June 10, 2020
By David M. Fortier
Congratulations, you've just purchased a fine rifle. Now it's time to properly outfit your new rig so you can put it to work. You'll need sling swivels, a proper sling, quality rings and bases, a good scope and a variety of loads to try through it. Perhaps, somewhat surprisingly, the most overlooked of these items is often the riflescope. Far too many hunters and shooters simply buy the cheapest scope they can find. Typically this is due to them spending all their money on the rifle without having budgeted anything for the scope. In my humble opinion, the scope you chose should be more than just an afterthought. It is after all the sighting system for your rifle. If your sighting system fails, then the rifle is useless.
So, how exactly should one go about choosing a riflescope? I think you should start by carefully contemplating what your needs are based upon how you will be using your rifle. Only then can you properly select a scope. Ask yourself four basic questions:
- What are you going to use your rifle for?
- Where are you going to use it?
- When are you going to use it?
- How are you going to use it?
If you stop and carefully consider each one of these questions, you'll soon have an idea of the type of scope most appropriate for your application. To demonstrate exactly what I'm talking about let’s examine each question.
The most basic question you need to ask is, "What are you going to use your rifle for?" Will you be shooting Eastern whitetails at 50 yards, elk at 300 yards or prairie dogs at 500 yards? Will your rifle be a dual-purpose rig for shooting paper and hunting? Will it be a general purpose rig performing a multitude of functions, from plinking to shooting steel plates in local competition, in addition to hunting? Answering this question will help to decide on what magnification range to consider. For example, if you're hunting whitetail in heavy cover in Maine a fixed 4x scope would work well. However, if you're hunting whitetail in Kansas where the shots are drastically longer you will need more magnification.
The next question is, "Where are you going to use it?" By this I mean, on what type of terrain, in what environmental conditions and how are you going to get there. If you are going to be carrying your rifle in the mountains where the air is thin, perhaps you should think about a lightweight scope, maybe with a one inch tube. On the other hand, if you're just going to be shooting prone off a bipod, and don't expect to have to carry the rifle far from the truck, then size and weight isn't really an issue.
Perhaps you are the type who will be far from civilization for days on end with the scope exposed to harsh weather conditions. Failure far from home on an expensive hunt is not an option. If so, then you should consider a top brand which is well-known for crafting rugged and weatherproof products not prone to failure. If on the other hand, you are a fair weather hunter who only goes out for the day when the sun is shining, then extreme durability may not be as important. The point is to simply consider all aspects of where you will be using your rifle, and how it influences what type of scope you should put on it.
Once you have answered that question fully consider, "When are you going to be using it?" Simply put, will you be using your scope only during daylight hours, primarily at dawn/dusk and in low light conditions or a bit of both? How you answer these questions will help to decide on the objective lens diameter, Exit Pupil, glass and lens coating quality which best fits your needs. Keep in mind though, more important than the size of the objective lens is the quality of the lens and its coatings. How you answer this question will also aid you in choosing what type of reticle is best for you and if you need an illuminated reticle.
Lastly, you need to ask, "How will I use this scope?" Will most of your shots be taken offhand at quick moving game? Or, will you be primarily shooting off bags and/or a rest while carefully taking your time? If you will be taking shots offhand, then you need to consider magnification, eye relief, field of view and exit pupil size. If snap-shooting game at relatively short range you don't need, nor want a lot of magnification. Eye relief is something to consider on a hard-kicking rifle, as you do not want to get hit in the face with it under recoil. A wide Field of View is a plus, especially when trying to hit a moving animal. While often overlooked, a large exit pupil allows a full FOV (rather than a black image) even if you are not exactly behind the scope. However, if you are carefully shooting off bags in bright light with a light caliber rifle, then eye relief and exit pupil are not as critical.
Here are some basic items to consider when choosing a rifle scope:
Magnification: How much do you really need? Remember, more is not always better.
Fixed or variable power: A fixed power design is simpler mechanically, but a variable power design is more flexible.
Field of View: Bigger is always better in my book, but a scope with a very wide FOV often has shorter eye relief.
Parallax adjustment: Do you really need to adjust for parallax at the distances you will be shooting, or do you just think a knob on the side looks cool?
Eye Relief: What caliber is your rifle, how much does it weigh and how hard does it recoil? Also keep in mind that often a scope with very long eye relief can be difficult to mount properly.
Tube diameter: Do you really need a 34/35mm tube, or will a 1-inch or 30mm tube serve you just as well while weighing less?
Reticle: What type is best for your specific needs? Do you need elevation/windage compensation marks? Do you need it to be illuminated?
Durability: How much abuse will your rifle and scope receive? Will it be babied? Might it fall out of a treestand? Will it be exposed to everything mother nature has in the depths of Alaska...or worse?
For hunting big game I prefer a relatively simple and straightforward optic in the 2.5-10x or 3-15x range. This provides a wide field of view and large exit pupil on the lower end, plus a good deal of magnification on the upper end for precise shot placement. While hunting scopes continue to increase in magnification 10x is enough magnification, for the type of hunting I typically do. Yes, more magnification can come in handy in certain situations, and if you need more then get more.
I have no objection to a 1-inch or 30mm scope tube. While I would consider a 34mm tube for a Tactical rifle, I think that's just a bit much on your average hunting rifle. I also prefer an objective lens in the 40-44mm range, but will go to 50mm for certain applications. On a hunting scope intended for use between 50 and 300 yards I really do not see much need for an Adjustable Objectives or side parallax knob. If it has one great, if not no biggie.
Given the choice though, the target shooter in me would greatly prefer capped finger adjustable elevation/windage knobs. If I might be faced with a long shot I'm prone to removing the cap covering my scope's elevation knob. This allows me to quickly dial in any come-ups. Big game animals are not always so accommodating though. Due to this I prefer reticles with simple holdover marks. They don't need to be calibrated for my exact caliber or load, just something to act as a reference mark. I'll spend the time at the range and figure out where my load of choice hits in relation to the reticle. It doesn't take very long, and is good practical experience behind the rifle. I also prefer a fairly bold reticle to stand out in subdued light or shadows. If given the option, make mine illuminated. Technology, if it works, isn't a bad thing and I've found illuminated reticles to be a useful tool. What I don't like though is a busy reticle cluttering up my Field of View.
Take the time to figure out exactly what you need and want in a sighting system for your rifle. Then save your money and buy the best scope you can and mount it properly. In the long run you'll be glad you did.