How-To

How to Choose a Hunting Rifle Scope

Custom big game rifle on a zebra skin rug

I would like to start with a little history of scopes, to level set our understanding. Let’s start with the iron sights that predated scopes. One feature in common among different types of iron sights is that they do not perform any image magnification. Hence, if the user has bad eyesight, or the target is somewhat farther away, they are less effective. The telescopic sight attempts to solve those problems.

The first telescope was invented by a German-Dutchman named Hans Lippershey in the Netherlands in 1608. Later improvements were made by other users, including the famous Italian scientist, Galileo Galilei. Soon after that, telescopes were quickly co-opted for use in warfare, for tasks such as observing enemy formations, determining where artillery shells are falling, observing enemy ships, etc.

Ed LaPorta shooting a 6mm-284 rifle on a prairie dog hunt
A custom varmint rifle in 6mm-284 set up for long-range prairie dog shooting on the Montana Plains.

It is, therefore, very surprising to discover that telescopic sights weren’t used on firearms for a very long time. In fact, the first mention of a telescope as a firearm’s sight occurred around 1835–1840. That was almost 230 years after the telescope was invented.

The first mention of telescopic sights was by John Chapman in the book The Improved American Rifle, published in 1844. The author mentions that he was a civil engineer by training and had given Morgan James of Utica, NY, the concepts and part of the design for a sight that James had built for him. Thus, the Chapman-James sight was the first known telescopic sight designed for firearms.

Later improvements were made in 1855 by William Malcolm of Syracuse, NY, who learned how to work with optics from a telescope maker. Such sights were in use during the American Civil War. The first telescopic sight that worked well enough for practical use, was invented in 1880 by one August Fiedler from the town of Stronsdorf, Austria, who worked as a forestry commissioner for a Prince.

There were other improvements made by various parties and soon, an Austrian firm named Kahles started factory production, thereby becoming the oldest known manufacturer of rifle scopes. So, it was not until 1900 that the popularity of telescopic sights really caught on. The Kahles Company is still around as a division of the Swarovski group (the same people known for making Swarovski crystal jewelry and chandeliers) and is still making quality rifle scopes today.

Telescopic sights are of two basic types: fixed magnification and variable magnification. Variable magnification scopes can change their magnification via a zoom control and therefore adjust to varying ranges and light conditions.

three types of crosshairs for a riflescope
Some classic reticles from left to right, Fine Crosshair, Duplex reticle, and Mil-Dot reticle.

Telescopic sights usually have reticles to make aiming more precise. The classic reticle one sees in movies is generally the fine crosshair-type shown in an included illustration. It must be noted that while fine lines are suitable for precision aiming, they generally tend to get lost in complex backgrounds.

Thicker lines are more visible against busy backgrounds, but they lose some of the precision. Hence, modern scopes use a mixture of both, (i.e.) thicker lines towards the outside and thin lines towards the center of the scope. Examples would be the Duplex Crosshair, Mil-Dot, and Modern Rangefinding reticles.

Scope Dope

There has been a tremendous amount of innovation and improvements around optics for rifles during the years that I have been shooting and hunting. Despite all the information available, I still find a tremendous amount of misinformation. Several students have come to me and expressed a desire to learn how to hunt. Almost none had a clue about where to start, especially regarding which rifle to choose and the type of sight it should carry.

Ed LaPorta posing with a trophy pronghorn
A record book class Antelope taken at 400 yards using a Ruger No.1 chambered in .25-06. The Scope: A Leupold VX III 3.5x10x50.

Most want a very high magnification because they get sucked in by the popularity of long-range shooting. Following the hype, they want that same equipment. When I explain that for most hunting situations that is the wrong type of optic, they question me. I try to explain that they first need to learn how to shoot and by going to a school that costs $20,000 for a week, so you can hit a target at 2 miles is not learning how to shoot. Of course, they don’t believe me.

Most hunters are just average shots, and anything past 100 yards is problematic. A small percentile can hit at 200 and very few at 300. The very few that can hit game at any distance beyond that reliably are far and few between. That is why when hunting medium to large game, I recommend a lower-powered scope, or a variable with a lower power in comparison to a Varmint or Military Scope.

Low-powered scopes are generally smaller and lighter. At traditional hunting shot distances, low-magnification riflescopes are more than adequate. The average hunter will never (ethically) need to shoot over 200 yards. Very few shooters and hunters have the capabilities to hit game at 300 yards or more.

2-power Kahles scope
A fixed, 2-power Kahles scope in quick detach Griffen & Howe rings that go on and off a .416 Rigby and back to zero every time.

