Choosing the Best Tactical Optic (An overview to optics styles,budget, & Military-Grade)
Choosing the right Optic for your fighting rifle can be a complicated task. I’ve had the privilege of working in this field for over 30 years. As a Soldier, Contractor, Professional Competitive Shooter, and instructor (LE/MIL/Competition/EDC). I’ve shot in blazing heat, snow, pouring rain, in the mountains, and on the coast. Worn guns out from their creation to their death. I’ll try to take some of my experiences and help you ponder points you may not have considered. Let’s talk PPE, Personal Preference, and Experience; other’s opinions may differ, and that is fine. There’s more than one way to skin a cat as they say. Just consider it sage advice from my PPE.
When choosing an Optic, there are many factors to consider. We’ll discuss these factors and see if we can help you in selecting the right glass or scope for your tactical setup.
The first factor and possibly the most important is your budget. In a perfect world, we would love to put blue chip, top rate optics on every rifle we own. But unless you’re very wealthy, that is not always an option. If you’re a minimalist and only possess one long-gun or just a few rifles with specific capabilities, it’s absolutely critical to buy the best glass you can afford as you will not have a back-up. Durability is a critical factor in this case. Military-grade is a key phrase here when discussing durability. A great warranty isn’t the same thing as durability, cause if the SHTF warranty may not be available.
BUDGET: “You get what you pay for!” For the most part, this is true. Which leads to, “Lord, I wish I made more money.” And of course. “But I have kids.” Or, “How much is that Schmidt and Bender? Well, there goes junior’s college fund. There’s always the Marines.” So, we have to make smart decisions.
When laying out a budget, one thing comes to the forefront very quickly. You can get a military-grade red dot for around $400 bucks. The Aimpoint Pro and Trijicon MRO come to mind here. They have excellent battery life and are night-vision compatible. There are red dot sights that cost more and offer even better characteristics, but this is the established line in the sand for military-grade red dots at a reasonable price. Because of this, I personally have quite a few of these on my rifles. There are some other cost-effective options out there as well. The Vortex Sparc AR is one of those. A tough, small footprint red dot that is both durable and night vision compatible for under two hundred dollars. And there are others that fall into this category.
In magnified optics for fighting rifles, we must start with the minimal magnification setting being the most important. Most current tactical short-range scopes are listed as a 1 to something. (ie. 1-4x,1-6x, 1-8x many combinations. In truth, that bottom number is probably not a true 1 power. In reality, your new 1-6x scope might, in actuality, be a 1.15-5.2x. The genuine numbers can be almost impossible to find. The only manufacturer I have seen who did this was US Optics, but I think they’ve gone away from it now. It’s not really important to know the exact figure, it’s probably close enough that your eye can’t tell the difference. Where you get into trouble is with optics that have a 1.25x or 1.5x at the bottom end. Those will probably not fool your eye, and the magnification will cause your head to “swim” when moving around, slowing you down. But you’ve got to have that one power setting to be able to move around quickly from target to target at short ranges.
Currently, there are a lot of great choices out there in a short-range tactical scope at various price ranges. But, to get a truly military-grade scope, you’re going to have to spend at least 3 times as much as a military-grade Aimpoint red dot will cost. One tip worth mentioning is that you can usually get the best quality for less money with less magnification. Meaning your money will go further in a 1-4x than a 1-6x or 1-8 x. That leads us to the next factor.RANGE: Yes, you’re 5.56 can hit a target at 600 yards, but unless you’re a high-power shooter, you’re probably not going to do it. Be realistic about the ranges your going to engage targets at. If two hundred yards is the maximum distance, you can train with. You’ll be able to hit targets a little farther out. The further you go, the more training that is required, to almost an exponential degree.
