The Low Power Variable Optic vs. Red Dot: Which is Better?

The LPVO, or Low Power Variable Optic has become extremely popular in recent years. But how does it compare against red dot optics such as reflex sights and holographics? The decision is further complicated when planning to pair your red dot with a flip-up magnifier. So what exactly are the pros and cons to each, and which setup is best for you?

Red dots (with the exception of Holographics) are typically more affordable and a lot simpler to use. They are a good choice for anyone wanting a lightweight rifle that can shoot rapidly and accurately at close ranges, requiring less training in order to reach the optics potential. The LPVO is heavier and often comes at a higher price, but is a lot more capable in the right hands, particularly when shooting at further distances. Speed and target acquisition are on par with red dots (provided the shooter has the required skill), while accuracy, capability and target identification is far superior.

While LPVO’s are becoming the preferred choice amongst many modern militaries and sports shooters alike, red dots still have a huge audience, with ongoing debates over which is better. So let’s discuss the differences between the two, and the strength’s of each under various shooting applications.


The Red Dot Sight: Is It Right For You?

Most shooters love a good quality dot optic, and for good reason; they are simple to setup and really easy to use. The red dot optic even allows the shooter to successfully engage small-scale targets at close range without following proper marksmanship fundamentals. But how is this possible? Well firstly, the sight’s illuminated dot is larger and brighter than conventional scope reticles, allowing the shooter’s eye to easily and naturally acquire a sight picture, even during intense daylight. Secondly, the optic has no eye box, exit pupil, or parallax inside the edges of the glass to worry about. This means that the shooter doesn’t need to worry about correct cheek weld, length of pull, or consistency in eye relief when aiming to place rounds on target.

Eye Box – this is a predefined box (or sweet spot) behind the scope where the eye must sit in order to prevent scope shadow and allow for a full and clear field of view.

Exit Pupil – a minimum and maximum distance that the eye (or head) may be positioned behind the scope, allowing the shooter to see clearly through the optic. This is even more critical under low light conditions.

Parallax – an optical illusion that places a target out of focus, or offset from the reticle when incorrectly set, or during an inconsistency in head placement from behind the scope.

Recommended Post: if you’re currently unable to establish the difference between the reflex sight and holographic sight, read the following article: What is the Best Scope for a Semi-Automatic Rifle?

Using Red Dots For Distance

When it comes to shooting at distance, the red dot certainly has its flaws. This is not only due to the size of the optic’s dot, as most people seem to think, but more-so because the optic has no way of compensating for bullet drop. So as trajectory steepens further downrange, you end up with a zero-reference holdover, and accuracy diminishes. This makes the red dot capable out to around 300 meters, and further only with experience.

Tip: if you intent on using your red dot to shoot out to distance, select as small of a dot as possible. Avoid exceeding 3MOA in order to retain accuracy. But take note that a 3MOA dot will cover almost 20cm of your target at 200 meters.

But What If You Have A Magnifier?

Magnifiers are a great addition to your red dot optic for two reasons:

  1. They add magnification to the optic (typically at a fixed 3x), which enhances both accuracy and target identification when shooting at distance
  2. They do not affect rapid target acquisition when flipped out of the way

But, unfortunately this combination setup still suffers from a lack of trajectory compensation as we previously discussed. So while the magnifier’s main advantage is to increase the shooter’s ability to identify targets downrange, it still struggles to accurately engage those further targets, and does not bring the red dot up to the same capability as the LPVO.

Common Misconception: many believe that a red dot reticle will grow proportionally to the added magnification, therefore increasing the dots MOA and drastically reducing accuracy potential. This is incorrect. While the dot size will grow (commonly by 3x), so will the target. As a result, the dot size will remain the same in relation to the target.

The Red Dot’s Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Fastest target acquisition
  • Shooting with both eyes open is easy, for situational awareness
  • Unlimited eye relief & Parallax free
  • Intense reticle brightness (even in bright sunlight)
  • Unrivalled battery life
  • Light weight and low profile
  • Illuminated dot for shooting in low-light
  • Ability to Co-Witness with iron sights

Cons

  • No battery means no sight picture
  • Dot sizes can become large (up to 6MOA), obscuring targets down range
  • BDC reticle features are not present for shooting at longer distances
  • Eyes with astigmatism (blurred vision) may struggle with the dot’s appearance
  • *No magnification to aid accuracy or target identification

*Unless fitted with a flip-up magnifier

Just in case you were wondering what it means to co-witness an optic with iron sights, I will briefly explain. Co-witness refers to the alignment of your iron sights with your red dot sight. If you are running irons as a backup and your dot sight malfunctions or runs out of battery, as long as the optics glass isn’t too badly damaged, you are still able to shoot accurately with your irons by observing through the red dot’s glass. This is not possible with a LPVO, and as a result the LPVO would need to be completely removed (ideally by use of a QD mount) in order to use iron sights.


The Low Power Variable Optic: Is It Right For You?

The LPVO is a low power rifle scope which provides the best of both worlds; a true 1x powered optic but with a powerful ability to magnify in an instant, giving the shooter enhanced target identification and accuracy potential at longer distances.

