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Best AR-15 Optics | Budget and High-End Tactical Scopes
Finding the best AR-15 Budget optics is nothing short of extremely stressful, as I’d imagine you’ve figured out by now seeing you found my prepper website. Just like classic car lovers and pinball machine collectors, snobbery exists amongst the AR-15 herd. If you don’t know that by now, join any AR-15 Facebook group and you will quickly see that deciding the best AR-15 optics purely amounts to worse fallout than anything we preppers tend to prepare for. Even my best SHTF gun article, which lists the M&P 15 Sport 2 as the best economic buy for a budget prepper has been condemned by some (but praised by many, and rightfully so!).
There are many reasons to own an AR-15 rifle. Maybe you’re a prepper who felt safer and secure owning a SHTF gun. Maybe your someone who just found yourself falling in love with the sport of rifle shooting. Maybe you needed an upgrade in home defense. Maybe you hunt. The AR-15 rifle is a versatile (probably the most versatile) firearm on the planet. So it should come as no surprise that the AR-15 scopes can be just as versatile. Deciding the best optics for your AR-15 begins and ends with your reason behind owning your AR-15. Once you come to terms with that, we can segregate a group of optics and break down what you want from there. Until then, you really are just looking at more scopes than the brain can handle. Please note, I also have an article on the best AR-15 Flash Hiders.
How To Buy An AR-15 Rifle Scope or Optics
AR-15 optics options can be overwhelming, so let’s begin by simplifying the concept based on what YOU are really looking for. There are two types of AR-15 scopes: Hunting and Tactical. An AR-15 hunting scope is a scope you intend to use primarily for hunting. An AR-15 tactical scope is a scope that will be used with self-defense in mind. Here’s the thing, you can hunt with a tactical scope. You can use an AR-15 with a hunting scope in cases of home defense. The idea here is to figure out what your primary needs are. If you just purchased your AR-15, you likely don’t expect an intruder to burst into your home in the middle of the night, so most of your use is likely at a gun range or plinking on your land. Getting a tactical AR-15 scope doesn’t mean that you only use the scope for self-defense or fighting off zombies during the apocalypse.
Hunting scopes are typically longer, have more zoom, and can increase the range of your accuracy. This is perfect for deer hunting in Kansas. But this might be less perfect for dealing with a situation whereas you need to raise your AR-15 in fast order and locate a target (self-defense and some hunting scenarios). Tactical scopes are typically more compact and offer better eye relief, which allows you to raise the gun and look through it in faster order to find a target. If you raise a gun and try to find a target through a scope that’s heavily zoomed, you get super condensed real estate which forces you to meticulously look for the target. If the target is close and the lens is zoomed, it can be a mess. Think of an AR-15 hunting scope as something you’d have when you have the patience to see a target with your eyes, then locate it in a scope, and then take a shot.
Choosing The Best AR-15 Budget Optics | Prices
Don’t feel ashamed that this is your biggest concern. The price of AR-15 optics matters greatly. You aren’t likely a person who depends on your AR-15 for making a living, therefore, it gets classified into the hobby category. And we have to create budgets for all hobbies, even AR-15 rifles. If you use your AR-15 to hunt for food, well, that ups your game a little. And if your AR-15 is a .308, well, that’s more recoil, and more optics durability you need to consider.
There are good AR-15 optics available under $100. There are some pretty stellar ones for $200. Beyond that, you can get some absolutely amazing ones. In this part of the section, I will point out the best AR-15 optics for the money. Some are budget, some are not. If you are looking for a budget AR-15 optic that’s under $100, that’s perfectly great. I’m not going to offer up ranking these optics because I feel that’s a bit shallow with all the considerations, price included, we all have to make. Additionally, below this section, there is even more AR-15 optics buyer info, so feel free to scroll on down and come back to the suggested ones feeling a bit more informed.
Best AR-15 Optics List
If you’ve been browsing around, some of these are likely to look pretty darn familiar. I encourage you to click on any of these you see and read even more reviews. Often verified buyers put up more pictures which really gives you a great idea of what you want or need.
