Low Powered Variable Optic: Pros and Cons of the LPVO

I’m not a gear guy per se. I believe that I am the primary factor in success and failure. Over time, however, I’ve come to realize that I can exert significant influence on the outcome of some situations based on the gear I selected prior to an incident. For this reason, I pay attention to gear trends. I also work to evaluate the application of new gear to my circumstances. This evaluation has led me to consider the pros and cons of the LPVO (Low Powered Variable Optic) on my defensive rifle.

Let me provide an example to illustrate the paradox above.

Although it was daylight, the man at the end of the hall was shadowed and it was difficult to see what was in his hands. He responded poorly to verbal commands with a simple, “F^&# you!” to each demand. At 30 yards he wasn’t an immediate threat from a physical assault, however, if he held a gun, well that would change things.

My partner and I were in a difficult situation. We knew there were likely to be innocent people in the building that needed our assistance, however, closing distance on this unknown wasn’t a pleasant proposition. Shooting an unarmed man didn’t rank high on my bucket list either.

I could look through the MRO on top of my rifle all day long and I wasn’t going to get an answer. I muttered a disgusted, “On me.” And waited for the muzzle release from my equally conflicted buddy. It was a shotgun. Luckily we shot first and neutralized the threat.

More luckily, the example above wasn’t a real-life use of force situation. Instead, it was a run in the shoot house at Alliance Police Training. Joe Weyer and Cory Hupp created this scenario to specifically challenge our tactics and our gear. We didn’t do everything right on that run, but it turned out ok. One of the lessons I walked away wondering about was how equipment selection might help me better address this type of problem in the future.

What is an LPVO?

LPVOs or low power variable optics are one possible solution to a problem like I described above. An LPVO provides a range of magnification to be selected by the person looking downrange. This is typically from zero to between four and ten times your normal vision. Simply put an LPVO is a low powered rifle scope. The 1x setting provides a reasonable representation of what you normally see with your eye, provides a wide field of view, and provides some kind of aiming system so you can hit your target.

By rotating the zoom ring on the optic you are able to change the magnification setting. Usually this is accomplished with a “throw lever” that makes increasing or decreasing magnification a simple and quick task.

Low Power Variable Optics are yhe way of the future.
I’m not sure about the future of the LPVO in my personal equipment choices, but I do look forward to more testing and some runs in the shoot house.

As magnification increases the appearance of whatever you are looking at increases as well providing for the ability to see more details of your target and to be able to refine your aiming point.

Pros of the LPVO

There is no doubt that having an LPVO on top of your rifle can be of assistance in many circumstances. In my initial example of needing to see more detail of a potential threat is a clear cut case for when an LPVO could come in handy. What I didn’t mention about the previous scenario is that the threat was clad in body armor. This shows the other main advantage of a low power variable optic. Zooming in allows you to hit smaller targets more easily. Of course, you still have to do your work, but being able to train in on a small target and aim with precision has its advantages. At zero magnification hitting a man-size head at 50 yards isn’t a miraculous feat. However, sneaking a shot into the cranial vault which is a relatively small area can be considerably more difficult.

Low Power Variable Optics
The LPVO made it easy to repeatedly hit a small target representing a headshot at distances of 15-30 yards without support.

A typical red dot at distance can actually obscure your target. A variable power optic may be the ticket to getting the hits you need.

I don’t have significant experience with LPVOs. Swampfox Optics recently provided a 1-6x Arrowhead with a BDC reticle so I could begin addressing that. It was easy for me to see how this type of scope could make difficult shots easier. In addition to being able to zoom in and discern detail while at the same time increasing aiming precision, the markings in the reticle made it easy to account for the height over bore offset that an optic creates at close distances.

Low Power Variable Optics
The Swampfox Guerilla LPVO BDC reticle adds some complexity to the shooters visual field at the same time, I found the third horizontal hash to be the point of impact for shots inside around 15 yards. This simplifies the height over bore issue with optics on an AR.

At 0 to 15 yards simply holding over the target was refined by using the third horizontal from the top. Instead of trying to guess how high to hold a dot over, I just defined a new cross-hair in the scope, placed it on the target and pressed the trigger. The rounds went where the aiming point was located. Very nice.

Cons of LPVOs

The advantages of the low powered optics don’t come without a price tag. That doesn’t mean that a low powered variable optic isn’t worth it. For some applications, the value will certainly be there. It’s your job to figure that out and part of that is knowing what you are sacrificing.

