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Addressing the Hype for High-Mount Optics

High-Mount optics are all the rage in the tactical shooting community, but may be of limited use.

Addressing the Hype for High-Mount Optics

(Photo by Mark Fingar)

As much as we like to believe we’re all rugged individualists, the firearms community is just as susceptible to trends as any other group. “Trends” in the firearms community usually revolve around tactics or are linked to newer shooters. Old-school hunters are the least vulnerable to trends because their opinions usually come with a heavy dose of experience. As proof, I offer up the current trend towards high optic mounts when attaching a red dot or low-­powered variable optic to an AR-­15. This is one of the most puzzling trends I’ve ever witnessed though, and I attribute it to what I’ll call “range theatrics.”

The most common source of range theatrics is the internet, i.e., “the land of make-­believe.” This is where critics will accuse me of being a salty old man that just doesn’t like technology. While I am a little salty — and I’m getting older every day — I love technology. I even like the internet. As a form of communication, the meme is sublime. It communicates so much in a single image. Memes are only possible because of the internet and social media, both of which are great sources of entertainment. Both are also dangerous sources of “knowledge” because there is no vetting process to post. Anything can be true, and anyone can be famous on the web; no verification or qualifications are necessary. The example of increasingly high optic mounts on AR-­15s is a prime example of the internet’s dangers and well-­intentioned click-­chasers or “content providers,” as some like to say.

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The sight height of an AR-15 carry handle with iron sights is 11/2 inches. This standard sight-height measurement is still ideal for almost every shooter. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

The standard optic height for an AR-­15 has been 11/2 inches for years. If you took an old carry handle equipped AR-­15 and measured the height from the top of the receiver to the centerline sight axis, it would be 11/2 inches. That’s because the buffer tube and stock extend straight back from the receiver, and that height allows the shooter to establish a good cheek weld while looking through the sights. A little later, the 1.3-­inch mount height came along because it allowed red-dot optics to co-­witness with flip-­up sights. Both of these heights work equally well and should be considered the standard against which other mounts’ heights are judged.

A few years back, the 1.9-­inch optic mount hit the scene and caused quite a stir. This was the beginning of the trouble I see today because there was never a good explanation as to why these mounts came into existence. The fact is that 1.9-­inch mounts arrived because the U.S. Special Operations community was using low-­powered variable optics (LPVO) as a primary optic and, when paired with an infrared (IR) laser and illuminator mounted above the barrel, the optic was looking at the back of the laser when mounted at 11/2 inches. Moving the optic height to 1.9 inches allowed the variable-­powered optic to see over the laser and have a clear field of view at 1X.

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Most red-dot and low-power variable optics (LPVO) should be mounted from 1.3 to 1.5 inches. What works well for post/aperture sights is also good for optics because head geometry doesn’t change. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

Today, it’s not uncommon to see an optic mounted at 1.9 to 2.3 inches (or higher) with no IR laser — just a light and a sling attached to the forend! The reason given to me when I ask is, “This high mount allows me to have a more heads-­up posture when sighting down my rifle.” 

There’s no shortage of YouTube videos discussing the topic. Purveyors of this content almost always cite that it’s faster to get shots on target, or that it’s more comfortable and it works better when wearing a gas mask. The “speed” answer, on a flat range, is debatable. Standing in place, facing the target, and throwing the rifle to the shoulder to fire a few rounds at short range will likely show very similar results, regardless of mount height. Where the taller mounts suffer is when shooting closely to mimic combat. As soon as the shooter starts moving, using cover, and engaging multiple targets at a variety of distances, the 11/2-inch mount height emerges supreme.

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Putting two rounds each into the A-zone of three IPSC targets at 5 yards is a great assessor of speed and accuracy. Try the VTAC 2-2-2 drill to prove or disprove the speed claims for any mount height. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

A critical component of being both fast and accurate when engaging targets is that the shooter’s head and rifle need to move together, not independently. This truism doesn’t apply when scanning for targets, only when engaging them. The higher the optic mount, the more the shooter has to pull his head off the stock to see through the optic. The weaker the connection between head and stock, the more the rifle will move independently as it recoils, or as the shooter moves to engage follow-­on targets. Never pull your head off the comb without having a compelling reason to do so.

A good drill to show the problem with tall mounts is the classic VTAC 2-­2-­2 drill. This is a simple drill of engaging three targets in rapid succession. It’s even a close-quarter-
battle drill shot at 5 yards where the higher mount is supposedly faster. Put three targets in a line at 5 yards from the shooter. Shoot two rounds into each target as fast as you can. A good time is 2 seconds or less. Doing this drill well requires the shooter to quickly move the eyes and then the rifle, as if you were shooting multiple targets at close range. If the head and rifle move independently, accuracy and speed will suffer. Professional riflemen spend a lot of time learning to move their eyes to the target and then the rifle; a taller mount makes the process more complicated because the two move independently.

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The 1.3-inch mount height was designed to co-witness with flip-up sights that followed the carry-handle era. It doesn’t change the mount height to cause shooting issues, and it works as well as using a 11/2-inch mount. (Photo by Mark Fingar)

Another selling point for taller mounts is “comfort.” No mount anywhere between 1.3 inches and 2.9 inches is going to be uncomfortable in the standing position, but the higher mounts allows the shooter to be lazy by not requiring the head to be on the comb. The downside is that the head will rattle around like a bobble-­head doll once the shooting starts. This isn’t a huge problem with low-­recoiling cartridges such as the .223 Remington/5.56 NATO, but it is noticeably slower when shooting the 6mm ARC and larger cartridges.




The one exception to the principle that taller mounts are a bad idea is a specialty mount from GBRS Gear called the “Hydra”. This mount has a height of 2.9 inches, but it incorporates a mounting platform for an IR laser and an optic above it keeps the laser off the handguard. This is a specialty CQB mount that makes sense when employed on short-­barreled rifles with limited handguard space. It would not be a good selection for other rifle use.

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The GBRS Hydra mount is a piece of quality engineering for a specific application. In situations where a short-barreled rifle is used at CQB distances, this mount makes sense. MSRP $500 (Photo by Mark Fingar)

All the chatter about using taller mounts on an AR-­15 is a solution in search of a problem. The legions of online videos and gun forums extolling the virtues of higher mounts are what happens when content creators focus on one of the perceived advantages that has limited application (i.e., rapidly firing at one target from close range) and apply it to rifle shooting in general.

I’d also encourage Guns & Ammo’s readers to be skeptical of what you see and hear online. There are some really fun and engaging personalities out there who provide great entertainment. I hope we can enjoy those channels and threads. However, when the video turns to instruction, most gun videos are sped up during editing to “wow” the viewer. It makes for great entertainment, but isn’t totally honest. One exception to this rule is G&A TV. We don’t speed up the footage, and we usually don’t have time to practice shooting before turning the cameras on; we just roll cameras and start blasting. 

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