Red Dots vs. Magnified Scopes: Which Tactical Optic Is Right For You?

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With a variable power scope like this Burris XTR II 1-5X, you have the ability to engage targets both near and far.

With a variable power scope that can go down to 1X magnification like this Burris, you have the ability to engage targets both near and far. Image courtesy of Burris Optics.

I hate to kill the sacred cow for most of our tactical ninjas out there, but I’m going to kill it and make cheeseburgers. IN MANY SITUATIONS, YOU ARE BETTER OFF WITH A MAGNIFIED OPTIC THAN A RED DOT. “Sacrilege! Say it isn’t so! You don’t know what you are talking about!” Sorry to all my diehard red dot fanatics, but it’s so. Walk down the path with me, that you might eat some crow, and learn the ways of the variable-power magnified scope, which I think is a great all-around tactical tool.

The author has found that a variable power optic can provide the best of both worlds in both close and longer range capabilities.

The author has found that a variable power optic can provide the best of both worlds in both close and longer range capabilities.

Look, I love red dots. I’ve done a lot of work with one. Anywhere I teach rifle in this entire country, everyone shows up with red dots. Only red dots. It’s almost like the leap was made to a 1X electronic sight in tactical world, and then progress just … ended. The red dot can be great for some situations, but not for all. Let’s take a look at what a red dot will do, and what it won’t.

My personal favorite red dot right now is the Aimpoint Micro T-1. It is hard as a coffin nail, the batteries last longer than dinosaur bones, and it is light as a feather. What is the one thing it will do better than my Leupold 1-6X? Close Quarters Battle. And that’s all. Somewhere along the way, America decided that CQB was the coolest thing since sliced bread, and that is what everyone sets a gun up for now. But why?

Unless you are on a SWAT team doing raids every night, this is an unlikely engagement scenario. Even when I was running around Baghdad with a Direct Action unit, we killed way more people in the street than we ever did in the house. So why set your gun up primarily as a CQB-range gun? It can be really limiting if that is not your specific need. Sure, you can add a magnifier, but that is extra gear compared to a dedicated variable power unit.

Devil’s In The Details

If we are talking CQB range, what we are really talking about is our red dot versus our magnified optic bottomed all the way out at low power. That is one of the major strengths of the variable optic like my Leupold or something like the Burris XTR II 1-5X, Trijicon 1-6X VCOG or the Bushnell SMRS 1-6.5X SFP. And if you are buying a magnified optic, this is what you are actually paying for.

A 1X reflex sight like the Trijicon SRS (shown) offers unmatched CQB capabilities in engaging threats quickly. However, a variable power optic like the company's VCOG can extend out a firearms usable range. Image courtesy of Trijicon.

A 1X reflex sight like the Trijicon SRS (shown) offers unmatched CQB capabilities in engaging threats quickly. However, a variable power optic like the company’s VCOG can extend out a firearm’s usable range. Image courtesy of Trijicon.

Although the author likes red dot optics, the adaptability of a variable power optic like this Leupold Mark 6 1-6X really appeals to him. Image courtesy of Leupold.

Although the author likes red dot optics, the adaptability of a variable power optic like this Leupold Mark 6 1-6X really appeals to him. Image courtesy of Leupold.

Most optics, even cheap ones, do well at 6X ranges and similar. The place higher end scopes truly shine is at 1X. What you are paying for is how forgiving the eye box is at 1x, and how true the “1 power” is. Cheaper optics will have closer to a 1.1x and the eye box will be shallow, meaning that as you run around blasting close-range targets, scope shadow will be bouncing into your field of view. A variable power scope set to 1 is never going to be an EOTech, but a good one will feel close.

The illumination in a modern scope is as good as a red dot, and you can run a true 1X with both eyes open. How do they stack up on actual room entries? Well, I have done both. The answer is, a red dot is slightly faster in room combat. Barely perceptible if you do this for a living (high skill level), but enough to know the red dot is a little bit quicker. It’s not even something I think you can put on the clock. Does that make it the optic of choice though, or simply a great optic for a specific role?

