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Evolution of the Combat Optic

Photos by Muzzle Flash Media and Blake Rea

Over the course of 26-plus years of service, I’ve witnessed a lot of changes to the main sighting system of the issued long-gun. The rifle has been the primary weapon for the military since the Pennsylvania Rifle (some say Kentucky, but I was born and raised in Pennsylvania and loyalty counts). The rifle then, and still today, is the modern sword and shield. It’s the inseparable tool of the soldier on the battlefield, becoming almost ubiquitous in the armory of modern-day law enforcement (LE) and a self-defense implement for the law-abiding citizen.

Our optics nowadays are an integral part of that sword and shield, and, like other components such as rails and furniture, must evolve to keep pace with technology and ever-emerging threats. Change for some entails resistance and discomfort while embarking into the unknown, especially when it comes from a place of shooting an optic we’re already comfortable with.

I’ve personally witnessed the various stages of transformation of our sighting systems, from iron sights, through adoption of the Aimpoint 5000, various other red dot optics, and fixed power optics such as the ACOG, to the evolution of the next combat optic — a low-power variable scope. They’ve been kicking around the special-operations force community for a few years, but it appears that the entire military is poised to adopt them. So at this juncture it’s worth considering where we’ve come from, and where we’re going.

Iron Sights

We can’t have a discussion about sighting systems without discussing the granddaddy of all combat optics. Irons have been around since the dawn of shoulder-fired weapons, starting out as fixed and evolving into sturdy, adjustable designs as manufacturing capabilities grew. While they’re great combat sights and are still primary optics on some carbines today, I will say this: You’re behind the f*cking power curve if your job entails you to be in harm’s way and iron sights are all you have.

red dot optics

Yes, the U.S. military kicked a lot of adversary ass using them around the world, blasting bad guys in the face. Muskets were also a thing. Today, in the real world, if you have them at all, they should be referred to as backup iron sights (BUIS). Yes, backup. Companies still thrive today producing smaller, lighter, slimmer, easily adjustable sights that are intuitive and viable to today’s gunslingers no matter what your job is.

But remember they’re BUIS — not primary sights. And if your SGM or police chief is an old-school, “I will out-shoot you with iron sights,” kinda guy, don’t f*ckin’ listen to him.

There’s one main advantage to iron sights, according to the gospel of Brokos — they’re outstanding tools for learning the fundamentals of marksmanship. Hell, special forces (SF) didn’t take them out of our sniper course until 2010. We shot the old NRA positional shoot and actually required a grouping drill to even start the course — all using iron sights. Why? Because they drive the fundamentals of marksmanship home.

Comparing iron sights to what’s currently on the market and in the U.S. arsenal for military and LE agencies,  there are a few notable disadvantages compared to optics we need to highlight. Target acquisition is significantly slower compared to any optic, due to the necessity of aligning three objects (target, front sight, and rear sight) at different focal lengths.
Iron sights are also hard to see in low-light conditions, even with tritium inserts. Today, optics typically have variable intensity, illuminated reticles, and at low power, allow us to shoot with both eyes open, increasing our field of view. It’s very difficult to be accurate and shoot iron sights with both eyes open. In particular, this is a huge disadvantage when utilizing them in a close-quarters battle (CQB) environment.

Red Dot Sight/Optic

Companies have been toying with red dot sights longer than most think. Aimpoint AB marketed the first one in 1975; the military adopted its first red dot contract in 1997. That was the Aimpojnt Comp M2 (or M68), which was in the field by 2000. I was a somewhat young SF guy back in the mid ’90s and remember when we got our Aimpoint 5000 and Trijicon reflex sights (SF adopted the Trij in 1996).

What a world of difference slapping those onto a carbine made. You know the first thing I noticed? Sight alignment and sight picture was pretty f*cking easy! Place dot on target, squeeze trigger, repeat until bad guy stopped moving. It was also a hell of a lot faster acquiring targets at close and far distances. The red dot segment of the optics universe has had its ups and downs, but continues to evolve and produce better products than introduced in the 1990s.

Red dots make for quick target acquisition and are easy to use in awkward shooting positions.

Red dots make for quick target acquisition and are easy to use in awkward shooting positions.

