A Newbies' Guide to Rifle Optics: Scopes, Red Dots and Everything In Between

One of the most exciting parts of a new rifle is setting it up and customizing it to your liking, but before you start on your buying adventure it’s key to know the difference between optics and what purpose each serves.

Whenever I am outfitting a new rifle with new optics, I have two major criteria. The first one is the obvious – application. What is the rifle to be used for? What kind of distance and precision are required? What kind of shooting entails? For example, shooting high-speed drills at 50-yards in a 3-Gun match is quite different than shooting a rutting bull on a crimson ridgeline during a fall elk hunt. The second criteria revolves around budget. We are spoiled for choice here with countless options ranging from wallet-friendly glass all the way up to world-class precision optics. Matching your must-have features with cost will narrow down those options.

Once you’ve defined those parameters, the searching for the perfect optical match to your gun begins.

Telescopic Sight

Rifle optics

The Nikon Buckmasters scope

The most common and traditional, the basic riflescope is available in a wide array of models – so many models, in fact, it’s impossible to name them all within the confines of one article. We’ll hit the high notes though. Riflescopes are categorized typically by their size and magnification. For example, the Nikon Buckmasters 3-9×40mm is a basic variable power scope with “3-9” representing magnification range while “40” denotes the size of the objective lens. Variable power magnifying optics grant shooters the option of up-close viewing or wide and bright fields of view.

Another important number to consider is tube size. Most scopes are either 1-inch diameter or 30mm, though there is a growing number of 34mm scope tubes. Larger scope tubes generally allow for increased internal travel – perfect for long-range shooting. This is where the application plays a part. Hunters looking to take squirrels at no more than 100-yards will find a 1-inch tube scope with a power level between 4 and 15 a great candidate for this task due to the short distance. Whereas, if a shooter is pinging steel targets at 1-kilometer, a 30-34mm tube scope with a higher power range, such as between 6 and 25, will permit viewing of distant targets clearly. It also allows the shooter to make needed corrections to bring shots on target.

When selecting a telescopic sight, it’s imperative to get the best quality within your budget. Also, properly mount the scope to the rifle as this directly impacts success on targets.

Red Dot Sights

Rifle optics

The Burris Fastfire III, top left, and AR332 both fall under the red dot category.

Red Dot sights use lower magnification and can be incorporated into lower magnification telescopic sights. This type of optic comes either battery-powered or utilizes other sources of light such as fiber optics or luminescent materials. Despite its construction, all red dots provide the same sighting presentation — an illuminated, adjustable dot delivering precise aiming capabilities. Though it uses the “red” moniker, the dot doesn’t have to be that color. Some may appear green or adopt other colors.

These sights are popular options for short-range shooting due to the dot’s ability to been seen in both peripheral vision direct focus. Non-magnifying red dot sights typically appear on pistols, carbines and shorter-range rifles. There are several kinds of red dots to include holographic sights, reflex sights and prism sights.

Holographic Sight

Rifle optics

The EOTech XPS2 qualifies as a holographic sight.

Holographic sights are precise non-magnifying optical sights that use a laser to project a fine reticle in a glass viewer. Battery-powered, they usually come with adjustable brightness settings. Holographic sights offer shooters faster acquisition than standard red dots because it allows the eye to focus on the target and the reticle simultaneously. Additionally, many holographic sights offer a larger view window which helps when shooting. Due to their patented technology and market demand, these optics, like the EOTech XPS2, are typically more expensive.

Prism Sights

The Burris AR332 is a prime example of a prism optic.

Another optic that falls under the red dot catch-all is the prism sight. This type of optic is a compact device that uses a prism to magnify the image. Much like the telescopic sight, it can be adjusted to correct elevation and windage. Due to the compact prism used internally, prism sights are much smaller than telescopic sights.

Prism sights usually offer a fixed magnification, typically towards the lower end of the power spectrum. The prism magnification also gives shorter eye relief than telescopic sights, requiring shooters to mount the optic much closer to be used properly.

Reflex Sights

Rifle optics

The Trijicon RMR offers a reflex design.

Reflex sights are some of the most popular red dot styles and the most readily available. Reflex sights operate in a similar manner as a mirror. An image of the dot or reticle is projected from one side of the lens, resulting in the reflection displaying in the window. Reflex sights, like the Trijicon RMR, offer the shooter an easily identifiable aim point. Reflex sights don’t magnify the image; therefore, they are commonly used on short-range firearms and grant shooters the ability to easily hop on target.

Physically, reflex sights often opt for an elevated window instead of a tube shape. These devices are less complicated than holographic sights and, as such, tend to be more affordable.

Iron Sights


The absolute co-witness allows for iron sight backup in the event of electronic failure and is easy to set up. (Photo: Frank Melloni)

In addition to telescopic or red dot style models, good ‘ole iron sights never go out of style. In fact, you can even use them in conjunction with other rifle optics. Iron sights can be aligned to co-witness with your optical sight or they can function as a backup should the primary optic fail. Iron sights are available in as many configurations as you can imagine — flip-ups, off-set, adjustable or fixed – and at various price points.

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