Whether you are a hunter or a competitive shooter, the scope is the link between you and the target. That alone should show the importance in picking out a proper scope.
The biggest misconception people have with picking out a scope is that all scopes pair with all firearms and can fit any hunting or shooting scenario.
It’s simply not true, and as the marksmen, it’s your job to understand that there is a balance between you, the situation, the rifle, and the scope that has to be considered carefully.
Purchasing a scope is an important decision for you to make and it doesn’t help that there is an incredible amount of options for scopes that are available
So, how exactly do you go about picking the proper piece of shooting optics?
The answer depends on what and how you plan to use the scope. Based on the situation, you can look at the specs of scopes and have a good idea whether or not the scope is right for you.
You don’t have to be a former Marine sniper or optics aficionado to understand the basics of scopes. While these men and women know more about scopes than we can hope to learn in a lifetime, we can understand enough to make informed decisions.
In this article, we are going to cover the basics of scopes and provide several tips for how to determine the perfect scope that will balance with your particular brand of shooting. We are also going to do it in a manner so that you will not have to read an article about an article to understand this article.
What’s Your Situation
Before you begin looking at different scopes, you need to have an idea of the situations you are going to find yourself in while needing a scope.
Are you going to be hunting whitetail or moose in thicker wooded areas, hunting mule deer on the plains, glassing and chasing elk or pronghorns over mountain ranges, or are you looking at 1,000+yard shots on the range during competitions?
Take a few seconds and decide on the above paragraph and throw in what conditions you are going to be firing in such as the terrain, the distance, and possible weather scenarios.
Now that you have that in mind let’s go through various characteristics of scopes and pair them with different hunting or shooting situations.
Look for Craftsmanship
Okay, keep those shooting conditions in the back of your mind because this first tip goes for any scope you might have your eye on.
Regardless of the type of shooting you are going to be doing or the type of scope you might have in mind, it is critical that it is well crafted with high-quality materials.
When shooting in competition or out in the field trying to bring down big game, you need a scope built with durable materials and high-grade glass designed for longevity.
Regarding a scope’s body, ones crafted from a single piece of aircraft grade aluminum or similar material is the first checkpoint to possibly being a scope you would consider buying. This type of material and build increases a scopes durability and reliability greatly. You also want tight seals around any adjustment knobs and between the scope body and glass to prevent internal corrosion and damage.
This can be difficult to determine just looking online, and you might think about visiting some shops that carry scopes you are interested in and handling them yourself.
Magnification (Fixed vs. Variable)
Regarding magnification, you have the option of a fixed scope or variable scope. To decide between the two, there is one major question you need to ask yourself. What is the range of distances I will be taking shots at?
If you think you will be taking shots from a range of distances, say 50 to 500 yds and everything in between, you are going to want a variable scope where the magnification can be adjusted.
If all your shots are going to be clustered around a similar distance, a fixed scope might be a more reasonable option.
It is assumed that fixed scopes are more durable than variable scopes. While this might be anecdotal, fixed scopes are simpler to use with fewer parts and potentially fewer chances for malfunctions. They also tend to be less expensive than variable scopes.
On the other side, variable scopes give you a lot more versatility regarding the shots you can take and the type of hunting you can do effectively with only one scope.
If you’re looking to get into some long range shooting competitions or just as a hobby with friends you will undoubtedly need a variable scope to have the most adjusting power for the variety of shots you will be taking.
Regardless of a fixed or variable scope, one of the most important numbers to pay attention to is the magnification number.
2X, 3X, 3-9X, etc. These are the first numbers you will see when searching for a scope. There will also be a number after the X, and we will get to it shortly. For now, the numbers before the X are telling you the magnification of the scope lenses.
For a fixed scope that is labeled as 2X, images in your field of view when looking through the scope are twice the magnification as seen by the naked eye. For fixed scopes, as the name implies, the magnification cannot be increased or decreased.
For variable scopes, there will be a range such as 3-9X, 4-12X, etc. You can then adjust the scope to 3,4,5, or 6X interchangeably.
So, depending on the situation what type of magnification should you go with?
For hunting where the game is within 50 yards and moving or just out plinking, a fixed scope of 2.5X-3X is as much as you will ever need.
