Written by ILya Koshkin and requested by Weby Shops
Riflescope Selection for AR Variants.
Every once in a while I go over my correspondence for the previous few months to see if there are any apparent trends in the questions I get. As far as riflescopes go, one thing is apparent: I field an ever increasing number of questions on proper scope selection for the various AR-type rifles out there. Now that I think about it, this is hardly surprising. ARs (also known under a politically correct and, in my opinion, a little bit silly term MSR: Modern Sporting Rifle) are everywhere and come in a dizzying variety of configurations, weights, and calibers. Similarly, intended uses vary considerably ranging from basic plinking to home defense, to hunting, to varminting, to precision shooting, and so on. Because of that I found myself suggesting a similarly dizzying array of sighting systems from miniature red dots to long-range precision scopes. With that in mind, I figured that it is worth my while to categorize different AR rifles according to use and configuration and come up with both general and specific recommendations on the appropriate sights for them for a variety of budgets. I will also insert some commentary and recommendations on mounts where appropriate.
First of all, let’s consider the different AR types out there, starting with the action size and chambering.
There are two basic action sizes for the ARs. I will refer to them as AR-15 and AR-10 which is not strictly speaking correct, but is short and easy to type. The actual names vary with the manufacturer, but as far as I am concerned an “AR-15” implies an action length originally designed for a 223Rem or 5.56x45NATO chambering, while “AR-10” refers to actions that can fit larger 308Win or 7.62×51 cartridges. Technically, there are a couple of different and not completely compatible standards for 308-size AR rifles: Armalite-based and DPMS-based, but there is no real difference between them from a riflescope selection standpoint, so I will call them all AR-10s for the sake of simplicity.
Both action sizes have been adapted to a variety of other calibers, but those calibers have to fit in the overall dimensional envelope of either 5.56×45 or 7.62×51.
Technically, there are some even larger AR-style rifles out there chambered for 300WM and 338LM, but they are very few in number and very specialized, so I will ignore them for the time being.
The original AR rifle was designed for the 7.62×51 chambering and sized accordingly; however, since the military was looking for a select fire rifle in 5.56×45, it was quickly downsized to fit it and that is still the most common chambering for an AR-15. Keep in mind though that since 5.56×45 and its civilian sibling 223Rem were originally designed as varmint cartridges, their sporting use is limited.
Additionally, the arguments about stopping power of 223Rem have been going on long enough to create a whole market segment for AR-15 rifles chambered in other calibers. The action size limits how long and how thick those other calibers can be, but there are still quite a few out there. Here is a partial list of AR-15 chambering (these are the ones I can remember off the top of my head), but I am sure there are others out there that I forgot about:
5.56×45/223Rem: this is the original AR-15 cartridge which has undergone a tremendous amount of development since it was first introduced. There are factory loads out there with bullet weights ranging from 40gr varmint bullets to 77gr match/precision bullets with everything in between. This is still a pipsqueak caliber, comparatively speaking, but with the right bullet I find 5.56×45 to be both accurate and effective. My 5.56 rifle is set up for 75gr and 77gr bullets and I am comfortable hitting targets out to 500-600 yards with it.
204 Ruger is dimensionally similar to 5.56×45, but uses a smaller 0.20” caliber bullet intended primarily for varmints. A heavy barrel AR-15 chambered for 204Ruger is probably the most effective varmint rifle in the AR family. It works with standard AR magazines and bolts.
6×45 is a rather popular wildcat chambering that takes a basic 5.56×45 case and expands it a little to use a larger 6mm bullet. The primary advantage of this chambering is the ability to use heavier bullets that are more effective on big game and work a little better out of short barrels owing to larger expansion ratio. It uses standard AR magazines and bolts
6.5 Grendel (and the nearly identical 264LBC) is an attempt for a true general purpose AR-15 rifle that can be configured for anything from CQB to long range. I have a 6.5Grendel rifle and it can reach out to 900-1000 yards with exterior ballistic similar to 308Win. It is probably the best balanced of AR rifles and makes for a competent hunting and competition round. It uses customized magazines and bolts.
6.8 SPC is a Remington backed cartridge originally developed in the Special Forces community by people who have been looking for something with higher lethality than military issue 5.56×45. It has seen very limited use in the military world, but I see it used by hunters more and more, on game that is seldom tackled with 5.56. This cartridge had a bit of a rocky start, but seems to be reasonably well established now. It is at its best within 500 yards and a lot closer than that for big game hunting. It uses customized magazines and bolts.
