With the most popular rifle in the United States, pushing over 50 years old, optics are the future of firearms. While what we shoot might have plateaued, how we aim is in a golden age of advancement. From red dots to scopes, magnifiers to holographic, we’ve got the best of the best AR 15 scopes, and our top recommendations are ready for your consideration!
How To Choose The Right Optic For You
There are many things to consider when it comes to picking the best optic for your needs. But the first and most important item to look at is your wallet.
Optics are something I strongly recommend you don’t go cheap on if you can help it. If cheap is all you can swing, knowing that will help can get you the best bang for your buck.
If you can throw down mid-triple to low-quad digits down on your optic, you’ll be rewarded with something that is durable, accurate, and makes your life a lot easier when shooting. But that doesn’t mean you must spend that kind of money. Don’t be fooled by the $30 red dots on Amazon, the least expensive red dot that I would trust my life to is about $100.
After that, match the optic with the length of the ranges you’ll be shooting.
- Sub-100 yards only? Red dot
- 100-250 yards, red dot, and magnifier or maybe an LPVO
- 150-400 yards, LPVO
- Hunting 50-500 yards, dedicated hunting scope or an LPVO
- 400+, a dedicated long range precision scope
These aren’t rules, but more like guidelines. The idea is to match the glass quality, reticle, and magnification with how far and precise you’ll be shooting.
Once you have these two things in mind — the rest is up to your sense of style and how you like to shoot.
If you want to zoom in real close, get something with a lot of magnification. If you want to see everything around you, go with minimum magnification.
Carry your rifle a lot? Get something lightweight.
Benchrest shooting? Heavy is good. Heavy is reliable.
Now that you’ve armed yourself with these ideas, let’s proceed!
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Best AR-15 Red Dots
Red dots and holographic sights are perfect for short-range applications. These sights are designed for speed above all else, but a good one will also allow you to be precise.
These are also excellent “do-all” sights.
If you’re not sure what to get or are new to the platform, defaulting to a red dot/holographic sight keeps your options open down the road while also giving you something to train with, work with, and defend yourself with.
For years the TRS-25 was the cheapest possible but still good enough red dot on the market, but not too long ago, Bushnell came out with the spiritual successor — the Bushnell TRS-26.
Better in every way over the old TRS-25, the TRS-26 has a 26mm optic window that gives you a lot more area to look through and find your target.
Easy to replace top-loaded batteries, over 30,000-hour life, and a shockingly durable housing — the TRS-26 is a lot of optic for the price.
I’ve drop-tested mine, abused it, and run several thousand rounds of ammo under it, and it’s come out with flying colors. The only downside is that the blue/green tint to the glass is a bit stronger than some other budget red dots. This tint comes from the coating on the glass that helps extend battery life. It’s a good thing, but some shooters can’t handle it existing.
I highly recommend this as a budget option red dot. And yes, I would trust my life to one.
Another in the budget tier of red dots, the Sig Sauer Romeo 5 was the first outstanding and cheap red dot on the market. 40k hour battery life, durable construction, and easy-to-use buttons — it’s outstanding for the price.
Something that helps it stand out from the pack is Sig Sauer’s “Motac” feature. It’s an auto-off feature when the optic hasn’t moved in a long time.
However, it turns on instantly when you move it — and I mean instantly. It’s a reliable feature that saves a lot of battery life.
Though it’s rare to see even on expensive red dots, the Romeo 5 also comes with an IP rating of IPX7. IP ratings are ratings given by independent labs that test a product using a set method as laid out by the IEC/EN 60529. This standard was developed by the International Electrotechnical Commission and is widely used in every industry, worldwide.
IPX7 means the Romeo 5 was not tested for dust but tested and passed up to the 7th rating for water ingress protection.
In other words, the Romeo 5 is protected against 30 minutes of submersion at a depth of 1 meter.
That’s impressive for a budget red dot. If you want a lot more info, take a look at our hands-on review of the Romeo 5!
I am a huge fan of the Holosun 510C. The base model is a red dot with a 2 MOA center dot and a 65 MOA outer ring. This brilliant design gives you precision with the small dot, but a quick-to-find and easy to get on target gross aiming point with the 65 MOA ring.
Plus, the window is HUGE.
