I was recently at the range helping a shooter get started with his new AR-15. He was using inexpensive backup sights, but talking about optics so I handed him a rifle with a reflex sight mounted. He immediately closed one eye, squinting through the sight as if he were using a magnified scope. Very few shooters understand the correct use of a red dot sight. I found this to be true in the military when Aimpoint sights became widely used, and I find it especially true among today’s hunters.
Red dot or reflex sights are particularly well suited to many types of hunting. Hunters are often resistant to them because most red dot sights do not look like traditional rifle scopes. For hunters who insist on a traditional look, sights such as the Aimpoint Hunter H34L combine the advantages of a red dot sight with the more familiar look of a rifle scope.
Other hunters reject reflex sights because they do not have magnification. Most hunters use more magnification than is needed or even prudent. Few hunters will ever take a shot on a game animal at ranges above 250 yards. When shooting under 250 yards, magnification is rarely necessary, and at closer ranges, can be detrimental. I enjoy long-range shooting and have rifles set up for long-range hunting, but I have yet to take a really long-range shot on an animal. I shot a bull moose at ten feet and a bear at seven feet in defense situations. In both cases I used iron sights and every shot was a kill shot. A magnified optic in either situation could have been disastrous.
For general hunting, a reflex sight can be an excellent choice. In some hunting situations, it is the ideal optic. Any time the hunt is likely to be fast and close, a red dot sight is perfect. Military sights are built tough, and are usually reliable. The field of view is unlimited; since both eyes are open the sight does not limit the hunter’s view. Red dot sights are reflexive; target acquisition is fast since the focus is kept on the target while the reticle is brought in line with the target. For low light conditions, they do not greatly decrease the light transmitted to the eye, and many are designed to work with night vision devices.
All of these attributes make red dot sights ideal for dangerous game hunting or defense, day or night hunting for fast, multiple targets like hogs, and hunting in thick growth, where only fleeting chances to aim are presented. In parts of the Eastern US, where hunters crowd into the woods, the unlimited field of view allows them to be better aware of other hunters in proximity to their targets.
I recently hunted red stag, wallaby, and pigs in New Zealand, in an area of very thick growth. I could rarely see more than fifty yards. I was using a borrowed rife with a magnified scope, and at one point I jumped the most beautiful stag. I was never more than thirty-five yards from it while I could see it, but I was only getting glimpses of it as it moved rapidly through the bush, and I took a running shot as it headed up a ridge. I fired just as it moved behind the heavy leaves of a tree, and my bullet was deflected. I am confident that a reflex sight would have allowed me to track the stag with my reticle easily and offered the field of view to avoid hitting the brush.
Reflex sights work well because aiming is simple.
The secret to the reflex optic is this: if you can see a dot, and the dot is on your target, the bullet will hit the target. No aligning sights. No sharp front sight and blurry target. No critical cheek weld. Here is how it’s done:
With the rifle on safe at the ready, identify and focus on your target. Keeping both eyes open, bring the weapon up to the firing position. Don’t bring your head down to the rifle, bring the rifle up to your cheek. As the sight comes up in front of the eyes, a red dot will appear on the target. When the reticle reaches the point of aim, switch to fire and engage the target. Both eyes remain open and the focus never moves from the target.
Aiming becomes a quick, reflexive action.
Always keep the reticle brightness adjusted as low as possible for the lighting conditions. This will give a clearer sight picture and obscure the target less. A common complaint I hear about red dot optics goes like this, “On sunny days in Arizona, I have to turn the brightness almost all the way up in order to see the reticle.” Well, Duh. That’s what that knob is there for, so use it. Turn it low in the dark, and high in sunlight or snow. If you are using night vision behind the optic, you will need an optic that has lower intensity settings compatible with night vision. Otherwise, if using a monocular (ANPVS-14, etc.), put the monocular on the non-firing eye and make sure it is aligned well (no double image between your eyes when looking at a distant light, for example). Then use the naked eye for the optic, and the two images will be super-imposed.
How to Zero
Zeroing a red dot sight is the same as zeroing any rifle scope, with the additional process of zeroing back-up iron sights if you have them. I prefer to boresight before I go to the range. If you have iron sights that co-witness, you can index them to the reticle to get them close to zeroed. Once you have your boresighted weapon on the range, either remove the optic if necessary, or sighting through it, zero the iron sights. While zeroing the iron sights, leave the optic turned off and ignore it. Once iron sights are zeroed, flip them down, if possible. Turn the optic on and zero according the the manufacturer’s instructions. While zeroing the reflex sight completely ignore the iron sights. They are two different sighting systems and have little to do with each other. The iron sights are not zeroed to the dot, and the dot is not zeroed to the iron sights.
