The AR-15 optics has been dominated the low power variable optic (LPVO) for several years. It seems like another model hits the market every other week, and manufacturers are racing to add more magnification, better durability, and ever more complicated reticles. As the saying goes with the stock market, tough, when you see everyone being greedy then it’s time to sell.
Well, I think the manufacturers are being greedy and the shooting public has something else in mind. Because of that, I’m quasi-predicting we’re on the cusp of a return to the Class II fixed powered optic.
Rewinding a bit. Back around 2010, it seemed like the tactical market was evenly split between advocates of the red dot sight, particularly the Aimpoint T1, and adherents to the ACOG. The LPVO was only starting to gain traction outside of the competition circuit, led by guys like Kyle Lamb who talked about the great versatility of the Trijicon Accupoint S&B Short Dot.
The TR21 Accupoint he wrote about was a 1.25-4×24, so not really a true LPVO by today’s standards. The 1-4×24 model I purchased for my first AR wouldn’t be released for another year after he published his book, Green Eyes Black Rifles. The S&B Short Dot was the “old” 1.1-4×20 model that Larry Vickers also talks about.
As you know, the market exploded in the years that followed.
So What’s the Problem with LPVOs?
In our pursuit of ever more capability, it seems like everyone is just accepting a heavier rifle as the tradeoff. Remember that LPVO optics really go their start in the competition circuit, where heavy weight was an accepted characteristic for softer recoil. In fact, competition shooters often add excess weight to their guns to make them more stable.
When you begin applying that thinking to rifles intended for the field, the calculus must change. Rifles designed for foot patrolling are carried far more than they are shot, so light weight is a huge benefit. The original M16A1 demonstrated this with its svelte 6.4 lbs compared to the M14’s 9.2 lbs.
Let’s illustrate this. Assume you start with a basic 16″ carbine like the Centurion CM4 that I pointed out in my suggestions for a first AR. Out of the box, that’s a 6.1 lb rifle.
Now let’s add the latest and greatest LPVO optic, the Vortex Razor Gen III 1-10×24, which weighs 21.5 oz. Now we need a mount, so figure another 8 oz for that. The trend these days is to use an offset mini red dot in conjunction with an LPVO, so add another 4 oz there.
We’ve now added 33.5 oz to our lightweight carbine. That’s 2.1 lbs, taking our lightweight CM4 from 6.1 lbs to 8.2 lbs before we add a light, sling, or ammunition. If you figure that’s another 23.5 oz (1.5 lbs), we’re up to 9.7 lbs without any other accessories like foregrips, rail covers, laser modules, etc.
Is the Juice Worth the Squeeze?
You might say that I’m cherry picking the optic here, but this is pretty standard. The Vortex Gen III is lighter than other 1-10x options on the market, and dropping down to 1-8x or 1-6x doesn’t save that much weight- maybe up to 4 oz. Yes, there are some lighter options out there, like my TR24 1-4x that comes in at 20.9 oz with mount, but they are decidedly “old school” in capability compared to what’s hit the market in the last few years.
This all came to a head for me the last time I talked to Jeff Gurwitch. He was relaying his experiences in Army Special Operations overseas, and talked about his preferred combination of Trijicon 1-6x VCOG and offset RMR (about 29 oz total, estimated). While talking about that combination, Jeff mentioned that the VCOG never left 6x the entire time he was in theater. If he needed a close in shot, then he used the offset RMR.
This tidbit stuck with me ever since. I can’t help but ask myself: if the average person running a combination of LVPO and mini dot is leaving the magnification at the same setting all the time and using the dot for close up, then why not save the weight?
To illustrate again, the heaviest prism optic in my collection is a Trijicon TA110 3.5×35 with piggybacked Holosun 507c. With the lithium AA battery and mount, it’s 23.9 oz total. My Elcan SpecterOS 4x is about 16 oz total. Going further, my recently acquired TA33 is 9.2 oz with ADM mount, and it would be about 11 oz with a piggybacked mini dot.
That’s a huge difference relative to an LPVO.
