You are looking for a new optic for your rifle and don’t know whether it should look for red dots or holographic sights? Or would a scope be the best choice? Let’s dive into the differences and compare red dot vs holographic sights vs scopes.
There are so many options to choose from when considering a scope or sight for your gun. Yes, the terms are scope or sight because those two aren’t exactly the same.
Anything with the word sight in it is not going to have magnification. Anything with the word scope is going to have magnification. So, as the name states, red dots and holographic sights are non-magnifying.
What are red dot sights and how are they different from holographic sights? What is a scope? Is there anything that is in between scopes and red dots or holographic sights: for those of you that want the best combination of target acquisition possibilities (find the top-rated tactical red dot sights for AR-15)?
We’re going to cover all that right here, and no, there won’t be any Call of Duty or Battlefield references. Except for that one…
What is a Red Dot Sight?
You may hear the terms red dot sight and reflex sight used interchangeably. This is because they are essentially the same thing.
Nearly every manufacturer of riflescopes also has red dots that they offer. They range from affordable red dot sight models like the Sig Romeo5 or the Bushnell TRS-25 to high-end devices like the Aimpoint Pro [Have a look at the best Aimpoint clones!].
Red dot sights place a red dot on the target. This can be used in place of or in addition to the iron sights (How to aim a rifle with iron sights) on your gun. You can use red dot sights on both a rifle and a handgun, so it makes a red dot sight pretty versatile as far as sighting goes.
Red dot sights are electronic sights. You have a small red dot being projected onto your sight image to indicate where the bullet will hit. The dot, which in many sights can also be used in green, can vary in size.
A smaller dot will work better for longer ranges while a large dot works better for red dot sights for shotguns. A typical size for a rifle or handgun would be to have a 1 MOA dot or a 2 MOA dot.
Red dots for shotguns will have a larger dot of 5 to 8 MOA. The size defines the size that the dot covers at 100 yards. For example, a 1 MOA dot will cover roughly 1 inch (exactly 1.047 inches) at 100 yards. The larger size for red dot sights for shotguns makes sense as your rifle is not that exact.
One of the reasons that a red dot sight is easier to use – especially for new gun owners – is that it automatically corrects to the target and sight image despite the angle of the eye to the sight (to an extent).
The parallax will interfere with a red dot sight if you do not line it up to your eye, but it does not have to be a perfect alignment like it would need to be on a scope. It is also far easier to sight red dot sights than iron sights or the three-dot crosshairs on most pistols.
Red dots do not have magnification. You can combine red dots with a magnifier though. They will add a fixed magnification of 3x or higher to make red dot sights useful for medium-range to long-range targeting.
A problem you can run into with a magnifier for red dots is that your dot loses a lot of its crispness. If you think of using a magnifier then make sure to use a higher-end sight that typically has well-defined red or green dots that will stay crisp when magnified.
You usually won’t see a difference in a non-magnified setting but with a magnifier, high-quality red dot sights will perform better. A smaller dot, like a 1 MOA dot, will also perform better when magnified compared to a larger one.
Any red dot sight requires a battery for illumination of the dot. The light source on red dot sights is usually a LED that is low in battery consumption. Battery life on red dots can reach over 50,000 hours. You won’t run out of battery anytime soon if you change them every couple of years.
You can impact the battery life of red dot sights by dialing the intensity of the dot back. Depending on your surrounding light conditions you might need to reduce or increase the brightness of the dot.
Many of these electronic sights also come with one or more night vision settings. These night vision settings are helpful if you use your setup together with a night vision device (NVD) that is mounted in front of your sight.
Having a night vision compatible sight, whether it’s holographic vs red dot sights, can be a huge benefit for military and law enforcement scenarios. Adding an NVD to holographic sights or red dot sights that are night-vision compatible allows for 24/7 usage of the same optic.
Field of View (FOV) on a red dot sight is somewhat misleading. Yes, the red dot sights do have a FOV if you aim with one eye looking through the red dot optic.
However, if you aim with both eyes open you will practically have the same visible area as if you don’t use an optic at all. Some shooters and hunters find thick tubes and adjustments knobs and turrets to be impacting their aim when using both eyes. You might in that case opt for a reflex sight with a thin frame.
The construction of a red dot sight is fairly sturdy so you can use them on rifles with heavy recoil including shotguns (best shotgun red dot). Typically all of the glass of the red dot sights or holographic sights are housed inside a cylindrical metal casing. This makes them quite durable and protects the glass from any damage due to limbs or other debris when trekking through the woods.
What is a Holographic Sight?
A holographic sight is similar to a red dot sight, but a slightly better version. Holographic sights have a smaller build than red dots. They are typically a metal rectangular frame with glass sitting in it. This allows for quicker and easier target acquisition of holographic sights compared to red dot sights.
Holographic sights like the EOTech ones (Best EOTech Clones – Reviews and Buying Advice) are technological masterpieces. While not offering any magnification, these holographic sights do provide a depth perception you will not get with other types of sights. The best-known ones and the best you can get are any EOTech holographic sight. True holographic sights are rare and you at this time only find offerings from EOTech and Vortex. When you check red dot and holographic sights then your typical red dot will be more affordable.
This is because a true holographic sight has a 3D reticle. It is etched into the holographic plate of the sight. That plate is sitting between two windows and lasers are used to illuminate the reticle in the holographic sight.
