long range rifle scope
Josh Wayner for TTAG
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Today we are going to be looking at what you get in terms of bang for your buck in terms of optics. Reader ‘Eddie’ is new to long range shooting, but not to guns.

“I really want to know just what makes these expensive scopes so special. I want to know why people say you should spend double on the scope as you do on the gun or something like that. I have started long range and I just don’t think I have the budget for it. What can I do to get away with not spending big money on a scope.”

I’m going to give you the same answer I gave Eddie at the range and it may not be a popular one. But hey, those stimulus checks don’t spend themselves.

The general answer I have for this question is that, particularly when it comes to optics, you get what you pay for with the occasional exception. Then again, old adages like ‘spend as much on the scope as you do on the gun’ or twice the gun cost on the optics is misleading.

If you bought a $10,000 M107 you’re pretty obviously not going to put a $10,000 or $20,000 scope on it unless you want to seriously flex on everyone at the range. I know Barrett owners who use $300 scopes or just an Aimpoint on their fifties and they seem to do pretty well. In their case it has more to do with what their gun won’t break during firing.

That last part there is in general what people miss when it comes to optics. They think that the more expensive, the better…not withstanding the end use of the rifle the optic is being used on.

So many scopes!

The first thing to consider is what you’re trying to accomplish. If you own a $500 rifle that shoots well, you can pair that with a $500 scope and get better general performance. Will your on-target accuracy go up with a $1000 scope? Maybe, maybe not.

There is a such thing as overkill in that I wouldn’t take a plastic-stocked run-of-the-mill supermarket special rifle and put something like my US Optics 5-25X on it. Would a scope like that help that kind of gun? Sure, but you’ll quickly realize that a $4000 scope and mount on a $500 rifle will see poor overall results, not because of the optic, but because lower end guns aren’t going to give you the type of consistency that a high end optic can take full advantage of.

That is why I tend to say that you get what you pay for. The fact is when it comes to guns and optics, they are commonly mismatched. The performance of one keeps you from getting the full potential out of the other.

I’d say that most people out there spend their money on guns and not optics, despite the latter being just as important a part of the equation. I’ve seen $2000 carbines paired with scopes the owner got from Wish.com, wondering why they can’t hit anything or why their gun isn’t accurate.

The ACOG is a great scope, not cheap either.

Matching performance and consistency is the real name of the game here. If you have a quality rifle, you’ll want to shoot quality ammo and use a quality optic so that your system is working at its peak without any weak links.

Take, for instance, some of my guns you see here on TTAG regularly. I have a BRN-180 carbine and a BRN-180S pistol. I use fixed irons and a Trijicon Reflex on the 16” upper and a Geissele Super Precison 1-6X on the pistol.

Why? Well, the pistol upper is more accurate and strongly benefits from a magnified optic. The 16” upper I have on the carbine is less accurate and shoots groups that are double the size of the 10.5” pistol, typically around 3” at 100 meters.

Two Leupold scopes here are in quality rings. These scopes may look similar, but are quite different in their features.

I like the irons and reflex on the longer upper because I can take advantage of a longer sight radius and have more surface area for my hands. It’s a fast-handling carbine and I am getting the most out of it as far as the advantage in parts is concerned. The shorty upper would be wasted with irons and a dot in that I wouldn’t be able to wring the best accuracy out of it like I can with a magnified scope.

My other work guns benefit from expensive optics in that I have custom built 6.5 Creedmoors with custom barrels, actions, and even stocks. These rifles are so accurate that the SIG and USO scopes on them can be utilized to their fullest and track accurately at 1000+ yards.

I’d be handicapping these rifles if I put optics on them that couldn’t take advantage of their inherent accuracy, despite the fact that the rifles themselves would be just as mechanically accurate.

Two perfectly built guns that are compact and accurate. Matching the scope to the rifle is more important than the relative cost.

So now that we’ve muddied the waters, the original question was if Eddie needed expensive glass to shoot long range. The true answer to that is….no. However he won’t succeed in the long run using bargain glass because he won’t be getting the full level of consistency between his gun and scope.

