On November 21, 1970, 56 American Special Operators assaulted the North Vietnamese POW camp at Son Tay some 23 miles west of Hanoi in Operation “Ivory Coast.” Their noble task was to extract and repatriate 65 American POWs held at the camp under utterly brutal conditions. As was so typical of the Vietnam War in general, the mission was gallantly and flawlessly executed, yet it failed to free American POWs due to faulty intelligence. The POWs in question had been moved out of the camp some four months earlier due to flooding at the site. While the Son Tay raid was prescient in its incorporation of a variety of tactics and techniques that have since become staples for modern special operations forces, one of the more remarkable aspects of the endeavor was the low-light weapon sighting systems.
Because the raid was conducted at night, the M79 grenade launchers had luminous tape applied to their sights to facilitate accurate employment under limited visibility. The most remarkable innovation, however, was the deployment of the Singlepoint Occluded Eye Gunsight. Whereas nowadays, most everybody uses some sort of electronic red-dot sighting device, it all started with the Son Tay raid.
The Singlepoint OEG was marketed by the Normark Corporation and sold commercially for about $50 a copy back in 1970. This equates to a bit north of $300 today. This relatively simple device incorporated a fiber-optic element arranged on a black background to provide a red-dot aiming point that projected into an operator’s field of view. When using this sight, the weapon was run with both eyes open. There were no batteries. While these sights required exogenous light to operate, there was flare coverage the night of the raid. There are also unsubstantiated reports that the sights used on the actual raid might have incorporated luminous paint or tritium inserts, as well. These same sights were used on some of the original Star Wars movie weapons and can be tough to find as a result of their popularity with collectors.
However, fast-forward nearly 50 years: The tactical landscape has fundamentally changed.
RED-DOT SIGHTS IN THE INFORMATION AGE
Basic electronic red-dot sights saw widespread military use as early as the 1980s, and the state of the art has evolved hugely since that time. Revolutionary advancements in reliability and miniaturization now allow phenomenally capable sighting solutions atop the most compact platforms.
“… Holosun prices are within reach of the average shooter who wants to outfit a quality tactical rifle without hocking a kidney.”
One of the most innovative new players in the electronic sighting market is Holosun. The Holosun motto is, “Military-grade optics without the military-grade price.” The component suppliers that produce the company’s electronics have 20 years in this field, and Holosun produces lasers and light-emitting diodes for high-end manufacturers across the spectrum. The revolution that drives Holosun simply started out as somebody’s good idea. Modern microelectronics draw very little power, and state-of-the-art solar cells offer unprecedented efficiency. By combining these two technologies, Holosun produced a sight with what is essentially an indefinite reticle.
Operators can expect up to 50,000 hours out of a battery—even on the brightest settings. That’s more than five years of constant operation. And in night vision mode, the sight will run more than 45 years! (Forty-five years from now, most of us will be more worried about our bowels than our gun sights.)
In its default mode, the reticle automatically adjusts for ambient light. In bright sunshine, the reticle is optimally bright. Move into a dark house, and the device automatically adjusts the reticle brightness to compensate. The solar cell acts as the main power supply, but the sight runs off its battery when ambient light is inadequate to activate the solar cell. There is an automatic shutdown feature when the unit is not moved for a long period, as well as a memory element that retains reticle settings when the device is turned off. The sight wakes up again as soon as it is moved.
These are unrivaled capabilities. The reticle is selectable between a 2 MOA dot and that same dot circumscribed by a 65 MOA circle. There are various mounting solutions for numerous platforms, and Holosun’s reliability is top-shelf. The Holosun warranty is lifetime on the housing and three years on the guts. The company’s return rates are competitive with the most expensive MIL-SPEC units on the market. What really sets the Holosun sight apart, however, is its price tag.
THE ALMIGHTY DOLLAR
My own gun collection is awash in sub-$100 optical gunsights. I’m embarrassed to admit that one unit in particular was so wretched that it went from the UPS box straight into the garbage can. These sights typically look cool but die of natural causes over time, whether you run them a lot or just leave them hanging on the wall of the gun room.