AT3 LEOS Red Dot Sight Review
This is a tactical, mildly budget AR-15 optic. The battery life is 50,000 hours, which is really good for optics that are less than $200. In fact, the AT3 LEOS red dot tactical may even be around $120, depending. It has 2 MOA red dot. It comes with a red laser to boot. This is a budget tactical scope that can be used for home defense, fun at the range, and even hunting if need be. And it will be fine supporting the recoil on your rifle, it shouldn’t break up.
This one also comes with a mounted riser that allows you to cowitness your iron sights, which is something I always tend to look for in tactical optics. This means you can still see your iron sights through the glass. This is handy if your battery runs out, or, you just want to measure up using the iron sights. You will get some zoom at 1x30mm. It takes a common CR123A battery, also the manufacturer includes one. And it is nitrogen filled, rendering it waterproof and fog proof. The last thing you want is to be at the range or hunting on a humid day and not be able to see through your scope. I doubt you end up swimming across a lake with it mounted on your AR-15, but hey, if it happens….
It has solid control systems allow you to switch between red dot and laser modes. You can even set it to dual function, both the red dot and laser running simultaneously. For the price, this is a wonderful option.
NOTE: You can get this sight a little cheaper if you don’t care about the included laser. Remember, with Picatinny rails, you can always choose to add a laser later, possibly cheaper than what you’d pay for the additional cost. Read my full AT3 LEOS Red Dot Sight review.
Here’s the version without the laser:
AT3 Tactical RD-50 Red Dot Sight
So what are the downgrades and do you really care? Well, for starters and as mentioned the AT3 Tactical RD-50 has no included laser. It has the same battery. Same mounting options for cowitness purposes. And it is nitrogen filled. Really, you just lose the laser in this deal which you can always choose to add at a later date.
Vortex Strikefire 2 Red and Green Dot Sight
This is my favorite red dot/green dot optic. I own it. I love it. And it is typically priced more than fairly under $200. This is the next best thing to having a $600 scope. Vortex is an unrivaled good company. They offer a lifetime warranty on their optics, so no matter what happens or when, mail it back to Vortex and they got you. Unlike the AT3’s I listed above, the Vortex Strikefire 2 is single magnification, so keep that in mind if you care about that aspect. For purely tactical purposes, I see no need for any magnification whatsoever. The eye relief is unlimited, allowing you to grab your rifle and acquire a target in extremely expedited fashion. You can change the brightness of both the background and the red dot. This is a night-vision compatible lens.
In terms of magnifications, you can always add on a Vortex VXM-3t magnifier at a later date. It will cost you around the same as the lense, but this should alleviate concerns that you are stuck with the magnification potential of 1X. You aren’t at all. Read my Vortex Strikefire 2 Review or check out the Amazon link below for more information.
Let’s move on to another Vortex optic.
Vortex Optics Sparc AR Red Dot Sight 40MM
Again, with Vortex, you get the Vortex VIP warranty which is a lifetime guarantee on the optics. This is a red dot tactical optic lense with a little 40mm zoom. It comes with a nice microfiber lens cloth. This is a parallax free optic. It has holographic sights and red dot capabilities built in. It can occasionally run you under $200 depending on the day or the deal. It comes with two mounting settings which allow for two versions of cowitness.After 12-hours, the lense will shut off. This assures you don’t burn your battery by forgetting to turn it off and then putting it in your case for a week, or two, or many! This thing will run at the highest brightness setting for 300 hours and 5k for the minimum. Just the fact that Vortex tells us that is great because many manufacturers just tout the lowest brightness battery life (kinda like how Apple does with the iPhone). The Vortex Sparc Red Dot is a superior optic available at a more budget oriented price. Read my Vortex Sparc review for more information, or check out more reviews on Amazon.
