Ask Foghorn: Cheap Red Dot Sights

Ben writes:

I am new to the 2nd Amendment community. I have always had an appreciation and love for firearms, but I didn’t put my money where my mouth was until this past summer when I bought a Remington 597, my first of many (19th birthday present to myself). I didn’t buy any bells or whistles because I didn’t know what I would really want of need for the rifle. But now I am in the market for a red dot scope because my grandpa-like eyesight can barely make out the irons and target simultaneously . . .

I can still put rounds down range consistently and accurately, but 1 hour is my ocular limit. I don’t know where to start when looking for optics. I’ve reviewed a lot of red dots in the $20-$50 range, but I just don’t know which companies are good for entry level shooters. Most of the TTAG reviews are for high end optics and I don’t trust many of the others online reviewers. Any suggestions?

It’s a fine line we frugal shooters walk. We want something cheap enough that our wallets don’t cry, yet solid enough to reliably put rounds downrange. When I need a cheap optic that fits the bill there’s one place I turn: Primary Arms.

Go read this review. Seriously, click on the link and read it. I’ll wait. And if you’re considering sliding by the link, this picture should be enough to convince you.

Primary Arms is a company that makes extremely inexpensive sights and scopes without compromising much quality. Sure their red dots might be a little leaky, and their scopes may not appreciate extended exposure to calibers larger than .223 Remington, but for what you’re asking I couldn’t think of a better manufacturer.

Rimfire firearms have a unique advantage when it comes to cheap crap. The #1 cause of death for optics on firearms is recoil — that large “kick” that happens when a gun goes off. For that fraction of a second the forces acting upon the optic can be great enough to move the pieces out of alignment or shatter them completely, rendering the optic useless.

That’s what happened on my .308 rifle and caused my scope to disintegrate (the replacement is still working fine, by the way, so I think I might have to chalk up the premature death to Murphy playing with me again). The recoil of a .22lr round going of is so minor, especially compared to .223 Rem or .308 Win cartridge, that it’s nearly negligible. That gentle recoil means that the parts don’t have to be as well engineered and the scopes can be cheaper.

That’s where Primary Arms comes in. PA engineers their red dots and scopes to handle most modern cartridges, including .308 Winchester, yet sells them for rediculously low prices. The Primary Arms MD-02 Red Dot that I use on my rifle is a $60 clone of the Aimpoint Micro, which normally sells for $350ish. Despite the price difference I haven’t noticed a difference in quality between the two products. Their latest red dot, the MD-06, retails for $90.

I know, $90 is a little out of your price range. But if you have the money it’s a good investment. I bought the Red Dot as a spare optic, one I can throw on different guns as needed. So far its been on three AR-15s, an AK, a Saiga-12, and two .308 bolt action rifles, and still is none the worse for wear. If you can afford it, I recommend it.

There are still a lot of great red dot sights for the .22lr cartridge. As I said, the low recoil really helps out when you need things to be cheap. When you’re looking at red dots, you want to keep a couple things in mind.

  • Look for tube style red dots. There are a lot of “reflex” red dots that just have a sliver of glass standing upright and the rest of the mechanism hidden in the body. These seem to break easiest, especially when they get snagged on things and snap off. “Tube style” dots have a lot more structural integrity and will last longer.
  • Avoid red dots with built-in mounts. In the cheap (<$50) ones at least. Mounts are one of the primary points of failure on a red dot that will screw you over, so the ability to change them out for better ones will increase your dot’s longevity.
  • Make sure it has a warranty. Just in case it decides to die make sure there’s a way to get a replacement. And, in that vein…
  • Don’t buy secondhand cheap red dots. I’d advocate against secondhand optics in general just for the warranty, but especially with cheap dots you have no idea what the previous owner did to it. They could have mounted it on a M2 and fired belt after belt of fiddy cal for all you know. Better safe than sorry.
  • Read the reviews on the site. Always read the reviews before you buy anything, but especially when it’s cheap. If it didn’t work the cheap bastards will be happy to let you hear about it.

The perfect red dot for under $50, to me, is the Barska 30mm tube. It’s $30, is a tube, and it has replaceable mounts. I bought one of these at a gun show a few years back to use as a temporary sight on my AK and it worked just fine for months. I think I still have it somewhere around here, buried in one of the many boxes of random crap I have lying around my apartment.

You can’t really go all that wrong with a .22lr firearm optic. The gentle recoil forgives many mistakes and poor designs. Just follow the points I outlined above and you shouldn’t have a problem with whatever you end up with.

But seriously, Primary Arms MD-06.

Send your firearms-related questions to “Ask Foghorn” at guntruth@me.com