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Shooting: The Pros and Cons of Red-Dot Optics

Red-dot sights can excel for fast shooting at short distances, but hunters should also consider their limitations.

Shooting: The Pros and Cons of Red-Dot Optics

If your hunting typically involves only close-range shots, a red-dot sight can be ideal. (Photo by Richard Mann)

Although their popularity has increased considerably, the electronic sights that collectively have become known as red-dots are not new. Zero-magnification sights that present an illuminated red dot as an aiming point have been around for almost 50 years.

However, they did not become common on hunting rifles until the turn of the 21st century. As more hunters started using AR-style rifles, particularly for feral hogs, the red-dot sight became an attractive option. About the same time, high-quality red-dots became reliable and affordable enough for that purpose.

What many hunters do not understand is that there are several kinds of sights generally called red-dots. There are prismatic sights, reflex sights and holographic sights. All provide an illuminated red (or other color) dot for the shooter to use as an aiming point; they just do it in different ways.

Most do not magnify the target, and most permit comfortable, both-eyes-open shooting. This is the primary advantage of these sights and one of the reasons they’re popular with the military and law enforcement. Likewise, those who enjoy feral hog hunting have found red-dots well suited to that application.

The ability to swiftly place the aiming point on the target has lots of appeal in certain hunting situations. A red-dot sight might make it easier to shoot feral hogs from a helicopter or to shoot several at a nearby feeder, when the position and angle of the targets are constantly changing.<M/po>

Mounting a magnifier behind a red-dot sight enables the hunter to aim more precisely not only at distance, but also in thick cover and low-light conditions. (Photo by Richard Mann)

However, the nature of the red-dot sight can become a hindrance in others. When distances get much beyond 75 yards, particularly in cover or timber, red-dot sights are not the best option. Hunters using red-dots may gain a false sense of their capabilities on a range where targets are in the open, well lit and easy to see.

If your hunting typically involves only close-range shots, especially in open areas where an optic with magnification is not needed to resolve intervening brush or to enhance low-light resolution, a red-dot sight can be ideal. Besides feral hog hunting, dangerous-game hunting for buffalo, hippo and elephant qualifies.

Other species and situations may also warrant a red-dot, but in each case the animal being hunted, distance of the shot and topography will come into play. For those who hunt with a handgun, where the shots are generally at close range, the smallest red-dot sights—reflex sights—are well suited to the task.

I recently outfitted a Marlin 1894 CSBL chambered for .357 Mag with a Leupold DeltaPoint Pro, which is a fantastic reflex sight. My purpose was to set up the little carbine as a home-defense gun that I could also use for hunting.

Along with installing the reflex sight, which was simple because Leupold offers a base plate that attaches to the rifle, I added the companion rear sight accessory. It attaches to the rear of the DeltaPoint Pro and provides a bladed sight that can be co-witnessed with the red-dot aiming point. This means if the battery in the reflex sight dies, I still have a useable sight.

On the range I found that I could deliver kill-zone shots out to about 150 yards with relative ease. That is, as long as the targets were very visible. When I placed brown cardboard targets in the woods, seeing them with enough clarity to shoot with precision much past 50 yards became impossible. I’ve had the same experience with virtually every non-magnifying red-dot sight I’ve used. Additionally, low-light performance was poor when compared to a conventional riflescope with magnification. These drawbacks are why magnified optics tend to be the best option for hunters, particularly variable-power scopes with 1X to 3X minimum magnification. By presenting a clear, magnified image, they allow you to better see what you intend to shoot.


Given my intentions for the Marlin, however, I did not want a traditional optic. I wanted a sight that allowed for lightning-fast acquisition and the ease of both-eyes-open shooting—a sight that would perform exceptionally well at short engagement distances. I ended up taking the rifle on a hog hunt to put some pork in my freezer. While I was watching a field, a big boar came out at around 60 yards. With both eyes open I tracked him as he sauntered across the open ground. When the red dot found the right spot, the hammer dropped and so did he.

Photo by Richard Mann

Power Up

Magnifiers make red-dots more versatile.

For general hunting applications, the primary weakness of red-dot sights is their lack of magnification. A solution to this issue is the magnifier, an optical device that mounts behind the red-dot sight. It magnifies the image you see through the sight. Depending on the model, a typical magnifier may offer anywhere from 3X to 6X magnification.

You might be thinking, If I’m going to get a magnifier for my red-dot sight, why don’t I just get a variable-power riflescope? That’s a good question. The Aimpoint 6XMag-1 magnifier weighs about 8 ounces and costs about $1,200. Add that to a $900 Aimpoint Micro H-2 red-dot sight that weighs 3 ounces, and the setup is heavier than a Leupold VX-3i 1.5-5x20mm riflescope that costs about $1,500 less.

Of course, there are less expensive options. The EOTech HHS III package combines the company’s 518-2 holographic sight with its 3X G33 magnifier. The combo retails for about a grand and weighs about 25 ounces.

Vortex offers the 3X VMX-3T magnifier, and it can be paired with the company’s SPARC AR red-dot sight. Together they weigh about 19 ounces and retail for around $500. All these systems work perfectly with AR-style rifles, and in some cases you can mix and match magnifiers and red-dots.

The advantage most magnifiers like the 6XMag-1 offer is a mount that lets you flip them to the side and use only the red-dot sight, with no magnification, for aiming. This is a popular setup in military and law enforcement circles where engagement distances can change rapidly. In some hunting applications the same situation exists.

Combining a magnifier with a red-dot works well on AR-style rifles, but not so much on conventional bolt-action rifles that don’t offer as much mounting space. For those who like to hunt with ARs, the combination of a red-dot sight and a magnifier is a versatile option.

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