Our team is frequently asked about red dot optics, and which are “best.” As with other gear, much depends on your intended use and your personal preferences. We are not able to specifically “rank” every brand and model, but we would love to offer you some of what we have learned. Our team of a dozen world class instructors were asked to write a bit about the red dots with which they are familiar. Keep in mind, that they each did research before purchasing their sights, so a certain amount of screening (either for quality or price) was was done to even be on this list.
The iron sights that come standard on most AR’s are quite functional. I suggest that before purchasing a red dot sight, that you set a goal for yourself with the open sights. Perhaps your goal is to be able to shoot 3 groups of 5 shots each into a 6 inch circle at 100 yards, perhaps your goal is much more demanding or perhaps it is easier. It is very prudent to know how your iron sights work, and I should have spent more time doing so, and I regret it. Don’t make my mistake .
Now you have done some practice, adjusted the iron sights to that the carbine is accurate. When purchasing a red dot, I suggest immediately eliminating all options under $200. Some would advice a higher entry level and I don’t disagree. If money is not abundantly flowing in your life, be careful not to make the mistake that many have made. They buy a $60 cheapo optic because “it is better than nothing” and is comes with a laser and flashlight also attached! It kinda sorta works, but is hard to adjust, frequently turns itself off and then just quits working. This person then decides to step things up and saves up for months, buying a $150 optic that works much better, but again, the adjustments are not great, the clarity is poor and then it quits working. They have now spent $210 on red dot optics and have nothing, whereas if they had purchased a Primary Arms or Vortex, they would likely still be working.
Armorer Andy’s Take:
There are many different sight and optics options available for tactical rifles, from fixed and folding iron sights, to holographic sights and red dot scopes up to high power magnified scopes. For tactical rifles the most popular set ups seam to be holographic and red dot sights with folding iron sights for backup.
The primary design of holographic and red dot scopes is a laser point that is projected onto a lens in such a way that the operator of the firearm can see it but no one else can. There is a vast supply of styles and designs and a huge range in price. Obviously the better designs and constructions are going to cost more, although there are plenty of great options in the lower price range, just don’t expect them to handle falling out of and getting run over by your Humvee.
To get a little further into it we will talk about some of the specific designs on the market.
One of the most talked about scopes in this category is a top choice of military operators, the Trijicon Acog. This scope is technically NOT a red dot because it does not project light onto the lens like other red dots. It is in reality more of a regular scope except that it has an illuminated reticle and has a low fixed power magnification. Instead of relying on batteries which are vulnerable to temperature, moisture and of course loss of power, the Acog uses a well protected fiber optic cable that runs along the top of the unit and into the scope. The brighter your ambient light the brighter the reticle and the lower the light the dimmer the reticle, in other words it is self adjusting to light conditions without electronics or operator input. For conditions with almost zero light it has a tritium insert the same as “night sights” that creates its own light.
They also offer a battery powered unit with operator controlled settings. There are several sizes available, the low power versions have smaller lenses and I find them just to small to be comfortable to use. They offer a couple large options with higher fixed powers but they are a little on the bulky side and the magnification is to high for close in work. I have found that the mid size 4×32 is a great compromise between the two. One of the biggest differences you will notice between this design and many others is the reticle options. They have several main reticle choices with ballistic drop compensation markings bellow it. The one most popular with military operators has become the red delta (an upside down V). The top of the delta is zeroed at one hundred meters and the bottom is used for three hundred with markings out to eight hundred. They are caliber specific and built for mil spec 5.56×45 Nato, or 7.62×51 Nato. The biggest drawback to this scope is the price tag it comes with. Looking at one of the lowest priced on line distributers the standard 4×32 unit for 5.56 is about $1,400.00, with other options you can get closer to $2000 pretty quickly.
Okay, on to some of the less expensive options out there.
If you are looking for a bomb proof holographic sight and don’t mind spending a little more money then look no further than Eotech. They make some of the strongest most durable units on the market with a heavy duty housing to protect the lenses and electronics. The biggest drawback of course is the weight and their dependence on batteries. That being said Even there older units have better electronics than most of the other options on the market. Some of there improvements since the early versions has been to move the controls from the rear of the unit to the side so that you can access them easily even with a magnifier installed. They also offer several battery styles to choose from, the units using cr123 batteries are smaller and lighter and the lithium batteries do better in the cold, however they are not as easy to find and more expensive than the AA batteries so for civilian uses the AA battery version is probably a wiser choice. The units are all a zero magnification which makes use with both eyes open extremely easy and fast target acquisition is a breeze. If you want to engage targets at a longer distance the option of a removable or fold away magnifier is an excellent idea. Once again this unit has a similar problem with cost as the Trijicon although not as bad. You can expect to pay about $1000 for the main unit and magnifier together.
If the price tag on the Eotech is turning you away you should consider Aimpoint as a good option. They are built in almost an identical design just not built to be quite as rugged. They cut some of the cost by using less expensive electronics and lenses and not giving the unit quite as bomb proof a housing. That being said it is still a tough unit and more than enough for 99% of civilian users. I have been happy using this unit although I have found that in some conditions I get light refraction in the lens the gives a slight crescent shape outline around the main reticle. To me it is a slight distraction but for some users it is difficult to distinguish between the refraction and reticle and leads to putting the wrong one on target resulting in a missed shot. I am not entirely sure what leads to this phenomenon, and therefor have no fix for it, other than to say the more you use the unit the less it occurs and eventually you don’t even notice it, so if you are going to train properly (often) then it shouldn’t be a big deal, although if you are a perfectionist or a bit picky about your optics it will drive you crazy. Over the Eotech you will be saving some weight and paying about $400-$500 less.
