If you have found this article, then chances are, you are on the right path to completing your next rifle build, or you are trying to remedy some mistakes that could have been made during your last build.
As with almost any aspect in shooting, and most industries, if you ask 10 different people what the best scope is, they will give you 10 different answers. Most of these answers will be very biased, personal opinions, rarely based on a wide variety of experience or use.
Application will always be the biggest factor that needs to be considered when choosing your optic, but there are several characteristics for rifle scopes that need to be considered before spending any of your hard earned money, or that last stimulus check. Things like, focal plane, reticle options, adjustment units, objective lens size, tube size, magnification, zero stops, illumination, and budget all need to be considered before making a final decision.
Each option will narrow down your search until you have just a few scopes to choose from.
Each application has certain features that are preferred or beneficial for speed, accuracy, and efficiency when using your rifle. If the rifle is going to be used for multiple applications then you will want to choose an optic with features that compliment as many applications as possible, without causing severe disadvantages to any of its intended uses.
Your application needs to be identified before you start to look at brands or features, as it will help steer you away from just the new shiny object, to something tailored to best suit your needs as the shooter.
Determine Your Budget
Once you have identified your application you need to next determine what your budget will be. The rule of thumb used to be “spend as much on the scope as you spent on the rifle”. This is a great starting point, but fortunately, optics have progressed a lot in the last decade and it may not be necessary to spend thousands of dollars on an optic. Some of today’s “mid-tier” optics actually far exceed what used to be a top of the line optic 10 years ago.
Your budget will help you to zero in on the scopes that best suit your needs without being completely out of reach. It will also help you to wade through some of the lower quality optics that look enticing due to a low cost.
If your budget is $1,000 you have no business looking at $200-$600 dollar scopes. You will not be disappointed if you remain within your budget and get a quality piece of glass. All that being said, do not, I repeat, do not, skimp on your optic. Too many times do I see really nice and very capable rifles, with a $150 Walmart scope mounted on it. The largest limiting factor for most rifles, particularly hunting rifles, is the optic.
Testing Out Different Scopes
Now, you know what you want to use it for, and you know how much you are willing to spend. We are finally at the point where we can start to browse scopes and see what options are available that meet our needs and budget.
This is where we begin to narrow down our search to be as specific as possible. Personally, the next feature that I look at is the reticle options.
Most major manufacturers are now offering multiple reticle options for their mid to high end optics. Most of these options all accomplish the same goal, but have different adjustments (MRAD vs MOA) or have some built in features for ranging or hold overs.
Reticle preference varies from shooter to shooter and is also dependent on the application. Find a reticle (or two) you like and start to look at the scopes that offer that reticle as an option. This will help you to once again, narrow the field of your search, but also will result in you getting an optic you don’t mind using. I have come across many shooters that have bought and then sold an optic because they decided they didn’t like the reticle after trying to use it. So in the end it didn’t matter what other features it had that matched what they wanted, the reticle was a deal breaker.
A good place to start is by going to a larger sporting goods store that maintains a good stock of different optics and look through them. Make sure not to just point them at the ceiling, actually look as far across the store as possible and see if you like the reticle. Keep notes and take pictures and continue your research when you get home. Reticle selection also goes hand in hand with the focal plane. If you don’t understand the difference between a first focal plane, second focal plane, and multi-focal plane optics, then look up the Long Range Tactics video on the subject. That topic is a whole article on its own, but make sure you understand the difference and how that will affect your reticle at distance and on varying magnifications.
Choosing Units of Measurement
Next I need to determine if I want my optic to make adjustments in Mil Radian (MRAD), Minutes Of Angle (MOA) or a Bullet Drop Compensator (BDC). In all honesty it doesn’t matter which one you go with as long as you are comfortable with it. If you are choosing one you have never used before, make sure you find someone that can instruct you on how to use it to the maximum of its potential.
The biggest factor for choosing units of measure, is to make sure that the reticle and the turrets match. It can cause increased confusion and error, especially in stressful situations, when the reticle is in MRAD and the turrets are in MOA. The only thing I push people away from is BDC’s, both for turrets and reticles.
The issue with a BDC is that if you change ammo types, or go to a completely different environment, then it is now inaccurate. With an angular unit of measure such as MOA or MRAD I can use a ballistic calculator to adjust for the change and carry on. This is not as easy with a BDC.
Refining Your Search
Now, we have narrowed down all of the big ticket make or break items and features that we want for our optic, it’s time to refine our search even more.
Even with the requirements we have set, there are still many brands and models that will meet our needs. Now we get to be picky.
Tube diameter is our next topic of discussion.
Tube diameter is the biggest limiter of vertical adjustment in your optic. Smaller tubes (say 30mm or smaller) will have drastically less vertical adjustment then a larger tube (34-35mm). If you are running an optic with a 0 MOA scope base, you may need to have more adjustment to be able to shoot out to longer ranges, and must then consider scopes with a larger diameter tube. Now, you may be saying “why don’t I just get the largest one and be done with it”, unfortunately, the largest scope tubes have less support from ring manufacturers and may have limited options. 34mm is the industry standard for long range optics and is widely supported by every ring manufacturer, giving you a ton of options to choose from at varying price points.
Magnification is the next feature on the list. This will mainly be dictated by your application and doesn’t have to be to your exact specs to work. The best way, is to identify a minimum magnification that you would need, such as 4x, 5x or 6x and work from there. The higher end of the magnification is nice but not necessary.
Even for long range shooting anything over about 15x is great, but not required. Standard issue military sniper optics didn’t even go over 12x until the last 5 years and some federal departments still shoot out to 800 yards with fixed 10x. So only looking for optics that have a maximum magnification of 25x doesn’t really offer you much benefit since you don’t need 25x and that will limit your options drastically.
Objective Lens Size
Objective lens size can be a big factor for some hunters, but is inconsequential for most shooters especially if it is just for target shooting. The objective lens is important because it is one of the factors that determines the amount of light that gets brought into the scope.
The larger the lens the more light it can transmit to the eye and the brighter the image appears to the shooter. This can be very beneficial to hunters that may be shooting at dawn or dusk as smaller lenses can make an image appear darker than it really is, making a long range shot difficult.
The other factor that affects light transmission and clarity is the lens quality. Some of the best quality glass comes from the factories in Japan, and a few factories make a majority of the lenses for scope manufacturers. The higher quality glass is a large contributor to increased cost for higher end optics. A high quality large objective lens makes for a great combination for image clarity. That being said a lens that is a few mm smaller but has higher quality glass will provide a clearer image then a lower quality larger lens.
We have covered most of the major features that will or should influence your decision when purchasing a new optic. These features can be the backbone of your build. A stellar rifle can and will be held back by mounting inadequate glass on top of it.
Always buy the right scope for the rifle, and the job. I hope this article helps you to determine what optic is best for your needs, and how best to narrow down your options.