7.62×39 is an AK-47 round that is occasionally chambered in AR-15s. Technically, the tapered shape of 7.62×39 makes it a poor match for the geometry of an AR-15 action, but there are a few of these out there. Still, in the AR world, the 7.62×39 has been largely superseded by the next cartridge on my list.
300 Blackout (and the nearly identical 300 Whisper) is effectively a shortened 5.56×45 case necked up to accept 0.308 caliber projectiles. It is sometimes referred to as 7.62×35. It uses standard AR-15 magazines and bolts and accommodates a variety of chamberings ranging from 110gr bullets that nearly replicate 7.62×39 ballistics to heavy subsonic loads that push 240gr bullets at moderate speeds. In its subsonic guise, this caliber works exceedingly well with suppressors. This round is backed by Remington among others and is well positioned to thrive in the future. I finally built one of these for myself, and I like it quite a bit.
30AR is Remington’s attempt to create a 30 caliber hunting cartridge for an AR. I suspect that this will go the way of the dodo before too long.
7.62×40 Wilson is a cartridge designed primarily for hunting and is likely to exist for some time among the Wilson aficionados. I will be surprised if it ever reaches significant popularity.
The thumpers: 458 SOCOM (on my list of rifles to acquire), 50 BEOWULF and 450 Bushmaster. These cartridges loosely approximate the ballistics of classic leverguns chambered for 45-70. In the grand scheme of things you can load the good old 45-70 a fair bit hotter, but the comparatively diminutive AR “thumper” rounds are not that far off.
Here is a picture of a few AR cartridges I have. From left to right: 5.56×45, 300AAC Blackout, 7.62×39, 6.5 Grendel, 458 SOCOM and 308Win.
With AR-10 the chambering choice is a little more uniform, since this platform is generally not as popular. However, pretty much any cartidge loosely based on the 308Win case can be (and has been) easily adapted: 243Win, 260Rem, 7mm08, 338 Federal and so on. However, 308Win/7.62×51 account for the vast majority of AR-10s out there.
With the chamberings out of the way, let’s touch on the configurations and applications. None of these are set in stone and some configurations allow for a great variety of uses. Still, I have to classify them somehow:
- Lightweight carbine. These are typically AR-15s of some sort that look like the M4s used by the military. There are some AR-10s configured in this general manner, but they are at least a pound or so heavier since the rifle is inevitably more massive. Typical chamberings are 223Rem/5.56×45 and 6.8 SPC in AR-15s, while the AR-10 is usually 308Win. Barrel length usually works out to be right around 14.5” or 16”, often with a permanently attached flash hider. These rifles are, in principle, intended for home defense, but they are most often used for plinking and the sighting systems reflect the fact that potential engagement distance is not very long.
Mid-to-heavy weight precision carbine. These rifles are just as compact as the lightweight carbines, but are a fair bit heavier owing to the thicker barrel made with precision in mind. Recce barrel profile is a good example of something used in these rifles and they invariably come with free-floated handguards. Until comparatively recently, this class of rifles did not exist, but it is growing in popularity. These are somewhat general purpose weapons since they are maneuverable enough for CQB, while allowing very precise fire when called upon. They cover the same engagement distances as the lightweight carbines and extend it further out to 400-500 yards as necessary. The sighting system therefore, should be versatile enough to cover a variety of ranges and be a “jack of all trades”, so to speak.
SPR rifle with its heavy 18” barrel came out of a military project that asked for an accurate heavy barrel M-16 variant optimized for firing heavy 77gr bullets to an effective arrange often exceeding 600 yards. While technically this rifle is only marginally longer and heavier than a precision carbine, in practice the sighting systems are quite different and the scopes used are really focused on precision fire at fairly extended ranges. That does not mean that the short range use is irrelevant and the rifles are often set-up to allow for CQB; however, the overall emphasis of this rifle is precision at extended ranges (by AR standards) in a compact package. Hence, the sighting system has to be selected with both precision and flexibility in mind.
