VPO vs DM rifle programs: Know the difference

Putting a variable power optic on a patrol rifle does NOT turn a patrol rifle program into a “designated marksman” program


There are significant differences between a variable power optic (VPO) rifle program and a designated marksman (DM) rifle program. This article explains the differences between the programs.

VPO program

A variable power optic (VPO) is often called a low power variable optic (LPVO). That title was appropriate when variable power optics starting at 1x extended only to 3x or 4x, but many VPOs are now 1x-6x, 1x-8x and 1x-10x. Considering I joined the 1000-yard club using a 3x-9x VPO in a sniper course, I don’t think the term LPVO is appropriate anymore. It’s simply a VPO – the power range is irrelevant.

The biggest mistake instructors and agencies make is trying to turn their patrol rifle program into a designated marksman program by simply putting a VPO on a patrol rifle and letting officers shoot out to 500 yards.
The biggest mistake instructors and agencies make is trying to turn their patrol rifle program into a designated marksman program by simply putting a VPO on a patrol rifle and letting officers shoot out to 500 yards. (Jason Wuestenberg)

A VPO program is an excellent option for patrol rifle programs and requires no additional training for rifle operators. The Phoenix Police Department has authorized VPOs in its patrol rifle program since 2004 shortly after the Leupold Mark 4 CQ/T (1x-3x) hit the market.

An agency’s rifle instructors need to have some knowledge about selecting good VPOs (appropriate features) and mounting them properly, but most agencies should be able to incorporate VPOs into their patrol rifle program relatively quickly and easily. The minimum power for the VPO should be 1x just like a red dot sight (RDS). The extended power can be whatever the agency feels is reasonable and appropriate to enhance their patrol rifle operator’s capability.

The VPO is zeroed just like the RDS. It doesn’t matter if the VPO is MOA or MRAD as rifle operators are not trained to make scope adjustments. There is no need for any special ranging or BDC (bullet drop compensator) reticle in the optic. The VPO on 1x is used with both eyes open (target focused) just like a RDS. However, the eye relief is not as forgiving as a RDS. The difference is the VPO can be powered up to improve accuracy at greater distances or for a precision shot at closer ranges as demonstrated by a Phoenix Police Department officer-involved shooting in January 2021. That officer received no special training regarding the VPO other than the standard patrol rifle training all the rifle operators get.

A VPO program, like a RDS program, is limited by the capability of the projectile, which is typically a .223 jacketed hollow point round. Therefore, a VPO program, just like a RDS program, is only good from 0-300 yards for two main reasons. First, from 0-300 yards, there is no need for sights adjustments. From 0-200 yards, officers aim center mass of the torso, and from 200-300 yards officers aim at the suspect’s shoulder line to compensate for bullet drop. Beyond 400 yards, the bullet drop is significant enough that officers would need a bullet drop compensator (BDC) reticle in the optic to improve their chances of getting a hit. This is where the designated marksman (DM) program comes into play.

Beyond 300 yards, most .223 rounds will no longer perform the way they were intended due to drop in velocity. Most duty rifle rounds need high velocity to expand or break apart (approx. 2200 fps) for optimal terminal/wound ballistics. At 300 yards, the velocity drops below the threshold needed for the projectile to expand or break apart as intended. This was also demonstrated in a Phoenix Police Department officer-involved shooting in 2006 where the suspect was engaged by a patrol rifle operator (one shot, iron sights) and hit in the torso at 326 yards. Although the suspect fell to the ground, the round did not incapacitate the suspect because he tried to engage the arrest team as they closed in. The autopsy x-rays showed the rifle round was mostly intact within the body. Ballistic computers show the rifle round is traveling about 2000 fps at 300 yards. So, a VPO program cannot function as a DM program for engagements at extended ranges.

DM program

If an agency wants the capability to engage a threat beyond 300 yards, a designated marksman (DM) program is introduced.

Many law enforcement DM programs are modeled after the military’s DM programs. The rifle is accurized (free-floating barrel and match-grade trigger installed) and the optic has a bullet drop compensator (BDC) reticle for aiming out to 500 yards. But, in law enforcement, the rifle round has to be capable of desired terminal/wound ballistic performance out to 500 yards. This immediately rules out .223 / 5.56 ammo for reasons described in the VPO section.

Military DM programs typically use accurized 5.56 rifles and operators train to shoot out to 600 meters. But the military also uses ball ammo, which is designed to tumble, not expand. The biggest complaint you hear from soldiers with combat experience is the 5.56 round is not very effective in regard to terminal/wound ballistics. A .223 hollowpoint duty round will act like ball ammo when it falls below 2200 fps. So, in law enforcement, a mid-range caliber is needed.

DM rifle operators are not trained on how to do scope adjustments like a precision rifle/sniper program, but DM programs require additional training beyond standard patrol rifle training. DM rifle operators have to learn how to use the BDC reticle, how to do range estimation, how to estimate and compensate for wind, etc. The program also requires a shooting facility that allows training out to 500 yards. This is a difficult requirement for many agencies.

The biggest mistake instructors and agencies make is trying to turn their patrol rifle program into a DM program by simply putting a VPO on a patrol rifle and letting officers shoot out to 500 yards. That demonstrates a lack of understanding of the difference between a VPO program and a DM program. VPO programs are easy to implement and can cover engagements out to 300 yards. DM programs, done right, require different rifles, different caliber ammunition, and more training above and beyond the standard patrol rifle training. The question is, “Does an agency spend that time and money on a tool/resource that is rarely needed in law enforcement?” Only each independent agency can answer that question.

The National Law Enforcement Firearms Instructors Association offers a 2-day VPO for Patrol Rifles course for any rifle instructors wanting to learn more about setting up a VPO or DM program for their agency.

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