Low Powered Variable Optics for Patrol

police officer aiming assault rifle

Paul Reyman

Photo courtesy of Richard King Photography

Patrol rifles have been an armament for much of American law enforcement for a relatively short period of time. However, lawmen in the Western areas of our country frequently carried rifles as the distances frequently encountered demanded it.

Back in the day, most urban or suburban law enforcement agencies issued a shotgun, typically loaded with buckshot and/or slugs. Within its tactical niche, the 12-gauge shotgun is hard to beat. Buckshot, although short-range, can deliver tremendous terminal effects and slugs deliver energy which many rifle calibers cannot even come close to equaling. Shotguns can be thought of as “payload delivery systems.” Loads are available to deliver chemical agents, mini distraction devices, and even less-lethal munitions are also available.

However, shotguns do have a few shortcomings. They lack precision/accuracy; they lack range; and they also have a somewhat complex manual of arms. The fact is that shotguns are not very pleasant to shoot. They offer a significant recoil impulse. People that really enjoy shooting shotguns have learned to tolerate the recoil. However, this is not a description of most Law Enforcement Officers (LEOs).


On February 28, 1997, two bank robbers got into a protracted gunfight with police in North Hollywood, California. They had .223, 762 x 39mm and .308 rifles. These calibers/weapons allowed a high volume of fire and range. LEOs had pistols and shotguns. At least to me, this event seemed to stimulate law enforcement to begin to adopt patrol rifles for patrol use in large numbers.

This class of rifles (carbine) offer tremendous advantages. The recoil impulse is polite, so most LEOs don’t mind shooting them. The manual of arms is logical and easier to understand, and modern duty loadings of ammunition are quite accurate and effective. A very common patrol rifle in the US today is based upon the AR-15 platform. Many are equipped with a sling, a Weapon Mounted Light (WML) and an optic – usually, a nonmagnified Red Dot Sight (RDS).

In my humble opinion, law enforcement agencies typically do not change their policies/procedures unless they are forced to by case law or a really bad event. Also, in my opinion, this is a mistake. Technologies evolve and they change. Today, we can leap forward in advance of case law and increase our capabilities. The technology I am referring to is the Low Power Variable Optic (LPVO).

 What about magnifiers? Magnifiers are optics which mount behind an RDS and provide a magnified view through the RDS. They can work, but they come with baggage. The higher the magnification, the heavier the bags. Keep in mind, they magnify everything in front of them. Your RDS dot or reticle will be magnified as well. The RDS dot/reticle will likely be distorted. Flip mounts or detachable mounts add complexity and weak points. The additional lens(es) open the door for parallax distortion as well. For some applications, a fairly low power magnifier behind an RDS may provide some utility in some applications. However, when precision is necessary, I cannot recommend them. Quality LPVOs are clearly (at least to me) superior.

Premium Price

LPVOs come in quite a few different varieties, capabilities and prices. Generally, you can expect to pay at least as much for your LPVO as you did for your rifle. I fully understand that most agencies have gotten used to the idea of a viable, durable patrol rifle RDS costing a little south of $500. And, the thought of spending twice that amount, if not more, will be difficult to talk decision makers into seriously considering.

Issuing LEOs LPVO equipped carbines and supporting them with training increases their tactical capability to a degree which is difficult to quantify. They will be able to employ their carbines at close ranges as they did previously with RDS equipped rifles. However, with a quality LPVO, they can see further and more clearly, thus having better information to base their use-of-force decisions on and, should the need arise, be very accurate and precise with their shot placement.

In order to get the most out of an LPVO equipped carbine, certain adjustments will need to be made. It pains me, but many agencies do not issue each LEO his/her own carbine. They are pool guns. Many are assigned to a vehicle and left there much like how shotguns were before. This is a bad idea. Even if the pool shotgun was zeroed by an armorer, it was never expected to be precise. Carbines are different. Each shooter will hold and fire a carbine a little differently than everyone else. Zeros may be close, but they will not be identical. LPVO carbines must be assigned to a single officer. That officer is accountable for the readiness of that carbine and all of its accoutrements. If your agency decides that not all of its LEOs are worthy of the added responsibility, that’s fine. Just issue them to the LEOs who are – once they are trained.

What is a (duty) LPVO? For a very long time, optic manufacturers couldn’t crack the code as it relates to obtaining a true – or close to true – 1x magnification at the low end and be able to increase magnification to a higher degree and still be useful throughout its range. In the last few years, several companies have been able to produce optics which function almost like a Red Dot Sight (RDS) at 1x and, when turned up to a higher power, allow long-range threat identification and, depending upon the reticle and the officer’s skill, precision accuracy at range.

At first, reputable manufacturers offered 1x to 4x and people took notice. Then, they started offering 1x to 6x. Guys in my circle (military) started buying them. Then, 1x to 8x hit the scene and the world changed. Vortex® and other manufacturers are now offering a 1x to 10x. Again, just to prepare you, it will be expensive. Duty use means that the life of the optic will be rather harsh. It will live its life attached to a carbine which is locked in a car, subjected to constant vibrations and temperature extremes. Building an optic which can survive that environment and still have a usable red dot when activated requires quality materials and meticulous assembly. It will also require a purpose-built mount. They may be pricey, too.