General purpose AR is typically a rifle with a 18’’ or 20” mid-weight barrel. This is a pretty common configuration for both AR-15s (chambered for 5.56×45 or 6.5 Grendel) and AR-10s. The original M-16 was equipped with a 20” barrel and since the rifle overall is very compact, there are quite a few of them out there. These rifles are used for plinking, hunting, predator shooting (usually accurized) and a variety of other tasks. The longer barrel is helpful for hunters since the bullet has a little more velocity, while the rifle is still reasonably handy and lightweight. Scopes for these rifle are usually not too dissimilar from regular hunting scopes, although there are, of course, some additional considerations specific to ARs.
Heavy varmint rifles are typically AR-15s with bull barrels of 20” to 24” in length chambered for 223Rem or 204Ruger. Oddly enough, ARs make superlative varmint rifles and there are a lot of them out there equipped with large high magnification scopes.
Long range precision rifles are more typically built on the larger AR-10 action chambered for a variety of cartridges from 308Win to 260Rem and some others. However, AR-15s chambered for 6.5 Grendel and equipped with long barrels acquit themselves admirably out to a 1000 yards or so. Scopes best suited for these rifles are often large and heavy and lean strongly toward the tactical end of the optics spectrum.
In the subsequent installments of this article series, I will expand a little more on appropriate scopes for each one of these rifle types and offer some recommendations in a variety of price ranges.
AR Scopes: Lightweight Carbine
I have seen the phrase “lightweight carbine” mean different things to different people, so as a first matter of business, I will define what I mean by it as it applies to AR-type rifles.
A lightweight carbine, to me, is built primarily for compactness and light weight with other considerations (aside from reliability) secondary.
There is no hard and fast rule on what “light weight” really means and there is no hard cutoff here. Besides, it also varies between AR-15 and AR-10 variants. One mistake that people make is in thinking that a lightweight AR carbine should be the same weight as an ultralight bolt-action rifle. The weight correlation is not direct, since an AR-15 of equivalent weight is usually shorter than a bolt action gun and has a more neutral balance. As an exercise, I spent some time experimenting with a variety of rifles and realized that the perception of “light weight” has nearly as much to do with balance and fit as it does with actual weight.
Here is the lightweight carbine I built for myself:
It sports an Adams Arms ultra-lightweight upper with piston gas system, and I could not be happier with it.
I use it to test sights and scopes of all sorts and, believe it or not, I actually do not have a dedicated scope for it right now. It almost always has something I am writing an article about mounted. However, that also gives me a good perspective on how different sights and scopes work on this gun.
In the picture above, there is a small non-magnifying red dot sight mounted on the rifle and if your rifle’s primary purpose in life is home defense (i.e. you do not expect to shoot past 100 yards with any regularity and most shooting will be notably closer than that) then this configuration will work well. That was the original purpose I had for the gun, but after I put it together it turned out that the little thing is quite accurate and handles like a dream, so I had to think a little more about the best sight for it.
Here are some options I came up with for a lightweight carbine, depending on the specific application and budget.
If you want a carbine primarily for home defense and fast shooting, get a red dot. I am not a big fan of full size red dots, but I really like the smaller ones. They are unobtrusive and perform exceptionally well. The king of miniature red dot sights is, in my mind, Aimpoint Micro. It is not cheap, but the battery lasts forever, brightness adjustment is very natural and the dot is remarkably fast and easy to pick up:
For a flattop AR, you will want to get a riser, while for a carry handle mounting, all you need is a base (I prefer flat top ARs as a general consideration). One notable downside of using this scope on an AR is that the illumination control is on the right side of the sight. ARs are really designed to be run with the right hand on the grip and left hand operating the controls. Still, that is a workable issue.
Most miniature red dot sights are really designed with secondary sight application in mind (with a regular scope being a primary), but the Aimpoint Micro does a fine job as a primary sight. A couple of other miniature red dot sights I like in primary applications are Leupold Deltapoint and Vortex Razor (mounted on the rifle in the picture above). They are even smaller than the Aimpoint and a bit less expensive, though still not cheap:
Deltapoint is a bit smaller, while the Razor has an ingenious battery tray for easy battery replacement.
There are some less expensive miniature red dots out there, but I have not had good luck with the ones I have seen. There are some I still need to test though.
Ultimately, if you want a red dot on a budget that does not allow for one of the sights I already mentioned, I need to be looking at full size models, since there are more options there.
I have heard good things about the Lucid HD, which is a very full featured sight considering the price.
