Comparison of All Test Optics: Final Analysis

This will be the final article in my series of articles documenting my comparative testing of the U.S. Optics SR-8c 1-8×27, the Swarovski Z6i 1-6×24, the U.S. Optics SR-4c 1-4×22, and the SWFA SS HD 1-6×24.  I also had an Aimpoint T1 Micro on hand to compare with these scopes.  I would like to extend thanks again to my friend at U.S. Optics for loaning me the Swaro, Aimpoint, as well as the two U.S. Optics scopes and to Ilya for loaning me the SWFA.  Without their kindness I would not have had this opportunity, which for me was a lot more than just being able to play with expensive stuff; it afforded me a chance to gain valuable insight a significant piece of how the visual process works in shooting an AR though the spectrum of speeds and distances that it’s commonly utilized in.

Something I really haven’t explained fully is what I expected from the rifle system that I was testing the optics on.  Part of the reason for that is I did not really have a very concrete idea of what I did expect coming into the tests.  I think I have a better handle on that now.

My concept for this AR, which I’m calling the X-15 (also a cool rocket plane) during its run as an experimental platform, is to be a versatile rifle that will allow me to excel in the “very close to the close end of mid-range” distances, which I’ll define as room distance to 250 yards.  My vision for such a rifle was that it would have a barrel capable of shooting sub-MOA “all day long” (sarcasm), have a sighting system with sufficient magnification to locate, ID, and engage targets out to the maximum system distance as a precision rifle system within that range.  At the very close end, I wanted the system’s scope to have the capability for no magnification and wide field of view for rapid hits.

My vision for using such a system is that it would be zeroed at a particular distance, and holdovers utilized to adjust for targets outside of the point blank range for the target and trajectory.  Since I’m working with a ~4.2” target, in my estimation the danger space (portion of the trajectory in which the bullet will strike a target of a given size) is that it’s sufficiently narrow when taking into account a realistic amount of shot dispersion to rule out any of the “battle sight zeros”.  To that end I used a 100 yard zero.

Part of figuring out what is important to me in an optic for a rifle of this type is to weigh which performance attributes are most important.  I don’t think the optic that is the best of all worlds has been made yet, so there’s going to be a tradeoff in making a choice.  I don’t think there’s a way to make a generic matrix of how to perfectly weigh the tradeoffs for everyone, because individual requirements, situations, terrain, and targets vary.  About all I can do is look at my terrain and expectations of the rifle.

Close Range:

Initially I had been dismissive about the necessity of what I think of as a non-magnified low end (I don’t believe this is a technically correct description of how the optic works, but it is descriptive of how it’s used).   I had figured that at the closer distances in which speed is paramount, some non-sighted method of aiming would be sufficiently accurate.  That would be the only method that I know of that would be as fast or faster than using a 1x (or non-magnified) optic.  That belief was based on my recollection of results in point shooting a year or so back.

For the size target I used in these tests, in some recent testing I was not able to get a high enough hit rate without using sights to satisfy my own requirements with the 4” target at 7 yards.  I didn’t test any scopes in this comparison that did not have a 1x capability, so I can’t speak to how much time would be added by magnification, but I would guess that it is going to slow things down to some degree.  I therefore came to accept that if I require the rifle to perform to my capabilities at close range I want it to have “true 1 power”.

Based on what I experienced during my testing there were a few things about certain scopes that I appreciated for certain facets of performance.  Think of these as my requirements for the perfect scope in terms of close range shooting.

-Non-magnified “unity” image (same size as what the naked eye sees)
-Generous eyebox
-Uncluttered reticle
-Minimally obstructive visual profile
-A simple “daylight bright” red dot aiming point
-Lack of downrange signature in the illumination (not visible from the “business end”)

There were also things that I felt detracted from my shooting at close range.  Here is a brief list of things I don’t want up close:

-Significantly obstructive scope visual profile
-Tight eyebox
-Compex reticle (abundance of ‘features’)

I had no preference for first or second focal plane reticles up close.  Just give me a bright dot I can see.

A bright, clear image and large field of view are pleasing attributes to have in a scope.  When you put the big money down and bring the scope for your friends to marvel at, those are the things that generate a lot of oohs and ahhs, and therefore a sense of satisfaction.  In my testing those attributes did not play out to increased speed.  Neither the Aimpoint T1 nor the U.S. Optics SR-4c have especially bright images.  In terms of image quality, while the SR-4c has good clarity to my eye, the T1 is not at all impressive.  Both of these optics were, however, very quick.

