Optics Options for the Fighting Rifle
“I’m old school, I still like to run my irons!“
“Optics break too often, I’ll stick with iron sights like Grandpa used!“
“Ten minutes after the lights go out, iron sights will rule the world!“
There are a lot of reasons why optics of one sort or another have replaced iron sights as the primary sighting mechanism on the rifle of every serious gunfighter in the modern world. From actually being MORE robust than some of the iron sights available (The Magpul MBUS, for instance are complete pieces of shit), to the increased speed of acquiring a suitable sight picture, to more positive identification of targets, in the case of magnified options, the use of effective optics on a fighting rifle is not just the wave of the future, it’s the only serious option right now, today.
Iron Sight Deficiencies
Iron sights have been the choice of serious combat rifle shooters, and many recreational shooters for almost as long as rifles have existed. They have ranged from the extremely simple “buckhorn and blade” type iron sights of the blackpowder era to the rear aperture sights of contemporary American fighting rifles. Even today, there are countless shooters in the world who profess a distrust of the ability of anything except iron sights to withstand the abuses of a combat environment, despite well over a decade of the common issue of combat optics to most common troops, and over a century of optics issue to specialized troops like snipers in combat zones.
Nevertheless, while it will annoy the ever-loving shit out of the old fuckers and hidebound traditionalists of the world, there are several key deficiencies to iron sights that mean, if you’re not willing to join the arms race, you’re fucking yourself, your buddies, and your community. The most important deficiency of iron sights, when compared to modern optics, in the minds of many, is the speed equation. It is a categorical, inarguable, scientific fact that optics are faster than iron sights (I’ve heard all the old school arguments to the contrary too…they’re wrong). The necessity of focusing on a minimum of two different focal planes (three if you’re using “open” iron sights instead of apertures), with iron sights, versus the common focal plane shared by target and reticle of optics, makes it an obvious given that optics will be faster, from a biological PoV, than shooting irons accurately.
This need to shift focal planes also raises another closely related, but separate issue with using iron sights as your primary sighting system. The requirement to focus finely on the front sight post or blade, in order to make any sort of accurate shot, at any range, but especially at intermediate distance ranges increases the difficulty of maintaining observation and awareness of a realistic combat target. It’s relatively easy when both you and the full-size, completely exposed silhouette are sitting still on the square range. Add in movement, on the part of the target or yourself, such as tends to happen when people are shooting at one another, or the target being partially obscured by cover and/or concealment, which is also a common element in gunfights, and suddenly, at anything beyond reflexive fire “point-and-shoot” distances of 1-3 meters, using iron sights suddenly starts to feel really, really, really slow to the end user.
A lot of guys, as I mentioned above, fall back on the antiquated notion that iron sights are more robust than optics. While this was, undoubtedly true when iron sights were simple, largely immovable parts of the gun, soldered or welded to the metal of the action, it’s simply not true anymore. From the molded polymer with metal inserts of many modern “iron sights,” to the multiple, finely geared adjustment mechanisms of contemporary aperture sights, I’ve seen optics (and there are plenty of examples in different videos and articles on the internet) take hits and keep functioning that would have, at best, left the zero of a set of iron sights unknown, if not completely destroyed. There are countless readers of this blog who have attended rifle and patrolling classes with me, who have witnessed me do things as ridiculous as drop an EoTech mounted rifle, optic down, onto pavement and gravel, to grabbing a rifle, magnified optic mounted, by the barrel, and heave it across a meadow, before going on, in both cases, to engaging precision targets with the rifles in question with no ill effects. My current rifle, mounted with a Burris MTAC variable scope (details below), was actually ejected from a vehicle at 65MPH (long story, and not a subject for the blog for PERSEC reasons), and the optic not only survived, but maintained its zero, no less. This archaic idea that iron sights are robust, while optics are fragile is as obsolete as the idea that skin color is an indicator of humanity.
