Combat Optics: who shall be king?

With the explosive sales of AR-15 and similar rifles in the U.S., the accessory market is likewise booming. One area of particular interest is that of combat optics.

The magnified rifle scope has been around for generations and is still widely used by hunters and military/law enforcement snipers. It provides a tremendous advantage in making long shots accurately. The non-magnified or “1x” optics are a recent development.

Given that most combat engagements are at short distances (less than 200 meters) the value of a red dot 1x optic is great. Both eyes can and should be kept open so the the visual field is unencumbered, allowing for better situational awareness, and the target acquisition time is extremely short. The current offerings for this type of sight are broad, ranging from $40 units at Wal-Mart to $800+ units closely matching military models.

A word should be said here about the Trijicon ACOG sight. ACOG stands for “Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight” and it is a remarkable product. The classic ACOG was originally offered in a low-power magnification configuration (3-4x) with both tritium and fiber optic illumination. This allowed for an illuminated, highly-visible reticle in day/night/indoor/outdoor conditions in a very rugged package that required no batteries or adjustment. The product line now includes offerings from 1.5x to over 5x magnification and with a dizzying array of illumination and reticle options. They are not cheap, going for $1-1.5k. For medium-distance engagements this sight is awfully hard to beat. It is however not a 1x sight and for close-quarter battle (CQB) it loses out to the true 1x sights.

The key feature for good 1x optics is that they offer unlimited eye-relief and are parallax-free. Eye-relief is the distance from the optic that the eye can be and still keep the full sight image. With magnified scopes the shooter’s eye must be kept at a certain distance from the scope in order to see the entire downrange image. With 1x optics the shooter’s eye and the optic can be any distance apart. This allows for “Scout” configurations where the sight is far forward on the rifle. For CQB the advantage is that the sight picture will be accurate more quickly as the weapon is shouldered. Similarly, parallax-free means that as the shooter’s eye moves around behind the sight, the sight image and the point-of-aim (the dot or other reticle) are still accurate and distortion-free. Again, this allows much faster target acquisition since the sight image is accurate as soon as the reticle is visible to the shooter, even when the weapon is not fully shouldered. This early acquisition is crucial for quick shots.

The two leading companies in the 1x arena currently are Aimpoint and Eotech. Many others have imitated the design, some well and others not so much. My first 1x optic was an Eotech clone bought on eBay for around $80. It was modeled on the 5.11 model which uses N-type batteries. It was reasonably useful but was lacking in design such that there was quite a lot of parallax and the reticle was not very bright even on the highest setting. In bright snow the sight was useless and unless my eye was centered behind the sight the point-of-aim was way off. Caveat Emptor!

After trying out a few real Eotechs I finally replaced the clone with a real model 5.12 which is non-night vision and uses two AA batteries. The difference was dramatic. The Eotech is made in Ann Arbor Michigan and was the first common holographic weapon sight. The use of a holograph allows for complex reticles to be placed on the glass of the sight with great precision. The majority of Eotech sights use a large 65 Moa ring and a 1 Moa dot in the center as the reticle. The ring guides your eye much like the ghost ring of some popular iron sights. This allows the 1 Moa dot to be found very quickly and overall shot time to be really quick. From my experience this is the very best reticle for CQB.

Among the short list of shortcomings for the Eotech were 1) battery life, 2) mounting options, 3) controls and 4) size/weight. The fact that the holograph requires a laser means that the run-time will necessarily be shorter. For non-military use this is frankly not much of a consideration. The Eotech can run for a month or two continuously. The good news is that the unit turns itself off after 2 or 4 hours, depending on the way it was turned on (left or right button). It is likely that most shooters will need to replace the AA batteries due to chemistry limitations rather than actually running them down.

The Eotech mounts on a mil-std-1913 rail with a built-in clamp on the bottom of the housing. It works perfectly on an AR-15 and will co-witness with iron sights. If considering another rifle then the sights might not work as well. On my Kel-Tec SU16C  the Eotech sits too high. The good news is that with this integrated clamp the sight does return to zero nicely when reattached to my AR-15.

The 5.12 controls are just OK. They are push-buttons on the back of the housing which is a problem if you want to use a magnifier behind the sight. The buttons are also tough to manage with gloves, especially thick ones. I find it takes a bit more work to turn them on and adjust the brightness than knob-activated sights.

Weight/size are also a small negative for the 5.12 since it is a little heavier than others but the visual field is very large so it can be argued that it’s a good trade-off. The AA models are longer but they offer extremely common batteries and a very simple, quick and easy battery change.

Are these major problems? Not for me but I did want to at least mention them. The overall impression for me is that for an AR-15 this sight is superb and well worth the $400 price tag. Nevertheless I felt compelled to get my hands on an Aimpoint to see how it compared.

I found a used CompML2 on eBay for around $325 (new around $400). The sight came with a Burris Xtreme mount of the 1″ variety which was too high for my tastes. I have noticed that lots of folks put their optics up at the 1″ mark and I can’t understand why. Perhaps they have a standard A-post front sight base (FSB) and this keeps the optic above it. In any case I bought a 1/2″ version of the Burris mount which keeps the sight nice and low allowing a nice tight cheek weld. It also allows the Troy backup sights to co-witnesses right in the center of the optic.

Using this sight with its 2 Moa dot has worked really well. The dot can be dialed up to very high brightness, which also makes it look bigger if that is required. The control knob has very positive clicks for feedback and can be operated even with thick gloves. The battery life is supposed to be 5 years on one of the brighter settings which far outshines (pun?) the Eotech. This is nice but hardly a huge factor for me. The field of view is smaller too but in some ways that helps to find the dot fast. Many people have reported that they felt the CompM series to be more rugged than the Eotechs but all I can say is that both have worked really well and taken quite a beating from me without (almost) any failures.

I eventually replaced this sight with a CompM3 after accidentally damaging the sight. The sight was still functional but the cracked front lens was a distraction. The M3 adds night vision which will likely never be used by me. Otherwise it is functionally identical.

The negatives on the CompM2/3 are 1) it doesn’t come with a mount, the glass is somewhat small and 2) the simple reticle doesn’t compete with the Eotech “circle of death”. It is however light and the battery life is amazing. The durability issue is unsettled in my mind.

So, which do I use? Well at this moment I have the Eotech on my main AR-15 but for the last few weeks I have been running the CompM3. I keep going back and forth. The Aimpoint is easier to turn on and off and may be more rugged but in actual use that Eotech sight picture is unbeatable.

Another significant question for many folks will be, “Do I really need a $400 sight at all?” It’s a fair question. If you are betting your life on it you might say yes, especially if this is for military use. However, I use a $40 Tasco red dot on my Kel-Tec that I have found is ideal for use on my “truck gun”. Would this be my choice in a SHTF scenario? No but it works great for a low-cost, relatively dependable rifle that if stolen from my truck would not break my heart or the bank.

As for the Aimpoint/Eotech question, you’ll have to decide that for yourself.

About William Daugherty

William Daugherty is a firearms enthusiast, competitive shooter and Second Amendment advocate living in the Upper Connecticut River Valley region of Northern New England.
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