Best Budget Red Dots for AR-15s (Under $200): 2017 Edition

Red dots have come a long way.

Now you can have a dependable red dot that runs 50,000 hours on for under $200.

Best Budget Red Dots
Best Budget Red Dots (L to R, Primary Arms, Holosun, Vortex Sparc)

We will cover three of the most popular budget red dots and rank them in reliability, clarity, mounting options, bang-for-the-buck-ness, and more.  Get ready for some torture testing too!

Red Dot Immersion
Red Dot Immersion

Models we’ll cover:

Why Red Dots Are Awesome

I’m an advocate for learning how to shoot with irons and then upgrading to red dots.  If only to understand how awesome they are compared to old school fixed sights.

Looking for other kinds of sights?  We cover them in our Ultimate AR-15 Optics Guide.

There’s four main reasons why I love red dots.

1. Unlimited Eye Relief

Unlike other sights, unmagnified red dots have unlimited eye relief…which means there’s no set minimum/maximum distance you need to mount them from your eye.

2. Parallax Free

Red dots are essentially parallax free…this means when you move your head around, the red dot moves with you so you’re still pointed at the same target.  This way you don’t need a super precise position to get the shot.

3.  Cowitness

Co-Witness, Absolute vs Lower Third
Co-Witness, Absolute vs Lower Third

You can also choose the height of your red dot so you cowitness your irons.  This way in case the red dots go down…you still have your irons.  Absolute co-witness places the dot exactly on your irons while lower 1/3 gives you more room for the dot.

4. Keeping Both Eyes Open

Red dots are designed for you to keep both eyes open.  It’s much easier with red dots compared to iron sights and by using both eyes you get a nearly unlimited field of view while still superimposing the dot on your targets.

Now enough about red dots…let’s see our test subjects!

The Contestants

Budget Red Dots Side
Budget Red Dots Side

There’s going to be some red dot terms that aren’t self-explanatory, here’s a quick breakdown of what they mean:

  • Dot Size (MOA): means minute of angle and describes the dot’s size.  For example, a 2 MOA dot will cover 2 inches at 100 yards.
  • Night Vision Compatible: you will still be able to see the dot while using night vision equipment

Here’s what I chose for what I see as the three most popular red dots under $200 that come from well-known companies.

Primary Arms Advanced Micro Dot

Primary Arms ADS
Primary Arms ADS

The PA Advanced Micro Dot ($170) is very well known in the budget optics space for being affordable yet reliable.  Here are some of the important specs:

  • 50,000 hour battery life (1x CR2032)
  • 3-year warranty
  • 2 MOA dot
  • Waterproof to 2m for 72 hours
  • Night vision compatible
  • -4 F to 158 F working temperature
  • Weight: 3.9 oz
  • Does not come with riser (Using Daniel Defense Mount)

Holosun HS403A

Holosun HS403A
Holosun HS403A

The Holosun HS403A ($140) is making a splash in the red dot world for really affordable sights with all the bells and whistles.  Rumor has it that Holosun is the manufacturer of Primary Arms’ red dots (to their specs).

  • 50,000 hour battery life (1x CR2032)
  • 2 MOA dot size
  • 3-year warranty
  • 8-hour auto shutoff
  • Waterproof to 1m
  • Night vision compatible
  • Weight: 4.2 oz w/riser
  • 14 F to 122 F working temperatures
  • Comes with risers for absolute/one-third cowitness

Vortex Sparc AR

Vortex Sparc AR
Vortex Sparc AR

The Vortex Sparc AR ($199) is a newcomer from the very well-known Vortex that is robust with clear glass.

  • 5,000 hours battery life (1x AAA)
  • 2 MOA dot size
  • Unlimited & transferable lifetime warranty
  • 12-hour auto shutoff
  • Waterproof to 1m
  • Night vision compatible
  • Weight: 8.5 oz w/ riser
  • -4 F to 158 F working temperatures
  • Comes with risers for both cowitness heights

Drop Testing

I bought these myself to test them out so this part hurt a little…but if something can’t survive three drops from around 3 feet onto concrete (without being attached to a rifle)…then I probably wouldn’t trust it later anyways.

