Buying a Riflescope
Rifle optics remain one of the fastest growing markets. Dozens of very good scopes are available for every segment of the firearms industry. Variable magnification from low to high, reticles from clear to complicated, short, compact, long, large and small you name it. The real question is no longer can I get it, but will it work, and more importantly will it work in my conditions. Lots of scopes look great at the store, problem is that’s not where they get used.
What do I need?
Quality optics are not cheap, you want what you need without paying for something you don’t. The list of features grows longer each year, scopes perform functions only dreamed of years ago. Reticles range from simple dots on a stick to complicated computers in your glass. Turrets are small, large, flat, short or tall using different measurements. Field of view can take in a hillside or focus on the smallest of features. They will focus on high magnification at 20 yards or extended range. Tube sizes vary and materials can make them light, or as heavy as the rifles they sit on. Everything matters to someone, it just may not be you.
Power is everything, or is it?
Magnification is fantastic, the older I get the more need. High magnification optics can look awesome at the store and be useless on a bright sunny day or looking into the sun. Do you need to see things at distance or identify critical features up close? As a police sniper I valued clarity on higher magnification at 50 yards far more than spotting things at 1000 yards. My current Desert Tech SRS A2 uses a Bushnell Elite Tactical DMR2 at 3-25 power. Plenty of magnification without the extra length and crystal clear glass. PRS competitors will often use larger scopes with greater magnification. Rimfire precision rifle competitors need clarity at very close ranges. Parallax adjustment varies and your ability to use it degrades with age. Things that were crystal clear in my 40’s at 800 yards aren’t any more. If the closest you shoot something is 800 yards then choose accordingly, if that number is 300 yards the need is different, past a mile different still. Make sure it works under conditions you will see and try it. Extra magnification costs money and turn a handy hunting carbine into a colossal pig. At the same time a compact scope that’s hazy may be useless at 1500 yards, you can’t hit what you cannot see. Get what you need and will use, maybe a tad more, and make sure it does what you think it will outside the store.
Reticles range from clear and simple to precision instruments. Just remember things that look great on paper may not translate for you, your gun, and what you shoot. Find someone that has it and try it, don’t assume it will work for you. The Horus T3 reticle on my AE’s are perfect for me, never touch the turrets. Gets on realistic targets to 800 yards with ease. No rangefinders, math, or knob turning. Others look at it and shake their heads, try it and hate it, too cluttered. Similar reticles work the same, try those. Shooting long range where adding a tenth of a mill precise measurements are better. Hunting at 200 yards and closer keep it simple. Use the same cartridge or hand load and a BDC (Bullet Drop Compensating) reticle is great, otherwise they are a complete pain, can they work sure, but it almost defeats the purpose. The best reticle on the planet is useless if it won’t do what you want or you hate using it.
The world isn’t all sunshine and rainbows!
Every optic says its fog proof, not true. They generally won’t fog up from the inside, most will on the outside. The only way to find out is to use it in the fog and yes some are better than others, price notwithstanding. Could be the coating, the glass, how close it is to the outside air, but they are different. Go from the heated car to sub-zero weather and things can surprise you. Never shoot when it’s cold no problem, but if you work, hunt, or compete in cold weather you need to test your optic in the same conditions. Hot weather presents its own issues with moisture build up going from the air conditioned car, bag, or rack into the 100 degree heat. Live in a desert not always an issue, Florida where 60% humidity is “bone dry” and things change. Test your scope on your rifle in the conditions it will be used, it’s the only way to truly know how it will perform. Stepping out of the car to engage a threat only to pull up a fogged up scope is not a good feeling, trust me!
I am constantly amazed at those who prepare for a hunt that will occur at dawn or dusk by practicing at noon. Brilliantly bright scopes at noon can flat out suck in low light. In fact, many companies coat their lenses to look best in daylight or in the store since that’s where most get tested (and purchased). Attending a Leupold Optics Academy class we looked at a dozen different scopes during the day then dawn and dusk, the differences were astounding. Some high end optics excelled at dawn, others not so much. You just don’t know until you try. If you hunt, deploy, practice, or compete in the wee hours of the morning or just before dark you need to check in those conditions. Same with Night Vison optics that clip on to your daylight scope. There can be a huge difference in clarity, the most important factor. Only the most costly NV (thermal or standard) is clear at magnifications much past 6 power, but how focused and fuzzy they are at low power varies a ton and you will not know until you try it.
How tough is tough?
The original owner of U.S. Optics used to throw his scopes across the asphalt parking lot then put them on the rifle and demonstrate no change in zero. Pretty cool stuff, unless you never throw your scope across the room, drop it off a cliff, or drive over it with a truck. Some may need that, deploying police snipers, the military or similar, most do not. You pay for that in weight and cost, maybe even size. Nightforce’s 1-8x ATACR is a perfect example. It’s the most rugged and versatile 1-8 power scope I have ever used or tested, it’s amazing. You probably could drop it on the rocks, pick it up and maintain zero. It’s almost $1200.00 more and half a pound heavier than the NX8 version. If you need that fine, if not save the money. On the other hand the best scope on the planet that breaks falling over on the ground is useless. Match your needs, if your life depends on it make sure it will hold up to what you actually do, if that’s move your rifle from the trunk to the bench and back no worries. Dragging it along the ridge on that lifetime hunt may be different, just be honest with yourself and test it.
Bigger is better!
Increased tube size can add strength and technically light gathering. Generally it adds available elevation and wind adjustments. But bigger does not always fit on your rifle, and adding height to the rings can cause all kinds of issues. Long range precision rifles are a bit different, but stacking a long, heavy, and big scope on a hunting rifle can cause more issues than it solves. If you mount that short range spotter to your rifle make sure to get it on the range and determine if you can actually see anything from positions you use and it can be zeroed.
Zero, who needs it?
Zeroing at the counter with a collimator is not a zero, at best it gets you on paper at 100 yards. You have to shoot it in the conditions you will use it. That first round down range on a threat or game animal should not be your test. Scopes can and do break and zeroes can shift with magnification. Some companies even have “acceptable” levels of shift. That first shot should go where aimed no matter the magnification. The only way to know is to shoot your rifle and scope on paper or steel. Test it on the magnification you will use in the conditions you will encounter. If you are traveling, check it upon arrival. This is not something you “ball park”.
The gun industry is a feature driven market. Practicality, usability and value are not always at the fore. Cool stuff sells and it’s way too easy to fall into the “latest greatest” trap. It may be perfect for some, just not you, the only way to know is to be honest about what you need and test what you buy in the conditions you will use it. It will pay off in the long run, maybe even in the short term and it will do nothing but add to the enjoyment of using your optic, the whole reason you bought it in the first place.