Vortex Strikefire and Sparc are not quite as full featured, but are less expensive and in the sub-$200 category I would take these two over anything else out there. I am not crazy about the control buttons on both of these. However, they work well enough, and it is really a matter of personal preference. Sparc is the smaller one of the two and I like it a little more:
If all you want to do with your carbine is plink at the range, just about any scope you have lying around will do as long as it holds zero. I have seen all manner of hunting scopes on AR carbines. However, if you are looking to make your carbine into more of a general purpose gun, you need something that can perform with almost as much speed as a red dot sight, while giving you some magnification for precision shooting when needed.
On the surface, it would seem to be quite straightforward to go pick a low range variable scope of some sort (1-4×24, 1-6×24 or thereabouts), slap it onto your gun and be all set. In practice, it gets a little more involved since these carbines are pretty light and mounting a heavy scope on it upsets the handling and balance of this lightweight rifle in short order (something, I learned the hard way). As I go through the options below, you will notice that I largely stay away from the newly fashionable 1-6x and 1-8x scopes. They tend to be both heavy and expensive, so I try to stick to scopes that top out at 4x.
Here are some recommendations I can make that keep both weight and performance in mind.
Trijicon Accupoint 1-4×24 that retails for around $800 is comparatively light for a 30mm tube scope at a bit over 14 ounces and with its bright reticle illumination, it is very fast to use, while dialing up to 4x give you some precision.
Leupold Patrol VX-R 1.25-4×20 is the lightest good quality variable scope I know of at 11 ounces or so, and if you can swing the $570 price tag it is probably your best choice in magnified optics for lightweight carbines. It does not give you true 1x operation, but it is close enough and brightly illuminated dot in the center of the reticle really helps with speed.
The $500 Vortex Viper PST 1-4×24 is one of my favourite scopes in terms of bang for the buck. It has every feature under the sun along with a well-designed reticle. It is a touch heavier than Trijicon at 16 ounces, but still very serviceable and less expensive.
Hi-Lux/Leatherwood CMR is similarly sized to the Vortex and is also very fully-featured. It is a little less expensive at $350 or so, but unusually good for the money. I tested a few versions of this scope and liked the value and the reliability.
One of the scope I mentioned above, would, in my opinion offer the most for your money. However, there are other options with scopes specifically designed for ARs and featuring compact dimensions and fixed magnification. I am talking about the famous (due to extensive military use) Trijicon ACOG and its many competitors: Elcan Spectre, Leupold HAMR, Browe etc.
Still in terms of light weight performance, Trijicon is king. Using it for close distance targets requires a little more training than a red dot, but it is doable and effective. If you are willing to put in the effort, a 4×32 ACOG is a superb, albeit pricy, light weight option:
If you are not especially interested in holdover reticles (i.e. you do not expect to want to shoot beyond 300 yards a whole lot), an even smaller compact ACOG might be an even better option. I have a lot of mileage with the 3×24 model that has been discontinued, but I have also dabbled quite a bit with a diminutive 1.5×24 an 2×20 (pictured below) compact ACOGs and walked away impressed. With the compact ACOGs retailing right around $1k and the 4×32 ACOG even more expensive, these are not for everyone. However, there is a reason the military uses them: they are light sturdy and optically sound.
If you are wondering what I decided to put on my person lightweight carbine after all… well, to be honest, I am still a little conflicted. I started out fully intending to mount a low range varible scope on it, but I am leaning toward either the ACOG or Leupold HAMR or the new Hensoldt 4×30 AR scope. Once I test them side by side, I will pick one of them and buy it.
AR Scopes: Precision Carbine
Mid-to-heavy weight precision carbines are often just as compact as the lightweight carbines, but are a fair bit heavier owing to the thicker barrel made with precision in mind. Recce barrel profile is a good example of something used in these rifles and they invariably come with free-floated handguards. Until comparatively recently, this class of rifles did not exist, but it is growing in popularity. These are somewhat general purpose weapons since they are maneuverable enough for CQB, while allowing very precise fire when called upon. They cover the same engagement distances as the lightweight carbines and extend it further out to 400-500 yards as necessary. The sighting system therefore, should be versatile enough to cover a variety of ranges and be a “jack of all trades”, so to speak.