I personally do not advocate anyone to take a shot much over 200 yards at game unless they have a proven documented record of having done so on paper targets first. If you see a decent eight-pointer at 500 yards, let him walk because you don’t want to take a chance at wounding him.

For hunting riflescopes, the most powerful scope I recommend having mounted on a rifle is a 4.5×14. Most medium to big game rifles have a 2×7, 3×9, 3.5×10, or 4×12. The truth is, most shots are taken with the scope set at its lowest power and that is how the scope should be set. If the need to take a follow-up shot presents itself, then you have the field of view to find the animal again.

If time presents itself, the power can be adjusted up for a more accurate first-shot placement. Remember, the first rule of shooting is that your rifle and ammo combination can only shoot as well as you can see. I would recommend selecting a top-of-the-line scope and a mid-grade rifle. The reason for that is scope manufacturers must select a priority between color, resolution, and light transmission. They coat and grind their lenses to meet that choice, or they take an average and compromise.

You can select a scope for a super-sharp image. However, you’ll wind up with lower light transmission or color resolution. Adjustable parallax is a feature you might want to consider in a scope. Adjustable parallax allows the scope to be accurately focused at various distances.

Reticles

What’s the difference between a front focal plane (1st focal plane) reticle and a rear focal plane (2nd focal plane) reticle? Most riflescopes utilize a rear focal plane reticle design, creating a situation where the apparent size of the reticle does not change as the magnification is adjusted. In these scopes, the amount of target area covered by the reticle is inversely proportional to magnification; as the magnification is increased, the amount of target area covered by the reticle is decreased.

adjustable objective on a Leupold VX III 3.5x10x50 riflescope
The adjustable objective on a Leupold VX III 3.5x10x50.

This can be seen by looking through a variable magnification scope and increasing the magnification setting. As the power is increased, the apparent size of the target is increased, but the reticle appears to remain the same size. The result is a reticle that covers less of the target when the magnification is increased. My personal preference is for this type of reticle on the second focal plane.

Front Focal Plane Reticles (1st Focal Plane)

Many tactical groups prefer front focal plane designs because common tactical reticles serve a dual purpose as a point of aim and a means of measurement. Reticles such as the mil-dot are based on a specific subtension and require exact spacing to be accurate. If this type of reticle is used in a rear focal plane design, the scope must be used on a single, specific magnification (typically high power) to work.

Placing this type of reticle in a front focal plane design allows the operator to use the scope on any magnification while retaining the exact spacing of the reticle features. If you have trained on mil-dot type reticles, you might prefer those. A bullet drop compensator (BDC) reticle may not be a bad idea for some types of hunting, but I don’t think it necessary or practical for most hunting.

Magnification adjustment ring on a rifle scope
The magnification power ring on a Leupold VX III rifle scope.

If you chose a BDC reticle, ensure you’ve shot your rifle at the ranges represented. A BDC reticle is set under SAAMI specs for a particular bullet at a certain velocity. Keep in mind that your choice of bullet, powder, ammo, rifle type, barrel length, and environment will change what your bullet does.

Additionally, the conditions on the day when you zeroed at 100 yards will also change what your bullet does. You need to know what the BDC will actually shoot at various distances with the same elevation and temperatures that you will find when you are hunting.

Rear Focal Plane Reticles (2nd Focal Plane)

In general, hunting scopes are designed with rear focal plane reticles and are again my preference. This allows the reticle to appear bolder and heavier when set to low magnification but appear thinner. Likewise, it appears more precise when set to high magnification. I carry my variable magnification scopes, and recommend others do the same, set at the lowest level of magnification for general carry situations. I reduce magnification in low light or heavy cover situations and increase magnification when the situation allows for longer, more precise shot placement.

3 examples of riflescope reticles
The sub-tense of the reticle can be used in a variety of ways according to the shooter’s needs.

Rear focal plane designs allow the reticle to appear bolder in low light. This makes them easy to see and faster to acquire when the light is fading. This same property is advantageous in situations where heavy cover may be encountered, allowing easy differentiation between the reticle and vegetation. If a longer distance shot is to be taken, the magnification can be increased. This will create a situation where the reticle covers less of the target, allowing the user to be more precise.

If a front focal design were used, hunters would notice that in low-light or heavy-cover situations, the reticle would become much smaller and more difficult to see on low magnification — right when they need the reticle to be bold and easy to acquire.