My 510Cs are the HE510C-GR models. Mine has a Titanium housing and green dots instead of red. Green vs red dots are an interesting topic, but the short version is that the human eye sees MORE shades of green than red. Therefore, it’s faster and easier to pick up a green reticle than red. However, green takes a lot more power, so it’s more difficult on the battery life of most optics.
Holosun is one of the few brands that offer green dot optics with the same battery life rating as their red dot optics. That requires significantly higher quality electronics.,One thing that comes up with the 510C is that it is an “open emitter” design, meaning the LED that projects the reticle is open to the elements.
Some people believe this design can block the emitter from water or mud, or dust. While that is technically true, I’ve never had it happen. I’ve run my 510C hard in the rain, in the mud, and the desert dust. But I’ve never had my emitter get blocked by anything.
A great reticle, a huge window, and a super durable design — this one’s a monster red dot.
One of the most bomb-proof red dots ever made, the Aimpoint Patrol Rifle Optic (PRO) is an optic you can take to war or use to defend your castle. Moreover, it boasts a 2 MOA dot, 30k-hour battery life, and night vision compatibility. What more could you ask for?
While red dots like Aimpoint’s Comp M4/M5 or T2 have more military adoption and have seen more combat, the PRO is loved by law enforcement worldwide. It’s also the better optic for any gun owner, in my opinion.
Aimpoint’s T2 and Comp M4/M5 have 10k more hours of battery life and a long history of being ultra-durable. However, the aperture is only 18mm, compared to the PRO’s 23mm. A larger window makes target acquisition a lot easier and faster. It also is a major boon to shooters who don’t spend the whole day training with their rifles.
Plus, the PRO comes in at about half the price as Aimpoint’s other models. It’s still pricey at around $400, but that’s a lot better than $700+.
For my money, the Aimpoint PRO is the way to go.
Don’t forget to take a look at our Hands-on Review of the Aimpoint PRO!
Best Holographic Sights
You may be wondering, what is a holographic optic? While red dots are simple, being an LED that reflects off of an optical window, holographic sights are a bit more complex.
Holographic sights get reflected and processed multiple times before hitting the reflective surface you see in front of you. This complexity is possible with the help o fusing a laser diode, mirrors, and a lot of science. However, holographic sights also have some ups and downs.
Battery life is much shorter since it takes more energy. But the reticle is crisper and cleaner.
Holographics also project a reticle smaller than 1 MOA, but your brain sees it as 1 MOA — it’s weird science, so just go with it. The benefit is that when magnified, it stays 1 MOA and gives a more precise aiming point than a red dot would.
Best of all, if the front lens of a holographic sight is damaged — the sight still works, but a red dot won’t. However, holographic sights are also more expensive, and there is no budget or cheap option. There are only two brands that are worth looking at — EOTech and Vortex.
Another combat-proven optic, the EOTech EXPS2 is an often imitated but never duplicated holographic optic that is as rugged as rugged gets. Arguably the best holographic optic on the market, the EXPS2 is never the wrong choice for your rifle.
1,000-hour battery life, 20 daylight brightness settings, and a super-compact footprint — this is an outstanding optic and one that is perfect for pairing with a magnifier.
The EXPS2 uses an absolute co-witness mount (aligns perfectly with standard iron sights), but the EXPS2-0 uses a 1/3rd co-witness (slightly taller than the standard iron sights moving the reticle slightly higher than your irons), if you’d rather use that style.
I like both. Get the one that feels right to you!
Lovingly called the “Tactical Mailbox”, the Vortex UH-1 is one of my favorite optics ever made. You get a big, bold window, ultra-durable design, a rock-solid mounting system, and 1,500-hours of battery life. Plus, it looks cool.
Vortex was the first brand to offer a great alternative to the EOTech line of holographic sights, and the UH-1 Gen II has proven itself to be an outstanding optic in every respect. What sets it apart from the EOTech options is that Vortex backs all its optics with an unlimited lifetime warranty.
Best Flip-Mounted Magnifiers
Combine one of these with a red dot or holographic sight, and you’ll dramatically extend your effective range. A magnifier is an excellent option for the middle ground between short-range and mid-range shooting. You can also use it efficiently for competition, self-defense, or even hunting. Personally, this is the setup I use on my “do-everything” rifle.
Vector is a great base model to get you started if you want something quick, easy, and cheap. Sure, it isn’t the nicest — but it is budget-friendly, and it uses standard 30mm mounts exactly as the Aimpoint options use. If you want to upgrade your mount and give this an improvement, it’s easy.
