Choosing an Optic for an AR-15-Type Carbine

Image of a detailed EOtech Reticule

Detail of EOTech reticule.

I recently helped someone navigate one of the most challenging aspects of modern defensive firearms ownership: choosing an optic for a general-purpose AR-type semi-automatic carbine. What makes this such a potential ordeal is the nearly limitless variety of options available. From red dot to reflex, holograph to etched reticule, fixed power to variable and everything in between, there is something for everyone (and too much for most, I’d say). And we’re not even going to get into the different reticule patterns available on modern riflescopes — whole books can (and have) been written about those. So let me give a little background and then we’ll look at the choices that were made and how we made them.

The Parameters

Our erstwhile optic owner is an experienced user of the AR-15/M16 platform, a military veteran who had participated in “combat competition” matches while in the service. In fact, this aspect is what caused the search for a new optic to begin. While a member of a military rifle team, our guy went out and bought an optic that was both highly advantageous in competition and approved for use on military small arms. But several circumstances have changed since that time:

Image of a Trijicon ACOG TA-01

Trijicon ACOG TA-01.

First, he is out of the service now, so he no longer has much opportunity to shoot at 300 to 500 meters. In fact, his need to shoot an AR-15 at these distances is practically nonexistent. Second and more compelling is that he has finally admitted his eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Back when he bought his previous optic, he didn’t even wear glasses. Now he not only wears glasses but they have a progressive lens, which is just a term used to keep people who believe they are too young for bifocals from hanging themselves.

This is important to understand, because it means there is a big difference between how well our shooter sees with his glasses on and how well he sees without them. Despite the fact that the Trijicon ACOG fixed 4X magnification model TA-01 is an excellent piece of optical technology, well suited to military combat use and which served our shooter flawlessly, it just doesn’t work anymore. So there’s requirement number one: the new optic must offer the ability to be used with or without glasses, for shooting at ranges not likely to exceed 100 meters.

We also have to consider the intended use. This guy isn’t in competitive shooting anymore, so what’s the carbine for? It’s for home defense, and you know what that means: requirement number two is that the new optic must be rugged and reliable. This narrows the field of potential choices considerably. There are some great products out there, and many good ones. And if the purpose is hunting, plinking, or target shooting, good is fine and marginal will often do. But for protection of life and limb, only the very best is good enough. Besides, our guy isn’t giving up a Trijicon ACOG for a unit of lesser quality, right?

The Contenders

Having established all of the above, let’s look at the contenders. Bear in mind that this group is hardly comprehensive and there are tons of other options. If your favorite isn’t included, rest assured no disrespect was intended. It simply wasn’t on hand for us to consider. We narrowed our field down to these three finalists based on the fact that they have no magnification and therefore do not have the eye-relief problem that caused all this in the first place. They all feature a bright aiming point that is easy to see and use. They all have a proven track record in adverse conditions, making them suitable for our “serious social application.” Finally, they are all easily installed on any M1913/Picatinny rail, in this case the flattop upper receiver of an AR-15 carbine.

Image of a Meprolight 21

Meprolight Mepro 21.

Meprolight

First up was the Meprolight model Mepro 21 reflex sight. This unit has a lot going for it, including a reticule that is illuminated by both tritium and light-gathering fiber-optic filament. It doesn’t even need batteries. What we liked was its “bolt on and forget” simplicity and bullseye reticule. This is a thick circle with a dot at its center for an aiming point. The unit is compact and features a good-sized window on which the reticule appeared. The reticule itself is a highly visible bright orange and stands out well against the dark aqua background.

Image of a meprolight reticle

Meprolight Mepro 21 reticule (appears smaller through camera).

This is what we didn’t like: the optical lens is tinted a shade of greenish-blue that makes the reticule really “pop.” In bright sun or other abundant light, this is of no consequence. But in less optimal conditions, we found it was difficult to discern detail of anything visible in our background. With typical home defense activity, this likely isn’t very meaningful, because the entire field of view will be filled with bad-guy torso, but we disliked it anyway. It seemed unduly difficult should we need to shoot with greater precision … but who am I to argue with the Israeli army and their choice of combat optic?

Image of an EOTech 552

EOTech 552.

EOTech

Our next finalist was one of L3 Communication’s well-regarded EOTech holographic sights. These feature a relatively huge field of view, like looking through your kitchen window, combined with an excellent “circle-dot” reticule aiming point. Although there are several models from which to choose, we settled on the popular model 552, to our understanding the most commonly used law enforcement and military version of the EOTech. We liked the big window, the ability to dial up (or down) the brightness of the reticule at will, and the fact that the whole thing runs on two AA batteries — it doesn’t get much more common than that!