I do not advise using the scope’s internal adjustments for elevation and windage compensation when hunting. I prefer to use Kentucky windage because you don’t have time in the field to mess with click adjustments. Additionally, not all scopes give true, repeatable scope adjustments. Until you have manipulated your scope’s adjustments — to move your projectile’s impact — don’t assume that it will move the same as the value-per-click states it should or what the scope turret reads.

Shoot and adjust your scope so you actually know the click value. Just because you have two scopes that look identical, does not mean they are calibrated the same. They were most likely made by different people on different machines.

AR-15 rifle with a riflescope
A truly good scope is crucial to success, and “truly good” isn’t just how much magnification it has. It’s in the precision of the sight movements.

Get to know your scope intimately. The vast majority of shots on game are cold-bore shots. On average, most game is killed on opening day when the temperature is more than 20 degrees colder than when the rifle was sighted. When sighting in hunting rifles, especially the ones with lighter-weight barrels, ensure the time between shots is at least 20 minutes apart or the barrel is cold to the touch. I recommend five-shot groups. Let the barrel cool. You’ll want to control all variables for consistency. Also, the more you heat the barrel, the faster you will erode the throat.

Mounting Optics

If you had a classic car that took a lot of time to restore and cost a lot of money, would you put it on a trailer made to transport that particular vehicle to a car show? Or, would you hook it to your tow vehicle with bailing wire? The same thing goes with connecting a quality optic to a quality rifle.

There are various manufacturers that build great rings and mounts that don’t cost that much. However, in general, you get what you pay for. Quality machined mounts are a must. If you’ve got a $2,000 rifle and a $2,000 scope, you are justified to spend $200 on rings and mounts.

You will not normally want quick-detach mounts, because that’s just one more mechanism that could fail. However, the fastest way to replace a damaged scope in the field during that high-priced trophy hunt with the least amount of fuss is with, you guessed it… QDs. That said, get the highest quality available.

wood stock rifle with riflescope
A very strong, one-piece base with rings that mount the scope low over the bore.

When attaching bases, be sure to clean the top of your rifle and use Loctite to secure your bases. Using Loctite to secure scope rings is not needed. Be sure to torque the screws properly. Your scope should be set up, so you bring the rifle to you and not where you need to bring your head to the scope.

Remember, comfort equals accuracy. Mount the rifle to your shoulder with your eyes closed. The scope should be aligned to give maximum field of view when you open your eyes.

I hope this provides a better understanding of optics that you might install on your hunting rifles.

What is your go-to hunting rifle scope? Has it changed over the years? Let us know in the comments.

The Mission of Cheaper Than Dirt!'s blog, The Shooter's Log, is to provide information—not opinions—to our customers and the shooting community. We want you, our readers, to be able to make informed decisions. The information provided here does not represent the views of Cheaper Than Dirt!

Comments (2)

  1. I like the suggestions here and I wanted more information on the 2nd focal plane which is very detailed. With a broad selection of scopes appropriate for different hunting scenarios, Vortex has established a solid reputation for producing high-quality optics. Their robustness, transparent glass, and assortment of reticle choices are well-known attributes. Vortex rifle scopes offer a variety of alternatives to suit your demands, be it long-range shooting, big game hunting, or varmint hunting. I think the list somewhere misses that otherwise the post is highly informative and useful.

  2. Excellent article. I have several scoped hunting rifles. I’ve found that while the early 2000s vintage Bushnell Trophy scopes work just fine for most situations, the optical clarity of a quality Leupold VXIII or Zeiss Conquest was worth the extra money. I’m not in a position to pay for a Swarovski or German-made Zeiss scope, but if I was, I’d get them, and also would get binoculars made by those firms. The glass quality and the coatings they use do indeed make a difference, especially as our eyes grow old with us. I myself prefer the dove tail mounts to the Weaver mounts, but I have examples of both. Ruger and CZ sell proprietary mounts which I have found to be quite satisfactory for my modest requirements (200 yard shooting is where I draw the line, I am no sniper). I tired looking through cheaper scopes in years past and they just didn’t measure up in terms of light transmission, distortion at the edges, that sort of thing, but in the last month for a lark, I bought a $40 Simmons 4x fixed scope to put on an old milsurp beater rifle that Bubba hissownself must have sporterized back in the day, and I was pleasantly surprised to find that even cheap scopes these days are far better than when I started shooting in the late 1970s and early 1980s. If all one can afford is a cheap scope, as opposed to nothing at all, it’s probably better than nothing, although I myself would prefer to save my money toward something better. For most of us who want to chase a deer or a hog, or maybe just punch holes in paper at the range, the 2-7x or 3-9x variables are just right. Again, great article!

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