Folks had been playing with handgun-mounted optics in competition since the late 1960s, if not earlier. The trick was finding a way to keep an optic securely mounted to a centerfire pistol, all while hoping that the optic didn’t self-destruct first.
The first major success came in 1980 when Joe Pascarella used red-dot optics to win the 2700 Aggregate at the NRA National Pistol Championships at Camp Perry. Pascarella followed up in 1981 by winning the 2700 Aggregate again with the Aimpoint Mark II.
In more recent years, the budget UltraDot has been the red dot of choice for many competitors, with the service teams moving to more modern Aimpoints. Long tubes and sun shades are very popular. Gunsmiths have moved away from grip mounts to either direct slide mountings or the more modern IPSC-style frame mounts.
The next flood began in 1982 at the Bianchi Cup where roughly a dozen competitors showed up with optics mounted. Brian Enos used the Aimpoint Mark II on his Frank Glenn-custom revolver to finish one point behind match winner Mickey Fowler. It would be the last time iron sights were used by the overall winner. The next year, Enos won the match, with only two of the Top 10 shooters using iron sights. Enos won yet again in 1984, with all of the Top 10 using optics. The NRA eventually created a separate class just for iron sight pistols.
While revolvers ruled Bianchi for several years, this changed once the slide-shroud optics mounts appeared in the early 1990s. Tube-based optics continue to dominate over head’s up displays like the C-More and HoloSight.
The 1983 Steel Challenge saw John Pride try his hand at the sport using his Aimpoint Mark III-equipped Bianchi Cup revolver. While Pride was and is an accurate revolver shooter, he was no Jerry Miculek in terms of speed…but neither was Jerry yet in those early days. The rise of the red-dot had to wait several more years. But when it did, trends mainly followed those of IPSC/USPSA.
As I mentioned in my history of custom competition pistols, the red-dot era exploded in USPSA starting in 1990. Optics had been legal from the very beginning of the sport, but no one had yet taken them seriously for true speed work. Those doubts ended when Jerry Barnhart won the the 1990 USPSA Nationals with a Tasco ProPoint PDP 2. Doug Koenig followed up by winning the 1990 ISPC World Shoot with another Tasco ProPoint.
The issue with these early optics was their fragility. A side-industry of scopesmiths arose to rewire, modify, and otherwise bulletproof the Tasco. Most famous was Ross Deane (dubbed “Dr. Dot” by Jack Weigand), followed by the anonymous “Scope Doctor”. The general consensus was that while the newer Tasco PDP 3 had a wider field of view, the thicker tube and simpler rheostat of the PDP 2 made it more durable. Some wondered if the one-piece scope mounts offered by some gunsmiths weren’t crushing the tubes, or at the very least were not giving enough support. At one time, Dave Dawson even offered a ringless Tasco mount that required a lengthwise male dovetail to be milled into the main body of the optic, which matched the female dovetail of the mount. The final Tasco PDP 4 with its comically huge coffee can-sized tube and integral rail mount failed to gain traction.
Todd Jarrett gave the Aimpoint its first major win in the 1991 USPSA Nationals with the Model 5000.
A new concept emerged as the winner at the 1993 USPSA Nationals and IPSC World Shoot. Matt McLearn used a prototype C-More Serendipity red-dot to win both. Made of plastic and incorporating an integral mount, the C-More was lighter than the competition and offered a wider field of view with its heads-up display style lens. While other red-dot sights would come and go, the C-More has probably been the most popular and longest-lived. (One of the strangest aftermarket accessories ever made for it was a tube-shaped cover for those who couldn’t get used to the open lens.)
The Aimpoint Comp made its stripes with Rob Leatham at the 1995 USPSA Nationals. This was followed in 1996 by Jerry Barnhart with the new Bushnell Holosight – the forefather of the current EO-Tech. While Barnhart would win some future Nationals (1999 & 2001) with the HoloSight, the die was already cast in favor of the C-More. By 1997, 226 of the 403 shooters using optics at USPSA Nationals were running a C-More. In 2011, nearly 95% were running a C-More.
The more recent trend has been towards Micro/Mini Red Dot (MRD) optics. One of the first appeared in late 1997 as the Tasco Optima 2000, a rebranded FirePoint from the UK. (It was later rebranded, circa 2003, as the JP Enterprises JPoint.) Many more brands and models of MRD have arrived since. The first applications were fitted to mounts using the slide’s dovetail, but gunsmiths eventually began milling the slide for integral mounting. Arredondo Accessories was offering this service as early as 2001. However, the trend for Open Division has been frame mounted. Allchin Custom Gunsmithing even offered an Optima frame mount as early as 1998. That said, it took nearly two decades for the MRD tech to become mainstream in competition. I believe Chris Tilley was the first to use one to win in the 2015 USPSA Open Nationals. The real rush for MRD began when USPSA incorporated the Carry Optics Division in 2016.