The AR-15 has become every person’s rifle in America. Where a few decades ago, the classic lever action .30-30 was the default blue collar carbine, the AR-15 can now be found in the hands of millions of law-abiding gun owners, to say nothing of the military, law enforcement, and security professionals.
The AR-15 has carved a solid place for itself in the hands of the shooting public, and for that reason the market for parts and accessories has exploded in recent years, leading to a bewildering and confusing array of scopes and optics.
Some of are of course quite good, while others are questionable airsoft grade junk from overseas being foisted on an unsuspecting public. What’s worse, you can’t always readily differentiate between the utter garbage and the functional, but affordable entry-level optics.
This makes the search for the best AR-15 optics both time consuming and difficult at any level.
Operating from the assumption that there are a great many legitimate uses for the AR-15, and thus a great many optics ranging in price and configuration, we must first make an effort to discern what makes the best AR-15 optic.
Is it price point alone? A particular configuration? Maybe it is a type of optic? Does the end use determine the final outcome? To a degree, the answers to these questions and more are all a resounding “yes”.
You might not use the same optic on your hunting AR-15 that you will use for your home defense or patrol carbine, and a 3 gun competition gun will be equipped differently than a varmint rifle, which might be rigged differently than an AR pistol. Anyway, you get the idea.
However, there can be a lot of overlap in those areas, so we are going to look at two major classes of optics; red dot or reflex sights and regular scopes, and within those two classes dabble a bit in various price points and end uses.
Naturally, more than a brief survey is an exhaustive task, but we expect you’ll walk away feeling better about choosing the best AR-15 optic and will hopefully even agree with some or all of our choices.
The concept of a holographically projected dot or reticle hardly needs an introduction. These sights have existed in one form or another for well over a century, and first came into their own during WWII in certain anti-aircraft and aerial combat roles.
Today, red dot sights are available in a great many configurations and are in wide use with sport shooters, law enforcement, the military and almost anyone else who uses an AR-15.
Best described as an optical sight, these are electronic replacements for iron sights and allow a rapid target acquisition over traditional irons.
When combined with a magnifier, a red dot becomes a telescopic sight of modest power, extending the range and utility of this particular type of sight.
Best AR-15 Optics in 2020 Reviews
1. Vortex Optics Viper
Here is a red dot that is as much at home on a tactical carbine as a competition gun. The Vortex Viper is a lightweight, low profile red dot that offers an easy to acquire 6 moa dot, and a wide field of vision, making it a very effective sight.
Weighing just barely over 2 ounces, the Viper attaches to any standard Picatinny rail, is built to put up with the recoil of the popular cartridges in modern sporting rifles, and is water, fog and shockproof.
This military-grade AR-15 optic has a multicoated lens and is suitable for most any purpose you might have for it. My own personal choices in no particular order would be to deploy this optic on a tactical or home defense gun, competition, or varmint hunting, or a casual day at the range.
The only real drawback is a small size, which makes using it with magnifiers and some night vision gear very difficult. But other than that, it’s a marvelous little sight.
2. Reflex Sight Red/Green
This is one of the zillions of low-cost Chinese imports currently flooding the market, and a good example of how it pays to examine reviews on low-cost optics before buying them.
Some sellers seem to sell factory seconds of these things, and the reviews are full of optics falling apart after a few rounds. Others like this one sell a functional product, and most negative reviews have to do with things that don’t really make sense.
I have owned probably a half dozen of these things in a couple of different cases, and the reality is they work and not much more. However, for the ridiculously low price they sell for, there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.
I’ve got one on my basic plinker upper, and tossed another on a .22 I’ve got somewhere, and you know what? For a day of fun or casual shooting, I can’t really tell or care I’m shooting through a sub $30 red dot.
I wouldn’t put one of these on a tactical or competition gun, but it’s one of the best AR-15 optics if you just want a cheap, basic red dot that works.
Save the expensive optics for when it matters, use one of these for having fun or on a loaner gun, so if your friend breaks it, you aren’t out much.
It’s an optic I hate to love, but I’m already kinda regretting giving away most of the ones I’ve picked up.
3. Bushnell TRS-25
The Bushnell TRS-25 is a well known and highly popular red dot, and building on that success we have the TRS-25. While many red dots have a 20-25mm objective lens, the TRS-32 has well, a 32mm objective lens, giving you a larger and clearer image to see through.
