I was once a hardcore believer in the superiority of iron sights. They’re simple, rugged, generally unobtrusive, lightweight, and they come standard on the M14. Once upon a time that was just the ticket for me. A sufficiently skilled rifle shooter can accomplish many things with such a rifle.
When I began to seriously explore the use of optics, it didn’t take long to see how much more in the way of performance a properly selected optic can offer. With a bit of minimal familiarization, the use of such a device is very intuitive.
Let me say up front that I’m not an expert in terms of design, determining resolution, recognizing things like chromatic aberration, or other such things on the technical side of the optic world. For more information from such a scope aficionado, I turn to Ilya. His knowledge in the realm of optics is impressive and his opinions are well thought out and articulated. There is also a nice forum over at SWFA where a dedicated band of optic gurus gather to chat.
I have enough time behind a scope to know what I want from one for a given application. What will work best for you will depend on the application that you have in mind. I’ll try to offer general advice as it would suit various applications, as well as what I would prefer for the “general rifle” application that I’m primarily working with in this blog. I will also disclose that I have a predisposition towards cutting edge tactical precision rifles (I still have trouble with using the word “precision”, which is a noun, as an adjective. It’s not a very precision use of language).
The first thing that I think many people will need to seriously consider, is that the amount of money a scope worthy of consideration will probably cost nearly as much as the rifle. I’m sure there won’t be a shortage of people who will disagree with me, but you get what you pay for, and optics ain’t cheap. If you need to find a way to justify a large expenditure, say to yourself and others, “Buy once, cry once” repeatedly. The use of catch phrases to put a stop to critical thinking was well demonstrated in the book Brave New World (we’re living it anyway, so why not embrace it?).
If you’re one to balk at the price, consider that the optic enables the rifle to do so much more than it could otherwise. Irons in low light don’t work too well. In my experience the aperture gets hard to see through. An optic is much better, especially one with an illuminated reticle. A magnified optic allows you to observe details about your target that you would not be able to see with the naked eye. It may also allow you to actually see targets that you would not be able to detect with the naked eye.
The first requirement that should be made of a riflescope is that it is reliable. There are several components of what reliability means in reference to a riflescope. The first is the robustness of the scope. How much abuse will it take before failure? Is the scope purged and sealed such that it will not fog internally? These things are determined by the quality of materials and construction, which is obvious. Robust construction typically, and unfortunately, equals more weight. Top shelf scopes these days can take an incredible amount of abuse. I wonder if they are more durable than most iron sights. I think that some of them are. Durability means $$$.
A second component of riflescope reliability is that the tracking of the windage and elevation adjustment is consistent. Many scopes have sufficient play in the system that you cannot dial up for elevation and expect it to return to zero. This is a sure recipe for frustration. Many scope companies consider some amount of inconsistency in tracking within acceptable parameters of quality control. Some of these same companies have golden reputations as well. Study up on who produces quality stuff, and who charges a lot for inconsistency. Don’t take it for granted that because your scope says it has ¼ minute adjustments that it actually does.
Related to the tracking of the scope’s turrets is the proper calibration of the reticle subtentions, if you have a ballistic, mil, MOA, or inch per hundred yard (IPHY) reticle (there is a difference between MOA and IPHY that will add up over longer distances). You will want to ensure that the reticle subtentions are what they are supposed to be. The only way to accurately check this is to use a properly scaled target at a precisely measure distance.
Traditionalist readers will likely scoff at the idea of anything that is more complex than a duplex (say it like Jesse Jackson to make yourself feel really happy). What can you get out of a mil reticle (just to pick a specific example) that you cannot get from a duplex?
1. You get precisereferences for holdovers. No more holding over the back of an animal and guessing. Put a little work into memorizing your trajectory and you will know what you’re looking at, and therefore where the bullet will strike.
2. You also have a precise frame of reference for wind holds (Kentucky windage). This also takes a bit of memorization in terms of what the wind does to your bullet.
4. You have a graphic representation of how large you can expect your group dispersion to be in any given position, again if you put enough work into knowing your limitations.
5. You can use the reticle as a rangefinder if you are at an unknown distance without a map, laser rangefinder, or intimate knowledge of the area. To use the reticle in this manner, you need to know the size of the object downrange you’re using as a reference.
6. You can zero your rifle without going downrange. You can do this without even knowing how much a minute or a mil will translate on paper at your distance. This works because you have a ruler in your reticle that will tell you how much you need to dial your turret to get your zero. It’s conceivable to fire one shot, adjust the knobs, fire another shot, and be right on (although it’s always taken me three shots with my mil/mil scope [“mil/mil” means that the reticle and knobs are both in mils]).
