Red Dots vs. Holographic Sights: Which is Best?

Wondering what the differences are between red dots and holographic sights? Want to find out which is best for you?

Well, read on, because we’re going to get into the details of the differences between these two sight technologies and help you understand how they work so you can figure out which one meets your needs best.

iron vs. red dot vs. holo
Comparing the sight pictures of iron sights, red dots, and holo sights.

Now, let’s jump in!

How Red Dots and Holographic Sights Work

First up–what’s the difference in technology between red dots and holo sights? Is it really as simple as what the reticle looks like, or is there more to it?

Well, you may have noticed that there tends to be a size difference between the two types of sights, and it turns out, there’s a pretty good reason for that. Let’s take a look inside… 

EOTech Holo vs Red Dot
EOTech Holo vs. Red Dot

As you can see from the graphic above, holographic sights have a lot more going on inside. Red dots simply have an LED emitter that bounces a beam off the specially coated front glass and back towards your eye.

Holographic sights, on the other hand, use a complex set of mirrors to bounce a laser around and send a hologram back to your eyes. It doesn’t need the front glass to produce a hologram, but it may look like it does.

Unlike traditional scopes, both red dots and holographic sights don’t give really noticeable a parallax effect. Parallax is the effect where the position or direction of an object appears to change as you look at it from different positions.

EN-parallax
A graphic explaining parallax.

Typically, you will adjust a scope to combat parallax by changing the focus knob. What you are doing when you do this is not actually focusing the scope, but actually moving the reticle into line to correct parallax and put you on target.

Holographic scopes and red dots are not parallax-free, as commonly believed (and advertised), but rather they are zeroed to infinity. What that means is that there’s a lot less error, so they appear to be parallax-free. You might notice a parallax shift at closer ranges, however.

Price

Unfortunately for those of us on a budget, with more complicated technology comes a heftier price tag.

Decent red dots can be found for less than $50 (see the best red dots under $100), but the better ones tend to run you between a hundred and two hundred bucks–still a steal compared to where holographic sights start off.

Red dot on AR
Red dots are popular with many shooters because of
their affordable price.

There is also a lot more variety when it comes to red dots, since pretty much every optics manufacturer has tried their hand at them. Of course, having too many options can be a pain too, so may we humbly suggest our favorite, the Holosun HS403A.

Holosun HS403A

Holosun HS403A

Pros

  • Amazing value
  • 50,000 hour battery life
  • Good glass

If you need a red dot that will go to hell and back without failing, you’re going to want the Aimpoint PRO, which will run you about $400. We promise, though–it’s totally worth it.

Aimpoint PRO

Aimpoint PRO

Pros

  • Top of the line red dot
  • Huge battery life
  • Bomb proof

Even though everyone and their brother makes red dots, there are only two companies that make true holographic sights: EOTech and Vortex.

Holographic sight
Holographic sights are more expensive, but stand up to a lot of abuse.

EOTech is a well-known name in optics and is popular with our military because of their exceptional sights, but newcomer Vortex has been plenty promising too.

Both companies start their holographic sights at about $400, which is about the same price as the super-tough Aimpoint Pro we’re so fond of.

Is it worth it? Well, let’s see!

Best Priced Sights: Red Dots (affordable to pro-level optics and pricing to match)

Size

As it turns out, size does matter!

If you’re looking for an optic for your pistol, you’re going to want a smaller option, and you’re only going to find that in the red dots. Because the technology is so much simpler, there’s quite a few options that will work on pistols and rifles (read about the best pistol red dots here!).

outdoorhub-concealing-a-pistol-with-a-red-dot-sight-2015-09-28_18-27-29-742x600
Pistol red dots are easy enough to find, since red dots can be quite small.

Holographic sights aren’t huge, but you definitely won’t want to slap one on top of your handgun, no matter how cool they are. These sights are best for rifles, and they will take up a good chunk of your top rail, so be aware.

Best Sized Sights: Red Dots

Durability

When it comes to durability, you get what you pay for. Top-of-the-line models from either category both have some pretty amazing stories of standing up to incredible abuse and still ticking along.

So, in short–if you want bombproof optics, be prepared to drop a good chunk of change on it. It can be comforting to know that your sights can withstand a huge range of temperatures, water depths, g-forces, and other abuse, and just keep going.

house fire aimpoint pro
Like this Aimpoint PRO, which survived a house fire and kept on going.

Cheaper red dots are great for your safe queen or range plinker (or airsoft gun), but they won’t take too much real-life abuse. 

Remember how we just mentioned that holographic sights didn’t need their front window to work? Well, guess which option will keep going if you get hit with frag from the front? 

That’s right–holo sights. As long as you have a view through the sight–glass or not–you have a reticle. These sights will even stay zeroed if the window is partially obscured. Pretty useful, right?

holo sight obstructed
Holo sights can still work, even if partially obstructed!

Best in Durability: Holographic Sights

Power and Battery Life

Red dots rely on the power-saving technology of LED, while holographic sights require a laser to produce their holograms, and it makes a big difference when it comes to your battery life.

Some red dots have a run time of up to 50,000 hours of continuous on-time. That’s more than 5 years of 24/7 run time. 

Holographic sights, though, usually come somewhere in the 500-1,000 hours range of battery life. So, if you’re looking for a set it and forget it option, red dots will stand you in good stead.

Best Battery Life: Red Dots

Field of View

Electronic sights are hailed for their ability to work with both eyes open, giving you a better field of view and situational awareness. 

