You might be in a quandary when it comes to selecting an optic for your AR (or another rifle, for that matter). Do you go with a scope or a red dot? Which is better? It can be confusing. The newer LPVO (low power, variable optic) scopes can make it even tougher. Hopefully, we’ll untangle a few things where optics are concerned and give you a better idea of what might work for you. Let’s get to it!
A Quick Comparison
OK. In a few words, here’s a summary comparison…
A variable-power (1 - 6, usually) scope made for closer ranges but with enough power for out to 500 yards or so. The Vortex Strike Eagle that we have here has BDC lines and illuminated reticle – those features are common among the breed. The scopes have the standard turret adjustment dials plus an illumination dial (if so equipped).
A 1-power (no magnification, without a separate magnifier) optical sight with a red or green dot superimposed in the center of the viewing screen. Red dots are adjustable for windage and elevation, and usually for intensity. Some allow adjustment of the size of the dot, as well.
Pros and Cons
Here are some “generic” pros and cons of each type of sight…
Variable magnification. Set it to 6x to bring your target “up closer”.
Lens glass is better. On average, the glass used in scopes is superior to that in red dots.
Light-gathering advantages. Scopes can be used in near-dark conditions, especially with an illuminated reticle
Cost. Some LPVO scopes can be expensive. They will most likely cost more than red dots.
Mounting Issues. Scopes need to be mounted solidly, level and square or their adjustments are off.
Red Dot Pros:
Can be inexpensive. Many decent-quality red dots are priced under $200.
Fast target acquisition, both eyes open. You place the dot on the target and pull the trigger. That’s why competitors use them in matches.
Unobtrusive. Red dots are small compared to most scopes and are easy to manuever.
Can be co-witnessed. If you have back-up sights installed, you can set your red dot to the same point of aim.
You can buy red dots specifically for handguns or long guns.
Red Dot Cons:
No magnification. Unless you are running a magnifier, you are stuck with 1x.
Light gathering. Unlike scopes, red dots can be hard to see through in near-dark conditions.
As I said, these are very general advantages and disadvantages of both type of optic. Your results may vary, of course, depending on what you buy but if you’re new to the game and need a little guidance, these basics are a good place to start.
Now that we’ve seen pros and cons of each sight, let’s look at an example of each type. Bear Creek Arsenal was kind enough to send me one of each… I received a Vortex Strike Eagle LPVO and a BCA-branded red dot. Here are links to both of them…
I mounted the Strike Eagle on a BCA 7.62x39 AR that I killed a deer with last year, and the red dot went on a 9mm AR. I really like these calibers in the AR platform!
Both rifles, ammo and the Ransom Multi-Cal Steady Rest. That made the shooting easier!
Let’s look at both of them. It’s important to remember that, even though I’ll be discussing each of the optics pictured here, the points I’m trying to get across have to do with LVPO scopes and red dots in general. These two examples are just representative of each breed, and pretty darn good ones, at that!
I’ll show the “plain-jane” version of each from the website, and then photos of them mounted on my rifles. Included with both: flip-up lens covers, lens cleaning cloths, mounting screws and Allen wrench, CR2032 battery.
I truly appreciate the fact that these optics come with everything you need to get them going except for the scope mount. It’s reasonable that the mount wasn’t included, as there are beaucoup mounts out there and everybody has their own needs in terms of height, etc. I kept it simple and just bought the $29 Monstrum 30mm mount shown on the scope’s web page, and it worked fine – the height was perfect and the mount is solid. The red dot included a mount. Anyway, here you go…
Vortex Strike Eagle
This scope represents the LPVO family really well. It is a 1x6x24 optic with an illuminated reticle. Here’s a photo I took of the reticle. I don’t have specialized camera equipment – just a Canon T5 – but you get the idea…
It actually came out pretty well. You see the illumination and the bullet drop compensator (BDC) cross lines below it. The lines are the BDC part of the equation, as they are in many other scopes – this is nothing new but is useful. See below for an explanation.
Here’s a representative image from the reticle manual that came with the scope (I didn’t see it online). You see the lighted reticle and cross lines below. The yardages marked are for the .223/5.56mm and are close for the 308. Notice the small orange sighting dot in the center of the larger circle that’s visible above - that’s what I sighted my rifle to. This scope is calibrated for a .223/5.56mm rifle, but it works fine with my 7.62x39. The orange dot is the 20-200 yard marker and the other lines going down are set to 300 - 400 - 500 yards. (Again, for the .223/5.56mm). Each click of the adjusting turrets moved the POI ½ MOA. These features are fairly common among scopes of this type. They do make shooting at longer ranges easier.
