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Choosing the Right Riflescope

Choosing the Right Riflescope

Someone recently asked me to write a blog on selecting the correct riflescope.  In the words of a friend who happens to be a Green Beret, “Mission drives the gear.”

But before we dive into that, let me tell you a story.  This was back when I was young and dumb… and depending who you ask, the latter hasn’t changed.   

I started saving for my first “long range” rifle when I was 16 years old.  After two years of shoveling cow crap at the neighbor’s dairy farm, I had enough money.  And more importantly, I was old enough to buy the gun without having Dad sign for it.  In hindsight, Dad probably would’ve saved me the trouble of buying the wrong tool for the task.  But, you know how that goes.

Two days after my 18th birthday, I strutted into the gun shop with my chest puffed out and my wallet bulging at the seams, picked out a Bushmaster Varminter and proceeded to tell the sales associate that I was going to kill groundhogs at 800 yards.  The smirk never left his face as he helped me fill out the paperwork. 

Now, nobody ever told me that an AR-15 - even one with a heavy barrel and free-floating hand rail - is nothing but a lead hose.  I’m sure Dad did at some point, but you know that goes.  Don’t get me wrong, modern sporting rifles have their place, but long range shooting ain’t it.  But that, my friends, is another blog topic.  I digress.

After signing on the dotted line for my super-cool black rifle, Mr. Helpful took me over to the scope case.  He pulled out a tactical long range scope.  It was Bushnell’s precursor to the Elite Tactical 3.5-21x50, which wouldn’t be my pick today, though not a bad piece of glass.  But selling that scope to 18-year-old me was like giving an electron microscope to a 4th grader to use on his science fair project.

I’ll tell you what though, it sure did look nifty!  It had cool, clicky turrets that let you easily move the crosshairs, and special dots on the reticle!  Mil what?

For long range shooting, it was the right scope, on the wrong gun, with a Noob at the trigger. 

Mission drives the gear

Back to the topic at hand…. What scope should you buy?

There’s a lot to think about.  The best answer is:  “It depends.” It depends entirely on what you want to do with that specific rifle.  For the purpose of this article, I just want to discuss magnification, light absorption, weight, and the ability to adjust for POI (point of impact). 

That said, let’s get the topic of price out of the way.  You usually get what you pay for, and you need to decide what level of fit and finish you’re willing to settle for.  A good rule of thumb is to spend the same amount of money on the scope as you do on the rifle.  If you do, you probably won’t be disappointed.  There’s quite a bit of variation in price when you’re talking about quality optics, as this Zeiss and this Hensoldt illustrate. 

Magnification: Do you want to identify it, or count whiskers?

This is arguably the biggest factor.  When picking a magnification, you should ask yourself two things:  How far will I be shooting, and what’s the size of the target. 

If you’re driving bear in mountain laurel with a 45-70, you’re not going to pick a big-magnification scope like the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27, and if you’re headed to a prairie dog shoot in Colorado, the Vortex Viper HS 2.5-10x44 won’t zoom you in quite far enough.  That said, both are outstanding optics at reasonable prices.

As a matter of fact, that Razor will probably be my next scope.  The quality, clarity and range of magnification (all the way from 4.5 to 27), in addition to the VIP lifetime warranty have pretty much won me over from Nightforce.  And that’s saying something, because Nightforce makes phenomenal optics.

But there are less obvious examples than black bear and prairie dogs.  I’ve spoken with many big game guides in Alaska that will only carry the very smallest scopes, and not just because of weight.  Even if they’re hunting black-tailed deer, some Alaskans refuse to carry anything larger than a Leupold VX-31 1.5x20 or Vortex Viper PST 1-4x24With the ever-present risk of being charged by a brown bear, they want low magnification and a wide-open field of view for an instantaneous, close-up shot in self-defense. 

And a first-hand account of that terrifying situation is a blog topic for the near future.   (Here’s the hide to prove it) 

When bush pilot Guff Sherman was 25 years old, he killed this Kenai Peninsula brown bear as it attacked him. The bear was 28 years old, and the average brown bear lives to 12 years. The skull scores 26.25" and the hide squares out to 9-foot, 3-inches.

When bush pilot Guff Sherman was 25 years old, he killed this Kenai Peninsula brown bear as it attacked him. The bear was 28 years old, and the average brown bear lives to 12 years. The skull scores 26.25" and the hide squares out to 9-foot, 3-inches.