If both your iron sights and your red dot sight are zeroed well, don’t worry about where they are in relation to each other. Generally they will be pretty much aligned with each other, but often not, depending on the shooter. I have observed great frustration on the range when soldiers tried to get the red dot to line up on top of the front sight post and still have the weapon shoot to point of aim. I had an M68 (Aimpoint) on an M4 that, when zeroed, positioned the dot above and to the right of the front sight tower. Both iron sights and the Aimpoint hit dead on. There was simply a slight difference in how I aligned my eye between the two sighting systems.
There is a lot of discussion for the best zero range for combat use, but a hunter can ignore all of that. Just like any hunting optic, the sight should be zeroed at the ideal range for the rifle, the caliber, the terrain conditions, and the game hunted.
But they are only accurate for short range shooting, right?
I hear this repeated over and over again by soldiers, on forums, on the range, and in magazines. The government nomenclature for the Aimpoint sight that was first widely used was the M68 CCO. Many instantly assumed the acronym stood for Close Combat Optic. Maybe the word close was just easier to spell than collimating. Whatever the reason, this mistake caught on and led to the often repeated myth that reflex sights loose all accuracy when used for targets over 100 meters away. If a sighting system is accurate at 50 meters, why would it not be as accurate at 250 meters? A system that shoots one minute of angle will shoot one MOA at any range. It should still be as accurate at 800 meters, but at extended ranges we begin to get into the issue of effectiveness. The sight won’t loose accuracy at long ranges, but at a certain point, depending on skill and eyesight of the shooter, magnification will increase effectiveness. Effective is not the same as accurate.
The designation for the M68 was Collimating Combat Optic. The sight collimates a projected reticle (aligns the light so that the beam does not spread) and reflects it off a mirror that is designed to reflect one specific colour of light. Thus, while the reticle is reflected back toward the eye, the image from the front of the sight is allowed to pass through with no magnification. The reticle is on the same focal plane as the target, allowing the eye to focus on both the target and reticle simultaneously. Parallax is almost eliminated in quality sights. Close targets can be instantly targeted and hit, no matter where the head is in relation to the weapon. If the dot is visible, placing it on the target will result in a hit. In quality sights, the parallax is noticeable only at the closest ranges, and the sight should be nearly parallax-free at longer ranges. At longer ranges, cheek weld (position of the cheek against the stock) may be more critical, since some sights may exhibit minor parallax that can cause deviations in point of impact at long ranges, especially cheaper, non-military grade sights. The solution when using cheaper sights is to pay more attention to eye position, as you do when shooting with iron sights or a standard rifle scope.
How do I get my reflex sight to co-witness?
Much discussion revolves around how to get particular reflex sights, back-up iron sights, and mounts to all work together to co-witness. Part of the problem is that most people seem to feel that that it is absolutely necessary that the iron sight picture to correspond exactly to the red dot reticle. In other words, when the two systems are viewed together, the red dot is in the exact point of aim of the iron sights. Some even recommend using the two together. My idea of the ideal use of back-up iron sights is simply the ability to use the iron sights through the optic, should the optic become inoperable. I prefer the iron sights low in the reflex sight picture if the front sight does not flip down, so that the sight picture is obstructed as little as possible. This is known as a lower-third co-witness. What you do not want to see is a red dot centered squarely somewhere on the back of a front sight tower – the dot must be above the front sight or the target will be obscured. I see no reason to spend a bunch of money trying to shim things around to get a dot perfectly lined up with iron sights I hope not to use anyway. The purpose many people see for co-witnessing is to use one sighting system to verify the zero of the other. If this is important to you, than do it. Otherwise don’t worry about it. If the two systems are set up to co-witness, and one day they don’t line up, which one moved? You still have to go to the range to figure it out. Remember that, depending on the shooter and the sight, even if everything is set up correctly, the two systems may not seem to line up exactly when both are zeroed.
What type of reflex optic should I buy?
This depends on the type of firearm, the type of hunting you will do, and the price you are willing to pay. Whether or not you will be shooting with night vision can also be a determining factor. The main thing to remember is that you get what you pay for, and this is especially true for optics. Optics are expensive to build, and low price usually requires lower quality in some area.
