The modularity of the AR 15 makes it the most customizable rifle in the United States. You can add nearly anything you want to a gun, from grenade launchers to cup holders. One of the most common, and most useful additions is an optic.
Adding a scope or red dot sight is a drastic improvement to any AR 15 rifle. In fact, it would likely be the first upgrade I'd suggest to new AR 15 owners. The addition of a quality optic that works for your rifle and your end goal is a must have.
How do you find a quality optic that will match your mission or end goal? Well, that’s why you’re here.
Let me guide you through choosing the best AR 15 optic for you.
What an Optic Does for You
Why would you install an optic on your AR 15? What does it offer for you that iron sights can’t? To be fair you can do a lot with iron sights, and with the right skills, you can engage man-sized targets out to 500 yards.
With an optic though, you can do this faster, more accurately, and more precisely than any set of iron sights. A variable optic most obviously gives you the ability to see your target long distances. You can see, and shoot smaller targets out to 500 yards with relative ease.
Modern magnified optics make it easier to compensate for windage and elevation differences, as well as bullet drop.
What if you don't want to shoot that far away? What if you're going to stick to under 200 yards? Well, iron sights will work, but a red dot sight will work better. You’ll be faster, more precise and have less difficulty using your optic in low light conditions.
Red dot sights allow you to take faster follow up shots, the transition between targets fast, and they can be effectively used with night vision devices.
Regardless of the type of optic, it’s always quicker and easier to use a reticle than to line up iron sights. Reticles are also easier to focus on than iron sights. Iron sights can do a lot, and I believe every AR should have a set of irons as a backup option.
They should be a backup because everything iron sights can do, can be done better with an optic. What an optic can't do is give the skills and fundamentals needed to hit your target. You’ll still need to provide those.
Bushnell AR Optics
Mark AR MOD 1
SIG Sauer - Tango6
Trijicon - ACOG
Aimpoint Comp M4
Types of Optics
We mentioned magnified and red dot optics. These are the two main categories are optics out there. Their name pretty much says it all. A magnified optic allows you to have a magnified perspective of what’s in front of you.
A red dot is a non-magnified optic that uses a red dot as the reticle. Red dot is a generic name, as some dots are now green or amber. These optics are technically not red dots, but get scooped into the same category.
Inside the Magnified and Red dot categories are several subcategories. Let’s explore those briefly to give you an idea of some of the terms you;’ll be saying throughout this guide.
Variable - Variable optics refer to optics that contain multiple magnifications. They are the most common scope out there and are used by hunters, soldiers, competitors, and plinkers. They are often very versatile and allow a rifle to be used effectively at a wide variety of ranges.
Variable optics are often larger and slightly more complicated in build design. Because there are so many variable optics out there, you’ll be able to find nearly any combination of magnification at almost any price.
Fixed Power - Fixed power scopes are simple devices that usually offer low to moderate power magnification. These scopes are more compact, and often lighter in weight than a variable optic. They are also cheaper.
Fixed power scopes are a little more robust in design, but harder to find a wide variety of. Most are aimed at tactical use.
Red Dot Subcategories
Holographic - There is some debate if holographic optics count as red dots. They meet the necessary requirements, so we’ll include them as a subcategory. A holographic sight uses a laser transmission hologram of a reticle image broadcasted to holographic film.
These optics allow the user to have an optic similar in design to a red dot in terms of size and intended use, but a more diverse and versatile reticle. These reticles will often have multiple applications and can be used at different ranges.
Minature Red Dots - Minature red dots are small red dots with what’s often a square or rectangular window. These optics are super small and are perfect on small ARs. They are often small enough to be used on handguns even.
Minature red dots often fill the role of a backup optic when the AR is rocking a highly magnified optic. A miniature optic by itself can be a great design for close combat ARs as well.
Is More Power Better?
A lot of new optic’s shoppers seem to be drawn to the biggest, most powerful optic out there. The American ideal of bigger is better is often subconsciously on their mind. Is a 28 power optic really necessary?
