Firearms are impressive tools for hunting, recreation, and self defense.
But a rifle that can’t hit anything is worse than useless, because not knowing where you’ll hit is dangerous!
Most rifles have iron sights, and these are fine, especially for target practice, but they do come with some disadvantages. As such, many people choose to install optics onto their guns instead.
But there are so many different types of optics out there and the differences between them don’t always make sense. Red dots? Prism sights? LVPOs? How do you choose?
Let’s look at the different types of optics and why you may want to use each type.
Why Use an Optic?
First of all, let’s clarify briefly what “optic” means.
Any device attached to a firearm that you can use to aim the weapon is a sight.
“Iron sights” are physical shapes you align with your eye and the target to aim the gun. This can be a front bead on a shotgun barrel, a front sight post, or a rear aperture (or peep sight) commonly found on rifles. It can even be a long, grooved channel, like on some low-profile revolvers.
“Optic” refers to any type of sight that involves a lens to align the gun. These lenses may or may not magnify the target and they may have a physical reticle or use a light to create the reticle. But in the end, all optics have some sort of clear lens you can look through.
Advantages of Optics
Optics have several advantages over iron sights.
First of all, they’re easier to use. You have to keep iron sights in perfect alignment for accurate shooting. Alignment is either easier with an optic or not as necessary. This makes them faster than iron sights, too.
Iron sights also physically block a portion of your view. Optics generally have thin reticles that barely cover the target so you can see more of what you’re shooting. This increases situational awareness, thus increasing safety.
Optics can also present more information. The reticles can be used to estimate ranges; some even have built-in rangefinders.
Some optics are also illuminated, which makes them easier to use in the dark. Sure, there are iron sights with tritium inserts, but it’s easy to misjudge which dot is the front sight during pitch-black shooting.
And optics can be magnified, which allows you a closer view of a target far away from you.
Disadvantages of Optics
Despite these advantages, optics still have some disadvantages.
They’re almost universally heavier than iron sights, and they’re more vulnerable to damage.
While modern optics tend to be rugged enough for combat, many people still run backup or offset iron sights so they can quickly transition away from a busted optic.
In addition, iron sights are better for teaching shooting fundamentals. I believe everyone should learn to shoot with iron sights so they get the basics of consistency before they take advantage of an optic.
Types of Optics
So you want to take advantage of an optic for faster, easier, and more accurate shooting.
But which one do you pick?
There’s no one-size-fits-all choice here. You have to know about the different types of optics and what they can and cannot do in order to pick out the best one to fit your needs.
If you don’t want to get too in-depth then here are a couple of quick recommendations:
- A 3-9×40 variable magnification scope is a good all-around choice for hunting
- A red dot sight is good for shooting out to about 100 yards when you’re on a budget
- Prism sights are typically good for short-to-moderate range shooting if you have astigmatism
- LPVO scopes are the current hot thing for fast-action competitive shooting
If you want to know more, here are the details.
A scope, or telescopic sight, is the classic optic. It’s a set of lenses that magnify your target so you can be more accurate. Chances are, if you’re a hunter you’ll want a scope.
Scopes are also very popular for target shooting because they allow you to see very small targets more clearly, giving you the greatest ability to make small groups.
The magnification is given in how many times larger the scope makes the target appears. If the target looks twice as large then the scope is a 2x scope, for example.
Also, most scope manufacturers include the size of the objective lens in the scope’s name. This is the lens closest to the target and gathers light. A bigger lens is heavier, but it will produce a brighter image.
So, a 4×40 scope magnifies the target to look four times larger and the objective lens is 40mm wide, which is pretty standard.
There are three basic types of scopes:
- Variable magnification
- Fixed magnification
- LPVO (Low Power Variable Optic)
Variable Magnification Scopes
Most telescopic sights sold today are variable magnification scopes.
You can move a part of the scope, often by rotating a ring, to adjust between a lower and higher magnification level.
This gives you the advantage of a larger field of view at lower magnifications as well as a closer view of the target at higher magnifications. This makes variable scopes a great choice when you are shooting in a variety of conditions, as with hunting.
Many people recommend using at least 1x magnification for every 100 yards you’ll be shooting, so a 3x to 9x scope covers almost every distance a hunter will be shooting.
- Commonly available and inexpensive
- Multiple magnification levels make the scope useful in a wide variety of shooting conditions
- Heavier than fixed scopes
- Internal adjustment mechanics can be knocked out of place
- Practical shooting competitions when used alongside iron sights or a red dot sight
- Target shooting
Fixed Magnification Scopes
A fixed magnification scope magnifies at exactly one magnification level.
These were the only types of telescopic sights in years past before manufacturers figured out how to economically make internal adjusting mechanisms.
Though not as popular as variable magnification scopes, fixed magnification scopes are used for certain situations. They don’t adjust, so they don’t have any internal mechanisms to get knocked around or add weight.
