The AR-15 rifle is a lightweight, gas-operated, and magazine-fed firearm that has established itself as one of the most popular rifles worldwide. Right alongside the popular firearm is generally some sort of AR15 scope or optic, which allows the AR15 to be a jack of all trades and master of many. At this point its safe to call this firearm America’s rifle, as Hon. Judge Benitez termed, the equivalent of a “Swiss Army Knife” because of how easy they are to customize for different purposes.
In this article, we will discuss the world of AR-15 rifle optics and explore the various types of scopes available, their unique components, and features. We’ll also provide insights on what to consider when purchasing one and offer tips on proper maintenance. By the end, you’ll have a comprehensive understanding of AR-15 scopes and their functionalities.
Brief History of the AR15 Rifle
The ‘AR’ in AR15 stands for ‘ArmaLite Rifle’ which was initially developed in the late 1950s by engineer Eugene Stoner for the ArmaLite Corporation. Originally the AR-15 was designed as an Air Force survival gun to be used by downed pilots in case of emergencies. The design of the rifle was based on the premise of creating a lightweight weapon that could assist pilots in survival situations.
This design was later adapted and refined to become the M16 which was adopted by the US military during the Vietnam War. The M16’s adoption was initially met with resistance due to the unfamiliar design and function compared to previously used rifles. Initial complaints were that the gun ‘felt plastic,’ and was significantly lighter than previous infantry rifles, as well as shooting a smaller caliber (5.56×45). The initial variants produced saw reliability issues in the jungles of Vietnam as well. However as modifications were made and kinks ironed out, it grew in acceptance among the military.
Today the AR-15 rifle is ubiquitous among civilian shooters, in large part because of its modularity, reliability, and versatility. It can be customized extensively to fit user preferences. Its ergonomics and ease of use have made it especially popular among shooting enthusiasts, law enforcement, and competitors.
Choosing the Right AR15 Rifle Scope
The AR-15’s design lends itself to surprising accuracy compared to comparable weapons systems. The addition of various optics enhances the different strengths of the platform.
When choosing a rifle scope for your AR-15 there are a few considerations to think about.
- Purpose of Use: Determine what you’ll be using your rifle for. Is this rifle to be a defensive tool? A target shooter? Varmint control? The application will significantly influence your choice of optic.
- Shooting Distance: The overall purpose of the rifle will dictate your shooting distance and the magnification needs. For short to mid-range (out to 200 yards), a rifle scope with a lower magnification, like 1-4x or 1-6x, may suffice. Under 200 yards a red dot may also be a good choice. However, for longer ranges, you will likely need an AR15 rifle scope with higher magnification.
- Magnification Needs: Magnification is the ability of the scope to enlarge the appearance of a distant object. While higher magnification scopes can reveal distant targets in greater detail, they may also be more challenging to use due to a narrower field of view and greater sensitivity to movement. Therefore, balance is important especially if you may use the weapon for shots at closer distances.
AR-15 Scopes Vs. AR-15 Sights
There can be confusion between scopes and sights. While both aid in targeting, they have different structures and purposes:
- Optics: These refer to ‘devices’ that enhance or alter the visual representation of a target through magnification or illumination. Examples include red dot sights, holographic sights, and magnified scopes.
- Iron Sights: True classic iron sights are non-electronic, non-magnified aiming points on AR-15 rifles. They involve aligning a front and a rear sight to aim.
Red Dot Sights
Red dot sights provide a point of reference in the form of an illuminated red dot, overlaying the target. Red dot optics do not magnify the image, which allows for quicker target acquisition at closer ranges. Red dots can also be used with other optics on a 35 degree rifle mount.
Example: Red dot sights are exceptionally effective in close-quarter combat or scenarios where speed and awareness are the priority. Their quick target acquisition makes them ideal for situations that require rapid use such as home defense.
Holographic sights work on a different principle. They use a laser transmission hologram to display a reticle that’s superimposed on the target scene. This reticle can be more detailed than a simple dot, and unlike a red dot, the reticle will not be magnified if used with a magnifier. The difference between red dots vs holographic sights is very interesting, especially because they are commonly mistaken for each other.
Example: Holographic sights shine in situations similar to red dot sights, such as close-quarter combat. However, their more detailed reticles provide additional aiming points or more data to the shooter which is beneficial in dynamic shooting when estimating holdover and windage.
