Low Power Variable Optic
Photo Courtesy of Nightforce
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The AR-15 rifle club has seen a lot of new members in the last several years. With that proliferation, we have seen quite a few hobby-enriching options. One of those options is optics as few shooters are satisfied with shooting only iron sights.

For many shooters, the choice comes down to either red dot sights (RDS) or traditional scopes. Either of those make for great options. Red dots are thought to be most effective for quick target acquisition while rifle scopes are great for more precise shooting at distance with time permitting.

What if there was Goldilocks (just right) option, though? Maybe. Low Power Variable Optics (LPVO) are seeing a surge in popularity and for good reason.

Put the Dot on the Spot and Squeeze

Red dot sights are popular because of their ease and use and relative cost-effectiveness. The most popular quality RDS units run only about $400 to $600. That alone is enough reason for most people who don’t have the financial backing of their rich Uncle Sam or a law enforcement agency.

Red dot sights are the most common optics solution for another reason: their simplicity. They’re easy to mount and use. Most are sold with mounts and can be added to a boomstick with minimal brain strain. After that, it’s just a matter of choosing one’s point-blank range and sighting in.

Photo Courtesy of Nightforce


When people think scoped AR’s, they might think of the designated marksman rifle (DMR). A DMR is most effectively employed at distances between the effective ranges of a long-range rifle and an assault rifle (a fully-automatic rifle intended for relatively close engagements).

But rifle scopes can be quite expensive. The low end of the fiscal scale in quality rifle scopes starts at about $600 and goes up well into the thousands when purchasing a brand like Nightforce. Sure, there are some more affordable options, but few I would trust for defensive purposes with the exception of the Vortex Strike Eagle and a few others.

Also, remember that the quality of a scope’s rings is almost as important as the scope itself. That’s another added expense. There’s also the added complication of mounting a rifle scope. One doesn’t just slap the scope on the rings and crank on the screws for best results.

Even if one has the disposable funds and know-how for the scope option, do you want first focal plane or second focal plane? Which reticle? What magnification? Back-up optics? You can understand why most folks prefer the simplicity of, “put the dot on the spot and squeeze.”

Photo Courtesy of Vortex

Just Right?

Is there a Goldilocks option? If there is, it comes in the form of low power variable optics (LPVO). Granted, there is still the added expense of quality mounts and the complication of properly mounting the optic. Still, many will find the juice worth well the squeeze.

The prototypical LVPO is a 1x-4x or 1-6x variable power scope with a 24mm objective. However, there is at least one excellent LVPO scope that is 1x-10x24mm that I’m aware of. The scope is usually kept at true 1x power until more magnification is needed. Then, the shooter simply dials up the power – a quick throw lever is a great addition.

Other potential options to consider are illuminated reticles or a bullet drop compensators (BDC) which may or may not be important to you.

One concern I’ve often heard expressed about scopes on AR’s is they’re not as quick in regards to target acquisitions as an RDS. With just a little experience and practice, though, I believe most will find that not to be the case. With a little practice, a good quality LPVO is just as quick to sight as an RDS.  Keep in mind, glass quality makes a lot of difference.

Is the Low Power Variable Optic for You?

Is the LPVO the option for you and your AR? I think it’s worth a look. Check out some of the great offerings on the market from TrijiconLeupold, Burris and Vortex, just to name a few.

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    • It works great until you leave it in your trunk for a 3 hour drive to the range in 100 degree weather. Then you’re going to have thermal drift issues. Under ideal conditions a HWS is marginally better than a red dot, exchanging weight for slightly easier target acquisition. I traded in my EXPS for a T2 micro years ago and never looked back.

      • I’m not one to doubt you on this, but I honestly haven’t had that problem (even in the Texas summers). Maybe yours was older? I use the Eotech with a G33 on my MDR 308 and Scar 17S, and have left those in the sun quite a bit….The new green eotech is nice.