All three survived but I found out later that the Primary Arms one had a crack on the rear window at 7 o’clock…

Holosun and Primary Arms
Holosun and Primary Arms (Cracked)

It didn’t affect function and it made it through the next test with flying colors.

Waterproof & Temperature Testing

I don’t have plans of swimming with my guns but in case I get caught in the rain, I’d like for it to survive.

Not Me and My Gun
Not Me and My Gun

I combined this test with the temperature test and loaded up a pot with some hot water.  I let it cool overnight for the lower end of the temperature spectrum.

Again, all three passed function testing in the morning.

BUT…

I made the error of not wiping them down.  Some time passed before I went shooting with them and I found a good amount of rust on the Primary Arms (rails, next picture) and Sparc AR (screws of riser).

Vortex Sparc AR Rust
Vortex Sparc AR Rust

Battery Compartments & Risers

Budget Red Dot Batteries
Budget Red Dot Batteries (L to R, Holosun, Vortex, Primary Arms)

Here you can see the rust on the rails on the Primary Arms.

And how each red dot deals with its batteries.  The Sparc AR has the added benefit of using AAA batteries but weights almost 2x the weight of the others.

The Primary Arms’ battery is on the side for easy access while the Holosun is underneath and requires disassembly from the mount.

Holosun Mounting
Holosun Mounting

I was a little scared at the flimsy rubber housing but it held up during the water testing and there’s no rust on anything.

Ok…how about how the dots and glass look?

Dot & Glass Clarity

Budget Red Dots All On
Budget Red Dots All On (L to R, Holosun, Vortex, Primary Arms)

This picture is meant to showcase the glass clarity.  I focused on the body instead of the dots so the dots appear fuzzier than in real life.

You can see that the Holosun and Primary Arms’ glass is greener than the middle Vortex.  I’d say Holosun edges slightly over the Primary arms in terms of clarity.

However, the viewbox of the Vortex is noticeably smaller (this was the main thing people picked up on while I was at the range and asking randoms to check out all three dots).

Here are pics of how the red dots actually appear at around 3rd from the brightest setting.

Crisp Red Dot (Holosun)
Crisp Red Dot (Primary Arms)

The Holosun was just as crisp as the Primary Arms.  And here is the Sparc AR.

Crisp Sparc AR
Crisp Sparc AR

Fit, Feel, & Adjustments

Best Budget Red Dots
Best Budget Red Dots

All three felt fine in hands but the Sparc AR felt extra beefy…like I could have continued drop testing all day long and it would still keep on going.  The rubber cover also doesn’t hurt although overall it is much heavier and bulkier than the other two.

The adjustments were also in different places.  The Holosun and Primary Arms were on top while the Sparc AR is on the back.  I have no personal preference so they were all fine and dandy to me.

Red Dot Brightness Adjustments
Red Dot Brightness Adjustments

Keep in mind that the Primary Arms has no auto-shutoff while the Holosun is 8 hours while the Sparc AR is 12 hours auto-shutoff.  Some prefer to leave the red dot on so it is ready to go, while others want to conserve battery life if they accidentally leave it on.

Shootability

Lightweight Build Brigand Arms and Faxon Pencil 14.5 Pinned
Lightweight Build Brigand Arms and Faxon Pencil 14.5 Pinned

I used all three red dots on my lightweight build with my carbon fiber Brigand Arms handrail and Faxon 14.5 pencil barrel.

They all shot fine but there was a big difference of the Primary Arms and Holosun clarity & eyebox versus the Sparc AR.

The PA/Holosun had the slight blueish hue while the Sparc AR was much clearer.  But the Sparc AR had the smaller eyebox.