Let’s discuss Eddie’s gear. He was mostly a carbine shooter and had the most experience on AR rifles. Two hundred meters was a long shot for him on most days, but watching him shoot showed me that he was good at it and could easily hit a 10-inch plate with his carbine from standing with an EOTECH on his rifle.

The optic he had was using wasn’t cheap. The EOTECH is a high quality and reliable sight. His carbine was a Daniel Defense and again, not inexpensive. In total he probably had $3500 into his carbine and optic. Keep in mind, though, his optic was only about half the cost of his rifle and to him a $2000 optic for that gun would have been ludicrous.

A low power variable like the Giessele 1-6X here is perfectly matched to the BRN-180S

Long range with an AR carbine is generally about 800 yards, with most being capable inside 600. The little .223/5.56 bullets just run out of gas and get thrown around by even a light breeze.

If he wanted to take full advantage of his rifle from close range to the longest range his gun would be effective, he would be challenged to find a better solution than something matched to his carbine, such as the Trijicon VCOG 1-8x.

The VCOG is a fantastic optic and, while heavy, offers everything Eddie needed. An 8X magnification is plenty out to 800 yards, and considering that the VCOG has a mil reticle, he can zero at 100 or 200 meters, plug in his drop and hold for it. This would be a case of maximizing the performance of the gun and optic together, where right now he has a relatively short-range optic and isn’t taking full advantage of how accurate his carbine truly is.

Looking at it another way, if Eddie has $3500 into his carbine and he considers it to be adequate, what would that same $3500 spent on a new build look like for him? Starting with the optic, he could go with something like the SIG TANGO6 5-30x, which has a street price of about $2,000. The SIG is a top-end production optic.

Now he has $1,500 left in his budget. If he gets a good set of rings and a bipod for $300, that leaves him with $1,200.

Big optic, big turrets. The USO here has an impressive adjustment range.

A high-quality long-range rifle can be had for under that price, such as the Bergara B14 BMP, which retails at around $1,000. If he went with a that he would still have about $200 leftover for accessories and maybe a sling.

The Bergara, while a factory gun, is definitely accurate enough to be used with the SIG TANGO6 and both will compliment each other, thus creating a cohesive rifle that delivers accuracy and consistency.

In conclusion, you really need to match your gun and optic and assure that both are of sufficient quality that they each compliments the other. If your game is long range shooting, optics is the last place you want to skimp. You’ll just be wasting ammunition and money-chasing an ever-shifting zero. That’s frustrating and — especially now — expensive.

Higher end optics, while more expensive, can be a game-changer when used on a rifle that can shoot as well as the glass can track.

Have a question for Josh? Send it to [email protected]

 

 

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48 COMMENTS

  1. Well Josh you surprised me with your answer.
    And it was a very good answer. I figured you were going to say nothing short of the high high gets the job done.

      • I found the article seriously lacking. What do you mean by “long range”, and by “inexpensive”? A lot of people never shoot past 100 yards,. while serious long range shooters go well past 1000 yards.

        I’ve taken my cheap ass $275 pawn shop Savage Axis .270 out to 400 yards with the crappy scope that came on it (though I did recently upgrade to a slightly better Nikon 3-9 hunting scope). I’ve also taken my PSA budget build AR15 ($500 pre covid buipd) out to 500 yards with the Primary Arms 1-8 ACSS scope ($400). With either of them, I can easily and consistently keep the shots within a 6″ circle at 300 yards. That’s generally good enough for hunting or for homeland security.

        I know that isn’t long range. I’d need better gear if I wanted to go 800-1000+ yards.

        Maybe the article should have told people that inexpensive gear can probably get them to 300-500 yards, but that midrange gear would be better past that, and high quality gear is probably needed past 1000 yards.

  2. Good Topic. Be Realistic, is my best advice. A typical AR15/M4 platform is going to print 5 shot groups of between 2.5 to 4 minute of angle, averaging ten 5 shot groups. Yes I know, you rubbed your Rabbit’s Foot once and go a 3 shot sub minute of angle group with you $400 AR parts gun, ONCE. Doesn’t matter the median average of 10 groups tells the whole TRUTH.

