To Magnify or Not To Magnify »

To Magnify or Not To Magnify


By: Sal Palma


The AR-15 is by far the most popular long gun ever sold in the United States. The National Shooting Sports Foundation, NSSF, estimates numbers owned at 5 to 10 million rifles. These rifles are purchased by individuals for home defense, hunting or sporting events like the fast growing 3 gun matches.  One of the challenges faced by AR-15 owners is deciding on what sighting systems work best for their intended use. It’s not an easy decision because in 2014 the options are numerous. But, as of this writing, the red dot sight is by far the most popular rail mounted optic on America’s AR-15s.

The lion’s share of that space is dominated by Swedish manufacturer Aimpoint AB. In 1975, the company developed an electronic red dot sight for the commercial space, and in so doing created an industry. Today there are well over 15 companies producing red dot (reflex) sights. Between 2000 and 2001, the Armed Services began adopting reflex sights; making them standard issue equipment for carbines. Aimpoint AB won that business after rigorous testing, and so it was that the M68 came to pass. The commercial counterpart of the M68 is the Aimpoint CompM2. The sight uses a 4 MOA dot which is completely parallax free, so once zeroed, point of aim (POA) and point of impact (POI) coincide irrespective of the shooters head positioning - a feature that translates directly to faster target acquisition, and greater accuracy. It was a revolutionizing solution to the inherent problems of Close Quarters Combat (CQC) where engagements occur at relatively short ranges. However, as distances to the target increase, the 4 MOA dot size began to create a problem. Not only did the target become harder to see but accurate shot placement degraded. Aimpoints response was to introduced a 3X magnifier to provide the M68 with needed magnification. Concurrent with the introduction of the 3X magnifier, competing manufacturers introduced red dot reflex sights featuring a 2 MOA dot. The theory driving that development is that a smaller and more precise the dot makes for a more accurate sight. I say Yes and No to that. As smaller dot size does not grab your eye as well as a large dot size. The concept gained popularity but never really addressed the need for magnification.

 If you needed magnification on your M16 or M4 carbine you were issued a Trijicon TAO1 NSN ACOG, Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight. The ACOG differs from the M68 in that it provides a ballistically corrected reticle with range estimation capabilities. Trijicon’s solution offers superb clarity, tank like robustness and required a relatively modest amount of rail space, but more importantly it added 4X magnification, which was needed for observation and longer range shots. However, that long range advantage disappeared in close quarters. So, Aimpoint’s concept of adding a magnifier behind the red dot reflex sight made a great deal of sense.

So, what route should you take? Do you invest in a reflex sight + magnifier solution, or do you invest in a magnified optic? The answer is always to let the intended use drive your choice. In today’s marketplace you’ll find some excellent fixed and variable power magnified optics from Bushnell, Burris, Vortex, Leupold, Trijicon, and U.S. Optics. All of these offer excellent optical clarity with the implementation of a variety of reticles. However, in almost all cases, the lowest power setting of 1X is not a true 1X and you’ll experience some parallax. In making this decision, you’ve agreed to compromise some close range performance for longer range precision. You can take this route for an investment of $400 - $1800.

If the intended use is home defense, you’ll be working in extremely close quarters. The aiming system you select should provide speed and accuracy of engagement, and my advice would be to install a red dot reflex sight from a reputable manufacturer and avoid any magnification at all. Look to Bushnell, Burris, Vortex, Primary Arms, Leupold, Trijicon, EOTech, and Aimpoint as your best options. In this group you’ll find some exceptional values ranging from $69.99 to $860. As always, paying for capabilities that you’ll never need does not make sense.

However, if you want the best of both worlds consider investing in a red dot reflex sight + magnifier system. Implementation of this strategy involves purchasing the reflex sight, magnifier, reflex sight mount and magnifier mount. The magnifier mount should allow you to rotate, or swing, the magnifier out of position when you don’t require magnification. Ideally, when everything is mounted, the optical axis of the reflex sight should be concentric with the axis of the magnifier. Select your mounts with that thought in mind but knowing that a slight variance will not adversely impact performance.
When deciding to combine a red dot with a magnifier, you need to recognize that the magnifier does not discriminate. It magnifies everything in its field of view equally. So if you are using a 2MOA dot, when you engage your magnifier you will see what looks like to a 6 MOA dot. Your target will also be 3 times larger, so relative proportion remains the same; you simply have a larger image. You will also notice that the red dot will lose some of its definition. In some cases it streaks like a comet, which is unusable. This is why I recommend you purchase your sight and magnifier as a system. There are some excellent integrators in the market, for example Mike LaRue at LaRue Tactical in Texas. A red dot + magnifier solution is available from all of the manufactures I’ve mention previously and plan on spending from about $500 - $1600.

To avoid frustration, work with a reputable retailer that thinks enough about you and his business to demonstrate the various options.  Look through the magnifier make sure that you have a clear image and a nicely formed red dot.

To Magnify or Not Magnify, is up to you, but it should always be driven by the primary intended use of the weapon system.  Red dot reflex sights deliver rapid target acquisition with fast and accurate target engagement at close ranges. Magnified optics whether fixed, or variable power, deliver sharp crisp reticles that are usually ballistically compensated. They provide excellent long range performance but suffer at close quarter ranges. Red dot reflex sights + magnifier combinations give you the best of both worlds, when properly matched. You retain excellent close range performance with the option of bringing magnification into play for observation and/or target engagement at ranges beyond 100 yards.

1 A light emitting diode operating in the red light spectrum transmits a beam of light which is then reflected from a curved front lens. Hence the term reflex sight.

2 The dot covers up a 4 inch circle at 100 yards.






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