        • Mine was built at least 10 years ago. It was one of the first optics I bought and it rode on my SBR for 4 years. Never figured out why I couldn’t hit 1/4 steel at 200 yards. Zero checked, everything seemed good to go. Then I switched to a T1, and the problem magically went away.

      • That was a problem a few years ago, and even most of the affected models showed little to no difference at any distance you’re ever likely to shoot. The thermal drift issue has long since been rectified.

        • Good to hear. Couple things.

          1. Weight is an issue. HWSs are notorious for being on the beefy side for what they do. The EXPS3 that I had was basically a solid chunk of metal. (The T1 micro is 1/3 the weight.)
          2. Battery life on HWSs sucks. (at least comparing to red dots) My T1 is still on its second battery ever and the first one only got replaced as a precaution.
          3. Once a company shits the bed, it’s going to be a long time before I drop $700 on one of their products. EOTech is going to have to wow me to get me to spend money on their products again.

        • Geez,.. pwrserge is such a gun diva. I’ve bought two used EOTechs since the “heat issues” cropped up and not had the issues you claimed. Even in the heat of a South Eastern summer. Maybe in your case it ain’t the heat, it’s the stupidity.

        • “Weight is an issue. HWSs are notorious for being on the beefy side for what they do”

          Seriously back away from the keyboard and do some PT if you think they are heavy. I have EXPS 3 and the G33 magnifier and the weight is not an issue. They are American made and work great since the fixes.

      • According to a few reports that has been fixed. If you have a Eotech with the new logo the thermal drift has been brought down to same as other brands (Aimpoint etc) and the gas leak issue is completely gone.

        Eotech’s have way better parlax compared to other red dots as well. SOCOM in September of 2018 just ordred 23 million worth of Eotech’s.

  1. My AR-180 came with the proprietary quick detatch scope and mount. Compared to what’s available now it seems pretty primitive. But that was when the Pony Express rode and the plains swarmed with bison. With those critters, a lot of magnification wasn’t necessary. Seriously, I found it easier than the Colt, carry handle mount, and it seemed to return to zero a little closer. A few years ago I found another AR-180, this time with what I think was a SinglePoint, the first occluded red Dot on the market. The out the door price was more than I paid for my first used car, so I left it right there, thank you very much. -30-

  2. You have been able to use a LPVO in CMP and NRA Highpower competitions for the last couple of years. Unfortunately there still isn’t a big selection of these types of scopes on the market. Currently i’m using the Leupold Mark AR with the firedot reticle. Its good quality scope and you can find some deals on it. The other big one guys are using is the Night Force (which is over $1000).

  3. The problem with a LPVO is that the 1x setting will never be as good as a red dot and the high magnification will lose out to scoped with larger apertures. Anybody who claims that they are as fast with a LVPO as a red dot is smoking something or has never shot from difficult positions. (VTAC barricades are the bane of my existence, but they are awesome at demonstrating the limitations of your hardware.)

    For me, it all boils down to what you’re building your rifle to do.
    3-gun where you may need to engage targets anywhere from 6ft to 600 yards? Sure, the LPVO is great.
    General infantry rifle use 5-400 yards? I’m a big fan of fixed magnification optics due to mechanical simplicity. (I still have a USMC spec ACOG that lives on my 14.5″ m4gery)
    2-gun tactical / home defense use? (Where you’re highly likely to have to shoot from horrible positions with no real cheek weld but generally well within 200 yards?) Red dot all the way.

    I’ve checked out on HWS sights due to the huge jump in weight and reliability issues, but some people seem to like them.

    Overall, the LPVO is a jack of all trades, master of none. If you’re punching paper in your dri fit 3gun gear? It’ll work great for you. If you’re talking about twisting yourself into a pretzel to catch a target presentation before all the blood rushes into your head? Stick with a red dot and possibly throw on a magnifier.

    • All valid points, but if your shooting CMP or NRA Highpower competitions a LPVO is the only thing the rules will let you use.

