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AR-15 Sights and Optics Buying Guide

People have been adding improved sights to rifles since at least the beginning of the last century. The first type of "red dot"-style rifle optics came with the invention of the of the "reflex" or "reflector" sight by Irish optical designer and telescope maker Sir Horace Grubb in 1900. Many other designs sprung up from Grubb's initial reflex sight design — some were lit by ambient light, some by batteries.

The first type of sight to offer a true red dot for aiming was the Weaver Qwik Point of the late 60s and early 70s, which collected ambient light into a red plastic light pipe, hence the red dot effect. Following closely on Weaver's tail was Aimpoint AB, a Swedish optics company that introduced the first truly electronic red dot with their "Aimpoint Electronic" sight in 1975. The LEDs on the first Aimpoint red dot sights could run for anywhere from 1500 to 3000 hours, with Aimpoint recommending changing the batteries on the sight on a yearly basis.

A number of copies, imitators and competitors soon followed the original Aimpoint red dot sight. The US military itself ended up using Aimpoint's CompM2 as their AR-15 red dot sight of choice from 2000 onward.

So, aside from Aimpoint-style red dot sights, what kind of custom AR-15 sights exist?

Types of Custom AR-15 Sights and Optics

You have several different choices when it comes to custom AR-15 sights, including holographic sights, red dot sights, reflex sights and flip-up sight sets. Each style of sights has its advantages and disadvantages, and each has a different best-use case, whether that's range shooting, hunting or home defense. Choosing the best style of sights for your rifle depends entirely on what the use-case for your rifle is: what do you plan to use the rifle for?

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With that in mind, let's take a look at the different kinds of AR-15 sights out there.

Spike Front Sights

Spike front sight posts, like those designed by Blitzkrieg Components, are manufactured with a luminescent stripe (usually orange, green or white) for use in low-light environments. A light source, such as a flashlight, charges each spike-style front sight. Once charged, it will glow very brightly for around five minutes, then glow a little less brightly over the next 20-30 minutes before finally dimming down to a lower-level dim glow, where it will remain for several hours.

While spike-style front sight posts for the AR-15 typically function as a simpler custom red dot sight, they can also be used as the front component in a pair of custom flip up sights for your AR-15.

Flip-up Iron Sights

A pair of custom flip-up sights is an excellent choice for when you need to engage targets at longer ranges but still want to be able to use your rifle's iron sights to engage close-in targets. There are two kinds of flip-up sight sets that you can buy for the AR-15: upright flip-up sights and offset flip-up sights, each with their advantages and disadvantages.

Upright Flip-up Sights

Upright flip-up iron sights are a style of flip-up sight that you usually mount behind the shooter's primary optic, such as a scope, red-dot or holographic sight. You can then use them to engage targets that are too close for normal optics (in the case of a scope) or if you don't have the time to engage with their regular optic (as may be the case with red dot or holographic sights).

However, conventional flip-up front and rear sights for the AR-15 do have their drawbacks. The optics themselves can end up getting packed with dirt, mud or grime, making them utterly useless and forcing you to rely on your primary optic. Similarly, since the front and rear flip-up sights have to sight through the primary optic to establish a sight picture, having a broken primary optic can render the conventional flip-up sights useless.

Offset Flip-up Sights

Offset flip-up sights are, as their name implies, a pair of flip up sights that are offset from the shooter's primary optic, usually at a 45-degree angle. This allows a shooter to mount a longer-range optic as their primary optic (such as a scope, red-dot or holographic sight) and leave the flip-up sights offset so that they can engage targets without having to fiddle with the primary optic.

Still, offset flip-up sights do have drawbacks. They present a heightened possibility of getting "in the way," so to speak, and making it harder to use the rifle period. Using a pair of offset sights also means that the shooter has a higher chance of banging the sights against something, getting it caught on something or even just bending or otherwise damaging them as compared to conventional sights.

Holographic and Red Dot Sights

Only one company, Electric-Optic Technologies, currently manufactures holographic sights. Electric-Optic Technologies offers its holographic sights under two brand names: Bushnell and the more well-known EOTech. Holographic sights differ from red-dot/reflex sights in that they superimpose a reticle onto your target picture via a laser, which illuminates a hologram contained within the objective lens (as opposed to being projected onto it, which is the case with red dot and reflex sights).

