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 (LVPO) 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 LVPO 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 LVPO, as the name suggests, is a low powered variable optic. Generally speaking, all LVPOs 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, LVPOs 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 LVPOs 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 LVPO 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? LVPO 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 LVPO 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 LVPO, 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 LVPO. 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 LVPO makes sense. While it’s not as effective as the RDS for defensive applications or moving between multiple targets quickly, the LVPO 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 LVPO 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.