      • A point, but those would fall under “punching paper from comfortable shooting positions”. When you’re in a situation where getting a proper cheek weld is a non-issue, absolutely LPVOs are awesome. If you’re trying to take shots from the bottom 3 slots on a VTAC without proning out? Not so much.

    • I was a full on red dot and need nothing else kind of guy. Then I tried a 1-4 accupoint and then a 1-6 accupoint. The trade off for engagement time up close with the lpvo is slower, however the lpvo engagement time at 300 yards plus is much quicker and more effective than a red dot. My loss up close is less then a couple 100s of a second where at 300 plus the dot takes at least a second more than the lpvo to engage. For me the time loss up close is more than made up for with the time made up at distance. The only other negative to the lpvo is the red dots are definitely more durable, yes the lpvos wont fall apart under hard use (especially better ones known for quality), but they wont handle drops, explosions, mud, etc as effectively as a simple hardy red dot.

    • Red dots are amazing, unless you have astigmatism. Then they’re unusable, and your choices are LPVO, low magnification prism optic, or irons. You young guys with great eyesight, you’d better enjoy it while you can.

  4. I know they’re a bit out of fashion now and I do enjoy variable optics however my go to rifle is a lightweight carbine build with an acog 4x. It’s incredibly fast and accurate out to 400 yards with not as much worry regarding eye placement as with a variable. Plus any rifle with a variable optic gets heavy quick as the scope and mount alone is often 2 lbs or more.

    I can see the sense if you mount a 1-6,8,10 and want that higher mag but for 1-4x I prefer an acog.

  5. I know I’m a dinosaur, but no optics for me on a combat rifle. Except night sights. Murphy is alive and well. The hunting rifles I own with variables are all low end. No 14X for me. Too much sugar for my dime.

    • There are optics out there where you rifle will fail long before they will. I’ve seen Marines do utterly unholy things to ACOGs. There’s a reason I shelled out $1500 of my own money to get one.

    • Same here GF. I’m not saying dot sights and lazers aren’t functional, however on what I consider my one dedicated battle rifle it’s plain jain nothing fancy. The less to break the less gets broke.

    • Ditto, I do it with a Trijicon RX06 cowitness with the front sight. Open eye shooting and fast acquisition.

  6. Sig Sauer Bravo3 works well for me. 3x magnification is just enough. The Bravo3 is a much cheaper alternative to the ACOG.

  7. Cons not mentioned in article are substantially shorter LPVO battery life compared to RDS sights (Aimpoint, Trijicon MRO, measured in 100,000s of hours of use) as well as heavier weight.

    • The reticle won’t go away, it just won’t light up. There should still be a black dot and/or crosshairs and/or whatever other “stuff” the mfgr put on the focal plane.

  8. All my rifles regardless of caliber have a 4X shotgun scope on them. Cant blow up a shotgun scope . Except my 10-22 its got a 3×9 on it. Ive blown up 3 or 4 of them on the 22. 22lr beats the crap out of scopes. Whod a thunk that.

    • It’s even worse for airgun enthusiasts. Airguns “snap” rather than having a somewhat gentle “push” like ordinary firearms and as a result, plays hell on scopes.

      • The movement of piston towards the shooter recoils some airguns forward instead of back into the shouldet.. Some scopes can’t handle these forces, which are similar to dropping the gun muzzle first.

  9. My employer doesn’t authorize anything other than irons with our patrol rifles. Therefore my personal training guns have Irons. And while I love the scopes on my hunting rifles, my personal belief is “if you can’t shoot with iron sights, you can’t shoot”.

  10. Serious question here: what’s the real difference between a, say, $400 scope from a reputable manufacturer (I have one and like it very much) vs. a multi-thousand dollar scope as mentioned in the article (I don’t have one, and probably wouldn’t spend the money)? Moreover, how much can the typical shooter (or even a very good shooter) take advantage of that difference? Is it a difference in fit and finish, durability, reliability, accuracy, engineered design…? Are we talking seriously improved performance for virtually anyone, or are we talking statistical improvements that only benefit true professionals, and then, only in highly specialized contexts?