Because of the structure of holographic sights, they fall into the category of smaller, lighter "heads-up" style sights, rather than the tube-bodied scope-style sights, as is common with some kinds of red dot sight. These heads-up style holographic weapon sights offer several advantages over red dot sights, including:

  • larger field of view
  • allows for use of reticles of any size and shape
  • less sight occlusion due to smaller minute-of-angle (MOA) dot usage

Unlike holographic sights, red dot sights do not employ lasers. Instead, they are built using an objective lens with a partial mirror coating. This objective lens is then used to project the reticle from a point behind the lens, where it is reflected off the back of the objective lens toward the shooter's eye, providing them with the red "dot" that gives the sights their name.

However, some reflex/red dot sights use ambient light gathered by fiber optics to project their dots. Others use a tritium beta lamp to project the dot, which helps with use in low-light conditions.

Red dot sights come in two types: either a tube-body style or the more typical heads-up style of custom red dot sight. Heads-up style sights can usually be mounted lower down on the body of the rifle than a regular tube-style red-dot sight, making rifles that use them far less bulky than would normally be the case. Heads-up style sights are also much lighter than tube-style sights because of how they are built. Heads-up style sights have just the lens and a bezel, with the source of the reticle placed in a small box below and behind the actual reticle window itself.

Both red dot and holographic sights have their advantages, though overall they tend to give shooters and hunters an easier time when it comes to target acquisition. This enhanced target acquisition does come with its disadvantages, with perhaps the most prominent being washout. Washout occurs when using the rifle in an area with high light or sunlight, which can cause the reticle to become obscured due to the glow of the sun, rendering it unusable.

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The other big downside when it comes to red dot or holographic sights is range: red dot/holographic sights are only really intended for medium or close-range target engagement. In most cases, there's no magnification, which limits the range of the sights. Some companies, such as Aimpoint and EOTech, offer 3x or 4x magnifiers, but these are meant to be used in conjunction with your primary red dot or holographic optic, not supplant them.

Which Sight Is Right for Your Rifle?

When it comes to choosing the sight that's right for your rifle, you have to ask yourself one main question: what am I going to be using it for? The type of activity that you use your rifle for most will predicate what kind of sight you purchase for it. For example, sights for home defense are going to be vastly different from those that you'd buy to go range shooting or for hunting.

When it comes to choosing an optic, there are three primary considerations that you need to have in mind:

  • Durability: You need to know an optic is durable before you can trust it in any potentially dangerous situations such as home defense, hunting or military use. Can you train hard with this optic and still be able to depend on it in a non-training situation?
  • Precision: Is the optic accurate? You depend on an optic to help you when you need to put rounds on target. If you're doing your part, the optic should be able to pull its own weight — no one wants to be second-guessing their choice of optic in the middle of a life-threatening situation.
  • Ease of use: How easy is this optic to use, clean, repair or replace? Optics need to remain uncomplicated and easy-to-use, whether that means it's a top-of-the-line EOTech optic or a simple spike front sight post.

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AR-15 Sights for Home Defense

When it comes to choosing sights for home defense, you need to look for these crucial features:

  • Quick target acquisition: Many different sights come with different front post sizes, different reticle sizes, etc. What you need is something that's going to enable you to find your targets quickly and keep the reticle on that target, so you know exactly where you're putting your fire.
  • Night usage: Consider how brightly the light of your optic shines, or if it even has one at all. Since most criminals tend to attack after dark, being able to put a brightly lit dot on target, especially in low-light conditions, is going to make nighttime usage much easier.
  • Ease of use: The third and most vital consideration is ease of use. How easy is it to sight targets with this optic? Can you use it to easily put accurate fire down range? Does it need a lot of cleaning or frequent battery replacement? All of these are important considerations when it comes to ease of use.

A red-dot or holographic sight (such as an Aimpoint or EOTech) offers all of these, especially if you purchase one in the more standard heads-up configuration rather than a tube-style optic. They're perfect for close-in or medium-range style shooting, which commonly occurs during home defense situations. Most also either come stock with red optics (ideal for night shooting) or come with the option to add a tritium optic, which is perfect for low-light conditions.

