A (Sort of) Brief Guide To Rifle Scope Reticles

A Romanian rifle scope reticle. Image: Sepp45 at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There are many different types of rifle scope reticles, each with its own unique design and purpose. Just as with ammunition, scopes and firearms, a reticle is, in and of itself, a tool with a specific use in mind.

Granted, some types of rifle scope reticle are more all-purpose tools, good for long-range target shooting, hunting and so on, but not necessarily the absolute best choice at any one thing. Some are better suited to extreme long-range shooting, others for more moderate distances only.

The types of reticle, therefore, are an important part of what you need to think about when choosing an optic. Are you going to be doing long range shooting, either in competition or hunting? Looking for an all-purpose rifle scope? If for hunting, will your optic be mounted on a rifle or a shotgun? Is game harvested at no more than a couple hundred yards, or do you hunt more wide open spaces of the West?

Let’s start at the very beginning. What IS a reticle?

A reticle is an image implanted on one of the lenses inside the scope. Typically, it’s etched into the glass and dyed, though some reticles are projected via a power source.

Reticles are located either in the front focal plane (ahead of a magnifying lens, typically on one of the lenses in the front of the scope) or in the second focal plane behind the magnifying lenses, typically in the center of the scope.

The reason why this matters is the SFP reticles remain the same size no matter how much magnification you use, whereas an FFP reticle will change size relative to target as your magnification changes.

In other words, the reticle image gets bigger the more you zoom in and smaller as it zooms out. It’s therefore is a handy way to measure distance. It isn’t as precise a rangefinding tool as an actual range finder, but it will definitely get you in the ballpark.

Now, before we get into reticle types, you should know that some reticles are illuminated and others are not. Illumination can be passive, such as with tritium or a fiber optic cable, or it can be active. The latter, of course, requires a power source. Night vision scopes, naturally, require battery power.

Active illuminated reticle scopes are naturally best for low light (or even no-light) conditions, but passive illumination will still pick up what ambient light there is. Most states have hunting regulations prohibiting shooting game after dark (there are exceptions such as hog hunting), but a passive assist for the end of they day’s shooting light (the “magic hour” when you’re most likely to actually see a buck) can be a big help.

Every scope maker offers a number of different reticle options, including the type of reticle design itself and illumination. Leupold, Vortex, Burris, Schmidt and Bender, Zeiss, etc. …name a scope maker and they have multiple choices available for the kind of shooting you’ll be doing.

A collection of reticle types. Credit: Wikimedia Commons/CC-BY-SA

Then there are the hashmarks inside the reticle itself. These correspond to distances in proportion to the range to the target. Each individual reticle is different; some are marked in milliradians, which we’ll cover in a moment. Others are literally just hash marks that happen to correspond to bullet drop distances in proportion to the distance to the target and aren’t even in minutes of angle. We’ll talk about this more as we go, so don’t worry if you’re confused.

With that said, let’s get into the actual reticle types.

Crosshair reticle. Image: Jellocube27 at English Wikipedia [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

The classic rifle scope reticle is simple crosshairs. Literally, it’s a vertical stripe and a horizontal stripe that cross each other in the center of the image. There’s really not much to say beyond that, except that some are thick, some are thin, some are illuminated and some aren’t. It’s the simplest form of reticle except for maybe the next one.

Ring sight. Credit: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:PS90_sky.jpg

Many reticles have a dot, ring or triangle reticle. The triangle or dot is usually colored, either green or red. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I’m talking about red dot optics and holographic sights. These are probably the simplest reticles there are.

The dot is sized in minutes of angle, usually ranging from 1 MOA to more than 10 MOA. Smaller red dots are better for longer range shooting (you better know your bullet drop table!) and larger red dots are better for close-range target acquisition. However, red dots aren’t always the best for long-range precision shooting.

Dots also come in a few varieties beyond simple red dots. Dot reticles are often employed in shotgun scopes, with crosshairs. Since shotguns are lousy at long ranges (we especially mean YOU skybusters!!) they are well-suited to (quasi) precise placement with fast target acquisition…provided you’ve zeroed the scope and are familiar with your patterns.

The most popular reticle types overall are the duplex crosshair and the German reticle. These are arguably the best all-purpose reticles as they are good for long-range shooting and hunting.

Both offer a good balance of precision and target acquisition, though aren’t the absolute utmost when it comes to precision. Still, plenty of people have done some mighty precise shooting with them.

Higher-end versions of these reticles are often illuminated either totally or partially.