Magnified scopes offer the shooter a closer view of distant targets. These scopes use lenses to magnify the target image, allowing for more precise aiming at greater distances. They can be fixed magnification or variable, where the shooter can adjust the level of magnification.
Example: Magnified scopes come into their own for medium and long range shooting and hunting. When trying to hit a target several hundred yards away the magnification becomes so critical in terms of ability to see the target, much less successfully hit the target.
Types Of AR-15 Scopes
The versatile AR-15 can be paired with virtually any scope or optic. LPVOs and fixed magnification scopes/prism scopes have become very popular for their somewhat utilitarian design.
Low-Power Variable Scopes (LPVOs)
An LPVO (Low Power Variable Optic) scope is a type of riflescope that offers a versatile range of magnification settings. These scopes offer magnification starting at 1x and extending up to 4x, 6x, 8x or even 10x. With a wide range of magnification, the LPVO can be used at close range and distance as well. LPVO scopes are favored for their adaptability, making them ideal for a wide range of shooting activities, from tactical to hunting and competitive shooting. It has become very common for folks to also have a red dot sight on an offset scope mount for closer range targets.
Benefits: LPVOs provide the advantage of close-quarters targeting at 1x while granting the shooter the flexibility to dial in a greater magnification for mid-range shots. They offer a versatile field of view and quick target acquisition.
Best Suited For: Given their flexibility, LPVOs are perfect for dynamic shooting scenarios like 3-gun competitions, tactical applications, and hunting in varied terrains.
Fixed Magnification Scopes and Prism Optics
Fixed Magnification Scopes and Prism Optics are types of rifle scopes known for their simplicity and reliability. Unlike variable scopes which can zoom in and out, fixed magnification scopes provide a consistent level of magnification, such as 4x or 6x, making them easy to use and often more rugged.
Prism optics are an example that use a prism to focus light and provide a fixed magnification. These scopes are highly durable and compact, making them suitable for tactical applications and situations where a lightweight and robust optic is preferred. Both fixed magnification scopes and prism optics are appreciated for their straightforward operation and ability to maintain zero settings, ensuring shot accuracy even in challenging conditions.
Benefits: Fixed magnification scopes provide simplicity, often with a brighter and clearer image due to fewer lens components. They can be more rugged and dependable, with prism optics particularly offering compact designs.
Best Suited For: Tactical scenarios, close to mid-range engagements, or situations where a shooter doesn’t need variable magnification. Shooters with Astigmatism will be able to use a prism scope without complications.
- 1x: Suitable for close-quarters combat, offering a wide field of view for quick target acquisition.
- 4x: Effective for mid-range shooting, allowing more detail to be seen without overly narrowing the field of view.
- 5x: Bridging the gap between mid and long-range, 5x can be used for shooting at distances where precise shot placement becomes more important.
Traditional Rifle Scopes Vs. Non Traditional
Traditional AR-15 scopes as opposed to non-traditional, or newer options, are optics designed with variable magnification or fixed magnification settings to provide shooters with a clear and magnified view of distant targets. These scopes often feature a tube design and an objective lens at the front, allowing for precise adjustments to zoom in on the target.
For instance, a 3x-9x traditional rifle scope means it can magnify the target between 3 times and 9 times its actual size. This level of magnification is ideal for activities such as long-range shooting or hunting, where accuracy and target clarity are the main concern.
In contrast, non-traditional optics like red dot sights and holographic sights are characterized by their lack of magnification and use illuminated reticles for fast target acquisition, making them more suitable for rapid target transitions at close to medium distances. Traditional scopes are favored by marksmen looking for pinpoint accuracy, while non-traditional optics excel in scenarios requiring quick target engagement, such as competitive shooting or close-quarters combat.
Long-Range Rifle Scopes
Long-range AR-15 rifle scopes are specialized optics engineered to cater to the needs of shooters engaging targets at extended ranges. These scopes often boast higher magnification levels, frequently starting at 4x and going well beyond, sometimes reaching up to 25x or more. The increased magnification allows marksmen to see distant targets with exceptional clarity and precision, a crucial aspect when shooting over long distances. Additionally, long-range AR-15 scopes frequently feature large objective lenses, often 50mm or larger, which enable the scope to gather more light, enhancing image brightness even in low-light conditions.