    • I’d say durability is the biggest thing you’re paying for past a certain point. A $100 Bushnell TRS-25 does the same thing as a $600 Aimpoint and in a manner that’s comparable. But the Bushnell won’t last forever and needs to be babied while the Aimpoint could be run over by a speeding truck and you’d never know

    • Depends what you’re using that optic to do. For LPVO, a $600 piece of glass will do fine for bright cardboard or painted steel targets at reasonable ranges in your typical 3gun match. The eye box will be smaller, the clarity will be worse, the durability will be less. But unless you’re a professional 3gunner, you won’t be able to tell the difference on your final score.

      Take that same optic into the field where your life is going to depend on it working after the vehicle in front of you eats an IED? Yeah, definitely a bad idea. But then again, most of us won’t be lining up to do contract work in Fallujah. The only practical difference you’ll see is replacement costs and slightly worse performance for top-tier users. If you take care of your gear and don’t mind getting a new scope every 10-15 years when something dies, you’re fine with the $400-$600 choice.

      The primary reason I stopped buying entry or mid level level optics is an old saying my grandfather once told me.
      “I am too poor to afford cheap shit.”

    • The high priced ones have better optics that transmit more light and have less color and optical distortion, which is most noticable in low light situations. In bright light, it’s harder to distinguish cheap from expensive. Other expensive options are first focal plane, licensed testicles (Horis), bigger tubes (more light transmission), or more zoom.

      • “licensed testicles”?
        That does sound like an expensive option!
        None of my scopes have testicles, so I guess I need to spend more money to get a scope with balls!

    • If you have ever used both to more than shoot a few rounds you would know.

      Way better eye box, better glass as in clarity out to the edges, light transmission, lots of options when it comes to setting ranges and such. Probably way more durable as well.

  11. its not goldilocks for my 18 inch mk 12 spr clone
    that has a 4-16x vortex
    or my 10.5 inch pistol build
    that has a red dot
    but for my 16 inch carbine the primary arms 1-4x with illuminated dot and a cantilever mount is absolutely the best option
    its a red dot for cqb and it has shot just over 1 moa to 300 yards with winchester 55 grain fmj ammo and a bipod
    its basically my go to jack of all trades gun
    its the last one i would sell if i had to sell all my guns for some reason

  12. Regarding LPVOs, if you’re using it as an alternative to an RDS would you want daylight-bright illumination? That might be an important consideration, particularly with the budget-priced scopes.

    I’ve been mulling optics choices for my purposes (just recreational shooting out to ~200+ yards and maybe defensive use) for a bit now. Still can’t settle between an RDS with a magnifier, a fixed-mag prism w/ an RDS for close-in stuff, or an LPVO. However, the LPVO seems to be the heaviest and most expensive of the three options.

    • If you can’t reliably land hits on decent sized targets at 200 yards with a RDS, you would be better served spending the money on practice. The difference in cost between a RDS and LPVO in the same quality category is at least a case of ammo.

      • From my experience and observations, it’s one thing to tag high contrast targets on a controlled range. Add in some visual concealment and/or varying light conditions and the useful range of a 1x optic will decrease. Magnification helps with target ID, and my eyesight sucks and I ain’t getting younger, which is why I’m looking at mag options.

        • Quasimofo,

          Low-power variable magnification scopes have one advantage that no one has mentioned: they gather a substantial amount of light and allow the shooter to see clearly in lower-light conditions than they could otherwise see with simple iron or red-dot/holographic sights.

          Even the 1-4x scopes with modest 24 mm objective lenses concentrate a LOT more light on your 5 mm pupil than your unaided pupil alone. THAT is why I have a 1-4x scope on my rifle.

          And if you are going to use that rifle for home-defense at short ranges, you can keep both eyes open and maintain outstanding peripheral vision if you keep your scope set to 1x magnification.