Built just as you would expect from Bushnell with a fully sealed body, advanced optics with state of the art precision coatings, and a variable brightness that allows you to see the dot in any lighting condition, this fine red dot also ships with a medium height see through scope mount that allows you to use iron sights or the red dot as you wish.
I’d say this is a red dot suitable for any application you may wish from tactical to home defense to sporting purposes.
Very reasonably priced, it would be hard to go wrong with this red dot unless you were in need of a far higher end one for extreme use.
4. Vortex Strikefire
Here is a fine entry level red dot sight that can pair well with a magnifier. Designed to co-witness with standard AR-15 A2 iron sights, sealed against moisture, packing a 300-6000 hour battery life, built with a battery saving auto shutdown feature, and built to handle the recoil of most any rifle, the Vortex Strikefire is a highly advanced tactical red dot that is as much at home on a patrol rifle as it is a sporting carbine, and with ten brightness settings, you can be assured that the red dot is visible in any lighting conditions.
This is a good all around red dot that I really like simply because it is a quality, tactical grade sight at an affordable price.
In many respects, a sight like this can do anything for most end users. Sure, I wouldn’t take it into real combat, but for law enforcement or security work, or the average private citizen, it is a marvelous optic that should be at home on any rifle or shotgun fitted with a Picatinny rail.
Right now AR style rifles are very affordable, and when paired with a Vortex Strikefire you can have a package that is one of the great bargains of the shooting world. Pair with this fine magnifier and you have a nearly unbeatable optics combo for the AR-15.
Ask three people about the best AR-15 scope, and you’ll get three different answers (or more!) depending on how they use their rifle. In some cases, a low powered optic like a 4 or 6x scope is more than suitable for the task at hand.
Certainly, a low power scope makes sense when used with a 5.56mm chambered rifle or other intermediate cartridges, especially when most shooting is done under 500 yards, and often more at 300 yards or less.
One simply does not need a lot of optic at that point. In other cases, we have the extreme end of the spectrum where shooters put big, expensive scopes on their rifles with huge objective lenses and lots of magnification.
These are shooters who engage in varmint hunting or competitive target practice and need a powerful scope to get the most out of their AR-15.
And we have shooters in the middle who are quite content with a modest scope that lets them have fun at the range, or hunt, or do a little bit of everything without excelling at any one task. That is my own personal choice, I run a modest 3-9×30 scope on my AR, and it does the job, but let’s look at a few different ones.
6. Nikon P223
Here is one of the best AR-15 optics because it’s built with the AR-15 in mind. The famous Nikon P223 has a reticle calibrated for the bullet drop of a 55-grain bullet out to 600 yards, it is ideal for serious target or tactical shooters alike.
Built with state of the art multicoated optics, water, fog and shockproof, the P223 is a rifleman’s scope like no other.
This would be my choice for tactical sharpshooting, hunting or competition target shooting. While there are many fine scopes on the market, few are built from the ground up to complement the inherent accuracy present in the .223 cartridge or to work well with match grade AR-15’s.
Even if you are running a bone stock AR-15, you benefit from running the best scope you can find on it in order to maximize it’s natural accuracy.
7. Bushnell BTR-1
The 1-4x scope is a staple of the AR-15 world, and there is a reason it is among the best AR-15 optics. These lightweight and compact scopes can serve as a handy optical sight on their lowest setting, and provide a modest, yet ample level of magnification on their higher end to accurately engage targets out to several hundred meters.
The Bushnell BTR-1 is a fine example of this sort of scope, and aside from the usual waterproof and shockproof construction, along with multicoated optics that one would expect from any sort of quality scope, it also has a unique folding lever that allows you to rapidly adjust the scope’s power while still staying focused on a target.
Toss in an illuminated first focal plane, and you’ve got yourself a scope that is perfect for hardcore tactical or competition use.
While not as well suited for hunting or long-range scopes as others, this is a specialized yet general purpose optic that will work for many shooters as long as they understand the pros and cons of the design.
Affordably priced, loaded with high-end features, and built from the ground up to serve the needs of AR-15 users, what is there not to love about this scope?
8. Leupold VX-3i
Leupold’s VX series scopes are famous for their incredible optical clarity, rugged military quality construction, and of course being made in the USA by a company with multiple generations of building high-grade optics for the military, law enforcement, hunters and target shooters.
Featuring return to zero turrets, 3.5-10x magnification, a huge 50mm objective lens that is perfect for hunting or long range target shooting, and a rugged aircraft grade aluminum 1” tube that can be mated with any number of popular rings and mounts.
