Red Dots + Magnifier vs LPVO

I’m very excited to finally be writing this! This is something I’ve been thinking about for well over a year now, and been actively working toward for months.

First, a little background…

Back in Feb of 2019, Ozone and I went to Utah to participate in Desert Brutality 2019. I’ve written about it extensively and is the biggest shooting competition I’ve attended. I learned a lot of stuff, but the lesson that took me by complete surprise was one in optics. I drove into Utah thinking that the LPVO was the end-all, be-all of gun glass. I even bought a 1-6x scope to compete with (review here). I left Utah wondering if I was wrong about LPVOs.

So, last summer I and Ozone ran a few times trials using my 1-6x scope and a red dot. I wrote about our findings here. It wasn’t a perfect test and left me with some conclusions but still more questions. Since I was running a red dot vs an LPVO, a magnified optic against a non-magnified optic, it was not an apples-to-apples comparison. The obvious solution was to add a magnifier in front of the red dot, but I didn’t have one. And I’m constantly on a tight budget, which just makes everything hard.

This is where I have to take a moment to thank Athlon Optics. I got hooked up with them through my friend Ilya of Optics Thoughts (the optics guru I featured a few weeks ago). When Athlon heard what I wanted to do and saw my previous testing, they sent me a magnifier to use. I cannot overstate how much Athlon has helped me out with this. The guys at Athlon make a solid product, at a great rice, and are genuinely good people. Having had multiple products of theirs, and conversations with them, I can confidently say that they punch way above their price range. If you are value minded like I am, or want to buy more than just a name, Athlon should be where you start. They have really impressed me in a lot of ways. I was given a product for testing, but I was not instructed in what to do with it or what to say about it.

Why?

Honestly, this is a good question. The whole AR world seems to be enamored with LPVOs, and for good reason. The combination of a 1x scope with a intermediate power like 4x or 6x is very appealing. It allows a person to absolutely dominate everything from the end of the muzzle to 500-600 yards out, only depending upon the shooter’s ammo and skill. At least, in theory. This isn’t in question once you start increasing the magnification, but what about at 1x? The current thinking is that a decent LPVO is every bit as good as a red dot, with proper training. But is that truly the case?

My squad’s rifles at Desert brutality. Notice that there are three red dots visible, one of which is paired with a magnifier.

The red dot came to it’s position of short range dominance because it was so easy to use up close and fast. The red dot has no eye box, no exit pupil to worry about, no parallax inside the edges of the glass, basically the epitome of a short range optic. Even the best LPVOs have a less forgiving eyebox than even the cheapest of red dots. So, can a scope really be as usable up-close as a red dot? That’s what we’re here to find out.

The other part of the equation is the distance aspect. LPVOs’ top end of 4x, 6x, 8x, and sometimes even 10x, make them a hands-down winner compared to the always-1x red dot. Except that red dots figured out the answer to this problem long before LPVOs even came to the market: the magnifier. Basically a fixed power scope, usually 3x, in a flip to side mount. This setup allows the shooter to use the red dot fast and loose like normal, but also add magnification whenever the shooter wishes. The issue with magnifiers is that the sight picture is a normal red dot, meaning it is the same 2MOA or even 4 MOA used for up close, hardly a precision optic. The LPVO, in contrast, is still a scope. Fine reticles run in their DNA, and performance at higher magnifications is where they came from.

So, which is better? That’s what we’re here to find out.

The Equipment

The Optics

The first optic is a red dot and magnifier combo. The red dot is a standard 30mm tube style Holosun. I don’t know if the more modern micro and pistol-sized dots would have an effect, or if they did what it would be or why. The magnifier is the 3x magnifier from Athlon, model MG31 with flip-to-side mount (review upcoming).

This is the red dot + magnifier, though not the rifle used in testing.

The other optic is a Trijicon Accupower 1-4x24mm. This was purchased by Ozone a few months ago at full price, and is his personally owned optic. The magnification adjustment on the Accupower is a standard magnification ring. I found it to be very similar in function to my previously owned Athlon Midas 1-6x. One thing that worked out in our favor is the 4x top end of the Trijicon. Having a top end of 4x puts it very close to the magnifier’s 3x. I feel that a 6x or greater top end would unfairly disadvantage the scope in the kinds of tests we ran it through.

Ozone shooting the 2-2-2 drill using his Trijicon 1-4x

I don’t want this to be a test of this specific red dot or magnifier or scope. I want this to be a comparison of systems, of theories of optics. I feel that these are good representatives of their type. There will always be differences between different examples within a type, but I believe the differences between examples to be dwarfed by the differences between systems. In layman’s terms, two scopes may be fairly different, but they act very similar when compared to a dot + magnifier combo, and vice versa.

The Rifle

A standard, right-handed AR rifle. 16″ barrel, pencil profile, muzzle brake, mid-length gas system, M-LOK handguard. Pretty standard, and very capable. It follows the Everyday Marksman’s Minimum Capable Carbine concept pretty closely. One thing I picked up from the rifle itself is just how nice a pencil profile barrel is. That gun was light, handy, and a pleasure to shoot. Having a nice gun as a testbed makes teasing out the nuances of things like optics types easier.

