Developments in battle rifle optics over the last 50 years have been a real game changer
By Leroy Thompson
It was not unheard of 50 years ago to have optical sights on assault rifles or battle rifles, but it certainly was not the standard.
Colt, for example, offered a 3x scope that mounted on the early SP1 version of the AR15. An early combat use of a red-dot sight, a forerunner of the type now commonly used on assault rifles, was used in the November 1970 Son Tay Raid to rescue American POWs in North Vietnam. As I remember, the raiders used Single Point red-dot scopes mounted to the carry handles of their M16s using “100-Mile-an-Hour” tape. Very early on, too, the Special Air Service had mounted some type of red-dot sight on their suppressed Sterling SMGs.
Aimpoint marketed its first Aimpoint Electronic sight in 1975, although it was initially used primarily for sporting purposes. The adoption of the Steyr AUG by the Austrian Army in 1977 was a major step in the acceptance of optical sights for combat since the AUG had a 1.5x optical sight built by Swarovski integrated into the carry handle.
As the AUG was eventually adopted by more than two dozen countries, the technology became widely distributed. In 1987, the British armed forces adopted the L85 rifle, which used the SUSAT (Sight Unit, Small Arms, Trilux) 4x optical sight. This sight proved durable and popular with troops and proved that a non-integral optical sight could stand up to service usage.
EARLY TACTICAL MODELS
Development of other optical sights for assault rifles continued during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1981, the tritium-illuminated Armson OEG, a single-point red dot similar to that used on the Son Tay Raid, was introduced. This would evolve into the wide array of Trijicon tactical optical sights now in use. Armson OEGs were used by the USMC during Operation Desert Storm in 1990-1991.
Trijicon’s ACOG (Advanced Combat Optical Gunsight) had seen usage in the special ops community, but its inclusion in the SOPMOD (Special Operations Peculiar MODification) kit during the early 1990s, which allowed various special ops units to modify their M4s to fit their missions, paved the way for it to be widely used later. This ACOG used in the SOPMOD kit was the TA01NSN a 4x32mm sight.
The ACOG was not, however, the only optical sight included in SOPMOD kits. Others included the ECOS-N (Aimpoint CompM2) and Trijicon’s RX01M4A1 reflex sight.
A Block II version of the SOPMOD kit added more equipment, including some other optical sights. One sophisticated one designed to allow fast transition from CQC to countersniper or other, more distant shots is the Elcan SpecterDR, which may be switched from 1x to 4x by throwing a lever. Block II of the SOPMOD kit also includes the EoTech 553 or another EoTech holographic sight.
Most Trijicon sights do not require batteries to illuminate their reticles, but sights from Aimpoint, EoTech and Elcan do. As a result, many stocks for the M4 carbine now incorporate storage compartments for batteries. Aimpoint received the first US Army contract for red dot sights in 1997 and has addressed the battery issue by constantly improving its electronics to the point that the current generation Comp M4 can operate for up to 8 years on one AA battery.
To read this article in its entirety, pick up a copy of the August issue of Gun World magazine, available on newsstands now.