Duplex reticle. Credit: US Marine Corps/Wikimedia Commons

The duplex reticle has four wide bars at the 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions, usually extending about ⅝ of the way into the sight picture. Simple crosshairs then connect the horizontal and vertical bars. Some feature hash marks, some are just simple crosshairs; it depends on the manufacturer.

Usually, the scope manufacturer will concoct a branded name for their duplex reticle (such as Nikoplex by Nikon), but it’s still bascially a duplex reticle.

An example of a German reticle. Image: Morty [CC0], via Wikimedia Commons

The German reticle has three thick reticle lines, much like the duplex, typically at the 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. Some models also have crosshairs in the center.

The vertical line will go up into space, but terminates somewhere in the upper half of the sight picture. This reticle gives you a broader field of view than the duplex reticle, allowing for fast sight acquisition, but with good crosshairs will also allow for precise shooting as well.

The #4 German reticle is most popular, though you will find other variants out there; it just depends on which scope by what company.

These are the popular reticles found on most hunting scopes. Occasionally, the hashmarks on the bottom crosshair will feature “Christmas tree“-like hashmarks that widen as they descend toward the bottom of the scope. These are to assist with bullet drop, rangefinding and also with windage.

Now, we get into some of the more precision-oriented types of rifle scope reticles.

PSO-1 Reticle, a type of drop compensating reticle found on the PS0-1 scope, commonly used by the Russian military. Image: Johan Fredriksson [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

One of the most popular is the bullet drop compensating or BDC reticle reticle. BDC reticles come in many different configurations, but a typical one will have a dot and concentric circle in the middle, with a descending system of hash marks going from the center down.

The hashes get further apart as they descend, corresponding (somewhat) to bullet drop. Often the BDC reticle will be paired with German-style lines at the 3 o’clock, 9 o’clock and 6 o’clock positions, but not always.

Some BDC reticles are referred to as “Christmas tree” reticles. These feature descending and widening hashmarks on the reticle, getting wider the closer they get to the bottom of the reticle.

These serve to compensate for windage, so you can use the scope instead of the Kentucky variety. Designs vary widely; we could devote an entire series of articles to just BDC reticles and their minutiae alone.

FinDot reticle, a type of mil-dot reticle with a holdover bracket for rangefinding. Image: Francis Flinch [CC BY 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Then we have the mil-dot reticle. The mil in this case does not stand for “military,” though they are commonly used by militaries worldwide. It stands for milliradians, which are the spaces between the dots.

What is a milliradian? Please be gentle, comments section, as this is the Reader’s Digest version.

So, you see a particular picture through your rifle scope. Since there is a floor and a ceiling to that picture – and the earth is curved – that picture, therefore, could be considered a slice of a pie (see below).

The distance between you and the target is the radius. The angle of the arc of the “slice” is the radian, and a milliradian is 1/1000th of the length of that arc.

Graphic representation of 1 milliradian. Image: Last revision by Stannered, original image by Ixphin. [CC BY-SA 2.5], via Wikimedia Commons

Each “mil-rad” gives you an angular measurement, which corresponds to a distance proportional to the distance to the target. One millirad is 10 cm at 100 meters, but is 1 meter at 1000 meters, the same way one minute-of-angle is 1 inch at 100 yards but 10 inches at 1000.

If you know how many mil-rads are between the dots or hashes in a mil-dot scope (say three marks equals 1 MR) you can then judge distance to the target and therefore calculate holdover.

The mil-dot scope reticle is designed to give you the most information possible at once, so you can therefore place your shot accurately. If you miss, you can also recalculate more easily for follow-up shots. Many other reticle types do not give you the requisite information to do that.

Now, I mentioned hashmarks in other scopes. The same idea is also at play as many riflescopes have hashmarks that are designed in minutes of angle (MOA). With that said, the precise number is entirely dependent upon the particular scope you’re using, so whether it’s a Vortex Diamondback, a Leupold Mark IV, or a Redfield, you have to read your owner’s manual thoroughly.

However, once you understand the hashmarks on your reticle, you can use them to calculate drop…provided you know your drop at the right range and at the right magnification.

There are additional variations on these types of reticles, with additional features such as the SVD reticle (basically a mil-dot BDC with windage compensating marks) rangefinding reticles (usually duplex with a “Christmas tree” for windage/drop) and others. However, these are the basic types of reticles that you’re likely to find.

