Josh Wayner for TTAG
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Josh Wayner for TTAG

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.

Leupold Mark AR in a Leupold mount (Josh Wayner for TTAG)

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.

SWFA SS 3-15×42 in Midwest Industries QD mount. I highly recommend this mount. (Josh Wayner for TTAG)

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.

Leupold Mark5 HD 5-25 in a Leupold mount (Josh Wayner for TTAG)

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.

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  1. I’m new to scoped rifles and am looking for something for a Remington 700 tactical in 308 with a 20″ barrel. I know too little about scopes but would like advice I guess as to a good scope for a good price. I guess this article kind of tells me three varieties but my guess it’s rifle specific. Am I wrong?

      • The range has 100 yards to 600 yards but I’ll be starting at 100 and I think given the length of barrel I probably won’t be taking that out to 600 too often.

        • You could do 600 with a 20” .308. It’ll take some practice and some time, but I’ve seen guys make 600 yard shots with milspec ARs and basic scopes.

        • A 3-9x is enough for 600 yards but it is nice having a little more even at 100. The other question would be how much weight and bulk do you want to deal with. As you crank up the magnification you need a bigger objective lens (so you’ll need the scope mounted higher) and you’re usually dealing with a longer, heavier scope. And you’re going to want to up the budget for more magnification as well. Consider that if you’ve done some shooting with irons, a 9x scope makes 600 yards look like 67.

        • Also the 20″ barrel is no problem even out to 1000 yards. You’ll lose ~80-100fps off a 24″ but it will actually be stiffer than an equally thick but longer barrel (i.e. more accurate).

        • Guv, that’s funny. My last trip to the range to try out my 44mag rifle with buck horns made 100 yards look like 670. Getting old is a bitch….

      • My “go to” rec for a 308 expected to be used inside of 1000yds would be to get the nicest FFP 4-16 or 3-15 you can afford and be done. I have two different 308s one with a 4-16 FFP Vortex PST Gen1 and another with a US Optics LR17 3.2-17 representing two opposite ends of the spectrum on price/quality but both accomplishing the same thing.

    • Hasty, I have two 308 Win in Varmint style, not dissimalar to a tactical. I use a Nikon M-308 on my Howa Varminter and a Hi-Lux Leatherwood 4-16 on my Mossberg MVP Varmit. Both are very good and are 2nd Focal Plane. Nikon was 499.99 and the Hi-Lux was 89.99. I am sub-moa with with the Hi-lux out to 300yds. If Sportsmans Guide still had them I would order another for Just In Case. There is a lot to be said for getting what you pay for but that doesn’t always mean a lower price is Junk as is the case with the Hi-Lux. The Hi-Lux brand is what Carlos Hathcock used so if it’s good enough for him…

    • Hasty Buford,
      The scope you get should be compatible with your intended use and your budget. From your comments, I surmise that you plan on using the system for recreational target shooting, but not hunting or competition? Will you be shooting steel, paper, or both, when you get out to 600 yards, and beyond?
      “Buy once, cry once” is a good mantra, but many folks get by with optics that are of medium cost. But if you are like me, once you hear that steel ring-I rarely shoot paper unless I’m doing drills or sighting in and checking my zeros- you will be hooked on a craft that can be frustrating and thrilling, depending on how you are shooting that day. It can also become very expensive, if you let it, but it doesn’t have to be!
      A good starting scope if you aren’t hunting might be the SWFA fixed 10 power. It’s under 400 dollars-the last I looked, and ten power is perfectly fine for distances out to 1,000 yards. High magnification is not always your friend! They were known to be very durable, back in the day. The reticle is very simple, but serviceable for ranging targets at unknown distances. Also, the tracking-does the reticle move precisely as dialed?- is very good. Avoid BDC scopes like they were the plague!
      A couple of other things to keep in mind. The industry is evolving quickly, so the companies that were the top dogs three years ago may no longer be now.
      Also, if you can find someone who knows his or her stuff for sure, see if they will take you under their wing. Once you start wanting to reach out further than 800 yards, which is generally the max effective range of the .308, there are a lot of subtleties that need to be addressed before you start throwing rounds down range. Heck, even a couple of hundred yards can be a problem if your fundamentals aren’t up to snuff.
      I found the Sniper 101 series on YouTube to be quite helpful in learning the science behind long range shooting. Search Sniper 101, Rex Reviews, or Tiborasaurus Rex and you’ll find all the info you can digest. I’m pretty sure Rex has a fairly recent video on the top scopes by budget that he’s come across recently. He also explains how to evaluate what you need to look for in a quality scope in the series.
      Good luck!

