Low Powered Variable Optics

Evolution is a great thing. It produces success out of failure. What I mean, you either adapt or you get left behind. Such is the nature in the tactical market and in particular the low powered variable optic world. Before you jump down a rather expensive road, you need to know some things. The first thing you need to know is can you define the optic as a need or a want. Genuinely is there a need, of do you just want to keep up with all the cool kids. The reason I start with this has to do with your investment in truly understanding how best to exploit the new purchase.

What Plane Do I Choose

The first thing you need to consider is what focal plane, first or second. I could go into detail about the benefits of each, but suffice it to say you want a first focal plane scope. The biggest reason has to do with shooting holds. If you are using a low powered optic it is implied you will be doing work probably in a dynamic environment where the scenario may not provide you time to adjust your scope to the target distance. Instead, you use a predetermined “hold” to place a portion of your reticle on the target. Thus, compensating for the distance that differs from your zero. As you adjust the magnification up or down, your reticle increases or decreases, but your holdover values will remain the same. This simplifies your firing solution and reduces the computations you would have to do otherwise.

All The Magnification

1-8x is the newer and more popular scops

The next big question is magnification and how much. There is such a thing as too much magnification. What it translate to is weight. Yes, cost will increase as you go up in magnification, but it is really about weight. In today’s market you can find LPVO’s in the 1:8 range. These are great force multipliers, but the weight can turn them into a con. Again, it is implied your use will be in an urban defensive rifle setting and as such you will probably not be in a prone position. While you may obtain a supported position, you cannot count on it so holding the rifle to make a long shot will be a requirement. If the weight starts to become a hinderance it doesn’t matter how much magnification. Optimally, you should try to keep the scope under 22 ounces; which includes the mount.

Double Duty In Daytime

Since we will be employing the scope in an urban setting, the range to target may be close. The scope will need to double as a red dot or reflex sight. Those that come with day time viewable illumination are preferred. A word of caution though, if you are in very bright daylight such as mid day with no cloud cover many of the illuminated reticles are washed out by the sun. If you are going down this road, you want the dot to be bright. An observation I’ve made over the years is if the scope doesn’t have at least six or more intensity settings it probably will not be bright enough. As a reflex sight option you want it to be fast, the contrast of the illuminated dot or reticle is what makes that happen, but only if it is visible in all lighting conditions

Don’t Forget A Good Mount

Whatever your scope choice, it will only be as good as the mount. If you spend a lot of money on your scope, but try to cut corners on your mount you will see poor performance. Think of a mount like tires for a sports car. If you put crappy tires on your super fast car, how much speed will you really be able to exploit. The real question is quick release or no quick release. That depends on your backup sight system. If you are using foldable iron sights then you will want a quick release. If you are mounting a mini-red dot sight to the scope or rifle then it doesn’t matter. If you run the MRDS remember it will add weight overall. Once you pick a good mount, the next issue is to properly mount the scope to your rifle. You will want to make sure you it is installed properly to the best image for performance. When I say properly it means secure, but also level. Take the time to ensure the diopter adjustment is properly set to ensure the reticle is in sharp focus. Most LPVO’s do not have adjustable parallax. They are typically fixed at a set distance. The diopter adjustment basically focuses your eye to the reticle. If you scope has a diopter locking ring, make sure it is secure and if not consider using a witness line. This is a very common mistake for newer shooters; using a blurry sight picture because the diopter is out of focus.

Read The Users Manual

Once you have the scope properly installed you next need to learn how to use it and that means being familiar with all the features. The most common features in an LPVO are magnification, illumination, reticle turrets and the reticle. There may be a few other features, but these are the big ones, so break out the user manual and study. The magnification and illumination are the easiest to learn. They are often marked on the scope itself. Know how your power ring works and if it has a device for rapidly adjusting magnification. Those can be a knob, fin or an extrusion from the scope itself. You will want to get in the practice of always resting your magnification to 1x. Make this a habit, so if you ever have to snap a shot at close range you are not fighting your magnification. Depending on your situation, I recommend leaving the illumination set to a day time view for the same reason. Where things get really complicated is learning your scope turrets and reticle.

