Red Dot Magnifier: Is It Still Relevant?

The year is 2005. The 1994 Assault Weapons Ban just sunset, and you’re in the market for a battery-powered optic for your newly acquired AR-15. If you’re willing to spend the cash, Aimpoint and EOTech are the only options for quality optics. If you want magnification, a Trijicon ACOG is the next best bet, but it’s fixed magnification. With some hesitation, you go with a red dot and buy a red dot magnifier to have the best of both worlds. Suddenly, you’re the coolest kid on the block with your setup.

Fast forward to today and the story is far different. The red dot market is flooded with reputable – and inexpensive – brands galore. Red dots, holographic sights, and red dot magnifiers are abundant and reliable. As if things can’t get any better, Low-Powered Variable Optics (LPVOs) have become more affordable and as plentiful as red dots. With the entry of LPVOs into the market, does the red dot magnifier still have a place on the American fighting rifle?

What is a Red Dot Magnifier?

Red dot magnifiers are exactly what they describe. They’re a distinct, separate unit from a red dot or holographic sight on a rifle. A red dot magnifier is normally equipped with 3x to 4x magnification and has no internal reticle or crosshairs. On their own, they’re basically a monocular with a Picatinny mount. However, these magnifiers are excellent tools when used correctly and under the right circumstances.

red dot magnifier on rifle
This patrol rifle setup uses an Aimpoint T1 with a magnifier with QD release for easy installation and removal.

For years, the red dot magnifier was the gold standard for adding magnification to an AR-15 equipped with a red dot or holographic sight. While the Trijicon ACOG is an excellent tool, the fixed magnification, and extremely close eye relief turned away some buyers in favor of the wider field of view provided by red dot optics. However, users wanted magnification to expand the precision capabilities of their rifles while offering positive identification (PID) of a target. I used a Meprolight MX3 with a QD attachment for nearly six years as the readily available magnification and quick removal were attractive for the reasons above.

Holographic vs Red Dot Magnifier Use

While there are numerous examples of magnifiers coupled with red dot and holographic optics, there are distinct differences between the two. Red dots increase in size with a magnifier. Thus, a 2 MOA dot will become 8 MOA under a 4x optic. While the increased magnification is beneficial, it’s problematic when attempting to make precision shots at longer ranges.

magnified red dot versus holographic reticles
While limited by my photographic prowess, this image still illustrates the clarity of the magnified holographic reticle (bottom) versus the fuzzy red dot (top).

Holographic sights have benefits while introducing some drawbacks. The drawback with holographic sights is their power source. Unlike like red dots, holographic sights use a laser to project the image onto the glass. This laser severely limits battery life and, unlike the 10,000+ hour battery life of red dots, holographic sights tend to be in the hundreds of hours. Conversely, the reticle on holographic sights doesn’t magnify when equipped with a magnifier. This tradeoff is well worth the diminished battery life if you need a crisp, unmagnified reticle for precise, longer-range engagements.

Red Dot Magnifier Setup

There’s more than one way to skin a cat and the same goes for red dot magnifier setups. Some folks run the magnifier directly in line with the optic and keep a low-profile iron sight seated behind the magnifier. If the optic fails, move the magnifier to the side and flip up the iron sights. Problem solved.

red dot setup on rifle with magnifier
This combination of an Aimpoint T1, Spikes Tactical Gen II Micro sight, and Meprolight MX3 magnifier was my go-to setup for my patrol rifle for years. While the Spikes rear sight may appear to interfere with the image through the magnifier, it doesn’t.

I ran a somewhat unconventional setup that worked well for me. I used an Aimpoint T1 with Spikes Tactical Gen II Micro rear sight directly behind it. This minimalist setup allowed for ample space to run a Meprolight MX3 magnifier. Without delving into the semantics of optical magnification, you never saw the iron sights in the magnifier’s field of view despite its position. This was rather handy and worked great as a dedicated patrol rifle setup for over half a decade.

Unfortunately, that beloved setup met its end when I discovered the versatility of LPVOs. While I’ve since retired the magnifier to my home defense rifle, did the LPVO bury red dot magnifiers in the past? The answer isn’t quite as simple as it seems and depends greatly on your equipment and capabilities.

Head-to-Head: Red Dot Magnifier vs LPVO

On the Range

When compared side-by-side, there’s no significant difference between a magnifier versus an LPVO. Both setups are somewhat bulky, and side-flip magnifier designs can potentially snag while expanding the rifle’s footprint. However, adjustment levers and knobs on LPVOs aren’t the most advantageous in that realm either.

red dot and magnifier setup next to LPVO
A Burris RT-6 LPVO next to a red dot and magnifier combo. While the Aimpoint T1 saves a lot of space, the LPVO compared to any red dot and magnifier setup still has a relatively large footprint.

LPVOs have a more limited field of view and less forgiving eye relief than a red dot. The magnifier enhances your view at greater distances while, with a simple flip, retaining the benefits of the wider field of view on red dots and holographic sights. Conversely, red dot magnifier options are essentially magnification or no magnification. LPVOs feature adjustable magnification through a wider range of options than just “on or off”.

Night Vision

Over the last 20 years, night vision has become relatively available and somewhat “affordable” to the average consumer. Affordable is a relative term as high-end night vision rigs can run well over $3,000. Nevertheless, the years of knowing “that one guy” wealthy enough to own night vision are rapidly coming to an end. Night vision is affordable and prolific compared to yesteryear.

So, why am I discussing night vision when this is supposed to be about red dot magnifiers?

There’s a method to the madness here. Night vision isn’t exactly compact, nor is it the wieldiest of tools. If your rifle is outfitted with an LPVO and you haven’t used it with night vision yet, prepare for frustration. The limited field of view and eye relief common with LPVOs is nightmarish when used with PVS-14 or PVS-31 night vision.

Many of those married to LPVOs add a red dot reflex sight to maintain night vision capabilities. The sight is mounted at a 45-degree angle on the rifle. On the other end of the spectrum, a red dot magnifier avoids this issue entirely. If you need to use night vision, flip the magnifier out of the way and go to work. This is a limited application but, as night vision and thermal markets grow, will become a more important need within the industry. The magnifier continues to find ways to maintain relevance within a constantly evolving industry.

Is the Red Dot Magnifier Still Relevant?

The relevance of the red dot magnifier depends greatly on the user, their capabilities, and the environmental application. While LPVOs may appear to be a silver bullet solution to the limitations of red dots and medium/high-powered magnification optics, their application is limited in certain environments. The role of the magnifier is not dissimilar to using the correct bit head on a drill. You can make a bit of similar size work, but it’s aggravating and difficult throughout the process.

Red dot magnifiers are fantastic tools. If your red dot-equipped rifle doesn’t currently have one, I strongly recommend investing in one. The benefits of seeing beyond no magnification far exceed any added bulk or weight to your fighting rifle. Furthermore, as night vision becomes more prominent and budget-conscious, red dot magnifiers can maintain their footing in a market they once strongly held.

Tom Stilson began his firearms career in 2012 working a gun store counter. He progressed to conducting appraisals for fine and collectible firearms before working as the firearms compliance merchant for a major outdoor retailer. In 2015, he entered public service and began his law enforcement career. Tom has a range of experience working for big and small as well as urban and rural agencies. Among his qualifications, Tom is certified as a firearms instructor, field trainer, and in special weapons and tactics. If not on his backyard range, he spends his time with family or spreading his passion for firearms and law enforcement.

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