A rule of thumb with Red Dot Sights(RDS) that everyone banters about is the two hundred yards or meters range for the military-minded. (Not the same distance but relatively close.) With a little practice, three and four hundred yards are workable. When considering a Red Dot Optic, it can match up very well with rifles chambered in 5.56. Their operational range is widely considered to be four hundred yards. Red dot optics also work very well with 7.62x39cal, who’s operational ranges are half that of the 5.56. Pistol caliber Carbines and Shotguns match up well with dots as well, almost to the point of exclusivity. (With the exception of rifled slug usage.)
Red Dot sights are generally faster in both target acquisition and engagement time from target to target. So, at shorter ranges, the Red dot optic is difficult to beat. This is where price and usability are high on the advantage curve for the Dot.
When you are shooting 200 yards or meters and beyond. The advantages of the Dots fade away quickly. In truth, it happens closer to one hundred yards. Powered scoped optics have the advantage of making a target appear larger, and accuracy is generally much better. Reticles can give you the option of placing long-range shots with a better ability to compensate for the distance.
Picking details out of a collage of colors is much easier. (IE: finding a camouflaged target.) You can also see the bullet impact if your rifle is set up with a muzzle stabilizing break.
At shorter ranges, A magnified optic with a very low bottom end magnification can be used like a Red Dot, allowing for many of the same advantages. It’s not uncommon to see users clearing short-range targets at blistering speed during training or action-oriented matches. Having the right reticle is vital here. Once again, 1x on the bottom end is critical in clearing close range targets. (IE: like clearing a building or house.)
CALIBER: This is closely related to range, but there are some other factors to consider. On Pistol Caliber Carbines, Shotguns, and Short Barreled Rifles, the Red Dot Optic is almost always the best choice unless there are special considerations. Like I mentioned earlier, I’ve used a 1-4x scope in the past on Shotguns to deliver greater accuracy with slugs. I’ve seen some Specialized Police Operators who use a similar setup on sub-guns and short rifles to achieve precise accuracy. But for the most part, Red Dots are the way to go here. Remember, using magnification usually costs you time. You might think that it is only important to competitive shooters, but it can be a real factor in self-defense as well.
Rifles that have longer barrels can beg for powered optics, to make use of their greater range capabilities. Utilizing 16” barrels on 5.56 or .308 rifles can hit targets at surprisingly long ranges. It makes sense to use a magnified optic here. A good rule of thumb is one power of magnification for every hundred yards. (IE: 400 yds 1-4x, 600 yards 1-6x). I’m only working from my personal experience here; others may have a different opinion that works well for them. Some people have rushed to replace their old 1-4x with a newer 1-6x. I’ve actually picked up some outstanding glass from friends following this trend. But, you can lose time trying to dial up the right magnification and field of view. Those 1-4x scopes work almost perfectly with the range of a standard 5.56 rifle. Where a .308 can take full advantage of the higher magnification of a 1-6x or 1-8x.
PARALLAX ERROR, FOCAL PLANE, EYE RELIEF: If you’re not sure what Parallax is, then I would advise you to study it a little and gain a solid understanding. We’ll discuss it here as parallax error. A very simplified explanation is the error in the reticle’s position on the target in relation to the eye position behind the Optic. (Meaning, the shot falls in the wrong place if you don’t have a perfect cheek to stock-weld.)
Most Red Dots are listed as Parallax free beyond a certain distance commonly fifty yards. This is not really true. But, for practical purposes, it can be considered to be so. Even at very short ranges, the parallax error is so minimal as to be non-important. In the worst-case scenario, at twenty yards with a low-grade optic and an absolutely horrid sight alignment, your shot would fall less than a half-inch off its point of aim. In most cases, far less. So, that is why most Red Dots are considered Parallax error-free. One note: A lot of shooters will pull their new Dot out of the package and look at items in a room a few feet away and move the dot around in their hand. They will see gross changes in the placement of the dot on extremely close objects and believe they have severe parallax issues. But, that is within the curvature of the lenses. The object is too close, it’s not a parallax issue.