      • Great intel sharing Sarge !! Beginners Guide? Many scopes listed run $700+ which is not necessary with a 308. There are many scopes for around $500.00 for that round. If you want to shoot beyond a 1000 yd would recommend starting with a 6.5-338.
        That’s when the real money scopes come in to play.

    • Hasty Buford,

      I have often heard one rule-of-thumb, “Spend the same amount of money on your rifle scope as you spent on your rifle.”

      I believe that is a useful guideline which should narrow down the field quite a bit.

      Before anyone can give you good advice on which type of scope would be appropriate, we really need to know two important details about your desired use:
      (1) What is the minimum range and maximum range that you want to shoot?
      (2) What is your intended application? Just plinking for fun? Hunting medium game out to 200 yards? Hunting medium game out to 400 yards? Precision shots at known ranges up to 800 yards? Precision shots at unknown ranges up to 800 yards?

      • Hmm… I thought it was half as much on the scope as the rife. Anyway, I think it’s a lot more subjective than it used to be. First, there have been some great strides in inexpensive but reasonable quality scopes and even bigger strides in budget rifles lately. If you’re paying big bucks on a rifle these days it’s either a way overpriced AR or something that’s more for looking at than shooting. And you’re probably never going to shoot that safe queen in twilight, so the biggest factor is not being embarrassed when someone at the range notices ‘Tasco’ written on the side of your scope. On the other hand if you’re trying to make 400 yard shots on a 17 pound fox just after sunset you’re going to need a fairly serious scope for that.

        Personally, my rifles are mostly shot in broad daylight at 100 yards, and while I’ve never paid more than $400 for a scope, I can attest that even in those conditions it’s worth spending at least $200 and you won’t be disappointed if you double that. If there’s something I don’t know about a $2000 scope then I’m happy to go on living in blissful ignorance. On the other hand, if you’ve got it, you can’t take it with you so you might as well enjoy it while you’re here.

        • Gov,
          Everything depends on your application.
          I don’t hunt, but I want my equipment to be reliable for my application.
          Sub $500 scopes for the ARs, much more for the scopes for the precision rifles.
          The old rule was 2:1 scope cost to rifle cost.
          But, as you say, better rifles, better scopes these days

        • For the record, I am a bit of a tightwad, Sarge. But I could see myself dropping a grand on a scope, but not two. I had a Remington 700 VTR (.308) with a Bushnell Engage 4-16x but sold it to help fund a medically mandated unpaid vacation. So I might be looking to do an upgrade on that in the not too distant future. One other thing I’ve learned is that the rifle retains more of it’s resale value than the scope, so there is that.

          • Gov,
            Sorry that you had to sell your rifle!
            I got my start in firearms a bit later in life, so I don’t have a lot of guns; and since I’m retired, not a lot of extra funds. One thing I learned fast was to buy quality goods, suited for my purpose, within my means. I had to retire to be able to access the funds for the rifle, scope, and training that I needed to maximize my ability to hit small targets at long distances.
            As an aside, I have a Kahles on one of my precision rifles, and one of the guys I’ve had as a trainer asked his wife to buy him the same model! It will last me for as long as I’m able to pick up the rifle and get it to the range!
            One last thing, for the folks who talk about a scope’s warranty. I believe that the warranty should be the last thing to take into consideration when buying a scope. Yes, things can go awry with a $2,000 scope, but a company that can afford to replace broken scopes time and time again is not losing money when they do so. A company that makes quality scopes is still going to stand by their product, but they are more likely to make a scope that works right from the start!

