Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Quality Price Floors, Globalization, and the Harmful Notion of "Just a Red Dot"

I get this question or hear this comment all the time... People think they're going to  "save money on their optics" with "just a red dot".

Unfortunately, that's a very harmful idea.

There is no such thing as "just a red dot" 

Yeah, sure, you absolutely can save money going with a red dot type sight over a scope... A top quality Red Dot is a LOT cheaper than a top quality scope.

And frankly, for most of the rifle shooting that most people do (plinking and casual target shooting, possibly some short range competition shooting; even hunting at 100 yards or less... which in most of the country, is most hunting), a 1x red dot (or holosight or similar), or even a 2x or 4x red dot, would be better for their needs than a traditional scope anyway.

That's another piece for another day... but I really do think that most of the shooting missions, most people are buying most scopes for; would be better served, for less money, with a quality 1x-4x dot sight (either in tube, or with a magnifier).

So how much exactly is "a lot cheaper"?

All these numbers  are current as of February 2015. I may update this later on,"acceptable" and "good" price points have fallen significantly over the last 20ish years, and particularly in the last 5, as higher precision higher quality manufacturing has become more widely available and less expensive).

Red dots are generally somewhat less complex designs than scopes of equivalent quality; requiring less, and less expensive, materials and manufacturing technologies and processes. This generally results in a lower price for a given quality of optic.

You're talking about $150-600 for a decent, tough, reliable, precise, and repeatable Red Dot (Something like Vortex StrikeFire to Aimpoint or Trijicons mid range sights); up to around $1,000-$1400 at the top end (with some outliers up to around $3,000).

With traditional multi-lens reticle in tube optics (scopes), you're looking at around $300-400 for the lower end of decent, tough, reliable, precise, and repeatable; moderate to high magnifications scopes. Possibly a bit cheaper ($200ish) for acceptable lower magnification, less precise, less "tough" applications, and climbing up to around $2500-$3,000 on the high end, with some outliers in the $3500 to $6,000 range (Schmidt & Bender or U.S. Optics for example).

That list of qualifications... decent (meaning reasonable quality design, materials, manufacturing finish etc...), tough, reliable, precise, and repeatable... is rather important. Critical in fact.

Those are the basic properties you need from any sighting device in order for it to be useful, and provide value, no matter what the purpose or mission you're trying to fulfill.

A sighting device that isn't decent, tough, reliable, precise, and repeatable, is actually HARMFUL to whatever you are doing. You're better off without it, than with it, no matter how little it costs, and what capability it seems to provide.

Of course, that's rather a broad price range, but still, with both scopes and red dot sights "you get what you pay for" generally applies (there are some exceptions of course).

While there are times you do pay a premium for "name" or reputation to an extent**, if you need the capabilities the better brands or product lines provide, they really are worth the money.
** Yes...Some manufacturers in particular charge premium prices for midrange product, or too high a premium for high end; thus you can get better optics with other brands for the same money, or as good for less. And of course, the reverse is true. There are some brands well known for giving you much more for your money than other brands at the same price point, or the same capability and quality at a much lower pricepoint.

Which are which? That's another piece for another day.

Hit the floor...

Most importantly regarding price, there are very definite price floors for acceptable quality optical sights.

Most people with even a bit of knowledge and experience, understand this price floor applies to scopes. They don't expect a scope you buy in a blister pack at Wal Mart to be very good, or even "acceptable".

Unfortunately, many people (even many of the same people who seem to understand the concept of a price floor for scopes) don't seem to understand that price floors apply just as much to red dots as to scopes.

No-one with any knowledge or experience in firearms optics, expects a $50 or even $100 scope to be much good... and generally $150-$200 is just into the "acceptable" range (Redfield, low end Vortex, low end Nikon etc....).

So why do they expect any better out of a $50 or $100 red dot? A red dot you can buy in a blister pack, isn't going to be any better than a scope you can buy in a blister pack.

Red dot optics are every bit as much precision optical instruments as scopes are... They're just somewhat simpler designs, using less of the most expensive components and manufacturing processes.

Simpler and less, not "simple" and "inexpensive".

