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Optics: How we see the target...

Updated: Jan 17, 2023


There is a lot of misinformation as well as confusion and propaganda in this area. And unfortunately, the hard working folks in the marketing department aren’t helping out as much as they want us to think that they are.

So in an effort to alleviate the misinformation I’ll break this down into two categories: magnified and non-magnified with a little back and forth action. Ready? Here goes:

Magnified optics have been around the longest. If you go back hundreds of years, it was basically just a telescope strapped to a rifle. It didn’t have an actual aiming point either. The user more or less centered the target in the glass to the best of their ability, held over for drop/wind and sent the shot down range. While it was definitely crude compared to modern scopes, it proved a point that still stands true today: the better you can see your target the more likely you are to hit it.

Today, we are used to seeing rifle scopes with every type of aiming point. These include the German post, cross hairs, and countless different reticles with bullet drop compensation (BDC) of one form or another. Available scope magnifications range from 1.5x fixed to more than 60x with everything in between.

Obviously some are definitely better than others, but what do you need for your gun and what does it all really mean?

In layman’s terms, magnification means the number of times closer the target will appear if viewed without magnification at that distance. So for a 2x scope, the target twice the size at ½ the distance relative to the naked eye and so on. Easy enough, right?

With scopes that are marked 3-9x, that means you can adjust the magnification power to make it appear anywhere from 3 to 9 times closer or larger. But why would you want a variable magnification scope over the most powerful magnification that you can afford?

The answer is pretty simple. Too much magnification can make it harder to pick out exactly what you’re aiming for. In other words, you can’t see the forest for the trees. Imagine aiming at a deer if you are at 90 yards and have a 9x scope. The deer will appear the same as if you are looking at it with your naked eye at 10 yards and it would be pretty easy to just line the cross hairs up and take your shot. However if you have a 90x scope, all you’d see is brown fur and it would be much harder to know if you’re aiming at the kill zone, the top of the shoulder, or the guts. Deer also don’t stand still for long so when you see them, you need to get on target and put the bullet where it needs to go quickly. Thus, finding the right balance for your needs is incredibly important.

My experiences have taught me that for the fastest shooting, I do best with something that’s at least 4x out to 100 yards. I then work up by about 1x per 100 yards for most hunting and plinking uses. When I’m going for paper targets without tight time limits, I’ll take as much magnification as I can get while still being able to identify which target is mine.

Magnified scopes that are common on AR pattern rifles will generally be either fixed low power or low power variable optics (LPVO).

Let’s talk about fixed power scopes. You’re probably familiar with the famous Trijicon ACOG issued to the US military. It is a fixed 4x scope with a calibrated BDC for use with a specific bullet and barrel length combination. They work very well when all of the fundamentals and pieces are in place. The USMC requires Marines to qualify with their service rifle issued with ACOGs out to 500 yards each year.

There are other common 1-4x scopes that are designed to work at very close range (a couple hundred yards) but can be effective at extended distances if necessary without too many problems. Once you start working out beyond 200 or so yards on a regular basis that’s when I would suggest stepping up the levels of magnification. 3-9 or 4-14x are two of the most common variable power optics once you get out of the LPVO range.


Non-magnified optics are your red dot and holographic sights. For this write up, both sights are basically the same.

Either one is a great option for people who want a close range sight that is fast and easy to use. So how do they work? Once the sight is zeroed to the rifle, you’ll light the dot up where you want to the bullet to go and applying the fundamentals of marksmanship, you squeeze the shot off and a hole will appear near the dot’s position. Simple enough, right?

These type of sights excel at close range shooting where shots have to be fast and targets are generally large. That being said even a moderately trained marksmen shouldn’t have any issues getting hits on a pie plate sized target out to 100-200 yards with these type of sights.


When it comes to red dot versus holographic sights, there might be times when you want to better identify the target. This is where red dot magnifiers will be your saving grace. Many times, people will get these with the intention of using it for longer range shooting. The problem with this is that while the magnifier will make the target look larger, it will also make the dot look bigger. While it will still cover the same area of the target, it does appear larger and that’s enough to throw some shooters off.

The typical cross over that you’ll see is 1-4x or 1-6x LPVO scopes. The misnomer here is that it is not a true 1x. This can easily be proven and here’s how:

1x is what your eyes naturally see. With a red dot or holographic sight on an AR pattern firearm you have the ability to “co-witness” your iron sights and see both at the same time. With a 1 through whatever x LPVO, you cannot clearly see the front sight in the sight picture. If you move the LPVO far enough forward to use the rear sight, not only will you be outside of the eye box that the scope is designed to work with, but the front sight will be larger than it should and blurry. This is due to two reasons:

· The focal plane of the scope that is the minimal distance the scope is designed to focus at is further than the front sight base.

· Anytime you put light through curved glass you’ll get distortion. In the case of curved glass that is designed to magnify, those distortions will appear as magnification. It might be slight, but it is there.

So how do you pick what’s best for you? Picking the right optic for your build is pretty simple if you answer the following questions honestly:

1. What is my intended real world use for this build?

2. What are my limitations as far as ranges to shoot at?

3. How heavy do I want this build to be?

4. What option is the simplest for my needs that I listed in the three questions above?

I often get asked for my opinion on a variety of optics and then the subject of price comes up almost immediately. I get it though, you don’t want to spend top dollar to get good results for a range toy rifle. Other situations such as for a real world patrol rifle carried by a LEO or other first responder requires one more question:

What is your life worth?

For those of us that carry or have carried a gun as part of our daily lives understand that sometimes you need to shell out the extra cash for the best thing you can get. Even at the cost of eating ramen noodles instead of going for a few weeks, it’s worth spending top dollar on the gun. Plus, we can always file it as a tax write off later so it’s a win-win situation.

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