LPVO VS. ACOG VS. Red Dot and Magnifier
When choosing an optic for your general-purpose rifle, especially when considering preparedness, the options are seemingly endless. The range of cost is extremely wide, and every single choice is a compromise in one way or another. So how do you decide which style of optic configuration is worth your hard-earned dollars? Personal preference, environmental restrictions, and versatility are all a part of the equation. Which unfortunately means that I can’t tell you exactly what will be best for you. However, I can provide some pros and cons of each of the most common optics configurations, how they apply to preparedness, and which one I’ve chosen for my “go-to” rifle.
Red Dot Sight + Magnifier Combination:
The red dot sight and magnifier combination are one of my favorite optic configurations on an AR-15 or similar-style intermediate cartridge rifle. A quality red dot sight can be very inexpensive compared to any of the other optic options. With the advancement in technology, not only are decent red dot sights more affordable, but they offer incredible battery life and capability. They are easy to use and are perfect for new shooters as they are the least complicated choice of optic. Put the dot on the target and pull the trigger. Simple. Plus, one of the best parts about this two-piece optic combination is that you can acquire each component individually, making it a great option for those who are working with a limited budget. Start with the red dot to get things going out on the range, then add the magnifier later.
I consider the magnifier to be a requirement in this configuration for the obvious addition of magnification. Although you might not need it to make hits on target at distance, you may need it to positively identify a target before engaging. This is why, in my opinion, any serious general-purpose rifle with an emphasis on preparedness needs some level of magnification.
There are magnifiers available that provide anywhere between 3x and 6x magnification. And if you find yourself needing anything above that, you’re likely using the wrong optics setup at that point. The magnifier can be flipped generally to the side or, in the case of the Unity Tactical Fast Mount, to the center and gets it out of the way if a true 1x is preferred for the task at hand. Most magnifier mounts are quick-detach, which adds a ton of versatility. Need to switch over to night vision? Get the magnifier out of the way and go red dot only. Want to observe something further away without pointing your rifle at it? Just pop the magnifier off, and now you’ve got a monocular. As previously stated, every selection is a compromise, so here are the pros and cons of choosing the red dot sight and magnifier combination.
●Extremely long battery life
●Simple, intuitive aiming system
● Affordable (depending on selection)
● Configurable for the task at hand through the detachment of a magnifier
● Best night vision compatibility
● Quickly switch between magnified and a true 1x
● Limited range
● Eye relief tends to be short on magnifiers
● Fully dependent on electronics
● For guaranteed dependability, options become expensive quickly
● Low levels of magnification limit, positive identification capability
● Takes up more “rail estate” and may not allow for backup iron sights
Even with the cons, I currently have two firearms set up with this optics combination. I really enjoy the quick switch from a true 1x to magnified, the versatility of removing the magnifier, the lightweight form and function, and the speed on target that a red dot provides. You can get into a setup like this with the Sig Sauer Romeo5 / Juliet3 red dot magnifier kit for around $500. However, as listed under the cons, if you want tried and true rock-solid reliability, it can get much more expensive. And that would be my suggestion for a true general-purpose rifle for preparedness purposes. If you are going to rely on something that fully relies on electronics, you need to make sure it will work and hold up to abuse.
For example, I run an Aimpoint Comp M5 on a Unity Tactical Fast Mount with an Aimpoint 3X-C Magnifier on a Unity Tactical FTC (Flip To Center) Mount. Aimpoint is the best in the business when it comes to red dot sights. And they know it, which is reflected in their pricing. The total cost of this package is right at $1,700. That is a HUGE jump in cost over something more budget-friendly like the Sig Sauer Romeo5 / Juliet3 package for something without much more capability. But it does bring a proven track record of durability and performance that you don’t get with the more budget-friendly brands. This same concept can be applied to EOTech, as they have amazing sights and magnifiers as well, but they will cost you.
As much as I like the red dot sight and magnifier combination, it is not my first choice for a go-to general-purpose rifle. I live in a very rural environment with wide open spaces. Having a more dedicated magnified optic that offers a reticle that can help with ranging and bullet drop is more suited for my situation. Not to mention, I am not the biggest fan of 100% relying on electronics not to fail me at the worst time possible. However, if I lived in an urban environment, this optic combo would probably be my choice. There’s a reason that the two guns I have this configuration on are more compact, with their primary roles being home defense and night vision use. The red dot magnifier combination lends itself well to the tighter spaces scenario but still allows for longer shots if the need arises. This same concept also applies to densely wooded areas if that is your environment. And, if you are planning on using your rifle with night vision as a priority, this might be the best option as well.
