What You Need to Know about XS Dot Sights for Aiming and Sighting

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Written by Steve Markwith

I stood before a series of well-perforated FBI Q-silhouette targets spread out across the target line while a couple firearms instructors (FIs) began scoring hits. Our group of eight Firearms Training Unit instructors had assembled on the range for a morning of “curriculum development.” That day’s project involved fine-tuning a series of handgun drills for delivery to agency personnel. Each instructor was afforded an opportunity to run a prototype version, which was fired and critiqued by the others (yeah, it’s tough duty).

One drill, a single-shooter course, involved the above multiple targets, located roughly 15 yards from a line of parallel cover props. Starting with a run to cover, it involved cross-range movement, magazine changes, and maximized use of cover. Each shooter was breathing hard at the conclusion – especially me, being “the old guy”. But the younger Jedi scorers were a bit surprised by the outcome. I’d managed to smoke the course with a small S&W 9mm Shield. Beyond the age factor, given the Shield’s 8 +1 capacity, the others had a theoretical advantage through their full-size S&W M&Ps with 17+1 capacities. So, what was up with that? Me thinks the good results were largely attributable to a set of aftermarket sights…

At the time I was semi-retired from my role as Chief FI, which provided some latitude regarding guns. This particular Shield had been a T&E pistol provided to our agency. After shooting it extensively, I liked it so much that I wound up buying it for use as an every-day carry (EDC) pistol. But one change I made was a more visible set of sights. Like many others over the age of 40, presbyopia had set in. If you’re running out of arms while attempting to read a newspaper, you probably have the same condition. Of course, it also creates aiming problems for shooters.

Experienced handgunners know a sharply focused front sight is the key to tight shot-groups. One stopgap fix for fuzzy front sights is an inexpensive pair of readers which, for me worked as well (or even better) than my prescription pair. However, since neither leave the house as often as my 9mm Shield, I shopped for a more visible front sight.


Guns have come a long way since the early days. Improvement are being made every day, innovation continues, and guns sights are improving as well.

As it turned out, I wound up with a whole new sight set. The replacement XS Big Dot system seemed unorthodox although the concept is nothing new. Theirs is just a version of the time-tested “express sights” seen on big-bore African double-guns. Both fast and intuitive, this open-sight arrangement permits effective shot placements on charging large animals. Precision takes a back seat to speed, but practical accuracy is attainable to end close-range mayhem. Sounds a lot like what we’d want from a defensive handgun!

It’s called a Big Dot for a reason! Located in its center, a vial of Tritium gas provides visibility 24/7.

The XS Big Dot System After installing the XS Big Dot set on my Shield, one thing was obvious: The front sight was indeed “visible”! It appears as an eye-grabbing orb with a bright annular ring that surrounds a Tritium insert (the radioactive gas illuminates it 24/7). The rear sight is a just a shallow “V”. Alignment is accomplished by floating the highly visible “dot” above the depression. Simply paste the dot on the target and press the trigger.

Comparing its diameter to some others, the front night-sight on a Wilson 1911 was 0.130” thick (a hair above 1/8”). The two XS Big Dots I measured ran 0.190”. That might not sound like much, but you’ll appreciate the difference at arm’s length! The XS rear sights display a narrow vertical stripe directly underneath the V. Mine are painted but a Tritium version is available. A smaller front sight appears to be slated for discontinuance; however, some newer square-topped models are now listed that employ notched rear sights.  

XS Big Dot sight picture shown on a combat silhouette for reference: Float the front sight on top of the rear sight’s shallow V. Then shoot it like an MRDS.

The bold Big Dot sights may seem imprecise compared to target types but results within fighting distances (or beyond) can be surprisingly good. That point was driven home during the program described above. Upon my arrival, I decided to stay with my Shield and deal with more frequent reloads. As it turned out, that disadvantage was offset by much easier sight acquisitions during fast-paced movements. Based on that outcome, several other FIs switched to XS sights.

Today, the system of choice is a miniaturized red dot sight (MRDS), however simple can still be good. The XS sights on my Shield remain untouched since the day of their installation, with no worries over dead batteries or unexpected zero changes from loosening screws.


First off, when switching to an XS Big Dot, experienced iron-sight handgunners may need a bit of reprogramming. A conventional sight picture typically involves a 6:00 hold with bullets impacting directly above the front sight. Try that with the XS system and you may wind up shooting low. If so, simply consider the round front sight a “dot” and superimpose it on your target like an MRDS.

Accuracy I was a skeptic at first, but a series of deliberately fired groups were much better than expected. I wound up with this particular Shield in part, due to its exceptional accuracy. As it turned out, although XS groups were a bit larger, the difference could be narrowed through careful shooting. By carefully centering the “ball’ directly above the “V”, five-shot groups from 25 yards averaged three-inches (or less) using CCI Lawman 124-grain TMJs. Not bad, especially from a 3.5-inch pistol! For faster-paced combat course work within closer normal distances, just grab a flash sight picture and be done with it.

The owner of this S&W Shield encountered low hits after installing XS Big Dots. Simple fix: Consider the front sight an electronic dot and superimpose it on your target. This group was fired offhand from 15 yards. It’s right on the money, too!

That said, an MRDS will offer greater precision. Its electronic dot will probably obstruct less of the target and its intensity is usually adjustable. More importantly, you won’t need to align a pair of sights. An MRDS also eliminates the most common iron sight problem of all: failure to maintain sharp focus on that front sight!  Still, because of vision issues, some folks struggle with flared or double-dots. A set of glasses will usually cure the problem but, in my case, I’d be circling back to the reason I tried the Big Dots in the first place. But an MRDS can be sighted-in for exact placement of shots. Like most other sights mounted to defensive handguns, XS sights are fixed.

