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Red Dots vs Red Dot Magnifiers vs LPVOs vs Traditional Scopes

So you’ve got an AR-15 or an AK or a PCC and now you want to work out a system for getting rounds on target. There are lots of options. As the title suggests, there are red dots, red dots with magnifiers, LPVOs, traditional rifle scopes, and even old-school iron sights–but which one is best?

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The red dot vs. scope argument is one that stirs emotions and gets opinionated folk all riled up. The answer, though, isn’t complex. It is all about what you want to do with the gun.

The AR platform is actually ideal for hunting and can offer some benefits no bolt action can touch.
The AR platform is actually ideal for hunting and can offer some benefits no bolt action can touch. But what you put up top will determine your limits.

What do you intend on doing with this gun? Each of the available options is ideal for a limited set of tasks, but each of them comes with a set of compromises, too.

We’ll start at the close-quarters end of the spectrum and work our way out.

The RCO is a great choice alone or in combination with other sights.
The RCO is a great red dot choice alone or in combination with other sights.

What is a Red Dot Good For?

When you’re working at close quarters, red dots rock. Most red dots have the advantage of being easy to see. As you throw the gun to your shoulder (or even as you raise a pistol), your eye only has to find the red dot and the target downrange.

This is a serious advantage over iron sights that require you to line up the rear sight, front sight, and target. Even though it is just two things to align instead of three, it is really quite a bit faster.

AT3™ 3XP + ARO Combo - Includes 3x Prism Scope & Micro Red Dot Reflex Sight
A red dot on a red dot? Sure–if you want a magnified red dot for medium range work and a non-magnified red dot for faster target acquisition. Here it is an AT3™ 3XP + ARO Combo – a 3x Prism Scope & Micro Red Dot Reflex Sight.

 

And the color of the red dot catches the eye. Some dots can be harder to see in bright sunlight, but they all excel in low-light conditions.

The sacrifices, though, are real. A red dot can be precise at close ranges. At longer distances, though, the little tiny dot on top of your gun covers a much larger area.

The practical result is that accuracy suffers at longer distances. And there’s a bullet drop to consider, too. What’s the practical limit of a red dot’s efficacy?

That depends on many factors, including the size of the dot, the caliber, and the skill of the shooter. Some think 100 yards is a stretch for reliable accuracy. The best way to know would be to hit the range and see what’s possible.

AT3™ RRDM™ 3x Red Dot Magnifier w/ Flip to Side Mount
The RRDM flips into position to add magnification, or down to allow for close-quarters work.

Add a Magnifier to a Red Dot

This seems like a really logical transition. There are benefits to the red dot scope with magnification.

If your red dot isn’t cutting it at extended ranges, throw a magnifier up top. These are brilliant pieces of technology that magnify the image of your target in combination with the red dot. Many flip into place, effectively turning a gun that had been a close-quarters gun into one that can now be used at those middle distances.

There’s enough room on top of a standard AR upper for both a red dot and a magnifier.

A magnifier will allow for the speed of a red dot at close range, and a reasonable option for medium-range shots with only a slightly slower targeting time. The RRDM will magnify 3 times, instantly.

If there’s a down-side to the magnifier and red dot combination, it is hard to nail down. They add some bulk to a gun by adding yet another accessory to the top, but the benefits are worth the extra weight and bulk.

AT3™ Red Tail™ Rifle Scope with Mount - 1-4x or 1-6x Magnification - 5.56 Illuminated BDC Reticle
The new AT3 Red Tail Rifle Scope is an ideal LPVO for use on carbines.

Adding on the LPVO

But there is another option: low power variable optics (LPVO). The LPVO vs. red dot argument is all about speed. But the LPVO vs. a red dot with magnifier is more about accuracy.

One LPVO can take the place of a paired red dot and magnifier if you are willing to make another set of sacrifices.

The main one is the more limited field of view. While this isn’t a universal rule, many LPVOs have a field of view that is pretty limited. The scope has to be aligned correctly and you have to account for eye relief in order to get on target, and this isn’t as fast or as intuitive as using a red dot.

LPVOs, as a result, require more practice. That’s hardly a bad thing. If you have the time to dedicate to building the muscle memory, a good LPVO can be as fast as a red dot, especially if the LPVO has a light-up reticle.

AT3™ Red Tail™ Rifle Scope with Mount - 1-4x or 1-6x Magnification - 5.56 Illuminated BDC Reticle
The Red Tail’s reticle allows for red-dot like speed, and pinpoint precision at close quarters.

As the name suggests, a low-powered variable optic usually runs from 1x or 1.5x up to 4x, 6x, or even higher. This allows you to look through the reticle with no (or almost no) magnification for fast work. Keep both eyes open and the image in the field of view will even meld into the ocular input feeding into your other eye and your brain will stitch it all together in real-time.

And when you need to engage something at a distance, simply roll up the magnification and use it like you would a traditional scope. This makes these scopes exceptionally popular for hunters. For coyotes and hogs, an LPVO on a solid rifle is a lethal combination.

For serious long-range shooting, you will want as much magnification as you can get from your scope. The Riton Optics X1 CONQUER 6-24X50 Riflescope is a practical option for a long-range AR build.
For serious long-range shooting, you will want as much magnification as you can get from your scope. The Riton Optics X1 CONQUER 6-24X50 Riflescope is a practical option for a long-range AR build.

Traditional scopes

This section may need the least explanation. Let’s look at the basic setup of a scope. We begin with magnification. That’s the first number in the mix and it is almost always a range (especially now that fixed-power scout scopes have fallen out of fashion).

The next number is the field of view. The bigger the numbers mean you see more downrange through the scope. And that helps with target acquisition while you are looking at a highly magnified image.

Most traditional scopes, though, begin with some magnification. And this is a limiting factor for close-up work. Targets that are at long distances are easy enough to pick out, but targets that are close up are seemingly impossible to find in the field of view.

With all of these options, don’t forget about the need for a solid scope mount.

And you may want to provide a backup. As fool-proof as most of these options are, there are still ways that they can be compromised. And if that happens, you’ll want some traditional sights or backup sights to help.

To sum up

If you need a fast rifle that is ideal for close-quarters, get a red dot. For home defense, a solid truck gun, hog hunting (or any kind of hunting that may have fast-moving, close targets), a red dot is great.

If that same gun needs to provide some modest accuracy at ranges out to 200 yards or so, adding a magnifier to the mix may do exactly what you need.

If you are going to train and want something that can provide pinpoint accuracy close up and out to mid-range distances, the LPVO may be a solid option.

Hunting deer with a .223? Know how far you can shoot.
Hunting deer with a .223? Know how far you can shoot. The red dot vs. scope for hunting is an easy choice. Go for the scope.

And if you want accuracy at really long ranges and won’t be engaging close targets (or fewer of them), don’t overlook the potential of scope with more magnification.

Which one do you want more–speed or precision? Far away targets allow for much longer set-up times, usually, and require much more skill and precision to hit. For those circumstances, a fine set of old-school cross-hairs is going to provide more reliable results than a lit-up dot.

But there’s no substitute for speed.

One Last Tip

If there’s anyone that knows the AR-15 platform, it’s the US military. As a special offer for our readers, you can get the Official US Army Manual for AR-15/M4/M16 right now – for free. Click here to snag a copy.

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