Best AR-15 Optics & Scopes 2016: Red Dots to Magnified

Not sure what optic or scope to get for your AR?

We’ll cover 1x optics and magnified scopes, plus recommended mounts, accessories, and backup sights.  By the end of this you’ll know the perfect one for your budget and end use.

So let’s get started with red dots first!

AR-15 Scopes
AR-15 Scopes

Best AR-15 Red Dots

These are “red dots” or “reflex” sights which are exactly what they sound like…they superimpose a red dot as the aiming reticle.

Whereas with standard “iron sights” where you normally keep one eye closed and have to perfectly line up the two sights, red dots allow you to keep both eyes open and have a lot more leeway with where your head or eyes are positioned.

This makes them much faster in acquiring a target and also allows for more peripheral vision.  Plus, they are much more useful in darker environments.

TRS-25 AR Optics

Bushnell TRS-25
Bushnell TRS-25

The budget red dot that has a history of great reviews and personal performance.  I would caution against going any cheaper unless you are shooting low-recoiling .22 LR.

With optics, you’ll usually find that you really get what you pay for…

I see plenty of TRS-25’s during rifle competitions and the owners all say that they are holding up well.

I used one on my AR (~1000 rounds) before upgrading.  Now it’s on my AK-47 pistol and even with the higher recoil of the 7.62×39, it has held zero for over 500 rounds and multiple water splashes.

If you conduct further research, you’ll find that there are two models of the TRS-25…one with white and one with gold writing of “Bushnell” on the side.

Years ago, it was found that the gold version was better for most since it had the glue of the emitter at 6 o’clock while the white writing (shown above) had the glue of the emitter at 4 o’clock which blocked some people’s view.

TRS-25 Trophy vs AR Optics
TRS-25 Trophy vs AR Optics

However, now people are seeing that there are combinations all over the place (likely due to various manufacturers) and that it just depends on the luck of the draw.  There are two versions of the TRS-25…the Trophy version and the AR Optics version with riser.

I recommend getting a riser for the TRS-25 for use in the AR-15 for easier target acquisition and especially if you plan on using irons or backup irons.  I do not like the riser that comes with the TRS-25 AR Optics version since I broke mine during installation.

I recommend getting the .83″ UTG version which has worked well for myself and others (gives co-witness).  You also save money by getting the non-riser Trophy version of the TRS-25 and getting the mount separately.

UTG Mount Co-Witness TRS-25
UTG Mount Co-Witness TRS-25

Recommended Buys:

Vortex Sparc II

Vortex Sparc II
Vortex Sparc II

A more expensive and beefier version of the TRS-25 with a finer dot (2 MOA vs 3 MOA).  2 MOA means that the dot will be covering 2 inches of a target at 100 yards.  Also has a long battery life of 5,000 hours and comes with a variable mount.

This is where I would start drawing the line at self-defense optic quality.

I’ve held and looked through a buddy’s Vortex Sparc II ($199) and it just feels more quality than the TRS-25.  More heft and a clearer dot.  Plus it has a lifetime warranty that is transferable.

Aimpoint Micro H-1

Aimpoint H-1
Aimpoint H-1

The gold standard of red dots…the Aimpoint.

Costs a nice handgun but lasts for 50,000 hours on one battery and is fully waterproof.  Also has extreme weather capabilities (around -20 to 140 degrees Fahrenheit).

The Micro H-1 what I run on my regular AK where the optic directly sits on top of the gas block which gets extremely hot.

Thousands of rounds and still going strong.  I would not hesitate going into something unknown with my Aimpoint H-1.  There is also a T version which supports night-vision, but for most people the H-1 is everything you will ever need.

There’s two reticle size options…2 MOA or 4 MOA.  I personally like the larger 4 MOA dot for this optic since it’s perfect for closer quarters and the accuracy of my AK could leave some to be desired.

If you’re mounting on your AR-15, I would opt for the 2 MOA since it’s still plenty good for close quarters but can be useful for farther engagements or if you ever plan on using a magnifier.

And for a nice optic…you need a better mount that will hold zero better.  I suggest LaRue which is what I use for all my “nice” optics.