There are lots of units out there that have been built to look like and mimic the Trijicon Acog. Many of them are in a much lower price bracket, $150-$300. As you may have already guessed they are “cheaper” for a reason! Some of them are not bad but they have there faults, mainly in the vulnerability of the electronics to damage from impact and other problems. I got my hands on a couple of units from Lucid that are inexpensive, and at first was quite thrilled with the quality for the price. The controls were simple and fairly easy to operate and the reticles seamed fairly crisp. However, After several months in my safe the AA battery in one of the units decided to corrode a little, and I do mean a little, it wasn’t what I would consider to be a lot of corrosion and in most battery compartments it would have just wiped out. The problem was the electronics circuit board for the unit shares the same compartment and even a small amount of acidic corrosion was enough to destroy the unit, and since it relies solely on and electronic reticle it is now useless!
Other units like it that I have found all seam like decent units at first but after tactical courses and training they just don’t stand up to the abuse. Instead of “saving” money in the short term, save it in the long run and spend more on your optics, they will be better built and will last longer than going with the cheep units. –Andy Ward
Aimpoint ML3 & 3x Magnifier
I like this sight! It was recommended to me by a High Speed – Low Drag operator that has used it in training his students as well as frequent usage in real battle. He suggested this sight along with an Aimpoint 3x magnifier. I made the purchase through LaRue Tactical in Texas. What an excellent customer service team they have! I purchased the quick detach (QD) mounts, with the magnifier mount being a swivel mount. This allows me to move the magnifier aside for close quarters shooting and then quickly flip it into place for longer shots. I find the dot to be nice and crisp and I prefer it small because most of my shooting is in the 200 to 300 yard range. Several of my clients noticed that the dot was double or triple and I also began noticing it, so I called LaRue and was asked to take a photo of the dot. Yep, it was a single dot. The problem was with our eyes, not the sight! The batter life is VERY long, and it dies slowly, so there is time to get a new battery. The batteries are very rare, and will have to be special ordered, so get a few when you buy the sight.The above setup was about $1500. -by Shepard Humphries
Burris Fastfire (Original)
I have a Burris Fastfire mounted in the forward position on a Polish milled AK. I used an Ultimak mount that replaces the upper handguard on the AK. This setup subjects the Fastfire to heat from the gas tube transmitted through the mount, as well as the relatively substantial recoil impulse of the 7.62 X 39 cartridge fired from a light platform.
This red dot has provided several years of service without problems. I regularly practice by running multiple shot drills, and the heat and recoil have not compromised the sight, although I don’t know how it would fare mounted on a full auto firearm, or in the hands of someone who enjoys “mag dumps”.
The Fastfire is lightweight, which is crucial in a forward mount. Rather than a tube, the dot is projected on a screen which does not obscure your field of view, enabling fast target acquisition with both eyes open. The dot brightness responds to ambient light, so no adjustment is necessary. Battery life is good- I’ve had this unit for several years without changing the battery, although I leave it off when it is not in use. The rifle spends a lot of time rattling around in my camper, and the sight holds zero, so it isn’t fragile. You can find one for less than $200, roughly one half the price of an Aimpoint or Eotech. The Fastfire is so light and handy it would serve well on a handgun.
Now for the Cons: It uses the usual flat round battery manufactured from unobtanium in underground factories in the jungles of East Timor, so don’t expect to find them at Costco. You have to take the sight off the firearm to change the battery, and I suspect this will mean a change in zero. In strong light and certain backgrounds the dot is not quite as bright as I would like. The sight cover does not attach to the sight and would be easy to lose.
These shortcomings have apparently been addressed in the latest model Fastfire III- you can change the battery without removing the sight, there are three brightness settings, and there is an auto-off feature in case you forget.
All in all, an economical choice for a basic no frills red dot on a rifle or a handgun. -by Bob Gathercole
I have a Burris Fastfire II that I mounted on the slide of my .45ACP CZ-97. After shooting only 2 to 4 shots, the light automatically turns off. I am not happy, and hate the hassle of dissembling and shipping it back to Burris. – Shepard Humphries
A local gun store owner recently attended a High Speed Low Drag carbine class and had two failures with Eotechs, and has decided to stop carrying them in his store and instead carry AimPoints as his primary red dot optic. –Anonymous
Lucid Technologies – HD7
I recently purchased a Lucid sight and it seems to be a nice economical option for those with a tight budget and a desire for multiple reticles. The reticle seems to be of low quality with thick lines, and I am finding that it is definitely not designed for long range shooting… but then again, is that your plan? Probably not. It is IS your plan, this is not the right optic. For an affordable option for out to 200 yards, it is a good optic and it uses only 1 AAA battery. I look forward to trying their new P7. -by Shepard Humphries
Primary Arms 4x Compact Scope with ACSS Reticle (PAC4x) (BUY)
I recently purchased a Primary Arms optic based on a fellow range user’s recommendation. I prefer “busy” optics, so I went for the ACSS reticle. This is a BDC reticle that allows a shooter to quickly aim at targets between point black range and 800 yards. It also includes a range estimation reticle, which is a handy tool for the 1% of users that take the time to learn it. For only $260, this optic seems to be a pretty good deal if one’s budget is tight. -by Shepard Humphries
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