To sum up the merits of a calibrated reticle, it gives you a yardstick to be able to do the things that used to be regarded as voodoo carried off by shooting shamans. There are no more of Carlos Hathcock II around (much to the detriment of modern Americans). He could hold for elevation and wind and make hits with a simple reticle. It takes a lot of natural talent, hard work, and a ton of rounds downrange to be able to do that. With a calibrated reticle, hard work, and a lot of rounds downrange, people like you and me can hold for elevation and wind and hit things.
If you decide to get a calibrated reticle, make sure that the scope’s elevation and windage turrets are calibrated in the same units (mil/mil, or moa/moa). It will save you from having to try to do conversions in your head. Having like units means that you can see what the difference will be when you turn the knob. The ruler in the reticle is a very, very handy thing to have.
Hunters have traditionally used capped elevation and windage knobs. With the Leupold I have on #1, I have to get a penny out and take off the cap before I adjust anything. Then I have to hope not lose the cap, because my personality predisposes me to lose small items, if only temporarily. These scopes are not meant to be adjusted regularly, but are intended to be a “set it ‘n’ forget it” system. I have a precision rifle fetish, so I like to have the ability to adjust the scope if I have the time and the terrain dictates such a change.
The argument for capped turrets is that they’re less prone to snag on things and to get turned accidentally. These are valid concerns, but in my opinion, they do not outweigh the benefits of having the adjustment at your fingertips. Many of the current turrets lock, and have to be pulled up to turn them. Another argument for capped turrets is that they look nicer. I can’t argue with that, except to say that I would rather be looking through my scope than at it.
The next “feature” that I would heartily recommend is that the reticle be in the front focal plane. What does this mean? Most American hunting reticles offer 2ndfocal plane scopes. This means that the apparent size of the reticle always appears the same to your eye, even as you increase or decrease magnification (the downrange image increases or decreases while the reticle size is fixed). Second focal plane (SFP) scopes are nice in a way because the reticle is usually never too fine or too thick. It’s always at the size it was designed to be. In contrast, front focal plane (FFP) scopes have a reticle that will change size as you increase or decrease magnification. The reticle appears to change with the image. Why would you want this? Because it keeps the calibration “valid” throughout the entire magnification range of the scope, which is not possible with an SFP scope. This means that all of the advantages of the calibrated reticle are available throughout the magnification range. This is worth something in my opinion.
Some people just won’t like FFP reticles. I noticed that when the magnification is turned all the way down, which is my default mode, the reticle appears quite fine, although not as fine as the standard crosshair on an old Bushnell 3-9 I have. I practiced some snapshooting with an FFP scope and had a bit of a hard time with it. Mainly the image I saw was out of the norm for me and felt like a bit of a surprise. I’m convinced that I could get used to it.
If you only shoot at static targets at known distances, you do not need a front focal plane reticle. The reason to get a front focal plane is for holds and movers at any magnification. It’s one less thing to remember when you have limited time to engage a live target and your magnification is turned all the way down. For reticle ranging, I don’t think it matters as much.
Speaking of magnification, I believe that there is a trend of the gear-obsessed, non-shooting (for all intents and purposes) rifle owners to favor high magnification because the big number is attractive. Of the people I talk to, it seems that most of those who actually shoot at real stuff generally do so at ranges under 300 yards, most commonly in offhand, kneeling, or using some sort of improvised support. In this type of shooting scenario, I believe that minimal, if any, magnification would be more desirable than a lot. A healthy guideline is to have about 1X magnification per 100 yards of distance to the target available. This is a flexible guideline, but I think a valid one. If you like a bit more magnification, fine, but you shouldn’t needmore, and could likely make due with less.
I believe that the lower end of the magnification range should take precedence over the high end. You should be keeping your scope set at the lowest range as a default setting anyway. The reason for this is that you need to be ready for quick, unexpected contacts. These are generally more common than long shots, and are more easily addressed with lower power. The field of view is wider on lower settings and your brain can make the transition easier because of less disparity between the image the naked eye sees and the magnified image. If I could magically have any scope I wanted, it would have a bottom end of a true 1x. In the real world, I would like the bottom end of the magnification to be no greater than 3x.
To determine a starting point for the high-end magnification, what I would do is look at where your cartridge is likely to hit the trans-sonic barrier (where it approaches the point of slowing down to the speed of sound), and try to have enough magnification to equal 1x of power per hundred yards at that distance. What I’ve got in my ’06 right now will get to about 1200 before going transonic (it’s not a hot load), so I would look to 12x as a good starting point for the high end. Another route to go is to consider the maximum distance you’re likely to shoot at. What I don’t like about this is the possibility that you have an unexpected opportunity to shoot at a much longer distance than normal. It’s really not a big deal anyway, but I spend too much time thinking about stuff like this.
