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!