The idea of putting a magnifying telescope behind a red dot or holographic sight is not especially new. EO-Tech has had a red dot magnifier as part of their lineup for more than a decade, and other optics manufacturers have followed suit. The advantages and disadvantages of this kind of setup have surely been debated endlessly in the intervening years. It seemed to me, at first, that with my limited personal experience, there wasn’t much that I could add to that.
However, the good people at GunMag Warehouse suggested that I approach it from that angle, as someone who hadn’t used a magnifier setup before. They were curious to see what my thoughts would be after trying one out. I previously had no real opinions on magnifiers one way or another, seeing as how I’d never used one. Now that I have, I can think of a few reasons that you might consider one, even if you haven’t before.
Before I begin, let me be clear that I’m not recommending that you change your optical sight setup if you’re happy with what you have. I’ve never been doctrinaire about this stuff, and you can find plenty of people arguing about such things on the internet if you’re interested. I’m not pretending to be a subject matter expert on the topic of rifle optics; I’m simply presenting my thoughts after trying out something that was new to me. I was sent a Holosun HS510C holographic sight and their HM3X magnifier to evaluate.
First off, I’ll say that putting a magnifier behind a non-magnified optic does not turn it into a proper rifle scope. If your focus is on long-range shooting and you don’t think you’d have much use for a non-magnified optic, I would recommend looking at scopes instead of red dot magnifiers.
However, for a lot of applications, the focus tends to be on short-to-medium ranged shooting, everything from across-the-room distances out to a couple of hundred yards. These are the sorts of scenarios you’re more likely to encounter as a law enforcement officer or a private citizen defending your home or property. It is in these situations that the addition of a magnifier may give you an advantage.
Here are a few reasons that you may want to consider trying out a magnifier for yourself:
1. It may work with your existing setup
From my own observation, red dot and holographic sights seem to be the most popular for semiautomatic rifles like the AR-15 family (which, I believe, is currently the best-selling rifle in America). To the extent new shooters bother to learn to use iron sights at all, they don’t use them much. If rifles are even equipped with mechanical sights it’s often only a set of folding backups that are rarely, if ever used.
As such, there’s a good chance you already have a rifle equipped with a red dot sight. If you want to try out a magnifier, you don’t have to change much around, nor do you have to re-zero (a welcome thing when 5.56mm ammunition is more than a dollar per round). The only real requirement is that you have enough rail space behind your red dot to mount the magnifier. If you have your red dot mounted further to the rear, moving it forward a bit can usually be done without loss of zero. You can mount or remove the magnifier as you prefer, even put it on different rifles.
2. Red Dot magnifier entry cost is low.
Like all other firearms optics, magnifiers widely vary in cost, from high-end, domestically-produced optics to inexpensive ones imported from China or the Philippines. The good news is that the quality of the more budget-friendly optics, while not always on par with the top-of-the-line stuff, is better than ever.
If you’re not sure whether or not you’ll like a magnifier setup and simply want to try one out, you can try out the Holosun for about $199 instead of investing more in a higher-end one. There’s something to be said for the mantra of “buy once, cry once”, but if you’re not sure you’ll like a setup, it might be worth testing the waters before you commit a lot of money to the project.
In any case, the Holosun, inexpensive and imported though it may be, provides excellent optical clarity and seems a good value for what it costs.
3. One sight can be used on multiple guns.
One advantage of a simple magnifier is that it need not be dedicated to any one specific sight. The magnifiers themselves work with multiple makes, models, and types of sights, and with a Picatinny rail interface swapping between guns is a snap. The only requirement is that the sight and the magnifier be mounted at the same approximate height.
The magnifier doesn’t have a reticle so there’s no concern with loss of zero, or having to re-zero when switching the optic between guns. You may need to adjust the magnifier so that the sight reticle appears centered in your field of view, but this is easily done and you can just eyeball it. You can borrow one, or loan one to a friend, without having to adjust zero or go without an optic.
Personally, I tested the Holosun magnifier on two different rifles, behind both the Holosun holographic sight and a Meprolight reflex sight. It worked equally well on both with minimal adjustment.
4. It’s out of the way if you don’t need it.
Being able to remove the magnifier without losing the zero of your primary optic gives you a lot of flexibility. If you decide you don’t want to use the sight, you can simply take it off the rifle and put it away. You can put it back on later without any trouble. Most magnifiers have a quick release or throw-lever mount making installation and removal hassle-free.
Beyond that, many magnifier mounts allow the sight to be flipped over to the side, out of your field of view. When you want to use it, you need only take a second to flip it into position and you instantly have magnification. The Holosun I tested had a mount that could be easily reversed; this means you can have it flip to the left or two the right, depending on your preference. Being left-handed I preferred it to fold to the left.
5. It contributes more than it costs.
As I stated before, the entry cost for a basic magnifier is low, and for that low cost, you get a pretty good optic. If you have a high-end, rugged, and proven sight like an Aimpoint, you take nothing away from it by adding the inexpensive magnifier. If the magnifier is damaged, fogs over, becomes covered in dust or mud, or fails for any reason, you can flip it aside or remove it without losing your primary aiming device.
As a general rule, a red dot sight will be less expensive than a magnified, variable optic of the same production quality. Switching out your Aimpoint Comp M4 for a budget-friendly low power variable scope might extend your shooting range, but you are likely giving up something in terms of quality and durability. You will also need to properly mount and zero that new scope, and if it fails, you’re without an optic until it can be repaired.
Adding a magnifier behind your red dot doesn’t give you all the capabilities of a variable scope, but it may give you the capabilities you need for less money and requiring less effort to set up. They add little in terms of weight and bulk and can always be removed if you don’t need them.
6. BONUS REASON: It makes zeroing the sight easier.
This is probably not the most compelling reason to buy a red dot magnifier, but I appreciated it all the same: it makes zeroing your non-magnified optic all that much easier, especially if you’re doing something like a 25-meter battle zero. If you don’t have a spotting scope or forgot your binoculars, there’s no need to keep trotting downrange to see where you’re hitting.