There is just a minimum level of materials and design quality, labor, manufacturing, and quality control, to produce an acceptable optical sight of any type. These don't change, no matter how simple the optic is, how short a range it's intended for, how big a dot or tube etc...

Specifically, there are very definite minimums for quality of adjustment mechanisms, sight barrel/tube/body materials and machining, lenses (even in a 1x optic), lens mounting, adhesives coatings and finishes, skill and precision of assembly, tolerances and clearances, and quality inspection and testing.

These are real minimums, that apply to ANY optic of any type or design.

One flat plate of glass with no magnification, and an adjustment mechanism that's repeatable to under 1 moa (and preferably under 1/4 moa); that will take a slight knock on the sight, being adjusted a few hundred times, and getting lightly rained on, and which will  still stay precise and repeatable for years (a c-more sight isn't much more than that really); is going to cost nearly as much as a 40mm 2-6x zoom that can meet those same criteria and standards.

The expensive part isn't the materials, it's the manufacturing processes, labor, and quality control. That's probably more than 80% of the cost of ANY optic, no matter what its design, or where it's made.

These minimums go up... sometimes WAY up... with more difficult mission requirements, but they never go below that absolute floor. You can't go below those minimums, and still be decent, tough, reliable, precise, and repeatable.

Right now, that floor is pretty clear, and it's around $150-$200 for "acceptable" in a lower magnification scope, or not quite so tough red dot; and $300 to $400 for "good" in a lower to medium magnification scope, or somewhat tougher red dot.

What do you get for your money?

More money tends to add more precision in the optics and adjustment mechanisms, more toughness, and higher quality materials, coatings, and finishes.

Less money on the other hand, generally results in an optic that won't hold zero, won't have consistent and precise adjustments, won't return to zero after adjusting, and won't take any rough handling without breaking... Or even just breaking on its own for no reason.

Really... Just don't do it. It's a waste of money. You'll end up buying and breaking 3 or 4 of the things and hating it the entire time; while spending far more than an acceptable or even a very good optic would have cost in the first place.

So who makes "acceptable" or "good" optics at a low price?

The least expensive optics that I have generally found acceptable or better, are:
  • Nikon: Monarch or higher are good to excellent, limited lifetime warranty
  • Redfield: Great quality, low price high value, some USA made, and a 100% lifetime warranty
  • Burris: Excellent quality, great value, some USA made, and a 100% lifetime warranty
  • Vortex: Diamondback or higher are good to excellent quality, good to great price and always great value, some US made, and all have a 100% lifetime warranty
  • Leupold: Good to excellent quality, good to terrible price leading to anywhere from great to poor value, sometimes erratic but generally excellent customer service, all USA made, and a 100% lifetime warranty (they also own Redfield)
  • Nightforce: Higher priced line ($800 to $3,000), but also among the best quality in the world, and among the lowest price for the quality and capability they offer. As good as optics costing 50% to 200% more. All USA made, with excellent customer service, and a 100% lifetime warranty.
More expensive brands that are also generally very good, include (but are not limited to) Pentax's mid range and higher end models, Aimpoint, Trijicon, Zeiss, Schmidt and Bender, Hensoldt, ELCAN, Leica, Swarovski, and US Optics.
Made in WHERE... Huh?

IN GENERAL... and this is a big generalization with exceptions... Regardless of the brand name an optic is sold under, if that optic is manufactured in the U.S., western Europe, or Japan, it's going to be "good" or better. Frankly, with the cost of manufacturing products in those places, it doesn't make sense not to.

However, even the "premium" brands sometimes have factories in eastern Europe (particularly Poland and the Czech republic), the Philippines, Indonesia, Viet Nam, Thailand, Taiwan, Korea, Sri Lanka, and increasingly mainland China.

These are sometimes owned and operated directly by the companies in question, and sometimes they are very high quality, usually long term, subcontracting deals with excellent third party manufacturers.

So... fortunately for lower prices, higher quality and more competition... but unfortunately for figuring out what to buy (or what not to)... While where it's made, is often a positive indicator of quality, it isn't necessarily an indicator of a lack of quality.

Don't discount something just because it's made in China (or anywhere else). Process, technology, materials, and quality control are all more important than nation of origin. Some excellent optics are coming out of China (and everywhere else), at very attractive prices.

