Twilight of the Red Dot? All hail the LPVO?
Originally Published 28JAN2020
Are we in the era where the Red Dot Optic is falling out of serious use on a rifle?
There was a time, not too long ago that folks went to combat, en masse, with just iron sights. The Global War on Terror help usher in a change of optics on rifles across the board. Aimpoint Comp Series and EoTechs were mounted on top of shiploads of rifles headed to the Middle East. The venerable ACOG from Trijicon saw a lot of work as well with it's fixed low powered magnification as well. As if the brass finally made a decision to make America's Warfighter MORE lethal instead of the "business as usual" model of leadership.
This proliferation of Red Dot Optic (RDO) use helped us in the civilian world as well. Manufacturers started putting more into their R&D because there were large numbers being bought by the Military and that certainly trickled right over to the civilian market as well. Smaller players might not be able to get that elusive Military contract, but now we were seeing civilian contracts at the Department and Agency level sweeping into the market as well. Let's not discount the massive buying power of the average American gun owner. Quality AR15's were coming down in price which put a lot of rifles out there ready to accept the miracle of an RDO. With all of this, the RDO manufacturers were now competing with each other, not just on price, but quality and features as well. As a consumer, all of this is good news for us. The golden era of RDOs was here. We now have a plethora of RDO's to choose from. Along with the aforementioned brands, Trijicon knocked it out of the park with the MRO. Primary Arms, Vortex, Sig all make good and affordable RDOs and Holosun found a way to bridge the quality of the big names with the cost of the new school brands. The ones mentioned are just a sliver of the brand options available.
I remember reading about the Schmidt and Bender Short Dot over on lightfighter before I had ever met somebody who had actually seen one. It sounded pretty cool, giving the user essentially an RDO and an ACOG all in one. at 1.1x it acted a lot like a typical RDO and it could sweep up to 4X and use a BDC for longer distances. It had some downsides. It was neither light nor small like an RDO, and it wasn't what you could call wallet-friendly. But like the RDO market, the concept was solid and soon there would be competition.
Right now there are almost as many companies in the Low Power Variable Optic (LPVO) market as there are in the RDO market. And like before, that is good news for us consumers. As models began flooding in, the prices came down and I decided to dip a little into the LPVO world and see what it was about. I liked what I saw. I got a great deal on a Trijicon Accupower 1-4 so that's what I started with. I really liked the optic. 4X made seeing things a LOT easier. It just so happened that it made shooting easier too. Most folks jump right to the assistance in making hits at longer distances. And while that is certainly true, I think the biggest advantage is being able to see things more clearly and further away. I found that most of my shooting was still done at the ranges that I typically use an RDO. I found it easier to be more precise with that 4X. Of course, I also managed to stretch out ranges to make longer hits. That particular LPVO had a BDC for 55grain 5.56 out of a 16" barrel. It was set up to go all the way out to 800 yards. I did not think that combo with me behind the trigger was going to work. I was proven wrong. I had a former Scout Sniper scoff at my doubts and he had me go prone and use a pack to rest the gun on. He read the wind and gave me where to hold laterally and I made that first round hit on an 18"x24" plate at 800 yards. I flipped the safety on, stood up and slung the rifle. I'm keeping that 100% hit rate.
A good friend of mine asked me about my thoughts on a 1-8X LPVO. I told him that while I had tried a few out on student's guns but I hadn't spent a lot of time as I didn't own one. So, he gave me a Primary Arms 1-8. I swapped that with the Trijicon and have been running it. It has the much-touted ACSS reticle. Let me tell you, I am impressed. The optic has not been babied as you can imagine with any gear I own. All of my optics are mounted in the Midwest Industries mounts and there has been no movement from mount to gun nor mount to the optic. The reticle is everything I hoped it would be and more. Now the glass isn't as clear as the Trijicon that it replaced, but it also has an MSRP of less than half of the price, so I knew there would be areas where the Trijicon comes out on top. I have been running that optic a fair amount and I like its efficacy at all the ranges I've been using it at. Including ones further away than I normally do. At any rate, all of this is the backstory to the real meat here.