Here’s an interesting feature… Those lines at the top of the scope – those are the ranging feature of this particular scope. You place the bottom-most hashmark at the base of a standard silhouette target. Then, look at the top of the target to see which of the lines it aligns with. That’s the range in hundreds of yards. The horizontal lines correspond with the silhouette’s shoulder width at the indicated range.
This particular scope is a second focal plane scope. That means, in basic terms, that the reticle and cross hairs don’t change size with magnification. They are the same size at 1x as they are at 6x. The advantage of this is that they are the same size throughout the magnification range. Most hunting scopes are this type, while scopes made for longer-range shooting tend to be of the first focal plane variety. Their cross hairs grow in proportion with increased magnification.
I adjusted the scope to hit an inch high at 50 yards. Here’s a quick drop chart from gundata.org out to 300 yards – way more than I need – but you get the point. It uses a 50-yard zero (not an inch higher) but it’s close enough…
Again, this is not a typical zero range but our deer woods are a story unto themselves – very close ranges – and the 50-yard zero allows you to hold “on” at 100 yards, as the bullet will only drop .2 inch. You’re really good to go at further ranges, allowing that a deer’s kill zone is about 18” or so. Since the bullet’s drop and energy are still good at 150 yards, you could again hold dead on and have the bullet only drop 2.4 inches.
You might be asking why go to all this trouble for a general comparison article about LPVO scopes and red dots? Because you need to. If you are going to take advantage of any scope’s features, you need to know where your bullet is going at various ranges. I could do a lot of math and figure out the corresponding ranges for the 7.62x39 and the stadia lines etched into the scope, but I’m not going to do that. Around here, a 75-yard shot at a deer is a long way, since most hunting takes place in the woods or on the edge of the field. The one I killed last year at 151 yards was an anomaly, a cornfield shot.
Here’s my sighting target… note the red arrow. That denotes the final shot I took, the one after all the adjusting. It hit just where I wanted it to, an inch high at 50 yards. I was using S&B 7.62x39 soft-point ammo. This ammo sure did a job on that deer last year and is really accurate.
That’s the scope side of things. Now for the red dot…
Bear Creek Arsenal Red Dot RD30D
Red dots can be very handy. They allow you to get on target in an instant by projecting a red or green “dot”-shaped reticle onto your field of vision and allow you to keep both eyes open while you aim. They can be less complicated than scopes in terms of glass lenses but they have their own type of magic that they do when it comes to putting a red or green dot on your target.
Red dots come in three varieties… reflex (reflector), prismatic, and holographic. [Check out our article comparing reflex vs. red dot sights.]
Reflex/reflector sights project an aiming dot onto a lens that the shooter looks through. Most models use some kind of fiber optic and illumination to brighten the aiming dot, but some higher-end sights use tritium. This technology is used in other areas, such as a fighter pilot’s heads-up display and tank gun sights. It is very popular and works well. Advantages of the reflex sight include the ability to use very long eye relief - as you can see, I mounted the red dot here almost halfway down the barrel so I could co-witness with the iron sights. Another plus is that the sight is parallax-free… you can move your head around behind the sight but the dot stays put. Finally, these sights tend to be affordable. I bought one for just $25 online and it works. I wouldn’t recommend doing that, but if you’re on a budget, you can still have the benefits that a red dot offers.
Prismatic sights are more like rifle scopes, but not as complicated. They project an image that is upside-down, so it gets flipped before the shooter sees it. The reticle on most of these sights is etched onto the glass which provides a few advantages… the reticle can be magnified and illuminated and offer BDC markings just like a regular scope. Disadvantages include they are not generally parallax-free at higher magnifications, and they require a shorter eye relief so they must be mounted closer to your eye.
Holographic sights project the reticle in 3D so that it seems to “float” against the target. They do not project the dot onto glass, but use lasers and mirrors to produce a true floating image that stays in focus, unlike reflex reticles that can get a bit fuzzy. This allows your eye to concentrate on your target with the reticle seemingly on top of it. Another plus is that a 1-MOA dot will stay 1-MOA, even when magnification is applied, unlike many reflex-type sights’ dots. Other advantages include: if the front lens is damaged, the sight will still work, unlike reflector sights. If you break any lens on a reflex sight, you’re pretty much done. A final advantage is that some sights can even be used to range your target. EOTech and Vortex only make holographic sights.
