What's more important? The rifle or the scope?
Choosing and buying a new rifle is a very exciting process. Many people spend months researching a obsessing over the purchase. They do a very detailed analysis of all the different options on the market and generally whittle the list of candidates down to a select few, stew some more, and ultimately make the final decision between finalists, having carefully considered all aspects relating to the purchase and the intended use of the rifle.
They then spend maybe a few hours checking out a few rifle scopes and, for the majority, skimp on the purchase of quality optics. Do not let yourself be that person. Based on the fact that you are here, you are already one step ahead of the majority of folks who leave the process of choosing and purchasing a rifle scope as an afterthought.
It is stated several times throughout the educational resources we have on this site, but cannot be said enough. Investing the time and money on purchasing a quality rifle scope for your rifle is at least, and in my opinion, more important than the purchase of the rifle itself. Most rifle of any quality will at least shoot a consistent pattern. Given this, placing a quality rifle scope on the rifle functions to put that consistent pattern in a precise, repeatable place from shot to shot. Doing the opposite, such as buying a top of the line rifle but a sub-par scope, has the opposite effect. The gun is still shooting consistently, but with a cheap piece of glass, you are unable to get a consistently accurate shot on the target.
So, how does one go about the process of properly researching the rifle scope for their particular needs? That is what the rest of this article is dedicated to.
There are a few important questions that you need to ask yourself at this stage in the process.
- What will be the main purpose of your rifle?
- Hunting whitetails?
- Hunting varmint?
- Long range target shooting?
- In what environments will you be using your rifle?
- Densely forested areas?
- Mountainous areas?
- Open Plains?
- Shooting Range?
- What time of day will you generally be shooting?
- Early morning/dawn?
- Late afternoon/dusk?
- In full daylight?
- All three?
- What is the shooting setup?
- Will you be stationary/moving?
- Will the target be stationary/moving?
What will be the main purpose of the rifle/In What environments will be using your rifle?
These two questions are probably the most important to understand a)the size of the target you are shooting and b) the range at which you typically will be shooting to understand the maximum magnification you need and if variability is needed in your magnification or if a fixed power scope will suffice for your needs.
It is important to know how many different scenarios you plan on using your rifle/scope. Naturally, the more differing scenarios you plan use your rifle in, the more versatile and less specific you will want to configure your setup to. If you really only plan to use this particular rifle and scope for a very specific scenario, you have the opportunity to really get the perfect rifle scope for that one particular application.
We’ll break down several popular scenarios below.
Hunting whitetails in dense forest - Since you will be typically engaging your targets in the 50 yard range, you should consider going with a fixed power rifle scope in the 2.5X-4X range. If you also like to target shoot at 300 yards on occasion, you can go with a variable power scope with 2.5X-10X variable magnification.
Hunting Elk in mountain areas - As there can naturally be a good bit of variability in targeting distance when hunting elk, its best to go with a variable powered rifle scope. While opinions vary on “how much scope is enough”, typically you will want to choose a variable powered scope with 3X-9X or 4X-12X variability. These should give you enough versatility to cover the shots at 50 yards as well as 300 yards or more. As you get up in the magnification range of 10X or more, begin looking for features such as an Adjustable Objective or Side Focus to adjust for parallax error.
Plinking - plinking is the act of just shooting random things for fun, at distances from about 15 yards all the way to a few hundred yards. Many people use high powered air rifles for plinking. First we’ll start off with the fact that if you are primarily plinking, you are probably shooting from as close as 15 yards to up over 100 yards. This scenario dictates that we need to have a rifle scope with an adjustable objective or side focus to allow us to focus in on targets at very close ranges. Most rifle scopes are set with parallax at 100 yards, which when using a high magnification at a target that is at 25 yards, introduces parallax into the scope which needs to be minimized by the means of an adjustable objective or side focus. Many scope manufacturers make rimfire or air rifle specific scopes that a)have parallax set at 60 yards b)adjustable objectives to aid in reducing parallax for high magnification, small range shooting and c)are specifically made to withstand the added stress a spring action air rifle enacts on the rifle scope. Most top quality brands such as Leupold, Zeiss, and Trijicon are built with enough durability out of the box where you wouldn't need to worry about that aspect.
Long Range Target Shooting - Many target shooters prefer fixed power scopes, as they prefer to choose reticles with mil-dots or other features to compensate for distance. Fixed power scopes are, all things equal, more accurate as there is no variability in setup that is introduced with variable power scopes and no parallax error as they are always set for magnification at the same exact range. Due to this, we suggest going with a fixed power scope that meets your needs. This is personal preference, and generally the power you choose will be a correlation to the distance at which you are specializing. The longer the distance, the higher power the magnification. You will want to focus on the choice of the reticle in your rifle scope in this situation and choose one that has mil-dot or other BDC (bullet drop compensation) features to allow you account for changes in distance and elevation.
What time of day will you be using your scope?