To start off, I have to admit that this is easily my favourite AR variant out there, so I have spent a lot of time considering the sighting systems for it. This rifle is supposed to combine compactness and precision, so it may be called upon to satisfy the broadest range of applications of all ARs and the sighting system is supposed to be similarly versatile.
When people talk about how a particular rifle handles, they all too often focus on weight a bit more than they should. However, a short rifle, even if it is not a featherweight, can handle exceptionally well and ARs with 14.5” to 16’” barrels often fall in that last category.
A precision carbine can be the same thing as a lightweight carbine if you have one that happened to be unusually precise. That is what happened to me, more or less: I set out to build the lightest possible AR carbine with a piston gas system which turned out to be so accurate that I slapped a scope on it and decided to use it as a precision carbine. It is the rifle at the top of the following picture, shown next to another AR I have that is sporting a long range scope on it:
The scope on the carbine is the recently released SWFA SS 1-6×24, but any good quality 1-4×24 or 1-6×24 makes a good fit. The SS runs around $1k and while not cheap offers a lot for the money.
Not too long ago I spent some time testing Vortex’ PST 1-4×24 and set it up on another precision carbine for for :
The 1-4×24 PST is a decidedly less expensive scope retailing at around $450 – $500. Still, I could comfortably use it out to the practical limits of this rifle, which happened to be around 500 yards.
Yet another option (if you have some money to burn) is the much more expensive IOR 1-10×26:
I think you are getting the drift of where I am going with this: an optimal scope for the precision carbine is a variable design that starts out at 1x and goes up to anywhere between 4x and 10x depending on your price range.
These scopes are usually equipped with fairly sophisticated reticles that allow for quick target engagement at 1x and easy holdover at higher magnifications. There has been a lot of development recently in higher erector ratio scopes, so the 1-4x24s are typically older designs, while 1-6x, 1-7x, 1-8x, and 1-10x are considerably newer. Lower erector ratio scopes are often better at 1x, so keep the intended use in mind as you go through different models.
As of mid 2013, here are the scopes that I like in this category, segregated by price.
Under $500: there a great variety of Chinese 1-4×24 scopes in this price range and the only oneс I really like (and that seem to be manufactured quite consistently) is the Leatherwood CMR 1-4×24 that retails for $300 – $350 and Hawke Endurance 30 1.25-4.5×24 that is under $300. The Hawke comes with a simple but serviceable #4 reticle. Keep in mind that Hawke also makes a 1-4×24 which has a different optical system that is less well worked out.
Right around $500, there are two very respectable designs that I have a fair amount of mileage with: Vortex Viper PST 1-4×24 and Leatherwood CMR4 1-4×24. The PST is very popular scope and for a good reason: it offers a good assortment of reticles, good glass and very solid mechanics. The CMR4 is a higher end version of the CMR with better optics and more solid turrets. If you like complicated reticles, take a good look at the CMR4. It offers a lot of information. However, at 1x, the PST reticles offer faster target acquisition since they have thicker features.
Moving up in price, your options open up a bit more. For around $800, there is the 1-4×24 version of the SWFA SS which has a well designed Front Focal Plane (FFP) reticle. All other scopes I have mentioned so far have Second Focal Plane (SFP) reticles, so if you plan to use reticle holdover, you should be mindful of magnification. A good SFP option in this price range is Sightron S3 1-7×24. I have not yet tested this scope, but I have seen it and while I am not enamored with the reticle they use it seems like a solid design overall. If you like simpler reticle design, you should be taking a close look at Trijicon Accupoint 1-4×24 with its tritium/fiberoptic illumination. It is not optimal for longer range shooting, but very fast close up.
In the $1000 to $1250 price range, you have several very competent 1-6×24 or similar options. Since I like FFP scopes I am partial to the SWFA SS 1-6×24 and GRSC/Norden Performance 1-6×24 scopes. That having been said, if your preferences lean toward SFP reticles, Vortex Razor HD Gen II 1-6×24 is most definitely worth a look. The Razor has phenomenally wide field of view and very bright reticle illumination. It is very fast to deploy and seems to be very popular with competition shooters.
