February 24, 2023
Battery-powered optics own the marketplace, and for good reason. I own Aimpoints and EOTechs, and love what they can do. However, every EOTech HWS I’ve ever owned has unexpectedly died on me due to its short battery life, and I’ve seen Aimpoints fail. Every kind of optic has its strengths and weaknesses, and you should be aware of them, and plan around them. Having an optic in your inventory that is immune to battery and electronics failures only seems smart, whether you’re planning for supply chain shortages or One Second After.
I practice what I preach. The ARs I keep ready for serious social occasions (personal defense) wear optics that are not dependent upon batteries to function, because I tend to operate from a “worst case scenario” perspective. The optic on my home defense rifle, out of sight but quick to access, is a SIG Sauer TANGO6T, a great 1-6x LPVO that’s been adopted by U.S. Special Forces. The battery-powered illumination is great … but I don’t need it thanks to the design of its etched glass reticle. The scope is set at 1x, but knowing I can throw it up to 6x means that rifle is capable of handling any problem that can be solved with a rifle. The optic on my truck gun is a Primary Arms 1x MicroPrism, because I know that whether or not the battery is dead due to neglect, wild temperature variations, or simply from bouncing around in the truck, the optic’s etched reticle will still be there.
If you are looking for an alternative to battery powered reticles, Fiber optics is something to consider. Fiber optic rods passively collect ambient light and funnel it to the reticle. No batteries, no electronics, and with the latest generation of optics, the reticles are as bright as the brightest battery powered scopes. The best known optics manufacturer offering scope reticles illuminated through the use of fiber optics is Trijicon. Most Trijicon ACOGs, prism scopes, have reticles illuminated through fiber optics. And those fiber optic collectors work very well — almost too well, as I’ve seen a lot of users covering up part of those collectors with tape to keep the reticle of their ACOG from blinding them on a sunny day.
The Trijicon RMR was the first mini-red-dot built to be tough enough for military/police use, and there is a version (the “Dual-Illuminated” reflex) which has a fiber optic collector on the top to illuminate the reticle during the day, with tritium providing illumination at night. Trijicon’s AccuPoint scopes are traditional rifle scopes, but use fiber optics to illuminate their reticles during the day, and tritium at night. They have big hunting type scopes that offer magnification up to 5-20X, but for this article let’s focus on their two LPVOs, the 1-4X TR24 and the 1-6X TR25. They offer two basic types of reticles, crosshairs with an illuminated dot, and a post tipped with a triangle.
The weakness of Fiber Optic illuminated optics? If you’re someplace dim or dark, and aiming where it is bright (indoors shooting out, for example) your reticle can get washed out and disappear. Or if you are in darkness and you illuminate your target with a white light your reticle can get washed out, and unlike with a battery-powered dot you can’t turn it up brighter.
What types of optical gun sights are worth considering? A prism optic actually uses a glass prism to focus an image as opposed to a traditional riflescope which uses a series of lenses. Prism scopes, due to their design limitations, are fixed power and usually on the lower end of magnification (at or below 6x). But that prism makes them simpler, and simpler usually equals more robust.
Prism scopes have etched reticles, so even if the battery dies you still have a nice, solid, black reticle. If you’ve got an astigmatism (like me), red “dots” always look like squashed grapes, whereas etched reticles are crisp, illuminated or not. Their traditional weakness? Because they use focusing glass (like a traditional scope) they have a limited eyebox, unlike most red dots which have nearly unlimited eye relief and are very forgiving in side-to-side movement. Many companies make prism scopes. They range from inexpensive to pricey. Burris offers 1x, 3x, and 5x AR Optics prism scopes which run between $300 and $400 and are widely available both online and in sporting goods stores.
Perhaps the most famous prism scope is the Trijicon ACOG. By far, the most common model is the 4x32mm ACOG (Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight) which, in various iterations, has been adopted by every branch of the military. It has been proven in combat all around the world. They feature BDC reticles illuminated by fiber optics in daylight and Tritium in low light. They are famous for having notoriously short (1.5-inch) eye relief and a small eyebox. They are also quite expensive for compact fixed power scopes.
However, many people don’t realize Trijicon has many other ACOG offerings, and it is their “mini-ACOGs” which I find the most interesting. They are offered in 1.5x, 2x, and 3x magnifications, with various fiber optic/Tritium illuminated reticles and objective lens diameters. They are significantly smaller and lighter than the full-size ACOG. I own a 1.5x16 mini-ACOG with amber circle/dot reticle, and love it. It is small and light, but it has a small eyebox and, for its size, is shockingly expensive ($1213 currently). I think it’s the cost which has kept this optic from greater success.
One combination which has grown a following is the 3x30 ACOG with a top-mounted Trijicon RMR. Not long after the introduction of the 4x ACOG people realized they were not ideally suited to close-range engagements, despite Trijicon’s claims to the contrary, and soon afterward you saw Trijicon RMR mini red dots being mounted atop these scopes. The red dot mounted at 12 O’clock pulls your cheek off the rifle stock, but you can use it while wearing night vision.