Most LPVO’s come with either a bullet drop compensating (BDC) reticle or a target reticle. This allows the shooter to accurately engage targets out to further distances than a red dot, by either adjusting the turrets or applying a holdover and precisely matching the bullet’s trajectory. This makes the LPVO an ideal optic for use on designated marksman rifles, which requires both close combat and long-reach capability.

Left: Holographic Dot Reticle, Middle: LPVO BDC Reticle, Right: LPVO Target Reticle

Magnification ability in the LPVO generally specs at 4x, 6x, 8x and even 10x in some higher-end optics.

Tip: it is common for shooters to equip their LPVO’s with a Switchview Throw Lever. This accessory attaches securely around the scope’s magnification ring, providing the user with a fast-transition lever.

But Does The LPVO Provide Fast Target Acquisition?

There are numerous debates as to whether the LPVO is as fast as a red dot when it comes to acquiring and engaging targets. The expert consensus (my own opinion included) is this: there is no difference in speed between a good LPVO and a red dot, provided the shooter puts in the required practice.

So what do I mean by a good LPVO, versus just an LPVO? Well if your aim is to accurately engage targets as fast as possible, then I’d say there are a few specs that you should look out for when selecting your optic. These are as follows:

  • A good eye relief, which will provide you with a generous eye box. 3.5″ to 4.0″ is ideal.
  • A crisp and clear glass with little to no edge distortion; this means a quality optic.
  • A DAYBRIGHT illumination dot or reticle, which provides an almost identical experience to the red dot.

Why The LPVO Requires More Time Invested In Training

While this should be the case with any rifle setup, training is more pertinent when using a LPVO, particularly if you aim on squeezing as much out of your optic as possible. But why? There are a number of reasons.

  • Firstly, the LPVO, unlike the red dot, has an eye box, an exit pupil and a parallax. This means that if you lack consistency in your shooting position and marksmanship fundamentals, then your accuracy and ability to correctly use the optic will suffer.
  • Secondly, in order to successfully use the LPVO at various distances, you need to know how to apply holdovers for bullet drop, windage and moving targets, which will only improve with proper training.

So by meeting the required training investment on the LPVO, is it not surely a no brainer; isn’t the LPVO superior in every way? Well not necessarily. I say this because firing from unorthodox positions – from awkward or low obstacles, through loopholes, between and around vehicles, and so on – is slower and more difficult with a LPVO than a red dot. This results from the optic’s eye box & exit pupil. The red dot is far more forgiving when used under these advanced firing techniques, and this is where speed in the red dot will supersede the LPVO, which is why red dots may in some cases be a better choice.

Vortex Razor HD Gen III 1-10x Low Power Variable Optic

The Low Power Variable’s Pros and Cons

Pros

  • Fast target acquisition at 1x zoom
  • Shooting with both eyes open is easy (at 1x zoom), for situational awareness
  • Illuminated reticle (or daybright red dot) for shooting in low-light
  • Etched reticle which keeps the optic running during battery failure
  • Small and crisp reticle for increased accuracy
  • Magnification enhances accuracy and target identification at further distances
  • Advanced reticle features (bullet drop compensation and range estimation) for shooting at longer distances and applying holdovers

Cons

  • Heavier, adding weight and bulk to the rifle
  • Limits field of view and requires correct eye relief
  • Slower than a red dot when shooting from unorthodox firing positions
  • Often expensive, and requires a scope mount
  • Does not co-witness with iron sights

Now if you’re wanting the absolute best of both worlds; a slick and rapid close range rife system regardless of firing position or stance, with an accomplished long range capability, then there is another option… but it comes at a price.


The Hybrid: Combining A Low Power Variable With A Red Dot

This is the setup which I have been using and thoroughly enjoying on my latest AR build. It features a LPVO as the primary optic, with a high-quality low profile red dot, offset at a 45-degree angle; acting as a secondary and backup optic under the following conditions:

  • Should the primary optic fail
  • When firing from unorthodox and awkward firing positions
  • During transition from close to far targets in quick succession; the LPVO remains at max. magnification for longer shots, while the red dot engages close targets
  • When engaging multiple targets at a distance; the red dot allows for rapid target acquisition through observation only, after which the shooter transitions to the LPVO and engages
Vortex Viper PST Gen II 1-6×24 LPVO & Vortex Razor 3MOA Dot Sight at a 45 Degree Offset

Note: the red dot is typically offset on the shooters strong side, alongside the primary optic, or secured directly above the primary optic.

The only downside to this hybrid setup is the cost; you are purchasing two high quality optics rather than one, with some added weight as well.


Summary

So all things considered, our conclusion is as follows:

  • Red dot sights are ideal for beginners who are less experienced and require an easy plug & play style optic, but also conversely suitable towards experienced shooters who intend on rapidly engaging targets from unorthodox & awkward firing positions, at close distances.
  • Low power variable optics are a better choice for shooters who intend on using their rifles from close to medium and possible even long distances, but who will set aside time to train and further develop skills on their rifle platform.
  • Combining the two optics by offsetting a red dot as a secondary close target sight provides the best overall setup, but can be costly and requires a larger financial investment.

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