When it comes to choosing what optics to put on your new rifle, you have a lot of choices. The first thing that you need to do it ask your self a few questions.
First- What will your primary use for this scope be? Will it be used for hunting, targets, tactical/sniper or a combination of these.
Second- What distances will you be shooting at? Here in central NC you probably won’t use the same hunting scope as someone that lives in the prairie states. In the places I’ve hunted, a 200-300yrd shot is considered long range. For short distances a 1-4x scope is all you need. Where as out to 400-600yrds something up in the 12-16x range might be a better idea.
Third- And probably most importantly, how much are you willing to spend? Optics can easily be the most expensive part of your rifle. If you’re like me and only head to the woods a few times a year, then super high dollar glass might not be such a great idea. But on the other hand if you have a long range target or tactical rifle, you shouldn’t go out and buy a cheap $40 Tasco.
Once you know the usage, that will dictate what kind of scope you should buy. The most common hunting scopes will be a 3-9 power scope. This will give you a good power range, but again, it may not be what is best suited for your needs. If you wanted to take on a small targets at longer ranges like a prairie dog, then a good clear 8.5-25 power scope would be a better option. For set distance bench rest and other long range competitions, a fixed power scope is what’s normally used. Sniper and tactical scopes meet another set of options. These scopes will almost always be variable power. Depending on the range will dictate what power you need. Guys shooting out to 1000yrds with high BC .308s do good with something with 15 or 22 power. The guys shooting .300 WM, .338 Lapua, .50 BMG and other rifles in this class will be best off with optics of 25x or higher. The real benefit to a fixed power is that if you plan on shooting at only one distance, say 300 yards, and only that distance you can sight in your rifle for that and leave it alone. A fixed power can also be good for transitions where if you need to change magnification, it may cause you to loose acquisition of the target. A variable power scope is great for shooting at a wide variety of distances. If you’d be shooting at 75rd, you won’t need the full power of something like a 4-16x especially if your target is moving. That lower the power, the larger the field of view you have. A lot of times, you might need to see whats around the target, not just the target is self. If you transition to a target thats farther out, you will want to dial up the power. Another situation you may run into with long range shot is mirage. Mirage gets a lot worse the higher the power the scope and turning it down will help.
Construction of optics plays a huge part into quality and price. The saying that you get what you pay for absolutely applies here. Most hunting scopes come with a 1″ diameter main tube and this is pretty much standard. The objective lens can have a diameter of anywhere from 32mm to 50mmm on average. The objective lens is what allows more light to enter the scope. This really comes into play when you are in low light conditions. While this is not the only factor that plays into light transfer, it is a major factor. The other being lens clarity. When you compare a $150 3-9×50 to a $2,000 3-9×50 the first thing you will notice is the clarity of what you can see and how much light it transfers. If you’re only hunting during the day in bright conditions, then you may be happy with a lower end scope.
Scope construction changes a lot when you get into tactical and sniper scopes. Most of these scopes feature a 30mm main tube. This allows more elevation adjustment in the scope without having to use angled scope bases. Larger diameter main tubes also make the scopes much more ridged. A lot of the high end Tac scopes are using 34mm and 35mm main tubes. The objective lenses are bigger as well. 50mm and 56mm are the norm. The windage and elevation knobs on these scopes are different as well. On a normal scope you have to unscrew caps to get to the adjustments. The adjustments are usually done with a coin or the rim of a case. On sniper style scopes, the turret knobs are exposed for easy adjustments. These scopes almost always have a convenient focus knob for use in the field as well.
When you get into the topic of reticles, it all comes down to personal preference. There are dozens and dozens of different styles to choose from. Everything from simple crosshairs to very complex systems like the Horus style. For basic big game hunting, your reticle does not need to be complex. With this same topic comes the issue of MOA(minute of angle) vs Mil-radian or Mils. For hunting scopes MOA is probably the best way to go and probably the easiest to use unless you learn Mils first. I won’t get into the deep math but a MOA equals 1.047″ at 100yrs. Double that at 200yrds, triple at 300yrds and so on. Everyone rounds down to an even 1″ per 100yrds. This makes it very simple to use. Most hunting class scopes use a 1/4″ click setup and that it’s default to 100yrds. So when sighting in a rifle, if you are 1″ left at 100yrds then you need to move the reticle 4 clicks to the right. 1″ at 200yrds would be 2 clicks. 1 click equals 1/4″ at 100yrds, 1/2″ at 200, 3/4″ at 300 and so on. This works for elevation and windage. I learned MOA first but as a long range shooter, I have adopted the Mil system. For tactical and sniper rigs this is where Mils really shines. Mils use a system of dots that are integrated into the reticle. They can be used for everything from ranging if you know the size of your target to target size if you know the range. A lot of Mil shooters use a ballistics calculator and can dial in their long range shots with great accuracy.
The last decision and probably the least thought about is focal plane. Scopes are either a first(FFP) or second(SFP) focal plane. Basically this means where in the construction of the scope the reticle is located. FFP scopes have the reticle in the first plane of the scope and second in the second. While that my not make much since, don’t worry too much about it. Every hunting type scope that I know of is a SFP scope as well as 95% or more of scopes on the market. Unless you are using a Mil-dot scope or other ranging type scope, this is something you will never have to worry about. On a SFP scope, the reticle stays the same size throughout the power level adjustment on a variable power scope. On a FFP scope the reticle gets smaller as the power level goes down. The advantage of this over a SFP scope is two fold. First as you adjust the power level down and the object you’re looking at gets smaller, you have less chance of the reticle covering the target. Secondly, a FFP can use its ranging ability throughout the power range of the optics. On SFP scopes the manufacture has set a specific power setting the the ranging works with. This is the highest power on most but not all, so you have to know what you have if this is the type of scope you have.
I hope this shed some light on the different features scope makers offer and steered you in the right direction for your next purchase. If you have any questions about this, please let know.
My next article will be on how to properly sight in your new scope, using only 2 or 3 shots.
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