When it comes to hunting scopes, Leupold has always been my go-to scope brand. I own over 30 samples of their work. They are rugged and durable, resolve detail in low light, and are very lightweight compared to the competition.
Leupold now adds a significant improvement to their venerable VX-3i design: zero lock turrets on their VX-3i 4.5-14×40 CDS rifle scope.
And by “mid-range,” I mean that this scope is, generally speaking, optimized for shots between 100-500 yards. If my typical shot will be from 50-200 yards (as it was when hunting in Louisiana), I prefer something like a 2-7×33 or 1-4×24.
If I’m shooting beyond 500 yards out to, say, 1000 yards (my record is a 735-yard hit on a central Oregon coyote), I really like a 3-18×44 or a 5-25×56. But the 4.5-14×40 is a great scope for generalist hunting in the mid-ranges, particularly if your eyesight isn’t what they used to be.
Another big reason to go with Leupold scopes is if you’re looking for serious weight savings. There aren’t many serious, rugged, 14x scopes that weigh in at 13 ounces.
The trend in the industry is to move to 30mm tubes, which provide a greater turret adjustment range. But most of the scopes in the mid-power range are 4-16’s, and they typically weigh in it at 21-30 ounces.
For example, the Nightforce 4-14×50 SHV is an outstanding scope, but at 30 ounces, it’s a chunky monkey. A 30-ounce scope on a 5 lb. 10 oz. rifle is a no-go for me.
Leupold’s traditional VX-3 line featured capped turrets and weren’t really designed for dialing up your firing solutions. For the most part, that didn’t matter to most hunters, because until recently, the vast majority of hunters only used turrets to zero their scope. They hunters took the vast majority of their game within 300 yards in any event.
However, there’s a trend in the hunting community toward longer range hunting, with 500 to 600-yard shots becoming more commonplace, and a few hunters even venturing out as far as 1000 yards and beyond.
Modern mid to long distance hunters either use the scope’s turrets to dial in their elevation solution, or use a modern reticle with subtensions for elevation holdovers.
Leupold has finally responded to this trend by updating its turrets in a number of ways; Custom Dial System (CDS), zero stop, and, new for 2020, Zero lock.
The CDS system is essentially a bullet drop compensation (BDC) device. With a BDC turret design, the turret is marked in distances (say, 100 yards, 200 yards, 300 yards etc.).
The theory behind a BDC turret is that if the hunter knows the range to the target, the hunter need only turn the dial to that distance hashmark and take the shot. How well the system works depends on a number of variables, including the selected load, the elevation, and temperature.
If the dial is cut specific to a special pet load, elevation, and temperature, the results can be quite impressive. However, BDC dials often give inexperienced shooters a false sense of confidence, particularly if the shot is over 300 yards.
For example, if your turret is cut to 70 degrees at mean sea level (MSL) using Federal 168 grain Gold Medal Match, it isn’t going to work at your elk camp at 7000′ MSL in 35-degree temps using Hornady 178 grain Precision Hunter.
As mentioned above, many of the older Leupold VX-3 turret designs didn’t give you any easy way to remember how many rotations you had dialed on your scope. Zero-stop solved that problem by allowing the shooter to simply dial clockwise until the turret stopped, which brings the turret back to the rifle’s zero.
For 2020, Leupold has added a zero-lock feature to the CDS turrets. This feature allows the shooter to lock the turret at the zero position. This gives the shooter the security of a capped turret, but with the flexibility to dial an elevation solution if the situation lends itself to that technique.
The windage turret remains a capped design, which is reflective of the fact that few hunters will dial windage solutions.
As mentioned above, Leupold’s CDS allows you to switch your elevation turret marking from the MOA standard to a custom BDC turret tuned to your pet load Leupold will send one free laser-marked dial. Again, a BDC turret is marked with distance hash marks in either yards or meters, which allows the shooter to select the desired distance instead of counting or memorizing the clicks.
If you know the distance to your target is, say 300 yards, you just turn the elevation dial counterclockwise until you reach the “3” mark. The system works if the conditions equal the data used to cut the hashmarks on the turrets.