With tens of millions of registered deer hunters in the country, there’s always the need for a solid 3-9x or 4-16x like the Leupold VX-2 4-16x or the Vortex Viper HS.  These tried-and-true magnification ranges are great for all-purpose deer rifles in every state east of the Mississippi.

Light absorption: You can’t shoot that which you can’t see.

The amount of light a scope lets in will dictate its performance in twilight.  And since big game is often harvested early in the morning or right before dusk, light absorption is a big factor.

As a scope’s magnification increases, the amount of light it permits decreases.  Variable-power scopes perform better at low magnification than at high magnification.  For example, a 3-9x optic well be brighter at 3x than at 9x. 

Objective size, which refers to the scope’s front lens size, has the most bearing on light absorption.  The bigger it is, the more light can pass through the scope’s body tube and to your eye.  This is why most high-power, long range scopes have a big objective, often 50 or 56 mm, and even up to 72, like this Zeiss Victory Diavari.  It’s the same reason that low-magnification scopes like the Vortex Viper PST 1-4x24 can “get away with” a much smaller objective lens. 

Glass quality is major consideration, too.  Great glass lets more light pass through the optic than cheap glass.  This is especially noticeable in spotting scopes, where magnification is often 60x.

And don’t forget body tube diameter.  Many hunting scopes feature a one-inch tube, though the larger, 30mm has gained a lot of popularity on higher magnification optics.  And even larger tubes are showing up on high-end tactical riflescopes, like the Vortex Razor HD Gen II, Schmidt Bender PMII and Nightforce ATACR, which all feature a 34mm tube. 

Much like front objective size, the bigger the tube, the more light it soaks up.  But comparing tubes isn’t always apples to apples, because scopes have in interior and an exterior tube.  If the manufacturer increases the size of the exterior tube without increasing the size of the internal tube, nothing is gained but bulk and weight.

On a side note, the larger the tube, the more “internal adjustment” - or reticle travel – the optic provides.  And that leads us into our next consideration…Adjusting for POI.

Adjustments, rather than holdover

Some scopes are available with BDC (bullet drop compensating) reticles, or crosshairs.  Others come with MOA or Mil markings that accomplish the same thing.  But I want to talk about adjustable windage and elevation turrets. 

Unlike most hunting scopes, which can be adjusted with a screwdriver underneath the caps, tactical and long-range optics generally include turrets which allow for quick, very accurate windage and elevation adjustments by hand.  This provides a major advantage over simply “holding over” a target with the crosshair to compensate for bullet drop.  Same goes for holding left or right to compensate for wind. 

Turrets on a Leupold Mark 4 ER/T. Always “Zero your turrets” when you’re done shooting so you don’t forget about it next time you get the rifle out.

Turrets on a Leupold Mark 4 ER/T. Always “Zero your turrets” when you’re done shooting so you don’t forget about it next time you get the rifle out.

Whether to choose an MOA (Minute of Angle) or Mil (Milliradian) system is a matter of personal preference with no wrong answer.  And that’s a topic for another blog, too. 

If you’re deer hunting within 200 or 300 yards, you don’t need turrets like this.  Unless, of course, you’re an 18-year-old Noob that just thinks they look cool.  If that’s the case, knock yourself out!

Wait, don’t forget weight

I talk about weight a lot, to the point that some folks probably think I have a complex.  But it’s worth mentioning again.

The farther you plan to carry the rifle, the bigger a factor weight becomes.  The weight (and bulk) of your scope should be in line with the mass of the rifle.  If I’m going on a mountain goat with an ultra-light rifle like the Kimber Mountain Ascent or Christensen Arms Carbon Classic, I’m going to pair it with a light, more compact scope.  But someday, if I have the money (yeah right) to buy a Barrett M82A1, which tips the scales at 33 pounds, then it doesn’t much matter what the scope weighs. 

So, before you buy your next riflescope, give a lot of consideration to what you’ll ask it to do.  There are at least half a dozen other factors we haven’t discussed here, but this covers the basics.

Oh, and that “long-range” AR I told you about?  I sold it to someone else who doesn’t know a Mil-Dot from a Marowak.  A Marowak, by the way, is a Pokemon  (I'll assume you didn't know that).  Google tells me there are 65 Pokemon names that start with “M”.  Pokemon Go… People are deranged…

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Left:   Mil-Dot reticle .  Center:   Pokemon Marowak .  Right:   Who catches critters with their phone, anyway?

Left: Mil-Dot reticle. Center: Pokemon Marowak. Right: Who catches critters with their phone, anyway?

Zero Your Turrets – T.O.

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