Parallax adjustment, another common feature in long-range scopes helps eliminate parallax error, ensuring that the reticle remains on the target regardless of the shooter’s eye position. These scopes might also incorporate specialized reticles, like the Mil Dot or BDC reticle, designed to facilitate precise holdover and range estimation. Long-range AR-15 rifle scopes are favored by precision shooters and competitive marksmen aiming for superb accuracy and consistency over extensive distances, where the ability to make fine adjustments and read environmental conditions is crucial for on-target hits.
Benefits: They come with a host of features, including parallax adjustment, detailed reticles for bullet drop and windage estimations, and high magnification options.
Best Suited For: Designated Marksman Rifle (DMR) roles where the shooter engages targets at long distances, precision shooting competitions, or long-range hunting.
AR-15 Long-Range Scope Features
Long-range shooting with an AR-15 demands certain specialized features in a rifle scope to ensure precision and consistency. Each feature serves a distinct purpose, enhancing the shooter’s capability to hit the target accurately.
- Turret Adjustments: Turrets are knobs on the scope that help you move the aiming point up, down, left, or right to hit your target accurately.
- Reticle Styles: Reticles are patterns in the scope’s view that help with aiming. Different styles like crosshairs or dots offer various benefits, and the spacing between them aids in judging distances and bullet drop.
- Parallax Control: Some scopes have a knob for parallax adjustment, fixing an optical illusion where the reticle seems to move when your eye isn’t perfectly aligned. Others are parallax-free, always keeping the reticle on target no matter how you position your head.
- Glass Quality: The quality of the lens affects image clarity and brightness. Top-tier scopes use high-quality glass, giving you clear views, especially at higher magnifications, with minimal distortion and better target visibility.
AR-15 Scope Key Features & Components
Unlocking the full potential of your AR-15 rifle lies not just in its mechanical excellence but also in the optic you choose to accompany it. An AR-15 scope isn’t just a piece of glass that magnifies your target; it’s a sophisticated instrument designed to enhance your shooting experience.
Reticles are the patterns or markings you see through the scope that help you aim accurately. There are various types of reticles to choose from:
- Duplex Reticle: This is the most common type, featuring thin lines intersecting at the center to create a simple crosshair.
- Mil-Dot Reticle: Mil-dot reticles have dots or hash marks that help estimate distance or adjust for bullet drop. They’re favored for long-range shooting.
- BDC (Bullet Drop Compensator) Reticle: These reticles have markings that correspond to different distances, allowing for quick elevation adjustments.
- Illuminated Reticle: Some scopes offer illuminated reticles with adjustable brightness, ideal for low-light conditions.
Adjustments & Turrets
Turrets are the knobs on the scope that let you make crucial adjustments. Understanding two primary adjustments is essential:
- Windage Adjustment: This controls the horizontal (left and right) alignment of the reticle. It helps you compensate for wind conditions.
- Elevation Adjustment: This manages the vertical (up and down) positioning of the reticle, crucial for hitting targets at different distances.
Tactical Vs. Target Turrets
Scopes come with two main types of turrets, each with its advantages and drawbacks:
- Tactical Turrets: These exposed turrets allow for quick and easy adjustments. They’re favored for dynamic shooting scenarios but can be inadvertently changed if bumped.
- Target Turrets: These turrets are typically covered or capped to prevent accidental adjustments. They’re ideal for precise, deliberate shooting but may require more effort to use swiftly.
These components and features play a vital role in how your AR-15 scope performs, so understanding them is key to making the right choice for your shooting needs.
AR-15 Scope Performance Considerations
Since there are so many optics available for the AR15, there are different mounting procedures. Many of these utilize the Picatinny top rail on the upper receiver, especially for red dots, holographic sights, and prism optics. This process looks a bit different for scopes and LPVOs where this process where more errors can be introduced.
Mounting & Rings
The foundation of any good scope or LPVO setup is its mounting. Properly mounted scopes ensure stability, accuracy, and longevity of the optic.
- Installation: Ensure the rifle is unloaded. Using quality mounting rings of the right height and size for your scope is crucial. The scope should be level and aligned with the rifle’s bore.
- Tools: While many use simple screwdrivers, specialized tools like a torque wrench and a leveling kit can make the process more precise.
