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Blackhorn Powder
Rifle Magazine
May - June 1999
Volume 31, Number 3
ISSN: 0162-3583
Number 183
On the cover...
The Ballard No. 7 Long Range .45-90 rifle features
Rifle Magazine
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Rifle Magazine
Columns
However, this idea of a bigger caboodle is nonsense because there are boundaries to caboodles that we can't change. One of them is spatial. If you make a caboodle wider you can't see the ends as well. If you could see one end well, you wouldn't see the other at all. The top of a higher caboodle would get farther away as you got a better look at its lower end, and you'd have to lose sight of some of the lower end if it were to grow big enough that the top of the caboodle, in proportion, showed more detail. The time boundaries of caboodles are even more confusing, so let's stop here.

With a scope, you're tunneling into the caboodle, magnifying a hole or a patch but at the same time blocking out the caboodle immediately surrounding that patch. It would be nice if you could instead block out other parts of the caboodle that you don't care to look at, but the law of caboodles gives you no choice. What you can't see is the caboodle immediately around your target.

You see almost the whole caboodle, of course, if you use a 1x scope. All you lose is the thin halo of caboodle obscured by the ocular ring. A 1x scope is thus a very fast sight - faster, in fact, than any sight except one.

In the mid-1970s, the Swedish company Aimpoint brought stateside a novel aiming device that came to be known generically as the red dot sight. Aimpoint's version with its short, compact tube, long eye relief and illuminated dot reticle was as quick to use as a shotgun bead. Its broad application - rifles, pistols and shotguns - all but ensured a bright future. Established optics firms like Tasco and Bushnell soon joined new companies manufacturing red dot sights.

Most of these sights operate the same way. Light from the front passes through a lens with a partially reflective coating on its back surface. A battery-powered diode behind the lens emits a small, bright light that bounces off the lens and back into your eye. The dot and target appear to be in the same plane, so your eye need focus only on the target.

Dot size is measured in minutes of angle (MOA). Many of these electronic sights offer a choice of dot sizes; a few even let you change reticles in seconds. Because there's no magnification, you want a big dot - at least 3 MOA for rifles. To my eye, 6 MOA is better. Remember that in a 20x scope a quarter-minute dot makes sense because a quarter-inch spot at 100 yards looks to be 5 inches across. With a 1x sight you must have a 5-minute dot to equal the apparent size of that quarter-minute dot in the target scope. The target will appear smaller through the red dot sight, of course. You need the big dot because dots are measured against the target as it appears in the sight, and you can't make out a quarter-inch spot at 100 yards without magnification.

Big dots make a lot of sense if the range is short or the light dim. IPSC (International Practical Shooting Confederation) competitors, who shoot fast at big targets up close, can well use 10-MOA dots. So can shotgunners in dense whitetail coverts. One thing to keep in mind, however: An illuminated dot needn't be as big as a dot in a conventional 1x scope to catch your eye. You'll want to try several before deciding on a size.

The apparent size of a dot can vary with its brightness, which is adjustable on every red dot scope I know about. It's good to have a wide range of brightness, especially on a hunting gun that might be used in extremely dim or very bright light. For dim conditions, you want that red dot at its lowest setting, as your eyes will have dilated to take in lots of light. A bright dot in dark timber has the effect of an automobile headlamp: It hides what's behind and a good deal of what's around it. Under a noon-time sun, however, you'll want to crank the dial to a high setting. Your pupils will have constricted to admit less light, and background glare will compete with the illumination of the dot.

Most red dot sights have the equivalent of a scope's erector tube inside the main tube, so you can change windage and elevation by moving the smaller tube with exterior knobs. The C-More sight has neither tube, just a lens with the diode set into the sight base behind it. You make windage and elevation adjustments by changing the angle of the lens.

Bushnell's Holosight, also tubeless, employs photographic film sandwiched between two pieces of glass. The film has a holographic image in the form of a reticle. The holograph seems to project itself when you aim, so the reticle appears not just against the target but at the target. This principle is not new, but Bushnell has pioneered its use in sights. The 3-D illusion is quite remarkable. Introduced in 1996, the Holosight now has eight quickly interchangeable reticles. There's also a 2x adapter that adds just 3/4 inch and 2 1/2 ounces.