The overall setup of such holographic sights is quite complicated and provides superb depth perception and speed of target acquisition. EOTech holographic sights use laser diodes to create the dot which leads to unsurpassed accuracy and sharpness of the reticle.
While there is no magnification on a holographic sight, you often can get a zoom capability with these types of sights by adding a magnifier. This allows for precise target acquisition across longer distances when you’re using holographic sights.
A typical combination you will find is to use an EOTech sight in combination with an EOTech magnifier. That provides 3x magnification for the sight and makes it a lot more useful for other scenarios besides tactical and home-defense.
EOTech holographic sights, like red dots, require batteries as a power source. The typical battery life on a holographic sight is less than on a red dot as the laser illumination requires more juice.
The EOTech 512 for example is rated with a battery life of 2,200 to 2,500 hours at level 12 brightness settings. You can find red dots with a battery life that’s 10x or even more than that!
When you compare red dot vs holographic sights with regards to the field of view then there’s not really a difference. EOTech holographic weapon sights usually have a rectangular window with a rather small frame. That can make it easier to target with both eyes open and not having to worry about limitations regarding the visible area.
The end product of this technology from EOTech is superior to any other sight. You can imagine that it is expensive to design and manufacture such a marvel of technology. For anyone not requiring this latest in technology for your safety or your day job, this sight might be overkill.
In addition to the difference in construction, holographic sights have smaller levels of parallax interference. Meaning that the angle you hold your gun at is going to be less affected by distortion. You will not have to perfectly line up your gun to your sight to hit on target.
Also, an EOTech holographic sight will typically have a different reticle than red dot sights. The holographic sight can be customized, but it will feature a small pinpoint inside of a larger illuminated red circle.
This allows for greater target accuracy because less of the target is obscured by the red dot – like on a red dot sight. This can certainly be negated on red dots by using a sight with a smaller dot. That’s a small but important distinguishing factor when you compare a red dot vs holographic weapon sights.
What is a Scope?
A scope has magnification on it. The magnification is the primary difference between a scope and a holographic sight and a red dot sight. Some scopes do utilize red dot reticles, while most will have a MIL or MOA reticle (MOA vs Mil-Dot/MRAD for Hunting) to assist with windage and elevation. Scopes for rifles have varying magnifications depending on the distance that you plan on shooting.
Typically when discussing scopes, you can have a first frontal plane scope or a second frontal plane scope. The first frontal plane scopes have reticles that grow and shrink with the magnification of the target.
First Focal Plane
The reticle is positioned on the front focal plane. The reticle at 10x will be much larger than at true one. This assists hunters and long-range target shooters to stay on target because there is no need to compensate for windage and elevation calculations on your MIL. First frontal plane scopes are more expensive than second frontal plane scopes.
When dealing with second frontal plane scopes, you do not get the same scaling of the reticle. This means that a reticle at 10x is going to be the same size as the reticle at true one.
Second Focal Plane
The reticle is positioned on the back or rear focal plane. The positioning in the back does not adjust the size of the reticle with your target when you dial through the magnification range.
This can cause some problems when doing windage and elevation calculations if you do not remember to adjust for the magnification. Though, once practiced with a second frontal plane scope most shooters do not have a problem making those adjustments.
Scopes come with a large variety of reticles. Some have bullet-drop compensation (BDC) while others use simple crosshairs. Many scope manufacturers also offer illuminated reticles which can be useful for low-light environments. They do require batteries to power the illumination though.
An advantage of a scope is that you can use the optic to aim even if you have an illuminated reticle and the battery is empty. A red dot or holographic sight is pretty much useless when the battery is drained.
What about ACOGs?
An advanced combat optical gunsight (ACOG) is essentially the bridge between a traditional scope and a red dot sight. The ACOG itself is made by Trijicon, but there are other manufacturers who make similar technology gunsights. These offer up-close targeting with red dot sighting.
The only problem with an ACOG is that it is not made for close quarters firing. If you are looking to hit close range targets, you either need to stick with a holographic/red dot sight or get an ACOG with a holo sight mounted on top.
An advantage of the ACOG vs red dots, reflex sights, and a holographic sight is that they don’t require a battery. The illumination of the reticle works without battery which is a huge advantage for military or law enforcement applications as you won’t run out of battery in the middle of an engagement.
When is which better to use?
Depending on your experience level, you may find you have a different preference for sights. The holographic sight is superior to the red dot sight simply because it does a lot more compensation for your eyes than a red dot sight does.
You can hold the gun at varying angles and still get your MOA dot on the target. Also, the holographic sights have fewer parallax issues which makes them superior to their red dot counterparts.
A red dot or holographic sight is traditionally geared towards military and law enforcement uses. As they don’t offer magnification, they are not the best choice for hunting without adding a magnifier. If budget or battery life is not an issue then go for a holographic sight when comparing red dot vs holographic weapon sights.
If you are looking for anything with magnification though, the holographic sights and red dots are not going to cut it for you except if you combine the optic with a magnifier. Both red dots and holographic sights work great with magnifiers and extend the usable range dramatically.
Trying an ACOG or traditional scope may leave you more satisfied at the end of your day; especially if you like to get up close and personal with your targets.
Each of the sights and scopes will have their own unique quirks. Getting to use a few different optical options before you invest is going to be your best bet for guaranteed satisfaction.