Choosing A Rifle Scope: What You Need To Know
You might be one for sighting your rifle the old-fashioned way, using nothing but the iron sights that come built-in to the rifle. And there’s nothing wrong with that. But you might be missing out on the sheer accuracy a good rifle scope will add to your shooting and hunting efforts. And many rifles these days don’t even come with iron sights anymore, instead leaving room for the use of a scope.
A good shooting scope can make a large difference in how clearly one sees their target and aims for it, and if you enjoy hunting, you will greatly benefit from adding one in.
Of course, with the endless array of shooting scopes available, it may be hard to pick one out. Which is why we put together this guide – to help you with choosing the best scope for your hunting rifle, and start getting out on the range and into the woods, where you’d rather be.
Optical Power and Magnification
First thing you need to decide about choosing a rifle scope: exactly how much optical power and magnification do you need? Magnification really is a very subjective thing, but there are some rules of thumb you can go by. Consider more than just the distance you normally shoot from, but also your shooting style; if you tend to be a light, fast, more reflexive shooter, you will probably want to choose a scope with less magnification – say, 4x or 6x. Under 10x is considered a good rule of thumb in such situations, and the classic 3-9x scope is often regarded as the best all-purpose scope. Generally, this will be what you’re looking for if you plan on shooting big game at less than 200 yards.
If, on the other hand, you are more of long-distance sharpshooter, and plan on hunting big-game at even longer distances – 200 yards or more – you will want to look for something more powerful – 16x, 32x or more. The higher the magnification, the more need you will have supporting your rifle while shooting, as any shakiness will of course be amplified. You will also have less flexibility for shooting closer targets, as well.
If you don’t want to be tied down by a single scope length, you opt for a variable power scope, which lets you choose from a set of magnifications with the turn of a knob. This is great for versatility, but to get a really good one, will cost more, and also be less durable; fixed scopes have less moving parts that can break on impact. And when shooting at close ranges when you don’t necessarily need magnification; you could opt for a dot or reflex sight, though these are meant more for tactical situations and we won’t deal with them in this guide.
Is size the same as magnification? Not exactly. When we say size, we mean the size of the objective lens.
The objective lens is the part of the scope that transfers ambient light through the scope and focuses on the image you’re seeing. The larger the objective lens is, the more light it will transfer to your eye – and the clearer and brighter the image will be. Generally, objective lens size corresponds to overall lens size, and the larger your lens, the more you will be able to grasp the difference between objective lens sizes.
Choosing a large objective lens will require some extra thought, however; it will need to be mounted higher over the barrel than a smaller lens, which may make it harder to sight at eye-level and create the need for a cheek-riser.
Eye relief is the distance between the ocular lens and your eye. It’s important; without good eye relief, the recoil from the rifle will cause the scope to smash into your face – not good. A hunting rifle should have at least 3 inches of eye relief, and for powerful rifles, you will probably want to opt for at least 4.
All good scopes will have adjustments for windage, elevation, and focus, so you can adjust to the situation and terrain you find yourself in. Long-range scopes will also have options for parallax. Often, these come in one single knob, called a turret. The Windage and Elevation adjustments on cheaper scopes are often inaccurate and finicky, and but improve consistently higher-end scopes. If you’ve never learned the technique of using a scope and adjusting for windage and elevation, you might find these adjustments difficult and hard to learn, but once mastered, they will make your sharpshooting even more accurate.
While there’s seemingly no end to the choice of reticles you can pick from, most scopes will have one of the few most popular:
The Duplex reticle is the most popular reticle available, invented in the 1960’s by Leupold. It is the instantly recognizable four crosshairs that taper and meet in the middle in one thin crosshair. This design helps naturally guide your eyes to the center of the scope. The thicker, outer lengths of the crosshairs are very helpful in lower light and for quick glances. The Duplex reticle is, again, the most popular kind of reticle you will find, and will do for most hunting and shooting.
There are also range-compensating reticles, which help you know where to aim when shooting at a given distance. The MilDot reticle is one such range-compensating reticle, and is based off the Duplex, but with a few modifications – dots that make up the center crosshair. The dots correspond to one millradian, and one millradian is equal to 3.6” at 100 yards.
The MilDot was invented to help Marines estimate distances and is now used by all the branches of the military. It works best for long-distance shooting, especially at over 300 yards. To use on accurately, you will need to have a laser rangefinder handy, and have the range calibrated properly for your cartridge. This kind of reticle comes in most handy when shooting game at very long range, though there are other kinds to choose from.
If you find a scope with an illuminated reticle, this will come in very valuable in low-light situations, but also during overcast days and heavy foliage.
Most cheaper scopes, and those with lower magnification levels, are created to be free from parallax at a specific distance – say, 150, 175 or 300 yards – but will not be able to correct for parallax at any other distances. Higher magnification scopes – say, those above 10x or 12x zoom – should, and will usually, have knobs to adjust parallax, sometimes called Side Focus. If you don’t properly adjust for parallax, you will not be able to properly gauge where your target is. And miss. No fun.
Ah yes. The most important part of the equation: price.
Like just about anything else, there’s a wide range of options for scopes, for every budget and price range. If you’re on a tight budget, you can probably find an okay scope for a little over hundred bucks, but it won’t be anything fancy. And anything less than that won’t be worth the money in terms of quality and build. When you get into the $300 range, you’ll be opening up a whole new range of options. And if you really want to invest in a high-quality scope, you could easily spend $1000-$3000.
Of course, just because a scope is 3x the time price of another high-end scope, doesn’t mean it’s 3x better. Features might differ, materials might be stronger, but accuracy not necessarily moreso.
What’s worth spending is totally up to you; if you’re a diehard shooter who invests a lot into their sport, it may well be worth investing a good chunk of change into the scope; with proper technique and practice, it can only improve your shooting. If you don’t have the money to spare and don’t shoot as often, it might be a good idea to save the change.