Red Dot vs Holographic Sights: Pros, Cons, and What’s Best for You?

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By Dennis Howard •  13 min read

Choosing a sight for your AR-15 style rifle can be a confusing and frustrating exercise.  Many shooters debate whether to mount a red dot sight or a holographic sight.  Just understanding the difference between a red dot sight and a holographic sight is a stumbling block for many.  Let’s explore the differences, the pros, and the cons of both red dot sights and holographic sights.

The Technological Differences – The Inside Story

Red Dot vs Holographic Sights

Many shooters believe that the major difference between the red dot and holographic sights is the reticle.  Red dot sights have a red or green dot reticle.  Holographic sights usually feature a ring and dot sight or some form of a chevron and mil-dot combination.  

In truth, the technological differences in red dot sights and holographic sights are much greater.  True holographic sights use much more sophisticated technologies to project the image of the reticle in the scope. 

It’s What’s Inside That Counts – Red Dot Sight Design

Red dot sights use a simple reflection system to project the red dot into the shooter’s eye.  This system usually involves an LED emitter to create the red dot. The image of the red dot projects toward the front lens in the optic.  Special coatings on the lens reflect the image of the red dot back to the shooter.  

The mechanics of the basic red dot sight are simple and straight forward.  The technology is proven and has been available for many years.  

Here are our top recommendations, before we move to detailed product reviews.

  • Night vision capable.
  • Side control buttons.
  • Battery life – 1000 hours are setting 12 on the intensity dial.
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  • Digital rear-facing controls.
  • Battery life – 6,000 hours at the lowest intensity setting.
  • Unlimited eye relief.
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  • Adjustable LED options.
  • 3.25 MOA red dot.
  • Battery life – over four years of continuous use.
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Prism or Reflex Red Dot Sight – More Differences!

To add to the confusion, red dot sights come in two styles, prism or reflex.  Each style of red dot scopes offers some advantages and disadvantages to the shooter.  Two major differences are of interest to shooters trying to decide which style of scope is best.

The Holographic Difference – Technology Inside

The technology inside a holographic sight is more complex than almost any other kind of optic.  The light path inside a holographic scope includes several mirrors, a laser, and optical lenses.  A laser creates the holographic image of the reticle, integrating that image with the target’s image.  

While this internal arrangement of mirrors, lasers, and optical glass sounds delicate, holographic sights are remarkably robust.  The two major manufacturers of true holographic sights, EOTech and Vortex Optics, excel at building durable and touch holographic platforms.

Another advantage to shooters who operate in extreme environments is the holographic sight ability to continue to operate if the front glass of the sight breaks.  Unlike a prism or reflex red dot, holographic sights are not dependent on the front glass to deliver the reticle image.

What are the Pros and Cons of Red Dot Sights for Shooters?

What are the Pros and Cons of Red Dot Sights for Shooters

Red Dot sights, both reflex and prismatic offer pros and cons to shooters.  Understanding those pros and cons helps you understand how a red dot sight fits your shooting style and needs.   

Pro: Affordability 

For many shooters, the cost of red dot sights is an attractive feature. Red dot sights can be some of the least expensive sights on the market and make an excellent entry sight for many shooters.  In fact, the most expensive red dot sights just barely reach the cost of the least expensive holographic sights.

Pro: Battery Life

Most red dot scopes are battery misers.  In many cases, the battery life of a red dot scope measures in thousands of hours.  A few models advertise 50,000 hours on a single battery.  Long battery life eliminates the worries of a failed battery when it is needed most.

Pro: Size and Weight

Red dot scopes come in a wide variety of sizes and weights.  Some of these optics mirror standard optical scopes and even look like standard optical scopes.  Others are small and light enough to wound on the slide of many semi-automatic pistols.  In general, you can find a red dot scope to fit almost any firearm.

Pro: Night Vision Capability 

Many redo dot sights, even the least expensive models, are night-vision compatible.  If you are a nighttime hunter who uses night vision equipment, this can be a huge advantage.