What is of more importance than magnification for shooting long distance is how much elevation you have available in the scope’s erector system. You don’t want to come across the opportunity to shoot at 1300 yards for the first time just to find out that the 14 mils you have left (after the initial 100 yard zero) in your scope isn’t going to cut it. Then again if you have a calibrated reticle you could holdover for part of the elevation adjustment. You might want to run the numbers in a ballistics program when shopping for scopes if you think you might want to stretch your rifle’s legs at all in the future.
One way to get more elevation out of your scope is to use a canted scope base. Most long range shooters use a base with at least 20 minutes of angle worth of cant. Why? Most scopes have a given amount of elevation adjustment. Most will zero somewhere near the center of this range, given a scope mount that is parallel to the bore. This means that approximately half of the scope’s range of elevation adjustment is wasted!!! The canted base causes the zero to be closer to the end of the scope’s elevation adjustment, and will give you that much more elevation you can actually use.
Moving right along, the illuminated reticles are all the rage. Do I want one? Of course I do. I have experienced a couple incidents where I would have liked illumination. Do I need illumination? Probably not. A sufficiently thick reticle will probably be enough to hit a target I can see. Once someone put up glow sticks at 100 yards in the darkness. I just couldn’t find my mil-dot reticle anywhere to hit the stupid thing. It’s not likely that you’ll be in enough darkness to come across a situation like that, otherwise you wouldn’t see your target (unless it glows).
If your scope has a lot of magnification you may want to consider whether or not you need a parallax adjustment. Here’s a description of parallax from an earlier article: “Parallax can be illustrated by trying to read an analog speedometer from the passenger seat of a car. Because the seat position is so far out of alignment from where the speedometer was intended to be read, you’re seeing the speedometer needle over a slightly slower number than it is read from the driver’s seat. If you were able to look at the needle from outside the driver’s window, you’d see the needle over a slightly faster number. The difference in both instances would likely be only 2-3 mph.”
Parallax usually is adjusted by a knob on the left side of the scope’s turret housing. The nice thing about the parallax knob is that you can adjust it to get rid of parallax. The problem is that if the adjustment is not necessary it is something else to mess with. Parallax is not as much of a problem with scopes that don’t go above 10x.
One area where I think traditional scopes have been great is in their size and weight. Scopes that have a lot of the aforementioned features and that are built to take a lot of punishment tend to be heavy. I have a scope that is built like a tank and has all the whiz-bang features I want it to have on my TRG (.338 Lapua). It weighs 37 oz. On that rifle, it’s not such an issue, but on something I would have to carry a bunch, I think it’s too heavy. It throws the balance of the rifle off. I would be happy with a scope somewhere in the 20-25 oz range.
Something that I do like about the scope that is currently on #1 is that the image appears to be nice and wide, and the ocular housing to be thin. This makes the scope visually unobtrusive from a shooting position and easy to see around. Some of the more “tactical” scopes seem to take up more visual space around the image.
Lastly, consider the optical quality and its effect on the image that you see. If you use your scope to help you see what you’re shooting at, optical quality is a big deal. I consider image quality to be a bonus, rather than a priority. The priority is that the scope doesn’t break and tracks the way it’s supposed to. A high resolution image is like a rifle that shoots a quarter minute. It’s nice to have, but a rifle that shoots half minute will work (for general purpose shooting that’s still more that is needed). Please don’t take this paragraph to mean that BSA scopes are fine.
Put all those things together and what do you have? Something like a 3-12×44 with some type of mil illuminated reticle, 0.1 mil turrets, a 30mm tube, in the 20-25 oz range, at least 20 mils (68.75 moa) total elevation would be nice, and built to take a beating. It sounds a lot like a Nightforce F1, the IOR 2.5-10×42 FFP, the SWFA SS 3-9×42, or the Bushnell Elite Tactical 3-12×44 (I understand that those scopes don’t necessarily compare exactly to each other, I’m just talking features) would all be close fits. The Nightforce is a little heavier than I would like (but I would be perfectly happy with one), the IOR is lacking a bit on the high end magnification and on the low end it has a bit of tunneling, and the SWFA is again lacking a bit on the high end magnification and is not illuminated. In some correspondence with Ilya, he recommended the SWFA for my needs, and commented that the illumination on the Bushnell is poorly executed and the eye position flexibility a bit tight (almost a direct quote).
On my rifle, I would rather have a 50mm objective lens, because the 20moa scope base I have for my Sako 75 puts the scope high enough to clear one, even with low rings, and I just don’t like the look of a lot of space between the barrel and objective lense. Why not get more light if you have the space for it?
If after reading this it seems like I want a new scope on #1, you are very perceptive.