Top-end optical sights can cost a holy fortune. Running the same sights the SEALs use has sex appeal, but if they cost as much as a new Glock handgun (or worse), it is tough to justify for shooters also paying for diapers and rent.
Holosun offers a refreshing compromise. Its red dots feature 20mm tubes and use standard CR2032 batteries available at any pharmacy or Wal-Mart. The company also performs extensive quality testing on its sights. Samples are pulled from each lot produced and are subjected to a water immersion evaluation, pressure and vibration testing, and assessment for zero stability. If any of the samples fail, the entire lot is rejected.
I recently had cause to wring out an old World War II-era M1 carbine for another project. The L-shaped, flip-adjustable rear sight was a military standard peep. Despite its age—and like me—the old rifle remains in decent shape. At 50 meters, however, my tired, old eyes squinted and struggled. My best group with that rifle that day ran a bit south of 3 inches. Now that I’ve passed 50, it gets tougher to focus on iron sights properly.
On the same day, I ran a micro AR carbine with a barrel less than half the length of that old M1. Using a Holosun red-dot sight, my groups ran about a third the size of those printed by the classic iron, and the gun ran easily twice as fast. While the age of the vintage rifle might have played a part, the reality is that I had just gotten spoiled: Red-dot sights make all the difference in the world.
This is the case, particularly when they are Holosun red dots. Without an annoying battery bump, modern red dots vastly increase your situational awareness. Original M1 carbines, as well as early M16 rifles, sport protective ears all around their sights. While this keeps the (arguably) most sensitive portion of the rifle intact, when you are in a rush, you can actually mistake one side of the protective ears for the front post.
Additionally, the subsequent sight picture is so cluttered as to adversely affect your situational awareness. On the M1 carbine, in particular, because the sight line is sufficiently settled down into the forearm, it could drive a guy to frustration. All modern, close-range defensive weapons should sport a reliable, zeroed red-dot sight. Where once these devices were fragile and expensive, those days are gone. Today’s red dots are as robust as the host rifle and its operator. It is a fine exercise to run your primary defensive rifle both with and without its electronic optics. Such experience prepares you for the unlikely possibility of a sight failure. It will also help you appreciate what marvelous tools these sights can be—particularly when compared to old iron sights.
Today’s sights are faster, tougher and more effective than ever before. They are also priced within reach of the common man.
All this technical innovation and meticulous quality control comes at a street price of $200 to $300 per sight, depending upon its features. While $50 is a waste, and $1,000 is obscene, Holosun prices are within reach of the average shooter who wants to outfit a quality tactical rifle without hocking a kidney.
ENOUGH CHITCHAT; HOW DOES SHE RUN?
For all their revolutionary features and hands-off automatic everything, the Holosun red-dot sights remain remarkably compact. The footprint is competitive with any sight of comparable capabilities at any price, and the unit takes up very little railed real estate. Elevated mounts accommodate modern sporting rifles, and throw-lever mounts are available, as well.
Holosun micro red dots are appropriate for any close- to medium-range applications, and they run comparably well on assault rifles, submachine guns or beast-recoil tactical shotguns. Because there is no bulky external “battery bump” to clutter up your field of view, the sight also offers superb tactical awareness. A weapon so equipped maneuvers nicely, both indoors and out, as well as inside vehicles. The solar cell requires a trivial amount of natural sunlight, and the reticle brightness does, indeed, adjust instantly and automatically.
“For all their revolutionary features and hands-off automatic everything, the Holosun Red-Dot sights remain remarkably compact.”
Today’s electronic red-dot sights provide the tactical operator or security-minded civilian with unprecedented levels of situational awareness. These lightweight devices allow a shooter to engage targets at modest ranges more quickly and accurately than our forebears might have imagined even a generation ago.
In the case of Holosun’s innovative designs, these sights can draw power from ambient light and offer simply ludicrous run times as a result. Holosun truly offers reliable, compact, robust, reasonably priced, military-grade optics without the military-grade price.
Editor’s note: A version of this article first appeared in the January 2017 print issue of American Survival Guide.