By Guy J. Sagi

The modularity and adaptability of today’s AR makes it an attractive target for armchair quarterbacks eager to dispense bank account-draining advice on accessories. Quality optics can have a hefty price tag, but financial pain can be minimized by asking yourself a few serious questions before you purchase.

I’ve been on a lot of shooting industry events and hunts—nearly all of them behind the trigger of an AR-15 or AR-10 in the past few years—but that doesn’t make me an expert in selecting the ideal optic for your application, budget or shooting style. There are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers, regardless of what you’ve read. Nearly every engineer behind the modern designs I’ve interviewed agrees. A cutting-edge system efficient in one application becomes a compromise in another. The best ones surrender the least in that transition.

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Every shooter’s setup and preferences are different, which makes it impossible for armchair quarterbacks to prescribe the “ultimate” optic. Are you running a suppressor where heat and mirage can quickly affect the image? Photo by Guy J. Sagi

Ethical disclaimer aside, there’s one point upon which everyone agrees. Spend as much as you can on your mounting system. Avoid the bargain basement and save for bombproof mounts. Built right, they will survive World War III, the next zombie apocalypse and firmly affix your great-great grandson’s Gen. 12 night-vision scope. We’ve all seen $5K long-range optics on $12 bases, with loose rings. If you’re having problems with your current setup, try new mounts. They’re the least expensive component, and even if the malady isn’t remedied, they’ll firmly affix that upgrade in your near future.

The other wisdom I consider unimpeachable is a tidbit I picked up during a Leupold seminar at Gunsite Academy. Take your time in mounting your riflescope, do it right, and torque like you would an engine’s intake manifold—from the outside bolts, working in, alternating sides to minimize uneven and unseen pressure that can show up at the worst possible moment.

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If Leupold’s Mark IV ER/T riflescopes survived marathon sessions atop a .338 Lapua Mag. Weatherby at Gunsite, with gun writers lining up to use the free ammo, it’ll probably skate through your range-session abuse. The scope was tested later on ARs, and obviously passed with flying colors, with no shift in point of impact…..and even if there was, there’s this lifetime warranty. Photo by Guy J. Sagi

The thought of spending five or six times the value of your rifle on an optic is a foreign one for older shooters, like myself. Times have changed and quality has increased exponentially. Add the number of lifetime warrantees offered today—some of them transferrable—and if you can afford it, a quality piece of glass is truly an investment.

Mission Specific Makes Budget-Friendly

All shooters like spending time behind the trigger, but sooner or later you wind up stretching the distance or deciding to deliver faster shots on the bullseye. ARs will get the job done at up-close-and-personal range and ring steel reliably at 1,000 meters in the right chambering, and it’s that versatility that sets owners on an often costly quest for “magic glass.”

The fact is, riflescopes ideal for one application aren’t optimal for the other. I fell in love with the Leupold 4 ER/T 6.5-20×50 mm I used on Gunsite’s Sniper Ridge, but couple the .308 Win. rifle’s recoil with the high magnification and corresponding loss of field of view, and quick follow-up shots are pure fantasy (for me, anyway).

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Leupold’s Mark IV ER/T riflescopes held up in the dust, grime and heat of Gunsite’s Sniper Ridge through one full week of .308 Win. punishment, without a single hiccup. It’s what the company fans have come to expect, but it’s also performed flawlessly since then in testing on identically chambered AR-10s. Photo courtesy of Leupold.

Medium

Dial into your AR’s primary function and select corresponding glass. If your gun is chambered in 5.56 NATO, .223 Rem. or .243 Win., an optic with 20-power magnification is probably a waste of money—unless you’re using quick-detach mounts to slap it on the gun’s bigger brother, but that’s another story. At 800 meters, the bullet’s like a kite in the wind, or at least so unpredictable that the slightest cross breeze downrange will drift it completely off the target.

