This is actually the very definition of a first-world problem. How can we best aim our rifles while using our technological super-power, which costs more money than most people in the world make in a year? Worrying about how to best use your super-vision to poke holes in cardboard is right next to picking out flavored butters at the grocery store in the "America, F*ck yeah!" section of why we're the greatest country on earth.
So let's take a look at it. This has become a pretty hot topic in the gun world, with lots of products coming out surrounding these two types of aiming, and how to optimize them. Some great, some... not so much. We'll give you the facts and let you decide what suits your use case.
What is Active Aiming, and what is Passive Aiming?
Active Aiming: This is aiming with a Laser Aiming Module, or LAM for short. A LAM will emit a laser that's only visible in the infrared spectrum under night vision. It will also typically emit an infrared illuminator as well, which acts like an invisible flashlight to help identify targets.
Until fairly recently, this was really the only way to aim a weapon under night vision, unless you were using a dedicated night vision scope. Certain optics had had night vision compatibility for a while, but it was mostly considered a backup option.
Passive Aiming: This is aiming through an optic like an EOTech or an Aimpoint. They'll have settings that are night vision specific which produce a reticle in the IR spectrum, so their usual red dots won't burn your night vision tubes and obstruct the target with their brightness.
This has only become popular in the last few years with optic risers like the UNITY Fast riser, moving the sights to a more comfortable height for night vision shooting. As night vision becomes more popular, and neer-peer threats become more likely, improving aiming methods that keep the shooter concealed have become more popular as well.
The oldest and most common method of aiming under night vision, this has put more dudes in the dirt by SOF than probably any other sighting system in their inventory. The trusty PEQ-15 has been taking decades of abuse in the GWOT, and keeps on ticking. Nowadays, there's a myriad of LAMs available, and you can go down a rabbit hole of trying to find the best one.
Besides being tried and true, using an invisible laser to shoot something is super fun, and the feeling that you're using a video game cheat-code in real life never fully goes away. So there's some advantages, but there's also some disadvantages. Let's take a look:
Speed: Definitely the fastest way to aim, I can hit a button or pressure pad and immediately to a laser beam pointing to where my bullet is going to impact. This is especially great for fast-paced close range drills like the Bill Drill, or for CQB exercises where targets are close, you're moving, and you need to engage very quickly.
Flexibility: Using a LAM allows you to aim in all sorts of positions you would not be able to aim passively, and even creative positions you wouldn't be able to even do during daylight hours. For example, aiming passively in the prone under night vision is extremely difficult and uncomfortable, but activating a laser in the prone simplifies things. Or maybe you want to aim a rifle around a wall, but not expose yourself. You can aim your rifle around the wall, and watch the laser from over the wall, so if someone returns fire at muzzle flashes, your head and vitals are elsewhere.
PID: Positive identification is crucial before taking a shot or engaging a target, and PID may not be possible without illumination on very dark nights. Without the moon, there is a lack of shadow and contrast at night, and supplemental illumination allows you to determine who someone is, if they're on your side, if they're holding a weapon, etc. It's also great for spotting animal eyes, just like a white light spotlight would.
- Communication: An infrared laser is a great communication tool. I can circle an area or a doorway with my laser, and signal to the rest of my group using night vision the area I may have seen something, or where we are going. This allows us to stay quiet, possibly keep radio channels clear, and just stay more stealthy in general. Military will also use their laser to "lasso" in air assets, by drawing circles in the sky, making a cone that points to their position.
Precision: Laser divergence is a very real thing, and that means that your laser beam is going to cover a wider area the further it goes. This can be an issue if you're making precision shots at distance. Now, this usually isn't the case, but it is something to be aware of. Bloom on target can also obscure shots with full power lasers, which can make precise shots difficult. For shooting, it's usually better to use a neutral density filter to bring that lightsaber back down to just being a dot on target.
Zero: Similarly affecting the ability to make precision shots is how to zero an IR laser. You can run a converging or a parallel zero, but they'll both have their drawbacks. Converging means you'll be spot on with your optics zero at a given range, but you'll also have to start compensating for windage drift on any shots past that. Parallel gives you a fixed windage hold no matter what the distance, but that also means you're always going to have to account for 1.5" or so, which can be hard to do on small targets.
