Best AR-15 Optics & Scopes [2018 Hands-On]: Red Dots to Magnified

Not sure what optic or scope to get for your AR?  We’ve bought or used almost all of them

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.

AR-15 Scopes
AR-15 Scopes

*UPDATED 2018*: More optics and links to my Best Budget Red Dot article.

If you can’t wait, here’s our list of the best AR-15 Optics:

  1. Budget Red Dot: Bushnell TRS-25 ($50)
  2. Red Dot Under $200: Holosun HS403A ($150)
  3. “Goldilocks” Red Dot: Aimpoint PRO ($450)
  4. Holographic Sight: EOTech XPS-2 ($480)
  5. 3x Magnifier: Vortex 3x ($199)
  6. 3x Optic: Vortex Spitfire ($340)
  7. 1-4x Scope: Vortex Viper PST 1-4x ($400)
  8. Best Bang-For-The-Buck Scope: Vortex 1-6x Strike Eagle ($320)
  9. Hunting Scope: Leupold 3-9x VX-1 ($175)
  10. Backup Iron Sights: Magpul MBUS ($70)

Now…let’s start off the detailed write-up with red dots!

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.

Bushnell TRS-25 AR Optics

Most Affordable
TRS-25 AR Optics

TRS-25 AR Optics

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 a 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 AR

Most Robust
Vortex Sparc AR

Vortex Sparc AR

Prices accurate at time of writing

A more purposeful (and newer) Sparc geared towards AR-15’s.  The Sparc AR ($199) is super beefy and can take a lot of punishment with the rubber housing.  One great thing is that it takes one AAA battery.

The glass is the clearest of the “budget” red dots but has a slightly smaller field of view when compared to the Holosun and Aimpoint Micros.  Full review HERE.

Holosun HS403A/B

Editor's Choice
Holosun HS403A

Holosun HS403A

Prices accurate at time of writing

My best bang-for-the-buck red dot that ran head to head against the Sparc AR and Primary Arms in my 2017 Red Dot Reviews.

The Holosun HS403 ($140) has clear glass and a larger field of view when compared to the Sparc AR.  It also survived my drop tests and temperature tests.

Holosun also makes other models that are solar powered and even some that have two reticles…including one that mimics EOTech.

Aimpoint Micro H-1

The Gold Standard
Aimpoint Micro H-1, 2 MOA

Aimpoint Micro H-1, 2 MOA

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 to go 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 are 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 close 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)

The "Goldilocks" Red Dot
Aimpoint Patrol Rifle Optic (PRO)

Aimpoint Patrol Rifle Optic (PRO)

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

The Patrol Rifle Optic ($450) 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.

Check out our full review (with some hammer torture testing of course).

Aimpoint PRO Testing
Aimpoint PRO Testing

EOTech XPS2

Best Holographic Sight
EOTech XPS-2

EOTech XPS-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 newer XPS2 ($479) model which allows for co-witness with iron sights.

Aimpoint vs EOTech Reticle
Aimpoint vs EOTech Reticle

It’s the smallest EOTech model currently.  But if you’d like to see their other offerings, check out our EOTech Guide.

Need to reach out and touch something?

Flip-Mounted 3x Magnifiers

Want the quick target acquisition of a 1x red dot or holographic sight…but still, need to hit out farther?

COD MW3 Magnified Sight
COD MW3 Magnified Sight

We tested three of the most popular 3x magnifiers under $200 and found the best…

3x Magnifiers
3x Magnifiers

Drumroll…

Best 3x Magnifier
Vortex 3x Magnifier

Vortex 3x Magnifier

The Vortex had the clearest glass, good eye-relief, changeable for lefties, easy to use mount, slim design, and was the lightest of the bunch.

Check how it compared to the competition in our Best 3x Magnifiers shootout.

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

Best Fixed Magnification
Vortex Spitfire 3x

Vortex Spitfire 3x

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.

