Optics are my kryptonite. They are far and away the one piece of gear that I buy and sell the most. I’m not sure what it is, but finding the best possible optic in a given price range is extremely satisfying.
A couple years ago I just bought whatever was top of the line but now that we have two children in the mix getting the most for our dollar outweighs having the absolute best.
Rifle Scope Basics
Rifle scope aren’t what they were 30 years ago. The differences between hunting rifle scopes and long range (tactical) style scopes have grown immensely. These optics can range in weight from 12oz all the way to 48oz. They can have features such as reticle illumination or first focal plane reticles. They range in price from sub $100 to over $6k. These are all things that must be considered when purchasing a rifle scope as making the wrong choice can be detrimental to your enjoyment and use of that particular rifle.
Hunting Rifle Scopes
Nothing can ruin a hunt quicker than not trusting if your scope can hold zero after being bumped or dropped. As we all know, anything can happen when out hunting. Here are the top things to consider when looking for a hunting rifle scope.
- Reliability: If your scope cannot hold zero then it has no business being out in the field. When hunting, everything form that nasty washboard dirt road to that slip and fall can be detrimental to a cheap scope. With how much money we spend hunting can we really afford for a cheap scope to fail when it really counts?
- Low light capability: Anyone who has gone hunting knows your best chance for success is early in the morning or late in the evening. If your hunting scope cannot give you a clear picture of that trophy during the morning or near twilight it could cost you filling the freezer.
- Lightweight: Out west we have to do a lot of hiking. This is typically with a tripod, binoculars, spotting scope, enough water and food for the day and other miscellaneous small things. Making our rifle any heavier than it needs to be is not something I want to do, nor should you. Typically when shopping for a hunting scope weight is pretty even across the board among the cheaper and more expensive scopes. The balancing act starts when you are wanting to run a long range type scope for some long range hunting. More on that later.
Long Range Scopes
This is probably the area that I have the most experience in. I have been shooting long range since 2009 and shooting long range competitively since 2013. I have used or owned most mid range to high end long range scopes and have seen what works and what does not.
What makes a scope a long range scope?
I see this all the time on the forums. ‘Ol timers making fun of the terms ‘tactical’ and ‘long range scopes’. Saying all they needed was a 3-9 Redfield to make a 1k shot back in the day. While that is certainly possible, we are lucky enough today to have optics that are specifically designed for long range or dare I say ‘tactical’ style shooting.
What makes a scope a long range scope is its ability to allow the user to easily compensate for variable wind and distances. Features such as exposed and adjustable turrets, reticles with mil, moa or bdc type measurements, and repeatability in those adjustments.
Mils or MOA?
I see this question all the time. The short answer is Mils. The long answer is whatever you are comfortable with.
Honestly, this is a pretty personal choice. I prefer Mils as my unit of measurement when dealing with distance shooting. I find the smaller numbers easier to work with and having everything base 10 (most mil scopes have .1 mil adjustments) doesn’t hurt either. Most importantly though is I find that almost everyone at competitions are running mils as well. This is helpful because when sharing data and spotting for others calls are usually done in that unit of measure, i.e. ‘You are .4 mils left!’.
You can certainly convert that information to mils and get on with your day but why would you? Why not just shoot in the unit of measure that everyone else is?
FFP or SFP?
Another big decision to make when buying a long range scope is what style of reticle to go with, second focal plane (SFP) or first focal plane (FFP). Lucky for us this decision isn’t near as polarizing as if you should go mils or moa.
Benefits of FFP
Where FFP reticles are going to shine is when you need to engage targets at multiple distances in a quick manner at any power range. The any power range is what is important here. FFP allows a user to have correct sub tensions on their reticle no matter what power setting they are at. For example, that mil hash mark on your scope is always a mil. Even though the reticle appears to grow and shrink with magnification change, that mil hash still measures a true mil. This is important for fast target acquisitions at distances that might require hold-overs.
Downsides of FFP
FFP sounds pretty good right? Why go SFP when FFP allows the most accurate use of your reticle at any power range? Unfortunately having a FFP reticle does have some downsides. For one, the reticle on lower power settings can get quite small. On some scopes it is downright unusable. This has the opposite effect on the high end. Sometimes the reticle can appear to be too thick for precision work.
Benefits of SFP
Where an SFP scope shines is precision and low light hunting work. If you look down the line at a local F class match almost everyone is using ultra high powered SFP scopes. They do this because the reticle is a fixed width, which means at higher powers the reticle does not appear to take up a lot of space on the target.
Hunters also find SFP scopes beneficial. I should specify that with ‘close range’ hunters find it beneficial. When dealing with low light and sub 300 yard shots, the reticle is easier to see when it stays the same thickness at lower powers.
Downsides of SFP
The downsides of SFP rifle scopes is the reticle typically only measures true at one magnification range. For example, that mil hash on your reticle may only measure a true mil at 20x on a 5-20x scope. Obviously if at a lower power one needs to be careful on elevation and windage hold overs using the reticle as that mil mark is no longer a true mil.
For close range hunters and target shooters this isn’t a big deal. Either because the animal is close enough that no holdover needs to happen or the target is at a static distance that allows the user to use maximum magnification power.
Long Range Hunting Scopes
When looking for a long range hunting scope you typically looking for the features of a long range scope with the weight of a hunting rifle scope. This is a very difficult problem to solve without throwing a lot of money at it. Here are the top things most hunters want in a long range hunting scope:
- Exposed elevation turret
- Elevation turret with zero stop
- Capped windage turret
- Light weight
Exposed elevation turrets are nice so the user can have quick access to adjusting for range on a shot. The zero stop on that elevation turret is invaluable as you pack that rifle in the elevation turret may get spun around either by your pack, tree limbs etc. The zero stop allows you to always know what revelation your actual zero is on.
