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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.