Here’s a view through the optic.  Real-life is crisper…it was hard to get my phone to focus on the reticle especially with the 3x magnification.

Vortex Spitfire View
Vortex Spitfire View

ACOG TA31F 4×32

Battle Proven
ACOG TA31F 4x32

ACOG TA31F 4x32

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 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

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 1-4X

Vortex Viper PST 1-4X

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

Best Value
Vortex 1-6x Strike Eagle

Vortex 1-6x Strike Eagle

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.

The 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:

I’ve tried out the newer Strike Eagle 1-8x ($399) but still, favor the 1-6x for competitions and general shooting.  A couple of the reasons:

  • 6x is good out to 300 yards already…8x is a little overkill
  • Transitioning between targets at 8x zoom is slower
  • Flipping the dial to 8x takes longer as well

But…I like the reticle of the 8x better with the single dot on the target.

Vortex Strike Eagle 1-8x
Vortex Strike Eagle 1-8x

Vortex 1-6x Razor HD Gen 2

Gold Standard
Vortex 1-6x Razor HD Gen 2

Vortex 1-6x 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

Best Hunting Scope
Leupold 3-9x VX-1

Leupold 3-9x 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 backup 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

Perfect Backup
Magpul MBUS

Magpul MBUS

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

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

Offset Iron Sights

Best Offset Sights
Ade Advanced Offset Sights

Ade Advanced Offset Sights

Prices accurate at time of writing

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

And of course…now we have full in-depth reviews of both Backup Irons Sights and Offset Iron Sights.

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?  Check out more in our Gun & Gear Reviews.

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60 Comments on "Best AR-15 Optics & Scopes [2018 Hands-On]: Red Dots to Magnified"

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Connor H
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No Primary Arms optics listed? I consider the PA 1-6x gen3 ACSS reticle far superior to the Strike Eagle, with comparable glass and illumination. Trijicon even copied features from the ACSS reticle, so you know it’s legit. 😛 Strongly recommend Primary Arms to those seeking affordable but solidly built optics. Their 1-4x duplex is also only $120, for a true budget variable option. Theres alsp speculation around arf and other places that they may be built in same factory (strike eagle and PA ACSS) due to near identical external characteristics. Seems to come down to reticle preference. -i am not… Read more »
Connor H
Guest

Also, 2.5x, 3x, and 5x fixed magnification prism scopes are great options, and work for people with astigmatism whereas traditional red dots generally do not.

David
Admin

I have a couple of PA optics and like both of them very much. We’re working on a large update for the article soon-ish, part of that will include reviews of some PA optics…don’t know if they will make “best of” yet though, still in testing!

John
Guest

Eric,
What do you think of the Vortex Venom for a co-witness sight for an AR-15? I just use it for all around target practice 0 to 200 yards and plinking, etc.

David
Admin

Great optic, solid, and Vortex are one of my goto companies due to their warranty and customer service. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the Venom on a rifle since it feels a bit small to me – but if you like the look and feel of it, go with it! You won’t be disappointed.

Jeff
Guest

Another great article. I have 3 AR’s; two full size (16″) and one pistol (8.5″). I have a Vortex Strikefire on my Colt, an Aimpoint Comp ML3 on my S&W and a Vortex Sparc AR on my pistol. All have been great and operate flawlessly. That said, if either my Strikfire or Comp ML 3 goes down, I will replace it with the Aimpoint PRO. Anyway, fantastic article – keep them coming!

Roy
Guest

Vortex Strikefire II is another quality affordable option for under $200. Also gives the option for red or green dot.

Leopold Mark AR 1.5-4x firedot is great option for 3 gun or anyone wanting a magnified optic for their AR. Green firedot basically acts a red dot on lowest magnification.

Chuck
Guest

The SPARC AR doesn’t have a rubber housing, its just a molded rubber cover that easily slips off. It has an all aluminum housing. Within minutes of owning this I figured this out.