And down the road, if you want to upgrade to a big boy magnifier, you don’t have to switch mounts. If every penny counts, this is a solid option.
I’m a fan of the Sig Sauer optics line, and the quality of magnifiers is exceptional.
The glass is clean and clear, the mounts are outstanding, and the quality is reasonable for their price points. I like the standard full-size Juliet 3 more than the micro since it has a better mount and a better field of view.
However, if you’re short on room on your rifle or want to make things as lightweight as possible — the Juliet 3 Micro is an excellent option for the footprint.
Aimpoint is the civilian-oriented magnifier you can get way, way cheaper than their top-of-the-line model. It’s better to get this one than invest in the expensive model. I don’t think the more expensive model is worth it.
But for around $300, this is a rockstar of a deal.
Legendary Aimpoint durability and glass, this magnifier looks amazing with any red dot. It also uses the standard Aimpoint mounting footprint. Hence, you can get aftermarket mounts for it. This scope also gives you a ton of options for mounting and for the flip-to-side mechanism.
However, getting the Aimpoint 3X-C with a mount can increase the price by about $400. But you don’t need the Aimpoint mount. If you want to go for budget class, get a Primary Arms mount. But if you want something nicer, you can still stay under $200 and have a great mounting system.
EOTech G33 & G43
If you’re ready to spend some money and get the best, EOTech is there for you with the G33 and G43. The G33 is my top recommendation since it’s a full-size and simple better model, but again if you need a micro footprint — get the G43.
What you get for your money is glass that looks amazing and is super clear. The clearest glass I’ve seen in a magnifier makes it feel like you’re using a real scope. Additionally, EOTech’s magnifiers are built for anything and everything you can throw at them.
Best Prism/Fixed Magnification Scopes
Prism sights are scopes without magnification. They use etched glass reticles, so they are usable with or without illumination, and they will always appear crisp and perfect even if you have astigmatism.
Fixed magnification scopes have the same benefits but also add some magnification so you can reach out easier. With some training, you can use a fixed magnification scope at close ranges by keeping both eyes open and letting your brain superimpose the images.
I like fixed magnification because of how simple it is. These are great for a hog rifle or a rifle that you know you’ll be using at 50+ yards almost always.
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Cheap prism sights have historically been pretty horrible — but Primary Arms has knocked the competition on their asses by releasing the SLx 1x Micro Prism. The glass is great, the image is clear, and it’s durable to boot.
I also really love that they’ve been able to give the SLx a better-than-average reticle by adding some features to it. Instead of a plane dot or a dot with a circle, like in most red dots, a prism optic gives many ways to give more information.
Primary Arms has opted to give it a version of their ACSS reticles with holdovers for common calibers! While generally, I wouldn’t recommend a 1x prism sight for most people, this is one of the best options on the market if you have astigmatism and can’t use a normal red dot or holographic sight.
I love the Sig Sauer Bravo 5. Sure, it’s bulky. And yes, it’s pretty heavy. But the glass is SO CLEAR. It also comes with Sig Sauer’s proprietary MEGAVIEW. No, I’m not joking. That’s what they named it.
It’s a corny name, but it’s actually a pretty awesome feature. Megaview gives you a much wider field of view than a standard scope.
Seeing more is never a bad thing, and the extra-wide vision gives you a lot more information to work with. It’s also a much more rugged option than some of the cheaper competition on the market.
The standard that all others are measured, the ACOG. Probably one of the most iconic and recognizable optics ever made, the ACOG has seen years of heavy use in every type of warfare you can think of.
It isn’t the most cutting edge, it isn’t the fanciest, but you ask any Marine infantryman that served while the ACOG was the standard-issue sight if they’d trust it with their life and the answer is always Yes.
For you and me, it’s an excellent prism scope that is bombproof. My only complaint is that the eye relief (how far your eyes can be from the optic for optimal use) is pretty horrible. It’s still very usable, but it might not be the most comfortable option for anyone with long-ish arms.
Best Low Powder Variable Optics (LPVO)
One of the newest types of optic on the market, LPVOs have taken the world by storm. The US Marine Corps is replacing the ACOG with a VCOG, a variable optic made by Trijicon. The US Army and USSOCOM have adopted three different versions of the Sig Sauer Tango 6.