When it comes to ease-of-use, most red dot sights last for thousands of hours, while the original Aimpoint sights work for 1500 to 3000 hours.

AR-15 Sights for Range and Recreational Shooting

When it comes to range shooting, choose the sight with which you're most comfortable. Range shooting often acts as practice, so you need to find the sight that you want to use and practice with. That being said, most range-shooting competitions favor the use of iron sights as opposed to holographic or red dot optics.

If you're looking to get involved in range shooting competitions, consider using a pair of custom flip-up front and rear sights for your AR-15. If you're just looking to spice up your iron sights, another option would be to use a spike-style front sight post as a quasi-red dot while still enabling you to use the regular iron sights that came with your rifle.

Ultimately, though, the type of sight you use for range shooting depends on what kind of range shooting you're doing. If you're just going for practice, go either with your standard-use sights or a red-dot/holographic sight for easier target acquisition. If you're going for competition, stick to iron sights. These sights allow for quick acquisition of the target while providing shooters clear views of the game to execute a clean and quick shot.

AR-15 Sights for Hunting

AR-15 hunting rifles are most often used when hunting feral pigs and boars as well as varmint hunting coyotes, groundhogs, foxes, Prairie Dogs, Raccoons, and Bobcats. The .223 round is ideally designed for taking these quick moving small to medium sized game. With the style this game is hunted and the short to medium range you will be shooting, a red dot or holographic sight for your AR-15 is ideal. A red dot or holographic weapon sights system allows a hunter get a clear and quick acquisition of their target, leading to better shots and cleaner kills.

When it comes to red dot or holographic optics, the three best-known optics companies are Aimpoint, Trijicon and EOTech. While Aimpoint has been in the business the longest, EOTech makes some of the better hunting optics, including one that offers 3X magnification for taking long-distance shots.

AR-15 Sights for Military Use

When it comes to military use, red dot sights tend to be the order of the day. The US army has introduced an Aimpoint optic, the CompM2, as one of its standard optics. The CompM2, designated the M68 Close Combat Optic, has been in military service since 2000. So, if you're looking to get a military optic, consider getting a red dot sight.

Optic Sights vs Iron Sights

Since the use of optics has been steadily on the rise, many shooters tend to transition straight to using optics instead of going through their paces with the iron sights attached to their rifles. However, using iron sights can have its benefits, and is something that every shooter should learn how to do. After all, what if your optic fails?

Benefits of Shooting with Iron Sights

Iron sights tend to be exceptionally precise, and you can make upgrades and adjustments to them to suit the shooter's preference. It's also much easier to use and engage targets with iron sights, especially when it comes to longer ranges. It's entirely possible to engage a target out to 1500 feet (500 yards) with a good pair of iron sights, especially if those sights are augmented with a tritium front sight post, making shooting easier at long ranges in low-light environments.

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Additionally, many shooting competitions, such as the NRA high-power competition, require shooters to use iron sights only. So if you plan to do any competition shooting, iron sights are the way to go.

Benefits of Shooting with Optic Sights

As compared to iron sights, optics get on target faster. They're much better when it comes to short and medium-range shooting, and the variety of reticle choices available means that a shooter can choose the optic that is right for them. Additionally, red dot optics don't need any upgrades or adjustments for night shooting or low light environments.

Veteran Tip: Train and Shoot with Both Sight Styles

If you choose to make the transition from using just your iron sights to using an optic with your iron sights as your back-up, remember to continue to train with your iron sights. You may be forced to go back to a rifle with plain optics because yours is out of batteries or damaged, and knowing how to use regular iron sights will serve you in good stead.

Train to become as proficient as you can with the iron sights on your rifle, especially when you have down time. This will allow you to switch between the two at will, meaning that you can save the iron sights for longer-range targets while still leaving a red dot or holographic sight as your primary optic.

Trust Wing Tactical For all Your Optics Needs

Whether you need a simple pair of flip-up iron sights, a new front sight post or the newest EOTech optic, trust Wing Tactical for all of your optics needs. Since 2013, Wing Tactical has striven to provide its customers with the best accessories at the lowest prices possible, all through one convenient website. If you're looking to get a new optic for your favorite rifle, browse our inventory to find the option that's right for you.