Rifle Scope + Offset Red Dot Sight
The traditional rifle scope has been an option for almost 200 years now! And it has only improved over time. There are a few different categories to choose from when it comes to a rifle scope. First, there are fixed and variable power scopes.
Fixed power scopes have one power level of magnification and offer great utility and simplicity. They also tend to be more rugged and lighter weight thanks to having fewer moving parts. You generally see them being used on handguns or rimfire rifles.
Variable power scopes allow the user to switch between different magnification levels based on need. For example, one of the most iconic magnification ranges on rifle scopes is the 3-9x power offering. A rifle scope with that magnification range will allow the user to switch from 3x magnification on the low end all the way up to 9x magnification on the high end as well as all of the power levels in between. This option provides the ability to make close-up shots, reach out further and get positive identification at distance all in one optic. Because of the versatility of variable power scopes, they are the predominant choice for a general-purpose rifle setup.
Once you’ve decided on a variable power scope (as there are better options if fixed power is more appealing to you), you’ll need to decide on which form factor and performance level will fit your specific needs. The main categories here tend to be low-power variable optics, medium-power variable optics, and long-range rifle scopes.
Low-power variable optics or LPVOs are becoming one of the more popular choices for use on a general-purpose rifle emphasizing preparedness. They tend to keep a compact, lightweight, and low-profile form while offering a 1x magnification option that you don’t get with other rifle scopes. Their general magnification ranges are 1-4x, 1-6x, 1-8x, and 1-10x. The main benefit here is that you get a 1x magnification level that operates similarly to a red dot sight while also having the option to crank up the power level when needed. This does create some compromises however, including a lack of parallax adjustment; reticles that are only good at one end of the magnification range; and a limited amount of light transmission due to a reduced size objective lens, which affects image clarity especially at distance. Even with these compromises, a quality LPVO can offer a lot of capability. The Vortex Optics Razor HD Gen III 1-10x 24mm scope is a premium example of an LPVO.
Medium power variable optics or MPVOs are making a comeback at this point in time. The main difference between an MPVO and an LPVO is that your magnification level starts above 1x and usually maxes out somewhere between 9x and 15x. It also has a much larger objective lens which allows for better light transmission, especially at higher magnification levels. Some MPVOs will also offer a side focus parallax adjustment which can help with reaching out at further distances. A feature that LPVOs lack. There are also an almost infinite number of reticles to choose from that offer bullet drop compensation, ranging, and illumination features. As well as the choice between first or second focal plane reticle placement but, that may require an entirely separate article. So why are MPVOs gaining popularity once again in the age of the LPVO? I mean, for a minute there, no one wanted Grandpa’s 3-9x 40mm Leupold on their AR-15, right? Well, my opinion is that it’s because of the use of offset or piggybacked red dot sights in conjunction with these optics. The LPVO’s biggest selling point was having a 1x magnification level for close-up work. However, it still does not offer the speed or true 1x form factor of a red dot sight. So, shooters began to run an additional offset red dot sight as a solution to quick, close-in shots and as a backup sighting system. Because of this, the 1x magnification level of the LPVO became less important, and more focus was put on the higher power levels where an MPVO outclasses the LPVO. A good example of the MPVO is the Primary Arms GLx 2.5-10x 44mm rifle scope.
Long-range rifle scopes are pretty self-explanatory. They are designed with the primary intention of reaching extreme distances accurately. Minimum magnification levels can start as low as 3x but can climb up to anywhere from 18x, 25x, and even 40x. There is also more focus put on the reticles for data and ranging considerations. These scopes are great at what their intended purpose is. However, they are not usually recommended for a general-purpose rifle, for the obvious reason of it not being a long-range rifle. General purpose alludes to the idea of being capable in most scenarios. And although a situation could arise where extended ranges are part of the equation, that would be the exception more often than the rule. Long-range rifle scopes are bigger, heavier, and more complicated than the previous two categories without much-added benefit. A standard issue AR-15 chambered in 5.56x45mm with a 16” barrel has an effective range of around 500-600 yards. At least according to the internet. Making the need for a long-range rifle scope more of a niche necessity rather than a recommended option for general-purpose uses. A quality long-range rifle scope would be well represented by a Leupold Mark 5HD M1C3 5-25x 56mm.
