How to Choose a Rifle Scope
With so many variables to take into consideration, choosing a rifle scope can be an overwhelming task. More specifically, when shopping online you’ll be presented with hundreds of options, making you want to pull your hair out. With the correct basic knowledge, I’m often able to narrow these options down to only one or two suitable scopes, and I hope that this guide will help you to do the same.
But why can scope selection be such an engulfing task, and how do you narrow down your options?
It all comes down to modern technology; rifles and bullets are capable of far greater ballistic performances than ever before, and as a result, scopes have had to evolve and keep up with the shooter’s demands. Scope selection therefore relies directly on the shooter’s intended use, while budget also has a part to play.
So let’s get to it. We are going to reduce that endless list by highlighting features that you made need in order to meet your shooting goals.
Select a Scope Based on Your Intended Use
Scope selection is based largely on how you intend on using it, whether it be for hunting, plinking, long range target shooting or something else. It is however advised to give some thought as to what other shooting applications you may wish to participate in. This way you are able to select a scope that is capable of fulfilling those additional requirements as well, should your hobby expand a little.
- Hunting and Plinking – general hunting and target plinking out to distances of around 300 meters doesn’t require much in terms of modern scope features. Here you will find the most affordable options, and plenty of them.
- Medium Range Scopes – if your hunting or target shooting extends beyond 300 meters and up to around 700 meters for the sake of argument, you will require more features and a little more financial investment.
- Long Range and Competition Scopes – scopes that are capable of long range accuracy, or scopes used for benchrest style shooting will require a more hefty investment of the lot.
There are other considerations such as recoil handling and illumination for night time use, but we will discuss these shortly.
Decide on a Budget and Brand
Your next decision is your budget – how much are you willing to spend on your scope, and which brand strikes your interest?
There is a common saying when it comes to rifle scopes – cry once, buy once. Rather invest in one good scope that costs a little more and can be used on multiple rifles, instead of buying budget scopes and eventually owning many of poor quality.
When sticking to a budget, the key is to buy a scope from a reputable manufacturer who is known for making quality optics. Some cheaper manufacturers will advertise tons of advanced features at a very good price. It is important not to be fooled by marketing techniques, as these low-cost scopes are often far less capable than their well-made counterparts, and can lead to tons of frustration on the shooting range; they don’t work as they should, and the glass quality is poor.
Rifle Scope Features
While some rifle scopes are simple in design, others are packed with many features that are designed to enhance the shooter’s capabilities. Some of the more useful scopes are designed to shoot over a full variety of distances, by day or night, and in all weather conditions. Certain models are even designed to handle excessive recoil found on large caliber rifles. But these modern features come at a price, and aren’t necessary for all.
The diagram above shows us what a high quality long range rifle scope looks like. So let’s use this particular scope to explain how the scope’s naming convention works. The above scope is a Vortex Razor HD AMG 6-24×50 FFP.
- Vortex – this is the brand of scope.
- Razor HD AMG – this is the model of scope.
- 6-24 – here we have the scope’s magnification range. 6x is the minimum zoom setting, while 24x is the maximum zoom.
- 50 – this is the size (diameter) of the scope’s objective lens in mm. The scope has a 50mm objective lens.
- FFP – this indicates a first focal plane scope, which we will discuss shortly.
The Scope’s Tube Diameter
The tube is the part of the scope which fits securely into the scope mounts, and runs between the ocular lens and the objective lens.
The most common tube sizes are the 1-inch (25.4mm) and the 30mm tube, with some high end scopes housing a 34mm or 35mm tube.
Scopes with a thicker tube diameter are often more expensive, but come with the following advantages:
- There will be less distortion around the edges, and a crisper image when looking through the glass.
- The wider internal lenses will allow more light to pass along the passage, allowing for a brighter view reaching the eye.
- A wider tube allows for more elevation MOA’s (more turret clicks), meaning that the scope has the ability to make engagements at longer ranges by use of dialling on.
1-inch tubes are generally more suited towards the average hunting rifle, while the 30mm tube is more suited towards a precision rifle build; intended for long range shooting.
What Size Objective Lens Do I Buy?
The objective lens is generally the larger of the two, and is responsible for gathering light. It sits opposite from the ocular lens and furthest from the shooter’s eye.
While a larger objective lens isn’t vital, it does come with some advantages.
- It is far more useful in low light and night shooting, and in jungle environments with heavy vegetation overhead, as it allows more light to enter and reach the pupil.
- A higher magnification capability will also need a larger objective lens to allow more light into the scope.
A precision rifle scope should generally have between a 40mm and 56mm objective lens diameter, while an occasional hunting rifle will get away with a smaller option. Rifles using low power variable scopes may have an objective lens that is smaller in diameter than the ocular lens.
But all things considered, lens quality and manufacturer reputability is far more important than the size of the objective lens.
What is a Scope’s Exit Pupil, and What Does it do?
The exit pupil is the cone of clear vision created at the rear of the scope, in the ocular lens. It is directly responsible for determining how far the shooter’s eye must sit in relation to the scope’s ocular lens, and is often a good feature to use in determining which scope may be best for you.
Some facts about the scope’s exit pupil are as follows:
- The larger the exit pupil, the brighter the image observed through the scope will appear.
- A larger exit pupil will allow you to see clearly with less eye-strain, making your eye work less.
- A larger exit pupil will offer greater freedom to position your eye with respect to the optical axis, should you need to bring the rifle to aim quickly for a rapid engagement at closer ranges.