At $1500 and up prices, you have a variety of offerings from all the high end brands and by and large they are all good scopes. They all have their strengths and weaknesses (mostly strengths), so if this is the price range you are looking at, shoot me an e-mail with your requirements and I’ll try to walk you through it. I have not tested all of these, but looked at most of them. Kahles 1-6×24 is one of the easiest scopes to get behind I have seen to date. It is lightweight and has bright illumination, so I expect it to do well with competition shooters. March’s new 1-8×24 that I am testing right now, leans more toward precision shooting, while still being quite compact and light. I think their reticle needs work, but it is serviceable. Leupold was probably the first to market with their 1-8×24 CQBSS and it seems like a very respectable piece. There are a few other 1-8×24 scopes out there worth taking a look at: Premier, S&B and US Optics come to mind. IOR seems to be the only one with a 1-10×26, although it has some tunneling at low end, so it is really a 1.25-10×26 design that is quite heavy to boot. Still, it is a very competent precision scope at 10x, with impressive flexibility owing to the large magnification range.
AR Scopes: SPR
I spent quite some time trying to decide whether I want to differentiate between SPR rifles and precision carbines. Ultimately, these are very similar weapons, but I typically see them equipped with different sighting systems and different furniture. I chose as a basic SPR configuration a rifle with a heavy match grade 18” barrel since that is what the original Crane development project used. However, I have seen similarly equipped rifles with heavy barrels anywhere between 16” and 20” in length.
The big difference between SPR rifles and precision carbines is that the SPR is basically a designated marksman weapon with long(ish) range precision out of a fairly compact package being the first and foremost purpose for its existence.
A typical SPR rifle, in addition to a match grade barrel, also has a match chamber of some sort (there are all sorts of alternative chambers for 5.56×45) with the throat really optimized for heavy bullets in the 75gr to 80gr range. The most common would the 77gr Sierra MatchKing. A typical target is about man-size. This is not a rifle designed to shoot prairie dogs, so the scope and the reticle have to be designed to hit man-size objects pretty far away.
The original scope Crane selected for its SPR concept was the Leupold Mark 4 3.5-10×40. While that specific scope is not my favourite optic out there, as far as configurations go, it is not a bad choice.
Here are the basic qualities that I want in an SPR sighting setup:
Sufficient magnification and exit pupil size to clearly identify and engage man-size targets out to 800 yards
FFP (Front Focal Plane) reticle for ease of range estimation and holdover (a lot of people will disagree with this one, but I am rather particular about this)
Quality turrets for dialing in the trajectory and wind compensation when time allows it (there are exceptions to this) with clicks that match the reticle (mil/mil or MOA/MOA)
Sufficient exit pupil size somewhere in the magnification range for good low light performance
Reticle design (whether illuminated or not) that allows for good aiming point visibility in low light
Moderate overall size and weight in order to not unduly compromise the handling of the rifle
There aren’t any cheap scopes that I am aware of that satisfy all of those requirements. To be more exact, there are some that satisfy these requirements on paper, but they are not built to the standards that are good enough for me to recommend.
In the sub-$500 category, I would either stick with a fixed power scopes like the Hawke Sidewinder Tactical 30 10×42 or SS 10×42, or a second focal plane variable with a ranging reticle like Hawke Sidewinder 30 4.5-14×42 or Nikon Buckmaster 4.5-14×40 with a Mil-Dot reticle.
In the under $1000 price range, there are several very worthwhile options that satisfy all of the requirements on my checklist above. Aside from a couple of proprietary designs in the SS line-up, the most notable of those are Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×32 and Weaver Tactical 2-10×36.
Both are fairly compact, but very capable scopes. The magnification range is about right and since they top out at 10x, objective lenses in the 32mm to 36mm range are not really a hindrance. Overall, I think the PST is easily one of my favourite scopes in this category:
Also in the same price range are a couple of larger scopes from the same product families: Vortex Viper PST 4-16×50 and Weaver Tactical 3-15×50. To me both are a bit on the large side for SPR rifles, but not by all that much. In terms of optical quality, Weaver Tactical 3-15×50 is an unusually good design for this price range, although the Vortex is not too shabby either.
The slightly smaller Bushnell Elite Tactical 3-12×44 is another very worthwhile choice. When Bushnell just came out with this scope I had my reservations, but current version of it is very well sorted out with better reticles and updated illumination. The one I would suggest you look at is the model with G2DMR reticle in it:
One of PFI Rapid Reticle scopes is also well optimized for this role, but a bit expensive at $1800 or so. Still, I think military uses them and if you like to do everything with the reticle (i.e. you do not want to adjust the turrets after the initial set-up) their RR900 is very much worth a look. It is a 2.5-10×40 FFP design with a reticle configured with the heavy bullet 5.56×45 in mind:
As with any complex reticle, there is a learning curve involved with using it, but that learning curve is, to be honest, minimal. Other systems that use complicated reticle (like Horus) are much harder to become competent with and do not lend themselves to switching back and forth between systems. PFI’s Rapid Reticle is comparatively easy to use.
