By Troy Hoepker
Choosing the right scope for a new rifle is a bit like dropping the perfect engine into that vintage muscle car with a sparkling new paint job and shiny mag wheels. Sure the car is a thing of beauty to stare at, but it needs to perform as good as it looks to be truly complete. Add the components to produce 400 horse under the hood while being sat back in the seat as you zing out 12-second ¼ mile times and you’ve got the perfect match! If you can steer it, it’ll make you smile. A bullet launched from the rifle will blow away that track time, but without the right scope, you can’t steer it.
Budget and Intentions
There’s a mind-numbing amount of riflescopes out there on the market today. All of them with different variations and price ranges. So when it’s time to outfit your new rifle with a new piece of glass, how do you choose what scope is the right one? The first step is easy and that is to define the things you know such as what your budget will be and what type of hunting you’ll primarily be doing with the rifle. Are you going to be backpacking into the mountains over dozens of miles of rocky, rugged terrain in any kind of weather to hunt Dall sheep or are your intentions to just plink the occasional squirrel? Obviously a tough, proven, higher end scope is what you are looking for when it comes to possible punishment and abuse from the elements associated with a sheep hunt and the budget can be way less if all you intend to do is plink squirrels. That is two opposite ends of the spectrum I know, but the point is that no matter what we are shooting at, when it’s time to see your target and pull the trigger we need a scope that will give a clear picture and hold it’s zero to make the shot. What we demand of the scope will help determine the price and quality of the scope because the old saying, “You get what you pay for” holds relatively true when it comes to optics. The more money you can budget for a scope; the better glass you’ll have.
Most all manufacturers are making better quality stuff in the $100-$200 price range then was available say 20 years ago, but if you’ve just spent $700 dollars on a new rifle that you intend to hunt hard with, then you are not really doing yourself any favors by skimping a little on the scope. The scope is just as important if not more important than the rifle itself. A lot of guys swear by spending just as much or more on the riflescope as they do on the rifle. I’m not saying you always have to do that, but once you start to save your money and budget for a scope in a higher price range, the quality goes up dramatically.
When it’s time to look at different scopes, be sure you’ve done your homework, especially if you are not all that familiar with them. Know the anatomy of them and what each of its functions and capabilities are. Let’s go thru some of the features of a riflescope and define what they do and how you can best determine what ones you’ll want for your intentions.
One of the primary reasons we are adding a scope to a rifle is to magnify the view of the object we intend to see or shoot at. If you have a fixed 4-power scope for example, then the object you are looking at will appear 4 times closer than it would with your naked eye. For short range hunting with a small caliber rifle, a smaller fixed power scope may be the ticket. For hunting larger game with larger calibers however, a variable scope is the choice of many. A 3×9 variable scope is more than adequate for whitetail deer and many other game animals. Considering the shots you’ll likely be presented with goes a long way in determining the right variable scope. For instance, if you have an animal appear close, you’ll want a scope that can be dialed back to its lowest power setting for a wider field of view so you can find the animal easier in the crosshairs. If that animal appears farther away, then you can dial it up to a higher power to maximize the magnification for better shot placement on the animal.
I think that some people get a little too caught up with wanting extreme magnification on their scope. I like magnification as much as the next guy, but there are drawbacks to trying to see a fly on an animal’s back at 500 yards. For one, you’ll want to be able to dial the scope back to a low setting for closer shots and the low end settings on some high magnification scopes won’t go as low as you’ll find you need. Secondly, the more you magnify, the less available light is collected through the scope and on hot days heat waves can render some high magnification ranges almost useless. I own several different variable scopes and find anything from a 3×9 to a 5x 15 to be very capable in most situations. Even at extremely long ranges think about this for a moment. Our military snipers use only10 power scopes commonly. A good rule of thumb to follow is that good quality glass always wins out over cheaper scopes advertised for higher end magnification.
Another choice to think about is the particular reticle that you’ll need in a chosen scope. This is also determined by what you’ll be using the rifle for. Thicker crosshairs show up better when light is low or against backgrounds like foliage to help draw your eye to the center, but are not the preferred choice for precise bullet placement in all applications. Finer crosshairs won’t cover as much of your target and are more forgiving to the eye when trying to place a bullet within an inch or two of where it’s needed but its easier to lose track of a fine crosshair in low light or with a busy background. With many riflescopes you can adjust the focus of the crosshairs with the eyepiece to help your eye see a sharp, clear crosshair.