        • Well I was able to keep the firearms that garnered a deeper emotional commitment. That was my tactical sniper type set up. Right now I don’t have anything over 9x. I was thinking of replacing it with a Weatherby Vanguard HBAR in .308 (there’s somebody selling 5 of them on Gun Broker for $445 shipped right now, but I’m not even back to work until next week) and spending a little more on the scope. Maybe getting up into the 18x or 24x range. Probably be a year or so before I get to that though.

      • “Spend the same amount of money on your rifle scope as you spent on your rifle.”
        I was given my rifle, guess even a cheap scope will exceed that ratio and be to much for the gun.

    • Hasty,
      I have had very good results from Nikon Prostaff 7 3-12x scopes. I find them to have very good clarity, repeatable adjustments, and convenient features such as turret parallax adjustment, quick focus ocular lense, 1/4 MOA adjustment resolution and generous eye relief. They have 30 mm tubes for a large adjustment range and Nikon’s Spot on compatibility. They also have instant reset zero turrets. This power range is very good for out to 600 yards. They can be had for~$350.

    • A scope is not at all rifle specific. Just zero it properly. Know what you want the scope for. 4x is plenty for most hunting in the east.

    • Sounds as if you haven’t made up your mind as yet. You talk of 30 caliber rifles, and then mention 20″ barrels, which sound like carbines to me. Either might serve, but the difference between 20″ and 24″ barrels translates to a couple hundred feet per second difference in velocity, and with Iron Sights, which I personally prefer, to each their own, sight radius. Hunting never much interested me. I shot National Match Course Competition, and long range for quite a while. Sad to note, it seems to me that good iron sights have become rare.

  2. ‘I would struggle to find a better option in the price range of this class of scope to recommend.’

    I bought a Mark AR 3-9×40 for my Ruger Hawkeye RSI .260 and I couldn’t agree more. Unfortunately every single one of the AR line now says ‘no longer for sale’ on Leupold’s website. Maybe they’ll come out with a new line that comes with lens caps.

    • Does anyone have any experience with Leupold’s VX-Freedom line? I noticed they have an MRAD model ($250 at Midway) that’s almost identical to my Mark AR only with the MRAD reticle instead of duplex, and they’ve also got a Bushmaster and a .350 Legend model. If the optical quality is on par with the Mark AR I’d say that’d be the way to go in a sub $300 scope.

  3. I try to avoid posting negative comments. But this is not a guide. This is an advertisement for 3 specific scopes.

    If you want to help beginners, inform them about all the different features of scopes. Show advantages and disadvantages. Cover the types of reticles. Don’t assume that readers know the difference between MIL and MOA. Explain why FFP is useful rather than just how it appears. What does better glass provide and why it’s needed? Justify the expense of better scopes.

    A beginner’s guide needs to be written for beginners.

    • Agreed. More of a personal recommendation for noobs article.

      What about optic quality?
      How about what eye relief is all about?
      What makes some scopes better suited for specific calibers?

      So many more “beginner guide” questions to be asked.

      • Agreed again. This was a brief review of three different scopes. Not an article on optics nomenclature and what it means. What to look for in a scope to fill your particular needs, etc. That said, I’ve been using Leupold Gold Ring products since 1983. Between scopes, binoculars and a spotting scope I must own close to twenty. Not counting what’s passed through my hands. Never a minutes trouble. Burris a very close second.

  4. It would be great to have a great scope costing north of 2 grand, but on my budget it ain’t gonna happen. It is going to take a lot of research to find a first focal plane scope for under a thousand, but for just range shooting and nothing more rigorous, I suspect I will find something acceptable.

