The first question many people ask when they buy their first rifle is “What kind of scope do I want to mount?” Not that there is anything wrong with iron sights. Many rifles come factory equipped with iron sights that work quite well with little or no sighting in required. But not all of us are blessed with 20/20 vision, and it can be troublesome for older shooters to keep the front sight in focus. Some rifles, particularly bolt action models, are not equipped with iron sights at all and are intended to have some sort of optics system installed.
So for whatever reason, you’ve made the decision that you want to install optics on your hunting rifle. But what type of scope should be installed? First, you will need to determine the primary role that you intend to use the firearm for. For the purposed of this article, we’re assuming you’ll be using it for hunting, but what type of game will you be using it for? Medium game such as deer taken at less than 200 yards? Small game such as prairie dogs, or squirrels? Or maybe bighorn sheep or pronghorn taken over 600 yards away? Whatever the purpose, there is an optic that is right for your firearm.
When shopping for a scope, there are three main things you really want to look for: ruggedness, light transmission, and optical quality. The most important of these is ruggedness. No matter how good your scope is, if it cannot hold up to the recoil of your firearm, it will soon be nothing more than an expensive and useless paperweight. The best scopes are rated for impacts of up to 1,000 Gs (1,000 times the force of gravity) meaning that they can be dropped or hit without losing their zero or damaging the internal assembly. Recoil isn’t the only thing your optic must endure. Hunting scopes may be subject to a wide range of temperatures from well below freezing to scorching summer blazes. Additionally, the presence of rain, snow, ice, and other moisture means that these scopes must be waterproof and fog proof.
Light gathering and optical quality are very closely related. A scope with poor optical quality will not usually have excellent light transmission. Optical quality is determined by the precision with which the glass is ground into the various lens shapes, as well as by the actual internal clarity and flawlessness of the glass itself. Most glass used for optical lenses comes from either Germany or Japan. Zeiss brand scopes are an example of high quality well built scopes using the finest German glass available. Nikon scopes on the other hand use high quality Japanese optical glass. The best optical glass has superior clarity and almost zero distortion, even near the edges of the lens. Look through a cheaply manufactured scope and you’ll see significant distortion around the edges of the image, especially at higher magnifications.
A good scope, even a low-cost quality scope, will have multicoated lenses. Don’t be fooled by manufacturers who claim their lenses are “fully coated”. Of course the lenses are fully coated, but more important is what they don’t say: these cheap scopes have lenses that are only single coated. This reduces the manufacturing costs, but it also reduces light transmission. Multicoated optics enhance light transmission with many top end scopes boasting light transmission rates over 95%.
Top end scopes with excellent optical quality and 95% or better light transmission will give you the brightest clearest image of your target. Many shooters believe that a larger objective gives them a brighter clearer picture and, all things being equal, this is true. But the increased light transmission from the amount of light gathered by a larger objective pales in comparison next to the internals of the scope. While scopes with larger objectives have better light gathering ability at low magnification settings, if they are not multicoated and utilize high-quality glass the actual light transmission will be lower than a scope with a smaller objective but superior glass and coatings. No matter how big your objective is, if the scope is built using low-quality single coated glass it will not have very good light transmission.
For hunting most medium and large game, a variable magnification scope is usually the way to go. Adjustable magnification enables hunters to keep the scope set to low power zoom for fast target acquisition and then transition to a higher power magnification for pinpoint accuracy over hundreds of yards. Large and medium game are most active around dusk and dawn, when lighting is poor. A larger objective enables the optic to gather more light, giving a hunter a clearer brighter image even under low light conditions, but be aware that the quality of the glass and the magnification of the scope will have a much greater effect on the brightness of the image. At higher magnifications less light is gathered, resulting in a darker image. If the game you are hunting is most active in low-light conditions spending your money on a high magnification scope is probably not money well spent.
Many scopes are now available with green or red illuminated reticles. During low light conditions the reticle is also often difficult to see clearly. When the target is in deep cover and long shadows make it difficult to find the crosshairs, an illuminated reticle makes it much easier to see in such conditions. If you want a scope with an illuminated reticle, pay close attention to the levels of intensity available. A reticle that is too bright will bloom and cause glare in low light conditions, but a reticle that is not bright enough will be washed out and difficult to see in full sunlight. Whenever possible, check out the scope before finalizing your purchase. If you are in a retail store, find the darkest corner you can and look through the scope at that area to determine how much detail you can see. Ask the salesperson if you can take it outside to view the illuminated reticle under full sun. Even most online retailers have generous “No-Hassle” return policies that will allow you to test your scope under a variety of lighting conditions before determining whether or not it will meet your needs.