Image showing the view from an EoTech

View through EOTech.

We didn’t like that we somehow kept getting fingerprints all over the lens, even though it isn’t necessary to touch it during installation, operation, or removal. Also, we didn’t like that with his glasses removed, the shooter had to turn the brightness waaaayy up in sunlight. This caused the circle portion of the reticule to become so fuzzy that it made using the center dot a little more difficult. This so-called “halo” effect was not as pronounced while wearing the glasses, so it’s an individual problem more than an issue with the sight itself.

Image of an Aimpoint pro

Aimpoint PRO. Spoiler alert: The winner and new champion!

Aimpoint

Last but not least came the Aimpoint model PRO (Patrol Rifle Optic), a new addition to their long and very popular line of red-dot sights. The PRO is really nothing new, simply a scope-like tube with no magnification and a single red dot as an aiming point. The PRO is packaged complete with a nifty QRP-2 “rail grabber” mount, which makes installing the sight absolutely brainless. Not that the others are difficult, but with this one, you almost can’t believe you did it correctly!

We liked the mount, of course, including its adaptability to other platforms if needed. We liked the uncluttered single dot aiming point, particularly because it is almost immune to the “wash out” halo effect. We’re amazed by the patented ACET technology, which means that the battery will last with the optic turned on – and on power-level seven out of ten — for up to three years. Aimpoint even includes an “in service” date sticker to remind the user what month and year he turned the thing on!

We also liked the precise shape of the dot. It can be minimized to a tiny speck if conditions call for a long shot on a small target. We didn’t like … we didn’t like … we had a hard time coming up with anything we didn’t like. The Aimpoint PRO was ideal right out of the box. The only thing we may add is a see-through front lens cover in the event that our shooter grows too lazy to operate the provided flip-up cover. Our final choice? The Aimpoint PRO was bestowed the honor of replacing the beloved Trijicon ACOG TA-01.

Image showing the view from the aimpoint pro

View through Aimpoint PRO.

Who Is This Mysterious Shooter?

Throughout this article, I have referred to the shooter in question in the third person. But if you haven’t realized it by now, I’m the shooter. I simply found it easier to talk about my shortcomings and methodology for choosing a sight this way. Also, if you are familiar with my contributions here at PDN, you know I dislike the formal extended testing regimen so common in reviews of guns and gear. I prefer to see what my customers and students see, and in the same limited amount of time. I find this helps me prioritize my preferences and minimizes my fretting about minor details. It either works or it doesn’t.

Which brings me to this: the sights mentioned here all work, as do many others. The right optic for me presented itself after I undertook this simple process: I identified the tasks required of the new optic, followed by the conditions under which it would be used. This gave me some worthy candidates, which I then compared side-by-side. The result was a quality piece of equipment that fits my requirements perfectly. You can do the same. But don’t take my word for it. If you’re looking for a quality optic for your carbine, get out to the gun shop and look through them yourself. You’ll be glad you did.

Discussion
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45 Responses to “Choosing an Optic for an AR-15-Type Carbine”
  1. Podman

    I have been thinking about putting a red dot on my AR-15 and am glad to see this test of the various kinds. I will sure consider the Aimpoint PRO. Thanks for the article.

    John

    Reply
  2. Czechsix

    Always interesting to see other points of view (pun intended).

    I’ve always had vision problems, and taking the glasses off is not an option for me. Likewise, I’ve always dealt with distortion of some sort when looking through optics, so maybe I’ve gotten used to it. My primary choice is an Eotech w/1 moa dot, no donut. I like the larger field of view with it (one of my gripes about tube scopes), and the general durability. I don’t even notice the distortion any more, and lots of that is because I’m using the BAC method. I’ve looked through the mepro’s and used them on top of some of my weapons, and even though I’ve noticed the glass in them, it hasn’t been an issue when keeping both eyes open. Haven’t checked out the PRO yet, but if I get a chance I will.

    Reply
  3. gunslinger454

    The one thing I think this article is lacking is a comparison of a low power variable scope, otherwise it’s pretty good.

    I recently had a similar problem and came up with a similar solution. I was outfitting a new AR carbine that while primarily intended for home defense would also be used for general purpose shooting as well. Like the author I wear glasses, although not bifocals. I first tried an EoTech XPS 2-2 (with the 2-dot reticle). While I really liked the wide open view of the EoTech with my glasses on, with my glasses off the reticle was little more than a bright red blob. Obviously that would be less than ideal for a rifle that may need to be used very quickly & without warning!