To use the CDS system successfully, the shooter needs to provide Leupold with key data points:
- Cartridge & Caliber
- Bullet Weight
- Bullet Make/Brand
- Bullet Type
- Ballistic Coefficient
- Muzzle Velocity
- Average Elevation
- Average Temperature
- Sight Height
- Zero Distance
It is critical to get this data correct, because garbage data will result in bad shooting results. Muzzle velocity is especially critical.
Once installed, the CDS works well, but is limited insomuch as it is calibrated to only one bullet trajectory, and any changes in bullet grain size, temperature, and altitude can affect the results.
For example, I had some of my turrets cut for an altitude of 4000′ MSL, because that’s the elevation of my practice range. However, if my preferred elk hunting location is at 8000′ MSL, some additional adjustment will be needed to make the system work.
In my experience, if the actual conditions are within 20 degrees of the temperature that you cut your turrets for, the custom CDS turret will still be deadly out to 500-600 yards (+/-). Elevation can also vary up to around 2,000 feet (+/-) or so before problems arise.
Of course, temperature and elevation differences can either be cumulative, or they can cancel each other out, depending on the situation. It takes some thought to factor in the correct adjustment, if any.
If you really want to be high-speed, you can get multiple turrets cut for different elevations and/or temperatures. For one of my rifles, I have turrets cut for 1000, 3000, 5000, and 7000 at 50 degrees F. Changing these turrets doesn’t require re-zeroing, but I usually re-zero anyway if I can.
There’s one limitation inherent with the Leupold dials that you to need to be aware of: because of the zero stop, the CDS system only works with the first revolution of the turret. This equates to 15 MOA of usable elevation adjustment. For my 6.5 Creedmoor, that gets me out to roughly 700 yards at 7000′ MSL. But if the scope if being used on a .308 Win, that will only get you out to 600 yards at the same elevation.
The reticle on my T&E scope is the simple “duplex” reticle. However, Leupold offers other options, including my personal favorite: the Wind-plex reticle. If you are going to rely on your CDS turret to dial your elevation solution, the Wind-Plex reticle is ideal because it gives you points of reference for wind holds while otherwise remaining uncluttered.
The Wind-Plex reticle subtends along the horizontal axis in increments of one minute of angle (MOA). There are 10 “one-MOA” hash-marks in each direction. But you have to remember that on a second focal plane scope, the holdovers are calibrated for only one magnification setting. In the case of the American made VX-3i 4.5-14, the hash marks work at the 14X magnification setting. You can also use them at 7X, but in that case each subtension is 2 MOA.
If the game you’re hunting is too skittish to allow you the time to dial your firing solution, a more complex reticle with subtensions will be your huckleberry. Leupold’s in house design, which is known as the Impact 29 MOA reticle, is a great choice.
Twilight Max Lens Coatings
Leupold has three levels or tiers of lens coating systems: Twilight, Twilight Max, and Twilight Max HD. Think of these three systems as “good, better, best.”
The Twilight Light Management System is the basic series of lens coating that Leupold applies on its budget-friendly scopes such as the VX-Freedom line. It combines excellent image quality, low glare and multilayer lens coating for a bright, high contrast image.
The Twilight Max Light Management System is the mid-tier coating system and is the one applied to the VX-3i scope line. That makes sense, since the VX-3i is now a mid-tier product line for Leupold. Twilight Max has around 12 to 16 total layers – roughly twice as many layers as Twilight.
Twilight Max HD is the same coatings as the Twilight Max, but those coatings are applied to HD optical glass, providing even better resolution, contrast, and color fidelity.
Leupold is pretty tight lipped about the specifics related to the Twilight Max system, but speaking in general terms, anti-reflective coatings maximize light transmission while minimizing lens flare, that annoying haze you see in a cheap scope. The coatings are engineered to help hunters resolve details in low light.
