Situational Awareness

“With the dangers this world possesses becoming ever-more prevalent in our day-to-day lives, we all need to be more aware of our surroundings.  The issue we’ve noted is that not everyone understands exactly what “Situational Awareness” is.  Our friends at Lanista International have drafted a piece discussing just this – and it’s something everyone should read!”

A Brief History of the Red Dot

Reflex optics, more commonly known as “red dots,” have exploded in popularity in the last dozen years, but few people know that they have been around in one form or another for over a century. Recent advances in technology, however, havebrought them from the cabinet of curiosities to the Picatinny rail of practically everyone’s AR15.

To anyone who has fired a weapon with a red dot or reflex sight, used a digital camera or smartphone camera, or even played a video game, the concept of projecting an image to aid in sighting a lens attached to some other object, whether weapon, telescope, or camera, comes very naturally. In the late 19th century, though, the idea of a virtual anything was little more than science fiction.

Perhaps it was science fiction that inspired Howard Grubb, the inventor of the reflector sight, to start work on the concept. In 1898, H.G. Wells published War of the Worlds, a novel which had a profound effect on fiction in the 20th century – but in that novel, the alien invaders had powerful “Heat-Ray” weapons.

Still image of alien craft from 1953 film The War of the Worlds

Look at how Wells describes the weapon in the book:

“This intense heat they project in a parallel beam against any object they choose, by means of a polished parabolic mirror of unknown composition, much as the parabolic mirror of a lighthouse projects a beam of light… it is certain that a beam of heat is the essence of the matter. Heat, and invisible, instead of visible, light.”

Now read Grubb’s description of his reflector sight from his 1900 patent application:

“It would be possible to conceive an arrangement by which a fine beam of light like that from a search light would be projected from a gun in the direction of its axis and so adjusted as to correspond with the line of fire so that wherever the beam of light impinged upon an object the shot would hit…Now the sight which forms the subject of this Paper attains a similar result not by projecting an actual spot of light or an image on the object but by projecting what is called in optical language a virtual image upon it.”

A lighthouse projecting a beam of light versus a searchlight projecting a beam of light. Invisible light versus virtual light. Where else could Grubb’s concept have come from than the visionary writing of H.G. Wells?

Howard Grubb demonstrating his reflex sight in the early 1900s. Image from Wikimedia Commons.


There was much more to do, however, than come up with a concept and make a proof of concept or demonstration unit. Technology of the early 1900s did not allow for a reflex sight which could be made small, durable, or bright enough for effective use on a standard issue military rifle of the time. In addition, the military operations at the time, and the types of rifles used, could not fully benefit from such sighting systems.

Fighter aircraft, however, were a different story. The math involved in making hits from a machine gun platform moving at high speeds in three dimensions against a target also moving at high speeds in three dimensions proved to be much more complicated than firing single shots from and to stationary points. Not surprisingly, then, the first real developments in effective reflex sighting systems came on fighter airplanes, with the German company Optische Anstalt Oigee and the British firm Vickers developing sights during and after World War One, although their actual use in that conflict was almost nonexistent.

These optics consisted of a small portion viewable to the pilot – angled glass with a reticle projected upon it. Below the top of the instrument panel, however, the optic extended over a foot, consisting of the projecting/collimated lenses, the reticle (or graticule) lens, and a light bulb. Due to the heat emanating from the light bulb, these optics rarely suffered from misting or fogging.

Drawing of an early Vickers aircraft gunsight. Image from "British Aircraft Armament Vol.2: Guns and Gunsights" by R. Wallace Clarke.

American observers after World War One were impressed with these optics, but little development occurred on the American side until the 1930s, when German optics – sold as “electric leveling instruments” due to restrictions on munitions and armament production – were tested and reverse engineered. Eventually, derivatives of these sights would be used on essentially every American fighter and bomber used during World War Two, and competing sights of the type were used by other militaries for both aircraft and anti-aircraft as well as anti-tank rocket launcher use.

Development of aircraft gunsights continued for years, but it would be decades before the sights were small enough and practical enough to be used on rifles. While certainly bright enough for daytime, full sunlight use, most aircraft sights were powered by the onboard – generally 24 volt – electrical system energized by a generator run by the massive and powerful aircraft engine. Naturally, such systems were impractical for use on eight or ten pound infantry rifles.

It would be decades more before the concept of a non-magnified optical sight was made practical for individual rifle use. The first American military use of such optics in combat came in 1970 with the Son Tay prison camp raid. Intended to rescue American prisoners of war, the raid was successful in all elements with the notable exception that the camp had been empty of POWs for several months.


Son Tay raiders with Singlepoint optics on Colt carbines. Image from VNAF MA MN.

In preparation for the raid, US Army soldiers noticed advertisements for an optic called the Singlepoint, acquired a sample, and tested it. While not a true reflex sight in the concept we have been discussing, the Singlepoint achieved a similar goal, the projection of a reticle on the target. The Singlepoint, and similar Trijicon/Armson OEG sight of the era, achieved this through the occluded eye gunsight (OEG) concept.