Nikon doesn’t get enough credit in the shooting sports, but there’s no denying the company that put the first SLR cameras in people’s hands knows a thing or two about glass. It shows in its AR line of scopes. I’ve used them extensively, and even though the price tags are dwarfed by other offerings, the clarity, contrast and low-light performance is all there. Budget-minded range rats would be hard pressed to do better than the Nikon P-223, which has a bullet-drop-compensating reticle, positive 1/4 MOA clicks on the turrets and a return to zero function. Does it qualify for the “ultimate” label? In my book it does for a lot of people in today’s turbulent economy.

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Nikon’s 223 lineup outperforms its price tag. The author has used this 3-9×40 mm version for years, and at the distances he usually shoots his 5.56 NATO chambered AR-15, has found it’s a good, solid choice for budget-conscious shooters. Photo courtesy of Nikon.

If hunting’s your game, you’ll love the Burris Eliminator III 3-12x 44 mm. I was a skeptic until I used a first generation version to take an antelope in Wyoming in terrible conditions. I crawled with that .243 Win. chambered AR-15 through the snow and mud for about 150 yards to close the gap, and worried the battery was going to be dead by the time I raised the rifle. I was wrong, thankfully, and with one touch of a button the laser instantly ranged the animal and provided a glowing shooting solution in the reticle. I took the animal at somewhere around 300 yards. I also saw the scope perform flawlessly for another half dozen hunters, with at least one shot longer than mine. Program your precise ballistics and you’ll do more hunting and less mathematic gymnastics.

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When the Burris Eliminator series was first introduced, it was hard to visualize a gun-mounted unit that could calculate distance, do the calculations internally and paint the holdover dot in the reticle to deliver a precise shot—but it works, even in conditions that challenge many battery-powered units. Photo courtesy of Burris.

Going Long

There’s no denying the performance of European glass. I used a Zeiss 3-12×56 Classic Diavari during a bear hunt where the forest sucked light like a black hole. An hour before dusk the video crew announced there wasn’t enough light to film. A bear came in 30 minutes later and was so bright through the scope I could count hairs. Swarovski has made serious inroads in 3-gun and so has Kahles. Unfortunately, I haven’t tested any of them on an AR. Their optical clarity and ability to pull light out of seemingly nowhere are noteworthy, and make them a good choice if you find a deal.

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The Zeiss 3-12×56 Classic Diavari was absolutely amazing in low-light conditions during a bear hunt in Canada a number of years ago. The thick forest absolutely drained light from the hunting stand long before sunset, although the author didn’t include it because he hasn’t tested it on an AR…yet. Photo courtesy of Zeiss.

I spent a lot of days behind a Leupold Mark IV 4ER/T 4.5-14×50 mm atop of .308 Win. chambered Weatherby at Gunsite and cannot say enough about the riflescope. Dust, grime, heat, abuse and a lot of sweat did little to affect the scopes. We dialed for elevation, and I connected at distances I didn’t think were possible at my skill level. Having expert instruction helps, especially when clicks are .1 mil each and the reticle is on the first focal plane, but the crisp return to zero and bright optics (even when covered in dust) played a more important role. Some at the seminar went on to ring steel at 900 and 1,000 meters, and the last day they brought out a .338 Lapua to test ruggedness. It passed with flying colors as it did when I subsequently mounted it on different ARs.

The Bushnell name hasn’t always been associated with high quality, but seven or eight years ago that started to change when it introduced a tactical lineup. The quality is so good now that one friend of mine—who served as a sniper in the military for years, including the Sand Box—now uses them to test the ARs he manufacturers and ammunition, at distance. He knows his optics.

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Bushnell Tactical has been pushing magnification ranges down toward 1X for years, and along the way earned a reputation for producing rugged and dependable optics. During this seminar in Kentucky, a variety of the company’s scopes were used in 3-gun-style matches, and not a single one failed during the event. Photo by Guy J. Sagi

One of the company’s latest offerings is the Elite Tactical 3.5-21×50 mm, which allows you to dial back for up-close targets, yet stretch the distance. That versatility is a good match for ARs in larger chamberings, the quality is definitely there and it features a lighted reticle with 11 brightness settings. The company has captured its share of U.S. military contracts and even rolled out a lifetime warranty earlier this year. If you haven’t seen the effectiveness of the firm’s Rainguard HD, too, it’s definitely worth a look.

