There are many different types of rifle scope reticles, each with its own unique design and purpose. Just as with ammunition, scopes and firearms, a reticle is, in and of itself, a tool with a specific use in mind.
Granted, some types of rifle scope reticle are more all-purpose tools, good for long-range target shooting, hunting and so on, but not necessarily the absolute best choice at any one thing. Some are better suited to extreme long-range shooting, others for more moderate distances only.
The types of reticle, therefore, are an important part of what you need to think about when choosing an optic. Are you going to be doing long range shooting, either in competition or hunting? Looking for an all-purpose rifle scope? If for hunting, will your optic be mounted on a rifle or a shotgun? Is game harvested at no more than a couple hundred yards, or do you hunt more wide open spaces of the West?
Let’s start at the very beginning. What IS a reticle?
A reticle is an image implanted on one of the lenses inside the scope. Typically, it’s etched into the glass and dyed, though some reticles are projected via a power source.
Reticles are located either in the front focal plane (ahead of a magnifying lens, typically on one of the lenses in the front of the scope) or in the second focal plane behind the magnifying lenses, typically in the center of the scope.
The reason why this matters is the SFP reticles remain the same size no matter how much magnification you use, whereas an FFP reticle will change size relative to target as your magnification changes.
In other words, the reticle image gets bigger the more you zoom in and smaller as it zooms out. It’s therefore is a handy way to measure distance. It isn’t as precise a rangefinding tool as an actual range finder, but it will definitely get you in the ballpark.
Now, before we get into reticle types, you should know that some reticles are illuminated and others are not. Illumination can be passive, such as with tritium or a fiber optic cable, or it can be active. The latter, of course, requires a power source. Night vision scopes, naturally, require battery power.
Active illuminated reticle scopes are naturally best for low light (or even no-light) conditions, but passive illumination will still pick up what ambient light there is. Most states have hunting regulations prohibiting shooting game after dark (there are exceptions such as hog hunting), but a passive assist for the end of they day’s shooting light (the “magic hour” when you’re most likely to actually see a buck) can be a big help.
Every scope maker offers a number of different reticle options, including the type of reticle design itself and illumination. Leupold, Vortex, Burris, Schmidt and Bender, Zeiss, etc. …name a scope maker and they have multiple choices available for the kind of shooting you’ll be doing.
Then there are the hashmarks inside the reticle itself. These correspond to distances in proportion to the range to the target. Each individual reticle is different; some are marked in milliradians, which we’ll cover in a moment. Others are literally just hash marks that happen to correspond to bullet drop distances in proportion to the distance to the target and aren’t even in minutes of angle. We’ll talk about this more as we go, so don’t worry if you’re confused.
With that said, let’s get into the actual reticle types.
The classic rifle scope reticle is simple crosshairs. Literally, it’s a vertical stripe and a horizontal stripe that cross each other in the center of the image. There’s really not much to say beyond that, except that some are thick, some are thin, some are illuminated and some aren’t. It’s the simplest form of reticle except for maybe the next one.
Many reticles have a dot, ring or triangle reticle. The triangle or dot is usually colored, either green or red. In case you haven’t guessed yet, I’m talking about red dot optics and holographic sights. These are probably the simplest reticles there are.
The dot is sized in minutes of angle, usually ranging from 1 MOA to more than 10 MOA. Smaller red dots are better for longer range shooting (you better know your bullet drop table!) and larger red dots are better for close-range target acquisition. However, red dots aren’t always the best for long-range precision shooting.
Dots also come in a few varieties beyond simple red dots. Dot reticles are often employed in shotgun scopes, with crosshairs. Since shotguns are lousy at long ranges (we especially mean YOU skybusters!!) they are well-suited to (quasi) precise placement with fast target acquisition…provided you’ve zeroed the scope and are familiar with your patterns.
The most popular reticle types overall are the duplex crosshair and the German reticle. These are arguably the best all-purpose reticles as they are good for long-range shooting and hunting.
Both offer a good balance of precision and target acquisition, though aren’t the absolute utmost when it comes to precision. Still, plenty of people have done some mighty precise shooting with them.
Higher-end versions of these reticles are often illuminated either totally or partially.
