May 24, 2022
I learned to shoot with open sights. As a youngster, I shot thousands of .22 Shorts down a basement range. This was good training because iron sights quickly teach you that small errors create wide misses. Scopes are in almost universal use among today’s hunters, but there are still lots of beginning hunters who start out with Granddad’s iron-sighted .30-30 or Uncle Bob’s old Remington pump.
Once I started hunting, I did so with a magnifying riflescope. This was in a time when the fixed 4X was king of hunting scopes. Larger fixed-power scopes existed for targets and varmints, but variable-power scopes weren’t quite perfect. Honestly, I never imagined needing more than 4X. When I got my first 3-9X variable and turned it up all the way, the size of the image was almost shocking. And much more powerful scopes are now in common use.
Optics & Aging
Magnification is good—most of the time. It isn’t just that a bigger target is easier to hit; the larger image through a magnifying riflescope makes it easier to be precise. Optical sights spoil you. It’s almost an instant transition from irons to scopes, but the reverse is more difficult. I was nearly 30 before I first hunted with iron sights, and I am the poorer for not doing some of my early hunting with irons. The learning curve was steep. Up close was fine, but shots that were a “gimme” with a scope took extra study. And when the light started to go, I was done.
There are lots of hunting situations—in lots of places—where magnification just isn’t needed. On our Kansas place, only a handful of our two-dozen-odd deer stands offer shots beyond 100 yards. Across the country, much whitetail hunting is the same. Shots at black bears over bait are always close. With hog hunting, if I can get the wind right I can usually get close. With dangerous game like big bears and buffalo, nobody takes long shots, and most opportunities are fairly close.
In so many situations magnification isn’t what matters, but in every hunting situation worldwide you must see the target clearly. After much practice and with increasing experience, for many years I was a pretty good stick with iron sights. A hundred yards or so was no problem with open sights, and if the light was okay, I could at least double that with an aperture sight. Then, as inevitably happens to most of us, I started to run into a wall. I’m fortunate that my distance vision has remained sharp, but at about age 50 I needed reading glasses. The front sight was no longer clear; fast-forward another decade and I was clearly seeing two front sights. Prescription glasses have helped, but my “safe and sure” range with iron sights isn’t much more than half what it used to be. My night vision has also deteriorated. Iron sights are always light-sensitive, but these days, I “lose the light” earlier than I once did.
The Red Dot Alternative
Fortunately, I’m still fine with scopes, and I’ve always used them for much of my hunting. However, I hate carrying things I don’t need. I always need to see, but I don’t always need magnification or the weight and bulk a scope adds to a rifle. I’ve used reflex or “red dot” sights off and on for years. I have the most experience with Aimpoint, the original (now in production more than 50 years). Today many optics manufacturers offer red-dot sights. Properly, they’re called “reflex” sights because the red dot is actually reflected on the lens and is adjustable for windage and elevation.
They do not magnify, but they are more compact than a riflescope and are very much an optical sight. Enclosed systems like the typical Aimpoint enhance light transmission through good glass and, like a riflescope and its reticle, allow the eye to work in just one focal plane. Focus on the target, superimpose the red dot on your aiming point, and press the trigger. Use of a red-dot sight eliminates my “fuzzy front sight” problem, and I’ve also found them superior in low-light situations. Another advantage: The red-dot drives you to shooting with both eyes open, thus gaining both peripheral vision and the binocular vision (depth perception) that humans were blessed with. This is not a problem for me. Strongly left-eye dominant, I’ve always been able to keep both eyes open when shooting through a riflescope. Many cannot; try a reflex sight.
Like an illuminated reticle, the red dot (some companies also offer green and amber) gives a dramatically bright and clear aiming point. Oddly, the animals I hunt the most are very dark: wild hogs, buffalo, and the occasional bear. Even deer can appear very black when the light goes. The red dot shows up wonderfully on dark hide. I also used an Aimpoint on my one-and-only polar bear hunt. I lack words to describe how bright and clear that red dot was against the bear’s white fur.
The reflex sight has disadvantages and is thus not for everything and everywhere. It is not a long-range sight, in part for lack of magnification, but also because the dot subtends (obscures) part of the target, no different than a front iron sight. The smaller the dot, the more precise the aiming point; the larger, the faster your eye can acquire the target and center the dot. For hunting purposes, a two-MOA dot—meaning the dot covers two inches at 100 yards, four inches at 200 yards, and so forth—is fairly standard. In tactical applications, such as CQB (close quarters battle) or a house-to-house gunfight, a four-MOA dot may be preferred. Either way, the red dot is precise enough for short-range big-game hunting. It is not an ideal choice for shooting prairie dogs.
As far as actual effective range, there’s really no limit. For most of us, the red dot is not a 200-yard sight. However, that depends a lot on your visual acuity and the light/shadow conditions on a given day. With practice, you will find your “range envelope” expanding. When I first used an Aimpoint on a rifle, I figured 100 yards was about my limit. Maybe it was then, but with practice, I’ve made a lot a of shots out to 150 yards and beyond.
Again, it’s not for all purposes. I wouldn’t use a red-dot sight for pronghorn or mountain sheep (although it has certainly been done). I use them for a lot of pig hunting, including those fast and furious driven hunts in Europe. I’ve put them on lever actions for whitetail hunting. And I’ve used them for various dangerous-game hunts, on both bolt actions and double rifles. On the latter, any optical sight is non-traditional.
Forget tradition. If I can’t see it, I can’t shoot it. And I can see (and hit) with red-dot sights.