Optics, particularly for new shooters, can be mystifying. that’s why we’re going to take a (magnified) glimpse into the world of rifle scopes.
While this isn’t an all-encompassing article, it will give you a good idea of what to expect in terms of what you get for your money as well as how to best spend and maximize your dollars.
For the purposes of this article, we will be considering what I will call traditional optics. That mean’s we’ll exclude red dot sights, reflex sights, and thermal scopes. There is far too much to cover on each of those areas. They really need their own articles. The optics I’m talking about here are “normal” magnified rifle scopes.
As a rule, you usually get what you pay for in life. As such, we will be taking a look at three examples of optics in three different price ranges. These give you a general idea of the features and performance you can (and should) expect at various price points.
All are all high quality, but are intended for different purposes. Each is unique and purpose-based, but they are very similar in that they give you bang for your buck…depending on how many bucks you’re willing to spend.
Leupold Mark AR Series 3-9×40 with .1 Mil clicks
The Leupold Mark AR scopes are relatively inexpensive and typically run under $300 retail. These optics are ideal for the hunter with an AR pattern rifle who enjoys his time in the field, but is also not looking to spend a huge sum on optics.
That said, the Mark AR scopes are well made and can easily withstand abuse and recoil. The version pictured here is the now discontinued 450 Bushmaster BDC variant, Leupold makes a number of other scopes in the Mark AR line. It should be noted that Leupold still has 450 BM-specific scopes.
While affordable, this tier of scopes holds zero under heavy use. I tested this scope and hunted with it last fall using a Brenton USA Ranger Carbon Hunter rifle in 450 Bushmaster. The combination was great, but the BDC dial was an excessive feature since the effective range of the 450 BM cartridge is only about 200-250 yards on a good day.
For most people, a 3-9x scope with a 1” tube and standard duplex reticle is sufficient for just about every task related to recreational shooting and hunting. I would struggle to find a better option in the price range of this class of scope to recommend.
It should be noted that this class of optic is second focal plane and lacks the ability to reliably range a target or make accurate holds using the reticle. A bonus feature not present on many in this class is a zero stop for elevation.
SWFA Super Sniper 3-15×42 with .1 Mil clicks
Crossing into the realm of bigger scopes, there’s the SWFA Super Sniper 3-15×42. This is a scope brand that I have used for over a decade. I have owned several over the years and abused badly enough that I’ve managed to break at least two. I’ve dropped them off cars, down ravines, into a stream once, and dunked one into a Georgia swamp. They just keep ticking and they hold zero like you wouldn’t believe.
This class of scope usually has added features such as a selective focus knob and a reticle that has gradations that match the click value. The scope is also set in the first focal plane, which means that the reticle zooms in and out along with the magnification, thus assuring that the measurements on the crosshairs are the same at all magnifications relative to distance.
Since the scope has a mil reticle and mil clicks, it’s able to be used in very creative ways and allows for multiple zeros with different ammo types.
This scope also has a larger tube at 30mm, which allows for greater elevation and windage adjustment. This is necessary not just for long-range shooting, but for anyone who wants to take full advantage of their rifle at any range.
A downside to this scope is that the turrets are larger and can catch on things. I’ve been hunting with it and have noticed that my turrets were suddenly knocked off zero, which made me concerned as to which direction to turn them to return to zero. A bigger scope like this benefits from easy adjustment, but can be a liability in the field.
This scope retails at $700 at SWFA. They have cheaper models that are fixed power and more expensive models with some added features.
Leupold Mark5 HD 5-25×56 with MOA clicks
This beast of a scope is one that I’m especially fond of. The Leupold Mark 5HD (see the full TTAG review here) is probably the scope to have if you can only have one. The Mark 5HD is large, but relatively lightweight, feature-rich, and relatively affordable given its qualities.
The massive scope has a 35mm tube and a length of almost 16”. What that gives you is a huge amount of adjustment range, far more than enough for even the most extreme long-range shooters.
The features that set this scope apart from others are the fact that it has a mechanical zero stop which means that you can lock the turret at zero. That prevents any accidental adjustment. The windage turret is capped due to the fact that most shooters will usually dial in their elevation and hold for windage.
This class of scope is what I consider to be a one-and-done level of glass. If you have several good rifles or AR uppers that you rotate through, you could own this one scope for all of them and save yourself the pain of owning several cheaper ones.
A piece of quality glass like this has many uses on many guns. The MSRP of $2599 is steep for many shooters, but when you treat it as its own item and not just a shooting accessory, you will begin to see its value to you.
When you get this type of scope, you’re not wanting for features and thus there are very few, if any, downsides. The MOA reticle and MOA adjustments make it comparable and a bit more precise than those with Mil features, but that’s a personal preference.
What Is Best For You?
There are many places to spend your money in this life. As noted, you usually get what you pay for, particularly in the area of optics.
For some people, that middle cost range is where the sweet spot is. Others will want to go north or south of that. You will have to decide what’s best for you and your shooting needs.
I subscribe to the old saw that you can never really put too much scope on your gun, but you can put too little.