Before And After: Open Sights Versus A Scope

Will a scope help shooters with minimal training be better shooters? Or is using a scope a crutch? Is technology a substitute for training? Let’s take a look at these issues and see if we can find a solid answer.

These questions sprung up after a friend of mine bought an AR-15 and was having trouble scoring hits with open sights. He expressed that he wanted a scope, and thought that it would help him get better hits, to which I concurred.

We wanted to work on the open sights more so that he could make solid hits, but time was pressing us. I was frustrated because I wanted to diagnose the issue and help him shoot more accurately because…well, that’s just what I do.

Why was he having trouble? I believe the answer is two-fold. First, he’s about my age, and let’s face it, vision rarely improves with age. His vision is slowly declining, as it often does.

The second reason appears to be a lack of training and practice. He’s simply not very familiar with the platform, and was having trouble getting hits at 50 yards and beyond.

He asked me if I thought a scope would help, and I told him that I was confident that it would enhance his ability to hit at distance. Based on that, he did purchase a scope.

Does a scope make a shooter more skilled?

The short answer is, no. A scope does not make a shooter more “skilled” in and of itself.

It’s my firm belief that, if possible, a shooter should learn how to use open (or “iron”) sights first. They are the most basic form of sighting. And if something happens to the scope, a shooter needs something to fall back on.

Iron sights are what I call, “Walk before you run.” Running would be what I equate the scope to.

Does a scope increase the odds of making good hits?

Generally speaking, with a rifle, a scope is probably going to increase our ability to make good hits. Why and how?

Well, the scope probably magnifies the target, so we can better see it. Let’s face it, as I mentioned declining vision before, having the target appear to be closer under magnification lets us see it better. And that sure can’t hurt.

What’s more, it gives us a more defined aiming point. The crosshairs, or whatever reticle we happen to be using, can often be focused for our eyes, which normally makes the sight appear clearer.

Open sights are often blurry, which is an impediment to accurate shooting. The sharper scope reticle, combined with a closer-appearing target, will likely be easier to hit.

During low light conditions, scopes often make it easier to identify targets. People often say that this is the scope’s “light gathering” capability, but scopes don’t really “gather” light, they transmit it. Being able to identify targets in low light can potentially save lives.

Finally, the scope offers one plane and one aiming point to contend with. With open sights, the rear and front sight have to be lined up, then placed on the target creating three variables. With a scope, we place the reticle on the target, and that’s it. This is a huge factor that makes shooting with a scope a lot easier than open sights.

Drawbacks of Scopes

For some applications, I think we need to be cautious of relying too heavily on scopes and other delicate instruments.

What can go wrong with scopes?

A number of things can go wrong. The internals can break. Inside scopes, there are small gears that are part of the adjustment system. When we adjust the zero, those gears mesh and move the reticle. The gears can become damaged, making it impossible to adjust the reticle.

Variable power scopes have moving parts that adjust the power of the scope. Those items can break.

The scope’s glass can break or become fogged. Scopes have gasses sealed inside to help prevent fogging and maintain clear vision. If the seal breaks, that gas leaks out, which can cause major issues.

Now we’re seeing why having a set of backup sights is a Good Thing. The axiom, “Two is one and one is none” comes to mind here. When our lives are on the line, be sure to have a backup. And having a backup to the backup isn’t a terrible idea, either.

What to do?

I just named all sorts of calamities that can happen to scopes. Is it really all that bad? Mostly, it’s not.

Decent scopes these days are made fairly well. It’s not often that I’ve seen them fail, so take heart. If you spend a moderate amount of money from a reputable maker, you’re likely to be fine. And if you do run into issues, most good makers these days will stand behind their product.

If you buy a $39 scope at Walmart, be aware that it just might not be the best decision. Plunking down a couple of hundred dollars is a more sure bet as far as durability is concerned. Several hundred dollars, or even north of $1,000 gets you one of the higher-end scopes.

They’re priced like that for a reason. The internals are of higher quality and will last a longer time. The glass is usually clearer and more durable. Overall, they’re just made more durably than the bargain basement scopes. It sucks, but that’s life. Ever hear the phrase, “Buy once, cry once”? Well, it really does apply to scopes.

So, what happened?

In the end, my buddy bought a scope. We retired to the range to mount if after grabbing a cantilever mount at the gun shop.

I’ll do a plug for a moment for the Tipton Gun Butler. That little piece of gear really helped make the job of mounting the scope on Jason’s Ruger 556 AR-15 a breeze! Seriously, if you don’t have one and you have even one long gun, you really need the Gun Butler! It carries a bunch of shooting/cleaning supplies and is great for organization. It also has two forks that can be set up to rest your rifle in for cleaning or other maintenance. The fact that the rifle was held securely made mounting the scope a lot easier.