    The optic I settled on was the Aimpoint Micro H-1. Even with my glasses off the dot reticle is still fully usable for CQB/home defense, and ability to simply turn it on and leave it on for 3 years without having to worry about the battery is also an advantage! The only drawback is its limited long range ability.

    An optic I would have preferred, and will likely upgrade to in the future, is a low-power variable scope. Burris introduced their superb Tac-30 1-4x20mm scope about a month after I bought the Aimpoint, and it’s cheaper…dammit. When funds allow I will likely upgrade to the Burris–Midway USA has one in FDE that even matches the furniture on my rifle–and supplement it with a FastFire III in an offset mount, a la 3-gun competitors’ rifles. (The Aimpoint Micro will get a new home on my AKM.)

    Another option for those with the budget to make them possible are the new 1-6X scopes from both Bushnell & Leupold. The military grade versions run around $2,000 a piece, but Leupold also makes a hunting version, the 1-6x24mm VX-6 with the illuminated ‘Firedot’ reticle, that sells for about half that. (It can be ordered for the Leupold custom shop with the same ‘Firedot SPR’ reticle as the Patrol Rifle Scope and/or with a CDS turret matched to you rifle & load’s exact ballistics. I hung out at the Leupold booth for a while during the NRA show discussing my ideas with their custom shop manager. 🙂

    If I had the budget my first choice would be the Leupold Mk6 1-6x20mm–which has a very nice BDC reticle calibrated for the 62gr 5.56mm load–but the Custom Shop enhanced VX-6 would make a damn good choice as well and for several hundred dollars less. Still, the Burris 1-4×24 Tac 30/Fastfire II combo goes around $500 complete with Burris’s P.E.P.R. mount. That’s a hell of a deal if you ask me!

    Reply
    • TomC

      Sorry, Sic, but the Vortex products all share one common flaw that prevents them from being considered here…. They don’t cost enough.

      Reply
  4. andy loeffler

    Thanks for reading and for your comments, everyone. There were several other products out there that, had they been available to me, I would have included- the Vortex line in particular. While doing some “tire kicking” I very much liked the 1-4 Burris, but even dialed all the way down I would have to reposition it for proper eye relief depending on my glasses being on or off. I saw the same issue in a Weaver variable so I set them aside as not usable under all conditions, for me anyway. Thanks again and I plan to do some more optics testing soon as new stuff seems to come available everyday.

    Reply
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    Reply
  7. Don

    All excellent choices. Can you please explain the rationale of the Trijicon ACOG being an excellent piece of gear, but simply doesn’t work anymore? Thank you!

    Reply
  8. Pat

    I have found that the Aimpoint (Micro T-1 in my case) does exceptionally well with target acquisition in all lighting conditions. This sighting system is rugged, light weight, retains zero under harsh conditions (force on force), heightens situational awareness with both eyes open and has virtually eliminated all eye strain. Perfect sighting system for a high stress gunfight.

    Reply
  9. Almo Gregor

    Great info! One thing I would like to be added if possible in similar article in future. It`s the recommended models sections like guys in rifleopticsworld do. First, explaining mechanical and technical aspects that are important in choosing a scope for specific purpose and then following up with actual products for different situations. Like here: http://rifleopticsworld.com/guide-to-the-best-hunting-rifle-scope/

    However, I gained a lot of useful information anyway from this piece.

    Thanks Andy!

    Reply
  10. eric crayon

    I am using Nikon P-223 3-9×40 Mate BDC 600 for my Ar15 and I strongly recommend it . This scope is made with the .223 AR 15 in mind. Designed with a great consistent eye relief, the Nikon 3-9×40 Mate BDC 600 prevents brow injury for the shooter regardless of calibers being shot and extreme shooting angles. The scope also offers different reticles for different distances. Boasting a visible field of view of 600 yards, this scope is designed for distance shooting as well. The lens housing also offers recoil absorption, even when being fired repeatedly, the scope will give the shooter a clear field of view making for a better shooting experience. Waterproof and fog proof, this scope offers a great amount of durability. The scope itself is also sealed using o-ring technology and nitrogen gas filled lens chamber which allows for an even more durable and weatherproof scope. Though this scope is specifically designed for the .223 and the NATO 5.56 AR 15 rifles, it can be easily mounted to virtually any rifle small or large in caliber.

    Reply
    • Sam Davis

      This is for Ryan. I have a Nikon P223 3X32 BDC Scope I use for distance and I have a TruGlo Red dot/Green dot that I use when set up for self defense. Both are reasonably priced.

      Reply
    • Ed

      The Aimpoint PRO is not that expensive. I have a Trijicon ACOG and that was definitely more expensive. I’m more interested to know when this article was written. I see some other comments from 5 years ago. If the article is that old it may be time for a more updated list.

