Yesterday, a poster on Warriortalk asked for an optic recommendation for his SIG 556. My reply was quite succinct: “Intended role?”
As a matter of fact, this, or some variant of it, is one of my most common responses to questions about firearms. It’s hard to give someone good advice without knowing what they’re trying to accomplish, what the context is, what the constraints are. Sometimes the original poster comes right back with more information. Other times, including the fellow yesterday, my question might prompt them to think for the first time about how they're going to be using this firearm.
Perhaps I'm unusual in this regard, but I don't really buy a particular gun “because it would be neat to have”. Every gun has to have a purpose, an intended mission. Now this doesn’t mean every gun I buy is purely practical. My next AR will probably be a long range SPR/DMR/Recce type rifle. I have no pressing practical need for an AR that will shoot very accurately at 600 yards. It’s still about want, not need. However, even if the motivation to fill a particular role is just that I want a gun that can do that, the mission is still the prism though which I look at guns, accessories, and optics.
Just because a firearm was built to accomplish a given mission does not necessarily mean that it’s specialized. Some of my guns are put together for very specific missions, to be as effective as possible at one job, whether it be CQB or long range precision fire, to the exclusion of other roles. Others are generalists, intended to cover as many bases as possible, even if that means compromising on some of them.
The mission of a particular gun may be as simple as to learn about that firearm. That’s why I got my first AR. As an instructor I felt I needed some more hands on experience to be able to teach students who came to a rifle class with an AR. Even with such a simple (almost tautological) mission, the intended role still drove what gun I chose and how I configured it. The AR I got was deliberately simple, with the standard controls and a minimum of modifications. It was as typical of what the average student might bring to class as I could make it.
I have seen students bring guns to class who clearly have not thought about what this gun is intended to be for. This is especially obvious with rifles, and often manifests though odd combinations of optics and accessories. A rifle sporting both a light for indoor CQB and a high-power magnified optic could probably benefit from considering the mission, as could one sporting both a precision rifle bipod and a red dot.
Next time you're trying to decide which gun to get, or whether or not to add a particular optic or accessory, think about what this gun's mission is. Everything else will flow from that.