Red Dot Scopes vs. Reflex Sights

Red Dot Scopes vs. Reflex Sights

The eyes have it

By Dennis Adler

The Tanfoglio Gold Custom CO2 model and the 9mm centerfire model are competition guns designed for mounting optics. The optics of choice is red dot sights, either scope designs, or HUD reflex style. While scope-style red dot sights are more than 40 years old, as evidenced by this c.1983 Aimpoint Mark III mounted on the Tanfoglio’s rail, the concept has changed very little since Aimpoint developed the first red dot sights.

Why doesn’t a newer design make an older one so outmoded that it simply ceases to be relevant as a consumer product? I think the answer lies not only in the product but the longevity of its role in the consumer marketplace. This applies to just about everything including firearms and airguns. In fact, about the only place that this theory fails to prove itself is in communications and technology. I mean who would want to walk around today with a Motorola Dyna TAC? Same for early portable computers, sometimes new technology makes old technology into an anachronism. Not so with older airguns, which, even in the face of newer designs, still maintain their allure like many older centerfire and rimfire pistols and semi-autos.

Original Aimpoint red dot scopes were large, heavy and had small front and rear objective lenses. The Mark III was the first to offer adjustable illumination. The right-side barrel is the battery compartment (rear cap) and rheostat switch (front). The size and weight of red dot sights has come way down over the years, as has the retail price. I used this sight on an AMT Longslide .45 Auto more than 30 years ago for competition target shooting and it still works perfectly today.

This also holds true for red dot optical sights, which while having advanced in leaps and bounds over the past 40 odd years, have never lost sight (pun intended) of their market or become outmoded, particularly for target and competition pistols, and within the military and law enforcement community.

Practical shooting

In USPSA (United States Practical Shooting Association) Open Class competition, as well as IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation), and Bianchi Cup Open Class matches, you will find competitors using pistols fitted with two basic types of red dot optics; reflex sight scopes and “heads-up” reflex sights, the latter being the more modern. As I have mentioned in past articles, red dot scopes (that look like rifle scopes) are old school, designed decades ago and while it might seem logical that smaller, more modern reflex sights, that have no resemblance to a scope, should have totally eclipsed bulkier red dot designs, both remain competitive. Pistol shooters will gravitate to one or the other and this is the same whether shooting semi-autos or revolvers. And that in itself speaks volumes; revolvers are still used in modern day competitive shooting.

In the late 1990s when Umarex raised the bar for CO2 powered pellet-firing air pistols with models like the Walther CP99, based on the then groundbreaking polymer framed 9mm P99, the pellet-firing model was offered as a training gun for German law enforcement using the P99. For the airgun market it was also available with an optional optics bridge and a Top Point red dot scope. The basic design of the Top Point is still used today for a number of red dot designs for BB and pellet firing pistols and rifles. Like Aimpoint models of the period, the Top Point had a multi-level illumination dial which is standard on all modern red dot scopes today.

Aimpoint (in Sweden) invented the red dot scope in 1974. I purchased my first Aimpoint red dot sight, a Mark III, in 1983, to mount on an AMT Longslide Model 1911 for use in competitive target shooting. I still have it, and it is still in perfect operating condition 35 years later, in fact, that is the sight you see in the opening photograph mounted on a new Tanfoglio Gold Custom CO2 target pistol. It may look a little oversized for the CZ-75 based semi-auto, but that’s how big red dot scopes were.

While the objective lens on the old Mark III is small by today’s standards, and the housing large, the principal operating design remains the same; the aiming reticle (a dot or other design, such as crosshairs), is projected forward from a point behind the objective lens, and then reflected off the back of the objective lens assembly so that it appears to the shooter’s eye to be on the target. This could be likened to a laser beam marking the target, only without the actual beam, just the image of it from the shooter’s perspective. To achieve this, the objective lens in the reflex sight is a partial mirror that has been coated to reflect only the wavelength of light emitted by the reticle illumination system; commonly a light emitting diode. It is this reflective surface on the front lens that accounts for the colors you see looking at red dot scopes from the opposite end.