Pay Close Attention To The Turrets

When it comes to scope turrets, you will either have capped or exposed. Don’t get wrapped up in which is better, know how to use which ever you have. The one benefit to a capped turret is not worrying about the settings. With capped turrets they cannot accidentally be turned throwing off your scope settings. The bad news, if you want to make adjustments quickly you still have to remove the caps. It is not often you have to do this and for an urban rifle the possibly is infantile. You will really see this when learning your scope on the firing line and dealing with wind. While you will use holds for the majority of engagements, you may find yourself dialing in for some specific situations such as shooting in high winds. It is much easier to eliminate one variable such as your elevation and focus on making the best wind calls. You do want to know the unit of measurement for your scope. Are you using a MIL, MOA or BDC based scope.

What Type of Reticle Is Best

What type of reticle should you go with

Referencing MIL, MOA or BDC is related to the type of reticle. There was a time when I only shot BDC scopes. They were the best in that setting, but things changed. Better ammunition that differed from the BDC rendering it less effective. BDC stands for bullet drop compensator. As the bullet travels in flight, gravity is pulling it to the ground. To hit targets at distance we aim high, how high depends on many factors. The BDC scope eliminated the need to do math and know most of the factors. All you had to know was the distance to the target. Great if you are shooing on a known distance range, not so much in the real world. Now a days, MOA is seeing less and less popularity. If you are using a MOA scope you are not at a disadvantage, but you will have to work a tad harder. MIL version reticles are the most popular and for good reason, they are easier to use. I know easier is subjective, but I find them to be easier these days and I have a lot of hours under my belt with MOA scopes. The big thing here is knowing the unit of measurement. Are you running a 0.1 or 0.2 MIL scope or do you have a ½ or ¼ MOA scope. This references what I call the corrective value. Part of your formula for making corrections. Yes, the smaller measures will be more precise, but they will also be more expensive. Again, as a LPVO do you really need the ultra precise. Only you will know the answer.

Traditional Vs. Technical Reticles

The last and probably the most important thing to consider is your reticle. There are so many, but the new crop of technical reticles are awesome. Think of a technical reticle as a Christmas tree like pattern below your crosshairs. Traditional crosshairs are minimalist. Usually having subtends for holding elevation and windage only. While these are very valuable, they also get really challenging fast. If you have no reason to shoot past 500 yards then maybe you can stay with a traditional crosshair type reticle. If you are going beyond 500, then they are almost required. Even still, the technical reticle excels at close ranges. For me, the biggest advantage to a technical reticle is wind. If I’m at a distance different from my zero, then I will be holding. Add wind and now I’m holding for elevation and wind. With a traditional crosshair scope I’m literally holding in space, using a guess to be as precise as possible. With the technical reticle, I scroll down to the proper hold for elevation, then scroll over to the proper hold for wind and I have a precise aiming point. I’ve made shots out to 1,000 yards using this method and the only reason was because of the technical reticle.

At the end of the day, choosing a scope is a challenge. You first want to identify your budget. how much are you willing to spend. Then, decide on the features such as first or second focal plane. How much magnification I want. The type of measurement and how precise I need along with capped or uncapped turrets. Traditional crosshairs or the newer technical reticles that will most likely be illuminated. All this in the smallest and lightest package possible. You are probably seeing the challenge, but I promise you it will be worth the effort when you push out side normal close ranges. A rifleman is someone who can willfully and repeatedly place a projectile where they want. This includes the mid ranges, what I consider to be 0-500 yards.

Preparing For A Mid Range Rifle Class

There is no mistaking my love for rifles, all things rifles. I started pushing the standard issue M4/AR15 out at distance way back in the day. It was important I learn how to exploit distance to my advantage, being able to reach out and touch people. It didn’t take long to figure out I would need to adapt my gear to better exploit this capability. Relying on gear alone is a mistake, fundamental skills become even more important as we extend the ranges. The dirty little secret folks don’t discuss has to do with weight. The heavier the rifle, the harder it will be able to hit at distance when not in a prone position. So, the goal becomes finding a balance between your mission and your ability.

