When choosing the best optic for your AR rifle, you face a huge dilemma right away: With so many different scopes on the market, how do you find the one that best fits your rifle—and you?
In this article, we’ll cut through some of the noise out there and help you find not only the best optic for your AR, but the optic that best suits the way you plan to use it.
Your ideal scope will not only complement your AR’s unique design, but also give you the zoom ratio, magnification range, dimensions, price and so forth that you’re looking for.
To begin, lets focus your search on the most popular AR optics:
- Variable Power Rifle Scopes
- Dot-Style (Reflex) Scopes
- Unique Optical Sight Options
Variable Power Rifle Scopes
You’ll find variable power rifle scopes popular with both bolt-action rifles and ARs, especially when the shooter prefers precision at distance over volume of fire.
Your choices will include all kinds of combinations of zoom rations, magnification, lens coatings, glass, reticles, measurements and more.
A zoom ration of 3:1 is standard on most moderately priced models, and you can get up to 9:1 ratios on some of your more expensive units. The 3:1 optic is popular with big game hunters and target shooters, but many experienced gun owners consider the low-end mag too powerful for close up targets.
With a higher zoom ratio, however, the larger magnification range gives you greater target distance flexibility.
As an AR owner, you’ll want to choose the AR optic and scope that fits your needs for either hunting, 3-gun shooting or home defense. Do you need a scope for distance, close up, or home defense—or all 3?
Your answer can help point you to the right optic for your needs.
Brands I’ve had good experiences with include:
- Leupold & Stevens – 5:1, 6:1 and 8:1 Ratios
- Vortex Optics – 1-6x24mm Razor HD Gen II-E, Razor HD GEN II 4.5-27x56mm, Razor HD GEN II 3-18x50mm and the Viper PST GEN II 1-6x24mm
- Bushnell AR Optics – 1-4X and 4.5-18X among others
Tip 1: Go to your local sporting goods store and check out the different options before purchasing. Get a good understanding of pros and cons, and only then make your buying decision.
Here’s a great video demonstrating some affordable optics for your AR-15:
When you look through a scope, that set of fine line markings (called a reticle) is what helps you measure and aim. Some people call them crosshairs.
Scopes have reticles in either the first focal plane (FFP) or the second focal plane (SFP). Most American ARs have the latter. This means that, with magnification, your target image grows larger, but not the reticle.
The distance between the fine line reticle markings is called subtension. With a SFP scope, as distance to the target increases or decreases, so does the subtension.
In a FFP scope, the reticle adjusts with magnification so subtension (the space covered by the crosshairs) remains the same. That is often preferred by gun owners engaged in 3-gun shooting or long-distance hunting, or any situation where unknown ranges must be determined quickly.
I learned the hard way to select a reticle that works best with a specific application. For example, I wouldn’t choose a tactical scope for close-up hunting, or a heavy duplex for targets at a distance.
Finally, regardless of which optic you choose, be sure it has features like multicoated lens, plus water, fog and shock proofing. And needless to say, be sure it has a good warranty.
Dot-Style (Reflex) Sights
Many gun owners swear by dot-style scopes. If your target is close up, there’s something about a radiant dot that lets your eye instinctively zero in on it.
For in-home self-defense or rapid target acquisition, nothing beats it.
Dot sights are typically lightweight, often weighing around 4 ounces or so, and have great portability and maneuverability.
Also, since we’re talking a dot of light here, look for a scope equipped with a rheostat that allows a number of intensity settings. This lets you adjust the aiming point to the ambient daytime, nighttime or dusk lighting settings.
Try not to go cheap when you’re shopping for a dot-style (reflex) sight. That will help you avoid frustrating problems like short battery life, inaccurate adjustments, lack of shockproofing and the like.
Also, to avoid buyer’s remorse down the road, deal only with reputable brands. Read all kinds of reviews. Look for great warranties. Get firsthand views from your local gun store dealer (one you trust) or from fellow gun owners.
Unique Optical Sight Options
One option I’ve come to count on is a prism scope/sight. It enables rapid, long distance acquisition of a red dot with an illuminated etched reticle. Should the battery die, you still have access to the etched reticle.
That’s an especially nice option when you’re in a competitive or self-defense situation.
I also like how compact and light-weight these scopes are. Also, many of them offer greater magnification than ordinary dot-style scopes.
Look for some great prism scope offerings from manufacturers like Bushnell, Vortex, SIG Sauer, Burris and Steiner.
Another great option is the Trijicon fixed-power ACOG. It features a tritium/fiber optic reticle that adjusts to brightness and does not require batteries to operate. The optics are wide ranging in reticle types and sizes, with magnifications from 1.5 to 6x.
Well worth checking out if you want flexible magnification, battery-less, light-adjusting features. Product details for the Trijicon are here. A similar and also highly regarded product is the Meprolight Mepro M21. Details here.
So What’s the Best Optic for Your AR 15?
You have so many great options to choose from, but in the end it all comes down to your personal preferences. There’s no single scope that delivers every benefit you can think of.
Shop around. Invest some time. Talk to other gun owners. Be an informed shopper.
The best optic for your AR-15 is the one that delivers everything YOU need it to have.