The Test

I wanted an aples-to-apples comparison between a red dot + magnifier & an LPVO. But more than that, I wanted to see how they stack up in contests of speed and precision. Since that’s what the whole point of both of these systems is: Speed up close combined with precision at distance. Ozone and I determined that the following three drills would give us data related to the central question: “Which is a better combo of speed and accuracy?”. We determined that the 2-2-2, the 1-Reload-1, and what I’m calling the Near-Far drill, gave us the most useful data. I’ve tabulated the raw times with penalties, the averages, and the difference in averages.

Procedure

The goal was to have an unbiased, objective comparison of optical systems. To keep variables to a minimum, we used only one rifle. We ran a drill with one shooter, swapped shooters, and ran it again. We did that with all three drills using the LPVO (it was already zeroed). We then swapped to the red dot + mag combo, re-zeroed, and repeated the process. I believe that it was as objective as one could get in an afternoon.

The target for all drills was a either a steel target about 18 inches in diameter, or paper with bullseyes stuck to them. The scoring system is that a hit was a hit, and a miss was a +1 second penalty. For clarity, the raw time is in parentheses, following the penalized time. A 3.08 second run with a single miss would be written as “4.08 (3.08)”.

Drill 1: 2-2-2

The “2-2-2” drill is a round-reduced “VTAC 1-5”. The shooter has 3 targets in front of them, equally spaced. You engage the left target once, the middle target once, the right target twice, the middle target once more, and the left target once with the final round. We used paper targets for this one, counting bullet holes between runs.

The Dot + Mag combo was set up with the magnifier flipped out of the way for the entire run. The LPVO stayed on 1x power.

The 2-2-2 only uses 6 rounds per run instead of the original’s 15 rounds. Running it 12 times really racks up the round count, and the cost of testing. The reduced round count version still has the same four target transitions, which is why we decided on running it. Here are the times.

Red Dot + MagnifierLPVODifference
S_S6.49 (5.49)8.52 (6.52)
6.40 (5.40)6.78
7.92 (5.92)5.95
*average*6.947.080.15 (2%)
Ozone7.107.89
6.326.95
6.157.14
*average*6.527.330.80 (11%)
2-2-2 Times

The Dot + Magnifier came out faster in this drill, even after you add in the penalties. I had +2 seconds more penalties on my dot + mag times than with the LPVO yet the dot + mag still came out faster. Ozone had no penalties one any of his six runs, and his time averages have a more substantial difference to show for it.

1-Reload-1

Classic reload drill. Start in front of a single target, we were about 25 yards away. Shoot one round, swap mags, shoot one more round. We reloaded on a forward bolt every run.

The Dot + Mag combo was set up with the magnifier flipped out of the way for the entire run. The LPVO stayed on 1x power.

The 1-R-1 drill can be used to test and improve a shooter’s reloading skill, but we used it to test how quickly and easily a person can mount the gun correctly behind the optic. Having to mount it from a low ready isn’t that hard, but completely breaking down your position (for the reload) and then completely remounting the gun on the clock should show which optic style is more forgiving in terms of eyebox, eye alignment, and general usability.

non-ambi ARs suck.
Red Dot + MagnifierLPVO Difference
S_S5.806.01
6.357.58
6.195.61
*average*6.116.400.29 (5%)
Ozone4.895.89
4.746.04
5.105.89
*average*4.915.941.03 (17%)
1-R-1 Times

Once again, the red dot + magnifier came out ahead. Interestingly, this time all twelve runs were without penalty. I guess remounting the gun is easier than transitioning between targets? That’s a question for another day.

Excuse Cone

Ozone’s times show a clear preference for the dot + mag combo over the LPVO. My times show the same preference, but to a much lesser degree. My times are also noticeably longer than Ozone’s. I would like to attribute both things to the fact that I was running Ozone’s AR. My rifle is set up as an ambi with left hand bias, whereas Ozone’s is a standard right hand only affair. I think my times would have been better with my personal rifle, but I think the trends we see here would be the same, if not more pronounced.

Near-Far

This drill is all about changing magnification quickly. Two targets with between 60 and 110 degrees of rotation between them, one 3 yards away and the other around 50 yards away. Start by mounting the gun and shooting one round at the near target. Transition and engage the far target.

The gun starts at 1x. Crank the magnification ring, or flip the magnifier, between targets.

This is a drill that I created. I highly doubt that no one has done something like it before, but until I know what that person calls it, I will refer to it as the Near-Far.

Just to see what would happen, Ozone and I decided to run this drill once each while remaining on 1x.

Red Dot + magnifierLPVODifference
S_S4.556.34
4.334.87
3.645.82
*average*4.175.681.50 (26%)
*no mag*3.864.77.91 (19%)
Ozone4.234.36
4.154.26
4.244.23
*average*4.214.280.08 (2%)
*no mag*3.983.59-0.39 (-11%)
Near-Far Times

So, there’s a few things to unpack here.