Choosing The Rifle

A good rifle is your first step

It all starts with the rifle and we are not talking about a high end match grade rifle. We are talking your general purpose rifle from a reputable manufacture that values, reliability first, accuracy second. These rifles will be more than adequate. It is easy to pursue extreme capabilities from your gear, but they move you out of a generalist and into a specialist. Our goal is to stay within the realm of being a generalist and do it better. I get asked the question all the time, how accurate should my rifle be when looking at distance. It makes sense to consider the capability of the rifle, but it’s your ability that matters. If you have a rifle capable of 2MOA that to me is plenty good. Theoretically you would see a 10″ group spread at 500 yards; which is probably the extreme distance for a GP rifle. What really matters is the barrel length and weight. I recommend 14.5″ with permanently attached flash hider or 16″ at a minimum. Rifle weight naked should be around the 5.5lb mark.

Aftermarket Additions to Consider

Things you can do to accurize the rifle begin with the trigger. Investing in a good aftermarket two stage trigger that allows for precision at distance and performance at close range. Hands down, this is the most important thing you can do to the rifle. Ammunition and optics come later. The next piece of gear is an adjustable sling, usually a two point design. These slings allow for improvised support position when stability is necessary, but traditional support unavailable. They can also be used to improve stable shooting positions and important for any rifle use in general. I go back and forth with a quick detach lightweight bi-pod. On my standard issue AR15 I carried one and it was great, but it added weight. So, for all the traditional roles, I was carrying extra weight. When I needed it though, it was awesome! For all your prone zeroing and range familiarizations I recommend them. Lastly, a smaller capacity magazine. I know this seems counter-intuitive, but it is helpful for when zeroing since it allows you to get a lower prone position.

The Optic, Dot or Scope

Tough choices, define your mission

The second most asked question has to do with optics or scopes. This is your training so use what you feel comfortable with or can afford. We’ve had people come through this class with both red dot sights (RDS) and low powered variable optics (LPVO). They discover the limitations in each and either work within them or move to another option as a result. The bottom line, define your mission. If this is a general purpose rifle designed to fulfill multiple roles then consider both of these options and realize they each have pro’s & con’s. From an entry level point, RDS will be cheaper and lighter. The biggest con is as distance increases their performance decreases. We see performance drop off around the 300yd. line. That is not to say a good rifleman cannot get the job done further, it means it is harder. If you are going to go down the RDS road get the smallest dot available, usually around 2MOA. Consider adding a magnifier, while not the same as an LPVO it really gives you options. I love magnifiers and at times will use them as a monocular if not on my rifle. With a 3x magnifier, you have the possibility of extending the range to maybe the 500yd. On the flip side, a good LPVO is going to cost you. Generally, starting at about twice as much as an RDS.

Closer Look at LPVO’s

I could spend hours talking about LPVO’s, but here are some simple tips. First, figure out how much you are willing to spend. I mean, really figure out your budget. Most top end manufactures will make something starting out at the $1,000-1,500 range. From there, you are off to the races. The more premium the features, the higher the cost. Should you go with a first or second focal plane? I suggest first focal plane for this mission. Realize though going with a first focal plane will generally be more costly. I have both, but prefer first focal plane for this mission, particularly with the need to be fast at close range. I suggest a technical reticle if available, but an improved duplex reticle will get the job done. The most important thing to remember is learn your reticule, understand how to use all the features. With the popularity of scopes in Milliradian or Minute of Angle it would seem hard to choose, but Mil scopes are increasing in popularity. My only recommendation is to ensure your reticle and turrets are the same. Meaning, avoid a scope with a MOA reticle and Mil turrets. Trust me, you don’t want to do any extra math. Because we need this LPVO to do work at close range you need to strongly consider how good the red dot feature is of the make/model. Let’s face it, the likelihood you will be legally and morally justified in taking a shot greater than 100yds. is all but wishful thinking. But, using the rifle inside the 25yd. is way more likely. Using the red dot as your primary, then dialing in magnification is more the norm. Both the size of the dot and brightness need to be considered. Realize, it will do a good job, but at the end of the day it is not a RDS. While training can help close the gap, the gap will still exist. The real question is how much magnification. Again, this is tied to dollars and ounces. The more magnification, the more expensive. The more magnification the heavier the scope. There is a new breed of 1×8’s that are doing great and pretty light compared to other comparable options. I consider length a close third, but I’m flexible with this feature. There are other features to consider and probably the biggest is do you go with capped or exposed turrets. Given the mission of this scope it is far more likely you will be using holds to engage targets at distance and unknown ranges. But, dialing up will still be more precise so it really depends on your preference. I do recommend some type of zero stop. Throw levers are another nice feature to aide in adjusting magnification. Lastly is how precise the corrections. Again, this is tied to dollars so the more precise, the pricer the optic. At a minimum I would go with 0.2mil or ½MOA.

