Maintains its accuracy even after hundreds of rounds have been fired. Battery lasts for months. Dot is clear and easy to see at all settings. Reticle is easy to adjust. Easy to mount to most rifles.
Sight may loosen up after several firings, particularly with high-powered rifles. Red dot is blurry for some users, especially at high settings.
Bright reticle at night that makes dot easy to see. Choice of red or green dot color. Responsive customer service. Sturdy housing. Easy to set up and zero.
Doesn’t fit all rifles. Set screws each use different sizes of Allen wrench, a hassle to switch up when adjusting sights. Can drain battery quickly.
Windage and elevation adjustment dials make a reassuring click with each turn. Great optics and accurate sighting. Aim holds true even after hundreds of rounds fired.
Big jump in brightness between settings 3 and 4, which can be jarring. Dot can disappear after a few shots. Battery cover may fly off when used with higher powered rifles.
Sight remains zeroed through hundreds of rounds. Works well for daylight use, with clear and bright dot even in sunlight.
Setup can be frustrating as the sight is zeroed in. Mounting screws can “walk out” after many uses due to vibration, misaligning sight. Some pistols (particularly Glocks) make sight adjustments difficult due to size and form factor.
Mounts securely and sights in accurately, and maintains its zero well. Can easily sight to 100+ yds. Has a warranty. Very clear optics, and red dot is crisp and easy to see at all brightness settings.
Occasional quality-control issues can impact dot shape. Sturdier lens caps would be an improvement.
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Red dot sights have become very popular over the last few years, and for good reason. Once set up, they allow fast, accurate targeting at close and medium range. They’re less complicated and more durable than many other shooting optics. For many people, that’s an ideal solution made even better by the fact that they’re available for shotguns, rifles, and pistols. In fact, some handguns are now made with a red dot sight built in.
However, the way red dot sights work, and when to choose one over other gun optics, are frequently misunderstood by those looking at them for the first time. Choosing the right one is further complicated by the enormous choice available and the associated jargon.
Clarifying information and helping you buy the best model in terms of price and performance are why BestReviews was created. We’ve been taking a close look at a wide range of alternatives so we can provide useful information, and answers to your questions.
Red dot sights are a development of older reflex (or reflector) sights, which had either markings directly on the lens or a small piece of copper sandwiched between two lenses. Unlike typical scopes, these lenses were close together, a bit like dual-pane windows in your home. Today, a small LED — the “red dot” — takes the place of the reticle (crosshairs). It’s not actually in the middle of the sight; it’s reflected there by an angled lens.
Unlike traditional iron sights, you don’t have to line anything up. That red dot is adjusted so it becomes the focal point of the weapon’s ballistic trajectory, the place where the bullet will land. Line the dot up with the target and fire. It’s very fast, and it offers great repetitive accuracy.
The main drawback is range. Red dot sights are great for pistols, shotguns, and medium-range rifle shooting, but all but a very few lack magnification, so they’re not for long-range shooting. If you’re good, the effective range is about 100 yards.
Also, some have very little eye relief — the distance your eye can be from the lens — making them awkward for those who wear glasses. That said, other sights offer unlimited eye relief, so there’s always a viable alternative.
In essence there are two designs: open (tubeless) and closed (tube).
Open: These sights are generally cheaper and more compact (which is why they’re favored for pistols), and they often offer a greater field of view (the area visible through the sight). However, they are more exposed to potential damage, particularly the object lens.
Closed: Tubes offer greater protection and frequently better-quality optics, but internal condensation can be a problem. Look for nitrogen-purged models with O-ring seals, which makes them fogproof and waterproof.
Lens quality always makes a difference. As with all gun sights, different coatings may be added to improve the image and reduce glare. Descriptions can be confusing, so here’s an explanation of the common terms in ascending order:
Coated lenses: One layer of coating on one lens surface on at least one lens
Multicoated lenses: Two or more layers of coating on at least one lens
Fully coated lenses: One layer on each external lens
Fully multicoated lenses: Two or more layers on both internal and external lenses
The size of the red dot varies. It’s measured in minutes of angle (MOA), which is the size the dot would appear at a given distance. It can be anywhere from 6 MOA (on handgun sights, because range is less) to as small as 1 MOA.