This is one of the best AR-15 optics if you are after long range shooting or simply enjoy the best things in life.
Heck, this scope is as much at home on a bolt action rifle as it is an AR-15. Buy this if you want to make little tiny holes at long distances, snipe prairie dogs or varmints, or are assembling a tactical marksman rifle.
Sure it costs about as much as an entry level AR-15, but you aren’t putting this on an entry level rifle anyway, right? A fine scope is an investment, and this VX-3i is an investment in years of high quality, precision shooting.
9. Weaver Classic Handgun
I put this little gem in for the growing AR-15 pistol market. While a lot of folks think the best AR-15 optic for pistols is a red dot, there are plenty of good reasons to use a scope as well.
This fine little scope has a 28mm objective lens, and a more than sufficient 2.5-8 power magnification making it perfect for the intermediate cartridges fired from AR-15 pistols.
While many AR pistols are fitted with iron sights or red dots, there is absolutely nothing wrong with putting a modest little pistol scope like this one on them, especially if you enjoy hunting or benchrest shooting with them.
Actually, after writing this, I am now somewhat inspired to build a pistol for bench shooting around this scope and a 10” or so barrel.
There is an enormous amount of flexibility with the AR-15 when built as a pistol, and you can get some incredible performance out of one with a scope. Small pistol scopes like this one add little overall weight to a build and are at home on a nice little 5.56 or .300 Blackout pistol.
Choosing the Best AR-15 Optic
Much ink has been spilled and will continue to be spilled on the idea of choosing the best AR-15 optic. Red dot or scope? Long range or short range? And all sorts of other considerations on top of that.
Personally, I like to break it down to three different criteria. Am I building a tactical rifle, a hunting rifle or a target rifle? Each one requires entirely different thought and calls for different kinds of optics.
A tactical rifle is something of a catchall term, and could probably even include a sniper rifle, but we’ll just focus on the idea of a lightweight and handy carbine that is designed to be used in an offensive or defensive capability, and could be anything from an AR-15 in a police cruiser, to a home defense gun.
It will probably have a 16” barrel and will need to be accurate, easy handling and as light as is reasonable.
Often these weapons will be used at close ranges and will often be fitted with red dots or low powered scopes that could be better described as optical sights, as they will feature nominal magnification.
Really any red dot would work by definition, but you may need one compatible with night vision goggles, or fitted with a magnifier, so choose in accordance with your special needs. If you want a scope, I would go for one with an illuminated reticle and a low magnification.
A hunting rifle could be in almost any sort of configuration that is comfortable to the end user but will often feature an 18-24” heavy barrel and will have scopes of greater magnification than a tactical rifle.
At a minimum, a 3-9×30 scope is probably going to be what you are looking at to put on here, or some of the better grades of red dot for hunting in the brush or at short ranges.
Naturally, the sky is the limit within reason on scopes in terms of magnification and objective size, and you will need to match a scope to a rifle and final intended use. A prairie dog hunter will use a far different scope than somebody hunting deer in the thick brush after all.
A target rifle often has a lot in common with some hunting rifles, and will almost always use the same sort of large, high powered scopes that encourage long range accuracy and performance. In fact, at some levels, there is no real difference between some target rifles and some hunting rifles.
Picking the best AR-15 optic is very important, almost as important as choosing your barrel and trigger. It is what you use to guide your shot and that all-powerful final link forging your rifle build together.
A poorly chosen optic will at best reduce your accuracy, and at worst could cost lives. It is crucial to understand your rifle and optic as a system that must all be in balance to work and perform properly.
We can see that there are a great many optics and rifle configurations, in fact, there is probably a nearly infinite variety of rifle and scope configurations when you factor in all the different ways an AR-15 can be built. But this doesn’t mean choosing an optic should be hard. Rather, it should be a fairly easy process. Identify the end use of your rifle.
Determine if a red dot or scope will fit your needs best, then work down the list fitting magnification, objective lens size, and other lesser factors in choosing a scope, or look over the red dots to see what size and shape will do what you need them to do. From there it’s just a matter of picking a brand and model. Not really that hard!
AR-15’s are marvelous creations and offer almost every possible shooting experience to a gun owner depending on how they are built.
Choosing the right optic makes that experience more enjoyable and allows you to enjoy the pride of ownership of a well-crafted precision machine.
Optics can range from crazy cheap to the price of a used car, which makes selecting the right one the first time all the more important. But ultimately, no matter what you choose, you can be happy that you made an informed choice.