Smaller sights, like pistol red dots, have a smaller window, which means you may need to line it up with your eyes more in order to get a good sight picture.

red dot vs holo field of view
FOV comparison of a red dot and a holographic sight.

Bigger red dots often come in the popular tube style, which narrows your field a bit compared to a holographic sight, but makes it very easy to quickly pick up a sight picture.

Holographic sights have a rectangular field of view, which offers a good picture, a great field of view, and a very fast sight picture. 

While pretty much any option will give you a wide FOV, we think that the holographic sights offer the best one.

Best FOV: Holographic Sights

Reticles: Color and Style

So, since the thing you’re going to be staring at most is your reticle… let’s take a look at the specifics of that.

holo vs red dot
Holographic sight (left) vs. red dot (right)

Reticle Color

Reticles pretty much come in two colors: red and green. Red is by far the most common, since it’s easily picked up by the eyes, even in changing lighting situations, such as moving through a building.

Green is becoming more popular, especially among competition shooters, since it’s even easier on the eyes than red. Green reticles, however, are best when used in steady lighting.

green holo sight
A green holo sight reticle

Reticle Pattern

Your reticle may be as simple as a small dot, or it may include a ring, crosshairs, or some combination of all three. It’s pretty common to find red dots with only a dot, but there are some that mimic the holographic sights’ reticles with a ring around the dot.

EOTech Speed Ring
EOTech’s Speed Ring Reticle

It’s worth noting that the smallest red dots only get down to 2 MOA, while the center dot of the EOTech Speed Ring reticle is 1 MOA. What does this mean?

It means that, at 100 yards, the dot will cover 1 inch, compared to the red dot’s 2 inches. At 200 yards, the EOTech dot will cover 2 inches instead of 4 inches.

If you’re a fan of that reticle style and the battery life of red dots, we recommend the Holosun 501C. It’s a red dot that features a holo sight-style reticle, so you get the best of both worlds.

Holosun 501C

Holosun 501C

Pros

  • Holographic-style reticle
  • Long battery life
  • Durable design

Cons

  • No holographic projection

Best Reticles: Tie!

Acquisition Speed

There’s no denying that both red dots and holographic sights are faster than traditional iron sights, but remember the differences between the technology inside each electronic sight?

Red dots focus the dot to your eyes, so the focal distance is the sight itself. Holographic sights do that weird thing where they project the hologram out in front of the sight itself.

Why am I telling you this?

Because your eye can only focus on one thing at a time, and if you have to choose between focusing on the red dot that’s close, or the target that’s far, you’re going to lose time picking up your sight picture.

Holographic sights view
Holographic sights look like the reticle is beyond the front sight of your rifle.

On the other hand, holographic targets superimpose the reticle on your target, so you’re only focusing on one distance.

Not to mention, that handy Speed Ring reticle makes it easy for quick closeup shots or more accurate distance shots using the 1 MOA center dot.

Best for Acquisition: Holographic

Night Vision

You can find night vision compatible models in both red dots and holographic sights. These models have dimmer settings to avoid damaging night vision devices.

Best Night Vision Options: Tie!

Magnification

You can use a magnifier with both red dots and with holographic sights, but holographic sights are definitely better suited to magnification.

red dot with magnifier
A red dot with a magnifier

When using a red dot with a magnifier, the size of the dot will appear larger, but remain proportionally the same when compared to the target. The holographic sight, however, will remain the same, regardless of magnification. The more you magnify the target, the smaller the reticle will appear in proportion to the target.

Best Magnification: Holographic Sights

Does Astigmatism Affect Sights?

If you have astigmatism, or nearsightedness, a red dot will probably look like a starburst or a squiggly shape when you sight in, because you’re focusing beyond the focal plane of the dot.

astigmatism red dot
Astigmatism can make your red dot look blurry or like a starburst.

Holographic sights superimpose the reticle over the target, which means the reticle is in focus when the target is, so you won’t have the same issues with blurry reticles that red dots can cause.

Best for Astigmatism: Holographic Sights

Our Favorite Red Dot and Holo Sight

There are some definite benefits to holographic sights, as seen above, but the price of entry is so much steeper than it is for red dots that it may not be worth it to you.

If you still want a holo sight and are ready to spend some money on a good one, we recommend the EOTech EXPS 2-0. You can find it for around $450, which is on the lower end of what holographic sights run. 

EOTech EXPS 2-0

EOTech EXPS 2-0

Pros

  • Holographic technology works, even when obstructed
  • Easy to pick up targets with
  • Extremely durable and tolerant of bad conditions

Cons

  • Expensive

With EOTech’s reputation for excellence, we’re pretty sure you won’t need that 10-year warranty, but this sight comes with it anyway.

If you’re new to electronic sights and aren’t sure where to start, it’s hard to go wrong with a red dot, especially the Holosun HS403A. It’s under $200, so it’s much more friendly for your budget than a holographic sight. 

Holosun HS403A

Holosun HS403A

Pros

  • Amazing value
  • 50,000 hour battery life
  • Good glass

You’ll get a super-long battery life, and the auto-on feature keeps your red dot ready to go when you are while saving battery when not in use.

Holographic sights might make shooting magnified a little bit easier or help you pick up a target more quickly, but ultimately, it’s up to you if the extra cost is worth it.

What do you think? Are holographic sights worth the cost? Have any recommendations? Tell us about it in the comments. While you’re here, check out the best AR-15 optics!

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