courtesy Vista Outdoor
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By Pete Nealen

There are a lot of optics on the market now, more than ever before — and mostly better than before. From red dots to prism scopes and low power variables to high-power long-range scopes, technology, and design innovation steadily expand the pool of options. As a result, there’s something for just about every task and budget out there. One choice to make when selecting an optic is that of FFP vs SFP: First Focal Plane vs Second Focal Plane.

So what’s the difference, and how does that affect your choice of optic?

First Focal Plane vs Second Focal Plane

The military has increasingly turned from the old, fixed-power ACOG/RCO to low power variable optics or LPVOs. The Army recently adopted the 1-6x SIG TANGO6T as the Direct View Optic, and the Marine Corps has begun to field the 1-8x Trijicon VCOG as the Squad Common Optic. Variable power optics use in the military is on the rise and have been for some time.

Most long-range scopes have been variable power for a long time, mainly within the 3-25x range. For example, the old Schmidt & Bender M8541 Scout Sniper Day Scope had a 3-12x range. However, quite a few modern long-range scopes go up to 25 or even 35x.

Higher magnifications allow greater focus and easier target identification at the range. In contrast, lower magnification allows a much wider field of view, helping with more rapid target acquisition.

Trijicon 1-8x28 VCOG
Trijicon 1-8×28 VCOG

If you’re looking into optics for the first time, you’ll find a pretty wide range of options and price points. You can even find higher magnifications at pretty reasonable prices.

Some of that comes with a tradeoff, however. You will generally find the lower-priced options are second focal plane or SFP optics. In contrast, first focal plane scopes in the same magnification range are usually priced a couple of hundred dollars (or more) higher. Why is this, and what’s the difference?

First Focal Plane & Second Focal Plane

The second focal plane puts the reticle—which is etched on glass—behind the magnification lens. That means that the reticle stays the same size regardless of the magnification dialed on the scope.

There are pros and cons to this. It’s easier to produce (hence the lower price tag). It makes the reticle easier to see at any magnification since the reticle itself doesn’t change size.

However, that becomes a problem if you’re using the reticle for measurement, ranging, or hold-overs (using the reticle itself to adjust the elevation and windage for a shot instead of dialing the scope). With a second focal plane scope, the reticle is only effective (unless you’re dialing) at one magnification.

Again, this isn’t a problem if you’re dialing your scope. On a properly zero’d scope, the round should go wherever you put the crosshair, so there’s no need for holdovers. If you’re going to be ranging, you’ve probably already dialed the magnification up for greater precision, anyway. Of course, that’s presuming that you aren’t using a laser rangefinder for that task. Just remember…batteries die.

Here’s a question that the author has asked a few times: “If the SFP reticle is only good at one particular magnification, why built a variable-zoom optic at all? Why not just make it a fixed-power scope?”

Unfortunately, it appears that, outside of prism scopes, fixed power rifle optics aren’t available, or at least not readily available, these days (though someone will doubtless be able to name one to prove me wrong).

There’s a case to be made for using the variable zoom for spotting. Higher zoom results in a smaller field of view and makes it harder to pick up a target. So, with a second focal plane scope, the shooter can dial the magnification down, find his target, dial it up, range it, dial his elevation and windage, and engage.

Some long-range shooters have come to prefer second focal plane scopes because the reticle size doesn’t change, especially if they’re not worried about ranging. If they’re dialing their holds — elevation and windage — then the mil or minute of angle marks in the reticle matter less.

This does, of course, depend on the reticle.

As you may have gathered, first focal plane scopes place the reticle in front of the magnification lens, resulting in a reticle that shrinks or grows as the magnification is adjusted. That means the reticle’s tic marks or gradations always cover the same minutes of angle or milliradians, regardless of the magnification level. The measurements of the reticle are accurate at any magnification. 

That can be really useful for rapid ranging or engagement at distances without dialing the magnification up or setting the turrets. While that might be of limited use in a more simplistic reticle, with a mil grid like the HorusVision Tremor or the Schmidt & Bender GR²ID reticles, there is little need to manipulate the turrets once the optic is zeroed.

