Buying guide: Optics

Buying guide: Airsoft Optics & Red Dot Sights

The world of optical sighting systems can be a lot to take in for anyone new to the sport and hobby of Airsoft. The majority of new players choose an optic they think looks cool and mount it on their AEG, giving little thought to its functionality in-game. 

With this article we intend to equip the new Airsoft player with some handy hints and tips on choosing an optic, using the optic effectively and when using an optic may not be the best solution. Patrol Base is here in a possibly misguided attempt to put an end to the cloudy world of Airsoft sighting systems!

Red Dot Sights


The staple of Airsoft sighting systems, the red dot sight (referred to as RDS from here on) is probably more common than basic Iron sights on the skirmish field currently. Useful in all environments, when set up properly the RDS gives the user a single red point to index on their target, enabling far faster target acquisition than iron sights, wherein the user needs to align both front and rear sight with their target in order to score a hit. 

The origins of the RDS can be found in the "reflector sight" also known as the "reflex" sight, first invented in 1900. The reflector sight was not powered, and used primarily in combat aircraft, and saw only limited experimental use in small arms. 

The 1970s brought the advent of the red LED and with it came the invention of the Red dot sight. As technology improved, by the 2010s RDS became a standard issue with many militaries, often used as a primary sighting system on CQB-oriented rifles and as a backup sighting system on standard infantry rifles such as the M4a1 and SA80a2/a3, mounted above a fixed power combat optic. 

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Holographic Sights


Similar to the red dot sight, the holographic sight uses the same technology but provides the user with a multi-function reticle, taking the guesswork out of on-the-spot range/windage compensation, and often use a "dot and ring" style reticle. This affords the user a small and precise aiming point for longer distance engagements with a larger ring around it, which can be used for seriously quick instinct shooting at extremely close range. 

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Low Power Variable Optic Sights


Low power variable optics (LPVO), also referred to as 'short dot' scopes are a recent innovation for both Airsofters and real firearms users. The advantage of an LPVO is that it can provide an extremely low power setting for up-close snap shooting and also a moderately powerful zoom for spotting and longer-ranged engagements. 

Many LPVOs have illumination, making almost as fast as an RDS or Holosight, but with the precision and zooming option of a full-sized rifle scope. This is balanced by the increase in weight of using an LPVO over an RDS. 

The LPVO is gaining traction regardless, due to its weight-saving advantage over currently used Fixed power combat optics with an offset or "piggyback" mounted RDS, as seen on current issue SA80a3 rifles in the form of either an ACOG with Docter RDS or Elcan Specter Fixed with RMR. Arguably the most trendy and functional all-rounder sight on this list. 


Fixed Power Sights


Fixed power combat optics are what you will most commonly see on military rifles. There are many reasons for this, they tend to have better drop resistance than LPVOs as they are designed from the outset for use in a Military setting, and, I have seen it argued that "the fewer options it has, the less a soldier can **** it up". 

FPCOs often have a reticle designed for use on the fly without adjustment, with markers built-in allowing accurate range estimation and rough gauging of windage. The functionality of fixed power combat optics for Airsoft is limited but the 4x zoom is practically perfect for an Airsoft designated marksman's rifle.

Having one member of your squad equip an FPCO can provide effective threat identification for the entire squad without compromising your squad's close-range firepower. FPCOs are very useful for those precise long-range shots without the heft and bulk of a variable rifle scope. Fixed power combat optics do look objectively cool, and many Airsoft ACOG-type sights are actually an RDS on the inside, lowering the weight, price and providing more appropriate functionality for the Airsoft field.  

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Magnifier Sights


A magnifier is a monocular containing lens specifically designed and configured to give a clear image of a non-magnified reticle and is used in combination with a non-magnified sighting system such as a Red dot sight or holographic sight. It is not a stand-alone aiming device and relies on the zero of the sight it's married to but can be used when removed from the rifle as a spotting scope. 

The combination of a removable magnifier and an RDS or holographic is the nearest rival to the LPVO for the operator who desires quick close-range shots with the capability to engage and spot at longer distances. The advantage the magnifier provides is the speed of switching between magnified and non-magnified images and, whilst providing magnification retains 100% utility as a close-ranged non-magnified optic.

LPVO type optics fulfil a similar role but rarely have a true 1x mode, usually bottoming out at around 1.25x but gaining the upper hand due to the gradient of adjustment available. The magnifier/RDS can be 3.5x or 1x, the LPVO can go all the way from a low mag near 1x and up to 4-6x and everything in-between. 

The magnifier can be removed entirely for close-range engagement to save weight over and LPVO set up but can also be flipped to the side of the rail for quick access. One of the more useful aspects of a magnifier for Airsoft use is that you can more easily configure your set-up for the game you are about to attend. Your non-magnified optic stays zeroed and attached to the rifle at all times, the magnifier is added for outdoors skirmishes and longer range engagements.