The author found that a red dot like the Aimpoint Micro T-1 can be very useful in a specific role, such as close-range target engagement.

The author found that a red dot like the Aimpoint Micro T-1 can be very useful in a specific role, such as rapid, close-range target engagement.

Things happen lightning fast at CQB range; that is a given. Knowing that, would I run a red dot if I knew I going to be fighting in that range? I don’t have to wonder. When I was teaching Special Forces Advanced Urban Combat (SFAUC), most of the troops I was training were going to Afghanistan. There is some CQB there, but the majority of the fighting is at longer ranges. In three years of pushing the idea of troops using the ELCAN Specter 1-4X (issued sight) for CQB so that they had a magnified optic for the rest of the fighting, not one soldier came back and told me they didn’t like it. It might not look as sexy in your cool guy beard photos, but certainly more combat effective. And the modern commercially available 1-4X and 1-6X sights blow the SOPMOD II-issue ELCAN out of the water, in my opinion.

So, if red dots get the marginal CQB win, what about every other issue? First, I consider CQB range 50 meters and in. And around 50 meters, magnified optics start to outpace everything else. I have been known to crank to 1.5 power for a 100m plate rack, because why not? The argument I often get here is “ but I can shoot my red dot to 300 meters easy.” Yes, you can. I was a Marine. Not that many years ago, we qualified to 500 meters with iron sights. High Power competitors shoot to 1,000 yards with irons routinely. This does not mean it is easy or efficient, though.

Just being able to see what you are shooting at becomes much easier with magnification, which means a smaller point of aim. I have seen some pretty amazing shots with a red dot, but that is also always going to be more precise with an actual reticle with mil-dots in it. And throw in some wind if you want to see a mil reticle beat the pants off any red dot. Bottom line, the time and ammo it takes to get good with a red dot at wind/range is better spent with a grown-up reticle.

Red dot batteries last a long time, right? The manufacturers’ claims can be vague, but they do seem to last a very long time. My Aimpoint has been on since I got it in 2013. What trumps that? How about forever? People tend to forget that etched reticles, as in etched onto the actual glass by a machine, do not need batteries. In fact, most scopes in the 1-6X family have a cheaper option that is not illuminated. Illuminated is nice to have at either very close range or in low light, but it is certainly not a necessity. And the standard etched reticle will work whether electricity ceases to exist tomorrow or not.

Count The Advantages

What else do I get for a little more weight with a variable power optic? The power of observation. I did mention that people shoot a long ways with irons all the time. But that is generally at targets with a high contrast to the background. Animals are built to blend into their environment, and humans get that way quick if they have ever been shot at before. Magnified optics make sorting out the bush from a dude dressed as a bush much easier. One of the first things you learn in sniper school is that you will spend a whole lot more time observing than shooting. This is both more reliable and less fatiguing with something magnified.

A variable optic like the Trijicon VCOG can extend a warfighter's range in a conflict.

A variable optic like the Trijicon VCOG can extend a warfighter’s range in a conflict. Image courtesy of Trijicon.

The VCOG feature a 1-6X range, meaning it can be dialed back to 1X for close-range encounters. Image courtesy of Trijicon.

The VCOG feature a 1-6X range, meaning it can be dialed back to 1X for close-range encounters. Image courtesy of Trijicon.

Speaking of reliability, this one gets thrown in the mix a lot. Common wisdom is that a variable power scope is less tough than a fixed power OR a red dot. Fortunately, I have knuckle-dragger tested this one into the dirt. Modern variable power scopes are absolutely tough as nails. Every sniper rifle in the US inventory since about 2004 has been a variable power, and they have seen some abuse.