My previous community adopted the EOTech over the Aimpoint years ago, and despite their well-publicized failings, they continue to serve our warfighters. Sometimes the guys pulling triggers for real rather than hysterically posting about it on the internet accept the failings of a particular piece of kit, so long as they can work around it and can benefit from the advantages that it offers Otherwise we’d still be shooting M14s. Red dots are great optics in certain roles, and I’ve been privileged to be involved with testing and shooting just about every viable red dot optic out there. But they aren’t the be-all and end-all of combat optics.

The red dot of a red dot sight is on the same focal plane as the target. When you look at the target or the dot you don’t need to shift your focus as with iron sights, resulting in much faster target acquisition. The second biggest gain is reduced parallax (where the reticle appears to move in relation to the target). This happens when the shooter’s head position changes. Red dots make it very easy to shoot your carbine in awkward positions, compared to iron sights and fixed powered optics.

Where red dots fall down is at distance. With no magnification and no way to effectively range that distance, red dots are effectively restricted to point blank range, unless you start SWAGing your holdovers. Granted, the EOTech has units of measurement in its reticle and some companies have multiple dots to allow some holdovers — all nice and well when you’re on the same flat range over and over. The reality is that it’s hard to measure or find the time for a correct holdover, just using a dot. Red dot optics aren’t the best option in which to introduce stadia lines etched into a single, non-magnified piece of glass. Making out stadia lines with the naked eye is very difficult at range.

More on Red Dot Sights:

  • The Holosun 507c made the cut for our Red Dot Sighs buyers guide, check it out.
  • The Past, Present, and Future of the Reflex Sight, read more.

Fixed Power and Switchable Power Optics

We’re including two types of combat optics in this category. Specifically, the ACOG and the ELCAN Specter DR. SF adopted the ACOG in 1995 to complement the Trijicon reflex. They’re a good, rugged sight built for distance — a hard-as-nails fixed four-power optic.

I can say we missed the mark by mounting an RMR on top of these to try to adopt a single sight for the mountains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq. Height over bore (HOB) for the RMR ends up being just too damn high, and it’s very hard to utilize it for CQB that way, let alone hit anything past 100 m.

shooting around cars

So we adopted the Specter DR from Elcan around 2003 or 2004. The intent was the same as the ACOG — one optic to be utilized for distance, as well as up-close-and-personal CQB situations; the Elcan has one power with a dot and a four-power throw lever. Both are great sights. Neither are what we need for today’s battlefield.

Both optics have four-power magnification, units of measurement for ranging and engaging, sturdy construction, and soldier-proof design.

Speed and acquisition of targets at close range suffers. For a combat optic, 4x power isn’t enough to observe and report if needed. The RMR failed as a CQB optic due to HOB, though offset mounts would’ve taken care of this problem. The Elcan’s field of view is very hard to use for CQB, even in 1x mode. Both optics are quite heavy, because they’re trying to give you the optimal short- to long-range optic in one package.

scoped rifle

Variable Power Optic

Now we get to the center of gravity of this article — the next-generation combat optic will be a low power variable (LPVO), offering 1x on the low end and around 6x on the high end. Some Tier 1 units have been running 1×6 optics for a while now. Personally, I started running a 1.1-8 power optic hard around 2006-2007, and technology has certainly improved since then.

Being the academically inclined, cerebral technician I am (cue my former team members’ laughter), I trained with this type of combat optic and compared times on the flat range with my EOTech. At close range, I wasn’t quite as fast, but as the distance stretched out, overall accuracy was way better. Not that hard to figure out — 8-power equals more hits at distance. Well, duh, Dan.

I wasn’t as confident with this optic compared to my EOTech, especially when it came to CQB, which was, after all, our bread and butter at that point in time. It was like looking through a straw to find the dot when needed for fast target acquisition. The illuminated reticle wasn’t always visible when shooting in awkward positions with the weapon canted 90 degrees, and in bright sunlight, it sometimes washed out. To overcome these shortcomings, I ended up running a mini red dot sight on a 45-degree offset mount — I just needed that up-close confidence I wasn’t getting with the 1.1 power — yet it got me thinking.

Since then, LPVOs have come a long way. Ten years have passed since a variable optic first sat on my carbine, and the industry has developed some great scopes with yet more to come.