Going up in price, your options, interestingly enough, do not open up nearly as much as you would think since most tactical scopes tend to be a bit too large for this application. There is a variety of scopes in the 3-12x to 3-18x magnification range from the well known high end scope makers, but most of them have largish 50mm objective lenses.
For about $1300 or so, IOR makes a 2.5-10×42 scope with FFP reticle and recently upgraded turrets. This same basic design has been in production for a number of years, so all the kinks have been worked out.
IOR also makes a 3-18×42 model that is not too large, but quite heavy. For this application I like their 2.5-10×42 more, but if you want a little more reach, 18x is nice to have. The FFP version of this scope retails in the $1600 range.
If you have money to spend and are comfortable with a largish scope, Premier Light Tactical 3-15×50 at around $2400 is hands down one of my favourite scopes out there at any price.
Now, if we are talking about scopes that cost upwards of $2k, I want to mention the new Leupold Mark 6 3-18×44. It is a pretty new design and I have not put it through a thorough test, but it looks very promising if you have $2600 to spare.
Lastly, there is the US Optics 1.8-10×37 MR-10 scope. I think USO has just gone through a bit of a renaming spree because I could swear this scope used to be one of the SN-3 models. Now it is called MR-10, and it has a lot to recommend itself. I have been occasionally harsh on USO scopes, but the 1.8-10×37 is one of my favourites. While not light, it is compact and very sturdy. USO allows you to configure scopes in a variety of ways, and configured the way I like it with a GAP illuminated reticle and EREK elevation turret, it runs around $2300 or so, while the basic configuration is just under $2k. This is not a scope I typically recommend to people relatively new to shooting. However, if you have enough experience behind you to know exactly what you want, I suggest you give US Optics some serious consideration.
AR Scopes: General Purpose AR
In the past, general purpose rifle was a hunting style bolt action rifle chambered for 30-06 or something along those lines. Well, the times have changed and more and more of the gun enthusiasts and hunters in this country are virtually brought up on ARs. I suppose that being America’s primary battle rifle for a few decades helps propagate the design a bit.
To me, a general purpose rifle is a jack of all trades and a master of none. I own one rifle that is kinda like that, although when I was putting it together, general purpose anything was the last thing on my mind. I was trying to build the best compact long range gun I could on an AR-15 action. I ended up with a rifle that sports an 18” barrel with a 264LBC chamber (a version of 6.5 Grendel). With the right bullet, this cartridge is supersonic to 1000 yards (900 yards at sea level) and can work for anything from home protection, to hunting, to target shooting, to plinking in a pinch. It has very light recoil and is quite accurate, so I ended up using it for scope testing quite a bit. By now, I have had every scope type known to man mounted on that rifle, so I have developed a pretty clear idea of what works well on it.
Before I get any further with this, I want to elaborate a little more on rifle choice. If you are looking for a general purpose rifle and want it to be built on an AR platform, sit down and put together a list of what you will use it for. If the list is dominated by tasks like plinking and home defense with occasional varminting thrown in, you should be looking at an AR-15 variant chambered for 223Rem/5.56×45. Yes, I know that the military found this cartridge less than optimal for taking people down, but keep in mind that the military is prohibited from using well constructed bullets. We can use any bullets we want and loads that utilize bullets like Nosler Partition and Barnes TSX make the little cartridge effective enough, while still giving you access to a variety of plinking ammo.
If your list leans a bit more heavily toward stopping power and you do not mind reloading, take a close look at the various cartridges that fit into AR-15 action, but deliver a heavier bullet. The three most common ones are 300AAC Blackout, 6.5Grendel/264LBC and 6.8SPC. I own rifles chambered for both the Blackout and the Grendel, and I have a bit of experience with 6.8SPC as well. If you plan to get a suppressor, get the Blackout. Your effective range is closer than with the Grendel, but you can have both supersonic and subsonic loads that shoot a much bigger bullet than 5.56×45 does. If you are not planning to get a suppressor, this comes down to 6.5Grendel and 6.8SPC. To be perfectly blunt, I think the Grendel is a better cartridge than the 6.8SPC overall, but its biggest advantage is long range. If you want your general purpose AR to reach waaay out there, get the Grendel. For applications within 400 yards, there is little to differentiate the two.