For your standard whitetail deer rifle, a 3-9X scope is a popular choice. It gives you some versatility in the distance shots might be taken along with other pros that we will get into later in the article. If all your deer hunting is in heavily wooded areas, you might even just go with a fixed scope at 5X or smaller. Like we said, it’s all about the situations the shots are going to be taken.
For mule deer, mountain goats, or other large game where shots are taken at increased distances (500+yards), you might want to go up to 10-15X magnification. The drawback with this is when you have shots come along that are at shorter distances such a powerful scope is almost useless. We will cover this tradeoff more in the ocular lens section.
For competition shooters or those looking to get into the sport, your range of magnification is going to vary greatly. You probably won’t need a scope that goes below 10X, but will need much higher power even into the 20-30X range.
The Reticle and Focal Planes
The reticle is most often called the crosshairs and is your guide to aiming with the scope and will superimpose your intended target.
Once again, the type of reticle is going to depend on the type of hunting or shooting you have in mind.
One of the more popular types of reticles is the duplex reticle. This is your basic crosshair with thicker lines near the perimeter of the lens with thinner lines leading down to the center of the crosshair. The change in line thickness aids shooting in low light conditions encountered in hunting situations. For most hunting purposes and shots taken at targets less than 500yards using scopes 10X and below, a duplex reticle will be more than enough for proper aiming.
Another popular type of reticle is the mildot. This type of reticle is very similar to the duplex with the added spacing marks along the thin lines of the reticle. In the simplest way to explain, each dot corresponds to specific angle settings giving you the ability to make quick, intuitive adjustments to elevation and windage without physically altering the scopes settings. For hunting purposes with shots over 400 yards a mildot reticle is extremely useful.
There are many more complex reticles that are available to make quick adjustments in bullet drops and more accurate adjustments for elevation and windage without adjusting the scope itself. Extreme long range shooters might look for more in their reticle than the duplex or mildot, and there are plenty available to fit their shooting conditions.
One other quick option to think about concerning reticles is which focal plane they are in. There are two focal planes with scopes, first (FFP) and second focal plane (SFP).
What you need to understand about whether the reticle is in the first or second plane is how the reticle changes when the magnification is adjusted.
If you’re going with a fixed scope, it’s not going to matter. If you are using a duplex reticle, the changes will not be as significant as when using a marked and scaled reticle.
When the reticle is in the FFP, the scale of the reticle adjusts when the magnification is adjusted. This keeps the markings accurate if you are using a mildot or other marked reticle. If your shooting at ranges where you need 10X and higher magnifications it is important to have a reticle in the FFP.
When the reticle is in the SFP and the magnification is adjusted, the reticle remains the same. For most hunting purposes a reticle in this plane is optimal. If used in scopes with higher magnification and shots at greater distances the accuracy drops drastically when using the markings.
Ocular Lens (Field of View)
Starting from the back of the scope, the lens you look through is known as the ocular lens.
The field of view is the area that is seen through the ocular lens when magnified. The numbers you see related to the field of view refers to the distance, in feet, from left to right of the image at 100 yards away.
The field of view goes hand in hand with magnification and like everything on this list, is going to be a pro or con depending on the shooting situation.
Going back briefly to magnification, perhaps the most important aspect is what the lowest magnification is when considering hunting. This is because of how it impacts your field of view.
Imagine you are a deer hunter and have decided to go with a variable scope with a magnification of 15-30X. While this is a powerful scope and excellent when taking shots at over 700yds, what happens when your target steps out at 75 yards and is moving quickly?
Your field of view at the lowest setting is maybe 8″, and it’s going to be almost impossible to keep your reticle on the target while it is moving and still be aware of the surrounding area.
See the tradeoffs?
A good scope will have a field of view around 35ft at the 3X magnification. As the magnification increases, the field of view will diminish to 12-15ft at 9X and so on. Now imagine the field of view with a magnification of 20. It’s going to be tough to track a deer moving with such a small window.
This is why it is crucial to understand the type of shots you are going to be taking. If there is a chance of a shot at 100 yards or less you need a scope with a low enough magnification to keep a wider field of view.