If you think any important ones got missed, or wish to expand on anything discussed here, feel free to do so in the comments! If you have finally accepted the fact that having a designated hitter is absolutely wrong, sound off in the comments! Heck, just leave a comment for no reason if you feel like it.

comments

  1. avatar Marc says:

    The DH is always wrong, and has always been wrong. Sacrifice blunts, double switches….

    Baseball can be a sublime game.

    1. avatar Gov. William J Le Petomane says:

      What’s wrong is watching pitchers try to hit.

  2. avatar possum, destroyer of arachnids says:

    I have a weaver K4 with dual cross hairs, the top one is a little thinner then the rest. Is this some sort of range finder or bdc, I’ve used it for both but do not actually know why the factory designed it.bits old, made if steel.

    1. avatar possum, destroyer of arachnids says:

      bits= it’s. if = it’s.

  3. avatar george burns says:

    You got one that says shoot now stupid?

  4. avatar Nunya says:

    What is MOA? you just started using that without defining it.
    nice. Now I have no idea what you are talking about and this article is worthless… all over the place. Wondering with no focus and few definitions.

    1. avatar Gov. William J Le Petomane says:

      There’s 360 degrees in a circle and 60 minutes in a degree and 60 seconds in a minute. If you have a 100 yard range the diameter of the circle is 200 yards, times pi and you’ve got the circumference, divide by 360 and you’ve got a degree, divide by 60 and you’ve got a minute (of angle) or about an inch at 100 yards.

  5. avatar Pa John says:

    CHEVRON Reticle: ^

    Primary Arms Silver Series 1-6x24mm SFP Rifle Scope Gen III – Illuminated ACSS-300BO/7.62×39
    https://www.primaryarms.com/primary-arms-1-6x24mm-sfp-scope-w-acss-300blk-7-62×39-reticle

    I have one of these ACSS reticle 7.62×39 / .300BLK 1-6x variable SFP scopes on a Polish AK-47 (AKM) and I know someone who has the same model on their .300 blackout AR. We both like these just fine, especially for the sub $300 price. This is a Chevron (^) style reticle, etched into the glass for easy visibility during daylight use and illuminated for darker lighting conditions. Being a second focal plane (SFP) scope, it needs to be understood that while the ACSS chevron reticle stays the same size as you zoom in and out, so it can act as a kind of illuminated red dot sight at closer 1x distances, and as a fast range finder / BDC at full 6x zoom, it is only _accurate_ as a range finder / bullet drop estimating device at full 6x zoom. When at full zoom, the width of the descending horizontal BDC lines are calibrated for 18 inches, the average width of a man’s shoulders, so these work well for quickly estimating distance on full sized human silhouette style targets commonly used for practice. (Standard “Stop Signs” are 30 inches wide for one common example, and you can fill in the blanks for guesstimating distances using other various common objects of known approximate size, like 14″ – 15″ car wheels and etc.)

    They also of course make a .223/5.56 / .308 version that a lot of folks speak highly of as well. These struck me as good no-nonsense close to mid range scopes for just the kind of targets you would be faced with in a societal break down / civil war / SHTF situation, and for generally dealing with two legged predators putting you and yours in serious danger. My aging eyes appreciate all the help they can get: The glass is amazingly good on these – you just have to ignore the low price and actually take the time to look through one of these to fully appreciate the optical quality I suppose.

    So my word for today is *Chevron* (a single “sargeant stripe”), the ^ shaped reticle which some of us folks out here like rather well for close to medium range uses. These include BDC indicators for sub-sonic bullet drop estimates as well, so you guys running suppressed .300BLK may want to take notice. Click the above link and find the images of the reticle and such. Plenty of informative videos on YouTube & Full30.com and etc to see what others have to say. Do your own homework, you may like what you learn! 🙂

    1. avatar Widdler says:

      Agreed, the primary arms acss I have on my AR is pretty sweet. At just a hair under $300 I wouldn’t hesitate to buy it again, it did add a bit more weight than the TRS-25 I had on there but the pros are worth the con at distance.

  6. avatar Someone says:

    “… an FFP reticle will change size relative to target as your magnification changes”
    On the contrary! As the target size increases with higher magnification, so does the reticle size. So in relation to target size, reticle size remains constant at all magnification levels. That’s what allows range estimates at any “zoom”.

    You can still estimate range with SFP scopes with proper hash marks. But only in certain, often times highest, magnification.

