Scope Selection for Precision Rifles: 5 Questions to Ask Before Buying

Reader Bryce Booher writes,

Every so often, I’m asked, “What scope should I get for my new rifle?” If you’ve asked that question and need some help sifting through the huge selection of “tactical” scopes out there, here are five questions that can help.

1) Do the turrets match the reticle?

Most of us have grown up with dad’s hunting rifle equipped with a scope that has standard crosshairs. We were told to zero them at 200 yards and hold dead on out to 300 yards, right? But what if you need to hold over the target? Just guess?

If you’re looking at shooting 300 yards plus (whether it’s taking game or ringing steel), you are going to want some sort of reference marks in your reticle (i.e. mil-dots, or BDCs, or MOA based hash marks, etc). The kicker here is getting a scope that has turrets (turret adjustments, specifically) that match the unit of measurements in the reticle. This means looking for a scope that has a mil based reticle and mil adjustments, or an MOA based reticle with MOA adjustments. Why?

If you have a mil/mil scope, and in your reticle you can see your point of impact is 1 full mil low, simply adjust your turret up one full mil, and your point of impact should move to your point of aim. If you’re using a mil-dot reticle but have MOA adjustments on your turrets, you better get out your calculator. It’s very common in lower price point scopes to have a mil-dot reticle with turrets that say “1/4 inch at 100 yards.” That’s ¼ MOA, so be careful.

It’s not important which unit of measurement you choose (mils or MOA), but it is important your turrets match your reticle. There are hundreds of good options at all price points that will match.

2) Does the scope track appropriately? 

What is tracking? Tracking is the ability of your scope’s turrets to adjust exactly to match the actual shift of impact that you see on the target.

This is important for two reasons. First, if your scope doesn’t track properly and you need 1 MOA of elevation adjustment, your scope may adjust 1 MOA…or 1.2 MOA, or .7 MOA, etc. The further the distance, the more any variation matters. Fancy reticles will only get you so far without having to use the turrets to adjust for bullet drop.

Secondly, you need a scope that returns back to your exact zero after dialing adjustments for elevation. If it doesn’t return to zero, your next range trip will be spent re-verifying your zero instead of shooting at distance.

3) How much do I want to spend?

Ignore the old adage of, “Spend as much on the scope as you did on the rifle.” Scope quality has come a long ways in the last 15 years (and really in the last 5-6 years). There’s no real rule of thumb on price and we all have different budgets.

A $1500 rifle doesn’t necessarily need $1500 glass on it to be effective. Case in point: the US Navy has used the $300 SWFA fixed 10x scopes on their Barret .50 cal with great success. Price is secondary to the first two questions in this article.

Shop wisely. Do your research and read reviews from other shooters.

4) How much magnification do I need?

This is a subjective question. If you’re shooting small targets at longer ranges, you may opt for more magnification because the margin of error is going to smaller on a groundhog than it would be on an elk. But be careful, as high magnification isn’t all it seems. Keep in mind that as you zoom in on a target, you’re also zooming in on imperfections in the glass.

Price is going to greatly affect the quality and clarity of the glass at higher magnification. If you’re looking at a BSA 6-24x for $150, you’re fooling yourself if you think the glass clarity at 24x is going to be the same as an SWFA 5-20x HD or Nightforce 5.5-22x (or insert top quality scope of choice here).

That being said, I like to stay under 16x for most applications. Over the years, I’ve shot with optics of several different brands, qualities, price points. I’ve found that even with scopes with high magnification, I rarely went over 15x. A good quality scope with 12x to 16x max magnification will serve you very well out to 1000+ yards on steel silhouettes or medium to big game. Again, this really depends on what you’re doing with your setup, and your budget.

5) What size tube diameter?

This one’s easy: 30mm. The tube diameter of a scope directly correlates to the amount of elevation adjustment you can get out of it. Think of the turrets on a scope as big screws. As you unscrew the elevation turret, the reticle adjusts to move your point of impact upward. The more you can unscrew the turret, the more the impact will shift up (thus the further you can shoot). This becomes increasingly important as you push the range past 500 yards, and the bullet drop starts exceeding the lowest hash-mark or mil-dot in a typical scope.

Will a one-inch tube work? It might if you’re shooting less than 600 yards. But why not get the 30mm and have something that will take you further in range as you progress as a shooter?

Some shooters will tell you a thicker tube is better because of increased light gathering capability. While a 30mm tube or bigger will gather more light than a one-inch tube, this is really more of a side-effect as opposed to a primary reason.

So there you have it. Five simple questions to ask yourself when selecting a new scope for your precision rifle build that will save time, money, and aggravation.

