Dot Sights for Precise Shooting Results

A dot is the simplest of punctuations and reticles. In either case, it signals the end of all that matters.

Dot Sights for Precise Shooting Results

What grabs your eye? It’s the ivory bead on this sight assembly. Like a bead, a dot gets your attention.

The easiest mark to make is not an X. It’s a dot. Land sakes, you don’t even have to try! Rest the tip of an ink-filled quill on papyrus or parchment, or a pencil or pen on paper, and a dot appears. That’s how useful writing begins. Additional marks await the thought. A deliberate dot ends it. Bang. There’s no more to say. To nix argument in conversation, we declare: “Period!” Or, in the British Isles: “Full stop!”           

How versatile, the dot. It is also endearingly simple. I’m easily confused. A dot leaves little to explore or to question. For that reason, it’s my favorite reticle.           

Dots were late coming to optical sights, because making a dot “float” in a scope is difficult. Early on, a patient fellow with dainty fingers evidently fashioned a dot reticle by knotting fine lynx hair. A practical dot would follow much later, from the bench of T.K. Lee in Birmingham, Alabama. His .008-inch dot on spider web appeared clean and round against targets and brooked recoil from frothy cartridges. Lee didn’t patent it. So instead of becoming public property at a patent’s expiration, the magic behind this wondrous reticle passed to Dan Glenn, Lee’s assistant.           

As optics companies tried to replicate in quantity what T.K. Lee had pioneered, the dot’s future hung, literally, by a thread. I’ve watched dots suspended on strands from black widow spiders. Compared to these all-but-invisible tendrils, a leader for a fly rod is thick as baler twine. Dots are installed by gimlet-eyed technicians in dust-free, breeze-proof booths. “Don’t breathe so hard,” hissed one, ushering me back of a dark curtain. Mannequin-still, she willed life into filament so thin even light had trouble gripping it.


Quick Target Acquisition

Still used in powerful target scopes, dots have been largely shouldered aside by complex reticles in hunting sights. Too bad. A dot is very fast: Put it where you wish to hit and fire. There’s no place for your eye to wander, no time to overthink a shot. A dot hides nothing you need to see.           

For decades, a pal has hunted coyotes with a Remington 700 chambered in .25-06 Rem. It wears a Leupold M8 6X with a dot reticle. “It’s uncomplicated,” he shrugs. He has another 700, also in .25-06 Rem. It has an identical scope. “This outfit works as well for deer and elk. I’ve shot 20 bulls, haven’t lost one.”           

Decades ago, in an Oregon meadow, an important shot hinged on a dot-equipped Lyman Alaskan. Dusk was coming on as I eased atop a ridge and sat to glass. An elk at far timber’s edge appeared to have antlers, but its black, backlit form against dark conifers gave me no confirming look. An approach wasn’t tenable. Minutes later the elk merged with forest. Despairing, I turned to go — and locked eyes with a 6-point bull, quartering to, a stone’s toss behind me. Pivoting slowly on my fanny, I inched the rifle around. When at last this elk came clear in my 2.75X scope, the dot was gone, invisible against the dark neck and chest. Frantic, I looked slightly off-target, a trick to find faint stars in night skies. It didn’t help. In desperation I jerked the muzzle down toward light-colored grass at the elk’s feet. There! A dim speck. I glued my eye to it, raised the rifle and fired as the speck disappeared. The bull collapsed.


The Pros and Cons

Because a dot is solitary, it grabs your eye instantly. At the same time, a dot obscured by knotted background in failing light leaves no clue as to its whereabouts. A crosswire, post or plex reticle usually crosses several backdrops; if the wire’s intersection or the post’s tip is indistinct, you can often gauge its location closely enough by the shards of reticle you can see.           

Its size affects how quickly you find the dot in dark, mottled places, and how clearly you see it. Many hunters use dots that are too small. Your unaided eye can distinguish about a minute of angle (essentially an inch at 100 yards) in good viewing conditions. But shade or glare, fog, rain, snow, wind and, of course, low light impair vision. Without magnification a 1-minute dot is a gnat in your scope field. My Lyman Alaskan had a 3-minute dot, popular in that day. I’d rather have 4-minute dots in scopes of 2.5X to 3X. A 3-minute dot seems right in a 4X scope and a 2-minute dot in a 6X. Dots as small as 1/8-minute are options in some high-power sights. With hunting-level magnification and under field conditions, they’re invisible.           

In variable scopes with second- (rear) plane reticles, target area covered by the dot (subtention) changes with magnification, because the dot stays the same apparent size. A 3-minute dot at 4X becomes a 1.5-minute dot at 8X. That’s a shift you’ll appreciate as you dial up power for fine aim at small targets far away. With first-plane reticles, the dot stays the same size relative to the target when you change power. Thus, a 3-minute dot at 4X is still a 3-minute dot at 12X, and suddenly appears big as a poker chip.

A fluorescent bead, like an illuminated dot, arrests your eye. “Stick it where you want to hit, and fire.”
A fluorescent bead, like an illuminated dot, arrests your eye. “Stick it where you want to hit, and fire.”

Illumination Can Help or Hinder

Illumination can correct for size. Against most backgrounds, an illuminated dot is easier to see than is a black dot. The design and means of illumination used in scopes of traditional profile and in “red-dot” sights vary, but the result is the same: A dot needn’t be fat to be found quickly and won’t disappear against dark objects or in dim light.           