What did seem to be the case with the optics that stood out to me for the brightness and clarity of their image was that I shot a little slower with them, but that my hit rates were higher.  These were the SWFA and the Z6i.

My knee jerk reaction in the word association game is that upon hearing the words “close range” I immediately answer with “speed”.  After some thought on the matter I decided that although proximity would seem to have a direct relationship with imminence, it doesn’t have any inherent bearing on the necessity to sacrifice accuracy for speed.  Close range carries no built in excuse for a substandard shot, although I would guess that is typically the case, close things appearing larger than far things (duh).  I can envision that in certain circumstances, depending on what else was near the target, it would be necessary to take all the time necessary to make an accurate shot, albeit in a hurry.   That is why we practice.

In any event, I decided that for my needs I have to favor the hit rate over the greazy lightnin’ fast speed.  I think that any of the scopes I tested could be used to good effect to satisfy those requirements with some practice.  While I believe the performance differences I saw were real, they were relatively minor.  I just think that some do it more readily and ‘willingly’ than others, those being the aforementioned SWFA and Z6i.  Of those, the Z6i is significantly easier to shoot with.

The “low margin” distances (25-100)

It’s hard to know how to categorize things sometimes because a person’s perspective can drastically affect how they view it.  I could call the 25-100 yard distance piece of the distance spectrum a lot of things, but in shooting it recently I felt as if it provided the lowest margin for error given the requirements I faced.  I discovered that this is a difficult range when the target is relatively small.  This was the portion of the distance spectrum that the DD25 drill (Test #3) would have gotten at if I had been up to it.  The problem with a small target in this distance spectrum is that the close proximity to the target still strongly conveys a rather urgent need for speed (cue: Top Gun high five/low five), but the target size requires care with one’s marksmanship.  My personal discovery was that the combination of requirements for speed and relative precision make this type of shooting very demanding in a way that is unique.

There wasn’t a lot that I felt like I really needed from my scope at this distance other than a bit of magnification and a reticle I could see.  I still needed about an inch and a half of holdover at 25 yards to compensate for mechanical offset, so it was helpful to be able to see the target with clarity under magnification.  The non-magnified Aimpoint T1 was a liability in this stage of testing.  As always, a generous eyebox is appreciated.

Again, I had no real preference either way for a reticle in the first or second focal plane at this distance spectrum.  I could see either one without issue.  The rationale for a first focal plane scope is the necessity to have the reticle scale be valid at all magnifications.  As far as holdovers go, any hold inside of 100 yards would be done to compensate for mechanical offset, and I would not use a reticle scale to accomplish that.  It just over-complicates something that can be accomplished with small amount of familiarization fire.  A wind hold at those distances would require extreme weather conditions that, while possible, are not likely enough to factor into features I’m going to demand from a scope.

I could see that the argument could be made for a first focal plane reticle being useful to engage a moving target in that distance spectrum.  Within those ranges there is also an argument for techniques that have nothing to do with using a reticle.  I could also make the point that 6x or even 8x for movers at that range is not an impossible mission if you really wanted to use a second focal plane mil scale and just had to turn up the scope to max power.   I’m going to withhold judgment on the subject of movers until I really try to refine my ability to engage them.

“Generic” Precision- 100 yards

I consider 100 yards to be in the “neither close nor far” category.  This was the point that I definitely felt a preference for a second focal plane reticle in terms of obtaining a precise sight picture.  As far as power was concerned, I felt that 4 power felt like it put me at a rather significant disadvantage as far as precision, but that actual disadvantage was rather minor.  The more significant disadvantage with the 4 power SR-4c was in ease and speed of use, which put the average split time with that scope almost a full second per shot behind the Z6i.  In contrast, at 100 yards 8 power didn’t seem to have any advantage over 6 power.  So for this type of shooting I’ll say that the following attributes were preferred:

-Second focal plane reticle
-≥ 6 power

At longer Ranges

While I think there is an argument to be made that in every other test of shooting the differences in scopes were relatively minor, when it came to using the scopes to hit a small target beyond the system’s point blank range, there were significant differences that could have a decisive effect in the outcome of one’s efforts to actually utilize the rifle system.  In the end I think that the total points for the long range tests gave the best indication of performance.  The U.S. Optics SR-8c and the Swarovski Z6i were both way ahead of the others.  I can say with certainty that the extra magnification of the SR-8c did help at the 270 and 330 yard markers, but before that it did not seem to be a factor.