Magnified Optics have much greater issues with Parallax error. This is one of the places where lower price optics will run into serious trouble. Knowing what distances, the parallax is set for and keeping a good cheek to stock-weld are critical in minimizing the error. Generally, better optics will have less of an issue. Focus devices will also help with this.
Focal Plane is a non-issue with Red Dots, but not with Optics. First Focal Plane is usually more expensive and holds some advantages. The reticle will become larger as the magnification increases. Any BDC (ballistic drop compensator) drop-down hashes or marks will work at any magnification. A second focal plane will stay the same size, and the BDC will only be accurate at max magnification.
Eye relief is another place where Red Dot Optics excel, as long as you are lined up well enough to see through the tube, there is no eye relief. Magnified optics are a different case. They can be very specific in where you must place your eye in regard to its position behind the scope. As you dial the magnification up, it will usually become less forgiving. One of the reasons magnification adds time.
In both tactical work and competition, we find ourselves outside of a perfect cheek-weld. Getting the eye in the right spot when your holding the rifle sideways over the hood of a car can be time-consuming. Typically you will hear shooters say, “Damn it! I can’t find the right spot.” While moving their head around to find the sweet spot looking like a bobble-head.
MILITARY GRADE/WARRANTY: When we say military-grade, one of the primary positives is durability. How tough is that optic? How well will it hold up in an extreme environment and rough handling? Will it still work, function correctly, and hold zero? When the Red Dots first came onto the scene, that was the question. Now they are considered combat-capable. You can go to that $400-$500 mark and get an extremely tough Red Dot. You can get something close for a lot less. People love to destroy these things and see how long it will take them to die. They're all over Youtube. Vortex Sparcs have done well in this type of testing for under $200.
In magnified Optics, this goes the other way. Military-grade usually means big bucks. I’ve had some great usage out of cheap magnified scopes. Got some Millet DMS-1’s that have been around for over ten years and have beat the hell out of them. And they still work, but this will vary significantly at the cheaper end of the spectrum.
Warranty is very important, and not all companies are the same. This is where I’ll go a little heavier into personal experience. Other’s experiences may be different; I can only tell you about my own. When you lay down hard-earned money on a piece of glass, you want to know if it breaks, the company will stand behind it and make your money count. A great warranty is not any indicator of dependability. If you are in a foreign country fighting for your life, or the shit has hit the fan, then sending the optic back in is not an option.
I’ve worked as a hack gunsmith in several shops and have dealt with a lot of warranty repairs. Here are some of the things I have experienced. Aimpoint, Leupold, Trijicon, and Vortex have been outstanding on all my problems. Whether it was repairing or replacing damaged optics, they took care of it in a short time with minimal fuss. I had an Aimpoint M2 that had been to the sandbox twice. It was beat to hell and lost one of its diodes. It still worked but was dim. Aimpoint replaced it without question, sending a brand-new model and thanked the owner for his service. I had a first-generation Trijicon RMR that wouldn’t hold its zero. Trijicon replaced it with a brand new, improved unit, I got the replacement 6 days after I shipped the damaged unit off. Leupold and Vortex have replaced many damaged scopes for me without issue, all of these companies have been sterling in my experiences.
On the bad side, I’ve had the worst problem with Eotech. I’ve had an inordinate amount of issues for the small number of their optics that I’ve owned. Maybe it’s because I live in the South East and the humidity kills them, I don’t know, but they spent most of their life in a climate-controlled vault. I’ve had five go bad, and they wouldn’t repair or replace a single one of them. Wouldn’t even look at them. Usually, it’s the dot that won’t come on, and it’s because of corrosion on the contacts or loose contact connections. I’ve had an electronics repair shop clean them, and they would light up. But, the company wouldn’t even look at them or give any assistance. “They're too old. We don’t support that anymore.” Is the general excuse they gave me. I’m older now, and ten years seems like yesterday. But that has never been an issue with other companies. I’ve purged all the Eotechs from my gear and will never buy another. Research customer reviews on the company you are considering for your purchase, how they treat other customers is how they will treat you.
