Every firearm needs some sort of aiming device.
Iron sights are the classic option, but they can be slow and take up a portion of what you’re looking at.
Scopes offer a magnified view of the target but are comparatively slow to use and offer a narrow field of view.
The fastest, easiest sights to use at closer ranges are either red dot sights or holographic sights. These two types of gun sights are similar in how you use them but are different enough that they are not interchangeable.
Which sight should you use on your gun?
How Do Red Dot Sights Work?
A red dot sight, also called a reflex sight or a reflector sight, bounces a light off a curved mirror to superimpose an image in front of your eye.
The curved mirror has a coating that reflects only one or two colors and allows all other colors through. This keeps the mirror from blocking your view.
The result is a reticle, typically a red dot, between your eye and the target.
Most modern reflex sights use a red or green LED. These are extremely power efficient.
How Do Holographic Sights Work?
Holographic sights don’t use an LED. Instead, they use a laser emitter diode to shoot a laser that illuminates a prerecorded reticle image and bounces that illumination around some mirror inside the optics until it gets projected onto the lens you’re looking through.
Holographic sights use different technology to put the reticle in front of your eye. However, since the center of the reticle is a red dot, and since holo sights are used similarly to reflex sights, holo sights are often grouped together with reflex sights as red dot sights.
Though, I’ll refer to holographic sights as their own type of sight and to reflex sights as red dot sights.
How Red Dot Sights and Holographic Sights Are Similar
Both red dot sights and holo sights function similarly in that they both superimpose an image of a reticle in front of your view of the target.
The idea is that you look at the target with both eyes open, put the central dot over the target, and pull the trigger. Blam! Bullseye!
Both red dot sights and holo sights are more forgiving than iron sights because you don’t have to keep your head directly in line with the target for them to work. As you move your head around the reticle will move around as well, compensating for an imperfect stance.
However, the farther your eye is from the center of the sight, the farther off-target the reticle will be. This is called a parallax error and can mess up your tiny group at 100 yards but won’t cause you to miss your target completely.
Another similarity is that both red dot sights and holo sights have effectively unlimited eye relief. The reticle stays the same size whether the sight is close to your face or on the far end of your gun, so you can place the sight where it’s most convenient for you.
Also, both red dot sights and holo sights require electricity in order to function.
How Red Dot Sights and Holographic Sights Are Different
Despite these similarities, there are some important differences.
Red dot sights put the reticle in the sight’s glass. Holo sights appear to form a holographic reticle between your gun and the target. This makes holo sights feel more natural to use for many shooters, so a holo sight is often the faster option.
On the other hand, the holo sight’s laser emitter cannot produce as crisp a reticle as can be found on even cheap red dot sights. Holographic reticles can appear grainy or as a series of dots.
However, that laser emitter is a more durable instrument than the red dot’s LED, which can more easily get knocked out of place after a hard impact. So, it’s easier to ruggedize holo sights than to ruggedize red dot sights.
Advantages and Disadvantages
Holo sights and red dot sights both have advantages and disadvantages. These pros and cons don’t always overlap either.
Red Dot Sight Pros
1. The primary advantage of a red dot sight is that LEDs are cheap, and the glass is easy to produce. Red dot sights are the less expensive option.
2. Red dot sights can also be smaller than holo sights and are almost always lighter. In fact, red dot sights can be made small enough to fit on a pistol’s slide without hanging over the edges!
3. Also, LEDs are efficient enough at consuming power for better red dot sights to have an absolutely amazing battery life.
Some red dot sights can be left on for 20,000 hours with both the circle and dot on, or even 50,000 hours when projecting just the dot. That’s a battery life of almost six years!
In fact, this power efficiency means that some red dot sights, most notably ones manufactured by Holosun, can be powered by solar power alone. This is good news for the environmentalist and the prepper.
4. Also, red dots are simple enough devices that it’s easy to add advanced features to the sights without driving up the cost too far.
A good example of this is the shake-awake feature that has become popular in the last few years. This allows the sight to stay off and preserve battery life while the gun is still and turns on the sight when you move the gun.
Red Dot Sight Cons
Red dot sights do have some weaknesses.
If you have astigmatism, chances are that red dot sights won’t work for you. The reticle might blur into an unusable mess.
This can be mitigated by using a reflex sight with a green reticle or by getting a sight with a larger dot.
Also, the reflection method used in red dot sights cause the reticle itself to magnify as well. This can make shooting difficult when trying to be precise at long ranges.
Holographic Sight Pros
1. Holo sights, since the reticle appears partially downrange, are the faster sight option for most people.
2. Also, holo sights don’t actually use the outside glass to send the image to your eye. You can partially shatter a holographic optic and it’ll still be usable. This isn’t the case with reflex sights!
3. Holo sights also suffer from less parallax error than red dot sights, so you can use more of the glass without getting too far off target.
4. Speaking of target shooting, a holo sight’s center dot is about 1 MOA. This makes it fine for precision shooting. And, when you add a magnifier, it stays at 1 MOA.
5. Finally, holo sights are often (but not always!) less affected by astigmatism.
Holographic Sight Cons
Lasers are power hogs, so holo sights lose out in the battery life department.
Even the longest-running holo sight, the Vortex Razor AMG UH-1, can last only 1,600 hours between charges.
Also, holographic sights require more internal optics, so they are larger and heavier than most red dot sights. This, plus the laser, drives up the cost of manufacturing. The most expensive red dot sight is about the same price, or less, than the cheapest holo sight!
Which Sight is Best For …
Now that you know the difference between red dot sights and holographic sights, you probably have a good idea of which one you prefer.
To solidify that decision, let’s look at some different situations in which you’ll be using your rifle to see which of these sights is the better choice.
By “action shooting” I mean fast-paced competitive shooting where you want to make hits as fast as possible, such as three-gun shooting.
Holo sights win here for sure. The battery life is inconsequential but the downrange reticle can help you get an edge on speed.
Your only real option for putting a non-magnified optic onto a pistol is a mini red dot sight such as the Trijicon RMR or Holosun 507C.
Holo sights are just too bulky to put on a pistol for anything more than a laugh.
Red dots win in the home defense market because of their excellent battery life.
Get a red dot sight with 20,000 hours or more of battery life and leave it on. Change the battery on your birthday every year, and it’ll never die on you when you need it.
I’m conflicted about which of the two sight types is my favorite for hunting.
Holo sights are more precise and more durable.
However, only red dot sights can be solar powered, which is an added layer of insurance when you’re in the wild.
Both types work well.
Long Range Shooting
Long-range shooting with an unmagnified optic requires a magnifier. Red dot reticles get magnified to obnoxious levels, while holographic reticles stay the same size, so the holograms win this one.
People Shooting on a Budget
Red dot sights are always cheaper than holographic sights, unless you find a really good deal. No contest here; reflex sights win.
If you plan on using an electric optic in case the grid goes down, disposable batteries are a weakness.
Holosun’s solar-powered red dot sights are a great choice for preppers. The UH-1 holo sight is also a contender, though, because it comes with a rechargeable battery and a USB port for charging it. You can add a solar panel elsewhere.
Holographic sights and reflex sights are both good technologies used for a similar purpose. I own and love examples of both. For example, I have a Holosun HS515C on my home-defense gun and an EOTech 512 on my semi-auto .308 rifle.
You should have an idea of which sight you want to buy now.
Is it both? I bet it’s both.
If you have more than one gun, why not get both a red dot sight AND a holographic sight?