The shooter can accomplish all adjustments using holds. But those holds would be dependent on magnification in a second focal plane scope. In contrast, the shooter can range, engage, and adjust at any magnification with a first focal plane. It makes engagement far quicker. That might be much more of a tactical consideration than for, say, competition or hunting. But it is still a valid consideration.

In many ways, this choice does depend on your budget and requirements. Many with a sniper background (including the author) still question the point of a second focal plane variable optic. Others argue that the reticle on a first focal plane optic gets too small at lower magnifications and too large at higher, obscuring the target.

In fact, I tested this very thing on a telephone pole at 2163 meters, using a HorusVision Falcon at 20x. At that extreme distance, the HorusVision reticle, at least, still did not obscure the entire pole, which is a target about roughly 14 inches wide.

Dialing holds can be far more precise than holding, especially if your reticle isn’t as “busy” as a Horus or a GR²ID, or one of the other “Christmas tree” reticles out there.

Many second focal plane scopes have considerably simpler reticles with a couple of MRAD (milliradian) or MOA (minute of angle) marks on the branches of the crosshair.

Leupold second focal plane SFP reticle
Second focal plane HTMR reticle courtesy Leupold

Even with the older mil-dot reticles like the M8541s, holding often meant a certain degree of guessing, as the crosshair would be off in space somewhere outside the target. In that case, the shooter would be better served by dialing rather than holding, which diminishes some of the weaknesses of the second focal plane scope.

Leupold FFP PR2 Mil reticle
First focal plane PR2-Mil reticle courtesy Leupold

So the choice boils down to a couple of factors. First, what are you looking to do with your optic? Rapid engagement at various ranges would probably be better served with a first focal plane scope with a grid reticle of some sort. That could apply either to tactical situations or stalk hunting.

On the other hand, if the shooter plans on stationary shooting, be it bench shooting for load testing, stand hunting, or even slower-paced long-range engagements, then a second focal plane optic might be acceptable.

Finally, there’s the matter of price. Good glass isn’t cheap and cheap glass is rarely good. A first focal plane reticle will drive the price up at least a hundred bucks or so, depending on the brand and model scope you’re looking at. On the other hand, if budget is an issue, then the relative weaknesses of a second focal plane can be worked around.

After all, riflescopes are tools. They aren’t going to do the work for you, but they can make it easier. If you get the results you’re looking for with the tool you can afford, nobody can tell you that you did it wrong.

A good shooter with a budget, second focal plane scope, who can regularly ring the steel at a distance is better off than the sloppy shooter who can’t get on paper with his much more expensive first focal plane optic.

 

Pete Nealen is a former Reconnaissance Marine, a veteran of Iraq* and Afghanistan**, and more than a bit of a Renaissance Man. In addition to a number of online articles for various publications, Nealen has written more than two dozen novels and a couple of non-fiction works. When he’s not penning action books or musing about the Triarii he can be found…actually, that’s really all he does. Plus the occasional freelance article of course. *1st Platoon, Bravo Co., 1 Recon Bn. **4th Platoon, Force Reconnaissance Company, I MEF.

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18 COMMENTS

  1. I almost didn’t read this article, as I didn’t feel there was anything new I could learn about SFP / FFP. However, this is a well written article and I will be linking this to help educate some of my “students”.

  2. Very interesting! FYI 704 Tactical has a review of the Tango6T on Youtube. And he gives it a big thumbs up. I’ll never spend the dough for this but maybe one will fall off the back of a truck😉

  3. I personally don’t see the advantage of a FFP scope. If you’re shooting a round with .308 or flatter trajectory it will hold a /-3″ zero past 250 yards, and I don’t figure I’ll be shooting deer at 300 yards with the scope on 3x anyway.