Alright, now that we’ve covered the different rifle scope options, let’s quickly discuss the offset red dot sight aspect of this combination. You can easily bypass the red dot altogether if you go the LPVO route. You’ll have a 1x magnification level as well as the 4x, 6x, 8x, or 10x (you don’t really want the 10x), which covers all of your bases. However, on a general-purpose rifle, for preparedness reasons, you’re going to want at least some sort of backup sighting system. And once you have that LPVO, you’re likely to figure out that an offset or piggybacked red dot fills that role nicely. It’s faster than backup iron sights, it works in low light conditions, it works with night vision, and it weighs next to nothing. And once you add the red dot sight, you’ll start to question why you need the 1x magnification level of the LPVO. Ask me or my bank account how I know all of this. Either way, the addition of the red dot brings a lot of capability into the equation with almost no drawbacks besides the need for electronics and batteries. And not even that in some cases! (Holosun SCS comes to mind…) With all of that in mind, here are the pros and cons of the rifle scope and offset red dot sight combination.
● Positive identification and engagement at extended ranges
● Increased first-round hit percentage
● Extensive reticle options
● Offerings in all price ranges
● Best for observation or reconnaissance
● Rifle scopes are not electronically dependent
● Adds more weight than other options
● Likely the least durable option on the list
● Good glass clarity is expensive
● Requires more training
● Increases the overall size of the package
Rifle scopes bring unrivaled magnification and versatility to the table for the general-purpose rifle. But there is always a trade-off; in this case, that trade-off is weight and cost. You can get inexpensive rifle scopes that will do the job, but there is a very wide gap in performance and capability when comparing them to high-end offerings. For example, I have a Sig Sauer Tango MSR 1-10x 28mm scope mounted on a 20” Aero Precision build chambered in 5.56. That particular model of LPVO runs around $580 but comes with a mount as well, which puts it in the budget realm. I run a Holosun 407C-X2 2 MOA red dot sight ($220) on a Sig Sauer Universal 45-degree offset mount ($75) in conjunction with the Sig Tango MSR. In theory, this is a pretty solid setup for the price. However, the glass clarity of the Sig Tango MSR 1-10x is not capable of providing a clear image at 10x magnification levels. And, as it is an LPVO, there, of course, is no side focus parallax adjustment either, which could help when trying to make shots at 10x power. Now, a Vortex Optics Razor HD Gen III 1-10x 24mm would likely solve some of those clarity issues, but it also has a price tag of $2500!
And because of this experience, I am planning on switching out my LPVO to an MPVO. Not only does the MPVO solve some of these issues, but it can also get the job done for a lot less! And, with the addition of the offset red dot sight, I don’t feel like I am missing out on the 1x magnification level that made LPVOs so popular in the first place. A Leupold Mark 3HD M5C3 3-9x 40mm only runs $500 and is guaranteed to have better glass clarity than the Sig Sauer Tango MSR series. It’s specifically geared for use on an AR-15 chambered in 5.56 NATO and only weighs 15 oz without a mount. Plus, it’s made in the USA (cue bald eagle scream). Look out for that optic to show up at some point here in the near future on that 20” Aero Precision.
As excited as I am to switch over to an MPVO with an offset red dot on my more “special purpose” rifle setup, the rifle scope and offset red dot sight combination is not what I chose for my general-purpose rifle with an emphasis on preparedness. Weight is a factor, fragility could be an issue, and one thing you might find when using a rifle scope in conjunction with a red dot sight, especially if using an LPVO, is the tendency to keep your scope dialed to a certain magnification level. For example, with a 1-6x LPVO and an offset red dot, you might find yourself using the 1x of the red dot for up close and the 6x of the LPVO for everything else. But what if there was an optics combination that was optimized for that type of use case philosophy?
Prism Scope + Offset Red Dot Sight
The prism scope is generally defined as a fixed power optic that has an etched reticle independent of any electronic components. As these optics only offer one power level, they operate on the lower end of the power spectrum, starting as low as 1x and topping out at around 6x, depending on the manufacturer. However, based on the addition of a red dot sight and the magnification requirement for a general-purpose rifle, we will remove 1x prism scopes from the possible options. So, with all the versatility of rifle scopes and the ability to add magnifiers at similar power levels to red dots, why even consider a prism scope? Oh, I am 100% most definitely going to tell you why you should not only consider a prism scope but why you should already have one!
Prism scopes check almost every box on the general-purpose rifle checklist, especially once you add in the offset red dot sight. You have magnification for reaching out and positive identification. You can achieve illumination for low light use through electronics, fiber optics, or tritium. Thanks to the etched reticle, none of that is required for the reticle to be visible. Etched reticles also share many of the same features as traditional rifle scope reticles when it comes to bullet drop compensation and ranging. The fixed power allows for a compact, durable, and lightweight form factor while offering best in class field of view. There are prism scope offerings from most of the best optics manufacturers in all price ranges as the simplicity of the fixed power optic allows for affordability, which in turn provides better quality glass and clarity compared to rifle scopes in the same price range. And with the addition of the offset or piggybacked red dot sight, you gain a true 1x capability and night vision compatibility.