The things that made the optics excel in the final test were:

Power: ≥ 6 power good, ≥ 8 power better
Usable reticle scale at all ranges (including inside 200 yards).
Detail and complexity in the reticle seemed to help beyond 250 yards.

The Total Experience:

If I combined the attributes I listed for each piece of the required distance spectrum of the rifle system it would read about like this:

-Maximum power ≥ 6 power good, ≥ 8 power better
-Non-magnified “unity” image, i.e. “true 1 power”
-Generous eyebox
-Uncluttered reticle, but…
          …with more detail in the scale below the 0.5 mil mark.
-Minimally obstructive visual profile for the scope overall, i.e. high image to overall visual
          signature ratio
-A simple “daylight bright” red dot aiming point illumination
-Lack of downrange signature in the illumination (not visible from the “business end”)
-Tube and saddle configured to allow for flexibility in mounting options
-Turret adjustment increments ≤ 0.1 mils, as a good zero is kind of important (sarcastic
          understatement?  Yes!!!).
-Clear, bright glass
-Second focal plane reticle preferred
-I’ll also add in low profile capped turrets.  I don’t plan on touching them other than zeroing
          and I’d rather not run the risk of having them bumped and affecting my zero.

What I Would Buy:

First of all, I need to point out that I didn’t spend all that long with any of the optics.  That was kind of the point- to see how easily they meshed with me without much opportunity for me to adapt to their idiosyncrasies.  I got a good idea of what features seem to be inherently superior for different applications, all other things being equal.  The thing to remember is that we use practice to ensure that all other things aren’t equal in order to gain strategic and tactical advantage.  I think that some of the nitpicky points I made, such as the visual complexity of the SWFA reticle, and the liability of the relatively low power of the SR-4c, could be overcome with some more intensive practice.

I also felt that I needed to be especially frank in my evaluations.  To that end, if something had even a slight tendency to annoy me, I made no attempt to get over my annoyance.  On the contrary, I tended to dwell on my dissatisfaction.  That is completely contrary to my normal tendency when using my own gear.

I also tried to control any enthusiasm I had for any of the scopes that I seemed to naturally gravitate toward, like the SR-8c and the Z6i.  Sometimes feelings and impressions can be misleading.  My goal was to let the test results do my deciding.

If money were no object:

Objectively I would have to say that the SR-8c was the most solid performer across the spectrum of shooting that I did.  I’ve already written a lot about it specifically, but just to recap, although it’s heavy, it’s all business.  Nothing about it is superfluous.  It works.  The reticle is simple and effective.  The illumination is, all in all, about the best I have seen (I give it extra points for the lack of downrange signature), although I preferred the control module of the Z6i.  I have also been told that the drawback of that style of illumination is the slightly darker image, which did not bother me.  The only things I would change on it would be finer adjustment knobs and more mounting room on the tube on the front end.  This would free up some mounting possibilities, which would be very welcome.  I would also prefer a second focal plane version with a simpler reticle (I drew one and gave it to my friend at USO), but not so much as to sway me.

Subjectively I absolutely loved the Swarovski Z6i.  In the tests I felt that the Z6i kept up with the SR-8c up to the 230 yard mark, where the extra power of the SR-8c gave it a definite edge.  The BRT-I reticle is almost perfect.  I believe that second focal plane is the way to go in this application.  The eyebox is very forgiving.  The illumination is nice to the eye and the control module is very well thought out, but it does have a downrange signature which does bug me a little.  I would prefer 0.1 mil knobs (or finer) to the 0.15 mil knobs it has.

If my shooting were likely to be limited to shorter distances or included larger targets I would also seriously consider the SR-4c.  In my opinion it beats the Aimpoint at its own game up close and leaves it in the dust as the range increases.