 

Bryce Booher operates Defensive Resources LLC.

comments

  1. avatar Noah says:

    6. Depends on application.

    There is a large difference between shooting F-Class and PRS courses. I personally shoot the latter.

    Most folks [on the competitive map] run two types of scopes: Nightforce or Vortex. In fact, PRS is dominated by Vortex scopes, almost exclusively (40+% in 2015).

  2. avatar Joe R. says:

    Thank you, nice article. (spikes old scope on the ground and kicks it)

  3. avatar Curtis in IL says:

    Thank you for this, Mr. Booher.

    In the world of high-priced optics, sometimes there is justification for the price and sometimes you’re paying for a manufacturer’s name and reputation. But two things I learned in my photographic pursuits are this: 1) Good glass comes at a cost, and 2) the price of a piece of good glass increases exponentially with the size of that piece of glass. The cameras in today’s cell phones are amazingly good, even though they aren’t terribly expensive. They have teeny tiny pieces of glass in them. The big camera lenses you see on the sidelines of football games cost tens of thousands of dollars. Size matters.

    Of the five attributes you wrote about, #2 (precise tracking of turret adjustments) is the only one you can’t be sure of until after you buy the scope, mount it and test it. It’s good to read multiple reviews before you buy.

  4. avatar JasonM says:

    7. Get a FFP scope.

    FFP means the reticle is on the Front Focal Plane. What does this mean for the shooter? When you zoom in and out, the reticle changes size. This means that holding 0.1 mrad on your scope is always 0.1 mrad of adjustment to the rifle’s scope axis.
    With a SFP scope, the marks on the scope only match at one specific magnification.
    Obviously, with a fixed power scope, this is a moot point.

    8. Don’t get a BDC reticle.
    BDC reticles are fine for other applications, but for precision rifles, they’re not. A BDC is set up for a specific load, out of a specific barrel, under specific atmospheric conditions.
    If you already have a BDC that you want to use, do not assume the 500y line applies to your rifle, ammo, and environment at 500y. Instead determine what your 500y line equates to in mrad (or MOA) from experimentation (e.g. 4.6 mrad) and using your ballistics software determine that 4.6 mrad is actually 563y for your equipment and the current environment.

    9. Get a ballistics calculator.
    A $10 app on your smart phone can calculate your holds/adjustments based on your equipment and the prevailing weather. They do change enough that if you’re going for small targets at range, the hold you used last summer on a hot, dry day is not going to work in the cold, wet winter.

    1. avatar peirsonb says:

      I just got a Vortex Strike Eagle with a BDC reticle. I knew within 3.5 seconds of opening the package not to rely on the BDC markings, at least as stated according to Hoyle.

      In order for the BDC to be accurate you have to also follow their zeroing procedure. In this case that means 100 yard (could be meter, I’m working from memory) zero on max magnification. Only under those conditions do the markings hold (along with the other factors you mentioned).

      My problem is that I’m not zeroing the rifle at 100, I’m zeroing it at 30 meters. A 30 meter zero should, if I read the tables right, also provide a 300 meter zero (I haven’t stretched it out that far). Everything in between is a hold under, coming out to a point of impact almost exactly 4 inches high at 100 yards.

      I don’t have a place to air it out, yet, but when I do there will be a fair bit of math involved. The leaflet with the scope provides a table that translates the BDC to MOA for other calibers/loadings, but given that I’m already “zeroed” at 300 meters I have a feeling the ballistics are going to make all but maybe the first two hash marks completely useless.

      1. avatar Defens says:

        Just a thought – if all you have is a 30 meter range, you can still use a ballistics calculator for your load, and zero to a virtual 100 yards (or whatever). Just calculate what the impact should be over or under your aiming point at the distance you are actually shooting. After that your scope will be properly calibrated.

        As far as FFP vs. SFP goes – yeah, I understand the supposed benefit of FFP over SFP. However, I just did a lot of research and pondering on what to buy for my new DPMS Recon G2. I ended up with a SFP Vortex Viper HST. The FFP reticles get so tiny at low magnifications that my 62 year old eyeballs can’t use the ballistic hash marks, and for longer distances, I’m going to crank the zoom to max anyway – so why pay the premium for a scope that allows me the questionable benefit of using the hash marks at 8.2x or 14.9x? Also, keep in mind that as the FFP scopes zoom and the reticle scales, those markings also get wider and can cover up fine detail. For precision shooting, this isn’t beneficial, either.

        1. avatar peirsonb says:

          I did that with last optic on the rifle. A good 30 meter zero did come out, almost exactly, to a point of impact 4″ high. After the initial sight in I tested it. I used a shoot n c target with 1″ squares (measured them because I don’t trust anybody) and put one of their little sticky patches exactly 4″ below center to give me a hold. The first 5 rounds put a jagged hole dead center in the target. So, at least for that ammo in that rifle at this elevation I’m pretty comfortable with that.

