These days choosing a scope is almost as important to prospective shooters as choosing a rifle. In addition to allowing a shooter to obtain better accuracy with the slower “old school” style cartridges, which pre-date the use of glass on guns, the telescopic sight allows us to make use of all the fast, flat-shooting modern cartridges that would hardly be worth having around without scopes. While an entire book could easily be written on choosing the best rifle scope out of the literally thousands of options, the modern buyer has to choose from, there are a few considerations that haven’t changed in decades and probably never will. Here we’ll take a look at the major factors to keep in mind when selecting a scope to give the prospective buyer a solid foundation to build on.
As the whole point of a telescopic sight is to make objects look bigger, it may be tempting to the prospective buyer to look for a scope with the highest magnification available. In theory, this makes sense, but the reality is a bit different.
Two of the more important things to keep in mind when considering magnification levels are: the condition of your own eyes and the type of shooting the rifle or scope combination is to be used for.
If you constantly have people complimenting your vision and you tend to see things at long distances with good clarity, high magnification levels are probably not required for your riflescope, if big game hunting is the intended use. Naturally, varmint hunting or shooting at small targets from long distances should require a bit more magnification even with perfect 20/20 vision. That being said, 8X magnification is usually ample.
So, why skimp on magnification? Like anything else in this world, magnification costs money. It is much more difficult to build a good high magnification scope than it is to build a good low magnification scope, and the costs reflect this. A quick look at today’s market will show a good number of low cost (under $200) high magnification scopes, but the rub with cheap scopes is that at the highest magnification of, for instance, a 4-12 power scope, the image is often so blurry that it is of no use. So, what you actually have in the example above is an effective 4-10 power that maybe suspect in a few other areas that we will cover later. Quality 3-9X scopes can often be had for close to the prices of the cheap high magnification scopes and they represent a much better value.
It seems like most scope buyers place too high a premium on magnification. We’re a little addicted to it these days, but it should be remembered that WWII-era snipers only utilized 4- 6 power scopes in most cases and by the Vietnam War the Army had only moved up to 8x scopes. Higher magnification does not necessarily lead to better shooting. In most cases, if the buyer settles for lower magnification and redirects the saved money into a higher overall quality scope, they will be much happier in the long run.
Fixed Power vs. Variable Power
This question may not really be worth asking anymore. The fixed power scope had its heyday and remained popular for many decades, but it is now more or less on its way out due to the ascendancy of the reliable, durable variable power scope. That being said, the fixed power was, and still is, a perfectly useful implement, which originally was far more dependable than the variable power scope and offered greater accuracy. In the early days of scopes, a shooter’s point of aim would move around a bit when shifting between magnification levels on variable power scopes. Big game hunters cared about this less, because their targets are always at least the size of a pie plate, but the fixed power offered definite advantages to snipers and varmint hunters who are pickier about point of aim. As time passed, the kinks were worked out of variable power scopes and this shifting in point of aim has now been almost completely eliminated. The fixed power held on for some time, it was still cheaper to build. However, as manufacturing costs for variable power scopes came down the fixed power scopes eventually became the more expensive of the two options.
Currently, the only thing the fixed power scope really has going for it is that it has fewer parts. This means it has fewer things to break. The level of dependability that the modern variable power has achieved has somewhat diminishes that advantage, though. Both are useful, and preference usually determines choice in this area.
All scopes have adjustments for elevation (up and down) and windage (left and right), but not all are created equal. For starters, some scopes use different adjustment increments to move the point of aim different distances. These increments are usually defined in minutes of angle (MOA), a measurement that translates to pretty close to one inch at 100 yards. Some scopes designed for close shooting with shotguns, safari rifles or muzzleloaders have 1 MOA adjustments. These days, most basic big game hunting scopes have ½ MOA adjustments and higher-end scopes feature ¼ MOA adjustments. A basic rule of thumb is that as price increases these adjustments become more accurate (actually moving point of impact the amount they’re supposed to) and dependable (the setting remains where it is supposed to).
While 1 MOA adjustment can be a little vexing at the range, they are perfectly applicable to big game hunting. The ½ MOA adjustments are a bit easier to work with and allow for a bit more confidence in most cases, and the ¼ MOA adjustments are nicer still but are hardly necessary for big game hunting and are better suited to varmint hunting where a ¼ of an inch is of more concern.
Up until recently scope caps had to be removed to adjust elevation and windage. These days, more accessible adjustments are becoming popular. The traditional caps are replaced with turrets that the shooter can get make adjustments to with little effort. Some companies even offer the ability to have turrets adjusted to a particular ammunition load, which allows a shooter to adjust their scope in real time, if they know the range so that no on-the-fly drop estimation is necessary. While these have found great favor with the long range hunting crowd and target shooters, these scopes can’t really be recommended for the average hunter or shooter. If you feel the need for them later on, you can always add one. However, until then, it is just one more way to get confused as to the actual point of impact if you make adjustments and then forget them.
The sheer number of choices of reticles (or crosshairs, as they are commonly known), can be a little overwhelming. They are available in varying thickness, design, range estimation intervals and many can even be had with integral range finders or drop compensators. This is not too big of a concern, though, because the reticle of a scope is one of the things you aren’t really stuck with. Most quality scope manufactures are more than willing to switch out reticles for a modest fee if you decide you truly hate what you see every time you look through your scope.
When it comes to picking a reticle initially the best advice is to keep things simple. Standard crosshairs are fine and have been for the better part of a century. Duplex style crosshairs offer a bit more clarity to some and center dot reticles appeal to others. Obviously, finer crosshairs are better for finer work like varmint shooting, but some people do fine work on small targets with thick crosshairs. It takes a bit of practicing to decide which you like best in the field. So take it easy and find out what works for you through trial and error. The range finders and drop compensators can always be added later if you feel you need them.
The front objective of a scope, or the front “bell”, can be had in different sizes. Some scopes have no front bell, 30mm or 40mm bells are considered fairly standard and larger ones up to 50mm or bigger are available. What’s the difference? The front objective is how light gets into the scope. The bigger the objective the more light it takes in, and this extra light makes the view through the scope both brighter and clearer to the shooter.
The extra brightness afforded by a larger objective is something some shooters feel they need. Most find the 40mm objective to be bright enough while still allowing for normal scope mounting. Obviously, if the front end of the scope is bigger the entire unit must be mounted higher, which tends to bring the scope out of proper alignment with the shooter’s eye. Some shooters go with the larger 50mm objective, mount the scope high and then affix an aftermarket cheek rest to the rifle to solve the alignment problem. There are also scope models currently available that have 50mm objectives with curves built into the bottom to accommodate lower mounting and normal alignment. These scopes offer some increased light gathering, but one wonders if the surface area lost to the curve leaves the shooter with anything more than a placebo effect when compared to a 40mm objective.
The best course of action is to select a scope that seems bright and presents crisp clear images. If the front objective happens to be larger on the desired scope then make adjustments accordingly. Larger objectives and cheek rests can often have a poor effect on the aesthetics of a rifle, but the shooter can generally learn to live with it if accuracy takes precedence over looks.