Eye Relief & Eye Box
These terms refer to the scope’s design in relation to the shooter’s eye:
- Eye Relief: This is the optimal distance between the shooter’s eye and the rear lens of the scope where the entire field of view is visible. Proper eye relief prevents “scope bite” – injuries from the scope hitting the eye or brow during recoil. The general rule is the greater the magnification the less eye relief there will be.
- Eye Box: Refers to the space where the shooter’s eye can move and still maintain a full field of view through the scope. A generous eye box offers flexibility in head positioning and less parallax.
Parallax is an optical illusion causing the reticle to appear to move against the target when the shooter’s eye shifts slightly. This can lead to aiming errors, especially at longer distances.
- Effect on Accuracy: Even small amounts of parallax can result in missed shots. Adjusting for parallax ensures that the reticle and target are on the same optical plane, maximizing aiming accuracy.
AR-15 Scope Maintenance & Care
Maintaining an AR-15 scope is key to its performance and longevity. A well-maintained scope will provide clear images and reliable service for years.
Dirt, smudges, and debris can obstruct your view.
- Methods: Use a soft lens brush to gently remove loose debris. For smudges or fingerprints, a microfiber cloth with a bit of lens cleaner works best. Avoid touching the lens with your fingers.
- Regularity: Lenses should be cleaned as needed, but it’s good practice to give them a gentle cleaning after each use, especially in dusty or dirty environments, and store with lens caps on.
Water or excessive humidity can degrade your scope’s performance and even damage it.
- Risks: Rain, snow, early morning dew, or sudden temperature changes can lead to foggy lenses.
- Prevention: Many modern scopes are nitrogen or argon-purged to prevent internal fogging. Lens covers can protect against external moisture. Keeping desiccants in your scope storage can help absorb excess moisture.
Protecting & Storing
Safeguarding your scope ensures it remains accurate and extends its lifespan.
- Storage: When not in use, store the scope (or the entire rifle with the scope) in a cool, dry place. A padded case offers protection against bumps and dings.
- Protection: Use lens caps to shield the optics. Using scope covers or neoprene sleeves for added protection during transportation or field use can be helpful.
Regular maintenance and careful handling will ensure that your AR-15 scope continues to provide clear, accurate service for years to come.
The kind of scope you choose for an AR-15 largely depends on the intended purpose. For close to mid-range engagements (up to 300 yards), a low-power variable optic (LPVO) like a 1-4x or 1-6x can be ideal. Red dots or holographic sights with a magnifier, or prism sights are also very popular. For longer distances, a higher magnification scope might be preferable.
For optimal balance and eye relief, the scope should be mounted on the rifle’s top rail, just forward of the charging handle. The exact placement can vary based on the shooter’s preference and the specific scope’s eye relief. A proper mount and rings ensure stability and consistent shooting performance.
The choice between a red dot and a scope comes down to the shooter’s intended use and preference. The red dot is Ideal for rapid target acquisition, ranges around 100 yards, and self-defense. A more traditional scope provides magnification, which helps in identifying and hitting distant targets with precision and is more suitable for medium and long-range shooting.
Red dot sights are designed for close to mid-range engagements, they are also better for darker and night environments compared to optics without illumination. They are most effective within 100 yards, but experienced shooters can stretch their effective range out to 200 yards or a bit more with practice. Beyond that, the lack of magnification can make target identification and precise shooting challenging.
Yes and no. Most areas have laws and statutes that vary by municipality which place limits on what can be used to hunt specific animals. For example, 5.56 is not considered an effective caliber for medium game in many areas. However, AR15s in 300 Blackout can be used in some of those areas. It’s important to know the laws for you hunting ground.
The AR-15 rifle and its optic options have come a long way since its inception evolving from military origins to becoming beloved tools for civilian shooters, hunters, and sports enthusiasts. Through this comprehensive article on AR-15 scopes, we’ve journeyed through the history of the AR-15, explored the intricate world of rifle scopes, and discovered the vital aspects of choosing the right optic.
With insights into various scope types, performance considerations, and maintenance practices, you’re now equipped with the knowledge to make informed decisions when selecting and caring for your AR-15 rifle scope. You should always carefully assess your goals and explore the options available. Select a scope that aligns most closely with your shooting aspirations. The world of AR-15 scopes is vast and fascinating; so, as you venture into the world of AR-15 scopes, remember that the right optic can be the key to unlocking your rifle’s full potential. Happy shooting!
The opinions expressed in this post are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Tacticon Armament.