March 8, 2022

Optics for ARs: Red Dot vs LPVO vs Prism Sights

You’ve got lots and lots of optical options these days. If you have a rifle, you can’t help but have some kind of optic. Irons sights are so 2002. These days it’s all about the optics, especially in a world where the modern semi-auto rifle rules. If you are rocking and rolling with an AR, an AK, a FAL, or any other modern semi-auto rifle, you owe yourself a good optic. There are three types of optics that function best on these modern-day rifles, the red dot, the LPVO, and the prism, and today we are breaking all three down to help you find the best of the best.

The Strength of The Red Dot

Red dots are the classic reflex sight that has long dominated rifles. Red dots are very simple optics and are designed to provide a close to moderate range optic in just about any size package. They are named for their reticle, which is nothing more than a simple red dot, well at least most of the time, it’s just a red dot.

The simple design is a 1X optic that delivers no magnification to the user. The main strength of a red dot optic is the ability to rapidly and quickly deliver accurate rounds on target. Its main strength is in close-quarter combat. Put the dot on the target and pull the trigger. Its instinctive, rapid, and simple. There is no eye box, and eye relief is infinite. This makes getting behind the optic super quick.

Red dots can be super light and super small. Heck, some are so small they can be mounted on handguns. If you want a lightweight weapon, you need a lightweight optic, and they don’t get lighter than a red dot.

Red dots work exceptionally well with night vision optics as well due to their lack of eye box and their infinite eye relief. Most red dots have an NVG compatible low setting that works exceptionally well for in the dark shooting. At the same time, red dots use batteries. Modern red dots last 50,000 hours and more.

The Downsides to The Red Dot

The most obvious is that they deliver no inherent magnification. Magnification makes it easier to see and therefore hit your target. Red dots can be backed with magnifiers that provide 3 to 6 power of magnification. This creates an extra purchase, extra weight, and extra footprint.


Red dot reticles are simple, but at longer ranges, they don’t provide any holdover for elevation or estimation for windage. It’s all about Kentucky windage with a red dot. Their lack of useful long-range reticles and magnification ensure they remain optics only designed to be used at close and moderate ranges.

The Strengths of LPVOs

LPVO stands for Low Power Variable Optic, and these are magnified optics that have taken the optic world by storm. LPVOs provide a versatile magnification range starting at 1X or 1.5X and going anywhere from 4X to 10X.

The main strength of these optics is versatility. Shooters can start out at 1X with its red dot like capability. An illuminated reticle is a must-have, and when an LPVO is set to 1X, the optic can often act as an effective close-quarter tool. As you expand the magnification into 2X, 3X, 4X, and beyond that, the optic becomes more capable of seeing threats at a distance as well as hitting smaller targets.

Most LPVOs utilize versatile reticle systems that allow for range and windage compensation. These reticles will often allow for quick and speedy close-range shots and precision placed long-range shots. These optics allow shooters to be both a designated marksman and a close quarter’s breacher. Or, more practicality, go from a tree stand to brush hunting with the spin of a dial.

Downsides of LPVOs

As much as an LPVO tries to be a red dot, it never really will be. Good LPVOs have very generous eye boxes and long eye relief, but they still have an eye box and a certain amount of relief. As such, they won’t be as fast as a red dot, and there’s more room for failure.

When you get to the higher magnified LPVOs, be prepared to spend some money. If you don’t, you are unlikely to be satisfied with the glass, clarity, and illumination. Cheap optics are cheap for a reason. Plus, you have to add in the cost of a mount and good mounts aren’t cheap.

LPVOs also tend to be the heaviest optics and largest, at least when compared to a red dot or prism optic.

The Strength of Prisms

Prism optics are simple fixed magnified optics that range from 1X to 5X or so in magnification. These optics are quite compact and offer you a good compromise of small size, relatively lightweight, and magnification.

1X prisms tend to be specialized optics for shooters with severe astigmatism who cannot use red dots effectively. Prisms with 1X can also implement more complicated reticles that allow for close quarters’ use. Prisms within the 4X range of magnification can be used in close quarters with an illuminated reticle and a two-eyed, target focus technique.

Magnified prism optics often offer reticles with a brightly illuminated center portion for quick close encounters and then branch off into more complicated sections. These allow for windage compensation and bullet drop.

Prism optics also tend to be very well made, and their simplicity lends to their durability. They can take a beating and keep on ticking. Prism optics also tend to be more affordable than LPVOs, although a red dot might be the most affordable option.

The Downsides of Prism Optics

Prism optics and their magnified design make close quarters’ use tricky. You can surely engage a threat, but you won’t have the speed or precision of a red dot at close quarters. Prims come with tight eye boxes and often even tighter eye relief. That makes it tough to engage at close quarters. A red dot can often be attached to the optic, but that can easily double the cost of your setup.

The fixed magnification can also make moderate engagements tricky, especially at 4X or 5X levels of magnification. On the other side of the coin, the magnification of a prism can be seen as limited when compared to the magnification of an LPVO.

Optics For All

So what optic should you choose? Well, hell, I don’t know. You’ll need to consider your situation, your range, and what the purpose of your rifle is. That will help guide you to the right optic, and as such, you’ll be well-armed and prepared for whatever comes your way.

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