      Reply
    • TomC

      Hush, Ryan. It is a major tenet of the Firearms Blog Writer Guild than no one being paid to write pompous epistles would ever admit that any product that is actually affordable can ever be worthwhile.

      The article was interesting – and if I ever have someone else paying for my equipment I might consider these optics.

      Although the article was interesting, I have to wonder why the author spent so much time talking about the mesh drawstring bag that apparently comes with each optic. A “reticule” is a mesh or net drawstring bag — it is a way for pompous twits to misspell reticle when they want to sound impressive, and has been used so much in online blogs and media that most dictionaries now include it as a secondary meaning of the word.

      Reply
    • James Bailey

      I’m right there with you brother!

      I have chosen when I can afford it to get the primary Arms 1-6 24 mm gen 3 scope, with their ACSS reticle.

      The Gen 3 runs 270 bucks from Amazon but you will need to spend another $60 to $100 on a mount.

      Reply
  11. Lee

    Good article, thanks! The Aimpoint PRO is the conclusion I arrived at for my AUG as well and never looked back.

    Reply
  12. Rollin

    My S&W AR15 doesn’t require optics to hit man sized targets at a hundred yards. And I’m 67 with mild cataracts. Fun gun and accurate.

    Reply
    • MB

      Good point Rollin. I recently hit a 10″ steel target @ 120 yds without iron sights when my optic winked out on me. That was an eye-opener, so to speak.

      Reply
  13. David McCullough

    Hi Andy, I as well suffer from failing eyesight and came to the same conclusion you did last year and chose the same Optic for my “Carry” AR. Great Optic. I have my ACOG when I want to Plink at our 550 yard range on another AR. Tell your wife I said Hello! (I trained with her in St Augustine!)

    Reply
  14. Randy Trout

    What is the best Optic Red Dot sight if you wear glasses with Progressive Lenses as I do? I am looking to buy Optics for my AR-15 but do not want to buy something I can use or possibly return. Thank you for your help.

    Reply
  15. Robert

    Thank you for taking the time to write this article. I have been waiting a year to find the right red dot sight for my AR. Every time I think I had found what I wanted, somebody would tell me I don’t want that. You have helped me make my final decision with the facts you presented in this article. Aim point Pro it is. Done.

    Reply
  16. Tom Kilcrease

    Good article. However just a note on the EOTech 552. I’ve had mine for some time, but recently noted a terminal flaw in the unit. On a cold day last December I went to the range, double checked all attachment points for everything on the rifle and then reconfirmed zero. I can’t honestly remember if I had to change much from the previous zero or not. But this time I made some notes in my note book about time and temperature. I again recently went to the range on a hot day here and found the point of aim and point of impact were off almost 7 inches at 100 yards. I did some research and found the Army just settled a lawsuit with them for this very reason. I did more research and found a civilian class action suit going on again for the same reason; it loses zero due to temperature fluctuation. I just joined that lawsuit.

    Reply
  17. Dean James

    My fellow Americans, I have a SKS for home defense. It has a 30 round magazine. I put a sight mark red dot sight on it. The sight mark seems to do everything that I want it to do. I’m 63 years old, with failing eyes & bifocals. I have to wear glasses to see. The sight mark is adjustable for low & high light, five adjustable patterns types& five light settings. I highly recommend this for any rifle.

    Reply
  18. Tim Ferrall

    I will take my Trijicon RMR over anything you named in this article. And, BTW, progressive lenses and bifocals are two completely different things.

    Reply
  19. Gregory K. Sloat

    Any thoughts on the Sig Romeo 4M?
    I would like an EOTech, as I prefer their reticle to just a plain dot, but the EOTech looks “pixelated” to me. I see each individual dot that makes up the reticle, and it’s really annoying. Also, I’m one of those people who had “perfect” vision until age caught up with me, and I need different correction for reading and distance. The Aimpoint dot looks like a misshapen “blob” to me. I didn’t know what I was going to do until I tried looking through one of the Romeo 4s by Sig. The reticle actually looked usable, and I like that I can have either a dot or the EOTech circle dot. I’m going to investigate this further.

    Reply
  20. wesley waldrep

    One of my favorites for the AR carbine platform is the Leupold VX Hog with the Pig Plex reticle. I have one on a Bushmaster shorty and love it. It is an excellent workmans scope with the 1X for close work or you can crank it up to 4X to reach out a bit further.

    Reply
  21. Ingineer66

    I guess I am lucky that even with my glasses on my ACOG works perfectly. The reticle and the target are sharp. While expensive they are tough to beat.

