Low Powered Variable Optic or Red Dot Sight

Red dot sight (RDS), low powered variable optic (LPVO), or both? This is a common question pondered by folks when considering how to accessorize a modern rifle. Read on for my opinion.

Image in the post header is attributed to Ken Kazi. The rifle pictured is not mine, but I sure wish it was.

There was an amazing exchange about low powered variable optics (LPVO) and red dot sights (RDS) on Twitter the other day that I participated in. It’s a broad topic and folks have a lot of strong opinions about them. That combination makes it pretty difficult to get deep into the subject when posts are limited to 280 characters. Even so, it was a good conversation and inspired me to write this blog post.

An LPVO and RDS are terrific and proven sighting systems commonly used on low powered modern sporting rifles like the AR-15. Each has their own strengths and limitations which makes them better at different applications. Frankly, the application is what it comes down to. So let’s explore that.

A RDS consists of a highly visible red dot reflected on an unmagnified lens (or window). This provides us with an aiming point that is very easy and fast to acquire and overlay on a target. Generally speaking, RDS tend to provide a far better field of view, endless eye relief, and no parallax to worry about. Simply overlay the dot on the target and press the trigger. No need to worry about a proper cheek weld. The only thing one might be concerned with is the appropriate hold over in order for precision shooting. These qualities make the RDS an ideal sighting system for defensive use at close range and a great option for varmint or predator hunting at short distances. As distances start getting longer, precision shooting with the RDS becomes more difficult which is why they are commonly paired with a folding magnifier (usually fixed at 3 times magnification).

The LPVO, as the name suggests, is a low powered variable optic. Generally speaking, all LPVOs start with a 1 power minimum magnification. The maximum magnification varies by model and manufacturer from as little as 4 times magnification to as much as 10 times magnification. As with other scopes, LPVOs are available with several different reticle styles including, but not limited to, bullet drop compensating (BDC) reticles and Christmas tree reticles. The variable magnification and additional utility from advanced reticles make LPVOs great options for precision shooting applications as far out as a low powered rifle cartridge (such as .233 Remington and 5.56 NATO) remains effective. The drawback to the LPVO compared to the RDS is that we now have to be concerned about a proper cheek weld, eye relief, and parallax while working with a smaller field of view.

With that in mind, selecting between the two should be pretty obvious. Need a fast aiming system for close range targets? RDS wins. Need to do precision work at longer distances? LPVO wins. The problem is that a good number of folks want their AR-15 for both applications. Hence, the term general purpose rifle that is generally used for a low powered modern sporting rifle.

With the current state of the firearm and optics technology in today’s market, I think the absolute best solution is not to approach this topic with a “or” mentality. We can have both. This is my current preference and something I’m actively working on (not quite there yet). My goal is to put a high quality rugged LPVO with a precision Christmas tree style reticle on the AR with a high quality rugged RDS mounted with a 45 degree offset. This combination will allow me to switch between the two systems without breaking the cheek weld.

Sounds perfect, right? I think so. So why am I working on it still. It’s not an inexpensive option. A high quality LPVO, like the Vortex Optics Razor Gen III 1-10×24, will set one back almost $2,000. A high quality RDS, like the AimPoint T-2, will set one back around $700. Add another $300 or so for a cantilever mount, adapter plates, and an offset RDS mounting plate and we are now looking at a total of $3,000 for this setup.

Can it be done with mid tier or entry tier optics for less? Absolutely. In my opinion however, I think most folks will opt for picking one system rather than do both. The reality is that this route has a much lower barrier of entry financially. Ten crisp Franklins will yield a solid RDS and magnifier combination or a mid-tier LPVO. While I’m speculating a bit here, this is my current reality.

For the folks who believe they will likely do more precision work with their carbine, like me, the LPVO makes sense. While it’s not as effective as the RDS for defensive applications or moving between multiple targets quickly, the LPVO can be used for those applications. Yes, there is a compromise.

The opposite also seems possible for the folks that are primarily concerned with home defense or short range varmint hunting. In this case, the RDS makes a lot more sense. With the addition of a magnifier, coarse grained aimed shots at medium range distances are very doable. Granted fine grained precision shooting is compromised, but for some folks this compromise makes this setup great for the primary function and good enough for the other.

If you’ve read this far and are still reading, then I’m guessing you are looking for a more direct suggestion. So, I’ll provide a more direct suggestion. If you can afford to do both out of the gate, then do it. However, if you are considering going that route but are going to opt for lower tier equipment to make it fit within a budget, then I suggest starting with a higher tier LPVO or RDS first and adding the other at a later date. That said there is absolutely nothing wrong with starting out with entry level gear, but I would still suggest to start with one or the other instead of both. This simply because there is a good chance the entry level items will eventually be replaced. If one ends up realizing that the entry level equipment is good enough for them and wants to add the other later, then that’s fine too. I’m just attempting to suggest what I believe will yield the best path to both with minimal waste.

Good luck on the journey. Feel free to let us know which route you went in the comments below.


  1. One thing to keep in mind is that everything is a compromise. Every gadget I add to the rifle that may add a bit of capability, will also come at a cost in not only $ but also weight. If you are just shooting off a bench, the weight aspect isn’t much of a concern, but when we start getting into something like a 2 gun action challenge match where I have to carry my rifle and all my ammo and gear for the entire match, then that weight becomes a significant concern. That rifle as equipped with the magazine is around 10-11 pounds if I recall correctly. I’ve got a minimalist rifle I built for my youngest daughter with noting but a red dot that comes in just over 6 pounds with a full magazine. It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out that a 6 pound rifle is going to be easier to maneuver than 11 pound rifle. now that can be mitigated to an extent by a regular regimen of kettle bell swings, but 11 pounds is still 11 pounds. That said, The rifle pictured above is my “Main Squeeze” so that is more than likely the rifle I would grab to fight the next alien invasion, civil war II, or to defend my self during the collapse of civilization. But it isn’t the gun that sits by my bedside for home defense, That honor goes to a lightweight carbine with a dot and a light on it because when doing FISH (Fighting In Someone’s House) the red dot is still faster and as stated in the article isn’t reliant on cheek weld to get that good site picture which makes it excellent when shooting from non traditional positions.

    That said, I have the luxury of having multiple long guns that I can fit out for different roles as I deem necessary, and the main squeeze is for me the epitome of “if I could only have one” what would it be. Therefore I do a little bit of kettle bell work….

    If I haven’t talked you out of the idea of a muli role rifle yet, here are some considerations:

    Even the low end LPVOs are going to run $400 and up. There are cheaper options to be sure, but none I would bet my life on.
    There is a very low probability of you getting even close your money back out of an optic when you sell it. People don’t want to buy used glass.

    The good news is there are lots of red dots now that fit the role as good as or better than the Aimpoint T2 at a much lower price point. They may not be “Just as good” but many of them come pretty close at a fraction of the cost.

    The mount… This is the one part of this set up that usually holds its value fairly well. So go ahead and consider better stuff here even if you are on a budget. But if you are thinking of upgrading the glass in the future, pay special consideration to the tube size. If my goal is to get that Vortex Gen III 1-10, that’s a 34mm tube. What entry level glass, that I would trust with my life, has a 34mm tube? That limits the options and will more than likely raise the price point. Do I run separate mounts or get a mount that will accommodate an offset red dot like the Badger Ordnance C.O.M.M. in the picture above?

    Bottom line is it is wise to pre plan this out and have a solid idea of an end state if you are going to put it together over time.

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