          Finally, even if you wanted to shoot out to 300 yards (what I consider the maximum effective range of carbines chambered in 5.56 x 45mm NATO), that scope cranked up to 4x magnification still enables decent marksmanship.

  13. It’s all a zero sum game. Can’t get something for nothing. LPVO has it’s place for sure. Everything is a trade off.

  14. Vortex HD GenII 1-6×24 VM2 MOA reticle in a Geissle Desert Dirt SOPMOD mount on Barrett Rec7 DI DMR 18″ FDE.
    Trijicon ACOG 4x Chevron reticle with top mounted Trijicon RMR on Barrett Rec7 DI DMR 18″ black.
    Both have great glass and tough as nails; great up close and out to 600yds
    Long past humpin’ up mountains or clearing rooms, but do appreciate fit. finish, features and function.
    No choice is wrong. Just one makes his choice and pays his bucks.

  15. “Assault rifles”

    Really? Using that term like it has some sort of meaning? Don’t give the FUDDs of the world ammo/reinforcement of their “I only hunt a doe every 9th season and a bolt action is plenty for that, so I don’t see why anyone would need those weapons of war” nonsense. Words matter. Dearly, they do.

  16. I prefer them for rifles with 16″ barrels or longer. They give me much more precision even at 1x and only cost a little speed and field of view and add a little weight. I feel no need for irons because of an etched reticle and rear flips can’t work under it anyway.

  17. Depends on use.
    WWIII and no batteries & no electronics? ACOG all the way. EMP won’t kill it. Same with Tritium irons.
    CQB? Aimpoint T01.
    However, Mil has started to go away from tritium for some reasons, and ACOGS are available battery powered.
    Also, there are several new Mil uses of LPVO’s from Sig and Nightforce.
    The advantage an LPVO has is its flexibility in employment, and identification.
    Identification is the big one – because our soldiers are held to a higher standard. Also, during the wars of the last 18 years we’ve learned magnified optics increase hit probability on the battlefield. It’d also true that competitors in PRS with the highest magnification score higher.
    A 1-8 LPVO offers a lot.

    • Military is moving away from tritium because we must be environmentally conscious as we’re killing and blowing up things.

  18. I Purchased a Leupold VX-R Patrol 1.25-4×20 Firedot Scope From eBay.com For Just $309, and a Burris P.E.P.R. Scope Mount For $88 Also from eBay.com – It’s a Godsend For My Aging Eyes When I Shoot My RUGER AR-556MPR!!!

  19. There is no perfect optic.

    Example lets say you have a bump in the night rifle near your bed. You hear that bump. Would you rather have a red dot/reflex sight on that rifle or a LPVO? I would 110% want the Red dot/reflex over the LPVO in that situation for lots of reasons.

    Now for shots past 50 yards where magnification would really help with identification and shot placement, I would want a magnifier at least on my red dot rifle or a LPVO. The again I can’t imagine taking a shot past 50 yards in self defense and for hunting I would not use an AR.

    • A good set up for that would be a LPVO mounted up top, with a MRDS and back up irons on 45 degree mounts.

  20. Hi. I am a recreational shooter to pursues a wide range of shooting scenarios…. from pistol work …..to CQB training…..to target plinking….to some longer range work. I have my FNSCAR 16s in 5.56 set up with an ACOG and my AR 15 (LMT, 5.56) set up with a LPVO Leupold 1-6 x 24MM.

    Personally, I find the LPVO the more user friendly machine. Plus, my aging eyes are better serviced by the LVPO. I find myself reaching for the LMT 5.56, the LVPO machine far more often than the FNSCAR 16s with the ACOG setup. Part of it is my desire to pursue a wide range of shooting scenarios with any shooting session; this is far easier with the LVPO. Another part is my eye seems to “get” the LVPO setup faster and easier than the ACOG. Never a true fan of the ACOG, despite its reliability. For me there is virtually no downside with the LVPO.

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