Tipton Gun Butler with AR-15
Here is the completed product, all ready for zeroing. The Gun Butler made the task a breeze. Note the carry handle in the bed of the Gun Butler, which makes toting the setup around very easy. (Photo: Jim Davis)

As for the rifle, Ruger’s 556 AR-15 has proven to be a solid, reliable rifle. It’s accurate, too. I was able to shoot decent groups with it out to 75 yards, and it will no doubt shoot accurately well beyond that range.

The scope that Jason chose is the Leupold 1.5-4x variable with a 20mm objective lens. It features crosshairs, and also a small ring around those crosshairs. It’s a compact, lightweight scope that is well suited to the AR-15 platform, especially the carbine, as we were using for this project.

Leupold 1.5-4x variable scope
A Leupold 1.5-4x variable scope perched atop a Ruger 556 AR-15 carbine. The scope definitely improved hit potential. Photo: Jim Davis.

I have a similar scope on my AR-15, the Leupold Mark AR, which is also 1.5-4x. It’s a nice magnification range, as it allows close engagements and will reach out to a few hundred yards.

The 1.5 power setting is great for close distances and gives a wide field of view. The four-power setting will definitely extend a shooter’s range with the carbine.


Once mounted, we began the zeroing process at 25 yards. We then moved to 50 yards, and soon to 75 yards.

At 75 yards, Jason managed to land some very respectable hits on the target, far better than if he were using open sights. Unfortunately, it was short-lived. The bolt that holds the mount onto the Picatinny rail came loose, and I noticed that the mount was wobbling on the rail.

zeroing the Ruger/Leupold combo
Jason zeroing the Ruger/Leupold combo. The Leupold 1.5-4x scope is the perfect size and magnification for an AR-15 carbine. (Photo: Jim Davis)

I tightened the bolt back down, but now we were back to the drawing board as far as having to re-zero the rifle. Our range time was running out, and we managed to get it fairly close to being zeroed, although it was hitting a few inches high at this point. We had to call it a day and vowed to come back to the range soon to fine tune the scope’s zero. Presently, it’s “close enough for government work”, but being a perfectionist, I want to be close to spot on.

Did the scope solve the problem?

The short answer is, yes, I believe it did.

Jason is now able to easily hit a 75-yard target, and I believe he could realistically make hits at a couple of hundred yards, especially after we get done fine-tuning the scope adjustments.

Mind you, I’d still like to spend more time on the range with Jason to see if I can get him more comfortable with the BUIS unit (Back Up Iron Sights) because, as I said, we should walk before we run.

paper target with body shots and a head shot
Jason went from not being able to hit the target to scoring body shots and a head shot with ease. Definitely a success! Photo: Jason Stimmel.

But for now, he’s got himself a rifle that he can utilize for defense if he needs to, and reach out if necessary.

I know, I hear the people in the back row yelling about how self-defense occurs up close and personal, and how we can’t justify shooting a hundred or more yards in self-defense. Yes, that’s our current situation. However, some of us like to be prepared for the unimaginable. Can anyone guarantee that our society will remain stable and peaceful for the foreseeable future? Yeah, me neither.

I’d prefer to be able to reach out if I need to, than not be able to. And besides…have you ever rung a steel plate at a range of a couple hundred yards? I’ll tell you from experience, it’s a really fun thing to do on the range! It becomes rather addicting.

The Final Verdict

I advocate scoping a rifle or carbine out if the user desires. As mentioned, I think shooters should get at least a solid grasp on using the iron/open sights first.

Optics, for the most part, make hits on targets easier. The fact that we don’t have to line up the front and rear sight as on open sights, but rather just put the reticle on the target, gives the scope major speed and accuracy advantages. And then there’s the magnification factor, which can be a huge help.

Scopes help us see targets better in low light, which can deter people from making a tragic mistake during hunting season.

As we see here, scopes offer a number of very real advantages on rifles. Each shooter will have to decide if a scope is right for him or her. For general use, a scope can be a real help.

Jim Davis served in the PA Dept. of Corrections for 16 ½ years as a corrections officer in the State Correctional Institute at Graterford and later at SCI Phoenix. He served on the Corrections Emergency Response Team (CERT), several of those years as a sniper, and also the Fire Emergency Response Team (FERT). For 25 years, he was a professional instructor, teaching topics including Defensive Tactics, Riot Control and Tactical Operations, Immediate Responder, and cognitive programs as an adjunct instructor at the DOC Training Academy. He was then promoted to the title of corrections counselor, where he ran a caseload and facilitated cognitive therapy classes to inmates. His total service time was close to 29 years. He was involved in many violent encounters on duty, including incidents of fatalities. He is a dedicated Christian and attributes any skills that he has to the glory of God.

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