Modular Pistol Sights

A history of the development and current state of modular sighting systems for handguns.

by Dean Meier

Have you ever heard the term “rooney gun”? It’s sort of a slur toward competition-only firearms and equipment that allegedly could never be useful in the real world. It’s usually uttered by folks maintaining that back in the good ol’ days, when things were right and pure, shooting held a real world emphasis and participants only used true and proper shooting gear. Nobody tried “to gain an edge by any means” like those conniving competitors and their fake equipment today.

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It turns out this is not quite true. When practical shooting was in its infancy in the late 1950s, there was no competition-specific gear for it. Over time, top competitors began learning what techniques, training approaches, and equipment worked best by looking to the winners. By the end of the 1950s participants began using competition-specific guns and gear.

The 1911 began surfacing as a dominant platform but the as-issue gun didn’t always have the nicest trigger or adjustable sights as found on revolvers. They also sometimes exhibited less-than-stellar reliability with anything besides military round nose ammunition. Competitors took their Government Model handguns to custom gunsmiths to retrofit adjustable revolver sights and have trigger and action jobs done. None of this was found on actual carry guns of the day, military or police, but competitors did it to gain an edge. Early competitors noted that merely having a handgun reliable enough to complete a match without a malfunction was a big advantage.

Combat shooters of the 1950s and 1960s were using “rooney guns”, that is, firearms modified with the best-known modifications of the day and intended to win competitions demonstrated what refinements did prove reliable and useful. Most of these have since found their way into readily-available aftermarket accessories and into factory production guns.

This was also true of accessories such as holsters as well. International Practical Shooting Confederation, United States Practical Shooting Association, and International Defensive Pistol Association events all use belts that fit through the regular trouser belt loops because of the common use of “rooney” gun belt holsters influenced by competitive Fast Draw, a sport that had its heyday at the same time practical shooting started. In fact, the very first practical shooting competitions organized by Jeff Cooper at Big Bear called Leatherslaps were influenced by and marketed around the Fast Draw and cowboy/wild west chic popular at the time.

Among his many credits, famed shooting innovator and Precision Pistol competitor Gil Hebard was the first to introduce optical sights to pistol competition. Burris offered their Bullseye Pistol Scope in the 1960s with a large dot reticle and either no magnification or 1.7X.

One of the first notable reflex sights was the SinglePoint Occluded Eye Gunsite. OEGs do not have a lens in the tube to see through and require users to keep both eyes open. While maintaining focus on the target with both eyes the aiming eye sees the dot inside the OEG tube and the superimposed red dot is used for sighting. This scope was used with the then new CAR-15 Commando (XM177/GAU-5 series) carbines during the Son Tay Raid in 1970. In 1981 Armson released a tritium-illuminated OEG similar to the original but with more robust features and a variety of mounting systems for popular rifles and shotguns.

In 1974, a small group of Swedish entrepreneurs started exploring ways to create a similar sighting technology that would allow shooters to acquire their target quickly like the OEG while being able to see through the tube. In 1976, United States Patent 3,942,901, “Optical sighting instrument with means for producing a sighting mark”, was awarded to the company that would become Aimpoint. The abstract reads that their invention is an optical instrument comprising a concave lens with a light-reflecting surface and a light source. The lens allows observing the target while reflecting a dot of light appearing to lie far in front of the mirror to serve as a sighting mark on a line between the observer’s eye and a target. Aimpoint’s first commercial sight product, the Aimpoint Electronic, was introduced to the market and proved successful. A number of companies began following suit on the concept and refinements started to be offered. Ultradot followed with less expensive copies of the Aimpoint and started to gain traction in Precision Pistol in the 1980s as their price point was good along with sufficient reliability. The Florida-based Tasco offered an affordable and well-made Japanese manufactured sight as the ProPoint that proved a tipping point for red dot optic popularity.

Here’s how they evolved to what’s available today.

Read more in the January 2023 issue.

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