There are a lot of different reticle choices these days with all manufactures naming them something different. Each of them have their own variation of holdover and windage markings built right into the reticle. Mil dot scopes have become very popular so let’s discuss them in length. They can help with holdover by being able to make quick calculations of distance in the field. The “mil” in mil dot does not stand for military like many believe but instead, for milliradian, (a unit of measurement for angles) used to help us quickly calculate range and size of an object. Where the range is known, the angle will give the size and where the size is known then the range is more easily determined allowing for proper hold-over to hit the target. Most people will never use a mil dot scope for the true function of which it was designed however. Unless the mil dot reticle changes in size as you increase or decrease power of magnification, (know as a first focal plane) then it will be flawed to some extent. A lack of proper focus and or reticle focus can also lead to improper calculations when using a mil dot scope. Some people do not care for all the clutter in their field of view that mil dot and other similar scopes have and would rather opt for a clean and clear view of simple uncluttered crosshairs. Others would rather use a range finder and or know their distance to their target and simply dial the turrets the appropriate amount of clicks for proper bullet placement. Mil dot, BDC (Bullet Drop Compensation) or anything else they are likely called can be useful at times and also misleading at times depending on your use of them, so study up before deciding.
Objective Lens Diameter
The larger the objective lens diameter is, the more light that will enter the scope. One would think that based off that statement that you would want an extremely large objective lens at the end of the scope tube, but there are tradeoffs and myths to consider. Even an extremely large objective lens only transmits more useable light than smaller ones if the magnification is set at its highest point in very dim conditions. Common sizes today are 40mm to 44mm. Anything that is 50mm or larger will need a set of high rings and likely changes your eye alignment and comfort when welding your cheek to the stock. This is something to seriously consider, especially when you need to shoulder your rifle quickly to engage your target.
You can also choose to add an adjustable objective (AO) to the list of features if you so choose. Usually this will be a dial around the objective end of the scope to adjust the scope’s parallax at different ranges. Most scopes without AO adjustment come set from the factory at 100 or 150 yards.
Exit Pupil and Eye Relief
When you hold the scope at arms length, that tiny circle of light you see coming through the eyepiece is called an exit pupil. To experiment with this, put the scope on its lowest magnification setting and see how big the exit pupil size is. Then, turn the magnification up to its highest level and see how much smaller it gets. Will you be able to see through that tiny circle of light when conditions are dim? You’ll want a full and clear picture every time you look through the scope, so the larger the exit pupil is, the further your eye relief can be. This is most critical when selecting a scope for a heavier recoiling rifle. You’ll want to be able to center your eye through the middle of the tube easily even at higher magnification to prevent getting bashed by the scope when the gun goes off.
Adjustments in your minute of angle (MOA) are made by providing a series of clicks to the windage and elevation knobs to move your point of impact (POI). For all practical purposes one minute of angle is roughly one inch at 100 yards and two inches at 200 hundred yards and so on. Each “click” will change your POI ¼ inch at 100 yards with most common scopes. The same single click moves your POI ½ inch at 200 yards and so on. When deciding on scopes to buy, make sure that you can easily feel the movement between each click of the turret when moving it and listen to how audible that click noise is. Those two combining factors make for better ease of operation without mistakes. Also look to see if there are orientation arrows on the sides or the face of the turret.
Along with these aforementioned basics to read up on and consider before buying a scope there are plenty of others things to consider as well. If you plan to be out in all kinds of weather, research scope lenses and coatings. A lot of scopes are advertised as fog-proof and waterproof but research them. Coatings reduce glare and lead to better light transmission. Turn and feel the magnification ring on any scope you handle and take notice of how easily it moves. Look into the warranties offered by different manufactures out there. There are plenty of companies that will offer lifetime warranties on their product.
Hopefully this can guide you to the purchase of a scope that will last you for years and years. Check back in next month when we will continue with the topic of mounting and sighting in the scope you’ve chosen!