Most all shooters begin with Iron Sights. Our BB guns, Pellet guns, or .22 rifles usually were equipped with some fashion of iron sights, and we learned to shoot dealing with three focal planes: We aligned our target, the front sight, and our rear sight. We were taught to focus on the front sight, and this left the rear sight and our target blurry.
Some folks are still diehard iron sight fans, and I am always impressed with folks that are phenomenally accurate with irons. I have found my shooting to be more enjoyable and accurate when using optics, however.
Why chose a Red Dot over Iron Sights?
Red Dot Sights as a rule have zero magnification. They project a red dot image at what our eyes perceive to be an infinite distance in front of the barrel of the weapon. Unlike a laser sight that actually projects a beam that contacts the target, this dot is perceived to be projected when viewed through the lenses of the Red Dot Optic. If the shooter moves his head and eyes away from the stock, the dot remains on target until it reaches the edge of the lens. Because of the large field of view due to the zero magnification and the projected red dot, using a Red Dot Sight will usually result in faster target/sight acquisition at close ranges than open sights. Because of the dot projected at infinity, the shooter can keep both eyes open and focused on the target. This single plane of focus makes target acquisition much faster for my eyes.
Everything is a compromise, however. I've never had the batteries die on my iron sights, nor have I had them quit working for some random reason.
Why choose a Red Dot over a magnifying scope?
If your shooting is within traditionally accepted "open sight" ranges, a Red Dot will be a faster optic than a magnified rifle scope. If you anticipate shooting from unconventional positions, a Red Dot optic has infinite eye relief, therefore, if you can see the red dot and put it on target, you can put a bullet where the dot is. A conventional magnified scope demands a constant, repeatable "spot weld" between your cheek and the rifle stock to view the crosshairs and the target.
If your shooting is primarily done at distances greater than 200 yards, if you are a varmint hunter shooting at small targets a very long way away, or if pinpoint long distance accuracy is more important than rapid target acquisition, a magnified optic would probably suit your needs better.
Should I get a tube style or holographic style?
A short while into Red Dot Optic shopping, you will find there are two basic styles for red dot sights, commonly referred to as "Tube Style" or "Holographic Style".
The tube style can easily support lens covers for lens protection, where the holographic style units usually have no field covers, or have a one piece unit that pulls off and is easily lost.
The beam path is totally enclosed on the tube style, where the emitter and beam path are outside on the holographic style, where they can be blocked by leaves, mud, rain or debris.
The holographic styles have a wider field of view and less peripheral sight picture obstructions. Tube styles have a large opaque "donut" surrounding the target, where on the holographic sights the surrounding frame is much less intrusive.
My perception is that the tube style is more durable and the glass is better protected against drops, spills, bumps, and blows, but I have not accidentally or intentionally drop tested any of my weapons or optics to test this impression.
What about Reticles?
You will find there are a plethora of choices in reticle sizes, colors and shapes.
Personally, I'm a fan of the simple red dot. I like a small dot for my rifles, 2moa max, and a larger 4moa dot for my handguns. The 2moa dot, by definition, measures two inches at 100 yards. The 4moa dot covers one inch at 25 yards.
Larger dots will facilitate faster target acquisition, but at the expense of fine accuracy with a good rest. It's hard to accurately place a bullet in a target that your dot totally covers.
I have a Vortex Strikefire that has a selectable red or green dot. It is said that the green works better in low light conditions, and I understand the theory, but I don't find myself switching to green often.
There are plenty of different reticles available on red dots, circles, crosshairs, cross dots, post dots, circle crosses, horseshoes…I've tried a lot of them, and frankly, I don't see the purpose. It messes up the sight picture with unneeded illumination. Personally, I just want to see a red dot where the bullet is going to hit.
Since the Red Dot Sight has no magnification, one can use the red dot in conjunction with iron sights, or switch to the iron sights if the optic fails. A full co-witness would mean that if you looked through your rear sight, through the red dot optic mounted on an AR-15, you would see the red dot projected onto the post of the front sight. This feature can save ammo during sight in, as you can peer through your sighted in iron sights, adjust the windage and elevation of your red dot to project the dot onto your front sight post, and you have saved several sight in shots. I'm not a fan of full co-witness with fixed front and rear sights because I think it obscures the sight picture too much. Full co-witness does make sense with folding front and rear sights.
Some sights co-witness in the lower 1/3 of the sight picture. I find this to be less obtrusive with a fixed front sight.
To utilize back up sights on an AR-15 equipped with a magnifying optic, one would have to remove the optic or use offset backup sights, where you can use backup sights with a Red Dot in place.
What REALLY matters when selecting a Red Dot optic?
- Can you see through it? Like magnifying scopes, the quality of the glass and the coatings determine the amount and clarity of the light coming through the optic. Precision electronics and glass will project a sharply defined dot or reticle. Bottom shelf optics will project a fuzzy, distorted or doubled dot.
- How easy and intuitive are the controls? If the scope is complicated to use, hard to turn on and off, and complicated to adjust while at the range, it's going to be downright confounding to figure out when under stress.
- What is the battery life? I've had cheap optics that ran their batteries dead after 48 hours of run time. Conversely, I have an Aimpoint M4 that has an advertised EIGHT YEARS of battery life, running on a single AA battery. I splurge and change the battery every year.
- What is the reputation of the Manufacturer? Do they stand behind their product? If a company builds great stuff and stands behind it fully, it's worth every penny for that quality.
- Does the optic feature an auto-shutoff feature? I don't have one, or need one on the Aimpoint mentioned above, but I demand that feature on any mid-priced optic I may need to rely on for hunting, competition or defense.
- Does the optic use a battery that you have readily available? There's nothing worse than a dead sight that runs off some obscure battery you can't find in the junk drawer or your corner store.
- Buy once; cry once. Find and buy quality. You'll never regret it. The market is flooded with substandard red dot trinkets. Buy a real optic if you want a real optic, leave the cheap stuff for the kids and Airsoft.
Mark Spreadborough writes from his family homestead in Kalama, Washington, where he lives with his wife, son, daughter, dog and cat. When not writing, shooting, hunting, fishing or working on his property, he goes to his day job as a HVAC repair mechanic.