When I was on active duty with the military, state-of-the-art optics meant a four-power scope that fit onto the carry handle of your M16. Let me tell you, those were hard to come by. Today nearly every GI has some form of optics on his or her long gun, and the same trend can be seen in law enforcement.
The first and foremost reason people use any form of mounted optics is they provide a fast, accurate sight. Second, be they red dot or truly telescopic, sights have shrunk in size, making them better suited for duty.
Back 20 years ago when I was regularly shooting in U.S.P.S.A. and I.P.S.C. Open Class competitions, red-dot sights were in their infancy and few options were available. Aimpoint was the first and biggest player at the time. These sights were hard on batteries, although they quickly proved themselves able to stand up to the tens of thousands of rounds of competition. The other problem many of the neophyte red dots had was size; some of them were huge and bulky.
Throughout the early '90s shooters used numerous red-dot sights in competition, and the battery life and electronics improved. Now you can run a red-dot sight for 10,000 to 20,000 hours on one battery. These sights also shrank in size and weight.
As these improvements were happening, more red-dot manufacturers were cropping up. This competition increased quality, reduced price, reduced size, and increased the popularity of optics for duty and competition use.
Variable Power Scopes
While red-dot sights are still the dominant optic in the military and in law enforcement, I'm seeing a new trend toward using small variable power scopes. The reason for this is simple: There is a demand for them and red-dot sights do not meet all mission requirements.
As fast and accurate as red dots are, when you start engaging targets at distance or precision is required, a one-power red dot may not be the best choice. Instead, a scope that gives you four- or six-power magnification gives you speed at close quarters and accuracy at distance.
In addition to being flexible and meeting more mission requirements, these scopes are growing in popularity because they now have proven themselves in action with the military. Like red-dot sights before them, small variable power scopes have advanced in technology to the point that they're combat worthy. With reticles for CQB work and with ranging capability, newer scopes meet the mission applications of police and GIs.
Personally, I use both red-dot sights and variable power optics on my M4s, SIG 556, and even my DSA FN FAL. This allows the rifle and scope to meet my needs at any given time.
Mini Red Dots
When it comes to red dots, I like the new "mini" red dots because they are small and lightweight. They are also tough as nails and can be mounted on telescopic rifle scopes should your precision marksman suddenly find himself in a CQB situation.[PAGEBREAK]
You will find two types: holographic and mini-tube sights. Mini holographic sights such as the MRDS (Miniature Red-Dot Sight) from Insight Technology or Trijicon's RMR (Ruggedized Miniature Reflex) are two of the more popular sights. When it comes to mini-tube sights, Aimpoint's Micro T1, iTAC's RDS, Konus' Pro Atomic, and Bushnell's TRS25 are leaders of the pack.
I have mounted the above sights on handguns, shotguns, large caliber semi-automatic rifles, and numerous AR-style rifles. They have survived literally thousands of rounds and are still being put through their paces today. I have found these mini red dots to be nearly indestructible. They have survived rifles dropping on them, hitting door jams, soaking in downpours, and arctic temperatures; so they should survive a duty day.
Of the mini red dots, Aimpoint's Micro T1 has ratings the others don't. This sight is submersible to 80 feet, making it ideal for waterborne units such as ICE, various wildlife enforcement units, and harbor patrol teams. The other feature that sets the T1 apart from others is its 50,000-hour battery runtime.
Mini Reflex Sights
Mini reflex sights came to be because of EoTech's innovation in reflex sights. The company's 500 series of Heads Up Weapons Sights are so tough they even function if the screen is cracked. The drawback is these sights seem large compared to other optics.
To combat this problem, EoTech redesigned the 500 Series, mounting the batteries horizontally to the screen instead of vertically. The new XPS Series is the result. This shorter sight gives you room enough to also mount night vision, lasers, and magnifiers with it on the rails of your weapon.