I have a lot of experience with Aimpoint optics. I like Aimpoints and have had trouble with only one (an military issue sight that someone had damaged). All others have worked very well. They are easy to use and can withstand a lot of abuse. The only problem I have had is that I often bumped the power switch and activated my sights. I learned to check them often to avoid draining the batteries. That was a long time ago. Newer Aimpoints have much longer battery life, measured in years in some cases.
My favorite reflex optic is the Mepro M21. It is available with several types of reticles for different purposes and preferences, including dot, bullseye, open X, and triangle. The best thing about the Mepro M21 is that it requires no batteries. There are no electronics or switches – the sight is always on. Using ambient light through a fiber optic collector system, the reticle automatically adjusts to available light. When you move from a shaded area to bright sunlight, the reticle becomes brighter. If you are hunting in twilight or deep undergrowth, the reticle dims appropriately. In total darkness, the reticle is illuminated by tritium and the sight is night vision compatible. The Mepro M21 is built like a tank, and due to a design that does away with electronics, batteries, and delicate internal moving parts, it is an ideal hunting optic. The Mepro M21 is more resistant to damage from heavy recoil than other sights. It is impervious to water, sand, cold, etc. It can be mounted on your rifle, zeroed, and basically forgotten – you simply know that any time you pick up your weapon the sight is on and good to go. It is the standard-issue sight for the Israeli Defense Forces.
I have used EOTech sights, and have been happy with them as well. Aimpoint, EOTech, and Meprolight manufacture the bulk of the sights used by militaries around the world. You will not go wrong with a sight made by any of these companies.
For pistols, piggyback use with a higher magnification optic, or a firearm that needs a smaller, lower optic, there are tiny reflex optics available from several companies, including Docter Optic, JP Enterprises, Inc., Trijicon, Burris, and others. I have been impressed by the Trijicon RMR sight. It can get wet, and I have seen them banged around quite hard, so it would be my choice for any heavy use.
A lot of hype is thrown around by people marketing or discussing red dot optics. You hear discussions about, “field of view,” and “tube-style verses open style sights,” and other things that are often not really a consideration.
Years of expensive research by at least one military and a reflex sight manufacturer have proven that there is an ideal size for the aperture of a relax sight. For the best speed and usefulness on a rifle, an aperture of around 30 mm is ideal. Larger than that increases bulk and height for no gain in performance. Smaller than that restricts the position of the head, and makes acquisition a bit slower, countering some of the most important advantages of a reflex sight. Also, a very small sight requires a tall mount on many rifles, ending up almost as tall and and heavy as a full-size sight on the same rifle. However, there is a place for each size, from standard size sights to the micro red dots, and all are effective when used correctly. On many hunting firearms, the micro-sized sights can be mounted low enough that the comb height of the stock does not need to be raised.
There is a myth that a tube-stye sight (Aimpoint) is less effective than an open style (EOTech), because the tube blocks peripheral vision. This is only the case if the sight is being used incorrectly. If the sight is very close to the eye, and the non-firing eye is closed, then the field of view will be limited. If used correctly, with both eyes open and focused on the target, the field of view is not limited by the sight, no matter which design you use.
Some shooters prefer to mount sights far forward, over the barrel instead of over the receiver. This looks non-traditional, but is a good solution for certain types of rifles, and has some advantages on all types, including making the rifle quicker to point on the target, adding weight forward to keep the recoil down, and obscuring less of the shooters vision.
If you think magnification may be desired occasionally in the areas you hunt, the combination of a reflex sight and a detachable magnifier is an option.
Things to think about in choosing a sight are the ratio of price to quality, whether a red dot sight fits your particular hunting needs better than another style of optic, and what your personal preferences are as far as look, style, and brand. Remember that a cheap optic can be very expensive in the long run. I have seen people blow hundreds of dollars on ammo trying to get cheap optics zeroed, and that $150 sight does not seem so cheap when it fails in the middle of the hunt of a lifetime.
If you hunt dangerous game, or carry a rifle for defense against bear or other dangerous animals, you need to spend the money to buy a quality optic. I carry a .50 Beowulf rifle with a Mepro M21 sight for defense against bear. Both the sight and the rifle have proven to be reliable.
Whatever style of reflex sight you choose, no matter how you choose to mount it, I’m confident that you will find that reflex sights are one of the best new technologies available to hunters.