Size and Weight

This is a no brainer. Optics that magnify need more glass and they need distance between these lenses to work. Glass is heavy. Typically, the more magnification, the more glass, the more glass, the more size and weight.

The solutions here is working out!

Low Power Variable Optics
One of the negative points of an LPVO is its size. Compared to a typical red dot sight, an optic like the Swampfox is significantly larger.


With a 1x optic it is the same every time you look through it. With a variable power scope, your view may be drastically different based on the magnification you have dialed in. If you encounter a threat at 10 meters and your scope is cranked up to 6 power because your last shot was at 100 meters you may experience some frustration.

Low Power Variable Optics
Zooming in when you need to and returning to 1x post engagement is made easier with a throw lever like this. It must be admitted that the variable nature of the scope does complicate things.

The solution to this problem isn’t a terribly difficult one. After every engagement, you must return the scope to 1x so that it is ready to deal with the widest variety of circumstances. Especially those that lack the time advantage of distance.


The biggest one I have encountered so far is eye relief. The complexity of LPVOs leads to a more defined limit of eye relief than a typical red dot sight. Eye relief refers to the distance your eye can be located from the scope and still have a full view through the glass. If you have ever looked through a scope and seen the thick black ring around the image you have peered through the scope outside the eye relief. You were either too close to the scope, or too far away. Your eye relief may change based on your shooting position. Standing, sitting at a bench, sitting on the ground and going prone may impact how far your face is from the glass and can result in limited view through the scope.

The solution here is to mount the scope in the best position on the rifle to accommodate the shooting positions you are most likely to encounter. Then practice so that you are placing your cheek on the stock in the sweet spot regardless.

Maybe Speed in Close

I haven’t spent a lot of time with the Swampfox Arrowhead, but I can say with confidence that I am not as fast in close as I am with a red dot. I can also say with absolute confidence that outside 50 yards (probably even 30 with more difficult shots) I’m quicker and more precise with the LPVO. Other folks that have the experience to know tell me that speed with the LPVO is simply a matter of putting in the work.

The solution here seems to be range time, and I’m willing to make the “sacrifice.”

The Outcome?

Tonight as I lay my head down there will be two rifles at the ready, my 12.5” pistol with a Trijicon MRO mounted on top and my 16” rifle with a Swampfox Arrowhead 1-6. The reality is that I can see situations where each gun is the right tool. I also know that each AR has limitations. I need to be aware of and ready to mitigate to the best of my ability.

I’ll be spending more time with the Swampfox and a host of other LPVOs as I work to find the solution that provides me the most bang for the buck.

Paul Carlson, owner of Safety Solutions Academy, is a Professional Defensive Shooting Instructor.  He has spent the past decade and a half studying how humans can perform more efficiently in violent confrontations and honing his skills as an instructor both in the classroom and on the range. Through Safety Solutions Academy, Paul teaches a variety of Critical Defensive Skills courses in more than a dozen states annually.  Courses range from Concealed Carry Classes to Advanced Critical Defensive Handgun Courses and include instruction for the defensive use of handguns, rifles and shotguns.  Safety Solutions Academy regularly hosts other industry leading experts as guest instructors to make sure that SSA's students have the opportunity for quality instruction across a broad range of Critical Defensive disciplines.

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7 thoughts on “Low Powered Variable Optic: Pros and Cons of the LPVO

  1. Nice approach to the thoughts involved. Though, it surprises me a little that these thoughts aren’t considered by nearly all that have occupations in which they might likely find themselves in such a situation. It’s very unlikely I ever would be, myself, but have always decidedly preferred what you refer to as an LPVO.

  2. 1-4×24 Another factor is astigmatism. Lose my glasses and I am in trouble with a red dot but using the diopter correction on the scope I shoot without the prescription glasses if necessary.

  3. A very nice writeup and I agree with the thoughts as a whole. This is definitely what we explore in 3 gun quite a bit–you generally don’t see anyone out there without a LPVO for the reasons stated. I’ve used a 1-4x for several years and might get a 1-6 at some point soon. Generally on 1x you can shoot with both eyes open and mitigate a lot of the potential disadvantage vs. red dot for speed. I’m a participant but not at all an expert, but I do know the guys who are and they put a LOT of rounds downrange testing all this stuff out and if it didn’t work they wouldn’t keep doing it. Can’t say I know what the guys in uniform have to say about it because I’m not among them to be in a position to hear it.