Sadly, brand name isn't always an indicator of quality either, because some major brands with excellent quality product lines, also produce lower priced lower quality product lines (or worse... more on that later).

Some companies may even  subcontract out their lower cost product lines to lower quality OEMs (more on that below). For example, some Nikon ProStaff, and I believe all Vortex Crossfire line optics, are not actually made by Nikon or Vortex (other companies do this as well, I'm just using these two as an example).

As of 2014, I believe those product lines are subcontracted out to a Chinese company, who also make optics for NCstar, Barska, Bushnell, Tasco, and other low end brands (and sometimes including what seem to be the same or similar designs... Or at least visible external design).

The optics manufactured for Nikon and Vortex are definitely manufactured to higher quality standards than those for low end brands, but not to the same standard as Nikon or Vortex's in house manufactured product lines.

What about other brands? 

Here's the thing... You never know. Sometimes you're going to get a great piece for a great price, sometimes not so much.

I have seen some of the Mueller, Millet, Weaver, Leatherwood, Tasco, Bushnell etc... (name brands which are licensed and OEM contracted out to offshore manufacturers) scopes be good or even excellent... and I've seen another scope from the same "brand", at the same price point... even at higher price points, be unacceptable.

In fact I've seen two examples of the same model vary from "pretty good" to "total junk.

And these aren't all low end, low price models. Millet scopes run from $150 to $500. Some Weaver models run as high as $1,500 etc...

In my experience, and those of many I know and trust; some of those $500 to $1500 models have been excellent... Unfortunately, some have been just OK, and some have been entirely unacceptable.

The problem, is that Millet, Mueller etc... aren't actually made by Millet and Mueller. Either they contract production out to offshore factories (usually on a per production run basis, but sometimes on a long term year to year or multi-year basis, which usually results in higher quality), or an offshore manufacture pays the name owners for the right to make scopes with that name.

It can work both ways, sometimes simultaneously, and through multiple levels of naming rights licensing, subcontracting, or both.

Land of confusion

Bushnell is a prime example of the confusion this can create.

First, Bushnell is the parent company of Simmons, Millet, Tasco, Browning and Bausch and Lomb (for rifle scopes and binoculars only).

Their lower end lines generally run from junk, to just barely "acceptable". Their "elite" line theoretically their top of the line best quality optics. However, the elite line consists of 40 someodd models with different features and specifications, and spanning a price range from $200 to $2,000.

The biggest issue is however, that all Bushnell scopes (and any of their other brands) "Elite" or otherwise, are contracted out to different manufacturers on a model to model basis, and sometimes even a production run to production run basis. The same model may be manufactured by three different companies in three different years, in three different countries, and with three different resulting quality levels.

As a result, the "Elite" line end up ranging in quality from "acceptable" (I haven't seen one yet that wasn't at least acceptable), to truly excellent. Bushnell's higher end Elite models are generally made in Japan, by two of the worlds best optics manufacturers, to the highest standards; or in Philippines Sometimes, if one of those manufacturers has excess capacity, they'll also make some of the lower end models, or they'll have extra top quality components, which they'll send out to be put into lower level product lines.

It's the system man...

This system of contract manufacture and licensing, is how the EXACT same design can be sold under a dozen different brand names from NCstar and Barska, to TruGlo, Tasco, and Bushnell, at price points from $29 to $89.

Sometimes... sadly, frequently... those widely divergent price points are for the exact same product, with the same materials and quality control, just a different brand name stamped on them.

Sometimes, for a higher price you actually get the same design, but with better materials and quality control.

Sometimes for a higher price you get the same external design, but with better designed internals, and higher quality of materials and manufacturing.

Worst of all, sometimes the same brand name and model number, sold at the same price, will start off very high quality, and over time, be reduced in quality, without reducing in price.

So, you might get a great example from one of these contracted brands, or you might get junk. You won't know until you actually get it into your hands, and test it (by shooting the square repeatedly to test for return to zero, and ability to maintain zero with recoil for example). If they have a great warranty and return policy... great. If not... Who knows.

Personally, unless I can inspect them beforehand, and test them without penalty, I choose to stick with the major brands who keep manufacture in house, or to top quality subcontractors only.