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Dot sight – why it could be a better option for airgunners

Can you imagine a sighting system where you don’t have to worry about parallax or eye relief? Mike Morton can, and it’s called a dot sight

Telescopic sights are the norm for most air rifles these days, whether they’re PCPs, springers or gas-rams, but there’s another type of sighting system that’s far less bulky, is lighter and is generally cheaper than a scope, and that’s the dot or reflex sight.

This type of sight offers no built-in magnification, but that means super-fast target acquisition, and because it’s used with both eyes open it provides greater situational awareness thanks to a wider field of view.

Reflex sights have therefore proved themselves to be extremely useful in military situations, as well as fast-paced sporting scenarios such as driven boar, but there is a place for them on top of an air rifle as well. However, before we get into that, let’s look at why a reflex sight is called what it is.


What’s in a name?

You may see these sights referred to as red dots, dot sights or reflex sights. These terms are partially interchangeable. A reflex sight projects light from an LED that’s reflected back to the shooter’s eyes via a coated glass lens.

The term ‘dot sight’ is pretty generic, but it’s sometimes applied to a specific type of reflex sight that uses a tube system, which looks something like a small telescopic sight, while the phrase ‘reflex sight’ is used to describe a more open type that offers a heads-up display. 

Both types of sight are still reflex sights, however, and both types display a dot, so these naming conventions aren’t actually all that helpful. 

Dot sight

Hawke’s Vantage Red Dot is a good example of a tube-style reflex sight – it has a dot size of 3 MOA and an 11-stage digital brightness control

‘Red’ dot can also be misleading in instances where the dot sight offers an alternative reticle colour such as green.

I’ve pulled together two reflex sights from Hawke to illustrate the two styles – a Vantage Red Dot 1×30 with a 9-11mm dovetail fitting representing the tube-style dot sight, and the Micro Reflex Dot with a Weaver fitting being an example of the HUD-style sight. Both the tube-type and the HUD-type reflex sights each have their own advantages, which we’ll get into later.

Reflex sights often get confused with a laser, but a laser projects light that can be seen by other people, whereas the dot of the reflex sight can only be seen by the shooter, as it can’t be seen when looking at the front of the lens. And unlike a laser, the dot is not projected onto the target, it only appears that way to the shooter. It’s also much easier to see the dot on a reflex sight, whereas a laser can get lost when it’s aimed at a target in certain lighting conditions.

Without confusing the issue, another optic called a holographic sight sometimes gets thrown into the mix. This looks similar to a HUD-style reflex sight, but it uses a very different system of a laser and mirrors to project a hologram that appears to be floating in front of the optic itself.

Dot sight

The Vantage Red Dot comes with a honeycomb sunshade that can be screwed in place and adds minimal weight and length

Holographic sights tend to be more complex, and therefore more expensive. They do have one big advantage, though: if the lens gets broken, the shooter can still see the hologram and therefore carry on using the sight, which is not the case with a broken lens on a reflex sight. But most of us would agree that this feature is a bit more important for the soldier fighting on the battlefield rather than the airgun shooter at the club range.


Tube or HUD?

In general, the tube-style dot sight offers a narrower field of view compared with a HUD-style reflex, as the shooter has to concentrate on looking through the sight, and the body of the sight will also restrict their vision. However, a tube-style reticle has a greater choice of brightness compared with the reticle on a HUD sight, which can prove beneficial.

Either way, a reflex sight is intuitive in use and similar to open sights, letting you get on target quickly, which can offer a huge advantage to shooters taking part in fast-fire disciplines such as turning targets or breakable disc. If the sight offers manually selectable levels of brightness, then the shooter can choose the most appropriate for the lighting conditions. 

Dot sight

The size of the dot on this sight is 3 MOA – three minutes of angle – do the maths and that means it will cover ¾ of an inch at 25 yards

Because the Reflex Dot is so tiny, a small screwdriver or similar tool is needed to adjust windage and elevation

As a rule of thumb, the brightness should be just enough to let you see the dot against the target. The brighter the dot, the larger it appears, covering more of the target and therefore offering less precision. If the sight does have the option of different coloured dots, then the shooter can choose the one that offers the most contrast with the target.

A reflex sight will not deliver as much precision as a telescopic sight as it doesn’t magnify the target. Precision can also be adversely affected when shooting smaller targets at longer distances, as the dot will cover more of the target. Just like any other aiming device, a reflex sight must be zeroed at one particular distance, but unlike a modern telescopic sight, it does not offer multiple aim points and so the shooter will have to estimate holdover or holdunder at distances other than their set zero.

