Matching Optics to Your Mission

When it comes to gear and gadgets for duty applications, many of us are drawn to the coolest, most expensive items. That's true of weapons and it's true of weapon accessories such as optics. But do we really have to have the priciest gear to achieve our mission? Maybe. Maybe not.

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When it comes to gear and gadgets for duty applications, many of us are drawn to the coolest, most expensive items. That's true of weapons and it's true of weapon accessories such as optics. But do we really have to have the priciest gear to achieve our mission? Maybe. Maybe not.

It is a universal truth that you get what you pay for. But the truth is a little hazier when it comes to determining whether there's a great deal of difference between the best and the really good. Sometimes I think the return on investment is modest when you drop the big bucks for the best.

I know that some of you are now asking, "How can you say that, Smith?" And I have a simple answer for you. Because of my position as a contributing editor and product tester for POLICE, I have been fortunate enough to be able to examine, shoot, and whoop up on lots of fine optical systems suitable for your duty weapons. Not many folks get to do that. And for the last few months, I've been asking this question: What optics do we really need on our long guns for duty use?

One Scope Does Not Fit All

Determining the answer to that question requires us to consider a number of variables.

First, is the long gun a shotgun, carbine, subgun, a precision rifle, or a multi-purpose firearm? Second, we have to consider the mission of the weapon. Is it a patrol carbine, an entry weapon, or a sniper/counter sniper tool? Finally, we have to ask, what is the role of the officer carrying the weapon in terms of his or her agency?

Allow me to expand a bit on that last point. The role of the officer in his or her agency is determined by a number of factors. For example, does he or she work in an agency or area with a large police presence? What are the odds that this officer could be the first and possibly the only officer responding to an active shooter incident? In that situation, the officer would need to have the flexibility to use a carbine as an entry weapon and then use the same weapon for a short-range (under 100 yards) precision shot. Also, we have to ask, what is the officer's proficiency with and preference for optics?

If the officer works with a partner, even more variables need to be considered. Are both armed with long guns? If so, are both weapons the same, such as a pair of M4s or MP5s? Is it possible to set one of these up as a semi-precision weapon to give this team a rifle or carbine capable of delivering pinpoint accuracy at distances out to 200 yards?

There are also weapon design variables that can determine which optic is best. For example, if you are mounting a scope on a precision rifle, does it have a high comb or adjustable stock? This will affect the size of the objective lens you can use on the rifle without affecting your cheek-to-rifle fit, which is important. Many "tactical" scopes have 50mm to 54mm objectives, and this will require you to use high or extra high rings, which means that without a high comb or adjustable stock you will not be able to get a solid seat behind the rifle.

Many Options

Now that we have discussed many of the things that you have to consider when choosing an optic for your long gun, let's now look at the types of optics available to you. These include red dot sights, variable focal length short scopes that many of you may think of as shotgun-type scopes, and of course true precision scopes meant for use on a precision rifle. For the purposes of this article, we will define a precision rifle scope as a variable power scope generally 4.5 to 16 power or a fixed 10 power scope with Mil-Dot, fine crosshairs, or any of the various ranging reticles on the market today.

Red Dots

I am truly a fan of red dot sights on my M4 carbines. A red dot gives you a fast and easy to acquire sight picture, and it is accurate to 200 yards. At engagement distances from a few yards out to 50 yards, you cannot beat a red dot. When you are at contact distance to 10 yards, simply put the target in the tube of the sight and you will get a hit. By the way, this technique was developed by I.P.S.C. shooters, and their performance was the driving force behind the military adopting Aimpoint red dot sights.

In addition to Aimpoint, Burris, EoTech, Leupold, Trijicon, Truglo, and Vortex offer a variety of red dot sights that will meet your close combat needs. These sights all have variable brightness for the dot, which allows you to adapt to varying light conditions. Several of the sights will even function with infrared optics, which further increases the versatility of these sights.

One thing that is often overlooked when you use a red dot is the ability of the tube or projection screen to be used as a large ghost ring aperture sight with the front sight of your carbine. I have found this to be a very fast and accurate method of aiming because your eye will naturally align the sight post to the center of the tube and that allows you to make body hits at distances out to 20 yards. This method can be used as an emergency aiming system should your sight's batteries fail.

Some will say that a red dot sight is not useful for longer range work. But that's not necessarily true. This year EoTech has introduced a new two-dot reticle that gives the user first shot hit capability out to 200 yards. This new reticle is found on the S2 and S3 EoTech sights.

Multi-Purpose Scopes

If you need a multi-purpose sight for your M4s and ARs, I suggest a variable power scope. This is a short scope that looks much like a shotgun slug scope. Generally these scopes will be 1.5 to 6 power magnification. This will allow you to use the firearm for CQB-type work and then you can crank up the magnification and have a short- to medium-range precision rifle.

Leupold Mk IV CQT is a variable power scope that has a reticle with a lighted circle dot. When mated with an accurate rifle, this setup will easily hit a target as small as a clay pigeon at 200 yards. The scope body has Picatinny rails on it so you can mount IR designators or laser designators should your mission require it.

Also, when it comes to being tough the CQT can survive the worst your day can dish out. I know of one that was mounted on a Gator in Iraq. When the two-seat ATV hit a pothole, the M16 went skidding down the road CQT first. Later, the soldier who was armed with this combination went to the range to verify "zero" and punched neat little groups at 100 yards with no problem. The adjustment caps needed to be replaced; other than that the scope had no damage.