Pay attention to the eye relief that the scope has. For most shooters, 3.5″ of eye relief is the minimum you need to keep from getting hit by the scope under recoil. 4″ of eye relief is a fairly comfortable distance that allows you to mount the scope a bit forward on the receiver and get a good cheek weld. Be wary when a variable magnification scope has a wide range of eye relief listed. This does not necessarily mean that you can comfortably view the scope at any distance in that range, but rather that the optimum eye relief changes over that distance depending on the magnification the scope is set at. A comfortable 4″ eye relief at 3x may turn into an awkward 3″ at 9x magnification. This change in optimal eye relief forces the shooter to break their form to accommodate the variations in eye relief distance at differing magnifications. When considering proper eye relief while mounting a scope you should also be aware of what you will be wearing when shouldering your rifle. Bulky clothing and insulated jackets in cold weather can make the eye relief much longer than you need. Before securing the scope in the rings, rest it lightly in place and shoulder the rifle while wearing the clothing you will be wearing while out hunting. You can then move the scope forward or rearward before securing it in place by tightening down the rings.
What magnification should you get for a hunting scope? The answer is “it depends”, but you probably don’t need as much magnification as you think you do. I’ve seen many hunters take their 3-9x scope out to the field with the zoom cranked all the way up to 9x, only to find that they can’t get the rifle onto the target in time. Even if you do have a deer smack dab in the middle of your crosshairs, at ranges closer than 100 yards all that deer has to do is take a step or two and he’s moved completely out of the field of view. Instead of focusing on the magnification of a scope, pay attention instead to the field of view. Consider the size of your quarry and their movement. For example, if you are hunting deer and know that most of the encounters will be at distances around 100 yards, you’ll be best served by finding a scope with a field of view around 20′ at that range (generally 3x-5x). This will provide you with a wide enough field of view to be able to easily acquire your target and follow it when it moves, while still giving you enough magnification for extremely accurate shot placement.
When shopping for optics, you truly do get what you pay for. I’ve seen many many shooters speak with disgust about the poor quality of the scope they just bought. But when I ask them what their budget is for a replacement scope, they often don’t want to spend more than $100 or so. I’m not going to lie, I’ve been that person before. It didn’t take me long to learn that money spent on a high-quality scope with a lifetime guarantee from a reputable company is money well spent. You will want to spend as much as you can afford on a name-brand high-quality optical system. It’s not unusual to spend as much or more on a high quality scope as you spent on the rifle it rests on. Many people will argue that bargains can be found, and it’s true that they are out there, but they are few and far between. You can get by with a less expensive lower quality piece of glass, but until you’ve peered through a nice (and probably expensive!) multicoated lens system, you’ll never know what you’re missing. Spend a little bit extra to get the better scope and you won’t be left wondering what you could have had if you’d spent a bit more.
Don’t get me wrong here, low cost entry-level scopes definitely have their place. Not everyone can afford to spend over $500 on a nice Leupold, Nikon or Zeiss manufactured scope, and there are some good quality budget model scopes out there. If you’re looking for a quality optic at a bargain price, you can’t go wrong with Redfield scopes. Redfield is Leupold’s economy brand of scopes. The optical quality of these scopes rivals the Leupold line, but they are able to keep costs down by keeping the design simple. There are only eight models in the Redfield line to choose from, but this small lineup helps Leupold to keep costs down by reducing design and tooling expenses while allowing them to focus on quality and consistency. Like Redfield, Bushnell brand scopes has a line of budget model scopes sold under the Simmons line. Though definitely entry level scopes, the Simmons brand still has some scopes that are more than adequate for a target shooter and occasional deer hunter.
You’ve spent good hard earned money on your scope, don’t get stingy when it comes to the mounts. You can get cheap aluminum scope mounts for very little money, but again, you get what you pay for. It doesn’t matter how good your scope is, if your mounts flex and move you’ll never be able to get a good group out of your scope. Steel mounts may be slightly heavier than aluminum mounts, but they are much stronger and more durable. Leupold, Warne, and Weaver solid steel rings and bases are generally accepted as some of the best on the market.
You don’t need to spend thousands of dollars on a scope that will be resting atop your $400 rifle. But at the same time, there’s nothing worse than finding out that your $100 scope didn’t hold a zero when your shot misses that trophy buck. Invest some time and money in finding the right scope for your rifle. Talk to other hunters and shooters and find out what brands they like and which ones they don’t. You’ll find that many of them have been burned when inferior optics let them down. Learn from their mistakes. When you have a quality scope on your favorite hunting rifle you’ll soon find that the money you spent was well worth the trouble and heartbreak you avoid by not having inferior optics ruin the hunt of a lifetime.