LPVOs give you a true 1x optic for close-range work but can zoom to 6x, 8x, or even 10x magnification so that you can reach out when you need to. Even if you don’t plan on shooting at extended distances, the extra magnification is great to ID targets at a longer range.
If you’re worried about the collapse of society or the zombie uprising, a great LPVO would be my optic of choice.
One of the cheapest options to getting into the LPVO world, Vortex’s 1-6x Strike Eagle is a great starter optic because it’s inexpensive, durable, works well, and gives you a real taste of what the craze is about.
If you want to use this on a defensive rifle, I recommend spending some more and getting something higher quality. But for a starter 2- or 3-gun competition rifle, a range rifle, or a training rifle — the Strike Eagle is perfect.
First Focal Plane and Second Focal Plane are big topics when it comes to LPVOs. In addition, FFP and SFP determine how the reticle changes while you zoom in and out.
FFP scopes the reticle will change size with the magnification of the scope. At lower magnification, the reticle is much smaller. At higher magnification, the reticle is bigger. This means that the markings in the reticle are always the same at all magnification levels. No matter what zoom level you’re at, 1 MOA marking will always be 1 MOA.
SFP scopes the reticle stays the same size no matter what. However, the issue with the size is that you can only calibrate the markings at one specific magnification level — usually, the highest level.
The debate of FFP vs SFP when it comes to LPVOs is a hot one. SFP means the reticle is easier to see and use even at 1x. FFP is an objectively better system for shooting at longer ranges.
Personally, I like FFP. A good FFP reticle will be small and unusable at 1x, but it will blur with illumination and look much like a simple red dot (depending on the reticle). To me, this is great because not all FFP scopes are that well made.
The Primary Arms SLx 1-8x FFP is the least expensive LPVO FFP that does this job well. It is also everything you would expect from Primary Arms, durable, great glass, and a very fair price for what you get. Plus, they come with a host of brilliantly designed reticle options.
Adopted by the US Army 3 times over with three different reticles for different applications, the Sig Sauer Tango T6 is a workhorse of an optic.
The glass will blow your mind. The reticle options are outstanding, even the FDE color is pretty badass. Possibly best of all, the scope has been tested to military adoption standards and passed with flying colors.
If you want to see it abused, even more, take a look at the Sage Dynamics video. He dropped his T6 from chest height 4 times during the review process, and the scope still worked flawlessly.
Vortex set the standard with the Gen 2, but the Gen 3 pushed the industry to new levels. The Vortex HD Gen III 1-10x was the first 10x LPVO that did the job well. With amazing glass and a forgiving eyebox at all magnification levels.
At 1x magnification, the scope feels like a red dot. At 10x, the scope feels like a real scope that was designed for long-range engagements. This scope provides is the best of all worlds. In addition, it is currently in a class by itself when it comes to LPVOs.
Downsides? It’s not cheap, it can be hard to find in stock, and you’ll be the envy of all your friends.
Best Hunting AR 15 Scopes
ARs aren’t the classic hunting rifles most people think of, but they are still great rifles for the task. Be it in 5.56 NATO, .458 SOCOM, 6.5 Grendel, or a host of other calibers — the AR is a highly modular and handy rifle that you can use for a wide range of applications.
I don’t have a specific model to recommend. Instead, this is the entire VX-Freedom line of scopes.
All of them are outstanding, well-made, durable, and have good hunting glass. They come in lots of magnification ranges, reticles, and other options. You won’t go wrong with any of them.
If I had to pick one personally, I would choose a VX-FREEDOM 4-12X40 with the TRI-MOA reticle. 4-12x power gives you a nice range with a low enough minimum that you can see the big picture or take fast shots at closer ranges, but 12x lets you get close and dial up the precision for longer shots. This is also a 30mm main tube instead of the norma 1-inch. A bigger main tube lets more light into the optic, and that’s better for dawn and dusk shots.
So lightweight, it feels like it might break. But instead, this is a really durable and great little scope.
If you want to keep the pounds from adding up, the SWFA Ultralight in a lightweight mount is one of the best scopes you can find for being super lightweight.
I’ve used one on my 6.5 Creedmoor mountain rifle, and it was a great addition to my kit. The glass is outstanding, the price is wonderful, and it is just SO lightweight. I love it.
Best Long Range AR 15 Scopes
5.56 NATO isn’t the best long-range cartridge, but it can reach further than most people give it credit for. I take my 5.56 NATO AR-15 to 500 yards regularly, and I shoot 6mm ARC from my AR out to 700 yards pretty often also.
