If you’ve read other articles comparing an AR 15 Scope vs Red Dot optics, you’ll find that there is a lot of argument over useless minutia. This topic doesn’t have to be complicated, as each of these AR 15 sighting systems work very well, given the right scenario. In this article we’re going to cut through the nonsense and give you a good idea which of the optics you should choose. I will also be recommending the best value optics for various budgets. Keep reading for more.
Before we go further I want to start off by saying that I have rifles with both sighting systems. As long as you buy good quality optics, you can be incredibly effective with whatever you choose. With enough practice you can make anything work, even plain old iron sights!
A long time ago, in a universe far far way, I was issued a Colt M4 with a Trijicon ACOG, by the United States Marine Corps. I spent years training with this optic. I deployed to Afghanistan with the it. The ACOG is a fixed 4 power optic, that is very rugged (don’t ask me how I know). It’s less than ideal at close range engagements. After thousands of rounds down range, I can tell you that I became quite proficient with this less than ideal solution for CQB work.
The point of this little anecdote is to highlight the fact that training/practice matters more than having the perfect piece of equipment. I can’t tell you how many shooting competitions I’ve been to where I see someone who’s spent thousands of dollars on state of the art gear, completely bombing a stage. Training and practice matter!
Now that I’ve gotten off of my soap box, I will admit that having the right aiming solution for your intended use does matter. When it comes down to it, you really only need to ask yourself a few questions to figure out which sight is best for your application. Here are the questions.
AR 15 Scope vs Red Dot Optics Questions
- What level of detail do you need to see before you shoot?
- Will you be betting your life on this optic?
- Do you have vision problems?
There are a lot of myths when you compare magnified optics to red dots or reflex sights. Many less experienced shooters believe that a rifle scope is slower than a red dot, or that you can’t use a red dot at extended distances. These aren’t true, and I encourage you to read this article where I compare low powered variable optics to red dot sights. I use actual shooting times and data to dispel some very common myths for both types of sights. Give it a read if you want all the details. Now let’s review the questions above so you can find your ideal aiming solution.
What Level of Detail Do You Need to See Before You Shoot?
Most people talk about shooting at closer or longer ranges, but this isn’t the key thing you need ask yourself. You should really ask how well do you need to see your target before shooting. Given normal vision, and good lighting conditions, it can be hard to determine whether someone is carrying a pistol past 50 yards, with the unaided eye. You can probably see where I’m going with this.
If you’re using the optic for self defense purposes, or tactical purposes, then you’ll find that identifying a threat with a pistol past 50 yards becomes problematic. In a real world scenario you can use auditory clues, like gun fire, and other visual clues like tactical movements, to help make a threat determination. Given this info you might think that I’m advocating for a magnified optic, but wait there’s more!
If you have a magnified optic, and you’re target is only 10 yards away, you might very well find that the magnification will only show you a small portion of your target’s upper body. You may not be able to see their hands to determine if they’re carrying a weapon.
If you have any training you know that you should identify a threat before moving the optic to your eye. Now imagine your threat drops the pistol as you mount the scope. That can be a catastrophic problem, both legally and morally.
A Good Rule of Thumb When Choosing AR15 Optics
In general, if you expect to engage targets closer than 50 yards (home defense distances), then you should pick a red dot sight, or holographic sight. These optics project an aiming reticle onto the glass, allowing you to quickly place the dot on target, and engage as needed. Crucially, these optics do not require perfect eye alignment or placement. Once your optic is zeroed, you need only see the dot on your target before you can pull the trigger.
If you expect to engage the majority of your targets at further than 50 yards, then you’re probably better off with a variable optic. As you’ll see later on, you can purchase several quality optics that have variable magnification from zero all the way up to 10 power. Next let’s talk about about your budget.
Will you be betting your life on the optic?
Often times you’ll see folks agonize about their budget, an avoid the real question. If you’re betting your life on the optic, then you need to buy something that you can bet your life on. If you’re just using it for plinking, then you can forego some durability or fancy options that you won’t need or use.
These days you can find a duty grade red dot optic for $300 plus dollars. There are several options that are cheaper, one of which is probably duty grade, but you’ll find that $300+ dollars is the price floor for most quality red dot optics.
Quality magnified optics are right around the $400 dollar mark. However, you’ll generally have to purchase a good quality mount which is around $100 dollars, in addition to the scope. If you need extreme durability or magnification range, you can quickly get into thousands of dollars. Now let’s talk about folks with vision problems.