Optics Science 101: The OEG and BAC Methods
(Before we begin this section, I think it’s imperative to point out that the OEG label for the concept it employs is specific to the Armson sight and the BAC–Bindon Aiming Concept–is named for Gyl Bindon. Both are technically specific to Trijicon sights today, although the principles that make them work are biological/physiological functions of natural human, binocular visison, so it’s a matter of semantics and lack of a better label that causes me to use these terms)
The OEG–Occluded Eye Gunsight–concept and the BAC–Bindon Aiming Concept–are very, very closely related, but are also distinctly different methods of shooting with an optic. The OEG method, using non-magnified optics like the original Armsons used during the 1970 Son Tay Raid, or the more recognized, modern EoTechs and Aimpoint variations, is a simple matter of seeing the target and downrange with the non-dominant eye, and seeing the very bright, very obvious “red” dot reticle with your dominant eye. It’s a rather cool function of the human physiology that we see with binocular vision–the image of both eyes are presented to the brain as one image. So, if we’re looking at a target with one eye, and the reticle/aiming dot with the other eye, what our brain sees is the aiming point superimposed over the target. You can actually test this theory with your own EoTech or Aimpoint red-dot sight actually. Cover the front lens of your sight with a scope cap or piece of 100MPH tape. Mount the gun, looking at the target with one eye, and the aiming point/reticle with the other, and you’ll see that you have a usable sight picture. This of course, makes for an extremely rapid sight picture acquisition, if you use sound biomechanics in your weapons-handling, and mount the gun the exact same way every single time you mount the gun.
The Bindon Aiming Concept, named after Trijicon’s founder, uses the same basic principles of the OEG sighting method, but applies it to magnified optics. A long search was made to try and combine the speed of non-magnified optics with the numerous combat shooting advantages of low-power variable magnification optics. Much of the credit for these discoveries goes to the Trijicon company that seems to have not only discovered the concepts, but certainly were the first to make widespread use of it with the development of the Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight (ACOG). The use of some sort of brightly illuminated central image for the reticle, instead of the traditional cross-hairs reticle of hunting and sniper scopes makes it extremely easy to use modern low-power scopes with both eyes open. This is, at its foundation, simply using the OEG method, but with a magnified optic. Just as with the OEG concept, the brain merges the two images. While people often claim difficulty using the BAC, this generally stems from ignorance of how the method is supposed to be applied.
At most ranges, with movement of the optic, the image through the magnified optic is blurred, at least somewhat. The only image that the brain can see and identify is the brightly-lit, high-visibility reticle/aiming dot. The non-dominant eye, on the other hand, is tracking and seeing the target image. Just…like..the…OEG…concept. The difference arises when your brain superimposes the two images. With the BAC, you can then shift all of your attention to the dominant eye, as the gun and sight stops moving, and you have a magnified sight picture with the reticle where it should be, that allows for precision shot placement, quickly.
People often point out that this is, necessarily, slower than the OEG method used with non-magnified optics, at CQB ranges. This is only partially true (and when it is true, is largely a function of training and physiology. Inside of 25M, I’ve clocked my shot time differences at an average of .05-.10 between using a non-magnified EoTech, and using a magnified variable power at 4X or 6X). While it will take slightly longer for the brain to switch from binocular vision focus to a monocular focus, the time required can be significantly reduced through training the eyes to switch focal planes faster. More importantly, by far, is the fact that, at CQB ranges, you don’t need to switch to monocular vision, except in rare cases that require super-precision in your shots. Thus, it’s actually, if applied properly, absolutely no slower to use a low-magnification variable than a non-magnified optic, even at CQB ranges, assuming solid training (I do recognize however that for a very small percentage of the population, for whatever reason, the ability to force the brain to do this, without switching focus, and closing the non-dominant eye, is simply not possible. While it’s almost heretical to say so, there is a really simple solution to this: close your non-dominant eye to take the shot, and then re-open it. Sure, you’re going to “lose” peripheral vision for a moment. Reality check? If you’re actually focusing on the shot, you’re not going to have much peripheral vision for the duration of taking the god-damned shot anyway). This entire conceptual approach to targeting becomes extremely useful, particularly when dealing with targets that are moving, or are concealed, to one degree or another, in dense concealment.
1X Red Dot Sights (RDS) versus Variable-Power Magnification
I doubt that it is any great secret to regular readers of this blog that I am a big fan of low-power magnified optics, ranging from the classic ACOG to more modern variable powered optics. Rather than simply taking my advice that they are superior in almost every way to 1X RDS however, let’s look at some of the advantages of these optics.
