Riflescopes V. Red Dots—Which One Should I Buy?
Picking an optic can be a daunting and overwhelming task. There are so many to pick from! How do you know which one is right for you? Many factors go into your final decision—cost, use and what type of gun you are mounting it on are top considerations, but the primary question is ‘what is the optic’s main purpose?’ For example, long-range precision shooting and self-defense require very different optics. One needs pin-point accuracy. The other requires quick target acquisition. A traditional magnified riflescope is right for the first situation, while a red dot sight is perfect for the second.
What is the difference between a red dot sight and a scope?
A red dot sight uses a reflective glass lens and LED to project an illuminated reticle superimposed on the field of view (i.e.: target.) Riflescopes use a series of light-gathering lenses to magnify an object. The object or target in a red dot sight never changes size, while the target or object in a riflescope appears larger as you adjust the magnification. Variable magnification scopes range in magnification from 1x (no magnification) all the way up to 80x. Red dot sights use batteries to power the illuminated reticle. Reticles are usually red or green and come in a variety of dots and circles and are measured in Minute of Angle (MOA.) There are advantages and disadvantages to both.
Red Dot Sights
Though technically speaking there are different types of red dot sights, (red dot, reflex, prismatic, holographic, ACOG,) ‘red dot’ has become the generic term for any unmagnified optic that projects an illuminated reticle over your target. The dot reticle on your red dot sight appears on the same plane as your target and the sight is virtually parallax-free. This means that all you must do is raise your firearm, find the dot, aim and fire. You don’t need to adjust once you have the red dot sighted in.
Red dot sights are used with both eyes open and are as accurate from any shooting position (even unconventional) as they are if you were shooting from a bench. Red dot sights are easy to use, acquire targets quickly—even moving ones—and aid in accuracy in low-light situations. They are popular with run and gun competitors like 3-Gun and for self-defense. But since the red dot alone does not offer any magnification, a red dot sight is limited to close quarters and medium-range shooting distances.
Most red dot sights will offer variable brightness settings and different reticle shapes, so you can adjust the sight for different shooting situations. Many hunters find red dot sights work well for close-in, fast-moving targets. Red dot sights are super compact and lightweight. There are specific models for handguns and shotguns, and of course, they are a favorite accessory of many AR-15 owners.
One of the few complaints of red dots is battery failure. If your batteries die, so does the reticle and your optic is useless until you replace the batteries. However, red dot sights will co-witness with your irons, so always have a backup plan. The other disadvantage of a red dot is the lack of magnification for shooting accurately at longer distances. Again, though, there is a solution! Firefield offers 3x, 5x and 7x magnifiers that pair with your red dot sight to increase magnification.
Variable magnification scopes come in a wide variety of models from magnification ranges and objective lens sizes to the different reticles offered. From the basic black crosshair to range-estimating MIL-based reticles, you’ll find a scope tailored to your specific needs whether that is big-game hunting or F-Class competition. Some riflescopes even feature illuminated reticles.
Due to their precision accuracy, scopes are usually chosen over red dots for hunting and long-range shooting competitions. Even if you pick a scope with an illuminated reticle, the etched-glass reticle will remain black when the batteries die, and you will still have an operational optic. Scopes can be heavy and cost a lot, but for anything out past 50 meters, you will want a magnified scope instead of a red dot sight. If you will be going back and forth between distances, you will need a magnified scope.
Best of Both Worlds
Fortunately, you can get the best of both worlds by purchasing a low-power scope with an illuminated reticle. A scope with a 1x power (non-magnified) will work almost exactly like a red dot. Our military has used low-powered magnified scopes on their service rifles for quite some time and hog hunters really benefit from the low-powered options. However, a low-powered scope won’t meet your long-range needs.
So…Which One Do I Buy?
If you regularly participate in F-Class or Benchrest competitions, clearly you need a scope that reaches those ranges. Deer hunting generally requires a traditional magnified scope. Strictly for self-defense, you will want to spend your resources on a quality red dot. Of course, you can always get both and switch them out as needed.
Before purchasing, consider:
- Primary Use
- Type of gun