Do You Have Vision Problems?
This is the least important question, as there are technical solutions that can fix this problem for shooters with vision problems. Shooters with astigmatism, or other vision issues, will generally find that a magnified optic has a clearer reticle. This is because you can manually focus the reticle for your eye ball.
Red dot optics can be blurry for those with astigmatism, and there is no way to focus a red dot sight. There are some prism style optics that have no magnification. These optics can be a good choice for shooters with vision issues.
I will say that if I had astigmatism, and I needed to shoot at close range, I would still pick a fuzzy red dot over a magnified optic. The size of the dot at these close ranges is inconsequential compared to your need to see, and identify a target quickly. Now, let’s get to the top 7 red dot, and magnified optics for each budget.
The 7 Best Scopes and Red Dots for Your AR 15: AR 15 Scope vs Red Dot Optics
In this section we’ll review some great options for each price point. I will break down these choices into three grades. At the bottom I will include optics that are good enough for self defense, and normal tactical purposes. Mid grade optics will provide enhanced durability, such as great water resistance, and features that can’t be found on their cheaper cousins.
The top end optics will be of the highest quality, and will be choices that are found with Special Operations Forces (Delta Force, DEVGRU) and SWAT teams. These optics will be extremely durable, and provide a variety of options for those that need/want all the bells and whistles. Let’s get started with the lower price range choices.
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Budget Red Dots and Magnified Optics
As I mentioned above, these red dots, and magnified optics are good enough for most folks. They’re durable and will get the job done without much fuss. Most of them will start above the $300 dollar range, but I will include one optic that I think is an exceptional value at below $300.
Sig Sauer Romeo 5 Red Dot Optic
The Sig Sauer Romeo 5 red dot optic is by far the best red dot sight for your money. At the time of this writing, you can pick up one of these optics for less than $130. Normally I would say that an optic at this price point is junk, but there are quite a few videos on Youtube that show just how durable this optic is.
I’ve also seen this optic on some heavy use sub guns, and rifles, and it seems to work quite well. Of note, it does feature motion activation, which is great. This allows it to turn off automatically when not in use, greatly prolonging the battery life.
You can see the specs are more than adequate for the price you’re paying. One of the important things to note is the objective lens size. It’s 20mm, which is on the smaller side. For some shooters this is fine, as they don’t want a large optic blocking their peripheral vision. Where as others prefer a larger objective lens to view more of the target, especially at close range. For me it’s not a deal breaker, it’s just an FYI.
Trijicon MRO Red Dot Optic
The Trijicon MRO is one of my favorite red dot optics. In fact, I did a review on the Trijicon MRO a few years back and really enjoyed it. It’s the optic that’s currently sitting on my bump in the night gun. It even has a few high end features like night vision settings. It also features a 25mm objective lens, which can improve your overall situational awareness when looking through the optic.
This optic comes in right around $450, with an included mount. I found the dot to be very crisp, with some slight distortion in the glass. It’s only perceptible if you switch between several red dots regularly. It’s effectively water proof and has a solid battery life rating. Like any red dot optic, it is parallax free, and has unlimited eye relief. This is your Toyota Tacoma of optics. It’ll work for ever, and is a good value.
Vortex Strike Eagle 1-8X24 Scope
The Vortex Strike Eagle is a great value for your dollar, especially considering it provides up to 8x magnification. This particular deal provides a one piece mount, as well as the optic for right around $500. This scope is a big improvement over the first generation of Strike Eagles. It’s waterproof and shock resistant, and will always work because it has an etched reticle.
One of the best features with this AR15 scope is the built in bullet drop reticle . This means that you don’t have to dial the turrets for long range shots, or guess which stadia lines you should use. Once you understand the reticle, you know your holds intuitively.
Similarly, this optic features and illuminated reticle, which allows this scope to function like a red dot optic at low power. It has numerous brightness settings, allowing for usage in bright or dim conditions. I’ve used this style of illuminated reticle in other Vortex optics, and I’m a big fan when shooting quickly, at close range.
The only down side to an optic this size can be the weight. If you include the mount, this package comes in around 1.2 pounds. This might not matter for most folks, but if you’re looking for a light weight build, this isn’t ideal!
Mid Grade Optics and Red Dots
These optics are the optics I normally choose for my rifle builds. I’ll tell you a little secret. Most manufacturers don’t actually change the quality of many of their products from the mid level, to their top level products. It isn’t cost effective to make a bad version of something they already make a good version of. As a result, the only differences are a few features that you probably don’t really need. This is why mid grad scopes and red dots are good choices.