- The obvious factor at play is the magnification. The requirement for a combat-effective low-power variable optic came to the forefront of the collective conscious of the special operations community following the Battle of Bakara Market (Blackhawk Down!) in 1993. As numerous veterans of that fight have pointed out, in various places, when you’ve got hostiles intermixed with non-combatants at varying ranges from 25-100M or more, sticking just their heads out of concealment to figure out where your positions are, magnification starts looking really, really important both to positively identify targets, as well as to increase the chances that you’ll actually hit the dude. The ability to see into thick concealment to locate targets, the ability to more positively identify a target (whether seeing that he does, in fact, have a weapon, or to see his face to use facial recognition, even at short ranges like 100-200 meters, the magnification offers significant advantages). While there are a lot of guys out there who are still sold on the idea of mounting a magnifier behind their EoTech or Aimpoint, I personally feel this is a dead-end approach. You’re getting absolutely no advantage over a regular variable power telescope sight, other than the dubious one of losing some weight, when you remove the magnifier (For an example of the dubiousness of this claim: My Burris MTAC 1.5-6X weighs 14.1oz. The P.E.P.R. mount it came with is 8.0oz. Total weight then is 22.1 oz. My EoTech 554 is 10.9 oz. The EoTech magnifier with the flip-side mount is 16.5. Total weight then is 27.4oz–someone wanna check my math? Either way, it’s a pretty marginal difference, except I’ve got 6X magnification, versus the 4X of the EoTech. Even if you were to remove the flip-side mount and magnifier, you’re only saving 3/4 of a pound, but if you NEED the magnification, you’re going to have to go digging through pouches, rather than simply mounting the gun. I’d rather do a couple more reps at PT than have to risk missing a shot because I couldn’t get to my magnifier in time).
- With the magnification of the variable, you’re also getting better light transmission in low-light environments, meaning you’re not only going to be able to positively identify targets, you’re going to be able to do so later into the evening, or earlier in the morning, without additional visible light. More importantly, because it improves the clarity of your vision, this increases your ability to ID targets as friend-or-foe, shoot/no-shoots at all times.
- While magnification is often dumbed down to being a range/distance issue, it’s really not. It’s about precision of marksmanship, and being able to see what you need to get hits. You can train yourself to shoot a magnified optic faster; you cannot train to improve your positive identification with a 1X optic.
There are a lot of potential “drawbacks” to using a variable-power magnified optic on a fighting rifle. Most of them don’t really hold up, as we’ve seen above, when looked at objectively. In addition to the issues already discussed in this article, perhaps the one I hear most often that forces me to debate the merits of being a fugitive from justice the rest of my life, for throat-punching stupidity is:
- I can mount my PVS-14 behind my RDS on my rifle: If you’re mounting your NODs on your rifle, except in extremely limited situations, you’re a fucking moron who is too stupid to continue contributing to the gene pool. This means that, in order to use the NODs, you have to a) hold your weapon up in a firing position at all times, and b) point your rifle at me, if I need to communicate with you visually….Do you like having your “buddies” point guns at you? Yeah, me neither.
I actually don’t care, as usual, what you run for an optic on a gun. Iron sights, 1X RDS, or magnified, variable-powered scope. I do recommend serious consideration–no scratch that–I heartedly recommend a switch to a magnified, variable-powered scope.
Do batteries die? Sure. Of course. Absolutely. So? Buy more batteries (seems like a “No shit?” solution to me…). By the time the battery stores of the world are completely deleted, we’ll all be either dead, will have gone back to iron sights, or the ammunition will be expended too, and we’ll be living out every nerd’s Dungeons and Dragons fantasy, fighting with swords and shields and shit. Keep track of your battery life, and discard/replace them before they die. Sure, I need to turn off my MTAC, or the batteries will eventually die, instead of being able to leave it on at full power for ten years, like the Aimpoint? So what? If I don’t have time to move a dial ONE FUCKING CLICK, to turn the illumination on, I’m probably too late getting to my gun anyway.
(Editorial Note: I feel obliged to point out that, in last weekend’s Combat Rifle Course in Arizona, I did manage to finally, apparently kill my MTAC…sort of…after being ejected from a vehicle, dropped on the ground and thrown across meadows countless times, and stepped on, intentionally, by my 200+ pounds, while wearing 40-60 pounds of fighting load, the magnification dial ring, no longer seems to want to turn. I haven’t fucked with it a lot though. When I get through with the Patrolling Class this weekend, I may try a pair of channel-lock pliers to see if I can get enough torque to make it start turning again…)