LaRue Micro Mount
LaRue Micro Mount

Recommended Buys:

Aimpoint PRO (Patrol Rifle Optic)

Aimpoint PRO
Aimpoint PRO

What I would buy currently for my AR-15 if I did not have the older Comp ML3.

The Patrol Rifle Optic ($500) optic is bigger but gives an even beefier enclosure, 3-years of continuous battery life, night vision capability, is submersible up to 150 ft , and better temperature tolerance (-50 to 160 degrees).  Plus, it’s cheaper than the Micro and comes with a mount.

BONUS: Shoot better. Download our exclusive shooting targets for FREE ($47 value)

EOTech EXPS-2

EOTech EXPS-2
EOTech EXPS-2

For a long time it was Aimpoint vs EOTech.

Aimpoint had it’s tubular “reflex” sights while Eotech had it’s distinct “holographic” sights.  While the technology was a little different, both were heavily used by the US military and had fervent supporters.

Then a disaster hit EOTech and culminated in a lawsuit from the US Government in 2015 for the sights losing their zero due to hot/cold weather and moisture.  They paid a $26.2 million dollar fine and are now offering refunds to their civilian buyers.

They state that problems only arise from -40 to 122 degrees but I would just like to stay away from a company where their products were found defective.  Plus, 122 degrees is easily reached inside a car during a hot summer day.

But, if you do like the large circle reticle, I would recommend the EXPS-2 ($540) model which has a built in QD (quick-disconnect) lever and allows for co-witness with iron sights.

Aimpoint vs EOTech Reticle
Aimpoint vs EOTech Reticle

Need to reach out and touch something?

Best AR-15 Scopes

Now we dive into optics with some magnification!

We’ll first start with some compact fixed scopes and then onto more traditional variable magnification scopes.

Vortex Spitfire 3x

Vortex Spitfire
Vortex Spitfire

A fixed 3x magnifier, this optic is built specifically for the AR platform shooting 5.56 since the reticle has dropdowns for 0-500 yards.  Since it’s from Vortex, it has an unlimited lifetime warranty that is fully transferable.

Spitfire Reticle
Spitfire Reticle

 

The Vortex Spitfire ($350) 5 intensity levels and the ability to choose between a red or green reticle to allow for shooting in darker areas, and comes with a mount.  You might need some practice to shoot closer distances because of the fixed magnifier, but the Spitfire is a great optic that I liken to a budget ACOG.

ACOG TA31F 4×32

ACOG TA31F
ACOG TA31F

The Trijicon Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG) is battle proven, compact, and basically bombproof.  The recommended TA31F version is a fixed 4x magnification and has a reticle calibrated for AR’s shooting 5.56 from 0-800 meters.

ACOG Reticle
ACOG Reticle

The ACOG is expensive because it combines the best of all worlds…it does not need a battery during the day since it its fiber optic system illuminates the chevron (upside-down V) reticle, while at night the tritium lamps take over and are guaranteed to glow for 15 years.

I would highly recommend trying one out in person since the fixed sight system is not for everyone.

Consider the ACOG or the Spitfire if you’re looking at mostly longer range engagements since shorter distances require some getting used to.

Recommended Buys:

Burris MTAC 1-4x

MTAC 1-4x
MTAC 1-4x

The updated version of the TAC30 which was my first competition scope, the MTAC adds a better interface to utilize the illuminated reticle which is now much more visible during the day.

Also, the ring to change the magnification does not turn the rear of the scope…this was a problem in the TAC30 since if you had lens caps, they would turn as well.

Plus, it now has windage and elevation knobs you use instead of just holding over.

Personally, this doesn’t really matter to me since with a maximum of 4x magnification, it doesn’t make too much of a difference.

Since there is only a $50 difference between the TAC30 and the MTAC, I would get the MTAC due to its better illumination, ability to more easily use lens caps, and windage/elevation knobs.

Recommended Buys:

Vortex Viper PST 1-4x

Vortex Viper PST
Vortex Viper PST

A higher end 1-4x scope with better/clearer glass and a different reticle that excels at both close quarters and distance shooting.

Second focal plane.  With a better optic I recommend a better mount as well.