Leupold says that Twilight Max HD delivers up to 30 extra minutes of shooting light, whereas Twilight Max delivers up to 20 extra minutes of shooting light, and the Twilight delivers up to 10 extra minutes of shooting light.
While that information may be useless as an objective measure of quality, it does give you a sense of how Leupold rates their three tiers relative to one another.
For me, if scope weight is going to be one of the most important factors in building a hunting rifle, then the VX-3i line of scopes is the way to go. Sure, the VX-6 line of scopes has better HD glass and a 30mm main tube, but it will add a half pound or more to the rifle’s weight while also lightening your wallet more.
The VX-3i takes weight off your rifle while leaving some cash in your pocket, and when ounces equal pounds and pounds equal pain, trimming weight from your rifle is the right answer. But if you hunting experience involves short stalks or ambush techniques (tree or ground blinds, etc.), the weight may not matter as much to you.
Parallax: Adjustable or Not?
One big decision you need to make when choosing a scope is whether you need a scope with adjustable parallax. As shown in the photo above, this T&E sample does not have adjustable parallax. Rather, the parallax is set at the factory for 150 yards.
This makes it harder to print tiny groups at 50 or 100 yards, and will also have some effect at longer ranges as well. I guess if you can hold your head in the exact same spot every shot, then it doesn’t matter that much, but I find that difficult to accomplish in practice.
Again, whether you want a side-focus feature will depend on the type of hunting you do. If your shots are always within 300 yards and your target is bigger than a golf ball, then you don’t really need it. Likewise, if you’re shooting elk-sized targets inside of 400-500 yards, you probably don’t need it either.
But if your quarry is small (i.e. Belding ground squirrels) or typically found at longer ranges (i.e. prairie dogs), or if you like shooting tiny sub-1/2 MOA groups, then you need either the “side focus” or an adjustable objective (“AO”) design.
For the lightweight Kimber 84M rifle featured in this review, I really wanted the lightest weight scope possible with 15X magnification, so I opted not to get the side focus. I have to say that I really missed that feature, however.
If you are dialing your elevation, your scope’s ability to accurately and precisely “track” is critical, and it’s an area where problems frequently occur. The term “tracking” is used to describe a scope’s ability to adjust elevation and windage correctly, based on being calibrated to a particular angular measurement (either MRADs/Mils or MOA).
As an example, if you dial 10 Mils, a properly tracking scope will raise the bullet strike 3.6 inches at 100 yards and one yard at 1000 yards. You can repeat this test using the windage knob to move the POI 3 inches, 6 inches and 12 inches to the right and left of zero, all while using the same target.
One of my rifles typically needs 11 mils to hit steel at 1000 yards with Federal GMM 175 grain. So when I dial 11 on the elevation turret, I need to be able to rely on the fact that the scope will actually dial exactly 11 mils, as opposed to 10 mils, 12 mils, or even 10.7 mils. If the scope introduces a tracking error, then you won’t have the proper elevation or windage and you will not hit your target.
As mentioned above, the Leupold VX-3i’s zero stop limits the amount of elevation that I can get out of the turret to around 14.5 MOA. For my tracking test, I shot to zero at 100 yards, and then dialed 12 MOA and shot again at my “zero” target. If everything is correct, the scope will group 12.56 inches higher than the zero group. As expected, the bullets struck right above 12.5 inches above the zero target.
One of the sample test targets is shown above. One thing you can see from the target is that my 12 MOA 5-shot group clustered in two very tight nodes. I shot that test group with my new Boyds Spike camp stock. The two nodes tell me that I probably have a pressure point on the barrel and need to inlet the stock a bit more to ensure a free-float barrel.
The other thing you can see is that the Leupold scope properly tracked 12.5 inches up at 100 yards when I dialed a 12 MOA elevation solution. (1.047 x 12 = 12.56 inches).
Gold Ring Lifetime Warranty
I own over thirty Leupold scopes, from simple 3×9 VX-2s all the way up to the uber-expensive Mark 6 3-18×44 and the Mark 8 3.5-25×56. A few of those scopes are shown above.