The advantage the 3x30 ACOG has over the larger model is weight and size. The 3x30 mini-ACOG weighs just 7.7 ounces without mount, and with mount and a top-mounted RMR it will still be less than a pound. What it does though is give you a compact 1x red dot and 3x magnified gun sight combination. You can instantly switch back and forth between 1x and 3x without having to touch the optics. Plus, due to the height of the RMR red dot, you can shoot passively with a head mounted PVS-14 monocular at night, no IR laser signature required. Being able to shoot passively with night vision is important in my opinion. The combo is very fast and the 3x30 ACOG is quite robust. Downside? Well, 3x is a bit lacking for target identification at distance, the 3x30 has a narrow field of view and the combo together are close to $2000.
Primary Arms makes a number of prism scopes, and their new SLx 1x MicroPrism is one of the most interesting optics I’ve encountered in years. It might have completely upended how prism scopes are viewed by the masses, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see similar prism scopes hitting the market in the near future — provided other optics manufacturers can figure out how PA did what they did. While this optic features a daylight visible illuminated reticle which is battery powered, the reticle is plainly visible, and usable, without illumination. So, if your battery should die, you can still continue to use your optic, unlike a red dot.
The SLx 1X MicroPrism is roughly the size of an Aimpoint Micro T-1 but has the largest eyebox I’ve ever seen in a prism scope. In fact it is nearly as large as you’d get with most tube-type red dots, in every direction. Any place on your upper receiver you’d normally mount a red dot you can mount, and use, the MicroPrism. It has all of the advantages of a red dot, all the advantages of a prism, none of the disadvantages of either, and retails for the low price of $249.99. I have this optic on my current truck gun, which should tell you how I feel about it.
LPVOs are “low-powered variable optics,” traditional rifle scopes but with a bottom magnification at or near 1x and going up to 6x, 8x or even 10x. We could literally fill this entire issue cover-to-cover with all the different LPVOs on the market, so you’ll have to narrow your choices down yourself before you go shopping. Before I cover a few specific models, let’s review some basics:
First, you want an optic with a bottom end at 1x. Not near it, at it. This is because when you’ve got the magnification cranked all the way down, you want to be able to use that optic at close range, at speed, with both eyes open, like a non-magnified red dot. To that purpose, you want a scope with a reticle that works just as well at 1x as it does at whatever your maximum magnification is. This is true whether you’re running a First Focal Plane (FFP) or Second Focal Plane (SFP) scope. In short, a SFP scope has a reticle which will appear the same size to your eye no matter the magnification setting. If your reticle has any sort of bullet drop compensator or range estimating feature, it likely will only be accurate at maximum magnification.
With a FFP scope, the reticle stays the same size against the background, so when you increase the magnification you appear to zoom into the reticle. There are pros and cons to both, but SFP scopes tend to be a bit simpler and less expensive. I will say that scope manufacturers historically were behind their own curve, offering LPVOs meant for tactical use with reticles that were near useless at 1x, where I would argue a usable reticle is most important, as the threat is closer. But, thankfully, things have changed. The great thing about traditional rifle scopes like LPVOs is that they have traditional fixed (non-projected) reticles. While they may or may not offer illumination, every single one of these scopes features a fixed reticle that is always there, whether it’s a basic old-school duplex or a modern inverted horseshoe “tactical” reticle.
The general rule of LPVOs is the higher the magnification, the bigger, heavier, and more expensive the scope. Every manufacturer used to be all about the 1-4x scope, but now those are getting to be somewhat uncommon. Everyone is now offering 1-6x, -8x, and even -10x scopes. Higher magnification scopes have a lot to recommend them, especially when it comes to locating and identifying a small or obscured target. You may want more magnification on your rifle, but do you really need it? What are you planning on using the rifle for? This is one of those questions you need to answer, and is just as important as how much money you’re willing to spend.
The prices of LPVOs, just like almost everything else having to do with technology, have dropped. Now most “entry level” LPVOs are 1-6x at a minimum. The Burris 1-6x RT-6 is a solid performer with an MSRP of just $419. Bushnell’s Elite 4500 1-4x is just $249.99, and their AR Optics 1-8x is just $365. Hi-Lux Optics has both 1-4x and 1-8x CMR scopes at shockingly inexpensive prices. At the other extreme, the Vortex Razor HD Gen III FFP 1-10x has a suggested retail price of $3,599. Due to competition Leupold has cut the price of their excellent Mark 8 CQBSS 1.1-8X in half, and still the cheapest model is $2,999.99. I think the difference between a $500 and a $3,000 LPVO will be irrelevant to 90+% of consumers. As long as the scope holds zero and has repeatable adjustments.
Personally, I have a love/hate relationship with LPVOs. I love their performance. With the right reticle they can be run like a red dot at CQB distances, but with a twist of the magnification ring they can be used to identify and engage targets out to the limits of your rifle and shooting ability. But they are all big and heavy, especially when compared to a small red dot. They often completely change the feel/handling of an AR, as you might expect when slapping 1.5–2 pounds of steel and glass atop your receiver. This is just another thing to keep in mind when selecting an optic.
About the Author
James Tarr is a longtime contributor to Firearms News and other firearms publications. A former police officer he is a USPSA Production Division Grand Master. He is also the author of several books, including CARNIVORE, which was featured on The O’Reilly Factor. His current best-selling novel, Dogsoldiers, is available now through Amazon.
This article was originally published in Be Ready magazine. You can find the original magazine on the OSG Newsstand. If you have any thoughts or comments on this article, we’d love to hear them. Email us at FirearmsNews@Outdoorsg.com.