    Second thing; most people shoot 200 rounds a year and aren’t very good. Same as if you went out once or twice a year and hit 200 gold balls. That’s O.K., have fun and celebrate your God given rights. The point to remember is that optics don’t make the gun shoot better, they either allow you to see the target better or in the case of a red dot, acquire and shoot the targets faster.

    Third thing; Breathing, trigger control and proper position and sling use (you own a sling-Right?) are fundamentals that need to be mastered. I have personally shot with iron sights
    and hit “Minute of Man” metal targets from 675 yards. I also only landed about 20% of the shots, the rest where misses with a 1901 – $125.00 (in the 1980’s) Swedish Mauser with Mil-Surp ammo. Having a spotter was essential as I couldn’t see my shots landing and it took around one a half to two seconds to actually hear the hit on target, because it was so far away. This was a lot of fun and most of us were able to get at least a few hits at that distance with irons. Not bragging, I have a point here.

    If you put most rifles in a vice and aim them down range, they will score hits, maybe out to a mile, with “Minute of Barn” accuracy or better. When you add a human into the mix, fundamentals, a buddy acting as a spotter and correctly zeroed optics can improve your performance and enjoyment. When you spend more on a optic, you should be getting, better quality glass, better product build quality and if its a military optic, durability. Japanese, German and Schott (Shot) Glass are usually the best. More magnification let’s you see the target better, reduces your field of view and with quality glass, cost a lot of money.

    The longer the range, the smaller the groups, the more you are going to have to spend on a rifle + optics and training for yourself. You can’t buy skill. Semi-Autos are usually less accurate than a bolt gun.

    Sticking with the AR15/M4 platform as an example, a quality red dot sight, with no magnification, will easily allow shooters to hit man sized targets out to 300 meters. A 4x scope, in theory should make a 400 meter target look the same, as a 100 meter target with no magnification. The majority of shooters should be well covered by these two types of optics. HoloSun, Vortex, Primary Arms, Trijicon and AimPoint, all make great optics from $219 up to $1,400 and all will work and work well. Durable, inexpensive optics from good companies is a “Thing” now and I really like the HoloSun Paralow HS503G Red Dot Sight – ACSS CQB Reticle, priced at $219.00, with a weight of around 4 ounces and it comes with 2 mounts as well.

    The WWI Fighter Ace, The Red Baron was quoted as saying, “Its not the crate (airplane), its the man in it” You don’t need to spend a fortune to be the best, but you do have to spend plenty of your time, to get there, Good Luck and Have Fun.

    • Dadgum, I wish that I had 200 gold golf balls sitting around…far better than 200 Krugerrands or 200 Canadian Maple Leafs (quick search gives a volume of around 40 cc’s for a golf ball and gold is roughly 19.3 g per cc plus the conversion from grams to ounces ≈ 27 ounces per gold golf ball)

    • I think your wrong on the golf ball comparison.
      I’ve known many people whom haven’t shot in years still be able to shoot just as good as when they practiced. What goes away with years if you’ve developed good shooting practices?
      Golf’s a little more complicated then sight alignment and trigger control. Your speeds may lack with no practice, that’s about it.

      • What goes away with years if you’ve developed good shooting practices?

        One’s quality of eyesight comes to mind………..you’re not going to have the same 20/20 vision when you get over 40. At 55-60 it starts to fall off fast too.
        When I was 16-20 yrs. old, I could place three .22LR bullets in one hole at 100 yrds on the target bullseye the size one .30 cal bullet would make. And I could do that with nothing more than properly adjusted iron sights….no scope needed. I can’t seem to do that anymore now at 60+.

        • @CB

          Ain’t that the truth! My breathing and trigger control remain very good…however, that damn, slowly-developing, cataract causes flare and loss of visual acuity.

          Getting old is not for the faint-hearted or wimps.

          The current generation(s) of “super shooters” are going to experience a rude awakening in a few years.

        • Definitely. At 65, I need more magnification just to SEE and focus on the target at 100 yards. Sure I can HIT the target, but forget about consistency.