The duplex reticle has four wide bars at the 12 o’clock, 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions, usually extending about ⅝ of the way into the sight picture. Simple crosshairs then connect the horizontal and vertical bars. Some feature hash marks, some are just simple crosshairs; it depends on the manufacturer.
Usually, the scope manufacturer will concoct a branded name for their duplex reticle (such as Nikoplex by Nikon), but it’s still bascially a duplex reticle.
The German reticle has three thick reticle lines, much like the duplex, typically at the 3 o’clock, 6 o’clock and 9 o’clock positions. Some models also have crosshairs in the center.
The vertical line will go up into space, but terminates somewhere in the upper half of the sight picture. This reticle gives you a broader field of view than the duplex reticle, allowing for fast sight acquisition, but with good crosshairs will also allow for precise shooting as well.
The #4 German reticle is most popular, though you will find other variants out there; it just depends on which scope by what company.
These are the popular reticles found on most hunting scopes. Occasionally, the hashmarks on the bottom crosshair will feature “Christmas tree“-like hashmarks that widen as they descend toward the bottom of the scope. These are to assist with bullet drop, rangefinding and also with windage.
Now, we get into some of the more precision-oriented types of rifle scope reticles.
One of the most popular is the bullet drop compensating or BDC reticle reticle. BDC reticles come in many different configurations, but a typical one will have a dot and concentric circle in the middle, with a descending system of hash marks going from the center down.
The hashes get further apart as they descend, corresponding (somewhat) to bullet drop. Often the BDC reticle will be paired with German-style lines at the 3 o’clock, 9 o’clock and 6 o’clock positions, but not always.
Some BDC reticles are referred to as “Christmas tree” reticles. These feature descending and widening hashmarks on the reticle, getting wider the closer they get to the bottom of the reticle.
These serve to compensate for windage, so you can use the scope instead of the Kentucky variety. Designs vary widely; we could devote an entire series of articles to just BDC reticles and their minutiae alone.
Then we have the mil-dot reticle. The mil in this case does not stand for “military,” though they are commonly used by militaries worldwide. It stands for milliradians, which are the spaces between the dots.
What is a milliradian? Please be gentle, comments section, as this is the Reader’s Digest version.
So, you see a particular picture through your rifle scope. Since there is a floor and a ceiling to that picture – and the earth is curved – that picture, therefore, could be considered a slice of a pie (see below).
The distance between you and the target is the radius. The angle of the arc of the “slice” is the radian, and a milliradian is 1/1000th of the length of that arc.
Each “mil-rad” gives you an angular measurement, which corresponds to a distance proportional to the distance to the target. One millirad is 10 cm at 100 meters, but is 1 meter at 1000 meters, the same way one minute-of-angle is 1 inch at 100 yards but 10 inches at 1000.
If you know how many mil-rads are between the dots or hashes in a mil-dot scope (say three marks equals 1 MR) you can then judge distance to the target and therefore calculate holdover.
The mil-dot scope reticle is designed to give you the most information possible at once, so you can therefore place your shot accurately. If you miss, you can also recalculate more easily for follow-up shots. Many other reticle types do not give you the requisite information to do that.
Now, I mentioned hashmarks in other scopes. The same idea is also at play as many riflescopes have hashmarks that are designed in minutes of angle (MOA). With that said, the precise number is entirely dependent upon the particular scope you’re using, so whether it’s a Vortex Diamondback, a Leupold Mark IV, or a Redfield, you have to read your owner’s manual thoroughly.
However, once you understand the hashmarks on your reticle, you can use them to calculate drop…provided you know your drop at the right range and at the right magnification.
There are additional variations on these types of reticles, with additional features such as the SVD reticle (basically a mil-dot BDC with windage compensating marks) rangefinding reticles (usually duplex with a “Christmas tree” for windage/drop) and others. However, these are the basic types of reticles that you’re likely to find.
If you think any important ones got missed, or wish to expand on anything discussed here, feel free to do so in the comments! If you have finally accepted the fact that having a designated hitter is absolutely wrong, sound off in the comments! Heck, just leave a comment for no reason if you feel like it.