This is an advantageous feature over the LPVO, which is not at its best in extremely close-range engagements and as such would require switching the optic and re-zeroing every time you switch environments.

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Variable Rifle Scopes


The Variable Rifle Scope is what you're probably picturing when you think of the word "scope". They are large and heavy but provide unparalleled clarity and offering the ability to zoom by a large factor, often up to 20x and beyond! 

Whilst definitely not a good idea for every set-up,  the VRS can provide a Sniper or marksman the ability to spot enemy movements from an advantageous distance away and engage at a slightly higher range than the rifleman. A VRS will also aid in hit identification, as a quick zoom will clarify whether or not your BB is hitting the target or falling short. 

VRS generally have a minimum zoom of around 3x, making them as ineffective on your CQB set-up as they are effective on your big guns. A VRS of some sort is near essential on any Sniper setup, due to the functionality of the additional zoom and a considerably wider field of view when compared to other magnified optics. 

Additionally, having a VRS amongst your teams' set-ups allows identification of approaching patrols during a woodland skirmish, where you may not be able to see the enemy teams armbands clearly without the magnification, avoiding friendly fire and allowing you to plan and coordinate an ambush, ready for when the enemy patrol is within range. 

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Factors to consider when choosing an Optical sight

Eye Relief

Eye relief is the term used for the distance an optical sight needs to be from your eye in order to gain the optimal field of view. The eye relief on non-magnified optics such as RDS and Holosights is zero, meaning they can be placed at any distance from your eye without inhibiting your field of view through the optic.

LPVO type optics generally have quite a long eye relief, generally, 2-3 inches meaning they are ideal when used with "scout" type mounts, which position the optic slightly forward of the mounting position on the rail. 

FPCOs such as ACOG, SUSAT, and ELCAN variants tend to have a shorter eye relief of 1-2 inches, which is functional considering they are designed to mount to the rearmost attachment point on your rifles upper rail to free up rail space towards the front end of the rifle for more accessories such as thermal sighting systems and LAM units. 

Magnifiers have similar eye relief to FPCOs which suits them perfectly as they are designed to mount behind a non-magnified optic. If you mount your optic and find the eye relief puts your head too far back you can move your optic to a point further forward on the rail, and vice versa if you cannot see through your sight clearly. 

Eye relief will differ from person to person as it is dependent on your eye, you may find certain optics suit your eyes better than others. 

Engagement range

The range at which you expect to engage your target is the most important factor to consider when choosing an optic. Being realistic is the key here, with the projectile and power level being the limiting factor in Airsoft you will never successfully engage a target at over 100m, with the average unmodified Airsoft AEG being capable of reliable repeat hits at of 30-50m with accuracy dropping off sharply beyond this. 

For a sub-350fps set up an unmagnified optic would be adequate in most cases however you should always use your initiative and adapt your setup to your operational environment. Perhaps you play at an urban site, with a mix of close-up and mid-range engagement, in which case you may find an advantage from using LPVO, depending on your play style.

If you feel you will benefit from an enhanced ability to quickly scan for longer distance threats, an LPVO, FPCO, or VRS may be at home on your set-up. It is worth noting that in most cases, attempting to engage a target with maximum zoom will prove ineffective, given the range of most Airsoft guns. The most useful function of a variable optic with powerful magnification is long-range threat identification and confirming hits for teammates.  


As mentioned, there is a big difference between the weight of a simple RDS and the more complex magnified and variable optics providing that extra functionality. If you already find your rifle becomes quite heavy after a few hours of skirmishing, you may want to carefully consider if a variable optic is right for you.

The added function is invaluable, but can quickly become an inhibiting factor if you have already laden your weapon down with other heavy accessories such as grenade launchers.

When using an optic may not be wise

In certain conditions, optical sights can prove to be a detriment to your performance on the field, believe it or not.

Extremely bright sunlight can render optical sights, particularly magnified ones, unusable when shooting towards the sun. In situations like these, it can be beneficial to use a quick detachable (Q.D) optics mount and some flip-up iron sights as an alternative, so you retain the ability to shoot accurately. 

The same applies when extra bright tactical lights are in use, such as in CQB where some players (nice word for them) prefer to use iron sights in conjunction with a tactical light. In close-range engagements using an optic, rather than instinctively shooting can cost you a fraction of a second aiming and result in the opponent getting the kill. 

A more pressing concern with CQB engagements is the fact that the majority of optics, even those designed for use on real rifles will not withstand a direct hit from an Airsoft rifle in the lens. Polycarbonate lens protectors are a must for close range unless you are willing to take your chances and bin your bust optic should the worst happen.

Here ends your quick info guide to optics available in the Airsoft world and their pros and cons. Hopefully this guide has helped you make an informed decision on what you require for your specific build to assist in you getting those precious kills in-game and avoiding making nooby buying errors resulting in a drawer at home full of optics you don't like! Good hunting, and may you always shoot straight!

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