    Dan, can’t you find someone who knows what he’s talking about to do these beginner’s guides? (Nick comes to mind.)
    If I was a begginer, trying to start my shooting hobby based on these advices, I would be so confused and misinformed, I would rather take knitting.
    (“Longer barrels stabilize the bullet better and therefore is more accurate”..yeah, right…grumble, grumble…)

    1. avatar SkorpionFan says:

      I agree with “Someone” that these articles need better explanations and graphics.

      The Soviet/Russian PSO-1 reticle is a poor/misleading choice as a Bullet Drop Compensation (BDC) reticle. The main way to adjust for bullet drop is to set the scope elevation turret (knob) to target range (the knob is marked in ranges from 100 to 1000 meters, not MOA or mils), and then aim for the target at the center of the reticle cross hairs. Do not hold over using the reticle chevrons (^) on the vertical crosshair except for this situation: to engage area targets at ranges over 1000 meters, set the elevation knob to 1000 meters, the hold over using the three chevrons for 1100, 1200, and 1300 meters.
      See the wikipedia PSO-1 article for the range finding function and more explanations on this reticle’s features.

      One BDC reticle that I really like is tne Shepherd Scopes DRS (Dual Reticle System). Shepherd used to have great full-page ads in Shotgun News that demonstrated this reticle system better than their current website. Basically, the reticle has a series of circles, each representing an 18″ target in 100 yard increments for ranges of 200 to 1000 yards, arranged in a vertical line below the crosshair center. The vertical position of each range circle matches the bullet drop at that range and the size of the circle matches 18″ at that range. This means you can simple fit an approximately 18″ target (such as the shoulder-to-shoulder distance on a military silhouette target or average adult male or shoulder-to-brisket of deer or ground to back of coyote) into the best fit circle and fire. No math, no moving point of aim from ranging grid to aiming point, no adjusting elevation knobs, etc. Because the BDC reticle is in the First Focal Plane, the aiming/ranging circles are accurate for all zoom settings, not just the maximum zoom like on some other BDC scooes. Of course, you need to select the factory reticle that matches the cartridge you are using.

      I have used a Shepherd scope out to 600 yards, and like it. I would love to see a TTAG article compare 5 (or more) different BDC scope systems.

      1. avatar Knute(ken) says:

        And what’s with lumping the German reticle in with the duplex? There must be a hundred duplex’s out there for every german reticle. I’ve had hundreds of scopes, and only a german reticle twice. Never liked them, but that’s probably because I’m out west in Montana, where the shots tend to be long, and the thick post covers up the game when I hold over. If I hunted in Germany, and my longest shot was a hundred yards, I’d probably think they’re the shit. Good in low light, AND a good accurate aiming point…. out to a couple hundred yards or so.
        If I never had a longer shot than that, then I would never run into the problem of the post covering up the game. But I do, so I like mil dots instead. Lacking that, a plain duplex is fine also. The thick part of the bottom post is far enough down so as not to obscure the target, at least at any reasonable range.

  7. avatar Someone says:

    Beg, bribe or blackmail Dyspeptic gunsmith to do it. Future generations will thank you!

    1. avatar Knute(ken) says:

      I’d tune in just to read that item! I’d like to hear DG’s take on which BDCs are the best… and WHY(more important, at least to me). And the best… but for which purpose and why?
      This one interests me particularly, since I learned hold overs and “Kentucky windage”. As such I’ve never really used the BDC function(although I do use the rangefinding functions, whatever they are) in various scopes I’ve had, since I tend to not change my settings in the field, but just hold off in whatever direction is indicated. You can’t beat this method for speed, but sometimes the extra precision might be worthwhile.

  8. avatar Will Drider says:

    The third image is not a simple crosshair reticle, it’s a “Fine Plex” as the crosshairs are thick on the outside then thin in the center.

    There are two distinctly different Mil Dots: Army Dots a round and USMS Dots are oval: they have different values also.

    In addition to range/magnification, the size of your target should also be considered in reticle selection so as not to obscure it with thick crosshairs, posts or Dots.

    If your simple scope is FFP, you can make range determinations as long as there is a difference in the reticle hairs (plex for example) and you know what the measurement between points displaces at distance/magnification, and have knowledge of target size.

    If you don’t know the actual ballistics trajectory of your chosen ammo when fired from your specific gun, don’t bother wasting money on scope/reticle capabilities you’ll never get any practical benefit from. X inches high @ 100yards or a MPBR Zero will still get the job done as it has for the last 50 years. Don’t be that guy with the 4lb NightStrikeStalker mil/bdc super zoomer that doesn’t know the basic math to use it. Lol

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