For a AR 15? Not really. The 5.56 as a round is best used within 600 yards or so. It can certainly go further, but most practical uses of the AR 15 are limited to this range. At 600 yards you do not need a big, heavy, and expensive overpowered scope.
A scope with a max power of 10x to 12x is typically about as high as you need to go. The USMC designated marksman use a 10x optic on their MK 12 rifles and have been quite successful engaging the enemy.
Many users can even get away with optics as low powered as 4x and still be quite successful on man-sized targets out to 500 yards.
With red dot optics, you can almost always pair them with magnifiers. Magnifiers are simple devices that utilize a fixed power magnification. When paired with a red dot it gives you a degree of magnification for reaching out just a hair further.
Matching Optics to AR 15s
At the beginning of the article, we talked about matching your optic to your goal. This is critical you get the best bang for your buck. With all the AR 15s and optics out there-there isn’t a reason to compromise what you want.
Let’s take a look at the common uses for a AR 15 and the type of optics that fulfill the mission.
Home-Defense - A red dot optic of any kind is perfect for the close quarter’s requirements of a home defense rifle.
Hunting - Hunting is a dynamic sport, so a low powered variable optic in the 1-6x or 3-9x range is perfect here.
Special Purpose Rifle - Like hunting the tactical DMR/SPP rifle can be used in a wide variety of situations and a 2.5-10x is an excellent choice.
Duty Use - Depending on the environment a duty rifle may be best served with either a red dot or a low powered fixed power optic.
Plinking Rifle - A just for fun gun can really have anything you want optic’s wise. I’ve found myself having the most fun with an affordable red dot.
Budget Red Dot - SIG Romeo 5
The SIG Romeo 5 is one of the best budget-friendly optics on the market. It’s lightweight, compact, and capable. The Romeo 5 is a simple design that incorporates some excellent and modern technology.
Part of this tech is the MOTAC (Motion Activated Illumination) that turns the device off when not in use, but turns on as soon as the weapon is moved. This keeps your optic always ready, but also expands your optic’s battery life.
Speaking of battery life the Romeo 5 squeezes out 5000 hours from a single CR 2032 battery. The device has 8 daylight settings and 2-night vision modes. The optic has a 2 MOA dot that’s perfect for precise shots.
The Romeo 5 is completely waterproof and has an IPX-7 rating. This means it can be submerged up to 1 meter. It’s also a fog proof optic. It's designed specifically for the AR platform and sits high enough to co-witness with standard AR 15 iron sights.
The SIG optic is extremely easy to use. The controls are simple and intuitive. This is great as a plinking optic and wouldn’t be a bad choice for home defense optic. It would even be at home in 3 Gun.
Budget Variable Scope - Bushnell AR Optics 1-4x24mm
Bushnell designed the AR line from the ground up to provide users with a dedicated AR 15 optic. The AR optic line from Bushnell includes several scopes, but the best variable is easily the 1-4x24mm model. This lightweight scope’s variable magnification allows it to be at home at both CQB and at distances out to 500 yards.
The AR Optics’s small 24mm is objective is big enough to do its job but small enough to remain compact. The Scope is equipped with a bullet drop compensating reticle that reaches out and provides holdovers out to 500 yards. This reticle is tuned specifically for the 5.56 round and the AR 15 rifle.
It completely eliminates the guesswork involved in taking long-range shots. The user simply places the appropriate hash mark on the target and pulls the trigger. It’s easy to use and makes rapid, long-range fire possible.
The Bushnell AR Optic is a first focal plane scope. This means the reticle grows and shrinks as the magnification is increased or decreased. This keeps the BDC measurement accurate at any magnification level.
For all these features to be packed into an optic that costs less than 300 bucks shouldn’t be ignored. This is an outstanding deal for an excellent variable optic.
For the Short Barreled AR - Aimpoint PRO
Compact and short barreled AR 15s are all the rage right now. From AR pistols to short barreled rifles smaller has become better. As you shrink the barrel of a rifle you shrink its effective range and ballistic potential.
A smaller rifle is often smaller due to easier use in CQB, so you want a capable red dot optic. The Aimpoint Patrol Rifle Optic, or PRO, is a rugged and reliable red dot scope that is perfect for home defense and duty use.