Sig Sauer Romeo 5
Another outstanding brand. The point of this list is to hopefully feature some budget AR-15 optics that are backed by outstanding, reliable brands. Welcome Sig Sauer Romeo 5. With 2 MOA red dot options and ten brightness adjustments, this is a great buy. It is commonly around $160-ish, depending on the deal or the day. It is nitrogen filled, so no worries about fog or getting it wet. This thing will easily handle an AR-15 in .223 or .308, however, you “may” need to occasionally tighten the screws back up if you shoot a lot of rounds. You will notice it not being zeroed in, that’s when you do this. It’s not a big thing and common with many scopes. Once you tighten the screws back to the Picatinny rails, you are once again zero’d in. Read my Sig Sauer Romeo 5 review for more info or check out Amazon for more reviews.
Choosing The Best AR-15 Optics | Weather
Science matters. The elements for which you will be using your scope in matter a whole lot. If you live in an area that gets lots of rain, cold weather, or humid weather, your scope glass could fog up. Does your car window often fog up to the point you are forced to use a defroster? That’s what glass does. And your scope will be made of glass. If you are taking aim at a deer or a target and the scope goes foggy, it will be a miserable experience.
So how do you solve this? When looking for a scope, make sure it is nitrogen purged scope, or nitrogen filled. You can look at the manufacturer’s product details and it should say this (if it is). If this isn’t stated, I would guess it is nitrogen purged. That’s a rather big marketing point for scope manufacturers so it is unlikely they leave it out. This will also make your scope waterproof. This detail is pretty darn large. If the scope maker just says “doesn’t fog” or “water resistant” without mentioning the nitrogen aspect, I’d look deeper or contact them to get clarification. This is your hard earned money, take nothing for granted.
Choosing The Best AR-15 Optics | Eye Relief
You are going to see this term a whole lot if you are looking for AR-15 optics. And rightfully so, it is a big deal. Many avid hunters and gun owners do not adequately understand what scope eye relief really is.
Eye relief is how far away the scope’s back glass needs to be from your eye for you to clearly see your target. Why does this matter? When you pull your AR-15 up to your shoulder, if you have your head 5 inches back and your eye relief is 3.5 inches on the scope, you won’t see your target. And this will require you to adjust where your head is resting on the stock. That’s extra activity that could make the difference in a self-defense situation or for a deer that may get startled by anything while you are finding your eye relief distance. With hunting scopes, eye relief can get even more complex.
A variable hunting scope, meaning a scope that allows you to adjust its magnification, may advertise itself as having eye relief of 3.5 inches. However, use the zoom, and suddenly that eye relief moves to under 3 inches. Many people who buy hunting scopes are a bit thrown by this the first time they use it. But that’s the nature of marketing, the scope manufacturer tends to favor using the best possible scenario for the number. It helps them compete with other scope makers.
With eye-relief, recoil can matter, but not really with an AR-15. The AR-15 has minimal recoil, so you shouldn’t have issues with a scope that has lower eye relief. But if you move that scope to a higher powered rifle intended to take down an elk at 600 yards, well, you might end up with a nasty cut on your eye. This is because you are being forced to put your eye closer to the glass on a rifle that will “kick” the scope back into your face. As stated, this isn’t a heavy concern with an AR-15, but it demonstrates the point in clear fashion.
Tactical AR-15 scopes generally will often have better eye relief. AR-15 optics, such as red dots, may offer up unlimited eye relief.
Choosing The Best AR-15 Optics | Magnification
Probably the most asked question when it comes to AR-15 rifle scopes is the magnification aspect. If you are new, you probably think that all rifle optics magnify, but that’s not true at all. Red dots don’t typically magnify, they just show you a red dot (or green, depending) for your target. The biggest things to look out for when buying a zoom scope are as follows:
- Is it a fixed zoom or versatile zoom? Fixed means the zoom remains the same all the time. Versatile means you can adjust the scope’s magnification. If you are deer hunting, you might keep your versatile zoom at the lowest zoom rate so you get the largest field of view. This will allow you to find the deer in more expedient fashion. Once you locate the deer, you zoom in. If you attempt to find the deer at the highest of zooms, it will take you longer to locate the deer in the scope. This example should also clarify whether or not you want a fixed or versatile zoom. Additionally, it can help you decide how much versatility you want in a zoom.
- How much distortion do you get throughout the zoom? This is something you are more likely to get an honest answer regarding when reading consumer reviews.