    • There’s an upside and a downside to the reticle zooming with the scope. The upside is that if you’re using a bullet drop, MOA or MRAD reticle that your ranges don’t change with magnification, but the down side is that the reticle gets thicker as you zoom in. So you might find the reticle too fine at low magnification and too thick at the high end. Personally, I leave the scope on low for quick and close shots and crank it to full power for any longer range or bench shooting, so if anything I’d want a thicker reticle at low power and thinner at high. And I wouldn’t be using the the ranges on the reticle except at high power.

    • Vortex PST Gen2 is probably the only one worth spending any money on. The 3-15×44 FFP goes for $800ish if you are willing to shop/wait for a sale.

      The SWFA model the author mentioned is good too.

    • Mark,

      If you don’t need a lighted reticle, then take a hard look at the Athlon Midas TAC 6-24×50 with the APRS3 (Xmas tree) reticle. The objective adjusts all the way from infinity down to 10 yards. I have a couple of them and they track well. The turrets are excellent. Some people may not like the target dot, but I prefer it for precision shooting.

      It’s a great scope for the price (my last one was $600 new) and Athlon has an excellent warranty.

  5. When purchasing quality optics, bargains are rare. Buy one, cry once, and never look back.

    • There are many used deals to be had though, especially on stuff over 5 years old. I just grabbed an older Leupold Mk 4 for $200. Have less expensive scopes caught up optically? Yep, but there’s still build quality to consider.

      • Especially if you’re buying something like Leupold used.

        If there’s a problem, send it in.

  6. “billmeek says:
    May 21, 2019 at 16:31
    I try to avoid posting negative comments. But this is not a guide. This is an advertisement for 3 specific scopes. ”

    billmeek is correct. As a total beginner to rifle scopes I thought, alright now I’m going to finally learn something. “The windage turret is capped due to the fact that most shooters will usually dial in their elevation and hold for windage.” What the heck does that mean? Between the MIL and the MOA reticle (what adjustments would there be and how would they differ)? Holy smokes,I think I’m back to square one.

    • It’s not nearly as complicated as it sounds. You sight in a scope along the vertical (windage, i.e. left to right) and horizontal (elevation, yep up and down) planes. Hunting style scopes usually have a slot adjustment under a threaded protective cap because you only adjust the Point of Aim/Impact when doing initial sight in. This is because most ethical hunting occurs at relatively close ranges and you just aim a little high or left or whatever. “Tactical” style scopes have external knobs that adjust with specific values, like the volume knob on your stereo. This lets you move your point of aim so that the point of impact is the center of your crosshairs. Fixed power means just that, the magnification is fixed. Variable means you can dial the magnification to anything you wish within the scope’s range of adjustment. I.E. 3×9 means 3 power on the low end, 9 power on the top. First Focal Plane means the crosshairs stay the same relative size throughout the adjustment range. Second Focal Plane means the crosshairs are calibrated to a specific magnification and grow or shrink accordingly.

      • DrewN.
        Ya got that a bit sideways. First focal plane is where the reticle shrinks or grows with magnification, but the subtensions on the reticle remain the same relative to how large or small the target appears to be. If the target appears to be 1.5 mils-I don’t do MOA much anymore-, it will appear to be 1.5 mils, no matter what power the scope is on.
        Second focal plane, the reticle remains the same size, but the target will subtend more or less, depending on the power the scope is set on.
        For ranging targets at unknown distances, SFP scopes need to be set at a magnification that is specified by the maker. FFP scopes, you can range targets at any magnification.

        • I was struggling with how to phrase it in the simplest, most concise way, but your description is def. more accurate.

    • jram01,

      Both MOA and MIL are angular measurements.

      MOA stands for minute of angle. There are 360 degrees in a circle. There are 60 minutes per degree. One minute of angle at 100 yards is 1.047 inches. Round that to 1 inch for easier math. At 50 yards 1 MOA is a half inch. At 200 yards it’s 2 inches. Most MOA scopes have 1/4 MOA adjustments.

      MIL (milliradian) is a different unit of measurement. There are 6.2832 (2x the value of Pi) in a radian with 1,000 mils per radian. A mil is 3.6 inches at 100 yards, 1.8 at 50 yards, and 7.2 at 200 yards. Most MIL scopes have 1/10th adjustments.