        • “… that damn, slowly-developing, cataract causes flare and loss of visual acuity.”

          Get the surgery, if at all possible. A life ‘lemon’ turned into lemonade for me and I was able to afford the surgery. Now I’m 20/25 at distance when I was 20/400 before.

          And if you have the means to get a better lens implant, all the better. The one I got for 3,000 (both eyes) additional lets me focus at 3 distances. Book reading, computer screen distance, and far distance…

        • @Geoff PR

          Thanks for the heads-up.
          Plan on it as soon as my eye Doc gives the go-ahead. One developing in each eye…neither are to the point of occluding vision, just to the point of affecting my perception of color, contrast and acuity. Trying to talk him into both at same time. Blue Cross will (hopefully) pickup what Medicare doesn’t…if not, that’s what savings are for. Did not know about implant upgrades…will have to mention this omission to my Doc the next time I see him at the range.

        • Preaching to the choir brother. Before my cataract surgery I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. Scary

  3. I thought it was a terrible article. There was no explanation of the reasoning for choices or what you get when you pay more. If you’re spending a sunny afternoon shooting a black bullseye on a whitish background at a known distance, a cheap scooe of the appropriate magnification will do nicely. You can do that with a $300 scope or a $3000 scope, so what do you get for the extra $2700? There are reasons the $3000 scope would show advantages on a rainy/foggy day on the side of a mountain where a creature could pop up anywhere, but it wasn’t discussed.

    • Enjoyed some of the article but yes, it seems to fade into a sales pitch for common high end brands like “when I am on the range and need a refreshing break I usually reach for a Pepsi Cola to help give me a boost before taking that record shot….”
      There was no mention of why the glass quality was different or why a shot would wander off zero with a lower budget scope, no science behind any of it. Truth is more in line with how well you can see with better coated optics, more variability in the scope, 1/2 or 1/4 MOA adjustments instead of 1 MOA, etc…

  4. These “Ask Josh” articles seem to border and the ridiculous.

    “Can I Shoot Long Range With An Inexpensive Rifle Scope?”

    lol….as if….

    At the very least, the title of the article.

    I’m not sure why someone would want a BB gun scope on a $2k rifle for a target a mile away. But I do know that a bullet can go a mile regardless of scope. If you can’t afford atleast $150-$300 for a scope, then why are you paying so much for that precision rifle?

    With many things in life, you get what you pay for. Specs, features, and quality ARE part of the mix.

  5. Josh’s point is well made. Having accepted it, I would welcome articles on value scopes, perhaps under $250 comparisons. I know Natchez sells the Weaver Classic Series as a house brand and have heard favorable things about Cabela’s branded scopes in the past. Car magazines will typically compare vehicles in a similar class such as mid size SUV, economy box, or minivan side by side.

      • Possum, they were on the bench-rest models and mid to lower end. Hence Bushnell’s parent company bought out weaver and canned it. didn’t like the competition. Weavers Tactical line was a excellent buy @ Natchez prices.

  6. Josh Warner you did an excellent article with excellent points. Great way to go about budgeting a rifle, scope, and mount.

    What some shooters like me need now is taking long distance shooting and scope selection one step further with the same logic and purchase strategy in selecting the proper scope with BDC, and/or caliber-specific calibration.

    • Why would you NOT be able to shoot long range with an inexpensive scope? Particularly when “inexpensive” is such a subjective term just like “long range”.

        • First….relax

          About the only thing that made sense in this article was the suggestion to make things match. To that end, I could not agree more.

        • “Has nothing to do with my question.”

          In all fairness, it may not have been deliberate, on his part.

          The New! (and not Improved!) TTAG web code is buggy. It sometimes screws up comment thread replies and sometimes places them elsewhere, like many replies lower, and sometimes with other thread discussions…

        • @Geoff PR

          Yes Sir. I’ve noticed that replying to a specific or individual comment has become much harder and more convoluted.

          That’s why I started including the “@ Geoff…etc” salutation in my recent responses.

          Agree that the new look is clunky, klutzy, buggy and hard on the eyes.