One of the most iconic and heavily tested prism scopes on the planet is the Trijicon ACOG, also known as the Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight. The ACOG has been in US Military service since 1995 and has been effectively used in combat for decades. The Trijicon ACOG is synonymous with durability, quality, and capability. The rock-solid design leaves little doubt that it could survive a worst-case scenario better than most other optics. The glass clarity is second to none, and the reticle offerings allow you to get a near-perfect match for your barrel length and cartridge choice regarding bullet drop compensation value. ACOGs can be found in different magnification ranges from 1.5x up to 6x, but the most common are the 3.5x TA11 and 4x TA31. Those models also offer the ability to mount a Trijicon RMR or similar red dot sight at the 12 o’clock position above the eyepiece. This is perfect for not only adding the 1x capability we so desire, but it also provides a perfect mounting height for night vision use as well.
The Trijicon ACOG is what most would consider the standard that all other prism scopes are weighed against. However, as good as the ACOG is, it is also the most expensive option. Luckily, there are other manufacturers making great prism scopes that have all the same benefits as the ACOG, minus the lengthy record of combat-tested reliability, which may be worth it in the end for a general-purpose rifle with an emphasis on preparedness. Can we, is that… a “GPREP” …? Did I do a thing there? The Trijicon ACOG TA31, depending on the model, floats at right around $1000. However, even the Primary Arms SLx 3x MicroPrism is a really nice prism scope for its price of $320! They even offer an integrated offset mount for a red dot sight. Vortex Optics also makes some nice prism scopes with their Spitfire HD Gen II line that runs between $400 and $450. Now, these are, in my opinion, the pros and cons of choosing the prism scope and offset red dot sight combination.
● Generally, the lightest weight option
● Most durable optic choice
● Non-electronically dependent
● Widest field of view
● Best affordability-to-quality ratio
● Reticles offer bullet drop compensation and ranging
● Limited range
● Extremely short eye relief
● Positive identification at extended ranges is more difficult
If you haven’t figured it out yet, this is the optics combination I’ve chosen for my… GPREP (yea, I’m just doing it now) rifle for all the reasons stated above. Although there are some cons to this setup, there really are few that raise any real concerns. The limited range and difficulty obtaining positive identification at distance are compromises that are traded off by the prism optic being lightweight and extremely durable in comparison to the rifle scope that excels in those departments. The extremely short eye relief can be overcome through training and has less of an impact thanks to the offset red dot sight. However, the short eye relief does provide the extremely wide field of view that you don’t get with the other optics options previously discussed.
As of right now, my go-to GPREP is a Wilson Combat Ranger with a 16” barrel chambered in 5.56 NATO. It’s lightweight, accurate, and plenty capable in many different preparedness-related scenarios. And the optic choice I’ve made for that rifle consists of a Trijicon ACOG TA11 3.5x 35mm ($1100) with the M193 Chevron reticle (specifically tuned for M193 55gr 5.56 NATO out of a 16” barrel) and a Trijicon RMR Type 2 3.25 MOA ($490) red dot sight mounted at the 12 o’clock position or piggybacked above the eyepiece of the TA11. I chose the TA11 model of the ACOG because of two reasons: the M193 reticle option, which perfectly aligns with the rifle it's mounted to; and the 3.5x magnification, which allows for slightly better eye relief and helps awkward firing positions and overall comfort. Not to mention, the fiber optic and tritium illumination system never requires batteries. In all honesty, this setup provides me with everything I want in a general-purpose rifle with an emphasis on preparedness, or “GPREP,” as everyone calls it now. True 1x red dot sight for close-up applications, speed, and night vision compatibility. A 3.5x magnified optic for extending effective range, identification and without the reliance on electronic components. Oh, and did I mention that it’s an ACOG? The optic will likely survive longer than me during a long-term crisis scenario.
Although I eventually decided on the prism scope and offset red dot sight optics setup for my GPREP (please be a thing by now), all of the choices presented in this article are excellent options. And as much as I like my good ole’ iron sights, the optics industry has advanced to the point of offering efficient, reliable aiming solutions that are not only affordable but will increase the effectiveness and capability of your rifle. Don’t forget, if you and I have access to this technology, so do the bad guys. Whoever that might be. And you might as well give yourself any advantage you can in order to increase your chances of survival during a situation where a GPREP becomes relevant. Do your research, make choices based on personal requirements including budget and environment, and most importantly, get out and train with your gear!