    • Governor Le Petomane,

      I gather that the advantages of a first-focal-plane scope come into play at much longer distances (well beyond 250 yards when wind drift and bullet drop become significant) and when you want to use the hashes/dots on your retical to determine distance to target.

      If you know the distance to your target and your bullet drop at that distance is 10 m.o.a. for example, you can simply put the 10 m.o.a. hash/dot on your target and squeeze the trigger without any concerns for your current optical magnification (on a first-focal-plane scope). That is a handy feature.

      Similarly, if you do not know the distance to your target and you want to get a reasonably accurate range to target, you can compare the relative size of the target to your retical’s m.o.a. hashes/dots which tells the distance without any concerns for your current optical magnification (on a first-focal-plane scope). (Note: there are “standard” target features with known sizes which correspond to m.o.a. at various distances.)

      Now, having said that, it would be relatively easy to generate the same functions at “long” ranges with a second-focal-plane scope if you always use the same magnification at “long” ranges, which is likely to be a given anyway. If you go this route, you must accurately determine how many minutes-of-angle (m.o.a.) correspond to your scope’s hashes/dots at your preferred/default maximum optical magnification. And that is a pretty simple process–just place a 10-inch square piece of paper at 100 yards, set your scope’s magnification to your default/preferred maximum setting, look into your scope, and see how many hashes/dots it takes to span that piece of paper. If that paper fits exactly between two hashes/dots, then you know that your hashes/dots are 10 m.o.a. apart.

      On that last point, note that you might want to use a 20-inch or even a 30-inch square piece of paper at 100 yards depending on how close your hashes/dots are on your scope’s retical. Somewhat related, if your paper spans 1.7 hashes/dots at 100 yards, you can increase or decrease your scope magnification until that paper spans a non-fractional number (an integer number for Math whizzes) of hashes/dots and make that your new default/preferred magnification at “long” ranges.

      And now you know … (long pause) … the rest of the story.

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  6. Just a couple things…

    First, excellent article!

    I also come from a sniper background. The fixed power optic you wrote that someone would likely mention would be the original scopes that came with the M24 (specifically the MK4, and the M3 Ultra before that). They were fixed 10x, but like you said, they might not be readily available. The elevation turret was 1 MOA per click… not 1/4, not 1/2, one whole MOA per click. (Windage was 1/2 MOA per click though) And the reticle was a mil-dot reticle….

    I have a point regarding whether dialing or holding is more precise. One school of thought is that dialing involves moving parts, whereas holding relies on an etched reticle, meaning holding could be more repeatable over dialing. Creating the sight picture is likely more precise with dialing over using a hold, even if using a holdover reticle as you mentioned. Using the center of the crosshair is simply more intuitive. But introducing the movement in the tube housing via dialing may also introduce some imprecision. Just a thought.

    • Guth Rader Binsburg,

      “But introducing the movement in the tube housing via dialing may also introduce some imprecision.”

      I had the same thought strictly from a logic/design perspective. (I do not have any first-hand experience.)

      All mechanical devices involve tolerances and those tolerances would have to be super extremely tight in order to maintain accuracy when amplified significantly, such as happens in a rifle scope when shooting long distances.

      Note that higher optical magnifications (say, 12x or greater) amplifies errors due to tolerances. Also, tiny mechanical errors due to tolerances translate to large errors in point-of-impact when shooting long distances. This last detail is due to simple geometry: an angle error of 0.1 degrees produces a relatively small error at close distances and a relatively large error at long distances. This is exactly the same dynamic at play when we speak of a short “sight radius”. (A tiny error in the short sight-radius of a handgun causes large errors at “long” distances.)

      I am pretty confident that there are expensive scopes which maintain super-tight tolerances and allow you to accurately (and repeatably) dial-in holdover. Likewise, there are less expensive scopes which do not.

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  8. I don’t understand, the Army is replacing the ACOG with an actual scope? Doesn’t make much sense. If you need a scope it does, but even in AFG I preferred the ACOG on dismounts. I guess it’s all relative to what you are doing. Certain team members will have certain gear, as usual.

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