Diminishing Returns of Versatility
I know the argument is going to be that the versatility of an LVPO is unrivaled. Well, I agree. The LPVO is very versatile, but my question is whether that versatility is actually needed.
A 3x prism optic obviously lacks magnification compared to an LPVO that tops out at 6x, 8x, or 10x. However, for most shooters doing “average” things, there isn’t a need to zoom up to 8x or 10x. In fact, doing so would actively suck in an action match or gunfight, as the field of view gets too narrow and the scope would show every bounce and jitter.
Going back to the ORO research of the early 1950’s, the actual terrain of the battlefield rarely offers the opportunity to identify a target beyond 300 yards. Even in the worst situations of Scenario-X, we’re unlikely to engage anything even that far away.
Outside of dedicated marksman or recce roles, where you expect to shoot from a more stable position and from concealment, most shooters are going to hover around 4-6x the majority of the time. This offers a great balance of magnification, field of view, and speed. That’s the perfect range for lightweight prism scopes.
I think more and more people are going to realize they are adding a lot of weight to their rifles that they don’t actually need for a capability they only appreciate in theory.
Since the LVPO market is becoming crowded, I’m betting we see a pivot to lightweight prism optics. I do think there are some caveats, though.
Keeping Your Eyes Out
It seems that the industry has a new name for compact prism scopes: battle sights. I keep seeing this term pop up in the catalogs for companies like Burris, Steiner, Crimson Trace, Sig, and others.
There are already many good options on the market, but they are spread between a few companies. For the most part, they also either seem to be on the “budget” end of things, about $300 or less, or on the high end around $1000 as with ACOGs and Elcans. I think there’s a lot of room in that middle ground for growth.
So what do I suggest looking for?
Well, a lot of this is personal preference. In general, I think anywhere between 2x and 5x represents the “marksman’s sweet spot.” On the low end of that, the 2x and 3x options, an offset dot really isn’t necessary if the reticle is designed well with good illumination. On the higher end, the 4x and 5x options, I would expect to pair it with a mini red dot.
The big catch is that for this market segment to make sense, it has to offer enough weight savings to make the juice worth the squeeze. As much as I like my TA110, at 23 oz all-up, I could go just a little further and get a lightweight 1-6x with mount. Something like the 18 oz SAI 1-6×24 has really caught my eye.
So, to reiterate, to be successful in this market I think any new prism scope must keep a total weight to below 16 oz- preferably much lower.
What’s the Right Magnification?
This is personal preference, but here’s some of my observations. Lower magnification in the 1.5x, 2x, and 3x range feels closer to a red dot sight than a full-on rifle scope. These lower magnification levels work great for fast shooting with both eyes open and general use of the carbine.
I’m not alone here. In WWII, the German Army started fielding the K98 ZF4, a 1.5x magnification scope. The intent was for all infantry to aid with accuracy, but it never made it to full scale. Later on, they experimented with general use of 4x magnification with the G43.
The Steyr Aug originally sported a 1.5x magnification scope. The FN2000 rifles featured a 1.6x magnification optic. The German G36 rifle came equipped with a 3x optic for the German Army, while the export version had a 1.5x optic.
It’s really here nor there, but given that these rifles were all designed at the behest of capable militaries, I think it’s a trend worth paying attention to.
There is real benefit to a slight level of magnification when it comes to target identification and precision, but not so much that it dramatically slows down the shooter.
With all of that said, I’ve come to a point where I think 2x and 3x magnification prism optics represent a sweet spot for size, weight, and capability.
So What’s Next?
I’m not going to tell you to rush out and buy anything right now. I’ve been acquiring several examples of 3x prisms. I’m going to review each one individually, and then do a comparison between them to weigh out pros and cons of different price points.
So stay tuned!
I hope you include some of the more budget options, like the PA ones you have linked.
That’s very much the plan! I’ve got the Swamp Fox Trihawk sitting on my desk, which is also budget friendly. MLC has a PA 3x and Vortex 3X that I’ll get to put up side by side as well. What I really want to do is get a feel for the cost/benefit of jumping to the higher end of things. My friend Ilya, the Dark Lord of Optics, has already taken the position that the high end of the prism market is becoming less relevant with all of the progress in the budget end.