    Reply
  22. Capt Ken Shaw

    Yes the red dot sights are great I have a vortex red dot on my ar 15 for home defense and I know it works just fine and at 100 yards I can put rounds in a spot the size of a tea cup saucer smaller than a pie plate and when a car pulls away you can hit the tires no problem it works

    Reply
  23. Neil

    After trying many red dot scopes,with and without magnification, prices ranging from$75–600 dollars every body has budget limitations. I looked at my primary purpose for rifle use and decided a scope with bullet drop reticule was best for my purposes (hunting) with this set up I can still shoot close up targets both eyes open at lowest magnification, out to MY maximum effective range depending on caliber and what I’m going after. Taking this to a carbine class everybody looked at me like I lost my mind but after the safety briefing and sight in I was able to get center hits every time fast, accurate, and consistent. Make choices on primary use, buy the best mounts and optic you can afford and practice practice practice

    Reply
  24. Neil

    After trying many red dot scopes,with and without magnification, prices ranging from$75–600 dollars every body has budget limitations. I looked at my primary purpose for rifle use and decided a scope with bullet drop reticule was best for my purposes (hunting) with this set up I can still shoot close up targets both eyes open at lowest magnification, out to MY maximum effective range depending on caliber and what I’m going after. Taking this to a carbine class everybody looked at me like I lost my mind but after the safety briefing and sight in I was able to get center hits every time fast, accurate, and consistent. Make choices on primary use, buy the best mounts and optic you can afford and practice practice practice. Great artical just adding my 2 cents

    Reply
  25. Don

    Hi, I am 55 and my eyes are not what they used to be. I have an Aimpoint optic and an EOTECH optic for 2 of my carbines. I am told (after getting them) that I have astigmatism and this is why I do not see dots but horizontal lines. Lately I have been trying to find a pro second ammendment optometrist to confirm and hopefully overcome these nightmare problems. Can you give any advice?

    Reply
  26. STEVE G.

    Thank you for an awesome article!!! I think the best point you brought up was to select the best option for the immediate task. I too went through the exact same dilemma for an optic on my patrol carbine. Back then I had the money to get pretty much what I wanted (boy do I long for those days). I chose the Aimpoint CompML2 4MOA dot and never looked back. It had everything I wanted and nothing I didn’t. It’s lived through SWAT call-ups, rain/snow/high humidity (sometimes in the same week..gotta love ALABAMA),bouncing around forever in the back of a patrol car and an on-duty crash that totaled that patrol car. It’s still just as rugged and reliable today as it was 20+ years ago when I bought it.Thanks, again, for the article and I look forward to more.
    Steve

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  27. MB

    Well… my optic budget is considerably less considerable than that of the author’s. I’ve opted for the PA microdot which works very well and is affrodable to just about anyone. However, I also wear the dreaded progressive lenses and the horrible multi-dot halo effect I experience when using a magnifier with the PA Micro has caused me to look further. Enter the EOTech knock-off. It has all of the looks and a few of the features of the real thing. I love the dount and dot, and it doesn’t halo on me, with or without glasses or magnifier. It has variable brightness that works well in bright sunlight and switchable red or green reticle. It’s also almost insurmountably difficult to zero (no it didn’t come “zeroed” out of the box like the real thing) as the adjustment turrets don’t even click and are atrociously imprecise. And, now that it has several hundreds rounds on it, it has develped a connection issue under recoil. It’s likely that I only need to stretch the spring in the battery compartment and get a good set of fixed iron sights to referrence my dot with, in order to address these issues. But it illustrates the point that there are myriad potential issues in choosing the optic that works for any one person. And one very determining factor is budget. Since the AR platform is the most commonly held rifle in the country, and that means users will encompass a wide variety of budgets, any article that attempts to address the selection of AR optics on a monolithic, best-only basis, is very limited in its applicability IMHO. Bottom line is, you do get what you pay for. But you also get what you CAN pay for. I would love to see a follow-up article highlighting three lower-cost options and depicting some of the issues to consider which are specific to a lower tier offering.

    Michael

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  28. David

    Thanks for this great article . I really enjoy it . I am really interested in rifle scope . I have Ar 15 and I am using different scopes for it . You gave such an awesome tips for me . Thanks again .

    Reply
  29. Keviin

    Yes, I am using Aimpoint PRO ar 15 scope. I am really satisfied with its performance.
    Andy, You have explained very well of those ar 15 scopes.

    Reply
  30. Ar 15 Enthusiast

    Red Dot on Ar 15 makes a significant difference. I have my nikon p223. But it doesn’t have that red thingy. Should I just mark it with my Red Permanent marker? The Lens should not be affected by this? Please let me know

    Reply