10x or higher fixed-power scopes are used by long-range hunters, such as mountain goat hunters firing .260 Remington. This cuts down on weight and you’re not likely to be shooting at close ranges.
Low-power fixed scopes, such as the 4x ACOG, are used by militaries to increase their soldiers’ effective range without compromising ruggedness.
- Lighter than variable scopes
- Not as versatile as variable magnification scopes
- Long-range shooting at high magnifications without adding too much weight
- Rugged conditions, such as combat or mountainous terrain
Low Power Variable Optics
A relatively recent innovation, low power variable optics (LPVOs) have become a popular option for short-to-medium range shooting, especially in practical competitions, such as 3-gun.
An LPVO scope is a 1-4x, 1-6x, or 1-8x scope, often with a quick-throw lever that allows you to swap between 1x and the highest magnification in the blink of an eye. This saves you weight and time compared with transitioning from your scope to an offset iron sight.
Some LPVOs have a true 1x magnification that can be used with both-eyes-open shooting, like a reflex sight. Others are 1.1x or 1.5x instead of a true 1x. Still fast, but some people’s eyes aren’t happy when shooting this way. I, personally, get a headache when trying to do this.
- Allows for both-eyes-open shooting
- Fast transitions between magnification levels
- Eye relief becomes an issue with higher magnifications
- Practical competitions
- Self defense
A red dot sight uses a light to make a reticle appear in front of your eyes. There are two ways to achieve this:
- Reflex sights
- Holographic sights
The differences can get quite in-depth, so I’ll just touch on the basics. Generally, though, both are used for close-range shooting out to about 100 yards, though adding a magnifier can extend your range farther.
“Red dot” is a generic term and many of these sights are available with green dots instead. Your eyes are more sensitive to green so the dot appears brighter. However, green dots can get lost in foliage.
A reflex sight reflects light from an LED emitter onto your eyes. This causes the reticle to appear in the optic.
As you move your head around the reticle moves too, which helps to reduce parallax errors caused by eye-rifle-target misalignment.
Reflex sights are pretty cheap to manufacture, so they’re a great budget option. They’re also easy to ruggedize, so they’re good for serious use as well.
And since they use an LED, they can be very power efficient. Some can be left on for years at a time. And others, such as Holosun’s “C” models, have solar cells that can power the unit without a battery!
- Crisp reticle
- Great battery life
- Well-made versions are very rugged
- Astigmatism can make the reticle blurry
- Not quite as fast as holo sights
- The reticle is magnified when using a magnifier
- Backup to a magnified optic
- Budget shooters
- Fast, close-range shooting
- Self defense
A holographic sight is similar to reflex sights, but instead of an LED it uses a laser and a series of lenses to project a hologram.
This hologram appears to be partially downrange. This makes holo sights more intuitive to use than reflex sights because it’s in focus when your eyes are focused on the target.
Additionally, the hologram can still appear if the holo sight’s lenses are partially damaged. Plus, the dot doesn’t increase in size when you use a magnifier.
- The reticle appears down range, allowing for ultra-fast shooting
- The reticle is not magnified when using a magnifier
- Heavier than reflex sights
- Limited battery life
- Competitive shooting
- Use with a magnifier
- When you need a rugged red dot sight
A magnifier is a telescope positioned between you and a red dot sight.
This allows you to magnify your view of the target. All good modern magnifiers also have a mount that moves to the side so you can use the red dot sight unmagnified if you choose.
- Increases the range at which you can use a reflex or holo sight, which increases versatility
- Adds expense
- Adds weight
- Magnifies reflex (but not holographic) reticles
- Some competitions
- Making your favorite red dot sight more versatile
A prism sight is a compact type of telescopic sight that’s more like a red dot sight in use. It uses a prism instead of multiple lenses, which cuts down on size.
1x prism sights are extremely similar to reflex sights in use, down to the illuminated reticle. This reticle is etched into the prism, making prism sights very durable and still usable even when you run out of batteries.
3x prism sights are the most versatile and can be used for hunting or tactical shooting at short to moderate ranges. Higher magnifications give up too much eye relief, in my opinion.
- Good for medium-range shooting
- Very durable and usable without batteries
- Low, fixed magnifications
- Not suitable for use with a magnifier
- Short eye relief
- Hunting out to moderate ranges
- SHTF guns
- Tactical firearms
Now that you know the difference between all of the optics on the market, you have the knowledge necessary to make an informed choice.
Each optic is good for a different use case. I have nearly as many different types of optics as I do rifles. Hunting rifle? 3-9×40 Leupold. 1,000-yard precision rifle? 10x fixed power. Self-defense AR-15? Holosun red dot. Plinking .22 rifle? Sightmark red dot.
When you put the right optic on your gun, that gun becomes more capable and enjoyable to use.