Zeroes held fine as well even after the drop testing.

Warranty

Primary Arms and Holosun both have 3-year warranties.  I used the Primary Arms warranty to fix the cracked rear glass.

It was very painless and after a quick call, email with attached pictures, and self-ship, they replied that they would be fixing it free of charge.  I received the fixed sight shortly after with tracking and everything.

Primary Arms Red Dot Fixed
Primary Arms Red Dot Fixed

Vortex, on the other hand, has an unlimited lifetime warranty that is completely transferable.  I had to show my receipt for Primary Arms so if you buy one second-hand…you might be out of luck.

Conclusion

So after all this stuff…what do I recommend?

Holosun HS403A
Holosun HS403A

For best bang-for-the-buck I’d have to go with the Holosun HS403A ($140).  You get a great optic that passed all the tests, didn’t rust, and comes with a riser included in the price.  You’ll forego a little clarity on the glass and convenience in switching out batteries though.

Vortex Sparc AR
Vortex Sparc AR

For robustness and ease of maintenance I go with the Vortex Sparc AR ($199).  If weight is not a deal-breaker, I’m pretty sure this red dot can survive almost anything.  Aside from passing all the tests (remember to wipe it dry), you get the ease of AAA batteries and the clearest glass of the bunch.  However, there’s reduced battery life, extra weight, and a smaller eyebox.

Unfortunately since the Primary Arms Advanced Micro Dot ($170) did crack on me, I won’t be recommending it (great warranty service though).  Plus…it doesn’t come with a riser so you’ll have to get another one, which would raise its price above the Vortex.

Any other budget red dots you’d like to see?  What do you currently run on your AR?

12 Comments

  1. Do you think the Vortex Sparc II would have fared better or worse? It’s the one I got since it wasn’t “AR specific”. Also, keep up the great work, I really enjoy the content here. You guys have a lot of interesting information along with good explanations.

  2. Purchased the Vortex for $139/shipped from PSA and it seems pretty good thus far. I do admit that I like the look of the smaller sized red dots a tad better, but not too worried about it… If I would have done it over again, I would have still went with the Vortex, simply because of the AWESOME lifetime warranty. You may not need the warranty for many years, but if/when you do, it’s always gonna be there for ya and it’s fully transferable if you decide to sell it and upgrade to a better dot later on. Thanks 4 the review…

  3. Good read here Eric, very informative. I just finished building my AR and I am currently on the hunt for some optics. Currently serving in the ARNG and when we go shoot, all our M4’s are equipped with either ACOG or CCO red dot (pretty much the aimpoint compM4). I really like the red dot we use cause I am use to it and shoot it well, but i also dig the acog cause the magnifier. I do want to purchase an ACOG but damn the price. Looking into the vortex spitfire 3x. Any thoughts anyone? or is there a red dot somewhere out there with a magnifier?

    1. I like the Spitfire 3x and there’s also a good amount of 1x optics (aimpoint, eotech, etc) that have flip-capable magnifiers.

  4. Well written and appears very concise and objective in testing these sights without the appearance of trying to promote or sell one brand over another…as so many ‘reviews’ on other sites seem to do. Good job.

  5. I’d sure like to see about what magnifiers will flip up and align with these out of the box. The Sparc AR seems just a tad lower.

    The problem is that manufacturers (and reviewers LOL) don’t give the height to center info. On the flip side, the mag people don’t give much either (except the UTG 3X).

    1. I recently bought the Vortex Strikefire II with the VMX-3T magnifier. One of them came with a riser (sorry at the office and can’t remember which). But after adding it they lined up completely level. Either purchase manufacturer to manufacturer or buy the appropriate riser for one of them. Just my 2 cents.

  6. What do you guys think about the AT3 Tactical LEOS red dot?

    I purchased one for my 300 blackout build, just wondering if anyone has used one.

    Grest info, you guys always have informative articles.

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