The downside of a holographic sight is cost… these sights can get really expensive really quickly. You might end up paying 2, 3, or more times the cost of a reflex sight. You have to decide if it’s worth it.
That sums up red dot sights. I own a few of them and they truly are useful. I appreciate the fact that you can keep both eyes open while you shoot, and that they don’t take up much room when mounted on your rifle or handgun.
[Check out our complete guide to optics to learn more!]
So – Do I Buy A LVPO Or Red Dot?
Yeah, you knew we’d get to that question, didn’t you? I’ll answer that question with another question. What are you going to use it for?
The whole enchilada boils down to usage. These sights are meant to do different things. Let’s look at a couple of them. Bear in mind that sometimes the usage paths cross and either sight would work for some applications.
Hunting is an area where the paths cross. The sight you choose will depend upon what you are hunting and at what range. If you are like me and like to track Mr. Bushytail across the treetops at fairly close ranges, then either would work. As I mentioned above, I bought an inexpensive red dot to put on my S&W Victory .22 pistol. It is more than adequate for squirrels. But… if I were hunting with a .22 rifle, I could see putting a LVPO on it and having the advantage of being able to “up” the magnification if needed.
But what about larger game, say, deer? I put the Vortex shown here on my 7.62x39 AR specifically to hunt close- to mid-range deer. I explained above that where I live, close ranges are the order of the day and you don’t need a 12x, 20x, 24x, etc. since most of your shots will be at or under 100 yards. The illuminated reticle comes in handy, too – most of the shots at deer that I’ve taken over the years have happened when daylight was not in abundance, either early or late. That reticle would’ve come in handy several times. Also, the 6x power would have helped.
How about Mr. Way-Out-There deer, coyote, or another critter? If your target is 200, 300, or more yards out, the LPVO’s BDC lines will help. Simply place the proper yardage reticle line on the target after ranging it and let fly. Of course, most of these scopes have BDC lines for specific cartridges, but a bit of math and field work will allow you to still use them with whatever cartridge you’re shooting. Just do yourself a favor and go out and shoot a target or two at extended ranges to make sure the lines are accurate. Another advantage of a scope that I touched on above is its light-gathering properties. You can shoot earlier or later in the day with a scope than you can with other types of sights. That’s a big plus.
Another area that benefits from an optic is the world of competition. I won’t get too picky here, as that could be an article on its own, but suffice it to say that target shooting calls for the proper optic where allowed. If your competition is of the type where you are up against the clock and your targets are 50 yards or so in, the red dot is your huckleberry. Its stick-the-dot-on-the-target-and-pull-the-trigger style is made for that type of contest.
But, if you are trying to ring steel at extended ranges, the LVPO is the only way to go. You can use the BDC lines all the way out and be reassured that they will still be true even at 6x magnification.
This is an area that usually is made for red dots. Your target is often up close in a home defense scenario, so the benefits of a red dot are typically called upon for that situation. I could see, however, you using a LVPO if your home consists of a farm or ranch and ranges are not up close.
Have you noticed a couple of generalities that dictate which of these sights you might use? It’s range and precision.
If your range is close and you don’t need MOA-type of accuracy, the red dot might be the better choice – especially if you have to shoot in a hurry. But, if what you’re looking to put a bullet in a target way out there and you have the time to get set up with a decent rest, then the scope is the way to go. Crank it up all the way and turn on the reticle illumination if light is an issue. You’ll have a greater probability of scoring a hit if you do these things.
Either of these sights would make a good addition to your gun accessory inventory list. They both show advantages, depending on purpose and range. When I would tell him a story that tended to wander, my beloved uncle would tell me to “shuck it on down to the cob, boy!”. So… here it is, shucked down to the cob: if you need a fast shot up close on the varmint in your yard and don’t need to place the bullet exactly 2 millimeters to the right of that white patch on its chest, the red dot’s for you. If you are hunting or otherwise shooting at distance and precision is the name of the game and magnification would help, then the LVPO scope should be screwed down on your Picatinny rail. This is especially true when light is low.
That’s it. You’ll probably want at least one of each, as they are both very useful and serve their purpose well. If you have questions or comments, let’s hear from you below. Now… it’s time to go shootin’!