Will they break? Yes. But so will a tungsten anvil in the right set of circumstances. In competition, I routinely throw my 6X in a dump barrel like I am chucking a spear at a rhino, and I haven’t broken one yet. I am sure I am well outside the manufacturer’s guidelines of what should and shouldn’t be done to a scope, but I absolutely trust mine and would bless it as a combat optic. I have never seen a broken Aimpoint, to be fair. Not one. But I did see an average of three red dots out of the SOPMOD kit break per class, and some of them were just out of the wrapper.

What is left? Price, the old coffin nail of dreams. Magnified optics are more expensive than red dots is the generally held consensus. Depending on what you need, this can be true. My favorite 1-6X is my Leupold MK6. And it is a little pricey, for sure. It retails for $2,100, three times the price of my Aimpoint T-1. But how low can you go for an optic I would trust with my life? The answer is surprisingly cheap. There are some great options out there in the 1-4X and 1-6X range.

The reticle of the author's Leupold Mark 6 1-6X provides a battery-free targeting solution that is always there for him.

The reticle of the author’s Leupold Mark 6 1-6X provides a battery-free targeting solution that is always there for him.

a variable power optic like the Burris XTR II 1.5-8 scope (with piggybacked FastFire red dot) offers a lot of capability in a single package.

a variable power optic like the Burris XTR II 1.5-8 scope (with piggybacked FastFire red dot) offers a lot of capability in a single package. Image courtesy of Burris Optics.

What should we take from this? If you are a professional soldier, you can pick your load out for where you are going to be operating. If you are a civilian and you have a rifle for personal defense, odds are you are standing where you will be using it. Only a fool wouldn’t tailor his tools to his environment. Yes, a red dot is a great optic. But, it is not the answer to every problem. Make sure you pick what is right for you and your needs.

 

{ 21 comments… add one }
  • Pat July 11, 2017, 1:41 pm

    Subpar optics will break down at the worst possible time. Don’t cheap out. Having said that, use the right tool for the job!

    Magnified optics over x3 have a place on long range caliber guns (.308/.300/.338 and anything that starts with.4 or.5).

    An Ar15 platform is designed for close quarters. Nothing beats an Exps3 with a G33 – x3.5 magnified optic (shop around and it’s a $900 setup). There is no shot that can be made with a x6 magnifier that can’t be made with the G33!
    Take your $1,200 in savings, get a tax stamp, and suppress your AR-15!

    Can you use a Flat Head screwdriver to screw a Philips Screw? Yes, but why???

  • Bubba July 6, 2017, 9:15 pm

    Dumb. Yeah,…like the majority of people are going to drop $500 – $1000 on a red dot.

  • fteter May 15, 2017, 1:15 pm

    Great article. A slightly different angle regarding magnified scopes: a huge benefit for aging eyes.
    I’m 61. The vision in my dominant eye has gone south over the past 24 months. The only way I can sight in targets beyond 50 feet now is with a magnified scope. Long eye relief magnified scopes mounted in front of the receiver seem to be the sweet spot for me. With a basic LER scope, I can still ring steel plates at 300 yards. No way could I do that anymore with a 1x red dot. The magnified scope is a critical tool in adapting to aging eyes…I’d be out of the long gun game otherwise.

  • Jay April 21, 2017, 12:57 pm

    My comment goes a different way. I want to talk about something other than the article’s technology.
    In the first photo, we se a person tricked out like a soldier getting ready to go in, right down to the military style camouflage uniform.
    Civilian law enforcement officers are not soldiers. You don’t need camouflage uniforms to raid a crack house. The weapons and protective gear, yeah and the training to use them effectively, sure! But to my mind the uniform carries a dangerous mind set- that they are not to “protect and serve,” servants of the populace but, extensions of government there to exercise thee power of the government.
    I agree with the LE having the best in weapons PPE, and training to make both them and those on the other end of those weapons- the innocent bystanders that is, safe as can be. But, let them wear the police/sheriff’s/other LE they worked so hard to earn to remind both them and those in their jurisdictions of who and exactly what they are.
    We might also consider this a dangerous trend in what those departments may be being turned into…
    Just sayin’

  • Jerry August 9, 2016, 12:39 am

    Question: using these 1-6x optics, is there any absolute or lower 1/3 co-witness?