Needless to say, I have a lot of experience with this brand going back 40 years. I have always thought that Leupold makes a great scope, but the new versions are better than the ones made ten or twenty years ago. The new scopes track better and have better coatings.
If you ever get a tour of the Leupold facility, one definite highlight is the “Punisher.” The Punisher is Leupold’s recoil simulation machine which they use to test their scope designs.
Before moving to production, every prototype has to survive 5,000 impacts on the Punisher, which replicates recoil roughly that of three times that of a .308 Win. round with each impact. Each prototype has to survive 5,000 impacts in order to validate the scope design.
Word is that Leupold engineers hate the Punisher, because if the prototype scope fails to perform in any way during the tests, the engineers have to go back to the drawing board, make adjustments, and test it again.
Maybe that’s why I’ve never had a Leupold scope break on me. I did buy a used 1979 Nikko Golden Eagle rifle for $600 in NRA 98% condition that was equipped with an older Leupold VX-3 3.5-10×40 scope. Unfortunately, as soon as got home, I realized the objective lens could unscrew, which meant the scope’s gasses had purged.
Leupold’s factory is about 10 miles from my work, so I ran over there one day and they replaced that old scope with a brand new VX-3i 3.5-10×40. For Leupold, that was a fair trade to gain my continued confidence in their product: I am a customer for life.
These days, there are tons of new scope “manufacturers” out there. For some reason, guys are always willing to get in line to be the beta tester for some fly-by-night company. Most of those companies don’t actually manufacture anything; they design a scope and have produced in Japan, the PI, or China.
I’ve been shooting for 40+ years, and I’ve seen these companies come and go. Thus, when you think about a lifetime warranty, you have to wonder if your scope company is going to be around ten or twenty years from now when you need it.
Leupold has been around since 1907 and will undoubtedly be around for a good long time. And they will still have that same great warranty they have always offered, even though it’s highly unlikely that you will ever need to use it. That’s one of the reasons I have 30+ Leupold scopes.
I can think of only one reason not to buy this scope for a mid-range hunting rifle. For most situations, I would spend the extra $65 and buy the version of the 4.5-14×40 that features a side focus (parallax adjustment) turret and Wind-plex reticle (SKU 177820).
At 15.8 ounces and the need for heavier 30mm rings, the side focus model will impose a weight penalty, but that is probably worth it on anything other than a mountain rifle.
Specifications: Leupold VX3i 4.5-14×40 CDS Rifle Scope
Length (in) 12.60
Weight (oz) 13.00
Eye Relief (in) – Low 4.40
Eye Relief (in) – High 3.70
Objective Diameter (in) 1.60
Reticle: Duplex (Wind-Plex optional)
Linear FOV (ft/100 yd) – Low 19.90
Linear FOV (ft/100 yd) – High 7.40
Elevation Adjustment Range (MOA) 64.00
Windage Adjustment Range (MOA) 64.00
Made in America
MSRP: $779.99 (about $600 retail)
Ratings (out of 5 stars):
Quality: * * * * *
Like all Leupold scopes, the VX-3i 4.5-14×40 is very well made right here in the USA is and backed by a great lifetime warranty.
Durability: * * * * *
I haven’t had the opportunity to take this particular sample out for a hunting season yet. However, I’ve used other Leupold scopes since the late-1970s and never had a problem. Scope image quality and low light performance are getting better and better, so I have replaced most of my older scopes even though they still technically work.
Glass: * * * * *
The VX-3i’s glass is not the best glass Leupold offers, but it is better than anything in its price class. These scopes work very well in low light. If you want better (i.e. HD) glass, you will have to pay for it.
Reticle: * * *
My T&E sample VX-3i 4.5-14×40 came with the basic “duplex” reticle. I would really have preferred the Wind-Plex reticle, so I will probably have Leupold swap it out at some point.
Overall: * * * * *
The Leupold VX-3i is the standard by which all other mid-priced scopes are judged. The glass is great, the scopes are rugged, and best of all, they are incredibly lightweight compared to the competition.