Environmental Conditions change. I am constantly irritated by the absolute failure of forums and gun reviews to illustrate certain failings that sighting systems have.
“Optics are superior in every way, period.”
I generally agree, it’s 2019 after all… we have compact nuclear powered scopes which can also draw their luminescence from the sun. You bet your ass hit percentages go up with quality optics, but without adverse conditions are we so sure?
One thing I fail to see discussed often enough is where optics fail. Oh sure, you dropped your ACOG/AIMPOINT and your convoy blew up and a blackhawk landed on it and Larry Vickers blew it up on purpose, and it never lost its zero. Modern optics are damn tuff aren’t they? What would our soldiers be saying about ACOG’s if our war on terror occurred in a jungle environment in constant rain? There are many situations we don’t often consider which could lead to a breakdown of optic effectiveness.
So let’s get started. I wanted to explore more adverse conditions and take some photos for science. I brought out three optics. A Trijicon ACOG, an Atibal 1-4x Variable, and a Holosun “Gold Dot” sight. I mounted a 25 meter zero target at 10 yards. Humidity around 70-75 percent. I attempted to focus the camera on the target with varying levels of success. Read the descriptions to augment the photo. Many times the optic performed a bit better than some photos could capture. So what’s the most common environment that could impact optic effectiveness?
Modern Air Conditioning:
Really? Yes. One point hardly ever discussed is the failure of optics transitioning from a cool, dry environment to a humid environment. You know, going outside. For some shooters in dry climates, this may not be much of an issue. For shooters along the coast with high humidity… It’s something to consider. Indoors, red dots, variables, and prismatics are all fit for duty, but when we make that transition to a humid environment the optic can diminish in clarity and target fidelity. This is especially obvious after rain. Moving from cool indoor AC to outdoors after a summer rain can fog optics within seconds with a light coat of fog.
Light Optical Fog:
To simulate a light optical fog, I left my optics on a counter below a register, and took them outside from a cool, air-conditioned house. The optics all suffered target fidelity loss. The magnified optics appeared to be looking at a foggy scene on my simulated 100ish yard target. The high contrast black on tan target was still fairly easy to spot. ACOG, slightly foggy target. Variable 1x: Foggy, low target fidelity. Variable 4x: slightly foggy, dimmer than ACOG. Red dot: foggy, low target fidelity. Irons: Full target fidelity.
Within a few moments the optics shook off the condensation, and a brief gust of wind could clear them, with the red dot clearing quicker than either magnified optic. I suppose its due to thinner lenses that warm quicker than the thicker lenses of the magnified optics.
Severe Optical Fog:
To simulate a severe optical fog, I placed the optics in my fridge for 5 minutes. One situation I suspect could create severe optical fog would be leaving allowing a car AC vent to blast cool, dry air directly on your rifle. Modern AC vents in cars can cool to a duct temperature of 40-50 degrees. Couple these cold temperatures with a humid environment and you can instantly fog an optic. Upon moving outside, all optics fogged instantly. Target fidelity was lost in all optics to the point of being UN-identifiable. This effect was a complete situational failure for both the variable and ACOG. The red dot also lost full target fidelity; however, the “gold dot” (Yes, it’s a gold dot sight) was still visible inside the fogged lenses. This allowed the shooter to use the red dot as an occluded eye gun sight with an eye on the target focus. I would say, despite worst case scenario fog, the dot sight was still usable. Irons were again, unaffected and allowed full target fidelity.
In conditions featuring pouring rain, certain optics can struggle. Rain can douse you in morning or at night. Optics can suffer the effects of condensation disrupting the sight picture. The interesting component of shooting in the rain is a constant “refresh rate” as rain collects and drains down the lens. Each individual rain drop acts as a micro lens on your optic, bending and moving light in unique ways. Having shot in full rain recently, it reminded me of the challenges present for glasses wearers. Not only are you managing poor resolution on your glasses, but also your optics. That’s three separate lenses that can collect condensation. Keep this in mind for all the four eyes in the crowd. I am you. It sucked.
To simulate rain, I simply sprayed the optics until water beaded off the front and rear lenses and then I shot the photos.
Low Light Rain with Weapon-Light:
Rain can occur in at the worst times. How do these optics perform with a weapon-light in wet conditions? This was a challenging photo shoot, so please see the descriptions to better understand the characteristics of each scenario. For the most part, the brightness of the weapon light gave similar fidelity to daylight rain conditions. Of note, the illumination of the variable optic appeared to be captured by the rain drops. However, peering past the red raindrops give a sight picture with similar fidelity to daytime rain conditions.
Another important point to consider is that mini red dot sights can collect water in the battery area. This water continues to pool until the emitter is blocked by rain water or even a rain drop. I did not take a photo of this, but its pretty easy to disrupt mini red dot sights in this way.
Optics are incredibly important components for the modern rifleman. It is important to evaluate a setup based on your individualized needs; furthermore, it is important to evaluate that setup in multiple environments. We must not forget that redundancy is not dead. Often times we find ourselves looking at people who have “been there, done that”, and we look up to their experience and recommendations with good reason. What we must not forget is that their experience and environment may be entirely different from our own environment. Without careful evaluation of our own gear in adverse conditions, we may follow good advice that fails us when conditions are not to our expectations. Recently, I have been shooting in environments with high humidity. Bringing my red dot out to the garage for a photo shoot gave me the idea for this article as even the mundane transfer from a 75 degree home to the garage resulted in a fully fogged optic.
Without understanding the limitations of optics, we may be leaving performance on the floor when glass mis-behaves. Iron sights, un-surprisingly, offered the best sight picture in all adverse conditions tested. When conditions are normal, irons lag behind in performance of magnified optics and red dots. Recommendation: keep irons equipped to allow you to continue to shoot in adverse conditions, and consider a quality quick detach mount for your primary optic. If conditions take a turn for the worse, detach the optic and stow it until conditions normalize. Another recommendation: consider 45 degree offset iron sights in addition to your primary optic.
What happens if you drop your optic in the mud?
Tune in to TNR for this in the future.