Something that a fellow blogger and reader of the blog mentioned on our Facebook page got my brain in gear again… in response to my recent updated carbine set up article, he posed a statement and question regarding choice of optic and reasonable expectations of use contrasted with typical training environments. This isn’t so much an answer to that question as it is just my thoughts on the subject from what I’ve learned since I first bought an AR-15.
In looking at my carbines, they are each setup as stand-alone options, each ideal for slightly different environments. My SBR is primarily a home defense gun… its short barrel is ideal for moving around in a structure (my home) and the red dot optic on top of it is ideal for short range and low light use. I can reliably use my red dot out to about 200 yards, but it’s really meant for closer ranges. Given the ballistic limitations imposed by a short barrel, I’m okay with that.
Next up, my old standby BCM upper on another lower. It’s got a 14.5 inch barrel and has become the host for a Leupold VX-R Patrol. With it’s foliage green furniture and bipod mount, I envision it as the carbine I would grab if I intended to go afield with an AR-15. Its configuration would also be ideal as a patrol rifle in a law enforcement context. The VX-R Patrol has daylight visible illumination, allowing it to function as an impromptu red dot sight, and the modest magnification allows for target identification and discrimination at greater ranges than I can accomplish with the naked eye and non-magnified optics. In fact, I don’t remember whether it was on his blog or on social media, but I can definitely remember respected trainer and Police Officer Greg Ellifritz discussing his use of this exact scope on his patrol carbine during a stand off with a barricaded subject. If my memory is correct, he was able to see some important details through the scope from his position behind cover that may not have been discernible without magnification.
As an aside, this was the upper that I initially bought to pair with my Trijicon TA02 4×32 LED ACOG that I purchased as part of a group buy when they first came out. That didn’t work out quite as planned, but was a definite learning point in my journey. The ACOG is a robust optic, but has some drawbacks that I no longer think are commensurate with its price point. The one I have is the LED model, with a rheostat dial that controls the illumination of the reticle. This is a distinctly good feature as compared to the dual illumination models, but the eye relief is terrible and the fixed magnification is a limiting factor. I’m not ready to divest myself of my ACOG just yet, but it’s not mounted on a carbine at the moment. Draw from that what you will.
Finally, I still have my original, now backup carbine that has a”F” marked forged front sight base. I have a fixed rear iron sight on it with the CSAT aperture installed. I can always throw an old Aimpoint on it (the CompML2 in the photo above), but for right now I keep it iron sights only in an attempt to maintain proficiency with a sight system that I know will nearly always work, no matter the conditions. In this regard, Jeff Cooper’s rifleman’s ideal comes to mind… “if I can see it, I can hit it.”
Which brings me to the point of this post… what do you need to see when you shoot your carbine? Is your carbine strictly for home defense? Or do you own several acres in rural America and might need to reach out a bit further? Are you a cop that may need to discriminate whether a suspect is holding a gun or a cellphone? Do you enjoy competition that may present you with targets at widely varying ranges? Do you hunt with your carbine? These are all examples of questions that you might need to ask when selecting an optic to mount to your carbine. If you have multiple carbines like I do, then you have some flexibility in setting them up. If, however, you only have one carbine that needs to do it all, then you need to put some more thought into your selection.*
If you are truly on a budget, then you can still do some really good work with iron sights. Paul Howe still relies on iron sights, and Kyle Defoor has written about spending nearly a year running only irons. I would offer the caveat that by all accounts, both of these guys have exceptional eyesight and extensive training and operational experience.
The next step up in my mind is a quality red dot sight. I prefer Aimpoint. You can go with the budget friendly Patrol Rifle Optic (PRO), or splurge on a Micro T2, or any number of the other models that they offer. Although I have no direct experience with either, both the EOTech and Trijicon MRO are also well regarded. In terms of speed, positional shooting, and low light, this simple upgrade will make for a much more capable weapon. With good eyesight and high contrast targets, you should be able to easily reach out to 200 yards or beyond with a red dot sight. 100 yards and in is cake.
Finally, if you have the financial wherewithal and want one optic to do it all, look for a Low Power Variable Optic. There are more and more good options on the market every day, but most are too expensive for me to personally consider or really even comment on. Do your research and choose one that checks all of the boxes for you and remember, “buy once, cry once.” With true 1x at the low end, daytime visible red dot illumination, and a generous eye box being ideal attributes, a LPVO can satisfy a lot of requirements of a carbine optic. Again, there are many good choices these days, but if I were going to buy one tomorrow, it would probably be the US Optics SVS 1-6x. Robert was able to find a used Vortex Razor HD 1-6x. A lot depends on your budget and what you really need. For example, on the Defense Review website, Jeff Gurwitch recently described how SF soldiers fighting in Afghanistan have equipped their carbines with budget scopes from Vortex, primarily due to the price point and how well they actually work! Indeed, the LPVO concept works, and it’s what the market demanded.
Of course, there are also precision rifle optics, but the equipment required for that is so far outside of my wheelhouse that I’m not even going to address it. Perhaps if I ever assemble that type of rifle, I can explore the subject, although such an endeavor would be completely recreational in nature for me.
All of the above is simply to say this… what do you need to be able to hit with your carbine? What do you need to see to be able to hit with your carbine? The answer can and probably should dictate your choice of sights.
*One of our readers, Karim Manassa, owner of EDC Pistol Training, posted an excellent idea on our Facebook page shortly after this post went live. When choosing between a red dot sight or magnified optic for his rifle, he took a laser range finder and checked the potential engagement distances around the areas he frequents. I’ve done the same inside my home and around my property when I was patterning my shotgun. If you have access to a laser rangefinder, you should try the exercise sometime. You might be surprised at the results!
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