Miniaturized electronic aiming systems have finally made the leap to EDC pistols. Note the extra height of the iron sights – in case the optic fails.

Durability Serious fighting handguns typically have fixed sights because they’re rugged. Once installed there’s little to go wrong. The ability to sight-in an MRDS means its adjustments could unintentionally shift – maybe. I’ve run into that from hard knocks but, more often, after replacement of a battery in a sight that requires a dismount. Another common cause is loose screws in mounting systems. Even the smallest MRDS units lead a pretty hard life on the reciprocating slide of an auto-pistol.

Revolvers eliminate that issue, but I’ve still had base-screws loosen. There’s also nothing quite as aggravating as the total absence of an electronic dot. The usual cause is just a dead battery, although other reasons exist. An unexpected dunking could reveal if your MRDS is waterproof – or just water resistant. Rain or snow on either surface of the lens can also create problems, but at least they’re temporary. Cracks, not so much. Good ‘ol industrial-strength iron sights solve these concerns nicely. Even if their Tritium elements fail, the outer housing of the sight will probably remain intact.


Any iron sight system will introduce variables by nature of its design. For starters, due to differences among shooters, POI can vary from point of aim. Different loads further complicate matters so, all things considered, the major handgun manufacturers do a good job regulating fixed sights.

Fixed Sight Tweaks Windage adjustments are often possible by drifting the rear sight in its factory dovetail (move it in the same direction you want the bullet to go). The majority of today’s fixed pistol sights are installed via this method, along with many front sights. Lacking a provision for elevation changes, vertical corrections can be trickier, although POI can sometimes be shifted through use of different loads.

The compact lines of this S&W .380 ACP Bodyguard were in no way compromised by installation of an XS Big Dot sights. Accuracy didn’t suffer either. All things considered, this little pistol shoots surprisingly well!

XS Results The original sights on my S&W Shield were spot-on at 15 yards and, fortunately, installation of the XS set caused no real shift. I liked them enough to spring for a second set that went on my small S&W .380 Bodyguard. Its ultra-compact lines were retained, but POI shifted a tad high; just enough to bug me. Because I already had a preferred load, I wound up filing a “U” into the bottom of the V.

The “ball’ was then seated the in the notch for more precise shot placement. But I was being picky. After all, the little Bodyguard is really a backup gun. With both pistols, windage was on the money thanks to fussy installations. Their front and rear sights were all carefully centered per the originals, using dial calipers.

The laser-equipped S&W .380 Bodyguard (left) still has its factory sights. Even from this angle the XS sights are much more visible. The best of both worlds? How about XS sights AND a laser!

Regarding Installation I’d track down someone with a sight installation rather than go it alone. Nowadays, just about all fit tight enough in their dovetails to resist conventional hammer and punch methods. Those with Tritium inserts (like the XS versions) can be damaged through this method, making the steady pressure of a fixture is a safer bet.


There’s no denying the latest MRDS sights are now a viable handgun choice. In light of that, why bother with any iron sights?

It Depends If I had my heart set on a new electronic red-dot unit, I’d stick with it for the reasons enumerated above. With practice your accuracy should improve to a noticeable degree. But, if the main concern centers more on a simple fix for fuzzy sights, the affordable cure could be an XS Big Dot (or similar high-visibility system). Your present holster will probably work fine. You won’t need a stash of spare batteries, and the dot will always be “on” for – at least a decade or so. Cost could also be less – possibly much less.

Cost MRDS pricing varies greatly, starting at useful level of around $250 but running well north of $500 for a top-notch unit. A set of XS sights will set you back around $110. BUT the true bottom line depends on the handgun. Although the cost to have a slide machined for an MRDS can be substantial, many newer “optics ready” pistols now incorporate this feature. If so, it’ll be much easier to mount your preferred electronic unit. Most ship with a set of adapter plates to accommodate the popular MRDS offerings, so the only thing you’ll need is a screwdriver (and thread sealer).

A sight fixture can apply steady pressure and finite adjustments. Drifting a night-sight via hammer blows can damage the Tritium vial. At that point it’s lights out!

Lacking this feature, even if you need to hire a gunsmith, it should be much cheaper to press in a set of Big Dots or similar high-visibility irons. If you have a ‘smith nearby and your windage does require a tweak, the return fix will probably be free. XS will also perform the installation for $40. With pistols you just ship the slide. Revolver changes require the whole gun. Speaking of guns, a visit to the XS website will show you the various sight options and their compatibility with various firearms (which include most popular handguns).


A solid, reliable handgun with the proper sights makes a great home or apartment self-defense weapon. A handgun is just a tool, however. Its effectiveness depends on the shooter, i.e., the shooter’s skills with proper shot placement and ability to respond while under pressure.

Right now, I’m shopping for a new S&W 9mm M&P. It’ll be the latest 2.0 Pro, configured as their 5-inch CORE model. This optics-ready iteration will replace my current 1st Gen Pro, fitted with adjustable fiber-optic iron sights. The 2.0 CORE is machined for today’s popular MRDS options and will join a few others already on hand with electronic sights.

However, the above small S&W Shield and Bodyguard carry-type pistols will remain unchanged. Their highly visible XS sights have proven their worth during numerous high-speed events, especially when shooting the move. It’s just much easier to grab a set of bobbing sights when they’re big, bright, and staring you in the face. And, again, no worries about an AWOL dot. I just grab the gun and get to shooting.

About the Author

Steve Markwith is the firearms writer at SHTF Blog. He has years of experience as a professional firearms instructor and is the author of several books, including https://smile.amazon.com/Handguns-Buyers-Shooters-Guide-Survival/dp/1939473934/

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