Yesterday I was trying out a Weaver Laser Range Finder in my home town. In case you are wondering, it worked well and when I used google earth to get some verification, it seemed spot on. I spent most of the day walking around my town, ranging everything in sight. A little background on my town. It is solid suburbs. There is no urban core (thankfully) and no rural areas. We're sandwiched between a river, some creeks, and a highway. There are rural areas outside the water/highway quarantine. Farmers fields and swaths of forest in all directions, but not areas where one could just inadvertently stroll into. One would have to swim or cross the second-longest interstate highway to reach these, so it's usually an obvious choice to go there. All the spaces in between have been filled up with a typical small town. In fact, we are the only town in Pennsylvania. Sure we have some business, and little manufacturing, and a college. Downtown is lined with multi-story buildings, but we're talking about 3-4 floors. Up on the hill is the college, and it has the typical layout of a college. Everything else is just small-town neighborhoods. Technically they aren't separated so the entire town is like one small-town neighborhood.
With that little description, let me tell you what I found. Inside houses, obviously, we're looking at the typical CQB distances that are so popular to show on Instagram. I get it though, filming something that's watchable has a number of limitations. I make videos, I understand. However, with the hordes of short-range shooting on the interwebs, there are a lot of gun-owners that focus everything they do on replicating those videos both in their training/practice regimen and their gear purchases. I walked into many random yards, front yards, back yards, side yards. Yep, there are those CQB distances we see all over the gram. You know what else is there? A dozen available shots in the 200-400 yard ranges. In between every house, or garage or shed were a larger number of potential mid-range engagement distances than CQB distances. Given our town's lack of high buildings, we don't have those long narrow open areas one would find in an urban area. There were few areas to remain obscured like in the shadow of a skyscraper. In fact, the vast majority of places I hade my feet on terra-firma there were roughly 300 degrees of visibility to those low, multi-story homes and buildings. Those were mostly 3-600 yards away as shown on the range finder.
I started looking for longer and longer distances. From the high school to the airport I was getting 1100 yards with the town park, town pool and town skatepark in between them. So there certainly are those areas where a larger caliber gun with a higher power optic would be the ticket. But what I didn't find, was a plethora of those. Given the topography and the typical small-town road layout, I didn't find enough long streets that I would be thinking that a heavier 308 would be a better choice. I own an MI10 with a 4-14 on top of it. If I were heading out of town where there are crop fields galore, that might be the primary choice, but not here in town.
Typically, my go-to rifle has been a 10.3" suppressed AR with an RDO on top. It shines indoors. The terminal ballistics from the velocities of an SBR aren't a concern at these distances. The volume of the gun becomes a concern that's been alleviated as well. The RDO is fast and forgiving at these ranges. At further ranges, I would just press it into doing what I need. The terminal ballistics change drastically but the real concern was simply seeing targets that far away. Now if we add in ID'ing that target we compound it further. So for me personally, it would seem my go-to rifle should be the rifle set up for these intermediate ranges and if need be, I can press it into urban/CQB ranges as well as reach out better if I need to press it into those longer/rural ranges.
Over in my alumni+ Facebook group, I posted this last night and it led to some great dialog. A few of my closer pals started texting me about it and I talked to a few friends who ran an LPVO deployed last year and buddies in the industry. It looks like we are past the "trend" of moving to LPVOs and we might be in a full-fledged movement. With a cursory search, I found LPVOs from known manufacturers from under 200 dollars up to 2K+. But the price range that got my attention are the choices between 300-500 dollars. This is the price point that has been dominated by the big name RDOs for quite some time. If I can get a quality LPVO in the same price range as a quality RDO, I'm hard-pressed to give the nod to the RDO. It marginally does better in the close ranges, has some drawbacks at those intermediate ranges and struggles at the longer ranges, if just from finding and ID'ing the target. At class, it used to be the outlier to have an LPVO, then we started seeing them regularly but no in the same numbers as an RDO. Many classes currently have been similar numbers between the two options. Everything from PA, Vortex, Burris, Sig, Trijicon, Kahles, Steiner, Leupold, EoTech, S&B, Nightforce have shown up in students' hands in front of me in the last year. Hell, there may have been others that I didn't either notice or am forgetting.
Are we seeing the LPVO become the choice for the common man? At the prices I am seeing, I expect to see more and more LPVOs and fewer RDOs. They certainly fill the role of a "does most things pretty well" optic better than an RDO or a higher power magnified optic. I have a 3-10 scope here that I put on an AR once in a while for a few specific reasons. I use it to fill a niche. Most folks reading this wouldn't hesitate to say that that magnification range is meant for a specific purpose and it limited when pressed into other services. With the LPVO becoming so prolific are we seeing or going to see them push the RDO into niche service as well? We will see soon enough, but for this guys' needs, it sure looks like it might.