EVO­LU­TION OF THE COM­BAT OP­TIC

Recoil - - Evolution Of The Combat Optic - BY DAN BROKOS PHO­TOS BY MUZ­ZLE FLASH ME­DIA AND BLAKE REA

Over the course of 26-plus years of ser­vice, I’ve wit­nessed a lot of changes to the main sight­ing sys­tem of the is­sued long-gun. The ri­fle has been the pri­mary weapon for the mil­i­tary since the Penn­syl­va­nia Ri­fle (some say Ken­tucky, but I was born and raised in Penn­syl­va­nia and loy­alty counts). The ri­fle then, and still to­day, is the mod­ern sword and shield. It’s the in­sep­a­ra­ble tool of the sol­dier on the bat­tle­field, be­com­ing al­most ubiq­ui­tous in the ar­mory of mod­ern-day law en­force­ment (LE) and a self-de­fense im­ple­ment for the law-abid­ing cit­i­zen.

Our op­tics nowa­days are an in­te­gral part of that sword and shield, and, like other com­po­nents such as rails and fur­ni­ture, must evolve to keep pace with tech­nol­ogy and ever-emerg­ing threats. Change for some en­tails re­sis­tance and dis­com­fort while em­bark­ing into the un­known, es­pe­cially when it comes from a place of shoot­ing an op­tic we’re al­ready com­fort­able with.

I’ve per­son­ally wit­nessed the var­i­ous stages of trans­for­ma­tion of our sight­ing sys­tems, from iron sights, through adop­tion of the Aim­point 5000, var­i­ous other red dot op­tics, and fixed power op­tics such as the ACOG, to the evo­lu­tion of the next com­bat op­tic — a low-power vari­able scope. They’ve been kick­ing around the spe­cial­op­er­a­tions force com­mu­nity for a few years, but it ap­pears that the en­tire mil­i­tary is poised to adopt them. So at this junc­ture it’s worth con­sid­er­ing where we’ve come from, and where we’re go­ing.

HERE’S THE SKINNY ON WHERE U.S. SPE­CIAL FORCES ARE HEADED WITH THEIR CHOICES FOR CAR­BINE GLASS

IRON SIGHTS

We can’t have a dis­cus­sion about sight­ing sys­tems with­out dis­cussing the grand­daddy of all com­bat op­tics. Irons have been around since the dawn of shoul­der-fired weapons, start­ing out as fixed and evolv­ing into sturdy, ad­justable de­signs as man­u­fac­tur­ing ca­pa­bil­i­ties grew. While they’re great com­bat sights and are still pri­mary op­tics on some car­bines to­day, I will say this: You’re be­hind the f*ck­ing power curve if your job en­tails you to be in harm’s way and iron sights are all you have.

Yes, the U.S. mil­i­tary kicked a lot of ad­ver­sary ass us­ing them around the world, blast­ing bad guys in the face. Mus­kets were also a thing. To­day, in the real world, if you have them at all, they should be re­ferred to as backup iron sights (BUIS). Yes, backup. Com­pa­nies still thrive to­day pro­duc­ing smaller, lighter, slim­mer, eas­ily ad­justable sights that are in­tu­itive and vi­able to to­day’s gun­slingers no mat­ter what your job is.

But re­mem­ber they’re BUIS — not pri­mary sights. And if your SGM or po­lice chief is an old-school, “I will out-shoot you with iron sights,” kinda guy, don’t f*ckin’ lis­ten to him.

AD­VAN­TAGES

There’s one main ad­van­tage to iron sights, ac­cord­ing to the gospel of Brokos — they’re out­stand­ing tools for learn­ing the fun­da­men­tals of marks­man­ship. Hell, spe­cial forces (SF) didn’t take them out of our sniper course un­til 2010. We shot the old NRA po­si­tional shoot and ac­tu­ally re­quired a group­ing drill to even start the course — all us­ing iron sights. Why? Be­cause they drive the fun­da­men­tals of marks­man­ship home.

