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Seeing Red

For shotgunning situations that require rifle-like aiming precision, a red-dot scope is the ultimate in simplicity: Aim the dot where you want to hit and squeeze the trigger.

For turkey hunters, a red-dot cures the sin of lifting your head off the stock -- a common cause of missing -- in the excitement of aiming at an up-close gobbler. At the other extreme, when a turkey is standing out at the 40-something-yard range, a red-dot provides a precise aiming point. At that distance, even fine fiber-optic rifle-type sights tend to obliterate much of the target, introducing an unneeded variable into a challenge that presents enough other variables to worry about.

A red-dot sight is not a laser sight; no light is projected. Instead, the light hits the front lens and reflects back toward your eye. Sounds simple, but simple construction of a red-dot sight would be as counterproductive to quality as it would in any other hunting optics. Issues such as durability, glass quality and weather-resistance are all buying considerations, just as they are in reticle scopes.

I've heard enough horror stories about red-dots that eat batteries, fog up or can't handle shotgun recoil to believe that the No. 1 rule of optics-buying applies to red-dot scopes as well: Buy the best you can afford. With that in mind, here are several of the higher-end offerings worth considering.

Aimpoint
I didn't know what kind of deal I was getting when I bought my first red-dot scope out of the "bargain" area of a Cabela's store. The Aimpoint 7000SC scope had been returned with no explanation from the original buyer. It looked like it was in good shape, so I took a chance. All I knew about Aimpoint at the time was that it was the red-dot of choice for the U.S. Military -- not a bad endorsement, I thought.

A few years later, I'm still gloating about my purchase. Aimpoint scopes are, to my knowledge, the only truly parallax-free red-dots. Because there is no distortion in the glass, you don't need to center the dot in the sight picture to know you'll hit where you aim. This might not be as big a deal in shotgunning as it is in rifle shooting, but if you appreciate good optics, score an extra point in the quality category. Aimpoints are also guaranteed waterproof and submersible.

A big knock on red-dot scopes in the past was short battery life. All manufacturers have improved on this feature, but Aimpoint took it to the extreme five years ago when it introduced its Circuitry Efficiency Technology, providing thousands of hours of use between battery changes. To be safe, I replace my $5 lithium battery at the start of each turkey season and forget about it.

In 2005, Aimpoint slightly modified its popular 7000 Series and renamed it the 9000 Series, unveiling another leap in technology -- a claim of up to 50,000(!) hours on a battery. Shotgun hunters would be served well by the 9000SC. The 30 mm scope is available in two dot sizes (2 and 4 minute-of-angle), 1x or 2x magnification and choice of matte black or a Realtree camouflage finish.

This just in: New from Aimpoint for the 2008 turkey season is the tiny H-1 Micro sight, which weighs just under 4 ounces, including its integral mount.

Burris SpeedDot
Burris is known for giving a lot of riflescope for the money, and the company's SpeedDot 135 red-dot scope has established a similar reputation.

The SpeedDot features a 35 mm waterproof tube and choice of a 3 or 11 MOA dot size. (Hunters who want a red-dot for close-range shooting tend toward smaller dot sizes in the 2 to 4 MOA range, while competition speed-shooters usually opt for larger dot sizes, typically 7 MOA and larger.)

The SpeedDot operates on a common CR2032 lithium battery, which Burris claims will provide more than 200 hours of battery life at the highest brightness setting. For 2005, the matte black SpeedDot is also available in Advantage Timber camo.

Bushnell Holosight
A Holosight operates differently from traditional red-dot sights in that a holographic image -- a 1 MOA dot inside a 65 MOA circle -- appears to project itself onto the target. Like traditional "tube" scopes, the 1x Holosight is extremely fast for a shooter to bring on-target.

I first tried a Holosight on a sporting clays range during an outdoor media gathering nearly a decade ago when it was introduced. While some writers raved about what a great help it was in shooting moving targets, I was unconvinced. The technology was neat, but because wing-shooting is about pointing, not aiming, it seemed like a product in search of a market. However for shooting still targets, or deer or turkey hunting, I've found it very helpful. The sight has found favor with handgun shooters as well.

Regardless of who's buying Holosights, the product has been a huge success. For 2005, Bushnell has revamped the Holosight, making it more appealing than ever. It's slimmer, lighter and racier looking, but my favorite feature is that the sight now sits a half-inch lower on the receiver, a huge improvement for any shotgunning situation.

Another improvement is in the Holosight's power source. It now uses AAA batteries, which the company claims will provide up to 320 hours of use, compared to only 40 hours with the original model.

