When it comes time to select an optic for your AR-pattern rifle or pistol, it’s easy to succumb to paralysis by analysis. Should you go with a scope? If so, what power? Do you want a low power scope designed for fast target acquisition, or a higher power scope for medium or long range? Or do you want a fixed-power prism optic? Or, if you are interested in close-range, high-speed events, should you choose a red dot sight or a reflex sight?
Each type of optic has its own unique characteristics to perform in a certain environment. You don’t want a 9-power scope when you're kicking down doors, nor do you want a single-power dot for picking off prairie dogs. Two of the most popular types of low-magnification optics are red dot sights and reflex sights. What are they and how should you use them? Let’s find out.
What Are Red Dot Sights and Reflex Sights?
On the surface, red dot optics and reflex sights look about the same. They both impose a red dot in the middle of the glass which you use to paint the target. But what about the engineering science of the optic? Are they really the same?
Red dot optics and reflex sights are similar in that acquiring your target is performed the same way. Place the red dot on the target, squeeze the trigger, and neutralize the target.
Red dot optics and reflex sights are both made for:
Simplicity and ease of use.
Rapid target acquisition.
And they are both great at these two things.
The Aimpoint M68CCO has been standard equipment on DoD M4 rifles for about two decades now. It’s easy to use (all the rear echelon troops can figure it out), durable as all get out, and runs on a common battery.
Oh, and did we mention the battery life? Red dot optics and reflex sights have battery lives typically measured in thousands of hours.
Red dot optics are an optical device in the traditional sense that they use an optics tube with glass on each end. They are always a 1x power setting. You can buy a magnifier, a second optical device that usually folds to the side if you need something in the 3x or 5x power range. These are useful if you live in brushy areas of the world and use an AR-15 for deer hunting. It allows you to quickly go from a 1x power red dot to an optic with more reach.
Both red dot optics and reflex sights use the same technology: a spherical mirror with a special coating reflects light cast on it by a tiny LED. This light is adjustable for windage and elevation, and the light reflected is the reticle.
Differences Between the Two
There isn’t much difference in operation between a red dot optic and a reflex sight: they use the exact same technology for the reticle.
Where you find the differences is in size and the body of the optic.
Red dot sights use the same spherical reflections technology, but they put the whole package inside of an aluminum tube, like a standard rifle scope but with no magnification. The body is almost usually made of aluminum; aluminum is cheap, lightweight, impervious to rust, and higher grades of aluminum (particularly aircraft grades) are quite strong. The reflection mirror and light are inside of the tube, making it a little more durable.
Reflex sights have become so small that there is little more than the aluminum body and the coated mirror. There is no extra glass on reflex sights; it is the mirror protected by an aluminum hood. This makes for a compact optic that weighs next to nothing.
Applications for Each Type
Okay, now we’re in the meat and potatoes: what should each optic be used for? The coolest thing about any of the reflection optics is their versatility.
Red Dot Sights
A red dot optic is at home on a .22 plinker for reducing the squirrel population, an AR-15 for predator control (two- or four-legged predators), or a shotgun. Modern red dot sights have a high shock tolerance for use on shotguns among other things.
A red dot sight on a big bore AR-15 is great medicine in bear country. Rumor has it that some guides are even running red dots on Nitro-caliber Safari rifles in Africa for defensive use.
Reflex sights are versatile due for a couple of reasons:
It’s hard to even find a modern pistol now that doesn’t come with an optics mount option. They are so small that even single-stack and sub-compact double-stack pistols can be mounted with a reflex sight.
Reflex sights are also popular on shotguns because of their tiny mass and super-quick target acquisition. They are great for turkey guns, wingshooting, and defensive shotguns.
Picatinny rails on the scope. Some scopes come standard with these, or you can buy a ring that clamps on the scope tube. The reflex sight usually sits on top of the scope, but some are at 45° offset.
Add-on 45° mount. These attach to the top rail on your handguard or the rail on the top of your upper receiver and offset the optic 45° to whichever side you choose.
Which One Should You Choose?
This is my personal preference. Red dot sights are usually too large as a secondary optic, so they are used as a primary. The great thing about these is their optic tube is large enough to co-witness with iron sights. A set of folding sights are the ideal compliment to a red dot sight.
But, if you run an optics-ready pistol, you’ll need to consider a reflex sight. This isn’t to say that a reflex sight won’t work on an AR rifle or pistol; it’ll work fine, although you will need a riser for it.
The other factor is cost: red dot sights bring high quality results at price points that keep getting lower all the time.
Red dot sights and reflex sights have swept the market and only promise to get better as technology and manufacturing processes evolve. Optics and sights are not a one-size-fits-all commodity; you should figure out your needs and equip yourself accordingly.
Bear Creek Arsenal has your full line of optics, whether you need a rifle scope, red dot sight, or reflex sight. We also carry iron sights for backups, or for the traditionalists out there. But you want to outfit your AR, pistol, or shotgun, we’ve got you covered, so check them out. Also, make sure to check out our bundles of paired products!