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Types of Optics and How To Use Them Effectively

When you need better accuracy from your weapon, the right gun optics can help you acquire a sight picture faster and maintain it through repeat shots on target. Understanding what the right optics are for you, however, can be tricky. Just as there are gun owners who customize their weapons to suit a variety of shooting needs, from competition to personal defense or professional use, there is a range of options available when it comes to adding optics to your guns. We’re going to look at some of the top tactical optics and compare how they stack up to each other so you can make a more informed decision about what’s best for your shooting needs. 

Optics Considerations

When you’re choosing the right gun optics, you need to start by understanding your shooting lifestyle and your needs as a gun owner. Just as different weapons are better suited for different tasks, so too are different optics better suited to fulfill certain roles. Some of the anticipated needs you may want to consider are:

  • Range – Longer range shots require greater precision, and that often means higher magnification rates.
  • Repeat Shots – As your body absorbs the recoil of repeated shots, your gun moves away from the point of aim on the target. A wider field of view may help with reacquisition.
  • Size of the Weapon – With so many gun optics options, it’s important that you’re using a sight or scope that offers a comfortable size and weight in relation to the weapon.
  • Dynamic Situations – You may choose different tactical optics for a duty weapon versus your concealed carry pistol or ranch carbine, as each will be carried and used under unique circumstances.

Types of Gun Optics

We’ve covered optics terminology already, but it’s important to understand a few key terms as we dig into the different types of gun optics available. Knowing a bit about these parts will help you understand the different strengths and weaknesses each one brings to the table.

  • Lens – A clear plane which light passes through in your optics. Some lenses are curved to refract the light, magnify it, otherwise change the output of your scope, or feature etched markings to assist your aiming.
  • Prisms – Rather than allowing light to pass through them like a lens, prisms change the direction of the light entering your gun optics, much as they do in a periscope.
  • Emitter – An emitter projects a beam of light from a laser diode onto a lens to create an image viewable to the shooter to assist in aiming. 
  • Mount – The place where your optics meet the gun using a standardized type of coupling to hold the sight or scope in place.
  • Reticle – The markings etched, printed, or projected into your sight picture to aid in aiming.

Traditional Scopes

If your Pappy’s hunting rifle with its long tube-like scope with flared ends comes to mind, you’re on the right track. Telescopic gun scopes have been the standard gun optics for mid to long-range shooting for generations, in most cases without much in the way of design or technological advancements. You look through the eye-piece which displays a magnified image from down-range. Often adjustable for windage and elevation to account for environmental factors encountered by the bullet during its long, arcing trajectory, these remain popular among big game hunters and tactical snipers who need to put a single, well-aimed round into a vital organ for a kill shot.

Most traditional scopes use reliable, time-tested optical lenses fixed into a tube or barrel to deliver a consistent image on the range or in the field. The interior of the barrel is usually either vacuumed free of air and moisture or charged with an inert gas to prevent condensation from forming inside the scope and to create a sealed environment free of dust or particulates. Because of the magnification and restricted field of view, care must be taken to line up the shot, and a steady hand and breathing are needed to avoid simple body motions from moving the target outside your field of view on extremely powerful scopes. This type of scope also has a very strict eye relief, meaning there is a set distance your eye must be from the exit pupil of the ocular lens for the image to be clear and accurately placed for maximum precision.

Long-range shooting requires control, and these types of gun optics usually rely heavily on practiced experience. These scopes work best when you have the time to carefully line up your shot, gauge and account for windage, elevation, distance, and your target’s movements, then gently pull the trigger. Recoil can make it difficult for consistent accuracy on follow-up shots, making other tactical optics better for situations that may require rapid target acquisition and multi-round engagement. Care must also be taken to avoid bumps and impacts that can knock the lenses out of alignment, as dialing in the scope again can take an extended amount of time and effort.

Prism Scopes

At first glance, prism scopes seem like diminutive traditional scopes with shorter barrels and smaller flared ends. In reality, that’s not too far off base, as prism scopes share some key features. It still has an objective lens closer to the target and an ocular lens. Between these two lenses, however, the scope bounces the image between two prisms, giving you a clear field of view to target in a smaller package. These scopes often still offer windage and elevation adjustments and can also offer limited magnification. The result is a smaller, lighter scope that allows for faster target acquisition but a shorter practical range for precision shooting.

Prism scopes are popular for rifles and carbines because they give you a balance between rapid response and range. On the larger frames of these weapons, the mid-range weight is easily manageable, and with a footprint smaller than traditional scopes, they’re more maneuverable in tight spaces and less likely to bang around and dislodge delicate internal parts. Prism scopes also sport an emitter that projects a bright, easily distinguishable reticle to improve acquisition speed and may also be designed with an etched reticle as a backup aiming method.

The speed and reliability of prism scopes make them the right tactical optics for short and mid-range work with long guns. You still have plenty of precision for mid-range rifle shots and long-range pistol-caliber carbine use, but the smaller size blocks less of the area surrounding your target from view. Eye relief is more forgiving, allowing for faster target acquisition and improving the accuracy of follow-up shots. 

Reflex Sights

Man firing a handgun at a shooting range

Sometimes called red-dot or green-dot sights, depending on the color of their emitters, these gun optics are designed for fast, reflexive shooting. They’re meant for lightning-fast, reliable acquisition that’s accurate enough for self-defense but not designed for precision shooting beyond the short ranges handguns and pistol-caliber carbines excel at. This makes them extremely popular tactical optics on duty weapons for first responders, house guns, and concealed carry weapons with smaller form factor reflex sight models.
Reflex sights are either open or closed in design, meaning the emitter is either housed in the base of a sealed box or tube capped at each end by a lens or housed in the base of the right with only a single lens positioned toward the shooter. The emitter projects a reticle directly onto this ocular lens. As it’s meant for short distances, most reflex sights are adjustable to dial-in the sight but not for immediate field adjustments on a shot-by-shot basis. Many reflex sights are designed to allow for cowitnessing–using the weapon’s iron sights as a backup aiming method in case of a dead battery.

Thanks to the slim design and unlimited eye relief, reflex sights are perfect for handguns. They give you an almost unlimited field of vision, and if you can clearly see the dot, you can take your shot with little deviation at close-up personal defense ranges. This allows you to react quickly to emerging tactical situations and get back on target fast for second-round engagement. The design also limits the risk of “holster bumps” knocking a vital component out of alignment, and cowitnessing helps ensure that accuracy is possible even if your gun optics fail.

Get The Right Optics for Your Gun

We’re proud to offer state-of-the-art optics that will help you shoot better. Our engineers give you gun optics that feature the practical application of emerging shooting technologies while keeping the price affordable for the average gun owner. Get the modern optics your modern guns deserve. Order your sights and scopes from Gideon Optics today.

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