How much magnification is needed? I can’t recommend anything less than 4x, with 6x being comfortable and 8x being just about right. Keep in mind, a quality LPVO won’t make you shoot better; it will only make you see better. For most perimeter applications, ranges will likely be about 100 yards, perhaps a bit more, but often less.

Two Configurations

Optics come in two focal plane configurations – first focal plane and second focal plane. Both are usable, but they come with idiosyncrasies. Reticles in second focal plane optics will not change size as the magnification is adjusted. This is a problem if you intend to use the reticle to “hold over” for targets beyond the range at which you zeroed the system. The reticle subtensions only have true value when at maximum magnification. Reticles in first focal plane optics will change size as the magnification is adjusted. This means that, no matter at which magnification the optic is set, values of the reticle subtensions are still valid. Plain crosshair reticles which you may have learned on or hunted with are inappropriate for this application. Technology has surpassed them.

What reticle should you select? One popular class of reticles is the Bullet Drop Compensating (BDC) reticle. The manufacturer calculated the trajectory of a notional bullet, fired out of a notional rifle with notional atmospherics, and “mapped” the corresponding aim points for different ranges in the reticle. Generally, they’re pretty close to the indicated range, but not precisely so. Each different type and weight of bullet will fly differently. Identical loadings with different lot numbers will fly differently. Different enough to matter. Atmospherics matter. The aim points in the reticle will line up somewhere for your loading; you just won’t know exactly where without significant research.

Ballistic reticles use a series of lines in the reticle to facilitate measurements. They may appear similar to BDC reticles at first glance. Instead of mapping a trajectory, they map distance. Some are fairly basic, simply marking elevation along the vertical crosshair. Some are fairly complex, denoting measurements laterally along the various horizontal stadia lines. This configuration allows the shooter to adjust for wind as the range (and elevation hold) increases.


Are you confused yet? It gets a little more complex. Ballistic reticles come in two main types: Minute of Angle (MOA) and Milliradian (MIL). They are simply different tools for measuring and nothing more. I will say that, in my opinion, MIL is more useful in this application. MIL facilitates measuring and communicating more efficiently than MOA. A MOA works out to about one inch at 100 yards, two inches at 200 yards, etc. A MIL is about 3.6 inches at 100 yards, 7.2 inches at 200 yards, etc. MOA optics of the type applicable for this use will usually come with .25 MOA adjustments to the reticle, meaning every “click” of the elevation turret will move the impact of the bullet a quarter inch at 100 yards. Most MIL optics will have .1 MIL adjustments. This will move the point of impact just over a third of an inch at 100 yards. It can get confusing when you are just getting started. Just keep in mind that MOA and MIL are simply different methods of measuring. Nothing more.

How Will the LPVO Be Used?

Perhaps we should revisit what the LPVO will be used for or how it will be employed. At 1x, with the illuminated reticle turned on, the LPVO will function as a regular RDS. It will be useful on felony vehicle stops or clearing a structure. If the officer is on a perimeter for whatever reason or needs to visually investigate something beyond what he/she can see with the naked eye, he/she can increase the magnification of the optic to see (make sure that the safety is on and your finger stays off the trigger). Should the need arise, the officer should be capable of quite accurate and precise use of force at distances not prudent for a RDS equipped carbine. There will be a slight learning curve when first adopting the LPVO. But, bear in mind, in the greater context, it will still only likely be used at relatively short ranges.

What will “qualifying” with a LPVO equipped carbine look like? Initially, it will be the same as regular RDS equipped carbine qualification. But, the LPVO equipped carbine allows the officer to (ideally) shoot up to the capability of the carbine/ammunition package. You’ll need a training range of at least 100 yards, preferably a few hundred yards. Once the officer understands trajectory, work can begin on learning how to be accurate and precise in different shooting positions. I’d start with prone supported, kneeling supported and standing supported. Again, the goal is to train the officer to shoot up to the capability of the carbine/ammunition package at greater distances than what’s possible with a standard RDS. Once the officer understands the fundamentals, work can begin on learning the cartridges trajectory and how to apply it using the reticles subtensions.

In addition to learning how to shoot accurately and precisely at longer distances, the officer will need to master keeping track of what magnification the optic is set on and remembering to turn on the illumination should that be required. As of yet, manufacturers have not been able to get the same length of battery life as what we’ve come to expect from RDSs. The illumination element should be kept in the off position until needed.

Training and Qualification

How often should the LPVO equipped officer qualify/train? I’d strongly recommend at least quarterly. Shooting well is a perishable skill which needs constant reinforcement. Sustainment training need not be terribly extensive – a magazine or so should suffice if done correctly. There really shouldn’t be any significant policy adjustments to deploy LPVOs beyond the obvious of specifying which optic(s), mounts, ammunition, maintenance, and mandating frequent training.

Paul Reyman’s law enforcement career recently concluded after a total of 29 years of service. He served as a vehicle crash investigator, motor officer, motor officer instructor, tactical first aid instructor, field training officer, and use of force instructor. Paul still serves in the National Guard and has deployed to Afghanistan twice. Paul has successfully completed various military courses including the National Guard Precision Engagement Course (Sniper), Special Operations Armorers Course, USMC Master Breacher, and the Special Forces Sniper Course. Paul frequently functions as a subject matter expert/instructor during Advanced Close Quarters Battle and Sniper Courses.