The term ‘red dot sight’ is one that is thrown around quite a lot nowadays, but for those unfamiliar with this category of sights, it can sometimes be a bit confusing to decipher. The reason behind this is that the term is generally used to refer to any type of non-magnified sight with an illuminated red ‘dot’ reticle. There are actually several different types of sights that fall into this category, all of which technically should be referred to as electronic sights. Yet, judging by the amount of people searching for information about reflex sight vs red dot sight, it seems that many people are still unaware of exactly what the differences are between various types of red dot or electronic sights.
To help clear up some of the confusion, this post will focus on describing the various types of electronic sights.
Electronic Sights Explained
Although many generally refer to them as red dot sights, you can now find a wide variety of different electronic sights, many of which don’t actually use a red dot as the aiming point. Some sights use green dots, while you can also find a number of other reticle styles that use crosshairs or other aiming points. Still, the one thing that all of these sights have in common is that they are non-magnified and use an illuminated aiming point.
However, you can now find a few models that also feature a 2x magnification setting, while some top manufacturers like EOTech and Aimpoint produce separate 3x and 4x magnifier optics designed to mount behind the 1x electronic sight to allow it to be used for medium to long-range shooting.
Still, standard electronic sights are designed for short to mid-range shooting applications, namely situations where you would typically use iron sights. In fact, virtually any situation you would use iron sights, you can instead use an electronic sight, including rifles, shotguns and even larger handguns. Instead of having to line up your eye with both iron sights and the target, with an electronic sight, all you need to do is look through the objective window, put the red dot on your target and pull the trigger.
As electronic sights are non-magnifying, they are also parallax free, which means that the aiming point will be in the same position no matter how or at what angle you look through the sight. All of these reasons mean that electronic sights generally allow for much quicker target acquisition and better accuracy, hence why they are becoming more and more popular with hunters.
Reflex Sight vs Red Dot Sight
After doing a bit of research, it seems many people search online for info related to the difference between red dot and reflex sight. Red dot vs holographic sight also seems to be quite commonly searched. However, it’s again important to point out that both reflex sights and holographic sights are simply two different types of electronic sights (or red dot sights). In fact, we should really just throw out the term ‘red dot sight,’ as this doesn’t really refer to anything except the aiming point.
In terms of electronic sights, you can easily find reflex sights, holographic sights and laser sights that all feature a red dot aiming point. Although all three work in the same way, by providing an illuminated aiming point, the differences between the three can be quite vast. As well, you’ll now also find some companies manufacturing so-called prismatic sights, a type of electronic sight that functions more similarly to a standard scope.
Each type of electronic scope has its own benefits and drawbacks, so the first step towards deciding which type is right for you is to understand a bit more about how each type works and what’s good and not-so-good about each type.
Up until more recently, the term ‘red dot sight’ almost exclusively referred to reflex sights. These sights generally use an LED, which emits a beam of light that is reflected inside the sight to create the illuminated aiming point. You’ll generally find two types of reflex sights. The majority of them are always tube-shaped, as they require the use of a special curved, mirrored lens at the end that captures the beam of light so it is contained within the sight.
However, you’ll also find smaller, non-cylindrical reflex sights where the beam of light sent out by the LED is not contained. A huge variety of companies currently produce reflex sights, although Swedish manufacturer Aimpoint is the one that most experts continually name as the best reflex sight.
Here is an example using the Aimpoint T1:
While reflex sights use an LED to create the aiming point, holographic sights use a laser diode that illuminates an image on a special holographic film sandwiched between two layers of glass at the front of the sight. As the reticle and aiming point are on the holographic film, this type of sight can contain any shape or size of the reticle, instead of being limited to a simple dot of light like with reflex sights.
This type of sight allows for additional aiming points, such as the popular circle and dot style reticle you’ll find on many EOTech sights. As of writing, EOTech is virtually the only company that produces true holographic sights.
Here’s an example looking through an EOTech 512 holographic sight:
This is another type of sight that’s often referred to as a red dot sight. Laser sights are simply a laser that is attached to the firearm, which sends a small beam of light out onto the target. In fact, they work the same way as any standard laser pointer, meaning that the beam of light must actually hit the target. For this reason, they’re not generally that useful for many hunting purposes, although some people do swear by them.
The final type of electronic sight is a prismatic sight, which is basically a smaller version of a standard scope, except with fewer lenses. Instead of using numerous lenses to refract the image so that it doesn’t appear upside down like a standard scope does, these sights use a prism to flip the image.
With prismatic sights, the reticle is etched onto the front glass lens as with a scope and can be illuminated or used without illumination. Although prismatic sights are still technically electronic sights, many of them do come with some level of magnification, and in truth are more like a scope than a true ‘red dot sight.’
Here’s an example of looking through a prismatic sight/scope:
Comparing Reflex and Holographic Sights
For most hunters and other shooters, the choice of which type of electronic sight to buy generally comes down to a reflex sight or a holographic. For this reason, we’ll now look more closely at the two types side by side so you can better understand the differences.
As the previous section showed, the primary difference between the two is the method used to create the illuminated aiming point. However, although this difference may seem small at first, it actually effects each sights performance in a number of ways.
Probably the most noticeable difference between the two is in terms of battery life, as the LED used in reflex sights consumes far less power than the laser used in holographic sites. In fact, it’s not uncommon to find Aimpoint and other reflex sights that promise over 50,000 hours of battery life, which equates to well over five years of continuous use. On the other hand, despite the advancements EOTech has made over the years, even the most efficient holographic sights generally only have around 500 to 600 hours of battery life.
Battery life definitely isn’t the only factor to consider, as the image clarity and aiming point are also important factors. When comparing standard tube-style reflex sights like Aimpoint with holographic sights, there is one clear winner in terms of image clarity. Due to the need for the mirrored glass lens that contains the light within the tube, you’ll see a slightly darker image when looking through a reflex sight than you will through your other open eye. On the other hand, the lack of a mirror means holographic sights can be made with perfectly clear glass, thus providing a brighter, clearer image with more definition.
Using a laser to illuminate the holographic aiming point also helps eliminate one of the common complaints about reflex sights, which is that the aiming point tends to look a bit washed out. With holographic sights, the laser allows for a perfectly crisp, clear aiming point. As well, EOTech scopes also feature a smaller 1 MOA reticle, compared to reflex sights, where the smallest aiming point you’ll find is 2 MOA. By allowing for a smaller reticle, holographic sights can help to improve accuracy at longer distances. The smaller reticle doesn’t obscure the target as much as the larger aiming point on reflex sights, meaning you can place your shots with more precision when using a holographic sight.
The fact that holographic sites do not need to be tube-shaped also means that the objective window can be any size or shape the manufacturer desires. This is why the majority of EOTech holographic sights feature a larger, rectangular objective window instead of a circular one, as the former allows for faster target acquisition.
Despite all of these factors, trying to actually determine whether reflex sights or holographic sights are better can be quite tricky and really depends on which factors are most important to you. Still, hopefully, by now you at least have a bit better understanding of electronic sights in general. Maybe soon others will learn the same so we can finally put to bed this nonsensical discussion of reflex sight vs red dot sight.