          Now, yesterday after I posted the comment I downloaded the scope’s manual to double check the MOA equivalent for each BDC mark. I DID use a ballistics calculator to get MOA drop at yardages. The calculator showed that the 4 inch hold under at 100 yards is almost dead nuts on and that the rest of the BDC marks are almost absolutely useless. The last one lines up fairly close to 600 yards, but only fairly close.

    2. avatar Arc says:

      Strelok+ is a great ball park ballistics calculator for Android, yes, I use it.

      First focal plane indeed unless you don’t mind having two sets of holds, not terribly difficult, just color code the holds to magnification.

      5.5x is pretty much useless on ranges less than 100Y/M unless your target isn’t moving. I bought too much scope and learned the hard way. Then again I built the rifle for DM purposes out to 800 yards and Obs, not plinking rabbits and such. I want a RMR sight on my glock for <50 yard stuff.

      A $150 scope from an outdoor shop (especially if it has a life time warranty) will usually be fine on a 50BMG unless you bought utter junk. I run a cheap scope and it hasn't broken yet, I also run cheap 3MOA ammo and high dollar optics would be a waste.

  5. avatar Old Air Force says:

    I personally use Millett. The LRS-1 to be exact. I shoot target with the two rifles that have these. They are Second focal plane but the ranging is @ 12.5. This makes the math easy @ 25x. They are a lot of scope but they are for bench rest or prone guns. Old eyes like more power but it comes at a price, you see just how unsteady your hold is. It has target turrets and a good return to zero. All in all I like them, especially for under $500. 35 mm tubes, 56 mm objective, rings, and sunshades w/caps.

    +1 on Strelok+. I have it and use it.

  6. avatar Gov. William J Le Petomane says:

    Just curious, how does a 30mm tube gather more light than a 1″ tube? I thought that was wholly determined by the size of the objective lens.

    1. avatar Defens says:

      It doesn’t. All the larger diameter tube does is allow more room for windage and elevation adjustment, and adds a bit of strength to the tube itself. There now appears to be some sort of tube-diameter war going on in the optics world. When I bought my IOR Valdada a few years ago, they were the only ones building a 34mm tube; that’s now relatively common, and even larger tubes are available.

    2. avatar strych9 says:

      How much light a scope gathers is a function of how large the objective (front) lens is. The larger the lens the more light it will gather.

      I’ve never personally tested the difference on the same brand/type next to each other. I just generally go with a 50mm objective.

      I get decent dusk/dawn views through both of my 3-9×50 Refields and my 6-24×50 Vortex.

      1. avatar Gov. William J Le Petomane says:

        That’s what I thought, but it seems to be contradicted in the article.

        I’ve read a number of times that scopes (both rifle and other) tend to be brighter at lower power. I’m not sure if this is because they’re not utilizing the entire objective lens at max power or if you simply need more light gathering the higher you go. I’m guessing the latter since you’re taking a smaller sliver of light and blowing it up to the same size image.

        I’ve got a couple of Nikon Prostaff scopes and have been thinking of upgrading at least the .308 that wears the 4-12x. Looking for a brighter clearer scope but I’m not going crazy on it. I’d like a first focal plane, MOA reticle 4-16x, but I don’t think I’ll find that in the $350-500 range. The local range only goes out to 200 yards, so I’m more interested in clarity, but it would be nice to have a 1000yd. capable scope. The Nikon runs $220 on Midway seems to be very well rated. Don’t want to throw away $500 on something that’s not really any better anyway.

        1. avatar strych9 says:

          I can’t comment on the Nikon scopes because I’ve never used one.

          In your price range a serious 1000 FFP scope is probably not available unless you find a killer sale or someone else here knows of one that I don’t (I don’t profess to know all the optics out there).

          Personally I like SFP scopes quite a bit specifically because the reticle doesn’t change size with magnification. As long as you remember than your reticle subtensions are only perfect at a specific magnification they work really, really well. The Vortex I have is something I purchased and mounted specifically to shoot targets of unknown size at unknown ranges out to 1500 yards because it’s part of a competition I’m doing this fall. If you’re shooting known targets at known distances (or using a range finder) you probably don’t need all the bells and whistles but the ability to calculate your shots without extra stuff is always a nice backup.

          I have a few pieces of Vortex glass and I have never been disappointed with their clarity, light throughput or anything else. Their FFP stuff is more expensive than their SFP and by quite a bit. Like a few hundred bucks. The one I have his a 6-24×50 HS-T with VMR-1 MRAD reticle. Street price was like $150 lower than the MSRP.

          Good luck finding good glass for your purposes!