To do that, you need a good scope. These are heavier than most other options. The glass demands higher quality, the price is higher too, but what you get in return is an unparalleled ability to reach out and touch something.
If you want to keep the price down to something reasonable, Bushnell Match Pro is the perfect scope for you. Available in both illuminated and non-illuminated models, the Match Pro is an excellent scope sold directly and exclusively by Bushnell’s website.
I’ve seen many of them in NRL22 matches, and my local NRL/PRS style matches are impressed with the quality packed into such an affordable scope.
The glass that punches way above its weight-weight class, durable enough to survive the bumps and bruises of competition. Bushnell is one of the few scopes I’ve been honestly surprised by in recent years.
While this isn’t my favorite scope, this is a great scope.
The Primary Arms PLx model is the top-of-the-line scopes made in Japan. These scopes also have very high-quality components and glass in them. Looking through this scope is exceptional and comfortable.
I love the reticle, other than the center chevron. It’s quick to ready, flexible to adjustments, and holding it over is easy to read.
The chevron in the middle is a love it or hate it design, and it’s not my cup of tea. The benefit to a chevron is that it’s a super fine point if you want it to be, but also large enough that it’s easy to pick up quickly.
There are LOTS of people who love this reticle style, but it just doesn’t work that great for me. I still love this scope. I just tend to hold over in my scope more often than using the chevron. If the reticle looks good to you, I highly recommend this scope because it is truly an outstanding piece of glass.
I have to admit, I’m a Cronus guy. I have both the Gen 1 and the Gen 2 version and love both of them.
The Athlon Cronus is my standard scope on both of my competition rifles for NRL22 and PRS.
You won’t find better glass in any scope under $3,500, and since the Cronus is around $1,300-$1,500, that is an impressive, brilliant glass.
There are several reticle options, and I love their floating dot design that gives me a super fine single point in the middle of a slightly open reticle.
This feature allows me to see what I’m shooting at. It also makes hits even on very small targets at very long ranges.
I highly and wholly recommend the Cronus.
If you’re ready to drop about $4,000 on a scope, buy the ZCO and don’t look back.
Yes, it’s hugely expensive. But if you’re looking for the best of the best when it comes to long-range, ZCO is likely as good as it possibly gets right now.
The reticles are amazing, the glass is like looking into the future, and the entire unit reeks of quality and intelligent design. Honestly, it’s hard to explain just how good this scope is without putting it in your hands and letting you experience it.
If you have the chance to look through one, take it.
Best Backup Sights
I’m not a big BUIS person, mostly because optics have come so far in recent years that the chances of needing backup irons are infinitesimal. That said, no SHTF or zombie rifle is complete without good BUIS.
Magpul BUS is the common standard. Magpul BUS is well-made, good to shoot with, and easy to install.
They are also fairly cheap and come in OD Green, FDE, and black. If you want BUIS just to have them, this is what I would recommend.
Honestly, though, I don’t really see or feel much difference in practical applications.
If this is a working rifle, or you just love spending money, get the Pro. For everyone else, the standard is good to go.
Offset irons are not super common right now, but they are gaining popularity as LPVOs do.
Almost exclusively meant to be used with a fixed magnification scope or an LPVO, an optic or irons offset at a 45-degree angle on your rail gives you the ability to quickly tilt your rifle and deliver good hits at close range. No fiddling with a magnification ring. This scope is ideal for a 3-gun competition or if you need to change quickly from long-range to short-range.
Personally, I hate offset irons. There are a few out there, but they are all bad and are a bit weird. However, I strongly recommend an offset red dot.
Combining a micro red dot with a good offset mount gives you a whole new level of freedom and options for any given situation. I use mine with a Sig Sauer Romeo 1. I use it because the objective lens is huge (for a micro red dot) at 30mm. Trijicon’s RMR and Holosun’s 507c are around 22mm by 16mm.
Romeo 1’s 30mm window feels massive and is much easier to pick up quickly when you’re flicking back and forth between the scope and the red dot.
If you read the entire article, high-five! Because this was a long one. Be it a scope or a red dot, finding the right optic for you will help give you the edge when you need it most.
No matter what option you take, make sure you get some training with it and spend some time learning the pros and cons. There is no replacement for hands-on range time.
If you’re building a defensive rifle, don’t forget a sling and a light! Check out these articles for more info!