- Exposure: Just like tracers work both ways, so do lasers, and this is hands down the biggest con to active aiming. Until recently, this has never been a problem , because we owned the night. However, night vision is becoming more and more popular both domestic and international, and the technology isn't as exclusive as it used to be. And if that enemy (or game warden) has night vision capability as well, you're pointing a giant neon sign to your own position.
The obsession with passive aiming is fairly new, gaining popularity in the last couple of years. And we aren't talking about dedicated PVS night vision scopes, we're talking about aiming through your weapon optic using your head mounted tube. Sure, optics have had the ability for a while, but it was just too uncomfortable. Even an EOTech EXPS series with a lower 1/3rd co-witness was just barely usable, with the reticle only coming into the outer 30% of your night vision bubble.
Now with the concern of broadcasting positions to neer-peer threats, multiple companies have begun producing "skyscraper mounts" to bring a night vision compatible optic to a more usable height. UNITY Tactical makes the most popular, the FAST Mounts. And we're all here for it.
Accuracy: It's the same optic, the same dot, and the same holds that you have during the daytime. So with an EOTech (our preferred night vision optic), we still have a 1MOA center dot for precision shots, with a 65MOA reticle for ranging with 6 o'clock holds for 7 yards and in.
Stealth: We really can't say enough for not broadcasting your position. Would you feel comfortable turning on a white light at night with a threat around? Of course not. And that's the exact same as actively aiming when your opposing force has night vision equipment. So being able to stay hidden, as well as make precise shots with your usual optic, helps you regain some of the advantage against an advanced force.
- Natural: When you're shooting passively (with a mount high enough to bring that optic up to a better level for night vision), your shooting is the same. Sure, reloads are suddenly more difficult and require more training, but actually aiming is now the same as it is during the daytime. This means your stance, body position, grip, posture, and aiming are all the same both day and night. This practically eliminates most of the learning curve to shooting under night vision.
Speed: We're giving a marginal edge to active aiming vs passive aiming here. While it's not much slower, waiting for that optic to get up to your eye-line is slightly slower than activating a laser and having a dot to track with natural point of aim. We've spent plenty of time under a shot timer doing ready-ups, and using a laser is consistently a few thousandths faster for us.
Holds: Didn't we list holds in the Pros section since they're always the same now? Yep, we did. And it is a positive to always have them the same! However, when you raise up an optic, your holds are going to change, and it's not going to be as flat as it previously was. That's where the saying comes from, "Low optics are for shooters, high optics are for gunfighters". So memorize those new holds!
- BUIS: Not a huge con in our opinion, but some smoothbrain is going to sound off about EMPs in the comment section. With most tall skyscraper mounts, you lose your ability to easily run back up iron sights. The UNITY Aimpoint mount has some very basic ones in the mount, and you could always quick-detach your EXPS, or run offset 45* irons (and we'll make fun of you). Irons are somewhat obsolete, especially when a nightstick will already have two aiming solutions on it, but since it is impairing a capability, we'll list it in the cons.
Do we prefer Active or Passive aiming?
The short answer is it depends. The thing is we don't want a rifle that's only capable of one option, so it really depends on what we're doing.
We're civilians who mostly use night vision to hunt. When a coyote shows up close and suddenly and may be moving, we hit the laser and put it down quick. But if we have the time, or if it's moving at distance, or if it's a small target like a fox, we are usually aiming passively. Leading moving targets with a laser is very tough. We are constantly scanning for eyes with IR illumination, so our IR discipline is not great.
Of course, then we hit the range and things change. We put some eyecups on our units and it's all passive unless things are close and fast. We train like some glowies (or anyone else with NVG capabilities) would be able to spot every IR leak or activation we have.
The answer is to train at both, and know when the usage of each is appropriate. They each have their merits, and they each have their shortcomings. But the most important reason to train, is you can't make fun of the guys running 45* offset iron sights in 2022 if you're not proficient with both of your own sighting solutions.
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