Essentially, the OEG concept attempted to overcome the difficulties in making a dot bright enough to be seen on target by blacking out the objective side of the optic. Using a fiber optic illuminated by either sun or artificial light, the shooter is required to keep both eyes open. The brain merges or superimposes the target image from one eye with the reticle image from the other eye to provide a remarkably effective and simple sighting system, albeit one not without significant limitations.

The primary limitation of this system is that the brain is not used to merging dissimilar images from each eye, resulting in the reticle image drifting in relation to the target image rather quickly. Son Tay raiders were trained to fire the weapon immediately after bringing the optic to their eye. Due to this drift – and the large reticle size (8 or 16 MOA were the standard sizes), effective range was limited significantly.

Still, the system proved effective in the Son Tay context, where the raiders killed everyone they saw (body count estimates vary) with no fatalities on their side. While this level of effectiveness is most likely due to their extensive training, preparation, and the element of surprise, their superior sighting systems, and the psychological impact of having confidence in their abilities to fight in the dark in part due to those systems, likely played some role.

The next leap forward in red dot sighting technology came from Aimpoint, which used a light emitting diode (LED) to project a small red dot on the target. The first Aimpoints were introduced in 1974, although it would take quite some time for them to be used on military firearms. Aimpoints saw limited use during Operation Desert Storm, but burst onto the scene in a big way in the year 2000 with the awarding of the M68 CCO contract to Aimpoint. The Aimpoint CompM, CompM2, and CompM4 have enjoyed widespread military use with over a million such optics supplied to the US military since 2000. Compared to the older OEG optics, the Aimpoints offer usability in all lighting conditions, night vision compatibility, and exceptional durability.

Aimpoint M68 in GDI CMC5-OSM mount.

Continued development in red dot optics has resulted in the further miniaturization of the type, the latest of which is the Trijicon MRO, or Miniature Rifle Optic. One common drawback of miniaturization is that the smaller sights often have smaller viewing areas, requiring more precise alignment of the shooter’s head with the optic. The MRO is designed to offer a larger viewing area, which is especially handy when shooting from nonstandard positions, in addition to water resistance, night vision compatibility, and a five year battery life. All of this comes in an optic which easily fits in the palm of the hand.

Reflex optics have come a very long way from their origins as concepts derived from science fiction alien weapons – although to someone from the year 1898, a modern red dot like the MRO would seem to be straight out of the pages of an H.G. Wells novel.

Getting Off the Square Range

Why do you go to the shooting range?

Is it to have fun on the weekend, to relieve the stress of the week? To share a hobby with friends and family? Or is it to maintain proficiency with firearms carried for personal defense, law enforcement work, or military service?

If your  purpose when getting ready to go shooting is to introduce a new shooter to the world of firearms, the regimentation and structure of an established and traditional shooting range may (or may not) be the best place for them to take their first shots. For some skittish individuals, a more relaxed, informal shooting location may reduce stress compared to a busy range with safety officers barking commands every thirty seconds.

If your purpose when getting ready to go shooting is on the more serious end of the spectrum, perhaps you should expand your horizons and attempt to find a facility or location where shooting may responsibly be undertaken, but which offers an experience closer to the real world. This includes traditional ranges which may have moving targets, night/low light/no light shooting hours, or ranges which allow shooting from or into vehicles, but it can also include shoot houses, MOUT towns, and ranges with towers or other structures/terrain for high angle shooting – to include vertical shots.

Shooters moving between positions near a downed vehicle during a Deliberate Dynamics training course at Sniper Country in Utah.

In many areas, such facilities may be very far away. However, do not dismiss their utility just because of their distance. Even if you can only visit such a place once a year – or once a lifetime – the lessons you may learn will be more valuable than a dozen trips to the range to practice things you’ve already practiced a dozen times. You can read about sight offset when shooting around vehicles or “light move, shoot move” techniques, but until you put them into practice, you will not be truly proficient in their employment.

Live fire is not a necessity for all of these facilities. Some shoot houses or indoor, miniature towns may be closer than you think, and they might not be built for live fire but are designed around the use of Simunitions or UTM, marking rounds which fire tiny paintballs from traditional looking and feeling firearms. However, these firearms cannot shoot live ammunition, thus reducing the risk traditionally associated with shoothouse type training. Protective clothing and masks are generally required or recommended, as the projectiles can still cause minor or major injuries to certain parts of the body such as the face.

The first time you try to defend a shoot house from mock home invaders, or assault a shoot house to take out bad guys holding hostages, the vast majority of your square range static target shooting experiences will melt away into the recesses of your memory. If you are serious about using a firearm as a lifesaving tool, you owe it to yourself and those who depend on you to broaden your shooting horizons.