1 MOA produces a dot 1 inch wide at a 100 yards or 1/2 inch at 50 yards.
4 MOA produces a dot 4 inches wide at 100 yards. This is common on red dot sights.
What does all that really mean? If what you want is fast reaction time, in a threat situation with a handgun, a large reticle is fine. All you want to do is put a big dot on a body, center mass. If you’re trying to take a deer at 100 yards, you don’t want a big red dot obscuring the target. You want a small reticle that you can position precisely.
Adjustment for windage and elevation is also measured in MOA, but here you can have increments as small as 1/4 or 1/2 MOA.
All red dot sights run on batteries, usually the small “pill” type. Many can last hundreds of hours. However, they’re inexpensive and very small, so it’s always worth carrying a spare. You know it’s going to go flat at the worst possible moment!
Sights might mount onto an existing rear iron sight or onto Weaver or Picatinny rails. You’ll need to check. Lots of adapters are available, too. In some cases, offset mounts can allow for a magnifier to be used on the same rail.
Being able to use an existing iron sight with your red dot sight, or switching between the two in the event of a problem, is possible with some, though it also depends on the weapon. With weapons that don’t have an iron sight, you can use a laser boresight. These are widely available, though you can expect to pay as much as $100 for one.
Brightness: Some red dot sights have variable brightness. If the reticle can be turned down low, it’s possible to use it in conjunction with a night vision sight (normal light would be amplified so much it would “blind” the night vision).
Parallax: This is an optical illusion where the reticle and object can appear offset, particularly if you move your head slightly left and right. It’s more pronounced the farther away the target is, and in particular beyond 100 yards, so it’s not a major problem with red dot sights. However, some have parallax correction built in; others give a figure for the range in which they’re free of parallax errors.
Inexpensive: The cheapest red dot sights cost around $25 to $40, making them a very affordable addition to your gun. The main drawback at this price is optical quality.
Mid-range: There is a lot of choice between $40 and $150, including all the features most people need, from the industry’s best-known names.
Expensive: A few red dot sights cost $200 or more, typically slimline handgun models that allow co-witnessing or rifle sights with advanced optics or magnifier capabilities. There are magnifier combo models that top $1,000.
Although you’ll find some variations, most methods of setting up your red dot sight follow the principles below. This assumes your iron sights are already zeroed.
Once your sight is fitted, make sure the windage and elevation adjusters are set at their nominal positions.
Adjust those dials until the red dot sits just on top of your iron sight. Adjust elevation all the way first, then windage, then make any small correction necessary. Trying to do one and then the other a little bit at a time actually takes much longer.
Set up a target at a common shooting distance (it will be very different for handguns and rifles). Fire a couple of rounds downrange, then adjust windage and elevation as necessary. Don’t get too focused on the sight itself. Remember what you’re trying to affect is the impact point of the bullet.
Q. What’s the difference between a red dot sight and a laser sight?
A. The red dot sight uses an LED to produce an illuminated dot inside an optical device. Unlike a laser sight, it does not project that dot onto the target. Strictly speaking, a laser isn’t a sight at all. It’s a projector, because you’re not looking through a gun-mounted unit but instead at the point where the beam arrives. In most states, laser sights are not allowed for deer hunting (though they may be for vermin). There is no restriction on red dot sights.
Q. Does a red dot sight magnify the target?
A. Not normally. It’s primarily intended as a faster, easier-to-use alternative to standard iron sights. However, red dot-magnifier combos are available for fitting to rifles, though obviously they add quite a lot more bulk. Also not surprisingly, they tend to be considerably more expensive.
Q. Why do some red dot sights actually have a green dot?
A. Red LEDs are cheaper and use less battery power than green. Most people see a red dot just fine, so it is the common choice. However, some people have a type of color blindness that makes them see light orange instead of red, and therefore they don’t see as clear a dot. Red also becomes more difficult to focus on as eyes age. A green dot solves these problems, and it is also easier to see in low light. There are now numerous sights available that can be switched between red and green.