Nikon Dot Sight VSD
Nikon's Monarch riflescopes don't require a quality endorsement, and the same can be said for the company's Monarch dot sights.

Unique in red-dot sights is Nikon's variable-sized dot feature. A shooter can select from a 2, 4, 6, 8 or 10 MOA dot simply by turning a knob. This is a nice feature if you want to use the sight for different applications.

The compact, 30 mm Monarch requires no rings for mounting -- it simply clamps on to any Weaver-style mount base. It operates on an easy-to-find CR2032 lithium battery.
The Monarch is available in matte black or a Realtree camo finish.

Truglo Tru-Point
As evidenced by the variety of red-dot configurations available today, a red-dot sight doesn't have to be housed in a traditional scope tube. An extreme example is the category of miniature "open" red-dot sights. One example is a Japanese-made sight imported by Truglo. This sight piqued my interest on a couple of levels when it was introduced in 2004. First was its size -- 2 inches long and less than 2 ounces. Second was its price -- more than $250. Price-wise, that puts it in line with all of the other sights I've mentioned here.

The Tru-Point uses a 4 MOA dot. Whereas most red-dot scopes require manual selection of the brightness control (typically 10 or more choices), the Tru-Point features a light-sensitive rheostat that automatically adjusts to light conditions.

The Tru-Point simply clamps onto any Weaver-style base and operates on a lithium battery. Truglo advertises this sight as "water-resistant," but because I have not used this sight I can't comment. I hope this slick little unit lives up to the standards set by its price tag.

Trijicon
Like Aimpoint sights, Trijicon products are popular with the military. The company makes a wide variety of scope-style red-dot sights, but a newer, much trimmer product is on tap for 2008. The versatile Trijicon RedDot is tiny at .5 ounces and 1 by 1.7 by .9 inches high.  Trijicon.jpg

The new sight is encased in a hardened polymer housi ng and features an 8 MOA dot. It is powered by a CR2032 battery, which Trijicon says is good for up to 35,000 hours in storage.

Zeiss
Zeiss' offering in the realm of red-dots is its Z-Point. I think of this one as a hybrid: It's light (5.3 ounces) like an open sight, compact (2.5 inches long) like an open red-dot sight and housed in an enclosed tube, but with a flat bottom.

The Z-Point has been around for some time in a Picatinny-mount style, but Zeiss recently redesigned it for Weaver-style mounting.

At around $400, the Z-Point is pricey, but then again, it's a Zeiss, so the performance should match the price. It's guaranteed waterproof, which I'd expect. It also features an auto-dimming feature, which requires no manual adjustments to control dot brightness. The Z-Point has a unique power source, relying partly on solar power to prolong battery life.

Scopes as Rangefinders
An additional benefit of scoping a shotgun is that the scope can serve as a range-finding device. No, it's not as precise as using a laser rangefinder, but if you spend enough time looking at lifesize deer or turkey targets through a scope, you'll become adept at judging distances based on how much of the sighting area is filled by the image.

This might not seem like a big deal to a deer hunter shooting a muzzleloader or slugs, because whether a buck is 70 or 100 yards away is almost irrelevant. But the difference between a 40-yard turkey and a 50-yard turkey is substantial in terms of shotgun-shell performance.

Because a 1x red-dot doesn't provide the option of letting you fiddle with magnification, you quickly get used to the consistent view, and soon range estimation becomes second nature.

Within reticle-scope designs, most optics manufacturers now offer designated "turkey" scopes -- typically compact, low-power variables -- whose reticles have a circle in the center specifically to help with range estimation. Knowing, for example, that a turkey's head and neck fill the circle from top to bottom at a given distance when the scope is at a given power setting is a great help in determining the right moment to pull the trigger.

Nikon's TurkeyPro model, for example, is a 1.5-4.5x20 scope. At 40 yards, the circle portion of its reticle subtends a turkey's head from the crown to the bottom of the wattles at 4.5x. If the head and wattles fill this circle, that turkey should be close enough for a clean kill.

Interpreting MOA
MOA, the standard abbreviation for minute of angle, is an everyday term among rifle shooters. For example, a rifle that shoots "sub-MOA groups" is grouping its shots in an area of less than an inch at 100 yards.

MOA is also the standard measurement to describe the size of the dot in red-dot scopes. The smaller the MOA number, the smaller the dot. That number designates how much area the dot covers, in inches, at 100 yards. A 4 MOA dot represents a 4-inch diameter ring at 100 yards. At 50 yards, that same 4 MOA dot covers only 2 inches.

Simply put, a smaller MOA dot lets you draw a finer "bead" on your target at close ranges.

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