Ideally, when you want to change out the scope on your rifle, you use a leveling rifle vise or let a gunsmith to do the job. However, not everyone wants to or can spend money on that kind of thing. Plus, you might find yourself in circumstances where neither is an option.
Take heart! I’m going to show you a fantastic hack, which lets you switch out a rifle scope or shotgun scope at home for basically nothing. All that’s required is some patience, a bit of fiddling with the procedure and a few common hand tools.
Bear in mind, I’m not saying that you shouldn’t use a rifle rest. I’m not saying you shouldn’t follow manufacturer recommendations. And I am definitely not saying that you should do this if you don’t feel comfortable.
This is a low-tech, DIY method for mounting a scope if you don’t have the specialized tools for the job.
Some folks might point out that what I’m about to describe isn’t a new idea. And they’re right. People have been doing it this way for years. Phil Bourjaily mentioned basically this same idea in Field & Stream a long time ago, so it’s not like I’m revealing any government secrets here.
Also, this presumes you’ll be using the same rings and/or base to mount your new scope. We may revisit the topic at a later date, but for now let us focus on changing out only the scope. In many cases, that’s actually all you need do; since most riflescopes on the market use the same diameter tube (1 inch, though some are 30mm) it’s not always strictly necessary.
I must also apologize, in advance, for the crappy quality of the photos you’ll see momentarily. I left my camera at the office and had to rely on my phone.
With that said, let’s get to work.
Tools You’ll Need To Change Your Rifle Scope
You will need:
A Torx bit and nut driver or Torx screwdriver for scope ring screws.
A small spirit level, preferably 6- or 9-inch. You could try to use a line level or get a scope leveling tool with a spirit level in it, but a common spirit level will work.
A good, stiff cardboard box. Try to choose one with tall sides; 8 to 10 inches works pretty well, with at least that in length. You don’t need a picture of that, do you?
Material for shims. I recommend scrap cardboard, but use whatever.
A good sharp knife or a pair of scissors.
A Sharpie. And some masking tape.
How It’s Done
First, take your old scope off of the rifle by loosening the Torx screws holding it. Set the top rings and Torx screws aside.
Take your new scope and lay it in the rings and figure out where it needs to be mounted — front to rear — for proper eye relief. The more the better; there should be at least three to four inches between your eye and the lens. Note where you’ll need to set the scope.
Set the cardboard box on a level-ish surface. You can use the floor if need be. I used a stool.
Cut one flap off the box. This is where you’ll rest the butt. Top tip: cut three of the flaps off, and cut your shims from them. Make a cut straight down in about the middle of the box in the section where you’ve cut off the flap, maybe an inch in length.
This cut is the spot you’ll rest the butt on. If you’re performing this operation on a bolt-action rifle, you’ll want to cradle it just behind the pistol grip of the butt to keep it steady.
Place the rifle in this improvised cradle, laying it back-to-front by placing the butt in the cradle first.
Make sure the rifle is stable in the cradle. Using the spirit level, check that the gun is level from front to back and side to side. I found the best way to check front-to-back level is to rest the level in the scope ring bottoms and on the mount between them (which, on mine, is flat; I have a Leupold base and rings) for side-to-side.
To get level from front to back, you simply shim the front of rifle up to plumb.
For side level, you’ll want to gingerly move the rifle to one side or the other until you get inside the lines. Then, gently press straight down on the butt, pushing the stock into the notch you cut in the rear. You’ll notice in one of the above pictures that it ends up making a “V” in the the box. It won’t seat all the way, it will just set itself securely.
Once the bubbles are in the lines side-to-side and front-to-back, place your scope in the rings, taking care to gently seat it where you need it to be for proper eye relief.
Then rest the level on the top turret, re-checking level front-to-back and side-to-side. Gently place the ring tops back on top, and start screwing the Torx screws in. Best practice is to put a bit of blue Loctite on the threads before you seat the screws (if you have some available). Don’t fully tighten the screws. Re-check for level.
It helps if your spirit level has a notch on one side; it’ll fit perfectly on the scope turret.
Now, you need to confirm you have level crosshairs. Some people do this with a plumb line or by pointing the rifle at window trim. I used a different method.
Look through the scope; you should see the wall or a door across the room. Note the location on the wall or door that you see in the scope.
Take some scrap cardboard you cut from the box. Go to the wall, door or what-have-you that the scope picture is of. Tape up the piece of cardboard top and bottom, securing it to the surface.
Using your spirit level and Sharpie, draw a crosshair, with a plumb line from top-to-bottom line and a level side-to-side line. Go back to the rifle, and look at the piece of cardboard. If you have to, move the cardboard piece until the crosshairs of the scope are aligned with that on the cardboard. Don’t move the rifle!
If they line up, you’re done! Tighten the Torx screws in the rings the rest of the way in a criss-cross pattern for even tightening. Don’t over-tighten them, but make sure they are securely seated. If you have a torque wrench, the typical factory setting is 18 ft-lbs.
After that…it’s time to take your rifle to the range and get it zeroed.
And there you have it. I didn’t have to spend a dime on tools or supplies, and I got a better optic on my rifle — a Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-12X scope — on my Model 70. Deer season is about six weeks away, so I have plenty of time to get it zeroed.
Bambi delenda est!
Is it as good a method as buying a leveling rest with vise mounts? No, it’s not. But it’ll do.
Anyhow, sound off in the comments if you’ve ever used a method like this to install a rifle scope or shotgun scope. Again, this isn’t a new method; people have been performing this operation for decades. However, this will hopefully give the newbie an idea of how they can change a scope on their own without needing as many gadgets as some people say.