Pro: Wider Selection

There are hundreds of companies making red dot sights.  This vast array of products presents many options for shooters both in quality and in price.  This wide selection presents challenges and an advantage to the shooter searching for a red dot sight to mount on their rifle.

Con: Reticle Size

The red dot reticle in both reflex and prismatic scopes typically is 2 MOA in size. A 2 MOA red dot will cover 2 inches of the target at 100 yards.  Also, at longer ranges, the focus of the reticle dot can blur.  This 2 MOA size may seem inconsequential to some shooters.  However, the 2 MOA red dot can make precise shooting more difficult.

Con: Durability

The most fragile part of a red dot scope is the front glass.  This front glass is the part of the red dot scope that reflects the reticle’s image to the shooter.  If this glass is damaged, the red dot scope is no longer functional.  

The Pros and Cons of Holographic Sights

The Pros and Cons of Holographic Sights

Like red dot scopes, holographic sights have pros and cons that each shooter must evaluate before deciding and purchasing.  When comparing red dot sights with holographic sights, consider these pros and cons.

Pro: Down Range Focus

Reflex and prismatic red dot sight reticles tend to get blurry or fuzzy around the edges the further downrange your target.  Red dot blur can add to the problems of accuracy with reflex or prismatic red dot sights.  Holographic sight reticles remain sharp and clearly in focus no matter the range of your target.

Pro: Reticle Size

The red (or green) dot on a holographic sight reticle can be as small as 1 MOA.   At 100 yards, a 1 MOA dot will only cover 1” of your target.  A smaller red dot, especially one that remains clear and sharp, can be a distinct advantage in the accuracy department.

Pro: Durability

Holographic sights are not dependent on the front glass to reflect the reticle’s image to the shooter.  Most holographic sights remain useable even if the front glass is cracked, broken, or even missing.  If you are dependent on the holographic sight in extreme conditions or situations, this can be a huge advantage.

Pro: Target Acquisition

Many shooters believe that holographic sights make target acquisition faster and easier.  Sharper reticle images at longer distances and the ability to acquire targets with both eyes open are major factors for many shooters.   

Con: Price

The most expensive red dot sight on the market is still cheaper than most holographic sights.  The entry-level price point for holographic sights puts them out of consideration for many shooters.  

Con: Size and Weight 

Holographic sights tend to be heavier and bulkier than most red dot sights.  The necessary technology of these sights requires more internal structure and larger housings.  To protect these somewhat delicate internal parts, the cases on holographic sights must also be more robust.

Con: Battery Life

Holographic sights depend on a laser beam to project the holographic image of the reticle.  Lasers are power-hungry and this lowers the expected battery life.  Compared to most red dot sights, the holographic sights with the best battery life seem miserably short.  The battery life of most red dot sights is in the 500-hour range.

Con: Limited Selection

At present, only two companies produce true holographic sights.  These two companies, EOTech and Vortex Optics, have several models in their product line.  Still, the fact that only two companies produce true holographic sights limits the options for shooters.

The Side by Side Comparison – Red Dot vs. Holographic

A look at a simpler comparison may make it easier to judge the merits of each kind of red dot sight for your shooting needs.   These are the results we found as we looked at the merits of each kind of sight.

Red Dot SightsHolographic Sights
Reticle Size
Size and Weight+
Battery Life+
Target Acquisition
Reticle clarity and focus

It is easy to see a toss-up between red dot sights and holographic sights on features.  The cost factors are the tipping point for most shooters.  The ability to purchase the top of the line red dot scope for less than the cheapest holographic scope on the market is a big point for most shooters.

My Choices for Red Dot and Holographic Sights

My Choices for Red Dot and Holographic Sights

These are my recommendations for the best of each style of red dot and holographic sight.  Your needs and tastes may differ, and you should base your choice on your own needs and situations.