One other issue of note. I bought some Elcan Spectre DR’s and had trouble with the dots inside, not working properly. The company was good and repaired them, but at a charge. The primary problem was shipping back and forth to Canada, export, and import. Trust me, it was a pain in the butt, make sure you can service your optic in the US.
GLASS QUALITY/LIGHT TRANSMISSION: This is a minor point in Red Dot Optics, but like magnified optics, you get what you pay for. Better glass means better images, clearer definition, superior color interpretation, (Which can be critical in finding camouflaged targets) and better light transmission. Tube size helps in that as well. The bigger the tube, the better it transmits the image.
My older eyes can detect about four levels of glass quality, it used to be more. But quality glass can make a big difference in what is and is not a target. As well as how well you can identify where to hit it. I have been able to see better detail in a high-end 1-4x scope than I have in a cheap 1-8x. Once again, glass quality is a big part of buying a more expensive scope.
BATTERIES: Ah batteries, “ANYBODY GOT A SPARE DURACELL 1/3N for my Aimpoint.” I’m sure you have heard that before if you’ve spent any time on the range. Commonality is critical. I’ve had to drive to a bigger town fifty-miles away from the match to find one for my Aimpoint Pro. AA, AAA, CR2032 are common batteries and easily found, others, not so much. If you’re a prepper, you probably want to be able to get rechargeable batteries. That can be a big factor.
The biggest downside of Red Dot Optics, in my humble opinion, can be the batteries. Without them, you have nothing, just an empty tube. Now’s the time to use the BUIS, and I thought they were just a fashion statement. If you run a Red Dot, have spare batteries. Lot’s of them in different places. Aimpoint sells a spare battery compartment for their M2, M3, Pro, and a few other optics that are an extension of the main battery compartment. That thing has been gold for me.
Battery life, it’s not as good as they tell you, but it’s an indicator. The quoted battery life is usually on the lowest settings. There’s a Gremlin in my vault that turns all my optics on. I’ve never caught him, but if I do, I’m going to waterboard him before I kill him. Anyway, keep lots of batteries on hand and try to minimize how many types you use. I use AA, AAA, CR2032, Duracell 1/3N (the Aimpoint battery) and the CR123. If it doesn’t take one of those, I ain’t interested.
In magnified optics, this may or may not be as important. That old Millet DMS-1 I mentioned earlier has a heavy donut reticle about 20 minutes in diameter. It’s thick and dark, the illumination is only for low light, you typically can’t see it during the day. But that donut works as well as a bright dot in the daytime, and I only use the illumination in the dark. That’s why that thing still sits on top of one of my old AUGs, but it has been solid for years.
On the flip side, my current favorite magnified Optic is the Vortex Razor 1-6x. You turn that thing down to 1x, and the dot is as bright as an Aimpoint, but without batteries, you’re in trouble. Where magnified scopes are concerned, batteries may not be as important as in the Red Dot scopes. It depends on how you utilize the reticle. This is a strong point for us prepper types.
There are some optics out there that use Fiber Optic cable for the light source, mostly Trijicon. Which is what makes those such great choices, no batteries needed. (excellent choice for preppers.) But here are some issues, or limitations. If you’re in a poorly lit area and looking into a bright space you will notice a difference. Like on a shooting line or in a structure looking out onto your target in the bright daylight. Little or no reticle will show through. Another point to consider, tritium illumination on any sight or optic has a short life span. Seven years may seem like a long time, but you don’t know how long that optic has been sitting on the shelf before you took it to its new home. And, from experience, I can tell you it sucks to have a safe full of dead tritium sights. Nothing is more frustrating than pulling up your nightstand gun and have no sights in the dark of the night. All real-life points to consider.