Millett Sights also offers a scope, the Designated Marksman Scope, that fits into this category. This scope uses a lighted circle dot, which Millett refers to as a "Donut Dot" reticle centered in a "T." The Donut can be used to accurately range out to 500 yards, yet when set at one power, this scope works like a true red dot for CQB use.

Trijicon's A.C.O.G. (Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight) is probably the best known of the close to mid-range use optics. Watch any news clip of our troops in action overseas and nine times out of 10 you will see at least one soldier or Marine with an A.C.O.G. on his or her weapon.

The A.C.O.G. line offers numerous variations of reticles and magnifications from 1.5 power to 6 power. I have found the 3, 3.5, and 4 power to be the most useful for general law enforcement applications. My M4 has the Marine Corps version of the A.C.O.G. on it. I have found this dual light option—tritium and fiber optic—to be versatile and accurate.

Precision Optics

For many years the dominant scope for precision law enforcement rifles was a fixed 10X. As time went on the limitations of this scope became clear. At close range you have a very limited field of view and at longer ranges you see limited visual details of your target.

Today the trend is moving toward variable power optics ranging from 2 or 4 power to 24 power for maximum magnification. This allows operators to get a close-up of their targets or take in a wide view of the scene.

There are many quality scopes that fall into the precision optics category. I have mounted Leupold, Nikon, Truglo, and Vortex scopes on various rifles I own. Over the years I have used Bushnell and Burris, and my best friend has Trijicon mounted on his .300 Win Mag. Locally I have seen a mix of these scopes mounted on various SWAT rifles; yes, even Truglo, and the agency has been pleased with its performance.

You may wonder how tough these scopes are, and I'm pleased to tell you that they are pretty tough. From reports I have received from friends in "The Sandbox," these scopes are all surviving. The only one I can't track down being used there is Truglo, but I do know several folks locally that have them on various magnum rifles for hunting and they are surviving that.

All of these companies offer superior optical quality. The clarity and quality of the image you see through any of these tubes is excellent. And these scopes will all survive a virtual monsoon; I don't suggest trying to submerge them, but if you get caught in a downpour your scope will still function.

You can instantly tell the difference between a variety of makes of precision scopes by looking at their reticles. Each manufacturer has its own proprietary style of crosshairs.

For example, Burris' features the Ballistic Plex, which gives you ballistic compensation (bullet drop) simply by using the lower leg's hash marks. From what I have seen it works well. I have had several opportunities to use Burris optics on various rifles; the optical quality is excellent.

Nikon's Monarch X has a dual illuminated Mil-Dot reticle that is sharp and clear. Much of this crispness of the crosshairs can be attributed to the reticle being etched to the glass. I have shot rifles in calibers from .223 Remington to .338 Win. Mag and the Monarch Xs are holding up to the pounding.

Vortex features Dead Hold BDC. This system is also a method of ballistic compensation. What I like about it is that the dots are some of the smallest on the market and allow for very precise shot placement at long range. I recently mounted a Vortex 4-12X40 PA on my SIG 556, and the combination is dead nuts accurate at distances out to 300 meters; which is as far as I can shoot at my range.

Leupold offers long-range shooters two reticle options: traditional Mil-Dot or the Tactical Milling Reticle, which aids you in estimating range. Leupold's ERT is one of the most versatile and durable scopes on the market; it has 70MOA adjustment for windage and elevation. My experience with Leupold is these scopes are virtually indestructible; I dropped one mounted on my M1A off the top of a two-story building and it survived.

Another company that makes tactical sights is Kruger Optical. The Kruger K-5 Tactical Riflescope 3-15x52 features an illuminated Mil-Dot ranging reticle with 10 distinct brightness settings for quick and accurate target acquisition. The scope offers four inches of eye relief, and the 30mm tube allows plenty of windages and elevation adjustment.

While Trijicon is best known in the tactical community for its tritium weapons sights and A.C.O.G. sight, don't overlook the Accupoint scope for your precision rifle. The 5-20X50 gives the user a dual illuminated (tritium and fiber optic) Mil-Dot reticle so you have a clear precise sight picture in any light condition. If you want a scope that will allow you to operate in day or night conditions, this is an excellent option.

What sets Truglo apart from others is the fine crosshairs in the Infinity Series of scopes. This allows for very precise shot placement at long ranges. I grew up using this type of crosshair shooting varmints and am still partial to it.

Bushnell's scopes have been popular with hunters and sports shooters for many years. The scopes developed by Bushnell for law enforcement carry on the company's all-weather tradition. The lenses are coated with Rainguard and are waterproof. I have mounted them on .223s, .308s, and .300 Win. Mags, and they have performed well. Friends who have mounted Bushnells on duty rifles tell me these scopes are just as tough and durable as any scope on the market.

Other than being tough enough to survive years of hard use, all of these scopes have another important feature, eye relief. All of these manufacturers give you at least three inches of eye relief, so you can safely mount the scopes on magnum caliber rifles and not fear hitting your eye every time you pull the trigger. Anyone who has had scope eye will tell you this is an important feature.

As you can see, scopes for duty are as diverse as the weapons we carry. I hope this helps give you and your agency insight into what is on the market to meet your mission requirements. Scott Smith is a former federal police officer for the Department of Veteran's Affairs and a contributing editor to POLICE.














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Scott Smith Bio Headshot
Retired Army MP
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