With increased competition, the cost of LPVO’s have come way down in recent years, and there’s an option for just about any budget.

With increased competition, the cost of LPVO’s have come way down in recent years, and there’s an option for just about any budget.

If built right, whether it’s a first, second, or dual-focal plane reticle, an LPVO offers all the advantages of iron sights, red dots, and fixed power optics. And then some. Previous criticisms of their relative fragility have been addressed, and the ones we’re using on deployment are built like tanks.

The biggest disadvantage I see for the future of variable power optics is, believe it or not, one of training. In order to exploit their full capabilities, they require some time to train on, especially if you’ve been a red dot guy your whole life. Unless you’re spun up on the reticle and the advantages it offers, you’ll sell the capabilities of the optic short and won’t be able to make full use of it as a ranging and observation tool, which vastly increases the ability to make first round hits at extended distances. The bottom line is that you can’t just zero your dot in a LPVO and treat it like an Aimpoint.

Let’s Put it all Together

Arm yourself with the knowledge to make a decision on what’s the best choice of combat optic for yourself, your department, or agency. Red dot, holographic sights, and fixed-power optics are still great sighting systems — there are thousands of different militaries and LE agencies utilizing them today around the globe. In a perfect world we’d all be fortunate enough to own and utilize several combat optics, but some of us don’t have the deep pockets for that. I was fortunate enough to have some insight and input on what’s next for SF.

Not to outstep my boundaries, but some things in the SOPMOD Kit will be replaced with a 1-6x or greater LPVO as the next combat optic. The documentation to support this can be found on, where it outlines the specification to industry on building a badass variable power optic for the military: wide field of view, illuminated dot no greater than 1.5 MOA, visible under any lighting conditions, reticle is simple yet designed to observe and engage at distance, (wind, moving targets) etc.

This is asking a lot, but you’ll gain the ability to do everything with one optic if need be. A reticle with a daylight illuminated dot is a huge selling point for the SF community — up to now, most of the optics industry has failed at this when it comes to seeing it staring into the sun, a worst-case scenario. So far, the companies that have placed this dot in the second focal plane have had much better success.

Keep track of industry; surely there’ll be some greatly improved variable power optics with all the features the military is looking for.

Dan’s Two Cents
Arm yourself, investigate, and research LPVO’s for your own blaster. Tier 1 units are running them, the three-gun World has been utilizing them for a long time, for the most part the bugs have been worked out, and there’s a range of price points to fit most budgets. Find a wide FOV, an illuminated dot for close-range work, and an appropriate reticle for distance, with the ability to take care of ranging, wind, and movers. In Dan’s world, when Snake Plissken and I infil for Escape from Chicago, I’m bringing an LPVO for my combat carbine.

On its lowest setting, a variable scope is as fast as a red dot, but not as forgiving as far as head placement goes. It makes up for this as the distance grows.

On its lowest setting, a variable scope is as fast as a red dot, but not as forgiving as far as head placement goes. It makes up for this as the distance grows.

About the Author
Dan Brokos is a retired sergeant major and former Special Forces Green Beret with 26 years of service. He’s currently the CEO of Lead Faucet Tactical. Questions about training? Contact him at [email protected]

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One response to “Evolution of the Combat Optic”

  1. Ben says:

    What about the speed advantage of red dot on top of magnified optic when transitioning between near/far targets? It seems to me like that could be huge. I mean, what if you’re using your lpvo on high power setting to scan the horizon and suddenly an enemy pops up at close range? With a red dot on top of a magnified optic, the change to red dot would happen in an instant, whereas with an lpvo you would have to choose between using high magnification at close range or stopping to operate the lever on your lpvo before again presenting your weapon to the target and reacquiring site picture. I think that if a magnified optic was mounted with a low profile then the red dot on top of it would not be uncomfortably high. You wouldn’t get a cheek weld, but it seems to me that in CQB you can’t always get a cheek weld anyway. My thought is that sacrificing the possibility of a cheek weld in CQB is not nearly as big of a sacrifice as sacrificing the ability to have a red dot right there for CQB whenever you need it and never being stuck on a high magnification setting at the outbreak of a CQB scenario.

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