Initially developed in the 1950s as a scaled-down variant of the 7.62mm AR-10, the AR-15 became the M16 service rifle. Serving the United States in several wars and skirmishes, soldiers and civilian shooters refer to the AR-15/M16 affectionately as “the black rifle” and “America’s rifle.” Today, the AR-15 is the most popular centerfire rifle pattern in the United States among private citizens.
This popularity has led the NSSF (the National Shooting Sports Foundation) to include the AR-15 as a modern sporting rifle, reflecting its use for competitive target shooting, hunting, and other lawful purposes.
The AR-15-pattern carbine is a lightweight, compact, and highly maneuverable weapon system, making it ideal for law enforcement officers because it can be easily used in confined spaces.
Versatile and modular, the AR-15 is the hobbyist’s dream. If you want to assemble your rifle from component parts, including installing and pinning the barrel, you can. Lower receivers are available in complete, stripped, and 80% varieties, depending on your preference.
This versatility allows you to buy, assemble, or modify your rifle according to your intended application and budgetary constraints.
Best AR-15 Scopes under $200
- Bushnell AR Optics 1–4x24mm Riflescope
- SIG Sauer Whiskey3 4–12x40mm Riflescope
- Leapers UTG 3–12x44mm Riflescope
- Vortex Crossfire II 1–4x24mm Riflescope
- Vortex OPMOD StrikeFire II 4 MOA Red Dot Sight
- NcStar Ultimate Sighting System Gen II 3–9x42mm Rifle Scope w/1x Micro Red Dot Sight
You don’t need to break the bank to buy a rifle scope for your AR-15. Several manufacturers offer moderately priced scopes, both for recreational shooting and serious work.
Bushnell AR Optics 1–4x24mm Riflescope
The Bushnell AR Optics rifle scope, offering magnification between 1 and 4 with a 24mm objective lens is a low-cost optic suitable for close- to medium-range shooting. The AR Optics rifle scope uses a second focal plane (SFP) reticle. An SFP reticle remains fixed in size as you adjust the magnification — only the target is magnified.
The Drop Zone 223 BDC Ballistic Reticle is calibrated for use with .223 Remington/5.56mm bullet weighing 55–62 grains and has holdover aiming points out to 500 yards.
The AR Optics meets the IPX7 water resistance standard. This means that it can resist 1 meter of water submersion for 30 minutes. As a result, despite its low price point, Bushnell’s rifle scope can withstand various weather conditions, from rainfall to snow and sleet.
SIG Sauer Whiskey3 4–12x40mm Riflescope
On the more powerful side is the Whiskey3, manufactured by SIG Sauer. Known primarily for manufacturing semi-automatic handguns for self-defense and tactical applications, SIG also produces high-quality rifle scopes and other optics.
The Whiskey3 provides 4–12x magnification, which is suitable for various ranges when combined with a 40mm objective lens. Designed for everything from bolt-action sporting rifles to semi-automatic AR-15-pattern weapons, the Whiskey3 features multiple SFP options. Crystal-clear optical clarity due to the company’s use of low-dispersion glass punctuates punches above its weight for a moderately priced ar15 rifle scope.
Fogproof and water-resistant to an IPX7 standard, the Whiskey3 can hold up in harsh environments for hunting or competitive target shooting.
The Whiskey3 is also available, depending on the variant, with HellFire illumination.
Weighing 16 oz., the Whiskey3 is relatively lightweight for a rifle scope of its power.
Leapers UTG 3–12x44mm Riflescope
Leapers manufactures a wide array of inexpensive, but not cheaply made, rifle scopes for various diverse applications. The UTG 3–12x44mm offers sufficient magnification for medium- to long-range shooting, and the 44mm objective lens collects more light than more compact rifle scopes. As a result, however, the UTG weighs 23.2 oz. — heavy for an AR-15-platform weapon. Bear that in mind when choosing this system.
In addition, the UTH uses multi-emerald coated lenses to maximize light transmission for a highly visible and clear target image.
For environmental protection, the UTG is completely sealed against the ingress of moisture and nitrogen filled. The shockproof, fogproof, and rainproof construction ensures that the rifle scope is useful under various weather conditions and varied climates.
Featuring the EZ-TAP Illumination Enhancing System, there are two buttons for controlling illumination. You can choose between red or green or hold down both buttons to activate the 36-color mode. The result is that UTG’s optic can provide a clear, high-resolution image regardless of the difference in ambient light caused by clear blue skies or cloud cover.
The durable housing, combined with the ruggedized electronics, means that the UTG is highly resistant to recoil. In a .223-caliber/5.56mm rifle or carbine, recoil is minimal. However, in ArmaLite-pattern rifles chambered in .458 SOCOM and .50 Beowulf, it can be stout. Select an affordable optic that can handle it.
Zero-locking and zero-resetting target turrets ensure that you’ll never lose your zero. All MOA click values are ¼ for precise adjustment.
Vortex Crossfire II 1–4x24mm Riflescope
One of the best rifle scopes under $200, the Vortex Crossfire II offers a fast-focus eyepiece, industry-standard fogproof and waterproof construction — nitrogen purged and O-ring sealed — and single-piece aluminum tube construction. In addition to its durability, the Crossfire II features a V-Brite illuminated reticle consisting of a highly visible red dot. At a magnification range of 1–4, the Crossfire II is optimal for engaging targets from close range out to about 500 meters.
At 17 oz., the Crossfire II is relatively lightweight — ideal for carbines and light rifles in competitive shooting scenarios. Rifle scopes in this power range are also suitable for pairing with offset miniature red-dot or backup iron sights.