Aimpoint designed the first red dot, and have only continued to perfect the concept. The PRO has 10 settings, 6 for daytime use, 4 for night vision use. The optic is powered by a single 3V lithium battery and will last a staggering 30,000 hours.
The Aimpoint PRO is waterproof up to 150 feet of water and designed to take a beating. Make no mistake about it this is a go to war rifle optic. It will take whatever you toss at it and just keep going.
The Aimpoint Pro is compatible with Aimpoint magnifiers and comes equipped with an AR height mount. Have confidence in the fact that whatever task you face the Aimpoint will help you deal with it.
SPR/DMR Rifles - Mark AR MOD 1 3-9x 40mm
Leupold pulls no punches when it comes to producing extremely high-quality optics. The Leupold Mark AR MOD 1 is one such optic. As the name implies this optic is designed for the AR, specifically the SPP/DMR rifles.
The Mark AR MOD 1 comes in several different magnification levels, but the 3-9 power option is one of the most versatile options for a standard AR 15. At the low side it’s an effective street fighter, and once you start ramping up the magnification you can really reach out and touch something.
The Leupold features the P5 BDC dial that is tuned specifically for the 223/5.56 loads. This allows for precise and rapid shot placement at long ranges. The reticle uses mil-dots for easy windage compensation as well.
The Mark AR MOD 1 uses Leupold’s Quantum Optical System and multicoat lens coatings that give the end user a bright and crystal clear sight picture. This system excels in low conditions and makes it easy to distinguish between shapes and colors that are usually considered camouflage.
This optic is rugged and durable. It’s waterproof, fog proof, and resistant to shock to an extreme degree. It won’t fail if you don’t.
Best Tactical Scope - SIG Sauer Tango6
Choosing the best tactical scope was easy. In fact the Army chose it for me. The Army just announced the adoption of the SIG Sauer Tango6. The Tango6 is a 1-6x power variable scope that’s lightweight and compact. It’s the perfect canidate for any standard rifle length AR 15.
The Tango6 is a proffesional grade optic that is packed full of tactical features. This includes tactical turrets for easy fingertip adjustable adjustments to make those field necessary changes. The turrets are all and easy to reach, as well as heavily textured for a sure grip when wearing gloves.
At the 1x setting you have an effective CQB optic for busting through doors, or more liekly for killing it in 3 gun. Dialing up the magnification gives you a more effective overall scope for those long range, or precision shots.
The Tango6 has an illuminated reticle that utilizes the MOTAC system to presere the battery while priovidng an always ready option. It features crystal clear extra low dispersion glass, as well as high transmittance glass for use in low light shooting. The sight picture is to die for, and you’ll have more than you can handle with this bad boy.
Best Combat Scope - Trijicon ACOG
If you told me “Youre going to a fight right now,” and I could choose one optic for my rifle it would be the Trijicon ACOG. Why?
Because I went to war with one and it never stopped kicking ass. The Trijicon ACOG is a fixed power scope that comes in a variety of different magnifications. My magnification of choice is the 4x.
It provides both close range and moderate performance. It’s remarkably simple to reach out and touch a man sized target at 500 yards. The built in BDC is simple to use and comes complete with a range finding reticle.
The hashmarks that are used for different ranges are all scaled to the average man’s shoulder width. So if you place the 300 yard reticle on a man’s shoulders and it matches he is roughly 300 yards away.
This is a combat optic through and through. It will take massive amount of abuse and never stop working. The illuminated reticle is powered by a combination of tritium and fiber optics for battery free illumination.
The scope is designed around the AR family of rifles and is both lightweight and compact. Not to mention it’s foolproof and in use around the world due to it’s dependability and robust nature. Nothing short of a bomb stops an ACOG.
Hunting AR Scope - Nikon P-223
The Nikon P-223 series is built for the AR 15 from the ground up. These excellent and affordable optics feature Nikon’s always excellent P223 BDC reticle. This reticle gives user hash marks out to 600 yards that automatically compensate for predicted bullet drop.