Lastly, if your idea of a general purpose cartridge means hunting first and foremost, do yourself a favor and step up to the larger AR-10 platform. If you still want to plink with it, stick with 308WIn/7.62×51 chambering. If you reload, any round based on the 308 case will do the trick: 260Rem, 7mm08, etc.
Now, let’s look at the requirements for scopes to mount on one of these rifles:
Variable magnification with low end no higher than 3x (or a fixed 4x or 6x power scope if you are old fashioned)
Top end magnification in the 9x to 18x range.
Objective lens in the 32mm to 44mm diameter. Larger diameter objectives work well on ARs, but it is too easy to end with a scope that really upsets the balance of the gun, so I suggest staying in the ballpark of 40mm.
The reticle has to work well in low light either through line thickness of illumination.
Both FFP and SFP reticle work fine and the choice between the two is personal.
If you look at this list carefully, you’ll realize that every scope I recommended for SPR applications will work well here. However, we can expand it by a fair bit. For example, a lot of hunters prefer the sight picture provided by the SFP reticles (reticles that do not change apparent size as you change magnification) and if you do not use the reticle for holdover or range estimation, SFP reticle is a very good way to go.
Since my requirements here open the door to a lot of hunting scopes, there are several very serviceable inexpensive options:
– $200 and under: Both Vortex Diamondback and Burris Fullfield make very nicely sorted out 2-7×35 and 3-9×40 scopes. They are very sturdy and have decent reticle. If you are on a budget, these should be at the top of your list. If you want something with cartridge specific turrets and reticles, Nikon’s P-223 (for 223Rem rifles) and P-300 (for 300 Blackout rifles) are good options.
– $400 and under: while it looks like a serious jump up in cost compared to the price range above, it does not get you all that much more. However, your options do open up some. Meopta Meopro 3-9×42 is a solid step up in optical quality, for example. Also, Nikon M-223 scopes (with 2-8×32 being my favourite) offer good optics with cartridge specific BDC turrets. Lastly, if your idea of a general purpose AR includes varminting or other pursuits requiring high magnification, Sightron SII 4-6×42 is worth a look.
– above $600: frankly, most general purpose ARs have scopes that are a little cheaper than this and most of what I would recommend here, I already mentioned in the article on scopes for SPR rifles.
There are of course other options and the variety available out there is staggering. ARs are very versatile rifles, so they can comfortably support almost any scope unless it is so large it outweighs the rifle itself. Hence, before I wrap up, I will touch on three different configurations that I have played with.
Configuration 1: you’ll do everything with this rifle, but your overall emphasis is on quick plinking and self-defense. You are not looking for extreme precision and you are not happy with iron sights alone. Perhaps, you will be happy with a decent red dot sight. There are many to choose from, some of which I have mentioned in previous articles, like Aimpoints and Trijicon SRS. However, those are expensive. In lower price ranges, Lucid sights are worth a look and they are an easy fit for ARs.
Configuration 2: you want some magnification, but you also want the simplest possible manual of arms, i.e. nothing to adjust. You want to shoulder a rifle and have the image right in front of you with some magnification. You want it there regardless of lighting conditions and you want it simple to use. Prepare to spend a little money, then. You should be looking at a few offerings that cost right around $1000: Trijicon Acog, Leupold HAMR, Elcan, etc. Here is what a 4×32 Acog looks like on an AR-15:
Configuration 3: Your general purpose AR is also you general purpose rifle. You want to use this thing for, literally, everything from plinking to big game hunting to shooting coyotes to…. just about anything. There is a good chance your AR is chambered for something beefier than the 223, which makes it a legitimate big game hunting rifle among other things. You are willing to put in some serious money into a sight that would do almost everything well. If this sounds familiar, consider something like this:
This is a 3.5-14×42 Leica ER scope. It is not cheap, but it is absolutely superb. There are competing design that are just as good from Swarovski, Zeiss and others, but the Leica is a bit more affordable than those and easily as good overall and better in some ways.