Should you use a red dot magnifier or a low power variable optic?
This is a common question and we're here to share some thoughts.
Low power variable optic has its place, it's good for engaging targets at about 200 to 400 yards.
A red dot is great for close-quarter shooting where the benefits of unlimited eye relief outweigh the benefits of variable magnification if shooting in improvised positions are required.
Both setup have pro and cons, let's check them out…
Quick Overview – Which Is Better?
Red Dot & Magnifier Combo
- Target ranges from 0 to 200 yards
- Shoot 1X at odd angles and positions
- Urban environment
- Removable when not needed
Check Out: Best Red Dot/Holosight Magnifiers
Low Power Variable Optic
- Targets beyond 200 yards
- Competition match with all long range targets
- Less likely to shoot from awkward positions & angles
Check Out: Best Low Power Variable Optics
Unlimited Eye Relief VS Eye Box
Unlimited eye relief from a red dot allows the shooter to quickly get behind the sight and squeeze a round off as soon as the dot is on the target.
Wherever your eyeball position is behind the optic doesn't matter as long as you can see the reticle.
However, for a variable magnification optic, the shooter has to pay attention to the eye box.
The eye box is an imaginary dimension behind the scope defined by
• Exit pupil size
• Eye relief distance
• Field Of View
• Internal construction
The bigger the eye box, the better, but it's not always possible due to physical engineering limitations.
Low power variable optic requires the shooter to get within the eye box to aim, which can be challenging from awkward shooting positions like shown in the image below:
In another word, if your eye isn't perfectly positioned behind a LVPO, you will see scope ring shadows dancing all over your sight picture-making aiming very difficult on 1X.
Red Dot 1X vs LPVO 1X
A low power variable optic at 1X isn't true 1X like a red dot, and there are some downsides when working with the eye box.
If your eyeball position isn't exactly where it needs to be within the eye box, the scope shadow will drive you crazy! But when using a red dot you don't have to deal with that problem at all.
If shooting at odd angles or any improvised positions, the 1X red dot is always better.
On a flat range, both of them are great for plinking, 3 gun and other fast action shooting.
Most low power variable optics at 1X are parallax free at about 100 yards, but no matter how much the manufacturers market them to have 0 parallax, there is still a little bit when you shift your head around but it's so unnoticeable.
The reason is that not everything inside the scope is perfectly aligned, and it's very noticeable when shifting your head around aiming at a target at 10 – 25 yards.
This is also true for a red dot sight, which 100% parallax free just doesn't quite exist no matter how much the manufacturer promotes it to be.
When it comes to weight, both configurations weigh about average 20 – 25 oz.
A high-quality LPVO with a good scope mount like the Geissele Precision or LaRue Tactical will be almost the same as a red dot with magnifier.
It's all up to the shooters to find what they like.
The one extra advantage of a red dot magnifier scope is that you can remove it anytime you want for saving weight or saving space when traveling. (Recommend QD throw lever mount)
Glass & Reticle Clarity
When comparing glass clarity, most variable magnification optics look better than a red dot magnifier.
The reticle is much sharper and the image appears much brighter and crisp.
When a holographic or a 2 MOA red dot is magnified, it always tends to look smeared in some ways, which can cause accuracy error for long-range shooting.
Some red dot magnifiers like the EOTech G33 have a bit of tint depending on where the sunlight is hitting the lens. but it's not a huge problem.
Target Acquisition Speed For CQB
On a flat range both LPVO and red dot are pretty fast, and depend on who is shooting the rifle, a LPVO can sometimes be even faster.
When shooting around corners, barricades, under a car, or through holes at the same size targets at relatively the same distance. The red dot is faster and more comfortable.
On a flat range, you just wouldn't differentiate the pros and cons of them until you try drills like this below:
In order to really see the difference between these two types of optics, the best thing we recommend is to shoot a round of barricade drill to see for yourself.
Be sure to check out our review of the Vortex Razor Gen 3 1-10X scope, which has the widest eye box that is perfect for CQB shooting.
For 3 gun shooting, many people prefer low power variable optics like 1-6X or 1-8X.
The stages are usually set up to favor getting behind the sights and staying behind the sight, and send rounds down range without doing all these tactical war types of shooting maneuvers.
For typical fast action shooting matches, the stages are set up pretty simple with the goal of rapidly sight acquisition and engage 1 to 4 targets, then move to the next stage.
If most targets are at close ranges, and for the repetitive nature of reacquiring the sight in a gun action ranch style competition, that difference can add up substantially, generally it's about 10% faster with a red dot than an LPVO on 1X.
Magnification Swap Speed
The speed at which the shooter can change the magnification varies.
Generally speaking, flipping the magnifier scope back and forth on a spring-loaded mount feels faster than an LPVO even with a magnification throw lever.
Sometimes turning the magnification dial on the scope can feel stiff, and can slow you down.
Most well-built scopes will have that stiffness and its not a huge problem if you get used to it.
Note: Magnifier that flips to the side could catch carbon residue near the ejection port overtime.
Long Distance Shooting
For long-distance shooting beyond 150 to 500 yards, the LPVO wins significantly over a red dot magnifier scope.
• Better range estimation with ballistic reticle
• Way better reticle clarity
• Better holdover reference points
• Better accuracy for longer distances shots
• More magnification to see the target clearly
A first focal plane reticle is preferred so each reticle lines and subtensions are scaled relative to the magnification.
Check Out: Best Long Range Scopes Under $1000
Recap – Which To Pick?
All Targets Within 200 Yards – Use Red Dot & Magnifier
For a shooting event where 80-90% of targets are with 100 yards or less, and there might be a few targets at 200 – 300 yards, a reflex sight, and a magnifier are recommended.
The red dot is just faster in a wider range of circumstances than a variable power scope.
200 – 500 yards – Use LPVO
If most of targets are 200 yards and beyond, a LPVO is recommended.
Since you will not use 1X at all, and we can't
This is where the benefits of variable magnification outweigh the benefits of unlimited eye relief for long-range applications.
Read More: Best Red Dot Magnifier Scopes