Yes, there’s a trade-off. Illuminated scopes have bulkier tubes than the .875-inch body of my old Alaskan. The dot’s simplicity is compromised by circuitry and a battery, which also add weight, cost and a left-side turret dial. Most illuminated dots are paired with a standard plex or crosswire reticle that can be used without illumination when it’s not needed. Switched off, the dot isn’t the primary reticle. The switch is commonly a dial that also serves as a brightness adjustment. You’re smart to keep illumination at the lowest level that lets you see the dot clearly — much lower in dark conditions than in bright light. Think: A dot isn’t a flashlight. It’s a lightning bug. 

Too much illumination can “burn” the dot image into your vision, impairing your ability to catch reticle movement that would otherwise warn you of a bad shot. A bright dot also appears bigger than it is, and its perimeter less distinct. A halo can form around it, obscuring the target.           

Dot size caveats apply as well to red-dot sights, typically used with no or minimal magnification for fast shooting up close. But these optics — reflex, holographic and prismatic sights — are more versatile than many hunters realize.

Shoot! This black-backed jackal paused for a heartbeat. Faster than irons, a dot is more accurate, too.
Shoot! This black-backed jackal paused for a heartbeat. Faster than irons, a dot is more accurate, too.

Reflex Sights

First, distinctions: In some circles, reflex sights are the only true “red dots.” Nit-pickers reserve that label for closed reflex models. Reflex sights appeared as early as 1900, when Irish engineer Sir Howard Grubb patented a “Collimating-telescope Gun-sight,” declaring it free of imperfections inherent in early telescope sights. Grubb employed a reflecting surface to project an adjustable reticle to the shooter’s eye. During the First World War, German Fokker pilots used reflex sights to aim their dual Spandau machine guns.           

In 1975, many refinements later, a new hunting optic surfaced in Scandinavia. Gunnar Sandberg’s “single-point sight” had a closed tube. You didn’t look through it, you looked into the tube with one eye while your other registered a dot superimposed on the target. The Swedish company Aimpoint resulted. 

Aimpoint sights have improved markedly. They’re smaller and lighter now, still with infinite eye relief. The front lens of compound glass corrects for parallax, so you hit where the dot appears even when your eye is off-axis. Modern circuitry trims power demand; batteries now last 50,000 hours! Windage and elevation dials nudge impact 13mm per click at 100 meters. Aimpoint sights are hugely popular for driven game in Sweden. I’ve used them on moose there, in dark conifers that would have swallowed a black dot. For shots at wild boars racing through snow-blotched timber there’s simply no better choice. 

In both closed (tube) and open reflex sights, a reflected LED image is focused on a glass screen. Neither type is forgiving of astigmatism, an eye condition that prevents ready focus of that reflection in or on an irregularly shaped cornea. Open reflex sights boast an almost borderless field, which some shooters prefer to the scope-like view of closed reflex models. Closed reflex red-dot sights best protect the light path from weather and obstructions. Open reflex sights have a low profile and weigh little. Burris lists its Fastfire 4at 1.6 ounces. Leupold’s 33mm DeltaPoint Pro weighs 2 ounces, as do Sightmark’s Core Shot A-Spec and Trijicon’s RMR. Closed reflex sights are three times as heavy. Not all models will partner with magnifiers or can be set to a brightness level low enough to function with night vision devices. 

A holographic sight generates an image that appears not against the target like an ordinary reticle, but out on the target. Like reflex sights, holographics have limitless eye relief. Shooters with astigmatism might find them easier to use. Bushnell pioneered this type of red-dot optic with its Holosight. A Browning .22 Buckmark pistol I use in a winter shooting league still wears one. Once-grainy reticles are now crisp and comprise a wide range of designs. Holographic sights — the 12-ounce Vortex Razor AMG UH-1 and 9-ounce EOTech XPS2-2, for example — weigh about the same as prism sights. 

Zeiss had developed a prism sight by 1904. It was essentially a riflescope with an internal prism instead of a series of lenses. Best known of modern prism sights might be Trijicon’s ACOG, or Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight. Its reticle is lit by a tritium element and a fiber-optic tendril snaking about the tube. The U.S. Marine Corps, then the Army adopted a 4x32mm ACOG. Hunting versions now number 11, in magnifications from 1.5X to 6X.  


Prismatic Red-Dot Sights

Prismatic red-dot sights gobble power. But unlike reflex and holographic models, they have glass-etched reticles that keep you in business if you lose battery power just as the grand-daddy of all coyotes emerges from the sage. (Battery failure in holographic and reflex sights nixes the reticle.) While many reflex sights lack magnification, the 19-ounce Burris T.M.P.R. prism sight is a 5X optic. Prism sights of low to modest power vary a great deal in features, weight and price. Many have fast-focus eyepieces. On most, the eye relief is fixed, as in a riflescope. Mind the details. The T.M.P.R., with a ballistic reticle in red, blue and green, is night-vision compatible — but eye relief is just 2.25 inches! Trijicon’s 1.5X, 4-inch TA44 scales a feathery 5 ounces but lists for over $1,100!

The world is awash in complex reticles that promise to engineer your shot for you. But you may well find a simple dot, black or illuminated, gets you more game. There are no wires, bars, tics or digits to complicate aim. A dot grabs your eye. It hides nothing you have to see. Stick it where you want the bullet to go and fire. Full stop.  


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