Let’s use two Vortex scopes to demonstrate the difference in exit pupil. The Crossfire II 2-7×32 and Crossfire II 2-7×32 Scout are identical in almost every way, with the exception of eye relief. The Scout model offers an eye relief of 9.45-inches as apposed to the standard Crossfire II which offers an eye relief of 3.9-inches. This allows the Scout model to be placed far further forward on the rifle, while still allowing the shooter to obtain a perfect eye relief.
Exit pupil can be found under the scope’s list of specifications.
What Magnification Does my Scope Need?
This is where many novices get things wrong. More magnification isn’t always best, and in some cases, it may be vital to have a scope that can zoom right out. But again this feature is largely dependant on how you intend on using the scope, and for the best results, the power of your scope should match your needs.
The following options can be used as a guide:
- 1-6x – ideal for small game and varmint hunting, close to medium range engagements, and self-defence.
- 3-15x – Capable of any engagements from close range to long range.
- 5-25x – best suited towards rifles used for extreme long range shooting. These are not suitable for close range defensive shooting.
The main takeaway point here is to avoid buying too much or too little magnification, as you may regret your decision later on. If you intend on shooting at closer distances, keep the magnification down, as you may very well require a 1x or 2x option. If you intend on shooting out to longer distances, then a 12x or greater option is recommended.
Tip: when patrolling or stalking through woods or jungle, always have your scope set to minimum zoom, as this will be vital for close range hunting or defensive engagements at short notice, while offering the best field of view
For a more detailed breakdown on the advantages of various magnification levels, consider purchasing and downloading our e-book, which is available on Kindle: Precision Rifle A to Z – The Ultimate Guide to Rifle Marksmanship.
Scope Turrets, and Which are Best for Me
Selecting the correct scope turrets can be the difference between success and failure, particularly when it comes to long range shooting.
Capped Turrets – these are most common, and are perfectly fine for engagements up to around 300 meters. The turret caps are removed to allow for adjustments when zeroing the scope. Once the scope is zeroed, the turret caps are replaced and secured to keep the rifle’s zero from shifting. There is no way of adjusting the scope to compensate for bullet drop or wind drift, unless a modern reticle is present. This limits the scope for use at closer distances.
Target Turrets – these are more advanced, allowing the shooter to make fine adjustments to the scope to counter the effects of bullet drop and wind drift, and are found on long range rifle and competition setups. The turrets have increment markers that allow the scope’s zero to be adjusted on the fly. Having a scope with adjustable turrets provides the most accurate and precise kind of aiming at any distance, but comes at a higher cost.
Tip: if target turrets are desired, it is beneficial to find a scope that has a zero stop function. This stops the turret from rotating past its “0” setting,
Do I Need a Modern Reticle?
The reticle is one of those things that most hunters or occasional shooters will use, but often give very little thought to. The plain crosshair is the most common reticle type out there, and works just fine for hunting and plinking and closer distances.
When it comes to long range shooting, consider a modern reticle that allows you to use holdovers to account for bullet drop and wind drift. Without this type of reticle, you will reach limitations when participating in advanced long range shoots.
The Mil-Dot and Christmas Tree reticles (seen above) are common choices for long range use, providing the shooter with the ability to judge distance and engage targets that are moving, with great accuracy.
Tip: if you intend on shooting at night or during dawn and dusk, then consider a reticle that illuminates. They come at a higher price, but without one the reticle washes out in low light.
MRad vs. MOA
When selecting a rifle scope, the choice between a Mil or MOA based system can be an important one. This relates to the reticle and scope turrets, and how they adjust to account for bullet drop and wind drift.
While occasional shooters or hunters will benefit from either system, those who intend on participating in tactical style long range shooting events will prefer one over the other.
The general rule when selecting a system is as follows:
- Mil is a metric based system, so if you calculate, think and communicate in meters and centimetres, you will be more suited towards the Mil (or MRad) scope.
- MOA is an imperial based system, so if you naturally prefer yards and feet, you will most likely suit the MOA system.
For more information on MRAD and MOA, read the following article: Mil vs. MOA – What’s the Difference?
First Focal or Second Focal Plane?
There are two types of focal planes when it comes to rifle scopes; first (or front) focal plane and second focal plane.
First Focal Scopes
- As the scope goes through its magnification range, the reticle will appear to change in size, becoming thinner or thicker depending on the magnification setting.
- The reticle expands proportionally to the magnification, allowing for range estimation, holdovers, leads, and corrections to zeroing by use of the reticle at all magnification settings, which can be very useful.
- Shooters who engage targets at a wide variety of distances, and with minimum time to make physical adjustments to the scope will prefer a FFP.
- The first focal plane is mostly found in expensive, long range tactical scopes, and are generally preferred by long range tactical marksmen and military snipers.
Second Focal Scopes
- The reticle on a second focal plane scope isn’t changing size relative to the target (as seen in the image above). This means that the reticle subtensions are only good for range estimation, holdovers and leads, at one spot along the magnification range, typically on the highest power.
- The advantage is that the reticle does not enlarge when engaging distant targets, which allows for a more precise aiming marker.
- These scopes are mostly used when the distance is known, such as in competitions or amongst hunters who engage at closer ranges.
You should now understand that a rifle scope can be your largest limiting factor in achieving your shooting goals, whatever they may be. As we mentioned before, it is advised to invest a little more and buy a scope that will meet all of your requirements and more.
If you are still a little unsure about which scope to buy, read online forums or user reviews on scopes that have caught your attention, and feel free to get in touch with us if you have any further concerns or questions.
I wish you all the best in your new scope selection.