Eotech XPS 3 Holographic Sight
The Eotech XPS 3 is the newest version of their line of holographic sights. It features improved battery life over the previous generation optic. This is your best choice by far if you want a large viewing window, and rapid target acquisition. For this reason alone, it’s one of the most used optics with SWAT teams and special operations forces.
This optic runs off of a 123 battery and features a dot with a 68 MOA ring around it. This large ring can aid your eye in quickly acquiring a good sight picture. Because this sight is so compact, it allows you to mount it on smaller AR15 pistols, and short-barreled rifles, without taking up an undue amount of rail space. For recreational shooters this doesn’t matter, but pro’s know that there’s only so much room for sights, lights, and lasers.
The biggest downside to all Eotech red dot optics, is their heavy battery usage. They don’t have a long battery life (1000 hours) compared to other offerings you’ll see further on. However, if that’s less of a concern to you, then this might just be the ticket.
Trijicon Credo 1-6×24 Scope
The Trijicon Credo 1-6×24 scope is a newer offering. It might be the best optic for your money, when considering duty grade or better choices. It features adjustable magnification between 1-6x. Moreover, it has an illuminated reticle, which is a great help in low light conditions. You can get different reticle patterns to fit your personal preferences too. Some folks like MOA and some prefer MRAD.
This scope can be purchased in first or second focal plane versions, depending on your use case, and preferences. It also has a bullet drop compensating reticle which is calibrated for 55 grain 5.56 bullets. The only flaw with this scope is you will have to purchase your own mount separately. These kind sof optics are great for law enforcement purposes, where you need to clearly see what you’re shooting at.
As of this writing, you can pick this optic up for less than $800, which means you’ll be in the low $900’s with a quality mount. Next we’ll move into the high end optics.
High End Optics and Red Dots
These are the highest quality sighting systems that are currently available on the market. If you need something that a Navy SEAL wouldn’t mind carrying, then these are the options for you. They will be the most durable and sport features such as night vision compatibility, enhanced battery life, as well as a few other nice to have features.
Aimpoint Comp M5 Reflex Sight
The Aimpoint Comp M5 is the top of the line red dot sight. When your talking about $900 plus red dot optics, you should be asking yourself what doesn’t it come with? This optic features 50,000 hours of continuous use. That’s over 5 years! It also includes a mount and protective lens caps.
It’s submersible to 150 feet under water, and tips the scales at an incredible 5.2 ounces (optic only). If you have a smaller firearm, this is an ideal optic for you. It also makes a lot of sense if you plan on running a flip over red dot magnifier, like this one from Aimpoint.
Eotech Vudu 1-10×28 Variable Magnification Optic
The Eotech Vudu 1-10×28 is the optic if you need one solution to shoot from close quarters distances out to 1,000 yards. As you might expect, it can be used on low power, but it really shines at high magnification. This magnified scope has numerous variants from first focal plane, to second focal plane, MRAD and MOA reticles. Be warned, this version comes in right around $1700 without a mount. It might just lower your credit score!
If you’re a serious shooter, or someone that regularly needs to shoot in lower light conditions, then this is the optic for you. Compared to the other variable magnification scopes I’ve mentioned above, it has a larger objective lens. If you read my article about picking the best budget binoculars, you’ll remember that larger objective lenses allow in more light, transmitting a better image to your eye.
This is not an optic for the weight conscious. It comes in at 21.3 ounces without a mount. Even though this isn’t light weight, you can bet that it’s going to be sturdy as hell. If you really like this optic and don’t want to pay this much, Eotech does offer 1-6x and 1-8x variants at a lower price point. Feel free to check those out.
Some of you might have noticed that there are some manufacturers that are represented several times in this article. This is because I have personal experience with their products, and have faith that they will perform well. This isn’t to say that other manufacturers won’t do well. I’m currently testing a promising optic from Holosun that I’m very excited about. You’ll see more about that in coming weeks.
My best advice is to try and avoid the marketing hype and focus on the questions that we spoke about above. The only super high end optics that I use have been provided on my duty guns, as all of my personal guns feature mid range options.
To be honest, for my use case, there is no difference between the best of the best, and pretty darn good. I don’t plan on sky diving into my next rifle match, so I don’t need to spend an extra $1,000 dollars for something that can survive that.
If you have any comments or questions then put them below and I’ll get you an answer. Now get out there and get shooting!
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