I had been using the XPS2-0, which is not NVD capable, so I was happy to start using the XPS3-0, which is. From the time I opened the box I was hooked. A smaller, lighter version of my time-proven 552, the XPS2-0 sight is very much like its larger sibling; it's a keeper.
Insight Technology and Trijicon took this reflex technology and shrank it down. One advantage of the mini-holographic scopes is they can be mounted on telescopic rifle scopes. You can find numerous scope mounts that allow you to mount Insight's MRDS or Trijicon's RMR on your scope, rail, or to the scope rings. This allows a precision marksman to use his rifle for CQB should he suddenly find himself in that situation, or it gives you a backup sight should your primary sighting system fail.
Another advantage of the miniature reflex sights is their toughness. Both of these sights are waterproof to beyond 60 feet and will run nearly forever on one battery. Should the battery die on the Trijicon RMR, fear not; the dot will glow thanks to its dual power fiber optic.
Best of Both Worlds
As much as I like the mini red dots, I have grown fond of the low magnification variable power scopes for use on an M4. Apparently I am not the only one, because more and more military troops and numerous police are using these scopes. The new generation of tactical scopes I have used feature both low variable power magnification and a lighted reticle with a dot or crosshair. This gives you the best of both worlds: fast target acquisition and precise shot placement.
When it comes to these new tactical scopes I think the first and oldest is Leupold's Mk IV CQT. This is a 1-3X 14 scope with an illuminated circle dot reticle. It is one of the toughest scopes I have seen and mine rests on a SIG 556. I say tough because a buddy dropped one mounted on his M4 while sitting in his UTV in Iraq. He hit a bump and the scope slid about 100 yards down the road and all it needed was a new cap for the horizontal adjustment, which had cracked.[PAGEBREAK]
While the Mk IV CQT has been very popular, Leupold didn't stop there. Early in 2010 the company introduced its Mk AR 1.5-4X20. This is a more traditionally styled scope than the Mk IV CQT and mounts with standard one-inch rings to any Picatinny rail. The magnification ring is smooth and quick and the ocular eyepiece is lockable once you adjust the focus to your liking. Keeping with its traditional looks, this scope uses a duplex crosshair over the circle dot of the CQT. The Mk AR will suit the needs of many officers armed with AR-style rifles and would be a good duty choice.
One of the other scopes specifically designed to bridge the divide between red dots and full power telescopic sights is Millett's DMS. I had the chance to shoot this scope when it came out several years ago and was impressed. With a 1-4 power range, lighted donut/dot reticle, and its 30 millimeter tube, this scope is bright and functional in all conditions. Locally, I know several National Guard and Reserve Units that purchased these scopes prior to deployment and the optics survived tours in Iraq and Afghanistan. Millett's scopes should not be overlooked when you are customizing your weapon.
Other scopes I can wholeheartedly endorse include Konus' Pro M30 1.5-6X44 with lighted dot, Nikon's M223 1-4X20, and Safariland's CQLR RR 1-4X24. Over the past few years I have run these scopes on various ARs and they have been out for duty work with various local PDs. They all are designed to meet the needs of the patrol or SWAT
The M30 has a lighted blue center dot in its duplex reticle. I find the blue is excellent because those who are color blind have no issues finding it. It is fast for CQB, and with the higher six power it gives you superior detail and accuracy at distances.
Safariland's CQLR was designed by Pride-Fowler Industries. These two gentlemen know a thing or two about real-world and competition shooting. This scope has a lighted red-dot reticle and built-in ballistic drop compensator for distances up to 600 yards with .223 Rem. or .308 Win. I have found this scope to be easy to use and it works as advertised.
Last is Nikon's M223, which is the company's entry into the tactical arena. This scope has quarter MOA adjustments and will give you accurate hits with a .223 out to 200 yards, no sweat. The focal adjustments are smooth and you get four-plus inches of eye relief, so this scope will work well with goggles or protective mask.