  4. I find that the red dot is not effective for me after 35 yds or so. I have a slight astigmatism, and many red dots look like a blob,with only the EO tech or Holosun circle dot being one that does not seem to cause the issue. The circle dot us much faster and clearer for me. You ju d t place b the circle easily on target and you are good to go. You can use the center dot for more precision and the edge of the circle for holdover or windage, though at short distance windage is rarely an issue, but holdover is,with bore to sight distance etc on a typical AR setup. Other then eye relief, I find no significant issues with an lpvo in the 1×4 or 1×6 power range. If you need more power than that,you are shooting long or doing surgical sniping!

  5. You aren’t wrong, but you aren’t right. All optics are a compromise, and some of your conclusions aren’t really right because of your sample size and what you are sampling.

    So what’s wrong with your cons.

    You left off price, or at least details on it. A red dot starts with something pretty serviceable at about $100, and you can get top of the line for about $500 mount and all. I’ve shot many LPVOs and owned a few. Unless I was shooting a bunch of stuff past 200 yards, a decent red dot at a low price was better than a cheap LVPO. IMO, to really not be making a lot of compromises with an LPVO inside of 100 yards, you need to be looking at $1000 or more. Or you have a significant astigmatism, in which case your set of compromises are way different. You will also see money come up repeatedly as a solution to some of the cons.

    You also left off mounts. Which is more price, but is also about the fact the ar pltform is really too small for most LVPOs. They do not offer enough offset. IMO, if you want a mount that works with every scope, you ahve two choices the American defense recon-x or the larue spr-e (there is in theory a bobro that is pretty good, but $300 so). The recon-x is cheaper, is easily to convert to a new ring size, and doesn’t chew up your upper. So there really is one.

    Size. Size is not really relevant. Even a small red dot needs a riser and sight height is going to be similar. Even so it doesn’t really matter because your head is going to be what you need to accommodate vertically, and length wise, it’s the rifle itself. Both of which are bigger than the scope. In years of competion, I just have not seen the dimensions of a scope exclude a shooter from a position, or otherwise interfere with things.

    Weight. Yes they are much heavier than a dot. However, IMO there’s a sweet spot for speed and accuracy in a rifle, and you can build a decently accurate rifle well under that weight. Unless you are addicted to lightness at all costs, you can probably claw back some of your weight budget by changing up your gun and going to a lighter barrel, better comp, and lighter handguard.

    Eye relief. It’s not so much eye relief as the eye box. Ideally you want a big exit pupil, a broad eye relief, and you want the eye relief to not shift much or shrink too much with zoom. All that adds up to the eye box, and a big eye box means lets avoid the black ring of doom without having to have the most perfect head position.

    Speed in close. A dot is fast. But there are LPVOs that work like a red dot. The vortex razor hd 1-6 is just like a red dot when illuminated. It also has a HUGE eye box and really nice glass. At 1x it is really close to a red dot. Which is why it dominated 3 gun optics for a while. But it aint cheap. The meopta k-dot is also very dot like, but not quite as forgiving as the vortex. If you can’t get something that is dot-like, get a really bright reticle with a ring. All that aside, if the LPVO slows you down inside 20 yards, you can just turn the rifle 45 degrees and aim down the barrel and hammer the targets. It was a 3 gun thing for a long time, and all the 45 degree mounts were an attempt to get you the ability at 50-75 when all we had were not so hot 1-4x scopes at best. Now the socpes are getting good enough you see them going away again. With practice and technique you shoudl be able to be damn near as fast a s a dot. The exception being between 50-100. A dot will win that unless you also throw some money at things by buying a good scope.

    IMO unless you got lots of cash, you come down to two scopes: The vortex razor HD gen II and the trijicon accupower 1-8x. The razor is lighter, works like a true red dot, and has a huge eye box. But it has a SFP reticle and it’s a ballistic reticle for a specific ammo (although it looks like they have some other reticle options now), so holdover is a bit of a pain if you don’t shoot that ammo or load your ammo to conform to the retilcle holdover. The trijicon is a FFP scope, but just has a bright reticle illumination. It is not as red dot like. But shoot what you like als long as you now the velocity of it, you can calculate holdovers from any ballistic calculator and you just have to know your dope for your ammo. It’s a bit heavier, but cheaper.

    Myself I currently run a trijicon 1-8x accupower in an ADM recon-x mount on a 16 inch barrel running reduced gas and a lightened carrier and buffer and a decent comp. Total package is about 8.7 pounds and it’ll hit ipsc target sized steel at 500 without me having to work too hard.

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