It’s interesting to hear you say that with your buy nice or buy twice mantra. I find that I need to experience the difference between things, in this case scopes. I’d rather buy a lower end lvpo and prism, to find what I like better. Then I have the essence of each category, and I can then move to the “nice” category. But then as you’ve said, you often times find that the budget does just you wanted it to well (and you have that other lvpo if it ever goes down). I very much look forward to your next… Read more »
Hah, yeah, I know I’m usually the one pushing to buy as nice as you can. However, I’m also always considering how technology and manufacturing advances, and things that were cutting edge 10-20 years ago, especially with optics, are far more common and cheaper to do today. I fully acknowledge that some companies accustomed to the deep pockets of .gov contracts continue to trade on their brand name rather than innovate. In these cases, I’m wary of always suggesting to spend top dollar for diminishing returns when something cheaper might do just as well and with some better features. Now,… Read more »
I have the PA 2x and just got the 3x prism scope. I really like the 3x. Doesn’t hinder you in close range but the magnification is really good. Going to use it in a class soon, and really looking forward to seeing what it can do. I like the 2x and I think I might get rid of it. The chevron is small, compared to the 1x and 3x and the magnification is ok. I agree with the LPVOs. Had one and it was extremely heavy. With not having the distance to shoot past 50 yards, unless I go… Read more »
I am really curious about that PA GLx 2x optic. I’ve been mulling that it might be a really good fit for an AK project I had in mind- if I had an AK. I’ve heard rumors of a new model coming out as well, so we’ll see what happens there.
If ever a fighting rifle could benefit from an optic – it’s the AK. I think it and the 7.62X39 get a bad rap simply due to the short sight radius design, while robust, makes the rifle more difficult to be accurate with. A while back I bought a Midwest Industries dust cover for my Yugo M70 which has an integrated full length picatinny rail and locks up very well. Due to indecision I haven’t mounted an optic as of yet. Likely candidate for a prism. I just wish prices for AKs would level off so I wouldn’t feel guilty… Read more »
I think a lot of it historically comes down the AK not being particularly optics friendly. The side-mounted method works, but it also means the optic is usually riding up pretty high on a rifle with a relatively low comb height.
7.62×39 is a great cartridge, though. I’ve had it in mind do do both a semi auto and a bolt action.
Thought about a short quick handling bolt (CZ 527?) in 7.62×39 myself. I have a Marlin 336 in 30-30 and both ballistically and quick handling characteristics are met so I didn’t pursue. I can’t seem to get excited about putting an optic on the lever action though.
The 527 was at the top of my list as well, until CZ unexpectedly discontinued it in favor of the new CZ 600 series that hasn’t been fully released yet. Still, I really like the idea of a CZ 600 Trail in 7.62×39 or maybe 6.5 Grendel.
Wow – didn’t know. Procrastination rearing it’s ugly head again!
I think you are absolutely right on the weight issue. LPVO makes my AR clunky but versatile.
Thanks! And the question is going to be how much clunkiness will accept for the promise of versatility that we may not actually need.
“We’ve now added 33.5 oz to our lightweight carbine. That’s 2.1 lbs, taking our lightweight CM4 from 6.1 lbs to 7.2 lbs before we add a light, sling, or ammunition. If you figure that’s another 23.5 oz (1.5 lbs), we’re up to 8.7 lbs without any other accessories like foregrips, rail covers, laser modules, etc.”
The 2.1-lbs increases weight from 6.1 to 8.2-lbs, not 7.2. With light, sling, and ammo–9.7-lbs. Or am I missing something?
Nope, that was a mistake! Thanks for the catch. I had originally miscalculated and said it was nearly three pounds, and then must have overcorrected. I’ve fixed the error!