Best Holographic Sight – EOTech EXPS3-0 Review

EOTECH Holographic Weapon Sight EXPS3-0 black

If you want the absolute best holographic sight to mount on your rifle, my choice is the EOTech EXPS3-0.  This sight from EOTech is the complete package.  The features you find on the EOTech EXPS3-0 include:

EOTech offers the EXPS3-0 holographic scope with several reticle options to fit any shooter’s need. These reticles feature a 68 MOA ring with a 1 MOA center dot.  The last number in the model identifies the reticle patterns.

Reticle 0

The most popular choice in the EOTech EXPS3 line is the 0 reticle.  This reticle comes with a 68 MA ring and 1 MOA red dot with three usable aiming points.  These aiming points work with a .223 caliber 62-grain bullet traveling at 2,900 feet per second.

This reticle can be used with other rifle calibers or shotguns but require the shooter to make their own associations with the aiming points.

Reticle 2

This reticle features a two-dot system.  The second dot on the reticle is most often used as an additional long-range aiming point.  

Reticle 4

Reticle 4 is most often used as a ballistics reticle.  This reticle is a 4-dot system.  The four dots offer the shooter the means to identify four different aim points at different ranges.  However, the four dots may not be easily distinguished without using a magnifier behind the holographic sight.

  • Night vision capable.
  • Side control buttons.
  • Battery life – 1000 hours are setting 12 on the intensity dial.
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The EOTech EXPS3 holographic sight may not be the choice of most shooters.  The cost of the EOTech holographic sight is prohibitive for most shooters.  However, when reliability, durability, and quality are immediate concerns, the EOTech EXPS3 is the best holographic sight choice.

Best Rifle Red Dot Scope – Vortex Optics SPARC Red Dot Sight Gen II Review

Vortex Optics SPARC Red Dot Sight Gen II - 2 MOA Dot , BLACK

There is no question that I am a big Vortex Optics Fan.  Vortex Optics scopes and sights outnumber any other sight or scope in my gun safe by 2 to 1.  It should be no surprise that my choice as the best red dot scope for your rifle, especially an AR-15 platform, is the Vortex Optics SPARC red dot scope.

The features create such a high-value point that it is hard not to make the Vortex SPARC red dot sight the choice on my list of best red dot sights.

One thing I always like about Vortex Optics products is the additional inclusions in the box with the optics.

  • Digital rear-facing controls.
  • Battery life – 6,000 hours at the lowest intensity setting.
  • Unlimited eye relief.
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When you open the box, you have everything you need to mount your scope and be ready to head to the range for zeroing.

Best Pistol Red Dot Scope – Trijicon RMR Type 2 Red Dot Sight Review

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There is no doubt in my mind that the best red dot sight you can mount on your pistol is the Trijicon RMR Type 2.  First, you get the reputation and background of Trijicon.  Second, you will have superior optics and construction.  Red dot sights mounted on pistols must endure unusual punishment as they move back and forth with the slide and contend with the recoil and shocks with each pistol shot.

Trijicon is top of the line, and you will pay for that quality and dependability.  However, the features you receive with a Trijicon sight are well worth the extra cost.

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  • Adjustable LED options.
  • 3.25 MOA red dot.
  • Battery life – over four years of continuous use.
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One of the downsides to the Trijicon is the price.  You will also need to supply your mounts or have a gunsmith prepare your pistol for the RMR mounts.  

In the End – Making the Decision

Whichever red dot sight you choose, it is important to understand what you expect from your scope.  It is your demands and requirements that determine what the red dot scope must deliver.  I hope this article has given you some idea of the differences between red dot and holographic sights.  

Thanks again for being part of our reader community.  We love to hear your comments.  If you have suggestions, experiences, comments, or anything to share, please use the comment section below.  Safe shooting.

Dennis Howard

A life long hunter, fisherman, and outdoorsman, after surviving a devastating tornado in his home town, he saw the effects on people's lives as they struggled to cope. He built his first bugout bag a few weeks later and has been a dedicated prepper/survivalist since that time. After a career as a fireman, Dennis opened a retail store (FFL approved) catering to the military, law enforcement, and like-minded individuals. The store built their own AR platforms. Furthermore, Dennis was also an NRA instructor in both long gun and handgun as well as a certified range safety officer. Read his full interview here.