Seeing red technology

Although more than 30 years old, the Aimpoint Mark III allowed you to adjust the reticle brightness (it was the first Aimpoint to offer this feature) by dialing it up or down, but it was not incrementally adjustable like today’s Aimpoint (and other) red dot sight designs. The more contemporary heads up display sights (HUD), which are more commonly referred to today as reflex sights, (though scope designs are also reflex sights), use the same principal but do away with the entire housing and rear lens. This makes them lighter, smaller, and in most cases much faster to acquire than a scope design which brings me back to my original question about why scope-style units are still in use for handguns and rifles. It depends upon the application. Law enforcement and military still prefer the older design for the majority of applications. Competitive shooters are looking for speed and the open reflex sight is undeniably faster to acquire (with practice). Scope designs are more familiar, and once on target easier to maintain with the same advantages of an optical rifle or pistol scope, only without any magnification factor. (There are also red dot sights with magnification factors).

Not as new as some red dot scopes, nor as compact, the BSA RD42 (and slightly smaller RD38) are among the best and most popular scope-style red dot sights for air pistols and air rifles. They are also built well enough to be used on small caliber rimfire and centerfire arms. The BSA offers 11 illumination levels for the dot.

Where red dot sights come into play for air pistols, especially for use in target shooting, goes all the way back to the earliest semi-auto style pellet-firing models like the Umarex Walther CP99 which, when it came out in 2001, was offered with an auxiliary optics bridge that attached to the dustcover rail, and a Walther Top Point red dot sight. The Top Point (no longer available but the CenterPoint 1x25mm Multi-TAC Quick Aim Sight is similar), was equivalent to the then latest Aimpoint design. I still have my 2001 CP99 equipped with the original optics bridge and Top Point sight and it remains one of the most accurate and easiest to shoot semi-auto style pellet-firing air pistols I have.

One of the best options today for a semi-auto air pistol with an optics bridge or top rail is another affordable and very accurate red dot design, the BSA RD42, also an older design that has staying power. And there are many variations of this style for airguns sold by UTG, Swiss Arms, ASG, Hawke Sport Optics, and Bushnell. They all have the same pistol scope design with a short, round barrel, large objective lens and top- or side-mounted master control with multiple brightness settings. Suitable for single action/double action revolvers, semi-auto pistols, and tactical-style air rifles, I have favored the BSA RD42, old and new version, for years with pellet and BB firing CO2 models. Not to play favorites but it is one of the more ruggedly constructed red dot scopes and I have run my old RD42 on a number of centerfire and rimfire arms over the years without any issues. So you don’t have to spend hundreds of dollars to get a good red dot sight, especially if you are only using it on airguns.

The evolution of red dot sights in the 21st century has given us some extraordinary designs. One of the most practical and affordable HUD sights for air pistols is the Walther MRS, which is also sold in a similar version by CenterPoint, and offers multiple reticle designs and well as illumination levels. For semi-auto target shooting with CO2 pistols, it is hard to surpass the HUD design. Professional competition models like the C-More, Burris Fast Fire III, Vortex Venom, Meprolight Tru-Dot, and Leupold Delta Point cost hundreds of dollars more, and while designed for centerfire pistols also work as well with airguns.