  7. I don’t think price is the dominant attribute that answers the question. Is the optics clear at all power settings (adequate glass)? Does it hold zero (take the shock)? Is the reticle useful (MOA, MIL-DOT, FFP, SFP)? Most importantly does it have the required elevation knob adjustments to be compatible with your definition of long range. By the way medium range is defined starting at 300m (328yds), Long Range (LR) follows at 600m (656yards), Extreme LR at 1000m (1094yds), and Ultra LR at 1600m or (1750 yds). Wish there was a way to stick a table in here. AR-15 6mm ARC using Hornady Black 105gr BTHP drops subsonic at 53.9 MOA, 1250 yards. An M24 300WM at 1780 yards, 73.3 MOA. Creedmoors are in between. Point is low cost scopes with the exception of Millet, usually don’t have enough adjustment for full long range without holdover. Therefore, consider a biased rail to mount the scope. That often makes for a big cost savings and you still get the long range performance. I find cheap Chinese Monstrum G3 FFP 6-24×50 for under $250 meets all of the above attributes on a 6mm ARC. And it comes with rings and honeycomb shade.

    • At Ultra LR and out, a sniper is less a marksman and more like a small-scale artilleryman. Making a difficult distance shot cold barrel involves several environmental variables and a lot of math.

  8. Weird, no mention of objectives sizes, light gathering, optical clarity, turret options, lighted reticle, etc.

    Pretty lazy writing.

  9. No plans on long range shooting. Whatever I can hit man or beast with my AR is ok with me. LPVO…

  10. i cant talk about long range because i havent done it yet
    but from 0-300 yards at my local range ive shot 5.56 sub moa with factory match ammo out of 2 different <$1000 ar platforms with 2 different vortex diamondback scopes that i watched the sales and got for around $200 each
    and ive had them long enough and shot them enough to know that they hold zero
    and for that price they both have bdc reticles and side parallax adjustment knobs
    i would shoot them to 500 yards for sure if given the chance
    on the other hand my son has a $600 leupold vx3i on his 6.5 creed
    its nice alright
    the glass is totally amazing but the eye box and the eye relief and the reticle arent significantly better than any of my ten $100-$300 scopes
    so far ive had good luck operating in that price range
    thats where im staying unless i win a $2000 rifle in a raffle or something…

  11. The guy who calls himself the “roof top Chinaman” is able to hit targets out to 1km using iron sights on a Finnish Mosin M39 with hand loads. Maybe it’s all about skill and an accurate but relatively cheap rifle.

  12. In the Vietnam era Marine infantrymen used irons only on their M-14s and M-16s…wait for it…out to 500 yards. Many, including me, qualified rifle and pistol (1911) expert every yearly qualification cycle…wait for it…for 8 years…until I requested discharge from the service and went to medical school.

    Buy what you can use well. And, nothing more.

    That said, turning turrets to adjust fire on an enemy target takes a lot of time and concentration during a firefight. It’s easier to use a radio to call in artillery on a target 500+ yards away.

    Within that range the Marines developed an aiming technique called “Heart, Head, Hat” but also using irons and another called Maximum Point Blank Range. Firefights are undeniably fast action.

    So, let’s take this discussion a step further. IMHO using an AR-15 in 5.56 rifle scoped WITH THE ACSS reticle is the cat’s meow for those wishing to shoot from point blank out to hundreds of yards without having to adjust elevation or windage. It makes head, heart, hat primitive.

    Try one, you’ll like it

  13. My rifles are for self-protection on my property, so I don’t feel the need to shoot much further than that..

    My longest property line is 200 yds and my 1895 Marlin 47-70 with iron sights is quite good at that distance. My Mossberg 22LR AR15 type, the AR10 & theAR15 all have 3X scopes, which also work quite well at 200 yds.

    The odds of me shooting more than 200 yds are slim to none. A Federal forest starts at the end of my back yard, so even if I wanted to shoot, I would hit a tree within 50 yds or less from the back fence.

    These kinds of articles are technically interesting, but not very useful for me.

    My accuracy experience comes for designing armored vehicles. The 50 cal was on a 2-way motorized turret mount with a camera, and the operator was inside the vehicle. All he had to do was put a circle with his finger around a person on the screen, and no matter how the vehicle or person moved, the 50 cal was always aimed at center of mass.

