Essential Skills: Setting up your rifle – sights and optics

Setting up your rifle is a very personal affair, much like setting up your gear.  With today’s accessories available for the AR and AK platforms, the sky is pretty much the limit, barring agency resrictions.  In the end, your rifle’s setup needs to be effective and efficient for you.  As with any other gear choice, mission drives the gear and its setup.  With that in mind, I’ll present my thoughts on rifle gear choices from sights to lights to slings over the course of the next few articles.  I’ve covered sights and optics briefly here, but I’ll go a bit more in-depth.


Yes, I consider back up iron sights (BUIS) to be necessary because I’ve seen both Aimpoints and EOTechs fail without warning.  Which ones you choose is up to you, but application drives choice.  Despite the hundreds of various models out there, I can’t say that any particular front or rear sight really sticks with me.  Typically, I tend to use the standard round, two aperture rear with an A2 style front.  With a red dot, I prefer a fixed front sight and fixed rear, and I run the rear sight on the 0-200 aperture.  If my red dot goes down, my transition to  irons is quick and easy.  If I use a magnifier, I prefer a fold down rear for when the magnifier is mounted.  With a magnified optic, such as a 1-6 power, I prefer offset irons.  Even with the offset irons, I run them always up except for storage.


I’m a huge fan of red dots, and to be honest, they’re pretty much the norm on long guns at this point in time.  Most sights are designed to be unlimited eye relief and parallax free, meaning you can get a solid sight picture no matter where you place the optic on your rifle’s rail or how your head lines up with the sight; theoretically you could mount as far forward as you like.  With that said, no sight is completely parallax free, so I prefer to set the optic up as far to the rear as I can to minimize the effect.  I also find that for me, the closer to my eye the sight is, the easier it is for me to acquire.  Typically my only hindrances to rearward mounting are the BUIS and a magnifier, if I choose to use one, and both are fairly simple to work around, especially with the latest generation of micro red dot sights and magnifier mounts.  Red dots are designed for fast acquisition, and are extremely useful when your mission is primarily CQB/short engagement distance related.

Red dot sight with magnifier and BUIS.

A magnifier adds the capability of engagement at medium ranges, as well as enhanced target identification.  There are some extra considerations for a magnifier/red dot combination, however.  First, any magnified optic brings with it the issue of eye relief, defined as “the distance from the last surface of an eyepiece at which the user’s eye can obtain the full viewing image.”  If you are not within this “sweet spot,” typically 2-3 inches from the glass, you will find your view looks an awful lot like looking down the tube of a paper towel roll at an angle – you won’t see the full picture at the other end.  This need to find the eye relief can slow down target acquisition through the magnifier in close quarters or otherwise.  Most magnifier/red dot companies compensate for this by mounting the magnifier in a flip or twist mount, allowing the user to move the magnifier out of the way for CQB use and replace it quickly for more precise use.  The magnification level of these optics is usually fixed – you either have their full magnification or you have the 1x red dot – and usually remains below the 4x power range, which can be limiting for distance engagement.  Also, the magnifier has to be mounted somewhere, which means it is taking up real estate on your upper.  That typically pushes the red dot sight further away from your eye, increasing the possibility of parallax (albeit in a relatively miniscule way), and possibly making acquisition a little slower.  A magnifier/red dot combo may be extremely useful in a perimeter security role where CQB may be involved, such as first responders who may have to confront an active shooter, but also may be expected to hold the perimeter at a drawn out event where engagement distances are inside 200 yards.

An illuminated reticle magnified optic – in this case, a Vortex.

Many manufacturers have attempted to rectify the drawbacks of the red dot/magnifier combo with a variable power (usually 1-4x or 1-6x) illuminated reticle magnified optic.  These optics eliminate the on/off nature of the magnifier by giving the user the ability to zoom to their needed level of magnification, and also remove an additional piece of hardware from the equation.  Many also feature a bullet drop reticle that allow not only compensation for longer distance shots, but also serve as handy hold-overs for close quarters use.  However, as a magnified optic they are still subject to the need for proper eye relief.  The place I’ve found this most difficult to acquire is switching shoulders for corner clearance in CQB.  That’s not to say that a magnified optic can’t be used in CQB, just that the user needs to be aware and train that acquisition thoroughly.  If CQB is in your mission and a magnified optic is used, I recommend one that has as close to true 1x power as possible.  Some optics use 1.5x or 2x as their starting magnification, and this can cause issues for shooting with both eyes open, because the brain cannot easily reconcile one eye seeing 1x and the other seeing 2x.  Not everyone needs a magnified optic, but it can be a good compromise for individuals who expect to move from a CQB to a designated marksman style role on a regular basis (read: fairly equal amounts of CQB and DM inside 300 yards) during missions, or for civilians who can’t afford multiple weapons setups.

Illuminated reticle magnified optic with offset BUIS.

For individuals who will primarily be working in a longer range role (300+ yards), but have to move to their observation point, a combination of the above may be needed.  A magnified optic with a red dot mounted above or at a 45 degree angle could be the answer in those situations.  Typically the optics used at this range start at 3x and go up.  Their reticles are usually not lighted like the 1-4x optics may be, and are not set up for rapid target acquisition at extremely close ranges.  The red dot, especially micro red dots, minimizes the extra weight, but allows for rapid acquisition during movement to and from an observation point, where the magnified optic will be used for distance engagements.

Hopefully this has been helpful for you.  As always, I can give suggestions and and items for your consideration, but I can’t tell you definitively what will work for you.  Your mission drives your gear and your setup.  Find one (or more, if you can) that is effective and efficient, then practice with it, adjust it, and practice some more.

Joel is an 11 year veteran of the US Coast Guard, where he has served at various units including the International Training Division and Maritime Security Response Team. He has held qualifications including Deployable Team Leader/Instructor, Direct Action Section Team Leader, and Precision Marksman – Observer. He has deployed/instructed on five continents and served in quick reaction force roles for multiple National Special Security Events in the US. He is the owner of Hybrid Defensive Strategies, LLC in Chesapeake, VA, and can be contacted on Facebook and Instagram. Any opinions expressed here are solely those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the opinions of the US Coast Guard or the US Government.

One thought on “Essential Skills: Setting up your rifle – sights and optics”

  1. Nicely done, well written and easily understandable for any level shooter, civilian or otherwise. I think understanding the relationship of optics to each other as well the distance to a target, helps anyone looking to set up the best optic gear for their rifle.

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