Red dots or holographic sights…you’ve probably heard these terms before. But if you’re new to guns and gear, you might be asking, “what’s the difference?”
Further, you may also be questioning which is the best for you?
Well, we’re here to help! We’ll cover a lot of categories and choose the winner in each.
So by the end, you’ll know which kind of sight is the best for your situation.
If you’d rather see it all in action, check out our full video below.
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Best Pistol Dot
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Table of Contents
First of all…what’s the difference technology-wise between red dots and holographic sights?
For the longest time, I thought it was that a red dot had a red dot reticle…and a holographic sight had the signature big ring and small dot reticle.
I was sorta right in that those are the big aesthetic differences. But once you look inside…
You’ll see that holographic sights are MUCH more complicated.
A red dot has an LED emitter that sends the beam towards the front glass, which is coated so that the beam/dot is reflected back to your eyes.
On the other hand, a holographic sight uses a laser and mirrors to send a hologram back to you (without using the front glass)…but which appears to be in front.
With complication…comes a more expensive price tag.
You can get an okay red dot for sub $50 (my pick is the TRS-25)…
But I usually recommend going into the sub-$200 range for something more robust (Best Red Dots Under $200).
Like the Holosun…
Or my favorite bring-to-hell red dot is the Aimpoint PRO (our full review) which is around $400.
There are also a bazillion companies that make red dots.
But as far as holographic sights…EOTech and Vortex are the best known.
Vortex makes a ton of red dots and magnified scopes, so it makes sense that they’d eventually jump into the holographic sight market.
Holographics tend to run higher price-wise, but are they worth it…read on!
Winner in Price: Red Dots (wide range of pricing)
Does size matter?
If you want it small…you’ll go with red dots. Since the technology is easier, there are plenty of smaller options that can fit on both rifles and handguns.
You can see the whole gamut in our Best Pistol Red Dots article.
As for holographic sights…they aren’t HUGE, but they currently aren’t available in teeny-tiny versions.
Winner in Size: Red Dots
This one varies since both top-of-the-line models (Aimpoint & EOTech) in each category have awesome stories of surviving tons of abuse.
If you have the money, you can get literally bombproof optics that will withstand a huge range of temperatures, g-forces, and water depths and still keep on ticking.
Some cheaper red dots are rated only for airsoft.
And yes…EOTech did have the fiasco with thermal drift (zero shifted beyond specs when subjected to big temperature shifts).
But USSOCOM (special operations command) again chose EOTech as the optic of choice after the problem was fixed.
And remember when we mentioned that holographic sights didn’t need the front window to function? Here’s the proof…
Useful if you have frag coming at you from the front.
Or even if there’s mud or other residue, it will still work as long as there’s some partial window available.
Winner in Durability: Holographic
Red dots use power-saving LEDs, while holographic sights require lasers to power their holograms.
That’s how a couple of red dots have battery power of up to 50,000 hours. Basically, that means you could leave it on for 5+ years.
Compared with holographic sights that usually offer 500 to 1,000 hours of battery life, red dots are the clear winners.
Winner in Power: Red Dot
Reticles (Color & Pattern)
You’re going to be staring at the reticle the most…let’s take a look at a couple of angles.
Both red dots and holographic sights are usually red since it’s easy for the eyes to pick up.
But now both have green versions, which are even easier on the eyes.
However, green isn’t as good when you move between differently lit areas, such as clearing a first-floor room and then going into the basement.
I really like green for competition since I pick it up easier, and lighting outside is nearly constant.
My favorite green dot is the Trijicon MRO.
I really like the large ring with the small dot reticle in holographics. Here’s an example from Vortex’s holographic UH-1.
And the OG “Speed Ring” from EOTech.
Plus, something new I learned is that you can use it to range too…
EOTech’s center dot is 1 MOA, while the smallest red dots only get to 2 MOA.
That means at 100-yards, the dot will cover 1-inch compared to 2-inches, and at 200-yards, it will cover 2-inches compared to 4-inches.
BUT…if the reticle is one thing you love…you can always opt for Holosun’s 510C, which is technically a red dot, and so it runs for tens of thousands of hours.
What’s your take on the 510C, which combines the awesome holographic reticle with red dot price and power consumption?
Winner in Reticle: Tie
If you have astigmatism…red dots will look like a starburst or a mishmash of squiggly lines.
Holographic sights will usually work better for those with astigmatism.
We have some pretty good options lined up for those of you with astigmatism in our Best Pistol & Rifle Optics for Shooters with Astigmatism.
Both red dots and holographic sights have night vision compatible models.
These are ones with dimmer settings that won’t cause damage to night vision devices (Best Night Vision Goggles).
Both red dots and holographic sights can have magnifiers in front of them (Best 3x Magnifiers).
Remember that EOTech’s center dot is 1 MOA while red dots can only get down to 2 MOA?
When you put a magnifier in front of a 2 MOA red dot…it now becomes 6 MOA.
Here’s an example with a 4 MOA red dot that becomes 12 MOA when magnified. But you get the picture…it covers more of the target.
My real-life test…
This shows the holographic reticle is a bit smaller than the red dot.
Now get ready to get your mind blown…when you magnify the EOTech, the 1 MOA dot stays the same.
The smallest light the human eye can see is 1 MOA. But with holographic technology, the dot is actually super small (microns).
When you magnify something tiny, it’s still tiny. And so our eyes still see it as 1 MOA.
That’s why you can put any magnifier in front of a holographic sight, and it still shows up 1 MOA.
Winner in Magnification: Holographic
Field of View
One significant point of having an electronic sight is that you can have both eyes open.
But if the sight itself has a small window like on a pistol red dot…
You’re going to have to get behind it a little more on target.
Or there are the very popular tubes of Aimpoints and others…
Versus the more rectangular view of holographics.
Overall…I’d say holographics get the win, but there’s also a wide range of FOV for red dots.
Winner in Field of View: Holographics
Our last one…and probably what you’ve been waiting for…
Both red dots and holographic sights are MUCH faster than traditional irons.
But remember the technology inside?
Red dots will focus the dot to your eyeball, so the focal distance is basically at the sight, while holographic sights project the reticle hologram out in front of the sight.
Why’s this matter?
Your eye can only focus on one thing at a time…and if it’s choosing between something close at the sight (red dot) and the actual target, it can slow you down.
Holographic sights superimpose on your target. Watch as the reticle comes into focus when I focus on the targets.
Plus, the Speed Ring reticle makes it easier for quick closeup shots and the 1 MOA dot makes it easy for more accurate shots.
Winner in Acquisition: Holographic
Final Thoughts & Favorites
The perks of holographic sights are there, but they come at a much steeper price of entry (Best Holographic Sights).
If you’re just starting with electronic sights, I’d recommend a red dot (Best Red Dots).
You might be a little bit faster with a holographic or can shoot better at 300+ yards magnified.
But you have to decide if that’s worth it.
Are holographics worth the price of admission? Let us know in the comments below. Looking for something magnified or the best irons…check out Best AR-15 Optics & Scopes.