First, red dot + mag beat LPVO again. Also, no penalties incurred during all twelve runs. Even Ozone showed better times using the magnifier, though my time differences were more pronounced. I attribute this to his familiarity with his scope. Looking at how close all his runs are seems to bear this out.

Second, is the fact that not increasing magnification made us both much faster is concerning too. I’ll get into this at the end, as it goes beyond the scope of this single drill.

Conclusion

After all of that, what have I determined was the outcome? I think that a red dot + magnifier is faster. Hardly a mind blowing result, but important none the less. I think that having Ozone there to also test with me lends a lot of validity to the results. He owns and regularly practices with the LPVO, so him scoring faster times with the dot + magnifier is not a matter of simply being more familiar with the equipment. I have also spent a decent amount of time practicing with an LPVO, so I wasn’t unfamiliar with them, either. So, two shooters who are familiar with LPVOs still scored faster hits using a dot + magnifier? That’s significant.

The only time that the LPVO scored a faster time than the magnifier was on the near-far drill, but on the run with no magnification. That run was also faster than using magnification, both with the magnifier and the scope. I don’t know if that’s because turning up the magnification ring/flipping the magnifier takes a long time, or because the magnification means more time to over-confirm the sight picture (something that I definitely do), but it is interesting.

I still believe that LPVOs are better for more accuracy-focussed work. The low range of magnification range is 4x, and is currently topping out at 10x. Most magnifiers are 3x, with a few hitting 6x. An LPVO has fewer lenses that the incoming light has to pass through before hitting the shooter’s eye, compared to all the lenses in a red dot and magnifier. The adjustments on the red dot are also courser, as is the reticle itself.

The one thing I do know for sure is that anything within 50 yards can receive combat-effective hits from a rifle without magnified optics on it. This becomes troublesome to urban rifle owners like me. I don’t see a justifiable deadly force usage beyond 50 yards in my life. If I’m never going to need to shoot at a distance that I can’t hit with just a red dot, is the magnifier just wasted weight? Probably not. Threat ID is still extremely important in civilian settings, and the whole ‘rioting’ thing kinda makes longer range deadly force encounters more likely than ever. That’s before you consider the applications in shooting competitions and the fact they they just look cool.

What to do with this information

Both LPVOs and red dot + magnifier combos are good compromises for speed and accuracy, so which one should you choose? It all depends on hat you want to do. If you see your rifle being used in a faster, less accuracy-dependant situation, grab a red dot and maybe add a magnifier. If you think that you’re going to need a little more accuracy and can afford a little less speed, an LPVO is probably the better option. You, the shooter, will have to make that determination for yourself.

And once again, Athlon Optics made this entire thing possible. They have a great line up of optics at affordable prices, and you can check out their website here. They did not pay me to write about them, nor did they ask me to compensate them in any way for the magnifier, just that I review it for this website. Which you will see soon.

Keep your eyes open, and I’ll see you next Friday. -S_S

8 thoughts on “Red Dots + Magnifier vs LPVO

  1. This is very interesting to me. I have run into the same debate you talk about, that is, do I really need anything beyond a red dot on my carbines? Overwhelmingly, the answer for my life is no. I used a LVPO in a couple of classes and was very happy with how it worked, but it is bulky, heavy, and more complex. The last class I again just used a red dot. I think my next purchase will be an Aimpoint PRO with a 2 MOA dot as opposed to the legacy 4 MOA dot red dots that I have now. However, the one factor that is really pushing me toward the LVPO end of the spectrum is my continually deteriorating eyesight. I’ve had a blog post in drafts for the better part of two years now dealing with zeroing distance with irons and non-magnified optics due to the limitations of my vision. Perhaps I need to explore using a magnifier with my RDS. Good stuff!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. I’d highly recommend a magnifier if the dot works for you most of the time. If your eyesight makes the dot perpetually blurry, then might I instead suggest a low power prism? Trijicon makes an interesting 1.5x ACOG, though I’m sure there are more affordable competing options.

      The weight of an LPVO can’t be overlooked or just written off.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. A good holo like the EXPS3-0 will be faster than an RDS as well, it also will noy suffer the dot amplification and subsequent MOA increase that a magnified rds will. Curious to hear your thoughts on the ALPHA TARAC, would seem to me it could be an lpvo killer.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Or you could just go with the best of both and toss a micro red dot on the top of the scope or mount one on a 45deg mount next to the scope. Leave the scope at 4x and learn to use them both together. Its a very fast combo with a very small weight penalty if you use a micro red dot.

    That said, for home defense I use a red dot on a very short carbine. I could be convinced that magnification could be useful in a trunk gun in the insanely low probability of stumbling onto an active shooter scenario. But thats about it. Shooting at rioters is just a ticket to prison. If your worried about rioters do yourself a favor and move somewhere that doesn’t suck. People don’t riot in rural areas or “rural-ish” suburbs. If the home doesn’t have a driveway thats your first clue that its to urban, and if the listing talks about the places you can walk to, its too urban, and if its closer than 20 mins to a major city center, its too urban.

    Like

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