Choosing in the real world:

I’m torn.  I am considering selling some rifles to better outfit the X15 (and change out the X designation eventually).  It’s such a handy and usable platform that it makes more sense to make it all it should be when I have guns that I don’t use much and only still have because they are kind of cool.  What makes it difficult is that it’s hard to cross the emotional barrier of selling something like an M1A and still not having enough cash to buy one of the scopes that I think would be best.  $2500 is a lot of money for someone with a family to spend on anything that won’t pay the bills or provide a shared benefit for everybody.

The ~$1000 price tag of the SWFA is reasonable to me.  There was nothing substandard about the build quality or anything like that to rule it out.  The quality of its image really was almost up there with the Z6i.  There are a lot of people out there with no negative comments at all with reference to that scope.  The fundamentals of that scope are nicely done and solid.  I just didn’t like the reticle for the application and the illumination is not up to what the others provide.  There are so many scopes that I haven’t tried that I’m not ready to lay my money down on the SWFA.

The Vortex Gen 2 Razor 1-6 looks like it has a very nice set of attributes.  Sightron has an interesting 1-7.  Ilya is testing out a Meopta 1-6×24.  There are other possibilities.

For the time being the rifle is bare of any sighting system, so it will be going on the shelf for a while.

12 thoughts on “Comparison of All Test Optics: Final Analysis

  1. Of the currently available scope, the Razor HD 1-6×24 would probably be the optimal choice for you. Meopta R2 is a very nice scope, but the current reticle selection is aimed at hunters. I do expect them to have a more “tactical” oriented reticle soon enough. It is lighter than the Vortex, so it is a bit more up my alley, but both are good.

    ILya

    • The Razor does seem to have a lot of what I want at a do-able price. It almost seems comparable to the Z6i in a lot of ways (if one were to disregard size and weight. How is they eyebox on the Razor?

  2. Good summary. It succeeds at bringing all the testing to a simplified and coherent closure.
    No BUIS on the X-15? I’m surprised. You know how batteries are.

    • Well, it’s still the X-15 because it’s not “operational”. I feel like it could use a flashlight in addition to its sighting system.

      As far as back up irons go, initially my line of thought was, “It’s an AR, it needs a BUIS.” Then I got to wondering what makes an AR different than other rifles to require that it needs a back up sight while my other scoped rifles don’t. I see that there is generally room for them under the optic, and that many optics are quick-releasable. My mount is not quick releasable. I also have also wondered if the scopes aren’t becoming as durable or more so than irons.

      What I like about all the scopes was that even if the battery died, there is still a reticle to use. Slower without illumination than with, yes, but not inordinately so.

      • AR’s all need BUIS because all of the rifles in the adds show them that way. Just kidding.

        Your point about durability is well taken, and newer optics do seem to have more of it. However, a few ounces of redundancy doesn’t seem like a bad idea. Stuff happens.

  3. Good summary.

    The Razor has a generous eyebox. I found it made my handy carbine so top heavy as to not be handy anymore. That’s all I’ll say in public about that.

    It doesn’t meet all your specs, but you should really take a look at the NF 1-4. I think it is the best combo of features for the money, and better than most of the expensive scopes regardless of price. Call me if you want to try one.

    • The Razor looks to be a few ounces lighter than the SR-8c, which was a tank of a scope, but I didn’t feel as though it changed the handling characteristics of the rifle significantly. I will try to test drive one before I get serious.

      I will probably give you a call about the Nightforce. I’m in the process of moving, so I might give it a week or two to get through some of that. Which reticle have you been using?

      • None of the reticles are perfect, so I’ve been using the F3G. We just finished moving, so I feel your pain. Good to be unpacked again.

  4. What are your thoughts/feelings on how much you’d be giving up if you went with an optic that doesn’t have a true one power on the low end?

    • I don’t know about that. I feel like I could do the first two of my tests and get a really good idea of it though. I do know that my hits with the Sako 75 and Leupold 3.5-10 set at 3.5 averaged around 1.6 seconds on a ~4″ clay at 25 yards at my best. Having said that, I think that 25 yards is in the realm of magnified optics. I did a lot of dry fire with that scope and felt like I was not at much of a disadvantage, but I think it’s almost unavoidable to have some, if only a very short, amount of time orienting the eyes to the sight picture.

      I may give it a try when I get a chance. There are other things I’d like to get to, but this is a worthy mission to accomplish.

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