    Just hit the ENTER key, and he was pulverized… 🙂

    Now to me, THAT’S accuracy… Even an old timer like me could hit any target… 🙂

    • I recall hearing a problem with that system, concerning Desert Storm, when an enemy aimed a shoulder-fired rocket at an Abrams tank, upsetting the operator enough that he neglected to select “coax” prior to firing, resulting in centerpunching the man with the main gun, what, 3 inch cannon? Yeah, it works, but awful messy.

      • I have seen pics and videos of that.

        However, our armored vehicled were wheeled vehicles. There was a rotating turret up top with a 40mm grenade launcher, a 50 cal and a 7.62. It was the M1117 ASV.

  14. The scopes that are made today are of extreme quality compared to the scopes made in years past. Take a scope from WW2, Vietnam and one of $500, the $500 one will be very good. The glass, the features and build materials will be very good. I agree most lower grade scopes that are not made with the care that most brand name are, mostly garbage. However a small handful of affordable scopes are Pretty good. without costing you $3 grand. besides Battle Rifles for the Longest time had Iron Sights go 1000 Yards, think a trooper now can shoot that far with AR Irons alone? nope.

    • Nothing wrong with iron sights, if I can see it I can hit it, a scope sure helps in the seeing department though.

      • putting a scope on an M-4…or something similar….and expecting it to be effective beyond 200 yds is pointless…sticking it on a larger caliber isn’t…

        • What?? M4’s and the like are used all the time in competition at 600 meters or more. I’ve got 3 that will hit the 10 ring at 500 yards without trying too hard and I’m not the best shot. My AR with an 18″ barrel is good to 800.
          Soldiers and Marines have to qualify at 300 and 500 meters with plain jane, half worn out M16s and M4’s. What a non-nonsensical comment.

        • Klaus, I have personally witnessed a 5.56 projectile bounce off the cardboard target backing at 1000 yards, competitors who are near successful at that range are firing special loads which usually will not feed through a magazine. The cartridge was never designed for use at those ranges in the first place, when the platform was adopted for Vietnam, it was difficult to find anywhere incountry to fire at 500 yards.

  15. A few years ago I was looking for a new scope.
    Looking/drooling over various high end scopes, but I got to thinking, how often do I use anything but the max power on my scopes? The illuminated reticule? I could not recall a single time.
    It was close to July 4th and SWFA was having a sale. So, I picked up their SWFA SS 20×42 Tactical 30mm Riflescope. The glass was clear, with no distortions at the edges. I like the reticule. I did the box test and it tracked just as it was suppose too.
    I have shot it atop a bolt action .308WIN, a 10/22, and due to the ammo shortage, it is currently sitting atop a PCP air rifle. With it, I can do the 5-for-5 dime challenge at 35yrds bi-pod prone.

    @LarryinTX,
    I have a Expert rating with the M16A2 service rifle, via the USMC. I have shot NRA High Power with a NM M1A. You are correct about shooting out to 600yrds or more with the 5.56; To be competitive those guys are shooting from 20inch bull barrels, with VLD bullets that exceed magazine length because to get every FPS out of that handload, that bullet is sitting atop a compressed charge.
    Again, those guys are competing at Master or High Master levels.
    With all the new 6.5s and even 6s (David Tubb’s 6XC has been around for a number of years before the 6.5CM came along), I think we are going to see less and less of the 5.56 on the firing line.

  16. I’m a bit late to this thread. I put one of these on a Savage .308 HB and am very happy with it.
    https://www.thetruthaboutguns.com/optics-review-acme-machine-6-24x50mm-ffp-tr-scope/
    Clear glass, fine black lines, turrets click, box test good, ect

    No, I don’t work for TTAG. The Gun and Gear reviews they do are usually spot on. The search feature comes in handy as I don’t like re-inventing the wheel as they say. So a $600 rifle has a $300 scope on it pus rings/mount. I like shooting this rifle. Makes me happy and probably at the end of the day that’s what matters.

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