Rifle Scopes Buying Guide: Part One

Buying Guide

If there’s one question I receive, or view as a question posed on the vast expanses of the internet, it’s “what scope should I buy?” The resultant answers are usually comprised of about 95 percent useless information, whereas the remaining 5 percent is generated by folks who have a solid understanding of how to make a good choice with optics.

Optics aren’t cheap, and it’s always a good idea to subscribe to the “buy once, cry once” policy when it comes to buying them. Why is that useless information percentage so high? Because there’s an incredible amount of old and untrue information continuously being circulated throughout the shooting industry.
We’re going to touch on some major points on how to select an optic that best suits your needs as a shooter, and follow-up with a deep dive into some of the more technical aspects of optics in future issues.
When someone presents the optics question to me, I cut right to the chase and ask them what they’ve budgeted. I want to see where their expectations lie, which is going to help me direct them to certain brands that have the highest quality and feature rich products that fit that budget.
That said, how they present their answer can also indicate whether they really know what they want, or if they’ve got no idea and are looking for more help than just a product recommendation.
If that’s the case, or the budget is flexible as a result of the customer being educated, their options can open up significantly. Budget is important, because if it’s fixed, this is what you’ve got to work with, and options can be narrow. That’s not always difficult, and it’s not always easy either, especially if the budget isn’t in line with the features they expect to get.
Throw the obvious component of quality in there, and quickly that expectation can get sideways depending on how much they can spend. Let’s face it, no one wants to spend the money that they work hard for on a crap product.
The optics industry has progressed at a rapid rate over the last decade, and there are a lot of budget minded scopes out there that are rich in features.
It takes education to be able to navigate the industry marketing and hype, though, which is what we’re ultimately looking to sift through.

ONCE WE DIAL IN THE BUDGET, my next question is about the intended use, or the customer’s requirements. Requirements will drive the features the customer needs the optic to possess. If the scope is to be used for hunting, that drives more questions such as what kind of country does the customer hunt?
Open western hunting where the possibility of longer shots occur? Timber country? Or thick coastal temperate rainforest? For the open country, you’re going to want the ability to precisely adjust for elevation, have the ability to adjust your field of view based on the range to the target, and have adjustable parallax for those longer shots. A front focal plane reticle also helps here, but more on that later. For those hunting in tight timber country, a scope that’s really effective at light transmission is a huge plus so that you can take advantage of every available minute of shooting light in those deep dark pockets of timber.

Here, a front focal plane reticle probably isn’t necessary, and for those closer ranges, a bullet-drop-compensated turret/reticle combination might be the best option for quick shots. If we’re looking at an optic for competitive shooting, then that’s going to direct us to a more full-featured tactical optic. We can see that understanding requirements is educational in itself, which might result in upping the budget to get the features needed.

ANOTHER COMMENT I HEAR A lot is “the glass is awesome …” This is a pitfall that lots of consumers unknowingly take. We can prevent this through education. Lens construction, clarity, image resolution, color and contrast resolution are all complex optical engineering topics that warrant their own discussions.
For the purposes of this article, I want to skim the surface and give you the information you need to know.
First off, if you’re looking for more light transmission, you’re not going to get it from a bigger objective lens, or a bigger main tube. Those two items have zero influence on light transmission, which is one of the biggest misconceptions people have on rifle scopes.
Light transmission has everything to do with the refraction rate of the optical system, how many lens to air transitions the incoming light has to navigate before it gets to your eye, and the effectiveness of the coatings on the lenses.
Further, there are a lot of optics companies out there that optimize the brightness and clarity of their lenses for in-store fluorescent lighting because that’s where the vast majority of scope purchasing decisions are made by the consumer. The scope might look bright and clear in the store, but it might not be all you thought it would be in fading light when you’re trying to find that animal your buddy is trying desperately to talk you onto.
If you’re interested in an optic, or a couple you want to compare, tell the sales guy you want to take them outside for a look. You might even want to strategically plan your visit in the evening to get the best representation of the conditions you’ll be hunting in. Just a thought!
Side-by-side comparisons are absolutely necessary, and can be an eye-opening experience, pun totally intended here. You’ll be astonished that some of those super expensive brand names are less than optimal performers in low light and high glare conditions, and you’d never know it unless you did that side-by-side comparison. It’s your money, and you as the consumer have the right to know before you buy.

THE METHOD WITH WHICH YOU AIM your rifle through a scope is using a reticle, or the cross hairs.
There’s a lot to be said about this, and again, it’s its own topic entirely, but for this article, I just want to focus on the big picture. There are two types of reticle placements inside your optic: a placement in the second focal plane, and a placement in the first, or front, focal plane.
This is very important to know, as it directly influences your ability to use the reticle for elevation or wind holds.
Reticles in the second focal plane were the most common about five to seven years ago. This means that the reticle subtensions (the precisely measured spaces between all those little dots or lines) remain the same size through the whole magnification range of the scope. The target gets bigger or smaller, but the reticle stays the same size.
This can be a valuable feature for someone to have, especially hunting in tighter country where speed and simplicity is a must, and the chances of holding for elevation or wind are slim.
Conversely, I’ve seen lots of missed easy shots because the optic possessed a bullet-drop-compensated reticle, but the shooter had the scope on the incorrect magnification for that reticle to function properly.
Know before you go. On the other hand, front focal, or first focal plane, reticles grow and shrink proportionally with the scope’s magnification. This lets you use your reticle for elevation and wind holds no matter what magnification you’re using. For Western hunters, and most definitely competitors, this is a must-have feature for those longer shots in windy conditions.

HOPEFULLY YOU’VE GLEANED SOME information out of this article to help you make a more educated optic purchase in the future. There’s a lot that goes into making this choice, and although we touched on the major points here, there’s an incredible amount of information that we still need to discuss so you as the consumer can fully grasp these concepts and make a more informed decision when you buy.
Further, don’t ever take anything when it comes to optics for face-value. Get out there and see for yourself. Everyone’s eyes are completely different, and just because a scope works for someone else doesn’t mean it’s going to work for you. Remember, “Believe nothing, no matter where you read it, or who has said it, not even if I have said it, unless it agrees with your own reason and your own common sense.”
Knowledge gives us the power to follow our own paths with confidence. Look for more articles on optics in coming issues. ?Another compact lightweight option from Leupold that is feature rich is the Mark 5 3x-18x. This is an optic that the author prefers to use on gas-operated platforms.

Story and Photos by CAYLEN WOJCIK