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What is the Best Optic for a Carbine?

In today’s market of increasing technology and plethora of options, I find myself still asking, “What is the best optic for a carbine?”. And while we all know someone that claims to be able to hit a mosquito with iron sights at 1000 yards, this article specifically deals with optics.

Obviously, the mission dictates the gear, and if you have the budget of Navy Seals then you can switch optics and weapon platforms as necessary. But what about the everyman? The person who wants to buy a quality optic, but only has the budget to make one purchase for a carbine that will be used as an all-around tool?

Unfortunately, I don’t plan to singularly answer that question, as my input would be subjective at best. I would however like to lay out some viable options and discuss their pros and cons, wherein you can make the best selection for your mission.

Let’s start by discussing the qualities that I think affect the choice in optics the most. These include: Weight, Rail Space/Length, Complexity, Use of Batteries, Magnification and Quality.

• It should almost go without saying that weight is a key factor. The more unwieldy something is, the less comfortable you will be with the weapon system and subsequently less accurate and effective. In general, optics are located closer to the midpoint of the firearm. So, it is important to note that as weight increases, the speed at which the rifle can be transitioned between multiple targets will possibly decrease. Additionally, the weight must be carried, whether sprinting to an engagement or stage position, hiking for long distances, or holding the weapon in a ready position for prolonged periods of time; Weight will increase physical exertion and stress.

• The length of the optic, or rail space it takes may not be a factor to some, but how many accessories are you planning to add? As an example, on a short barrel rifle (SBR) with a Low Power Variable Optic (LPVO) or scope, rail space becomes prime real estate when you’re trying to add flashlights, pressure switches, infrared lasers, front sights, etc. If you have a full-length rail or aren’t planning on adding more than a light, then rail space is not as paramount.

• How complex is the optic? Red dots are very simple, and many can even be left on indefinitely with long battery life, while LPVO’s and scopes must have the magnification adjusted and any type of illuminated reticle actively turned on. If you forget to return the LPVO to 1X magnification and you need quick site acquisition, that error may cost precious seconds. Adding magnifiers to red dots may be a solution, but again you are adding mechanical devices that require dexterity and have the potential to malfunction or get snagged on gear or objects in the environment. This is not to say that they should not be considered, but noting that the more complex a system is, the more you need to train to be proficient, and ensure your optic is in a well maintained condition.

• Another form of complexity is the use of batteries. Red dots and holographic sights are phenomenal for quick target acquisition, but they rely on power. I have seen and heard many cases where someone went to use their red dot and found that they either forgot to turn it on, or the batteries had died. Most scopes and LPVO’s have etched reticles that do not require power for standard operation, but for nighttime usage may require batteries to illuminate the reticle. There are some red dots and scopes that utilize solar power and/or tritium to power the optic.

• Magnification can be very useful for identifying a threat, surveillance, ranging, longer distance shots, and even sighting in the rifle more precisely. Is that to say that 300+ yard effective hits can’t be made with red dots? Absolutely, not! But having magnification certainly can make that easier and with more certainty of what you are shooting at. However, magnification can be a hinderance for quick acquisition and close proximity shooting.

• Lastly, the Quality of the optic is critically important. If you can’t see your target, or if the optic continually loses zero, or breaks easily, then you will be unable to make effective hits on target. A common phrase in the optics world is to “buy once, cry once” when it comes to quality, however Quality doesn’t always mean the most expensive. You need something that can take a beating and keep providing a solid sighting solution.

With these qualities in mind, let’s look at some optic options and their mission. Please keep in mind this is not an exhaustive list, but I’ve generalized and removed specialty optics.

1. The LPVO or Low Powered Variable Optic is a scope based system that usually has a magnification range of 1 to 4,6,8, or 10. It is meant as an all-around optic system that can act similar to a red dot on 1x magnification, and is a scope at higher magnifications.


- “Do it all” optic

- Batteries not required for most (except night/dark usage)

- Magnification of up to 10x


- Weight- These are usually on the heavier side for quality optics.

- Size- Most LPVOs are 10 inches and longer

- Need to remember what magnification setting you’re on

- Usually can’t co-witness with backup sights (although generally not needed)

- There is an eye box due to the nature of LPVOs being a scope

2. The Red Dot or Holographic Sights are generally small battery operated 1x magnification optics that are either a singular dot, or a variance of a circular reticle for generic hold-overs for various distances. They are excellent for fast shooting with a wide field of view, and if sighted in correctly, are still capable of providing combat effective hits at moderate distances.


- Weight- Red dots are generally exceptionally light

- Size- Red dots take up very minimal rail space and have a small form factor

- Many red dots can be left on for a long period of time

- Great for quick target acquisition


- Batteries usually required. If power dies, no point of reference for aiming without backup sights

- No magnification

- Not generally great for precision shots

3. Magnifier for red dots.


- Adds between 3X and 6X magnification

- Allows for magnification on demand


- Mechanical device that could potentially malfunction or break

- Usually hangs off to the side creating a snag potential or breakage

- Very tight eye box

- Weight begins to get close to LPVO

- Cost: Effectively buying two items

4. Scope/ACOG. A rifle scope is a tubed optic with glass panes that magnify the image of a target. They often have adjustable turrets for more precise shooting and can be used for Designated Marksman usage or distance target shooting matches.

An ACOG is a scope, however it is a fixed 4x magnification with capped turrets. They are extremely well known for their documented usage by the military in the wars in the Middle East.


- Magnification for distance shots or target identification

- ACOGs are short and light weight

- ACOG’s are fixed magnification requiring no mechanical systems

- Scopes and ACOG’s have reticles for more accurate shots

- The reticles have either mil-dots or bullet drop compensator (BDC) tick marks

- Etched (and sometimes tritium) reticles that do not require batteries


- Scopes can be heavier due to the weight of the glass

- Scopes are very long, requiring a lot of rail space

- Scopes are generally not for close/quick shots

- Eye relief and eye box constraints

5. Scope plus red dot. Adding a reflex red dot sight to a rifle scope is a hybrid compromise to get the magnification and precision of a scoped optic, with the quick reflex acquisition of a red dot. The two most common mounting options are attached above the scope, or on an angled mount from the rifle upper receiver.


- Allows for both magnified and reflex shooting

- In conjunction with an ACOG, it can still be a lightweight compact solution.

- Allows for two different sighting distances

- Do not have to remove hands from weapon or adjust settings to change optics


- Cost: This is effectively buying two optics

- Must get used to two aiming points

Hopefully this analysis has helped you make a decision or aid you in that process. As with most anything, usage and action under pressure is dictated by training. No matter what option you choose, it is imperative that you practice and train with your system under multiple forms of stress to include time constraints, inclement weather, unusual shooting positions, and low light.

Determine what your realistic mission is for your carbine and try to analyze what typical distances you will be shooting at, how much weight you’re willing to carry in conjunction with your other gear, the complexity you can deal with under stress, if you’ll need specialty batteries, and your budget so that you can get a quality solution. From there, you can make a selection that will best suit your needs.

Stay Safe, Stay Smart, and Stay Tactical My Friends.

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