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Low-powered variable optics on patrol

From door-kicking building searches to downrange information gathering, LPVOs have you covered


A quality rifle equipped with a low-powered variable optic (LPVO) can make officers more precise, more accurate, and provides better information gathering for threat assessment and target identification.

Todd Fletcher

This article is part of a series for Police1 registered members from Todd Fletcher titled “Police Firearms: Discussion, Drills & Demos.” Todd writes about current hot topics related to police firearms training, outlines firearms training drills and demonstrates shooting techniques on video. If you have a topic you would like Todd to cover, or a training problem you need to solve, email

Not long ago, it was unusual to see a rifle in a marked patrol car. The 1997 North Hollywood Bank of America shootout changed everything. Two heavily armed and armored criminals, hell-bent on escape, demonstrated why it is mandatory to equip officers with patrol rifles. A few years later, it became commonplace to see a rifle mounted between the seats of a patrol car.

In the early 2000s, most of these rifles were equipped with robust and durable iron sights. A significant number of department administrators and firearm instructors swore they would never switch to red dot optics on rifles because “iron sights never fail.”

However, the durability of modern red dot optics has been proven beyond any reasonable measure. Instructors have also witnessed how the use of red dot optics on patrol rifles has led to an increase in accuracy and overall officer competency. Today, it’s unusual to see a patrol rifle set up without a red dot optic. The next step in the evolution of optics on patrol rifles is the use of low-powered variable optics (LPVO).

The benefits of LPVOs

LPVOs are rifle-mounted optics that are user adjustable from no magnification to a low magnification setting somewhere between 4x and 6x of your normal vision. This allows a tremendous amount of flexibility depending on the user’s needs. Leaving the LPVO on 1x (or no magnification) maintains the same advantages as traditional red dot optics on a patrol rifle. At close-quarter distances, no magnification allows for a wide field of view and rapid target acquisition.

The majority of LPVOs come equipped with an etched reticle that works with or without battery power. If the battery goes down, all you lose is illumination. The reticle is still available to do everything you need. In contrast, non-magnified red dot reticles generally rely on battery power to provide a point of aim. Without battery power, there is no dot. Without a dot, you completely lose the benefits of the red dot optic.

Additionally, LPVOs with an etched reticle provides the user with superior sharpness especially for shooters with astigmatism. The starburst or halo effect can be a significant problem when using non-magnified red dot optics. However, very few officers with astigmatism report seeing them while using LPVOs.

As the distance increases, the adjustable magnification really begins to illustrate the advantages of mounting an LPVO on a patrol rifle. If more precise shot placement is required to stop a threat, an LPVO is a much better tool for the job. Without a doubt, it is significantly easier to make accurate hits on target at extended distances using an LPVO. It’s also easier to make accurate hits on much smaller targets at longer distances. Fifty-yard headshots and center mass hits beyond 100 yards are relatively simple using a quality patrol rifle and LPVO combination.

When it comes to shooting well quickly, I have found that I’m just as fast in close with an LPVO as I am with a non-magnified red dot. I can also say with absolute confidence, that outside 25 yards, I’m much quicker and more precise with an LPVO. This is a result of many hours of training with my LPVO rifle setup. Like anything else, training makes all the difference.

The greatest advantage of adjustable magnification for patrol rifles is what happens BEFORE the trigger is pressed. There should be no doubt that accurate threat assessment and positive target identification are critical when engaging with deadly force. This is where a patrol rifle equipped with an LPVO really shines, and a non-magnified red dot optic can’t even compete. Increased magnification provides a much better and more accurate view of the threat. So, it’s quite possible that mistake of fact shootings could be reduced through better information and target identification.

The drawbacks of LPVOs

However, LPVOs are not without their downsides. There are certain areas where non-magnified red dot optics have an edge over their magnified brethren. First, LPVOs are much more expensive than non-magnified red dot optics of similar quality. Retail prices of duty-ready LPVOs can range between $1,000-$3,000. Again, these are duty-ready optics built to withstand the conditions and rigors of law enforcement work. You get what you pay for, but this is significantly more expensive than duty-ready red dots. This doesn’t mean that an LPVO is not worth the money. As a matter of fact, how much value can you put on better threat assessment and target identification? Value depends on the application.

Aside from price, LPVOs come with size and weight penalties. When comparing duty-ready models from one of the most popular optic brands, the non-magnified red dot optic takes up much less real estate on the upper receiver and weighs only 5.9 oz with the mount included. Comparatively, a duty-ready LPVO from this same manufacturer leaves just enough room for a backup iron sight and weighs 23.2 ounces with the mount. It’s easy to understand why there’s such a significant size and weight discrepancy. Magnified optics need more glass and require distance between the lenses to work. Glass is heavy, and the more magnification there is, the more glass is needed adding even more size and weight. The weight penalty alone could be enough to dissuade some officers from choosing the LPVO option.

The single biggest operational downside to LPVOs is a more defined limit for eye relief compared to a non-magnified red dot sight. Eye relief refers to the distance between your eye and the rear lens of the optic while having a full downrange view through the glass. If you have ever looked through a scope and seen a black ring around the image, you were either too close or too far away from the optic and outside the eye relief range. Eye relief can change based on shooting positions. Standing, sitting and prone positions affect how far your eye is from the glass and can result in a limited view through the LPVO. The simple solution is to mount the optic on the rifle to accommodate your most likely shooting positions. After that, it’s back to the range to practice and train so that you are consistently placing your cheek on the stock in the sweet spot without conscious thought.

Advancing the capabilities of officers

Modern firearms, ammunition, optics and training have advanced the capability and accuracy of our officers. An LPVO is another equipment option that may be the perfect choice for someone who wants the ability to accurately identify and hit small targets at distances between 0-200 yards without compromising the capability of fast engagements at close quarters.

More and more officers have started to make this decision, allowing them to wring the most performance out of their patrol rifles. From door-kicking building searches to downrange information gathering, LPVOs have you covered.

NEXT: How to buy firearm optics (eBook)

Todd Fletcher is the owner and lead instructor for Combative Firearms Training, LLC providing training for law enforcement firearms instructors from coast to coast. He has over 25 years of training experience as a firearms and defensive tactics instructor. He retired after more than 25 years as a full-time police officer and over 31 years of law enforcement experience.

Todd is a member of the International Defensive Pistol Association (IDPA) and the United States Practical Shooting Association (USPSA). He is a member of the International Law Enforcement Educators and Trainers Association (ILEETA), and was selected as the 2022 ILEETA Trainer-of-the-Year. He is also a member of the International Association of Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors (IALEFI) and won the 2023 IALEFI Top Gun Award. He can be reached at

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