This question has all to do with how big of an objective lens you will need and whether or not an Illuminated Reticle is something you should consider. If you are planning on primarily hunting in conditions with full light then the following is not a factor in your decision and you can skip to the next section. However, if you plan on hunting at early dawn or late dusk where daylight is very limited, you are presented with a few options for compensation. One of these options is that of an illuminated reticle. Illuminated reticles make the image seen through the reticle brighter, sometimes by battery, and other by fiber optics and tritium. Often the “crosshair” or image that is part of the reticle is lit up and shining bright to allow the shooter to clearly see the cross-hair on the target. Without the illuminated reticle, this would simply be a black crosshair that in low light, may not be visible as the image of the actual target would be dark as well. Illuminated reticles are expensive features on rifle scopes, and are really only needed if you plan on doing a good bit of shooting in very low light situations, so keep this in mind when deciding whether or not to go in this direction.
If you may find yourself in lower light situations, but do not want to go to the extreme of getting an illuminated reticle, you can focus on the size of the objective lens as a strategy for obtaining a brighter image. As a general rule, the larger the objective lens, the more light that will enter the rifle scope, resulting in a brighter image. The brightness of the image is also affected by age and magnification. As a basic rule your eyes ability to dilate decreases as you get older. This has an impact on what magnification provides you with the brightest image as the older you get, the image is brightest at higher magnifications. In addition, the larger the exit pupil is, the brighter the image is. The size of the exit pupil is result of dividing the objective lens size by the magnification.
Formula for exit pupil size: exit pupil(mm) = objective lens(mm) / magnification
Example: 9X Magnification with 40mm Objective lens = 40/9 = 4.44mm
What is your shooting setup?
For simplicity sake, lets go with shooting from bags or a bipod. For these types of precise shooting situations, weight is really not a factor because you have the luxury of having your rifle resting in place for you. FOV is not really that big of a concern for you because you typically have longer to acquire your target and your gun is naturally steady based on the fact that it is in a fixed resting position, so making slight adjustments to acquire your target does not require a large FOV. Eye relief, however, is still important, especially with more powerful rifles. Eye relief is how far from the end of the eyepiece the exit pupil is visible, still giving you a full FOV. This is important as when the gun kicks, the eye relief is what prevents the rifle scope from hitting the shooter in the face, leaving a nasty gash, known as “scope eye”. The higher powered the rifle, the more eye relief you want. Typically you will want something with 3.5” or more, and even more exaggerated with your longer range, higher powered rifles.
If you are planning on shooting offhand, and with targets that are mobile, then FOV becomes very important as target acquisition will be more difficult with that combination. FOV decreases as magnification increases, which means that at higher magnifications, it will be harder to acquire a moving target as you will be able see a smaller FOV through your scope. This is one of the reasons that we suggest going with a variable power rifle scope of 3X-9X for most hunting situations for whitetails, elk and other game where you are not in a fixed position with the ability to shoot from bags or rests. At this magnification range, you generally have a good FOV that makes target acquisition easier. Weight is also an important consideration when shooting offhand. For obvious reasons, the heavier the scope is, the heavier the overall rifle feels which can fatigue your muscles and cause unsteadiness when aiming at a target. Eye relief is also more important when shooting offhand because it is up your body and posture to absorb the kick of the gun and prevent the scope from hitting you in the face. The same rule applies here, seek to find a rifle scope with around 3.5” or better eye relief.
Once you have waded through all of the information above you are able to whittle down your choices by magnification, variable or fixed, objective lens size, eye relief, whether or not you need an illuminated reticle, adjustable objective or other features. Once you are at this point, it is simply a matter of selecting the scope you prefer that contains your requirements. You can now focus your choice on other factors such as brand, quality, and price.
As far as brand and quality go, there are a bunch of different rifle scope manufacturers out there. There are also a bunch of knock offs from China that have hit the market in the past few years. At Pro Rifle Scope, we only carry quality brands, so you can rest assured that if we have it in our store, then it is a high quality piece of glass that meets our expectations for quality. Obviously, some brands are more widely recognized for their quality than others but as a whole every rifle scope we sell is a quality rifle scope.
You generally pay a premium for quality, and this fact is very true with optics. The rifle scope industry is a very competitive and manufacturers are always squeezing the most features they can into their scopes for the lowest price possible to pass value on to customers. Given this, you can generally expect that an increase in quality and features comes with an increase in price, so if a price for a particular specification seems “too good to be true” compared to other similar scopes with similar features, it probably is, and is probably a lower quality rifle scope. Even so, the law of diminishing returns does come into play at some point. A $2000 rifle scope is not 4 times better than a $500 scope. You need to seriously factor in the difference in features between these two options in a situation like this and determine for yourself what the optimal rifle scope is for your intended use. For most normal hunters, you can get a very good rifle scope in the range of $300 to $1000 that will last you the rest of your life and perform great. A good bit of advice is to overbuy a bit. When you are spending this type of money, it is much cheaper to spend and extra $100 to make sure you are covered for all situations you will be using it for than to realize it doesn't cover your scenario and be left with the proposition of buying another scope with the ability to cover your needs.
Hopefully through this guide and other resources in our library, we have provided you with the necessary information to feel confident in your rifle scope purchase. Please contact us with feedback on this guide to let us know if there are factors you are concerned with that we have not covered.