The P-223 comes ready out of the box and is equipped with a P-series optic mount that is designed for the AR 15 and similar rifles. The Nikon P-223 is equipped with the Spot On WInd meter that gives shooters the ability to easily compensate for wind.
The P-223 has a variable magnification that falls in between 3 to 9 power for a diverse range of situations. Form the brush to the open field the Nikon P-223 has you covered. This 15 ounce, 12.4-inch scope is quite compact and will easily fit your standard flat top AR 15.
The P-223 series is a great hunting optic. It’s fogproof, as well as waterproof. It will withstand the mild AR 15 recoil for decades without much issue. The reticle is handy, but also simple and the sight picture isn’t overly crowded.
Deer should fear a hunter equipped with an AR 15 and a Nikon P-223.
Best Backup Red Dot - Trijicon RMR
The Trijicon RMR is the gold standard when it comes to miniature red dots. This was one of the first built with duty use in mind. This Trijicon RMR is designed for combat use and has been widely issued throughout the military.
This particular model is perfect for being mounted as a backup optic on an SPP/DMR. It does not replace your magnified optic, but it does give you a close range option should you find yourself at bad breath distance from your targets.
The dual illumination model is solar and battery powered so it's always capable of running. It’s equipped with a 13 MOA red dot for close quarter’s use, and to be quick for the eye to pick up. There are dozens of different mount options out there that allow you to mount the optic directly to the larger optic, or at an offset angle.
The RMR is the most rugged miniature red dot out there, and it can be hit with dirt, water, dust and more and just keep kicking. When it comes to high stress, high-intensity close quarter’s shooting the RMR can be an absolute lifesaver.
Best Tactical Red Dot - Aimpoint Comp M4
How do you choose just 1 optic as the best tactical red dot? Well, you look for years of proven performance, with a history of success, and combat experience. The Aimpoint Comp M4 is that optic.
It’s been in use by the US Army for almost the entirety of the Global War on Terror and proven itself as the premier red dot optic. The Comp M4 is a full-sized red dot that’s compatible with night vision devices, magnifiers, and more. The optic is made entirely from 6000 series aluminum for a robust and dynamic scope option.
The glass is optically ground instead of cast for superior clarity and long-lasting performance. The Comp M4 is fully multicoated for use in low light situations and to guarantee a crystal clear picture.
The optic lasts a staggering 80,000 hours on a single double A battery. This optic is also fully waterproof, shockproof, and fog proof. It comes with a QRP2 mount, which is a quick release design that’s built for AR height sights.
The Aimpoint Comp M4 is a well made, and proven red dot that has been fighting a harsh war in harsh conditions for well over a decade now. It’s n optic you can truly trust your life to.
The Best Holographic Sight - Eotech EXPS3
Holographic sights are less common than red dots, but one company truly dominates the holographic optic’s market. Known as Eotech they set a standard yet to be reached by other optic's companies. From their box design to their reticle Eotech optics are unique.
These are designed at AR heights for co-witnessing and function extremely well on the AR design. They have a built-in mount and come in a variety of sizes. The EXPS3 holographic sight is a compact model. It uses a single CR 123 for a compact battery compartment.
The reticle is a 65 MOA ring with a stadia on the top, bottom, left and right sides of the circle. In the middle is a single 1 MOA dot. The reticle is designed for both medium and short range engagements.
At close range, the user fills the big ring with the target and let’s lead fly. At extended ranges, between 50 and 200 yards you use the centered single MOA dot. This makes both CQB and moderate range shooting easy and intuitive.
Eotech optics are built like tanks too. The EXPS3 is small, but it’s a brick. It can take whatever abuse you can toss at it. The system can run between 600 to 1000 hours continuously depending on the quality of battery and the settings.
A modern AR 15 has that flat top for a reason. Rifles are expected to wear optics. Every modern army and police force around the world issues an optic with their rifles. This single upgrade can make a world of difference in how your rifle handles, and how you perform.
An optic doesn’t replace skill but accentuates it. The right optic will give a much-loved edge in combat, at the range, in competition, and of course inside the home. If you’re on the fence about adding an optic it’s time to admit the platform is best served with a quality and mission specific optic.