        2. avatar Curtis in IL says:

          Variable power scopes will be brighter at low power. It’s hard to explain why, without an in-depth discussion and diagrams, but suffice it to say there’s no free lunch in the world of optics. When you see sports & wildlife photographers with 8 inch diameter lenses, it’s because that’s what it takes to gather light on a telephoto.

        3. avatar Gov. William J Le Petomane says:

          Strych, the lowest price FFP sco pe in the 16x range I’m finding is Nikon’s Monarch 3 ($580 Midway – I live in Iowa and have to pay sales tax at Brownells) and that’s BDC. With a generic BDC reticle I’m still having to calculate that the 4th dot translates to 479 yards with this load and 488 with that load, etc., so I might as well go with MOA or Mil-dot. I think most Mil-dot reticles come with MOA turrets (in that price range anyway), so MOA would be nice.

          Not looking for a serious 1000yd. sc ope, just something that I could make do with at that range. Biggest thing is clarity and I’m not sure if it’s the sco pe or my 49 year old eyes, but on dank, cloudy days I just have a hard time focusing. The money might be better spent at the local optometrist.

      2. avatar strych9 says:

        Gov.,

        Keep an eye on opticsplanet’s website. They currently have that Monarch III 4-16×50 for $499.95. The same scope with 44mm objective and mil-dot is $423.

        Similar prices on the Vortex HS series 4-16 scopes as well.

        1. avatar Gov. William J. Le Petomane says:

          Optics Planet usually has pretty good prices. They kind of pissed me off a while back, though. Ordered a scope mount and after they took my money it turned out it was backordered. No indication it wasn’t in stock on the site when I bought it. So 6 weeks later I just sent it back. For that much money I’d probably give them another try. Still kicking the tires right now though.

        2. avatar strych9 says:

          Kick those tires!

          Good luck in your hunt for reasonably priced glass that fits your needs. Let us know what you end up getting.

  7. avatar DaveR says:

    Great summary, except for Point #2. Tracking cannot be anticipated before purchase.

  8. avatar TommyJay says:

    Thanks for a good article. I wish the manufacturer’s information was more complete generally.

    The skinny on image brightness is that the front objective lens collects the light (bigger is brighter) and that light ends up distributed over the tube of light exiting the eyepiece. The diameter of that final tube of light where it hits your eyeball is call the “exit pupil.” So a smaller exit pupil will be brighter but it will be harder to locate the image with your eye. Also the light collected depends on the solid angle of the object being imaged. So higher magnification means a smaller solid angle and a dimmer image.

    The bigger scope tubes are probably useful for really big windage and elevation adjustments. If the scope were a really primitive telescope, the light would focus to a point in the center and you could get away with a 1/2 inch tube. But the riflescope has two focus points and the reticle is at one of those. The light beam expands in between those two focus points somewhere in the middle of the scope where lenses reverse the image so it is right-side-up and moves properly. So you gotta get those lenses and reticle inside the adjustable tube inside the main tube.

    I really agree with the point that the darn turrets should be marked in either units of MOA or mil-rads. I think that you can do well without an actual calculator, if you fill out your own table of bullet drops vs range in MOA or mRad and maybe eventually memorize them. I know that my HV 22LR round drops 20 or 21 MOA at 200yds if zeroed at 50yds.

    I bought a cheap Simmons 22MAG scope for my Ruger 10/22 and image quality was amazingly good. The mechanics of the turrets were poor and marked in 1/4 MOA units. Sheesh. Then I bought a $190 Nikon Prostaff EFR Target assuming the turrets would be marked in MOA units. Nope, marked in 1/2 MOA units; because you are only supposed to shoot targets at 50yds? Double sheesh. But, the image is great and the mechanics are terrific too.

    Both of the above scopes have adjustable objectives as do most of the really expensive scopes, however many do not. I thought I really wanted this feature and it does seem to give me razor sharp images, but I’ve never seen one without.

    1. avatar unknown says:

      Have BSA 3-9 Sweet 22’s on a Ruger American Rimfire & a 10/22 SE, plus a Barska 3-9 on a 10/22 TD. Both are bright & clear & the BSA you can change turrets (comes with them) for different bullet weights.The Barska has Illuminated Reticles in various shades of green & red. All 3 will readily pick off 1/4″ size objects from 50 yards. The BSA’s are big for a 22 scope & really work. The Barska on the 10/22 TD (stainless, flash suppressor, fiber optics & laser) looks just right on the rifle. With custom modified (by me) Weaver high mount, see thru rings I can leave the scope on the rifle & still put it into the Ruger backpack.

  9. avatar Some Bloke says:

    Way to trivialize a complex subject with modern wives tales and old ones mixed up with each other.

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