RETICLES/BRIGHTNESS: This is a huge deal to me on Red Dots, you have to have a Dot, one that you can actually see. We’ll not so fast for you Eotech guys (and a few others who’ve copied them.) The 65-minute circle and one-minute dot on those holo-sights, pay attention now. The big circle is fast up close (but so is a single dot). Let the hate begin, I know this is a favorite for many of you. Hence back to PPE (Personal preference and Experience.) I’ve always had trouble being precise while shooting on the move with the 65-minute circle. With that big dancing bear bouncing around, I struggle to find that little dot in the middle. I’m talking about something like shooting plates on the move at distance. Some guys try to place the target in the middle of the circle and have success with that. For me, I just never have. My favorite was an Eotech 552D1, that was just the one-minute dot, and I loved it until it died. (RIP 552D1 2008-2018)
This leads to a second issue with Red Dot Optics. They have to be bright. Living in the South or the glare of the desert, only the brightest will do, and that leaves Aimpoint and Trijicon (There could be others, PPE). Everything else that I’ve tried will washout on a bright day, including those Eotechs. Back to that $400-$500 line in the sand.
Reticles on scopes are almost endless. My two favorite are the Vortex Razor, it’s a Red Dot on 1x (Bright as any high-quality Red Dot) and has a nice BDC when you dial up the magnification. In my opinion, it’s perfect. The second is a more common reticle, the scope I use it on is an older IOR Valdada 1-4x. It’s a double-thick line horseshoe with a drop-down BDC for longer shots. The black works well in bright daylight and illumination is only for low light. Both of those types work well for me. I have a Trijicon TR24R that I love, has a great red triangle without batteries, but it has no type of drop-down marks for longer ranges. So, it limits where I can use it. Other’s may have a different opinion on what they like. Know why you want a certain reticle or figure out how you’re going to use it. There’s a lot of fantastic glass with bad reticles.
NIGHT VISION COMPATIBILITY: Important, Maybe? I’ll be honest with you, my experience in this area is pretty limited. (I’d love to hear from those of you who are real experts. Let me know if you want to write any articles.) I’ve worked mostly with the AN/PVS7’s and some dedicated weapon scopes. Plopping an NVD behind my Red Dots works, but it’s like looking through a shot glass. It’s a small circle. I’d much rather have the thing on my dominant eye and use it with an IR laser. DBALs cost enough to make you cry, but they’re worth it. There are some inexpensive IR lasers out there that will work well too. I like these because my pistol will still fit in a good light bearing holster. Oh sorry, we were talking about rifle optics. They work on long guns too.
Be warned, other people can see that laser, but they can see any illuminators, as well. Still, I’d rather the optic be NVD compatible. Meaning it has a dot or reticle you can see through the NVD. (one that is not visible to the naked eye.)
Dedicated night vision scopes are the way to go, and thermal scopes are even better, but that is the source of another article.
These are all critical points to consider. How you choose to mount that scope is important, too, but we’ll cover that in another article. I’m a gun guy, always in the market for the latest and greatest. Getting a new rifle makes me as happy as a kid on Christmas morning, but I consider the glass as a necessary evil. I’m not going to put a $200 optic on a $3000 rig, I have to be tacti-cool, right, you know what I mean. But I have no problem putting a top-shelf piece of glass on a homebrew AR if it fits my needs. Having a lot of rifles poses a problem with optics. I’m not willing to spend the same amount of money on glass for every weapon. So, my solution has been to buy a handful of top-shelf scopes and fill out the rest with those quality Aimpoints and MROs. I can always move things around if the need requires it, but this way, I’m covered.
I hope this article might help you in making your next purchase. Remember, PPE, Personal Preference and Experience, play a big role in this. If I have made any technical mistakes, please let me know, and I’ll try to correct it. If you have any desire to add content to our site, contact us. We will be happy to post your article and provide links. Once I started writing our Tactical Fiction books, the next step was to start putting a blog together for all of our favorite guns and gear, and tips and tricks. Reach out anytime, we love hearing from our fellow shooters.
Good Shooting, Ben Stone