Dot sight

The Reflex Dot has a larger dot size for even faster target acquisition, and its small dimensions make it suitable for pistols as well as rifles

A rifle fitted with a reflex sight is meant to be shot with both eyes open, which increases the shooter’s situational awareness and field of view

Being a battery-powered electronic device, you will need to remember to turn it on and off afterwards, otherwise the battery will drain, although some shooters like to leave their sight turned on all the time, always carrying a spare battery and replacing it when needed. Other sights, the Hawke Reflex Dot among them, include an automatic shutdown facility to preserve battery life.


Mounting up

Because there’s no magnification with a reflex sight, there’s no need to worry about eye relief or focus, meaning a reflex sight can be positioned in any suitable location on a rifle or pistol. Generally speaking, a reflex sight mounted nearer the shooter’s eyes on a rifle will let them acquire the target more quickly, while a sight positioned further away will offer a wider field of view.

I’m a big fan of the Picatinny rail system, so I decided to fit the Hawke Reflex Dot to my HW100 BP. I experimented with various mounting locations, these being fully forward, rearward and bang in the middle, and in the end plumped for the more conventional to-the-rear position. Familiarity breeds content, I suppose.

It may sound obvious, but the dot is effectively the crosshair, and I now needed to zero the reflex just as I would a regular telescopic sight, placing the dot where the crosshairs would intersect and adjusting windage and elevation accordingly. I began at 15 yards, and then moved back to 25 when I was happy.

Unlike a regular telescopic sight, eye relief is not critical for a reflex, so the optic can be positioned as far forward as you like

Dot sight

Alternatively, the reflex sight can be positioned as far back as you want – Mike chose to leave the sight in this location for the duration of his testing


Shooting with a reflex

If you’ve ever shot a rifle with open sights, then you’ll know half the battle is actually being able to see the target, and that holds true for reflex sights too. Using a stick-on target with a 32mm killzone, I shot a five-shot group to test accuracy. Because the bull was red against a black target it was easy enough to see with the naked eye, but when I was in the aim the 5 MOA dot completely covered it. 

Nevertheless, I was really pleased with the result – a one-hole group with a flyer, although that ‘flyer’ was almost certainly down to me not aiming correctly rather than it being a dud pellet. This helped reinforce the message that the rifle itself will be no less accurate with a different sighting system, it’s all down to the shooter (ie me!) to aim it properly.

It was now onto something a little less formal, and that meant spinners. I have a double-headed spinner, but this is effectively four targets rather than two as I like to shoot the smaller counterweights as well as the animal heads. At 15 yards, I was able to reliably hit the rabbit’s head, the rabbit counterweight and the pigeon’s head, while the pigeon counterweight was just too small for me to see. Back at 25 yards I had to restrict myself to the rabbit’s head and counterweight only. The solution would be to respray the targets in a high-visibility paint, or simply use larger targets at longer distances. The dot itself was easy to see. This particular sight automatically adjusts the level of brightness to the ambient lighting conditions, and worked perfectly.

Mike found himself pleasantly surprised by the accuracy potential of the reflex sight at 25 yards, as the five-shot group in the bull shows

Shooting a familiar rifle with an unfamiliar sight was an interesting experience, and I found that it offered me something completely different. To be honest, I was expecting to shoot the gun a few times with the reflex and then take it off, but I actually think it will be staying where it is for a good while longer. 

I’m hoping to take this sight to my club and have some fast-fire fun taking on some gallery-style knockdowns. Let’s hope my reflexes can keep up with the reflex! 


Just a minute

  • When choosing a reflex sight, one of the things to take note of is the size of the dot, which is usually expressed in minutes of angle. A Minute of Angle (MOA) is an angular measurement which equals 1/60th of a degree and the spread increases with distance.
  • One MOA spreads 1.047in per 100 yards, but this figure is often rounded down to just 1in for simplicity.
  • Let’s take a sight with a red dot size of 3 MOA as an example. This means the dot will cover 3in at 100 yards. If we double the distance we double the area of the target covered by the dot, so in this case that would work out to 6in at 200 yards.
  • Similarly, if we reduce the distance we reduce the area covered by the dot. So our 3 MOA dot would cover 1.5in at 50 yards, and 0.75in at 25 yards. Just remember that the dot size remains the same throughout – it’s still 3 MOA.
  • It might appear as if the best size of dot to choose would be the smallest, as that would seemingly offer more precision. But that’s not necessarily the case. A larger dot will be easier to see, making the target quicker to acquire. It’s really down to personal preference, combined with the size of target you expect to be aiming at and the distance at which you expect to engage it.