Viper PST Reticle
Viper PST Reticle

Recommended Buys:

Vortex 1-6x Strike Eagle

Vortex Strike Eagle 1-6x
Vortex Strike Eagle 1-6x

My current 3-Gun optic which allows me to much more easily hit the 375 yard targets at my local competition compared to my previous 1-4x TAC30.

Very affordable (especially when compared to the other 1-6x scopes) and very clear glass from 1-4x.  I can see some hints of distortion at 6x but since I usually only use the max magnification one stage a match it doesn’t bother me.

If you’re shooting closer matches or distances, you can just turn it to 3-4x as well to minimize the minor distortion.

Reticle is pretty good for close-up shots as well as farther shots.

Strike Eagle Reticle
Strike Eagle Reticle

Almost a recent no-brainer to get since it’s cheaper than the MTAC above while giving you 1-6x.  Two of my other friends have ditched their 1-4x in favor of the Strike Eagle.

I pair mine up with an extended Aero one-piece mount for a super-secure hold and weight savings.

Recommended Buys:

Vortex 1-6x Razor HD Gen 2

Razor HD Gen 2
Razor HD Gen 2

This is the go-to AR rifle scope for rifle competitions when you will be engaging 300+ yard targets and 1-4x just doesn’t cut it.

The 1-6x Razor has really clear glass and is built tough.  I’ve looked through several and everything is much sharper than my TAC30.  Compared to the Strike Eagle, the glass is much clearer, you have a larger field of view, and a more forgiving eye box (location where your eye is and you will still get the full field of view).

Razor HD 2 Reticle
Razor HD 2 Reticle

It’s next on my list when I get better at my rifle and start shooting competitions with longer range targets again.

Recommended Buys:

Leupold 3-9x VX-1

VX-1
VX-1

One of our recommended hunting optics where you don’t necessarily need 1x but might need something more magnified.  The 3-9x VX-1 fills this need nicely and at a great price.

Recommended Buys:

Best AR-15 Back Up Iron Sights (BUIS)

Now that you have your primary sight, you’ll need some back up sights in case your primary breaks, runs out of batteries, or just falls off.

For 99.99% of their life they will live flat underneath your scope.  But if something happens to your primary…you’ll wish you had these to flip up!

Magpul Gen 2 BUIS

Magpul BUIS
Magpul BUIS

These polymer Magpul BUIS ($80) paved the way for back up sights to become mainstream.  Affordable and still plenty accurate when you need them.

Magpul MBUS Pro

MBUS Pro
MBUS Pro

The latest iteration from Magpul, the MBUS Pros ($160) are steel instead of polymer to survive anything you can throw at it.

Offset Iron Sights

Offset Sights
Offset Sights

Maybe not for everyone, but if you’re competing and don’t have time to switch your AR-15 scope back to 1x…these offset sights ($25) will help you get a better time.  All you need to do is tilt your gun and you have these ready for close targets.

Offset Sights MBUS
Offset Sights MBUS

Conclusion

Now that you’ve seen everything for the AR-15 from red dot sights to ACOG’s and variable optics, what will you choose for your purpose?

11 Comments

  1. Eric,

    Thank you for such an informative series. I’ve referenced it many times as I get into AR’s for the first time.

    Picked up a great deal on a S&W 15 Sport II and I’m looking at the Holosun
    HS515C

    Have you looked into them and if so your thoughts.

    Thanks
    John U

    1. Hi John, you’re welcome! I definitely have heard of Holosun and have seen some fellow competitors run them to great effect. But I haven’t played with them myself yet.

    1. Hi Rick, looks like you’re correct…it’s second focal plane. I’ve corrected it in the article. Seems like the Amazon description is wrong. Thanks for catching it!

  2. What do you think of the AR Maglock device? Is the AR Maglock used instead of modifying your AR with ‘featureless” items so you will not have to register it in 2017?

    1. Hi Elia, I’m looking forward to trying out the Sparc AR. It’s new but has pretty good reviews. Biggest difference is that it takes AAA batteries which makes it a little heavier.

  3. Hi Eric,
    Thank you so much for this article.
    I bought a TROY P.A.R. 308 Win, and I couldn’t decide between the Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×44 and the Strike Eagle 1-6×24 (cheaper).
    My shoot range is between 50 to 300m.
    What do you think ?

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