Age before objectives

Eyesight is paramount to accuracy, we can all agree on that. With open sights on a handgun or a rifle, the limitations of eyesight quickly become evident. The human eye cannot focus on the rear sight, the front sight and the target at the same time. Three is one too many. With age, depending upon the individual and their eyesight, two can become difficult. Experienced shooters in the military, law enforcement and in competition shooting (often the very same people) learn how to work with the sights and target based on distance, circumstances, lighting, hand-eye coordination, and practiced skills. None of it is easy. With air pistols you experience the same limitations and learn the same skills (and thus the reason so many are used for training exercises), and one of the things you learn along the way are your own limitations. My earliest understanding of this was coming to the realization that I am right handed and left eye dominant. I can shoot with my right eye but not as accurately as with my left, nor as fast. With pistols this is not much of an issue, with longarms and shotguns the left right combo is a bear. In my case, no mater how much I have practiced over the years I’ve never managed to train myself to shoot as effectively with my right eye, at least not without a prolonged pause, and at my age I have given in to tilting my head just enough to get a left eye sight picture without being too obvious. The thing that levels the playing field for me and many others is not using the gun’s sights, but rather an optical sight. It is quite advantageous for those of us who are wired a little backwards, or for those whose eyesight isn’t what it used to be. Glasses can only correct for so much, a good red dot sight overcomes almost anything. I now need glasses to shoot (not just shooting glasses, but glasses to correct for what used to be 20/20 vision), but I don’t wear prescription eye glasses shooting with a red dot sight. That fact and being able to shoot with both eyes open are the biggest advantages.

Old school still hangs in with scope designs like the latest BSA RD42. While it is only a variable illumination red dot, I find the large 42mm objective lenses easier to work with. Older eyes need all the advantages. Law enforcement and military also still rely on scope designs or advanced holographic weapons sights, like those from EO-Tech. It is all a matter of choice, but the same choices made in the world of centerfire arms are also available for airguns.

For my personal shooting choice I favor the larger objective lens size of a scope-style reflex sight, but I find the Walther MRS/ CenterPoint 1x25mm Multi-TAC Quick Aim, very easy to pick up, and with the crosshair circle reticle selected (of the three reticle options that can be dialed up), the easiest to keep on target. Again, that is my airgun experience and it may differ from yours.

The Walther MRS (Multi-Reticle Sight) and CenterPoint offer different reticle shapes, including what I find to be the best overall, the crosshair circle, which is ideal for target shooting with CO2 pistols and tactical-style rifles, BB or pellet firing. The HUD style sight is ideal for competitive pistol shooting, but has also found an audience with law enforcement and the military in recent years.

Most of you who target shoot with optics already know everything I am writing here, but for beginning target shooters, sport shooters, or those deciding on adding optics to their CO2 pistol or rifle, the variety of red dot sights offered today will meet all of your expectations without costing more than the air pistol or air rifle you are mounting it on. As for me, I’m going to go shoot my old Aimpoint Mark III just for old time’s sake!

3 thoughts on “Red Dot Scopes vs. Reflex Sights”

  1. Hi all, sorry for the late publishing of this article; just a bit under the weather and working slower than usual. I find any discussion on optics for airguns worthwhile, especially when you can look back at how designs have changed over the years.

    • You aren’t the only one feeling under the weather. The roller coaster weather here in Missouri has had my allergies flaring up. I hope you are feeling better now.

      I’ve got a couple of those Center Point 1x25mm Multi-TAC Quick Aim Sight, one on my Beretta CX4 pellet rifle, and the other on my Sig Sauer MCX pellet rifle. I really like the Multi-TAC sights. I have one question for you about the Multi-TAC sight. Is it true that if I change the reticle I have to re-zero the sight? I always thought that I could sight it in with any of the reticles and then freely change the reticle without having to make any adjustment for the new reticle.

      I’ve also got a BSA RD30 red dot sight. At one time I had it mounted on my Dan Wesson 2.5 inch BB revolver. After a while I took off the RD30 because it felt like the revolver was uncomfortably heavy with it on. The other problem is that I couldn’t holster the revolver with the RD30 mounted.

      • I don’t have the Multi-TAC I have the Walther MRS and I have not experienced that problem when switching from one reticle to another. I’ll have to get a Multi-TAC and see if there is a difference. They are not the exact smae design but very similar but I find it odd that you would have to adjust for each reticle design. POA adjustment should not change from one to the other.

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