The case for optics
Make an educated choice when you’re debating the merits of these tools
Despite the ready adoption of optics on duty weapons by police (and particularly patrol rifles), there are still agencies who have resisted the trend over concerns such as cost, reliability and maintenance. Since many of these concerns have their roots in a lack of information and education, it’s worthwhile to evaluate the costs and benefits of these tools to make a more informed decision.
Cost of optics
One of the foremost concerns for any police administrator is budget. Adding optics to duty weapons costs extra money, but the price tag may not be as large as you’d think, and other savings may help offset the initial outlay.
There are sophisticated and expensive optics to choose from, but an agency (or individual officer) doesn’t need to spend a fortune to get an optic that’s suitable for duty use. Companies like Vortex Optics offer discounted pricing for law enforcement and won’t charge an agency sales tax or shipping. This can put mil-spec quality optics like the Vortex Crossfire red dot into an officer’s hands for under $150.
That’s not free, but it’s not prohibitive either, and many agencies have found that a good optic can provide indirect cost savings by decreasing the amount of training time and ammunition required to obtain and maintain proficiency with a weapon. Additionally, if the extra capability provided by an optic helps an officer prevent one bad shooting, it will pay for itself a million times over – ask your city manager what it would cost the city to settle a lawsuit in which an innocent citizen was struck by a round that missed the suspect, and you’ll find that’s no exaggeration.
Durability of optics
There was a time when many optics weren’t robust enough to endure the abuse of law enforcement duty use and would either break or lose their zero. Fortunately, advances in materials, design and manufacturing have changed that, and many optics are now up to the challenge.
For evidence, we need look no further than the U.S. military, where both the Army and the Marine Corps have amassed over a decade of operational experience with optics as the primary sighting system on the rifles and carbines carried by our soldiers and marines. Additionally, some special units have even been using pistol-mounted optics with great success in combat, as well.
If hundreds of thousands of infantry rifles can withstand the rigors of getting knocked around in Humvees, banging into walls, hitting the deck, being subjected to temperature extremes, killer sand and explosive blasts, and getting soaked in chemicals, water and blood, then it’s a safe bet they’ll survive a shift in a patrol car’s gun rack.
These same optics have been subjected to high-volume training by enthusiastic competitors who put more rounds through a gun in a month than most officers will shoot in five years. The crucibles of combat and competition have taught manufacturers many lessons about durability, and today’s law enforcement officers now enjoy the benefits of this experience.
Stuff happens though, which is why many companies offer comprehensive warranties to correct problems. In truth, some optics companies have even repaired optics that weren’t covered under warranty, just to ensure that police were ready for duty. If an optic does break, a good manufacturer can get it up and running or replace it with a minimum of fuss.
Training officers to use optics
When you introduce new gear, there’s a training burden that goes with it. If you mount an optic to a patrol rifle, you will have to train the troops how to use and care for it, but that task may not be as difficult as you’d expect, depending on the equipment selected.
Take the popular red dot sights, for example. The beauty of these optics is their simplicity – to make them work, a shooter simply holds the dot in the right spot and presses the trigger. There are training issues that must be accounted for, like mechanical offset or long-range elevation holdovers, but even with these requirements, an optic:
- Promotes faster learning. By putting the sight and the target in the same optical plane, an optic simplifies the task of aiming the weapon and decreases the amount of time and effort required to obtain proficiency, compared to iron sights.
- Promotes better performance. Optics can decrease the time required to get good hits on target by making the sighting task less difficult. This is especially true as the apparent size of the target decreases due to distance or exposure. It’s also valid when a shooter has to fight from an awkward position due to injury, or to make effective use of cover. Optics also encourage better performance against moving or low light targets, which can be more challenging to hit using iron sights, especially if they lack illumination.
- Decrease the training maintenance burden. Because they encourage better results with less effort, optics can decrease the amount of time, ammunition and effort necessary to maintain the desired level of performance with the secondary weapon, once an officer has received initial training. This conserves precious resources, which can be used elsewhere in training.
Selection of optics
For the uninitiated, the variety of optics can be confusing. Agency decision-makers may not have grown up with optics or understand the pros and cons of different options, making them feel unprepared to make a good choice. This may encourage them to resist considering an optic at all.
There are many educational resources available to police who want to enhance their understanding. Other agencies, independent trainers (like National Training Concepts or TacFlow Academy), professional associations (like NTOA, ITOA, or ILEETA), organizations (like the NRA Law Enforcement Division), and manufacturers are all excellent resources that can help provide the necessary education and training.
Additionally, the selection process can be simplified by defining the mission. When an agency understands their priorities and what they want to achieve by adding an optic, then entire classes of optics may be dismissed from consideration. For example, if light weight and rapid target acquisition at short ranges are important, then the red dot sights are where you need to focus your energy. Conversely, if information gathering, target identification and enhanced precision at longer ranges are most important, the focus needs to shift to low power variable optics (LPVOs), and the red dot sights can be ignored.
Education and experience are the keys to making good choices in optics. Someone unfamiliar with a LPVO might think it’s unsuitable for rapid engagements at short distances, but a little exposure will prove that wrong. Don’t make choices based on what you think you know, get out there and get some hands-on time with the technology before you decide.
A patrol rifle doesn’t need an optic to be effective. Cops have been getting the job done without optics for a long time, and if their training and preparation are up to the task, they’ll continue to do so.
However, optics offer some definite advantages that can enhance effectiveness and decrease the burden on the officer and training staff. They have a cost associated with them, but the benefits seem to make up for it, and then some.
While optics may not be a good solution for every officer or agency, it’s important to come to that conclusion based on facts, not unfounded fears. Today’s optics are a viable option for police and shouldn’t be dismissed due to a lack of education.
Get smart on optics, make a good choice and be safe out there.
The author would like to thank Jon Skubis at Vortex Optics for his assistance with the article. To learn more about optics for law enforcement, contact Jon at email@example.com