How to Buy Rifle Optics

In days gone by, “rifle optics” referred to one thing: a telescopic sight with varying degrees of magnification. But today, rifle optics include a new class of aiming devices called combat optics, generally red dot sights.

Nick Jacobellis Headshot

In days gone by, "rifle optics" referred to one thing: a telescopic sight with varying degrees of magnification. These were for precision application of lethal force by snipers and counter snipers. But today, rifle optics include a new class of aiming devices called combat optics, generally red dot sights.

The earliest adopters of red dot sights were the competition shooters of the United States Practical Shooting Association and the International Practical Shooting Confederations Open Class. And yes, I know, competition shooters and cops shoot under very different conditions. But there are some similarities between their needs and yours.

Competitive shooters may not know anything about raiding a suspected meth lab, but they run thousands of rounds down range over the course of a year. These folks favor high-pressure cartridges in calibers like .38 Super and 9x21 through their competition pistols, and they shoot in conditions that range from hot and dry to cold and snowy. And one big similarity between competition shooters and cops is that they both have to shoot fast. Which is exactly why red dot sights caught on with competition shooters: They facilitate fast, accurate fire.

At first the competitive shooters used their red dot sights only on handguns. But as competitive rifle and shotgun competitions were introduced, the red dots found their way to long guns.

That's when the military took note of how the red dots make it easy to put lots of rounds on target in a hurry. Now, nearly 20 years later, every GI carries an M16 or M4 fitted with a red dot sight. And of course, cops are quick to adopt hardware that's found favor with the military.

So what should you look for in a red dot sight? Is the highest priced one always the best? Are there other items needed to make the red dot sight work for you?

Take a look at the numerous Websites and equipment catalogs, and you will see that sight prices range from $30 to about $1,500 for the most common models. Inexpensive sights may do the job for you. But there are reasons to pay for the good stuff.

What you're paying for is the features of the sight. These include night vision compatibility, water resistance, the ability to use multiple power sources, and magnification. Such features add to the price, but they are really nice to have.

Another reason that high-end sights are high-end sights is that they meet military specifications. This requires the manufacturer to do extensive testing and keep substantial amounts of paperwork on each sight, adding more cost to the sight.

Knowing that you literally pay for what you get, the first step in choosing the best red dot sight for you is defining what you require for your mission. What type of long gun is the sight to be mounted on? What is your primary use for your long gun? What size of dot do you require? Do you need or require special features? These may sound like overly simplistic questions, but it's best to ask them before you buy a sight.

Inexpensive Options

If you are looking for a good basic red dot that won't break the bank, I'd suggest a model from one of the following: the TruGlo Dual Color series, the Tasco ProPoint series, or the Bushnell Trophy series.

Generally, these sights retail for less than $125. The dot sizes vary from five minutes of angle (MOA) to 10 MOA size. Some models offer the choice of green or red dots. All run on standard watch-type batteries.

Despite their low cost, I like these sights. They have been proven to be durable in field testing by hard-use consumers: hunters. They are also pretty reliable. In my numerous years working for a national firearms retailer, I don't recall seeing any of these sights returned for electronics failures or general problems.[PAGEBREAK]

Mil-Spec Sights

Mil-Spec sights are quite literally ready for combat.

They have been certified for water resistance (some even for underwater use), shock tested, impact tested, and more. Sights that meet military specifications are usually night vision device (NOD) compatible.

Mil-Spec red dots include models from Aimpoint, Burris, Trijicon, and now Insight Technologies. These sights generally cost about $300 to $600.

Holographic Sights

If you wear glasses, the absolute best red dot sight for you is the holographic sight. Folks who wear glasses tend to see a "black halo" in any tube type sight, be it a red dot or a telescopic sight. Holographic sights eliminate this problem for most users.

Holographic sights project the dot onto a screen, not into a tube. This tends to give the operator a better field of view because the controls are in the base of the unit, not built into the tube, which adds to the diameter of the sight.

The most popular holographic sights are made by Bushnell, EoTech, and C More. EoTech offers Mil-Spec versions that are night vision capable. But don't overlook Bushnell and C More if you don't need night vision compatibility.

In some aspects holo sights are even more rugged than standard red dot rifle optics. You can break the lens on the sight and still use it.

Holographic sights range in price from $200 to $500, depending on the make and model that you purchase.

Magnifying Red Dots

Magnifying red dots do exactly what you think they do. They magnify the target image. These sights have magnification capability usually somewhere between 3x and 5x. They also have unique reticles, chevrons, triangles, circle dot, and other features that are only offered by specific manufacturers.

The market leaders among magnifying red dot sights are the Trijicon ACOG (Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight) and the Leupold Mark IV CQT.

It has been my experience that these sights are virtually indestructible. I know of a CQT that was dragged down a road in Baghdad when the M16 it was attached to dislodged from its weapons rack on the MULE four-wheeler the operator was driving. And I have seen photos of ACOGs that have been hit with rounds but still work.

The only drawback to these sights is you get what you pay for. They are a little bit pricey, ranging from $700 to more than $1,500.[PAGEBREAK]

Installation Issues

One really important consideration that you need to think about when buying a red dot sight is how to attach it to your weapon.

Does your long gun have a rail or do you need to install one? If you are using a current production M4-type carbine, most red dots that have built-in mounts will fit its Picatinny flattop right out of the box. If you are using an older AR15/M16 with an attached carry handle you will need a mount to fit in the handle or a scout mount. I suggest the carry handle scout mount to ensure that you have enough vertical adjustment in the sight and to ensure that you have a solid cheek weld on the long gun's stock.

One thing I have found gun owners tend to overlook when buying a red dot sight for use on a long gun-especially an AR-style rifle-is the front sight. Unless your AR has a fold down front sight, you'll want to ensure the dot of the sight is not centered in the back of the AR's sight base. So you may need to install a riser base. You can buy one from Brownell's; it will set you back about $20.

Since we are talking about bases and mounts for a red dot, I should tell you that some of the sights come with weapon-specific mounts and some red dots are sold only as the sight. It may sound ridiculous that a sight would not have a base, but there are numerous manufacturers who make nothing but mounting assemblies to meet the operator's specifications for the design of the firearm you are installing the red dot on.

Rugged and Reliable

Over the last decade and a half, I have had the chance to use most of the red dot sights on the market. Both the holographic and tube-type sights have proven themselves to be capable of surviving the rigors of combat.

Red dot sights have improved most users' hit probability; they allow shooters to make faster, more accurate follow-up shots, and, for those of us who are over 40 and have less than eagle eyes, these electronic marvels are far easier to see than a post front sight. I have been using the same Tasco ProPoint for the last 12 years; my EoTech has been perched on my M4 for the last four years. It has survived trips to the SIGArms Academy and Blackwater and all the abuse that week-long carbine classes can inflict on equipment. My shooting partner is a cop, and he has had an Aimpoint Comp 2 on his patrol M4 for several years, and it has survived daily use, including the in and out of the cruiser and all the associated shock of being a duty tool.

I have seen Bushnell Holosights and C More sights that have weathered years of abuse from competitive shooting. Our troops in Iraq and Afghanistan swear by the Trijicon ACOGs, Leupold CQTs, and Burris Tactical Speed Dots.

Finally, red dot sights are very reliable, but batteries fail, electronics break, lenses get dirty or get broken. Take the time to keep your long gun sighted in with its iron sights.







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Nick Jacobellis Headshot
Special Agent (Ret.)
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