Feeding Your Rifle

Ammunition is another subject we could spend hours discussing. The hard part is finding good ammunition in sufficient quantities. In our classes, you can expect to shoot somewhere between 500-750 depending on your skill. On rare occasions we get close to 1,000 rounds. The biggest consideration is bullet weight when attempting to reach further ranges. I prefer the 77gr. projectiles for the simple fact they do better in high wind conditions. Not to mention they appear to have really nice terminal performance. I don’t much care what brand you go with, but if you are going with a 77gr. projectile it will probably be of some open tip match type or OTM. Trust me, selecting a high quality round will make a huge difference. I occasionally get asked if we allow other calibers than 5.56mm. The answer is of course as long as it will not damage our steel targets we are game. I’ve seen 5.56mm, 6.8SPC, 7.62x39mm (poorest performer) and 7.62x51mm. If I was being honest, the 6.8SPC has done the best, but the cost and availability are the wild card. Whatever round you choose to go with consider purchasing twice the round count. This will give you plenty of ammunition for the class, then plenty for your continued professional development. Along with having a decent chance being close if not part of the same lot. You don’t have to shoot these high dollar rounds for the entire class. You can bring FMJ ammunition, but just realize you will be staring out behind the power curve. I suggest at a minimum 50% of the OTM type, then the remaining of the FMJ type. This will ensure you have plenty of OTM ammunition to zero and familiarize at the different known ranges. Then use the FMJ for all close in work where precision is less of an issue. One thing I strongly suggest is knowing the muzzle velocity for your rifle with the preferred ammunition. While manufactures will provide the tested muzzle velocity it is unlikely it will match your rifle, the most obvious being barrel length. There are some decent online references to help narrow it down. In a pinch, you can use as a rough estimate of a 25fps decrease of for every inch decrease in barrel length. The last thing to consider if you bring different ammunition is the shift in point of impact. Know where each projectile will impact at certain distances. If you use FMJ for the close range drills be familiar with the shift in point of impact. They can be marginal and depending on the target demand have little impact.

Math is Hard, Calculators Help

While not mandatory, a ballistic calculator or application is strongly suggested. There are a couple of good ones and I’ve been using iSnipe for over a decade. What these apps allow you to do is develop a more precise understanding of your rifle’s characteristics with all the variable you will face. Being able to exploit the information to better understand your maximum point blank range is integral part of being a rifleman. Because we are looking at a 300yd. and in learning your holds is important. Luckily they are not too extreme and a good technical reticle will be hugely valuable. If any variable changes you can see how severe the change will affect your ballistics. Whenever I travel to a new location the first thing I do is input the conditions to see how much it affects my zero. With my rifle zeroed and confirmed at home I can get insight into how the new conditions will affect my performance. In particular is the maximum point blank range. I’ve learned that some locations have had little impact on my PBR, while others I had to re-zero to ensure the best performance.

As you get ready for the upcoming class or just want to better exploit your rifle consider the information outlined in this article. It all starts with a reliable and accurate rifle. A 2MOA capability is plenty, it will always rest with the shooter’s marksmanship. From there consider aftermarket accessories to improve precision such as drop in triggers and good slings. Decide whether to use a RDS or LPVO and which ever one you use opt for the smallest dot for day time or close range shooting. If you are going to invest in an LPVO make sure you understand all the features available and make sure they meet your needs so you are not paying for something you don’t need. Ammunition will be your next biggest investment and invest you should. Go with the heavier bullets of an open tip match design. Then purchase as much as you can afford. Keep the surplus in a cool dry place and confirm your zero every chance you get. Start playing with ballistic calculators to become more familiar with ambient conditions that can adversely affect your performance. At the end of the day, shooting at distance is costly. I find being able to hit at extended distances a huge asset and I’m willing to pay the toll. Hopefully you will find the same satisfaction I feel when pushing myself and gear to the extreme.

Trident Concepts
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