Should I use a first or second focal plane scope? This is a question that pops up on every forum or Facebook page every few days. It gets discussed and debated with as much decorum as can be expected from social media, which usually results in the original poster being more confused than confident in the answers they received. This is mainly due to people offering advice on something they are unfamiliar with or for an application that does not apply to the posted scenario. Unfortunately, this is one of those questions that the only correct answer is “It depends”.
To get to a point where we can actually give some helpful advice, we have to break down the question to the applied situation. What will the rifle primarily be used for? (hunting, competition, home defense, or sport), what is the shooter familiar with?, what distance will it primarily engage at? The answers to these questions will change the correct answer that should be given. But before we get into all that, let’s talk about what is a first or second focal plane optic, and what advantages does each one offer over the other.
Focal Plane Optics
The focal plane of an optic refers to which lens the reticle is etched on. A first focal plane scope has the reticle etched on the lens in front of the magnification lens. This means that as you magnify the image, you also are magnifying the reticle. This allows for the sub tensions in your reticle to always remain accurate no matter what magnification you are on.
The advantages of this allows you to pick the magnification level that best suits the current situation without having to adjust your elevation or windage holds. It is also ideal when measuring targets of an unknown distance calculation. This type of optic is typically used for long range shooting, especially dynamic long range shooting, like the precision Rifle Series or the National Rifle League. It is also widely used for tactical employment by military and law enforcement snipers for the same reason.
The main disadvantage to First focal plane optics is their limit for lower magnification. Most optics only go down as low as 4x, 5x or 6x on the low end. This is still a lot of magnification for a shot that could be at 50 yards. Additionally, the reticle that looks great at 25x now is going to look very thin and could be difficult to see depending on what is on the background. Shooting into shadowed brush could be next to impossible without an illuminated reticle.
A second focal plane optic has the reticle etched on a lens behind the magnification lens. So, as you zoom in, the reticle stays the same size while the image is getting magnified. This allows for you to maintain a constant size reticle, but it can cause issues with your sub tensions, as they will only line up properly at one designated magnification.
The advantages to this style optic is for low magnification shooting as it allows for you to have that large crisp reticle even when on low magnification. A lot of second focal plane optics can also go down to a 1x zoom which is all you need for close range shooting. You will generally see hunters and 3-gun shooters running second focal plane optics since they need a crisp reticle for shorter distances.
The set back is for longer range shooting, especially if you want to use hold overs in a reticle. If you are not on the proper magnification setting (typically max magnification), your reticle sub tension will not match up with their real world counterparts for that distance. Also, if on a lower magnification for a longer shot, the reticle may be too large, and may cover up the target, making a precision shot difficult.
There are some good crossover or hybrid options starting to pop up. Burris makes an optic with a hybrid reticle that has a circle and dot on the second focal plane, allowing it to be used on the lower magnification settings, and a bullet drop compensator on the first focal plane that can be used for longer shots on higher magnification.
Vortex also has come out with a 1-10x first focal plane optic with a reticle that essentially turns into a red dot at 1x but opens to a full reticle at 10x. As technology gets better and more advanced we will start to see more of these options that merge the benefits of both systems.
Now that we have gone over what the focal plane means and some of the advantages and disadvantages to each, let’s talk about our questions so that we can narrow down our answer from “it depends” to something more helpful.
As the title suggests, we are specifically focusing on hunting so the answer to “What will the rifle primarily be used for?” is hunting. Next is “what is the shooter comfortable with?”
We can suggest that someone tries a new type of optic but if they have never used one like it before, their results are probably not going to be much better than with what they have used before. As with everything in life, good equipment is useless without proper education.
Before diving headfirst into convincing someone to switch from first to second focal plane (or vis-versa), offer to help them understand the difference and how each works.
Now, for the purpose of our topic today we are going to pretend the shooter is comfortable with and can use both first and second focal plane optics. Our final question should set the tone for our advice, “What Distance will it primarily engage at?” This answer is going to vary based on two main factors: What caliber are you using, and where are you hunting. The caliber can restrict how far you can engage an animal as well as the terrain.
If, due to caliber restriction or terrain, your answer is closer range shots (200 yards and in), then I would suggest you look into an optic that is second focal plane with the ability to go to 1x magnification.
This allows for easy engagements from 10 yards out of a deer stand, to 200 yards across a farmers field. Hold overs should be small enough that you can use reference points on the animal for your hold, which means you don’t have to worry about your magnification and your reticle lining up.
Additionally, with most hunting calibers, wind at this distance will be negligible so a wind call will not really be needed. You won’t be restricted to over magnifying for those close shots and the reticle will still be thick enough to see easily.
If you are routinely taking shots well over 200 yards then a first focal plane optic would be a better choice. This allows for the shooter to apply a proper precise hold over and wind call on the animal without having to worry about the magnification setting, increasing the chances of a clean harvest. This also allows for a thinner aiming point on the animal as the reticle will not be covering the entire vital zone.
Doing all of this with a second focal plane optic it possible but it would not be as ideal. With longer distance shooting paying attention to the wind is very important and usually requires you to not be on your maximum magnification. Inducing error into your wind or elevation hold due to being on the improper magnification could be the difference between a clean kill and a tracking expedition.
Now that we have covered the difference between the two types of optics, the questions to ask when determining which offers more advantages, and the answers to those questions as it pertains to hunting, hopefully we can all go out more informed and better able to offer advice to our fellow shooters.
Since the community is more important than the actual shooting itself, we need to make sure we foster an atmosphere of information and education based on facts and experience, that way everyone feels welcome and encouraged to join.