3 Dot Sights

1030: Receive a phone call from a good friend in the industry. My friend explains that he is working with a company that is producing pistol sights. He informs me that his research indicates that 3 Dot Sights outsell all other pistol sights, 10 to 1, in retail outlets. I hang up the phone depressed.

1145: Begin to work on serious thought piece regarding handgun sights and how to explain the benefits and detriments of certain types of sights.  

3 Dot Sights, the LCD Solution

I have gone on record more than once that I am not a fan of 3 Dot Sights. That is, a front sight with a white (red, orange, yellow, etc) dot and a rear sight with two matching dots of the same size and color. Yes, some manufacturers will put a red dot up front and two white dots in the rear. Even worse.

Yes, I fully understand the purpose of the 3 dot style of pistol sights. They are basic level simple, Kindergarten level if you will. The brand new pistol shooter is told, “Put the front sight dot between the two rear dots. Hold the pistol still and press the trigger.” What could be easier?

Some proponents would say that 3 dot sights work instinctively with the human eyes. That it is a natural function to line up the three dots in a row. That is a dubious claim to be sure.

If you discuss this situation with experienced firearms instructors, most will tell you that when the shooters are focusing on lining up the dots, their shots invariably impact low on the target. Just how low depends on the shooter, the gun, and the distance.


The tendency to shoot low aside, a reality that most people skip right over, is the fact that the human eye can only focus at a single distance at one time. With traditional sights, you have three objects in the field of view; rear sight, front sight, and target.

All experienced shooters should understand that it is the front sight that must be focused on as the shot is being made in order to deliver the bullet on to the desired part of the target. Pistol Shooting 101 is “Front sight focus, trigger press.”  

Why do we use white, or orange, or red,  or yellow/green dots on our sights? Because those color choices are easy for our eyes to pick out of all the other colors out there in front of us. The brighter the dot, the more it draws our eye. Herein lies the problem.

With traditional painted white dot sights, you have two white dots that are closer to the eye than the front white dot. Using the same color, the rear sight reflects more light and seems brighter to the eye. Therefore, the natural focus will go to the rear sight first. But, we are supposed to be focusing on the front sight. So we need to do that mental shift from rear to front.  

XS Sight Systems has been trying to address this for decades. With Tritium night sights, if the Tritium vials are identical in the front and rear, the rear sight will be twice as bright. That is the reason most modern sight makers put more dim Tritium in the rear. However, if the rear sights are white dots with Tritium inserts we go back to the same issue.  Fiber optic sights are much the same.

Shots in the dark
Shots in the dark

So, having explained all that science to you, you might wonder how 3 dot sights outsell all other sights 10 to 1. The answer is frustratingly simple.

The vast majority of shooters will never take the time to consider any of the realities we just considered. Most are stuck at the Kindergarten level of training or lack thereof.  Also, and this is a pretty big also, the vast majority of handgun shooters do so in good light conditions under zero stress. These folks cannot see any problem with the 3 dot system. After all, they have ample light and ample time to line up their dots and make the shot.

Even those who claim to have purchased a gun for concealed carry or home defense will almost never use it in a scenario that would mimic the reality of a genuine life and death gunfight. My previous argument falls on deaf ears.

Initial Conclusion:

So, where does that leave handgun manufacturers and sight makers? Well, it is not their job to train and educate the consumer, it is they job to sell products. If the consumer is craving 3 dot sights because that is what they think they should have, why should the gear makers change that?

What we have is an endless perpetual cycle. The consumer says “Three dot sights must be the best choice because that is what Glock (or SIG, S&W, Springfield, etc) are putting on their guns.” Gun makers keep putting them on the guns because that is what the customer says they want.

As thus, here I sit, having learned how to properly use a fighting pistol 31 years ago and understanding the science of sight and human vision, pondering whether or not to simply throw my hands in the air and say “Screw it, buy 3 dots sights, I don’t give a damn.”

There is a new company called Night Fision that is making Tritium handgun sights. Perhaps they will have better luckeducating the masses than I. Time will tell.

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Paul G. Markel has worn many hats during his lifetime. He has been a U.S. Marine, Police Officer, Professional Bodyguard, and Small Arms and Tactics Instructor. Mr. Markel has been writing professionally for law enforcement and firearms periodicals for nearly twenty years with hundreds and hundreds of articles in print. Paul is a regular guest on nationally syndicated radio talk shows and subject matter expert in firearms training and use of force. Mr. Markel has been teaching safe and effective firearms handling to students young and old for decades and has worked actively with the 4-H Shooting Sports program. Paul holds numerous instructor certifications in multiple disciplines and a Bachelor’s degree in conflict resolution; nonetheless, he is and will remain a dedicated Student of the Gun.

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