DIS­AD­VAN­TAGES

Com­par­ing iron sights to what’s cur­rently on the mar­ket and in the U.S. arse­nal for mil­i­tary and LE agen­cies, there are a few no­table dis­ad­van­tages com­pared to op­tics we need to high­light. Tar­get ac­qui­si­tion is sig­nif­i­cantly slower com­pared to any op­tic, due to the ne­ces­sity of align­ing three ob­jects (tar­get, front sight, and rear sight) at dif­fer­ent fo­cal lengths.

Iron sights are also hard to see in low-light con­di­tions, even with tri­tium in­serts. To­day, op­tics typ­i­cally have vari­able in­ten­sity, il­lu­mi­nated ret­i­cles, and at low power, al­low us to shoot with both eyes open, in­creas­ing our field of view. It’s very dif­fi­cult to be ac­cu­rate and shoot iron sights with both eyes open. In par­tic­u­lar, this is a huge dis­ad­van­tage when uti­liz­ing them in a close-quar­ters bat­tle (CQB) en­vi­ron­ment.

RED DOT SIGHT/OP­TIC

Com­pa­nies have been toy­ing with red dot sights longer than most think. Aim­point AB mar­keted the first one in 1975; the mil­i­tary adopted its first red dot con­tract in 1997. That was the Aim­po­jnt Comp M2 (or M68), which was in the field by 2000. I was a some­what young SF guy back in the mid ’90s and re­mem­ber when we got our Aim­point 5000 and Tri­ji­con re­flex sights (SF adopted the Trij in 1996).

What a world of dif­fer­ence slap­ping those onto a car­bine made. You know the first thing I no­ticed? Sight align­ment and sight pic­ture was pretty f*ck­ing easy! Place dot on tar­get, squeeze trig­ger, re­peat un­til bad guy stopped mov­ing. It was also a hell of a lot faster ac­quir­ing tar­gets at close and far dis­tances. The red dot seg­ment of the op­tics uni­verse has had its ups and downs, but con­tin­ues to evolve and pro­duce bet­ter prod­ucts than in­tro­duced in the 1990s.

My pre­vi­ous com­mu­nity adopted the EOTECH over the Aim­point years ago, and de­spite their well-pub­li­cized fail­ings, they con­tinue to serve our warfight­ers. Some­times the guys pulling trig­gers for real rather than hys­ter­i­cally post­ing about it on the in­ter­net ac­cept the fail­ings of a par­tic­u­lar piece of kit, so long as they can work around it and can ben­e­fit from the ad­van­tages that it of­fers Oth­er­wise we’d still be shoot­ing M14s. Red dots are great op­tics in cer­tain roles, and I’ve been priv­i­leged to be in­volved with test­ing and shoot­ing just about ev­ery vi­able red dot op­tic out there. But they aren’t the be-all and end-all of com­bat op­tics.

AD­VAN­TAGES

The red dot of a red dot sight is on the same fo­cal plane as the tar­get. When you look at the tar­get or the dot you don’t need to shift your fo­cus as with iron sights, re­sult­ing in much faster tar­get ac­qui­si­tion. The sec­ond big­gest gain is re­duced par­al­lax (where the ret­i­cle ap­pears to move in re­la­tion to the tar­get). This hap­pens when the shooter’s head po­si­tion changes. Red dots make it very easy to shoot your car­bine in awk­ward po­si­tions, com­pared to iron sights and fixed pow­ered op­tics.

DIS­AD­VAN­TAGES

Where red dots fall down is at dis­tance. With no mag­ni­fi­ca­tion and no way to ef­fec­tively range that dis­tance, red dots are ef­fec­tively re­stricted to point blank range, un­less you start SWAGING your holdovers. Granted, the EOTECH has units of mea­sure­ment in its ret­i­cle and some com­pa­nies have mul­ti­ple dots to al­low some holdovers — all nice and well when you’re on the same flat range over and over. The re­al­ity is that it’s hard to mea­sure or find the time for a cor­rect holdover, just us­ing a dot. Red dot op­tics aren’t the best op­tion in which to in­tro­duce sta­dia lines etched into a sin­gle, non­mag­ni­fied piece of glass. Mak­ing out sta­dia lines with the naked eye is very dif­fi­cult at range.