You’d be hard pressed to go wrong with any Nightforce scope. They’re a staple for long distance enthusiasts and perform well. And, keep an eye out for Lucid riflescopes. The price is right and the owner is extremely knowledgeable in high-performance optics—he was part of the Brunton team several years ago.

Up Close

If you’re like me, your AR-15 does double duty as a home-defense gun, where an optic with no/low magnification is a huge advantage because it allows you to keep both eyes open—maximizing situational awareness and minimizing time required to engage a criminal. It’s this arena where things change overnight, and today’s ultimate optic will likely be eclipsed by something better tomorrow.

Once upon a time, a riflescope capable of zooming from 1X (no magnification) to any higher power, without some sort electronic display, was thought to be impossible because it would defy the laws of physics or distort targets until they looked like Pokemon Go figures. Apparently, we can bend those rules now, because we have a lot of good zooming scopes at or near that that unity figure.

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Fast target acquisition is a huge advantage in 3-gun, one of the reasons we’ve seen such a fast development in scopes approaching the 1X range that still have the ability to magnify the target. Photo by Guy J. Sagi

That’s a good thing for combat troops who might be clearing houses at 5 p.m., and forced to engage a terrorist at 200 meters five minutes later when they leave. It’s also good for civilians, because remounting and rezeroing after every range session is a pain, and adjusting to look through co-witnessed holographic sights isn’t required.

Bushnell has three SMRS scopes in its Tactical line that start their zoom range at 1 power. The highest magnification available is 8.5, which is amazing, so I can’t wait to finally get my hands on one. The 24 mm objective should perform well at 1X, but we’ll see what it does at dusk at the highest setting.

Leupold’s Mark 8 CQBSS doesn’t quite make that magic 1.0 point, but with a magnification range of 1.1 to 8, that bad guy in the living room coming at you in the living room at night can’t tell the difference. And you’ll enjoy that 8X power at the 300-yard line the next time you’re at the range. I haven’t shot it extensively, but in my testing it’s performed admirably, and at low power that 24 mm front objective collects more than enough light to engage a criminal threat.

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CQBSS Leupold’s CQBSS doesn’t quite attain that mythical 1X in a zoom riflescope, but at 1.1 to 8 power is comes close enough for government work, self-defense and trigger time at the range. Photo courtesy of Leupold.

The company’s Mark 4 HAMR is every bit as rugged as its name sounds and the 4X optic bears mentioning because it’s combat tough. However, the companies DeltaPoint reflex sight is mounted on the unit for CBQ work—requiring a slight lift on your cheek weld.

Trijicon’s ACOG has proven itself for years in the global war on terror, and despite the fact it has 4X magnification, its performance in close quarters earns its mention here. It was designed for the shooter to keep both eyes open, an illuminated reticle speeds target acquisition, it’s combat tough, waterproof and comes with reticles that are bullet-drop compensating and range estimating. You can’t go wrong with this thing—ask a vet.

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Trijicon’s ACOG has performed extremely well in the global war on terror, and despite the fact it offers 4X magnification, it can still be used with both eyes open for close quarter combat—like when that bump in the night turns out to be an armed home invader. Photos courtesy of Trijicon.

Did you find your “ultimate AR optic” here? Maybe, but probably not, because only you know your rifle’s primary mission, whether you prefer dealing in mils or MOA, if a first focal plane reticle makes you stutter, consider batteries untrustworthy and despise adjusting turrets. Hopefully you found some good candidates, but as for the urban legend that someone knows exactly what you think is superior, the odds are probably good even your spouse doesn’t know—even if they’re a shooter.

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Whatever optic you decide it “ultimate” for your setup, ensure it’s waterproof and fogproof. This elk hunt weather wasn’t scheduled, and if that optic froze over it would have been time to head back to camp. Photo by Guy J. Sagi