Most long range shooters do not bother with dialing windage on their scope since its so variable and can change in a split second. Having a capped windage protects you from inadvertent windage adjustments when hiking in.
Hunts out west tend to have lots of hiking. After packing a Vortex Gen 2 Razor around for a season (superb scope, btw) I swore off hefting around a 48oz scope and wanted to go to something at least half the weight. Unfortunately that leaves few options that fit most of the above criteria, NF 2.5-10×42, Leupold Mark 6 3-18×44, March 3-24, Vortex Viper HST amongst very few others.
As with most with every other scope, long range hunting scopes must be repeatable in their adjustments and able to hold zero when things get rough.
Rangefinders work by reflecting a laser off an object and measuring how long it takes to receive a return signal.
Here are some rangefinder basics
- Beam divergence
- Angle compensation
Know what you are going to use the rangefinder for. Are you an archer who is going to keep it in your shirt pocket or a shooter that doesn’t mind keeping it in your pack or on your hip? This alone will dictate the size of rangefinder you need to have.
Are you going to be shooting extreme distances in competition or hunting scenarios? Having a small beam divergence would probably be something you would want. Beam divergence is how wide and tall the laser is that comes out of your rangefinder. This is important because if you are trying to range a deer between two bushes, larger lasers may get ‘caught up’ on branches from those bushes and not return you a true measurement of said deer.
Obviously any expensive electronics need to be taken care of. When out shooting or hunting sometimes you don’t have the luxury of shelter when it starts to rain. Getting a rangefinder that is water resistant or waterproof is extremely important so you don’t miss out on being able to take that late afternoon shot after the clouds break.
Angle compensation is one of the most underrated features of modern range finders. Getting true distance measurements when in a tree stand or an extreme incline/decline is paramount to being able to take an accurate shot. Be aware, some rangefinders do not compensate of angle under 100 yards and some do not do it over 300 yards.
Rangefinder Binocular Basics
For the western hunter, rangefinder binoculars combine a hunters most used piece of equipment (binoculars) with the utility of the rangefinder.
Here are some rangefinder binocular basics:
- Glass quality
- Beam divergence
Most rangefinder binoculars are similar size to their non-rangefinder counterparts. So for most this is a non issue. You can however, get into some of the more extreme military based models that have great rangefinding capabilities but come at the price of more $$$ and more weight.
Lower end rangefinder binoculars give up some glass quality to similarly priced units that lack a built in rangefinder (i.e. Bushnell’s fusion). For some, it’s a worthwhile trade off, for others that spend hours behind their binoculars it’s simply not an option. Luckily, all the higher end models give up nothing to their counterparts.
All the high end models have excellent beam divergence, some lower end models can have trouble giving a true range off game if trees and bushes are partially blocking its path.
Even low end rangefinder binoculars are very pricey. We simply cannot afford for the piece of equipment we are most reliant on to make a shot to go down when the weather gets nasty. All of the rangefinder binoculars that I’m aware of have some degree of weatherproofing.
Rangefinder binoculars are very complicated pieces of equipment and cannot just be dropped off at the local gunsmith for fixing like a old rifle or bow can. Most companies carry a minimum of a 3 year warranty on electronic gear. Many go up to 5 years and beyond. If you are the type that buys once and plans on using that unit for many years to come it is extremely important to buy a unit with a long warranty.
Tripods are not one of the sexy pieces of gear everyone loves to throw money at. I like to think of tripods like a good set of tires. Nobody wants to buy tires but a good set can last a long time, give your vehicle great stability and allow it to perform at it’s full potential.
Same goes for spotting scopes. If you buy an expensive rifle, spotting scope and/or binoculars and pair them up with a crappy tripod their performance is going to suffer.
Generally tripod components are separated into three categories: legs, leg locks and the head.
Tripod Legs: Tripod Legs typically vary between two different materials: Carbon fibre and aluminum. Aluminum is usually used in tripod legs to reduce cost. Aluminum is known for being relatively cheap, light weight and rigid. Carbon fibre is usually used for tripod legs when light weight and rigidity is required no matter the cost.
Tripod Leg Locks: Leg Locks typically are either twist lock or flip lever. Twist lock is more popular on higher end tripods as its usually quicker especially now that some manufactures have introduced 1/4 turn locking legs. Flip lever locks are tried and true and are usually found on cheaper tripods or massive tripods meant for commercial grade video cameras.
Tripod Heads: are usually machined or cast molded. The head of the tripod is where all the legs and bits connect into. It typically houses the mechanisms that lock how far or in the legs can go. Tripod heads take on lots of stress so its important to get the correct type for the job. All are going to be metal outside of the cheapest heads and a couple that are made from carbon fibre. Generally machined is stronger than molded metal because of the manufacturing process.
Most of these optics reviews will focus around price points and certain disciplines. Hopefully you find them useful!
- Best AR 15 Scope Mount
- Best AR 15 Scope Under 200
- Best Long Range Scope Under 1000
- Best Rangefinder Binoculars for Hunting
- Best Value Rangefinder for Hunting
- The Best Affordable Red Dot Sight
- Best Scope Mounting Kit
- Best Spotting Scope Tripods for Hunting
- Best scope for 300 win mag
- Best scope for the 17hmr
- Best 1-6 Scopes
- Best 1-4 Scopes
- Best 1-8 Scopes