FIXED POWER AND SWITCHABLE POWER OP­TICS

We’re in­clud­ing two types of op­tics in this cat­e­gory. Specif­i­cally, the

ACOG and the ELCAN Specter DR. SF adopted the ACOG in 1995 to com­ple­ment the Tri­ji­con re­flex. They’re a good, rugged sight built for dis­tance — a hard-as-nails fixed four-power op­tic.

I can say we missed the mark by mount­ing an RMR on top of th­ese to try to adopt a sin­gle sight for the moun­tains of Afghanistan and streets of Iraq. Height over bore (HOB) for the RMR ends up be­ing just too damn high, and it’s very hard to uti­lize it for CQB that way, let alone hit any­thing past 100 m.

So we adopted the Specter DR from Elcan around 2003 or 2004. The in­tent was the same as the ACOG — one op­tic to be uti­lized for dis­tance, as well as up-close-and-per­sonal CQB sit­u­a­tions; the Elcan has one power with a dot and a four-power throw lever. Both are great sights. Nei­ther are what we need for to­day’s bat­tle­field.

AD­VAN­TAGES

Both op­tics have four-power mag­ni­fi­ca­tion, units of mea­sure­ment for rang­ing and en­gag­ing, sturdy con­struc­tion, and sol­dier-proof de­sign.

DIS­AD­VAN­TAGES

Speed and ac­qui­si­tion of tar­gets at close range suf­fers. For a com­bat op­tic, 4x power isn’t enough to ob­serve and re­port if needed. The RMR failed as a CQB op­tic due to HOB, though off­set mounts would’ve taken care of this prob­lem. The Elcan’s field of view is very hard to use for CQB, even in 1x mode. Both op­tics are quite heavy, be­cause they’re try­ing to give you the op­ti­mal short- to long-range op­tic in one pack­age.

VARI­ABLE POWER OP­TIC

Now we get to the cen­ter of grav­ity of this ar­ti­cle — the next-gen­er­a­tion com­bat op­tic will be a low power vari­able (LPVO), of­fer­ing 1x on the low end and around 6x on the high end. Some Tier 1 units have been run­ning 1x6 op­tics for a while now. Per­son­ally, I started run­ning a 1.1-8 power op­tic hard around 20062007, and tech­nol­ogy has cer­tainly im­proved since then.

Be­ing the aca­dem­i­cally in­clined, cere­bral tech­ni­cian I am (cue my for­mer team mem­bers’ laugh­ter), I trained with this type of op­tic and com­pared times on the flat range with my EOTECH. At close range, I wasn’t quite as fast, but as the dis­tance stretched out, over­all ac­cu­racy was way bet­ter. Not that hard to fig­ure out — 8-power equals more hits at dis­tance. Well, duh, Dan.

I wasn’t as con­fi­dent with this op­tic com­pared to my EOTECH, es­pe­cially when it came to CQB, which was, after all, our bread and but­ter at that point in time. It was like look­ing through a straw to find the dot when needed for fast tar­get ac­qui­si­tion. The il­lu­mi­nated ret­i­cle wasn’t al­ways vis­i­ble when shoot­ing in awk­ward po­si­tions with the weapon canted 90 de­grees, and in bright sun­light, it some­times washed out. To over­come th­ese short­com­ings, I ended up run­ning a mini red dot sight on a 45-de­gree off­set mount — I just needed that up-close con­fi­dence I wasn’t get­ting with the 1.1 power — yet it got me think­ing.

Since then, LPVOs have come a long way. Ten years have passed since a vari­able op­tic first sat on my car­bine, and the in­dus­try has de­vel­oped some great scopes with yet more to come.

AD­VAN­TAGES

If built right, whether it’s a first, sec­ond, or dual-fo­cal plane ret­i­cle, an LPVO of­fers all the ad­van­tages of iron sights, red dots, and fixed power op­tics. And then some. Pre­vi­ous crit­i­cisms of their rel­a­tive fragility have been ad­dressed, and the ones we’re us­ing on de­ploy­ment are built like tanks.

