran another iteration of the RDS pistol course. Contact them directly to check on their next available course, if you’re LEO or military get on this, because red dot pistols are the future and the future is already in progress.
Reporting for TV-PressPass
* – Houston Police Department
** – Sage Dynamics – Miniaturized Red Dot Systems for Duty Handgun Use – Fourth Edition, 2021 by Aaron Cowan