Matt you didn’t mention it and I’m curious about the glass quality/price relationship of prism optics. Does the rule still apply as with standard scope glass quality – the more expensive the better glass and is it that as important with the lower magnification? Also – are they by design more rugged than a LPVO? I’m always looking for that ‘sweet spot’ where the cost/quality balances and there is a real benefit in the optic – where you might not notice an increase in quality but could certainly pay more. I think manufacturers like Leupold do this very well –… Read more »
This is actually something I’m going to dig further into with another article comparing prism optics at different price points. My quick take is that yes, more money tends to bring a higher quality image- but I think that point of diminishing returns happens pretty quick.
Instead, I think more money brings other features like better illumination and ruggedness. We’ll see as I start getting more thigns side by side. The real question is whether I think the increased expense is actually worth it.
I have been waiting for an article on this subject and am looking forward to the future looks at specific prism optics. I have an older PA 2.5X prism scope and a TR24. I have used both in competition and at Appleseed KDs. For Appleseed weight is not a factor, but in biathlon (my preferred form of competition) it is. For me the TR24 seems like the perfect compromise. It’s light for an LVPO. I find that at 1x it’s better than a 2 moa red dot (astigmatism is a factor in this). At 4x it has adequate magnification out… Read more »
Oddly enough, I have lost my zero on a TR24 one time. It was the windage knob, and when I opened up the cover it was spinning around like I had unlocked it. I don’t know how it happened, and it’s never happened since. I do like the TR24, and think it’s a really good all-around compromise optic for close to mid-range. I just wish it had a more useful reticle for my purposes. I did actually start running some time trial tests for upcoming articles. The TR24 at 1x was about .2 seconds slower than my EOTech at 7… Read more »
Matt Great article. I’ve come to the same conclusions. In my journey I went from irons to a dot and briefly an ACOG using uncle sugars kit. When I got out I put a dot on my carbine. Then my eyes started getting wonky as older eyes do. Irons were tough. The dot was starry from astigmatism. That led to a Burris 1-4, which is great. Durable. Good enough glass. Then a similar Nikon 2-7. Good glass. Both are heavier than I like. Both nearly always lived at 3-4x. So I bough a PA 3x prism a couple of years… Read more »
Hey John! The thing with ACOGs is each of them have different traits. The eye box on the TA33, for example, is way more forgiving than the 4x model everyone thinks about. The tradeoff is a much smaller field of view. I’ll be talking about that in my writeup on it. One of the bigger issues with ACOGs is that they don’t have adjustable eyepieces, so there’s basically nothing that can be done for aging eyes short of wearing corrective lenses while you shoot. The Swamp Fox Trihawk seems interesting so far. I’m both impressed with many aspects of it… Read more »
Fantastic work again sir
I have a love-hate relationship with prism optics. Especially if you’re going to add an offset RDS anyway.
For me, RDS + a 3x magnifier on a flip mount and QD send to occupy a similar niche. It’s lighter than the LPVO (especially if I pull the magnifier off and pouch it), it goes straight to full magnification without a throw lever, and I keep the same head position behind the rifle.
I know folks have pooh-poohed the magnifier for weight, over the years… But I feel kind of vindicated, watching the move to LPVO+RDS over the last few years.
I understand that you’re wanting to compare 3X prisms, but I think you missed out by going with the Vortex 3X rather than the 5X. For a mere extra 1.3 ounces you get better magnification, and a more visible reticle. The 5X also comes with a spot for that piggyback RDS.
Hey Chip, I do think there’s a lot to be said for the 5x prisms available. The Vortex is one, as well as the new Swamp Fox Saber 5x and other options from Sig and Primary Arms. My main caveat is that I think 5x is probably too much if it’s the only optic on the rifle. If you knwo you’re also going to have an offset or piggybacked mini RDS, then it works well. My goal for the 3x comparison is a one-optic compromise solution.
Thanks for mentioning the Swampfox Saber. I haven’t been over to their site in a while. But, wow, 24.7 ounces. That is… robust. I do like the Vortex with the mini-RDS on top. But I do agree that 5x is too much by itself.
At 24.7 ounces, it’s definitely a bit on the heavy side. Given the price point and what performance I’ve seen from the Trihawk, I do think the Saber has a place for consideration. It’s still lighter than most LPVO options once you account for the mount as well. The 10-degree FOV is really hard to argue against as well.