DIS­AD­VAN­TAGES

The big­gest dis­ad­van­tage I see for the fu­ture of vari­able power op­tics is, be­lieve it or not, one of train­ing. In or­der to ex­ploit their full ca­pa­bil­i­ties, they re­quire some time to train on, es­pe­cially if you’ve been a red dot guy your whole life. Un­less you’re spun up on the ret­i­cle and the ad­van­tages it of­fers, you’ll sell the ca­pa­bil­i­ties of the op­tic short and won’t be able to make full use of it as a rang­ing and ob­ser­va­tion tool, which vastly in­creases the abil­ity to make first round hits at ex­tended dis­tances. The bot­tom line is that you can’t just zero your dot in a LPVO and treat it like an Aim­point.

LET’S PUT IT ALL TO­GETHER

Arm your­self with the knowl­edge to make a de­ci­sion on what’s the best choice of com­bat op­tic for your­self, your depart­ment, or agency. Red dot, holo­graphic sights, and fixed-power op­tics are still great sight­ing sys­tems — there are thou­sands of dif­fer­ent mil­i­taries and LE agen­cies uti­liz­ing them to­day around the globe. In a per­fect world we’d all be for­tu­nate enough to own and uti­lize sev­eral op­tics, but some of us don’t have the deep pock­ets for that. I was for­tu­nate enough to have some in­sight and in­put on what’s next for SF.

Not to out­step my bound­aries, but some things in the SOPMOD Kit will be re­placed with a 1-6x or greater LPVO as the next com­bat op­tic. The doc­u­men­ta­tion to sup­port this can be found on FedBizOpps.gov, where it out­lines the spec­i­fi­ca­tion to in­dus­try on build­ing a badass vari­able power op­tic for the mil­i­tary: wide field of view, il­lu­mi­nated dot no greater than 1.5 MOA, vis­i­ble un­der any light­ing con­di­tions, ret­i­cle is sim­ple yet de­signed to ob­serve and en­gage at dis­tance, (wind, mov­ing tar­gets) etc.

This is ask­ing a lot, but you’ll gain the abil­ity to do ev­ery­thing with one op­tic if need be. A ret­i­cle with a day­light il­lu­mi­nated dot is a huge selling point for the SF com­mu­nity — up to now, most of the op­tics in­dus­try has failed at this when it comes to see­ing it star­ing into the sun, a worstcase sce­nario. So far, the com­pa­nies that have placed this dot in the sec­ond fo­cal plane have had much bet­ter suc­cess.

Keep track of in­dus­try; surely there’ll be some greatly im­proved vari­able power op­tics with all the fea­tures the mil­i­tary is look­ing for.

DAN’S TWO CENTS

Arm your­self, in­ves­ti­gate, and re­search LPVO’s for your own blaster.

Tier 1 units are run­ning them, the three-gun World has been uti­liz­ing them for a long time, for the most part the bugs have been worked out, and there’s a range of price points to fit most bud­gets. Find a wide FOV, an il­lu­mi­nated dot for close-range work, and an ap­pro­pri­ate ret­i­cle for dis­tance, with the abil­ity to take care of rang­ing, wind, and movers. In Dan’s world, when Snake Plissken and I in­fil for Es­cape from Chicago, I’m bring­ing an LPVO for my com­bat car­bine.

With in­creased com­pe­ti­tion, the cost of LPVO’s have come way down in re­cent years, and there’s an op­tion for just about any bud­get.

Red dots make for quick tar­get ac­qui­si­tion and are easy to use in awk­ward shoot­ing po­si­tions.

On its low­est set­ting, a vari­able scope is as fast as a red dot, but not as for­giv­ing as far as head place­ment goes. It makes up for this as the dis­tance grows. ABOUT THE AU­THOR Dan Brokos is a re­tired sergeant ma­jor and for­mer Spe­cial Forces Green...

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