You needn't center your eye behind a red dot sight. The dot will appear even if your eye is some distance out of line. If you can place that dot on target - no matter the dot's apparent position in the sight - you should hit. The farther a dot appears from the center of the lens, the farther your eye is off-axis and the greater the parallax (difference between the apparent relationship of sight and target and the real relationship, discernible only when your eye is centered behind the lens). Red dot sights with tubes are slightly less vulnerable to parallax problems because the tube allows your eye less deviation from the sight's axis.
Some industry people say that red dot sights are unsuitable for centerfire rifles because at long range parallax can cause serious aiming error. Truth is, if your eye lines up with the middle of the lens, there is no parallax. The dot's apparent position relative to bore line is exactly where it is relative to bore line. Assuming you've zeroed properly, you'll hit the target. The same holds for conventional scopes. The difference is that a conventional scope won't let you see the reticle if your eye is outside a very narrow cone behind the ocular lens. The red dot sight gives you a lot more latitude in eye placement.

This latitude is what makes a red dot sight especially useful on handguns, in competition or defense. When time is short, it's better to get an imperfect hit quickly than to delay the shot. I have used several red dot sights on handguns, including the Holosight and Tasco's new Optima 2000, of which I'm particularly fond. They've all impressed me. My aging eyes don't shave the fuzz off iron sights like they used to, and I shoot with red dots much more quickly. That means less arm fatigue when there's lots of time, faster recoil recovery when there isn't.

A pistol scope can give you the same sharp sight picture, but eye relief is more critical. A red dot sight will give you a full screen of caboodle whatever the length of your arm or however you have it bent while aiming. You can take a red dot sight off a handgun and mount it on a rifle or shotgun receiver and get the same view. Ordinary pistol scopes are as useless 3 inches in front of your eye as riflescopes are a sleeve-length away.

A red dot sight is a good choice for slug guns, assuming the stock comb puts your eye in line with it. Some shooters recommend red dot sights for bird hunting and clay target shooting. I can't. After trying them several times, I've concluded that to point a shotgun, you're best served by an open view of rib or barrel. Either will all but vanish as you concentrate on your target. If you insert an aiming device between your eye and the target - a sight of any sort that demands your attention - you can no longer point. You must aim. If the target is fast and close you might not want to aim.

On a sporting clays course once, I tried to hit a high incomer using a red dot sight. After several frustrating misses with various leads, I finally broke a bird. From then on that particular shot became quite easy, because I knew where to put the dot, but the occasional pigeon that took a different path at a slightly different speed often sailed on unbroken. My success hinged on the rote relationship of dot to target. I'd lost my fluidity, any natural connection with the bird. The barrel and my left hand, now no longer visible, were together part of a remote apparatus guiding the dot.

Part of the problem with using a dot on a bird gun is the inevitable loss of stock contact. Though typically mounted tight to the receiver, a red dot sight still sits much higher than a bead or field rib on a shotgun barrel. Because of the diode apparatus, some ride higher than ordinary scopes. To put your eye behind a red dot sight is to take your cheek off the stock. If there's an easier way to miss flying targets than to take your cheek off the stock, I haven't found it.

The other liability of red dot sights on bird guns is their mechanical presence: the housing blocks out part of the caboodle. When shooting stationary game, you won't notice that housing, but sweeping a blur of grouse feathers from a labyrinth of brown alders, or sifting wood ducks from swamp timber as they drop and bank, leaf-like but faster - these tasks call for clear vision. Eye and hand must act in concert and unimpeded. Now, with practice anyone can learn to hit clay targets with red dot sights, and perhaps kill some birds. For shotgunning close, quick targets of changing speed and direction, any sight is more hindrance than help. At least, that's my opinion.

On guns meant for sights, however, red dot sights speed up the shot. They're faster than iron sights because you just slap the dot on the target. They're faster than a scope because eye relief is less critical, and the dot stands out against cluttered backgrounds. Though parallax and the area covered by the size of the dot reticle limit their utility at long range, red dot sights with 3-minute reticles at low power settings work fine for big game to 200 yards.

Before buying a red dot sight for hunting, you'll want to try several models and dot sizes under extremes of light conditions, tuning brightness to match. Weight and bulk matter too. Red dot sights are compact, as a class, but some are much smaller and lighter than others. Tasco's Optima 2000 is among the lightest and most compact of all sights: It measures just 1 1/2 inches long and weighs about the same as a trim receiver sight! Despite its compactness, it is not delicate. These days, you can't equate ruggedness with weight, and the lighter the sight, the less its inertia. That means it will not be as apt to come off the gun during recoil.

Some hunters shy from electronic gizmos, and I'll confess an aversion to batteries. They always seem to die when I need them. The tiny batteries in red dot sights have light duty, and under normal conditions (turn it off, Vern, when you put the gun away!), they'll last a couple of years. We've gotten used to batteries in flashlights, cameras, hearing aids and watches. I don't suppose a sight battery is all that far-fetched.
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