The long eye relief — 4” — and illuminated reticle allow you to more effectively preserve your situational awareness when shooting, which can be critical to your success on the field, in the street, or on the range.
Vortex OPMOD StrikeFire II 4 MOA Red Dot Sight
Although a non-magnified optic — 1x — the Vortex OPMOD StrikeFire II is a closed red-dot sight designed for rapid close-range engagement. The 4-MOA red dot allows for precise aiming at longer distances while still providing you with a highly visible aiming point for close-range shooting. As the StrikeFire II is a non-magnified optic with unlimited eye relief, you can keep both eyes open while shooting, increasing your field of view and situational awareness.
Depending on the brightness setting you choose, the battery can last between 300 and 6,000 hours (about 8 months). On its lowest brightness setting, the StrikeFire II is also compatible with night-vision devices (NVD), increasing your operational versatility under low-light conditions and darkness.
While the StrikeFire II is well suited to use with the AR-15 platform, Vortex has also tested it regarding high-recoiling weapons, such as 12-gauge shotguns. This budget scope is ideal for high-recoiling rifle cartridges, too, such as .50 Beowulf (12.7x42mm) and .458 SOCOM.
NcStar Ultimate Sighting System Gen II 3–9x42mm Rifle Scope w/1x Micro Red Dot Sight
NcStar’s Ultimate Sighting System Gen II combines a 3–9x rifle scope, featuring a 42mm objective lens, with a micro red-dot sight. The rifle scope uses a bullet drop compensator that NcStar has calibrated for use with M193 55-grain full metal jacket (FMJ) ammunition at ranges of 100 to 500 yards. The 42mm objective lens transmits more light than less powerful competitors in this price range, providing sharper images as distances to the target open up.
In addition to the multi-coated lenses, the Ultimate Sighting System (USS) features a slant-cut sunshade to reduce glare for maximum visibility under variable lighting conditions.
The Micro Red Dot Sight, which sits atop the scope, allows you to rapidly switch between a magnified optic for medium-range shooting and a non-magnified reflector sight for close-quarters scenarios.
As a result, this versatile combination is perfect for the competitive shooter on a budget. The illuminated reticle is blue or green, depending on your preference, and each color has its own brightness settings.
For mounting and dismounting to your MIL-STD-1913 Picatinny rail, the USS has a quick-detach system with compact QR lever.
At 19.1 oz., this system is surprisingly light considering its lens diameter and dual-purpose functionality.
The AR-15 is a semi-automatic, gas-operated rifle fed from a detachable box magazine. Locked breech, the AR-15 uses a 7-lug rotating bolt. In the Stoner gas system, which many gun owners describe as a type of direct impingement, propellant gases are fed from the barrel into the bolt carrier group through a tube to facilitate the cycle of operation.
Comprising two halves, the upper and lower receiver assemblies are attached using front and rear takedown pins. When the rear takedown pin is pressed out, the lower receiver pivots on the front takedown pin, allowing access to the action for disassembly and routine maintenance.
AR-15 Sighting Systems
Standard AR-15-pattern carbines that adhere to military specifications are equipped with iron sights — a front post and a rear aperture. In rifles with flat-top upper receivers, the rear sight is typically a folding type. For close- to medium-range engagements, whether for self-defense, competitive target shooting, and recreational shooting, iron sights are often adequate.
However, optical sighting systems have gained significant traction in recent years among law-enforcement officers and private citizens for various purposes. A holographic or reflector sight improves shooting performance by allowing you to more rapidly acquire your aiming point, increasing contrast and low-light visibility. These sighting systems are ideal for tactical shooting scenarios, whether on the range or in the field.
For hunting, especially under variable lighting conditions, precision shooting, and improved accuracy at medium to long-range, a magnified optical sighting system, a rifle scope, is often necessary.
Rifle scopes can be expensive — easily two or three times the cost of a high-quality rifle build. However, if you’re on a budget, that doesn’t mean you have to forego magnified optics.
Rifle Scope Elements
The rifle scope has several components that you should understand. These include the following:
● Objective lens
The objective lens collects and transmits light to the ocular lens and determines the resolution. The diameter of the objective lens generally correlates with increased image quality and resolution. However, as the objective lens increases in diameter, so does the objective bell — the part of the scope housing that flares outward toward the front. This increases both bulk and weight.
The objective lens also delivers an image that the other lenses can magnify for maximum visibility.
● Erector system
The erector system erects the upside-down image that the objective lens transmits — re-orienting it. The erector system also magnifies the image. Mechanically, your dial adjustments for windage and elevation move the erector system inside the rifle scope tube, shifting the point of aim. This is critical to zeroing the rifle scope, in which the point of aim and the point of impact coincide at a certain distance.
The reticle is the crosshair — an aiming reference point. There are various reticle designs, from a traditional crosshair — i.e., two lines, one vertical and one horizontal, that intersect in the center. The center of the crosshair is the part you place on the target. Duplex reticles, for example, feature thick black lines that taper toward the center. The thick part of the reticle helps draw your focus, while the thin part allows for precise aiming and avoids obscuring the target.
● Ocular lens
The ocular lens is the part that transmits the target image to your dominant eye. The eye relief — the distance between the eyepiece and your dominant eye — determines how you perceive the target image, including the field of view (FOV). The ocular lens also provides additional magnification adjustment.
AR-15 rifles and carbines are highly versatile weapons suitable for a variety of different applications. When you need precision and target magnification, a rifle scope can enhance your shooting performance compared to either iron sights or non-magnified optics. While many high-quality rifle scopes are expensive, costing thousands of dollars, you can start with a budget-friendly option to test the waters. Low-cost optics can be highly functional and surprisingly durable.