The world of the AR-15 rifle has seen a lot of new members in the last several years. With that proliferation, we have seen quite an interest growth in the area of optics. Too many shooters believe the choice comes down to red dot sights or traditional scopes. Red dots are thought to be great for quick target acquisition, while rifle scopes are great for more precise shooting at distance with time permitting. Either of those are solid options, but one really does not have to choose between the two. I’m writing this because too many cops are failing to take advantage of the Goldilocks of AR optics.
Put the dot on the spot and squeeze
Red dot sights (RDS) are very popular because of their ease and use and relative cost-effectiveness. The most popular, quality RDS units run only $400 to $600. They’re easy to mount and use. Most are sold with mounts and can be installed with minimal brain strain. After that, it’s just a matter of choosing one’s zero range and sighting in. If the user wants magnification, they just add a heavy, bulky, flip-to-side magnifier for an extra $400. There’s nothing wrong with that option, but I believe there’s something better.
When some people think scoped AR’s, they think of the designated marksman rifle (DMR). A DMR is most effectively employed at distances between the effective ranges of a long-range rifle and carbine. The downside to the prototypical DMR is the lowest magnification is 3x or 4x power, which makes close- and quick-sighting a little more difficult than with a red dot (more on that later). Additionally, relative to RDS, rifle scopes can be quite expensive. The low-end of the fiscal scale on quality DMR scopes is about $800 and goes up into the thousands. Sure, there are some cheaper options, but none I would trust for serious stuff. Also, the quality of a scope’s rings is just as important as the scope itself. That’s an added expense. There’s also the slightly increased complication of mounting a rifle scope. (One doesn’t just slap the scope on the rings and crank on the screws for best results.) Even if you have the disposable funds for this purchase, do you want first or second focal plane? Which reticle? What magnification? Back-up optics? One can understand why most folks prefer the simplicity of “put the dot on the spot and squeeze.”
Is there a Goldilocks option? Yes, indeed. It comes in the form of low-power variable optics (LPVO). Granted, there is still the added expense of quality mounts and the complication of properly mounting the optic. Still, many will find the juice worth the squeeze. The prototypical LVPO is a 1x-4x or 1-6x variable power scope with a 24mm objective. However, there is at least one excellent 1x-10x24mm unit on the market. To oversimplify, the idea of the LPVO is to keep the scope at the true 1x power as a high-quality RDS until more magnification is needed. When/if needed, more magnification is just a twist away.
The concern I’ve always heard expressed about scopes on ARs is that they’re not as quick on target acquisitions as an RDS. When I was on my department’s SWAT team years ago, we would participate in statewide competitions. I couldn’t understand why so many guys from other teams were using scopes on their entry rifles. I do understand now. They were ahead of the game, and I didn’t know what I didn’t know. Having done my research and having put the work in, I’m solidly on team LPVO. With just a little experience and practice, I believe most will find a high-quality LPVO just as quick to sight at close range as a dot. In fact, it’s even possible to shoot up close with magnification — after a little work. It just takes some practice and familiarization; practice you should be doing anyway.
What is quality? Quality glass doesn’t necessarily mean incredibly expensive, but it doesn’t come cheap. Duty-grade glass uses every advantage, including the substance and process used to coat the glass and the internals of the tube. That, among other manufacturing processes, ensures the “eye box” (the position of your eye behind a scope) allows a full field of view, among other things. I’ll give you an example: My work carbine has Vortex Viper PST Gen 2 1-6×24 (see photo). It’s a duty-grade optic, which I got online using my law enforcement discount for about $650 with a mount. That’s not much more than the most affordable duty-quality red dots. For that few extra bucks, you get a great red dot sight plus the ability to crank up to 6x power magnification on demand.
For all of you cops out there giving the “side-eye” to your buddies who have LPVO on their duty and SWAT carbines: just give it a try. I believe you’ll agree the Goldilocks of law enforcement optics in the low-power variable optic.
Warren Wilson is a lieutenant with the Enid Police Department in Oklahoma. He is a former SWAT team leader, current firearms instructor and writer. He has been a full-time law enforcement officer since 1996.