      With a first focal plane (FFP) scope MIL or MOA measurements are always going to be the same no matter what power you use. For example 1 MOA is still going to be 1 MOA on the reticle if you adjust the scope from 5x, 10x, or 20x because the reticle scales in size (gets larger or smaller) as you adjust the power of the scope.

      Why choose MOA or MIL? For most people in the USA, MOA is easier to understand by thinking inches at a given distance. You’ll find that the military and many of the precision shooting sports use the MIL system. For example, a spotter at a PRS (Precision Rifle Series) match might say something like “You’re one and half MILs left and 2 MILs low”. It depends on if they have a MOA or MIL spotting scope.

      • If you’re contemplating MOA vs MRAD you might want to run a couple loads for your rifle through a ballistics calculator and see what makes more sense. I’ve got a .260 Rem with an 18.5″ barrel and when I plugged in a couple loads, adjusted for the shorter barrel and the local elevation of ~1000ft I found that sighted in at 2.5″ high at 100 yards (225yd zero) the full mil adjustments come out at 350, 450, 550, 650, 725 and 800, within 1/10th mil. Add 4/10ths for the even hundreds. No cheat sheet necessary.

  7. Question: What is the best buy in a 4x scope for a bolt action sporting rifle chambered in say 7mm Mauser (7×57)? I realize compact 4x scopes exist. I’m especially alluding here to a dual purpose “deer/elk” hunting rifle. Is not the average North American hunter already over gunned and over scoped? Sometimes less is more. Remember too no substitute exists for proper bullet placement and accuracy. With modern powders,
    primers, and bullets all rifle calibers, including 7mm Mauser, .300 Savage, .30-40 Krag, .303 British etc. are vastly improved over what they were decades and generations back. Also, why so many rifle calibers today? Couldn’t we do just as well with 2/3 less rifle calibers. This would simplify ammo logistics, and help end all the confusion. I tend to subscribe to the Jack O’Conner school. Clair Rees and Wayne Van Zwoll are also sensible gun writers.

    • Heck, for medium/big game I might even posit 4x is too much. 2.5 or 3 would suit me just fine for hunting.

    • I’ve used an old Leupold 1.5-5x on a m77 rsi in .308 as an eastern whitetail rig for years. Rare shot over 100 yards. Still my favorite.

  8. Hell, They are all OVERRATED. I duck taped an empty toilet paper roll on my Ithica and can hit just about anything I choose. I went huntin with some fellas that had glass on theirs. They where talkin 40millymeters this and 38millymeters that, getting all metric and everything but at the end of the day I was able to sink more of my decoys than they did.

  9. I own 2 Super Sniper 10×42. Best value I have seen. Sturdy enough to handle my 300 Winchester Magnum.

  10. I only have two what I guess would be called mid-range scopes which cost me about $300 each. Nikon P-223 on my suppressed 5.56 AR and a Nikon P-308 on my .308/7.62X51 AR10. Both from 80% lowers. I have a CenterPoint 3-12X44 on my .458 SOCOM AR ($80) and yes it holds zero. I have a CenterPoint 4-16X40 on my suppressed 300BLK AR. I have 3 AXEON RGB Dot 1X ($40) on one AR15, 300BLK Pistol and on my Stevens 320 20 Gauge. Ana Trinity Force 1-4X28 Assault Riflescope/Red Dot Combo on another AR with the CMMG .22LR conversion kit.
    No problems with any of them.

  11. What is a good set of optics for a 17 HMR type rifle? Probably will be used mostly for ground squirrels and I’m guessing that my longest shot will be 100 yds.. maybe a tad more?
    I see scopes that are designed for rimfire cartridges.. but, I’m guessing some of the standard scopes can well be used on rimfires.
    Thinking on something like a 4.5 – 20 or so with a large light gathering reticle.. but there are so many companies out there that I’m totally unfamiliar with.
    I’d like to spend no more than $250 at discounted prices which might mean $350+MSRP.

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