    • Nick October 26, 2016, 7:15 am

      No, there’s no way to cowitness iron sights with a magnified optic; but neither is there a need to.

  • Ed G July 9, 2016, 3:18 pm

    This was a very good article and thank you. As an old guy a lot of guns are just too heavy for me now but Aimpoint is just the thing for my situation. However, I did get a Kahles 1x6x24 (SI1 reticle) and you are spot on that this is a more useful set up. Hope my kids like it as much as I do after I’m gone.

  • Mongo July 5, 2016, 9:04 am

    Great article. Considering the type of sights/scope/dot for your firearms, in my case, involves one simple aspect….my wife. If I need her to “gun-up”, what is the easiest, most reliable sight she can use, and a low power scope is her choice. No batteries, no muss, no fuss. She practices within 100 yards, so fast sighting with slight magnification for accuracy is key. I cover distance, she covers my six, and 9, and 3 and everywhere else. Even the carbine has a laser zeroed to 35 yards, it helps for quick point and shoot practice, when she doesn’t use the scope for accuracy, it will find that laser fast. Make sure your iron sights stay true if you need to remove optics due to damage. I own red-dots, but not as my first choice. With my advancing age, eyes and reflexes, CQB is something I would prefer to avoid if at all possible, but if needed, bring it into my setting, not theirs.

  • Chris July 4, 2016, 4:32 pm

    I agree with this article. Im running a 3-12x Nikon slughunter on a m92 pap. Most people think that its foolish to set up a 7.62 handgun with a scope until I show them that I can easily out shoot thier fancy ARs anywhere past 50 yards, with a gun not known for accuracy. 3x isnt as nice as a 1x up close, but I am able to easily manage with it at 15 yards. Any closer its more of point and shoot anyway.

  • Robin Miller July 4, 2016, 1:14 pm

    I learned to shoot with open sights “way back when.” Now, in trifocal-ville, I find a red dot sight is the most comfortable thing for me. Let’s face it: I can no longer see reliably enough to spot a target at much more than 100 yards, so why not use something that’s easy on my eyes?

  • Jackpine July 4, 2016, 12:32 pm

    Having spent a considerable amount of time recently considering what’s right for me (trifocals, cataracts in my off eye) I purchased a DPMS Oracle, a Leupold Rifleman 3×9/40 and a set of canted iron sights. This setup was under $750. Good to go from 1 to 250 yards. This article validates my thinking and my choices. Thank you, Mr. Martin.

  • Ronald Gervais July 4, 2016, 10:36 am

    I absolutely agree with the author about advantages of a magnified optic over a red dot. I use a 1-6X and like it very much. For a practical example of this look up nutnfancy’s Youtube channel where he ran a scope against a factory Kel-Tec shooter using a red dot shooting steel plates (that were not freshly painted. Your opponent will not be either) that can be tough to see against the desert background.
    However, for *self-defensive purposes* I think red dot is just fine. That is because self-defense is not war. You will have to be able to articulate to police why this person was a *reasonable* threat of death or great bodily injury to you. If they are 150 yards away is it reasonable to shoot them in self-defense? Sure there are circumstances where it would be. But I submit that in most cases it would not be. Look up rules for use of force online and see the elements necessary for legal self-defense. State laws vary and you should be familiar with yours.

