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Preview – Rifle Optics Basics – Optics 101

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And Steven Rupp

A Guide to the Top of Your Rifle

When someone first had the epiphany to slap what amounted to a small telescope to the top of a rifle, it changed the way we would shoot forever. No longer was a shot determined by the visual acuity of the shooter; targets considered to be out of range were now easier to pick off. The first riflescopes were of the fixedpower variety, and really simple-just metal tubes and glass. As time marched on, the field of optics advanced. Glass lenses became clearer, and before long, variable power scopes were on the scene. With the ability to change the magnification of a scope, shooters now had a far more flexible tool at their disposal.

But it was electronics that really changed the optic world. As with all such advances, the downside is that there's now a dizzying array to choose from. One can become thoroughly confused just trying to make sense of it all. For close-range engagements, you might opt for a nonmagnified, red-dot-type optic, which allows for ultraquick target engagement when split seconds determine your fate. Moderate shooting distances can be well served with low-power, fixed or variable, optic units. If you're looking out a bit farther for precision, distance shooting or hunting, you'll want to start looking at a higher-power optic. Slapping a nonmagnified red dot on your Remington 700 bolt gun is as senseless as mating a 32x scope to your seven-inch SBR. But once you find the perfect optic to top your favorite weapon, you'll wonder how you ever managed without it.

When once we could fit a piece like this on the back of a stamp, today a book could easily be written on the topic. That's where we come in; we're going to touch on the basics so you can make a more informed decision in purchasing just the right optic for your firearm, and not sound like such a clueless chump when you're out shopping. We'll be focusing primarily on rifles, and you might want to first take a peak at the glossary we've compiled; there won't be a test later, but you might be glad you did.

NonMagnified (Red Dot) Optics

For civilian, military, and law-enforcement shooters alike, nothing changed the shooting world more than the nonmagnified optic developed in the 1970s and introduced in 1975 by Aimpoint as the Aimpoint Electronic. We'll collectively refer to these types of sights as red dots; these marvels of modern technology epitomize the phrase, “point-and-shoot.” Keep your eyes on target, raise one of these optics into view, place the red dot right where you want to shoot, and just press the trigger. There are many variations of red dot optics that work effectively on rifles, shotguns, and even handguns. They are intuitive-forgiving, incredibly fast to use, and you'll find no better choice for close-range engagement. A ringing endorsement comes from the U.S. military, which has embraced the now ubiquitous, red dot optic since it procured Aimpoint's CompM2 in 1997.

Fixed-Magnification Optics

If your target is typically lurking farther out in midrange, you might want to use magnification; for this distance, you could consider a fixed-magnification optic. These typical magnify in the 3.5-4x range, which works well for engagements out to about 400 yards or more, depending on conditions and the skills of the shooter. The prototypical optic in this class is Trijicon's ACOG (Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight). Most of the line uses a Tritium lamp to illuminate the reticle in low light; some utilize fiber optics to gather external light during daytime. Here, you don't have to worry about a dead battery, because there isn't one. These optics are known for being lightweight and very durable, making them an effective combat optic. Trijicon's ACOGs feature ballistic reticles, calibrated to military configurations, with ranging features and holdovers for shooting to longer distances. The tight eye relief and fixed magnification make it tricky to use at close range.

Low-Power, Variable Optics

One of the hottest classes of optics in recent years is the low-power, variable scope-typically a traditional riflescope with magnification that can be adjusted from 1x (zero) to 4x or more. This zoom range, combined with thoughtful reticle design, a good field of view, and daylight-visible illumination in some cases, makes this type of scope an extremely versatile option that can do it all. When dialed down to zero magnification, many of these function nearly as well as red dot optics at close and medium range. When magnification is needed, whether for longer-range targets, precision shots, proper target identification, or getting a better view into a window or a car, you can simply dial it up to 4x, or even 6x.

High-Power, Variable Optics

High-power, variable optics span magnification ranges from 3-9x, 10x fixed, 5-25x, and beyond for medium and long-range shooting. They can enable shooters to reach out with great precision to incredible distances. There are many variations of these types of scopes on the market at price points that will make your wallet either smile, or recoil in horror. Variable-magnification scopes provide more versatility, of course; while fixed-magnification models offer bang for the buck. Choose a magnification range that matches the type of shooting you'll be doing. Generally speaking, a good optic is a worthy investment that will allow you to realize the potential of your rifle.

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