For hunters, you need a scope that can be adjusted to low enough magnification that you can keep a wide field of view for animals within close range. For long range shots at the shooting range, the field of view is not nearly as important, and you are more interested in magnification power.
Objective Lens (Size vs. Light transmission)
When reading specs of a scope you are going to see a second number directly proceeding the magnification number such as 3-9X40. What this number is telling you is the objective lenses diameter in mm.
The objective lens is at the front of the scope and is responsible for allowing light to pass through the scope to the ocular lens. The larger the diameter of the lens, the more light that can pass through giving you a brighter, and clearer view.
Before going into too much depth, let’s first get this misleading piece of information out of the way. Bigger is always better for objective lenses. While being bigger has some benefits there are also drawbacks once you reach a certain diameter.
When shopping around for a scope, you are bound to find product descriptions of huge objective lenses at 60-70mm in diameter that will allow enough light to pass through to your eye to be able to shoot in the most minimal of light situations.
And it is true, a bigger objective lens does allow more light to focus through the scope giving you better shooting condition, but there is a tipping point where a bigger lens begins to disrupt shots.
The reason is the larger the diameter of the objective lens, the higher ring mounts you are going to need to raise the scope off the barrel. The higher you raise the scope off the barrel the more out of line it becomes with the bullet’s trajectory leaving the barrel, and you will need more calculations and adjustments to keep the scope accurate. It also results in heavier and bulkier scopes.
Having a scope high off the barrel also impacts your shooting stance and can put you in uncomfortable shooting positions. Of course, you can always customize your firearm with raised cheek rests.
In general, the diameter of your objective lens for hunting or long range shooting purposes almost never needs to be over 50mm in diameter. Some of the more popular hunting scopes are in the 40-44mm range.
Eye relief refers to the distance between your eye and the ocular lens of the scope where the entire field of view is visible. A lot can go into determining eye relief distance such as exit pupil and other factors, but let’s just focus on what is needed when picking a scope.
When shooting a high caliber cartridge, you are going to want several inches of eye relief. If you have high recoil and a field of view of an inch, you’re going to end up with a busted eye from the scope.
Having an eye relief of several inches is also gives you a much more comfortable shooting position than one where you have to be right on behind the lens to have a clear field of view.
You need to be careful when mounting your scope that it is positioned so that when in a natural shooting stance you have the full field of view with several inches between your eye and the scope.
Since we have covered the lenses let’s discuss some treatments that manufacturers usually use on the ocular and objective lenses.
Most of the respected scope manufacturers use coatings on the lenses that serve a variety of purposes.
They help reduce the amount of glare and reflection on the objective lens, which in turn allows more light transmission. They also help reduce fogging of the lens and repel water.
Manufacturers may coat one or both sides of the lenses and may use multiple layers of coating.
For serious long-range shooters, lack of glare can be extremely beneficial. For hunters in rainy conditions, coatings to repel water and to increase light transmission in the early and late hours can shift the chances of a clean shot and kill in your favor.
Of course, professional coating is going to raise the price of the scope, but it is worth it for the increased functionality and decreased frustration once you are in the field.
Any scope you purchase should have two turrets, or knobs, that protrude from the top and side of the scope. The turrets adjust the elevation and windage of your scope.
For higher-powered scopes (greater than 12X) there might also be a third turret located on the opposite to the windage turret known as the parallex knob. This is to adjust the position of your reticle when it appears to be moving out of position.
For competitive shooting, you will want turrets that ride higher for easy and quick adjustments.
For scopes to be used in hunting, it is better to go with turrets that ride closer to the scope and require tools to adjust the settings. This helps reduce the probability of knocking a setting up or down when moving through heavy brush or knocking up against rock ledges.
So what does it all come down to when picking out a scope?
It comes down to understanding the type of shooting you are going to be using it for.
It comes down to a basic understanding of the parts of scope and how small differences can greatly impact the scope’s performance.
A scope is a powerful tool, and when chosen and used correctly, it makes you into a better hunter and marksman. When chosen poorly, with little thought put into your selection, well, you understand the consequences after reading this article.
What we hope, is that you will not make that mistake and will go through the steps listed here when choosing a scope.
Good luck and happy shooting!