- How much light does the scope’s aperture allow? This is a huge deal if you are a hunter. The less scope aperture, the less light allowance, and this means your scope will be difficult to see in during low light situations. The scope’s aperture allows you to absorb more or less surrounding light. If you hunt early in the morning, in the woods, on a mountainside, well, light may not be at a premium. Therefore, pay attention to the aperture. Remember, your scope is just a lens, similar to a camera’s lens.
Choosing The Best AR-15 Optics | Reticle
This may well be one of the most complex and difficult to understand attributes of a rifle scope in general. Reticles are simple, in most cases. They are the crosshairs you see through the lens. These crosshairs are used for aiming at a target and they are typically either created with thin wiring inside the glass or etched over the top of the glass. Crosshairs and reticles are the same things.
So what do reticles do? A lot, actually.
- Reticles are a major influence on hunting scopes. They help you locate varmints, boars, and even larger game in the scope and potentially measure distance.
- Reticles help assist a shooter in lower light scenarios.
- Reticles can be used in tactical scenarios.
- Reticles can help a shooter at sniper’s distance determine the bullet drop ratio. Yep, a bullet fired at a long enough range will drop, rendering your stable crosshair point as high. How far it drops can be determined in the way the reticles are set inside the scope’s lens.
- Some reticles can light up, giving a boost to a lens that might have its crosshairs caught in a low light, dark, or poor background situation.
Let’s take a deeper dive into the tactical aspect of things using an often ignored possibility.
Imagine that you have red dot optics on your AR-15 rifle. Those red dots don’t magically appear, they are powered by a battery. If that battery runs out, the red dot is gone. So what are you left with? Well, if you can co-witness (see below for deeper explanation) your iron sites, you can still look through and use your unmagnified optics. But wouldn’t it be better to just see some crosshairs? Enter reticles. This allows you to just look through an optic that’s no longer functioning in a technological manner. Did you know that some scopes can fail due to EMP attack? Yep, and there are ways to deal with red dot optics and EMP attacks to better protect them from EMP emittance. All the same, the crosshairs, or reticle, is sure nice to have.
Many manufacturers give custom names to their reticles, likely to give their scope or optics more marketing flare, and maybe even for patent situations. The optic’s description should still say reticle, however, it may have a unique associated name given by the manufacturer.
Types Of Reticles
Reticles come in hundreds of unique type of styles. It can make things awfully confusing. Let’s look at a few main types.
These are the most common type you will come across. This is essentially an X but shaped like a cross, which is usually equal on all sides. A Duplex Reticle can offer a shooter advanced markings to help negotiate distance. This can help a hunter or competitive shooter decide range and even measure bullet drop algorithm.
This is pretty much exactly the same as a Duplex Reticle, except, it has rings on it which allow you to shoot at a moving target. It allows you to compensate how much you might need to lead the target. The thing is, this additional aspect filters down the amount of people who would need such benefit. Unless you think you are going to be shooting at moving game or targets, this just isn’t relevant for your purposes.
This is the reticle that you find military and police officers having on their AR-15 rifles. This is a supremely tactical reticle experience, allowing a shooter to measure even more distance (up to 600 yards versus Duplex at up to 100 yards). This is a highly tactical optics advantage, which is why it is used by professionals who make a living using their rifles.
AR-15 Optics And Cowitness
What the heck is “cowitness?” It’s simple. It means you can still see your iron sights through the glass. This is something I love, but it is a preference. What if your optics battery runs out? Well, you won’t have to remove the optics from your Picatinny rail, rather, you can just revert to your regular iron sights. There are many more in-depth uses, that’s just scratching the surface. You will see a lot of optics advertising the cowitness aspect and it is the number one question you will see from consumers.
The Final Word On AR-15 Optics
The most important decisions you need to make regarding your optics are what you intend to use them for and what you are willing to pay. Once you narrow that down, your decision process a much easier situation. Amazon sells a lot of AR-15 optics, which offers you the ability to read consumer reviews and look at pictures.
If you are still in the market for an AR-15 at a budget cost, check out my best SHTF gun article.