  • Paul July 4, 2016, 9:52 am

    Couldn’t agree more I put a Burris XTR II 8-40×50 ( yes I am a male ) on my DD5…..Daniel Defense 7.62 ( 308 ) never really shot long range before and am loving it…..I have red / green dots on my other guns and like fishing certain circumstances call for certain applications to get the best results. Great article ,,,,,Thanks Paul

  • realspark21 July 4, 2016, 9:14 am

    Great article. I have taught, built, and use AR platform rilfes for duty (both deployed, and as a stateside law enforcement officer, and instructor). I am constantly pushing the no battery optic and variable magnification mantra. Our agency does several warrant entries per week in a large urban metro area. ..in this environment, we all use Aimpoint Micro (or CompM2s), Trijicon MRO, and we still have a few EOtechs. Our quals are based on no greater than a 50 meter shot. No worries for these optics. However when I teach our recommended a defense weapon for home, I pull out my own home defense guns: one with a Trijicon VCOG (which I sold several collected guns to get and still had that look from my wife!) and two Nikon M223s (very underrated in my opinion)…of course I have others with various ‘dots’ also: Trijicon TA-16s, ACOG (fixed power, cross hairs and tritium dot), Meprolight (no batteries), and a few low end red/green dots from Burris and Truglo. These will all work in my humble experience but the authors point should be well headed. My personal goal is no more batteries in optics. Additionally, the Aimpoint Micro can be damaged (repeatedly tossed in a truck vault and bouncing around during pursuits), my knob (power/intensity knob) became loose and only worked with repeats love taps. …Aimpoint repaired it to good as new!

  • Jay July 4, 2016, 8:37 am

    Good article! I however will just say, far, far too many people never sight in and practice with iron sight, flip sights whatever you choose, no batteries no magnification but your not going to have to worry about the problems associated with magnified scopes or red dots. I use my sights then put on a scope or dot! Sights first and foremost!

  • Daddio7 July 4, 2016, 8:25 am

    After 30 years of storage I brought my .30 M1 carbine with open sights. With my 64 year old eyes now needing bifocals I found out the rim of my glasses obscured the sight completely unless I held my head at a very unnatural position. This is my only rifle. Any optic will have to be short or have enough eye relief to clear the ejection port. When I tried a scope on it before about half the time the shell casing bounced down into the action and jammed it. Any thoughts on this? For personal defense if I am attacked by someone over 50 yds away I am going to be out gunned anyway.

    • Paul July 4, 2016, 9:56 am

      Had a Nikon P-223 on my M1-30cal had to buy scope adapter and it worked great……….

    • DarthVaderMentor July 6, 2016, 12:02 am

      Daddio7, I use an old SIG CP4 I took off my Gen 2 SIG 556R on my 1960’s Kahr M1 Carbine with a left offset scope holder. I am left handed and use my left eye for aiming. I used an offset scope holder to keep the iron sight on the old boy which I still use on occasion. Works fine with my progressive eyeglasses, even when using Easyclip shade clip-ons. Plink about 200-400 rounds a month on that old boy up to 250 yards, lots of fun. BTW. for defense use, Hornady now sells plastic filled hollow point .30 Carbine rounds which are pretty devastating on ballistic gel. Keep rubbing that 50/50 BLO/Tung oil mixture on that wood! On my Inland and IBM 194X models I keep iron sights for collection value.

    • Cindy Northon July 9, 2016, 12:49 pm

      If you’d like to know more about the P-233 you can check out my review here: http://habitathacks.com/nikon-p-233-3-9×40/

    • Damon July 12, 2016, 9:38 pm

      Daddio7
      Go to http://www.amegamounts.com. They make a replacement heat shield for the M1 Carbine that incorporates a Picatinny rail. I had the same problem with eyeglasses, so I got one of these and a cheap Buck holosight that I mounted right in front of the chamber. Problem solved for about $160.00

  • Blackfoot 7 July 1, 2016, 6:41 am

    Good article. I mostly agree with what’s stated here as I’ve been saying it myself for quite a while now. But do you know what’s even more reliable, more durable and last even longer than a good RDS or LPVO? Good old fashioned fixed iron sights. Always have a back-up.

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