Scope Buying Advice, How Choose the Right Optic

S&B 5-25x PM2 SFP

You went out and bought a new precision rifle, and you want to purchase a new optic. But there are so many choices, from Athlon to Vortex, Barska to Zeiss where do you start? How do you wade through the hype and get down to the meat and potatoes of the questions, well Sniper’s Hide is here to help.

Spoiler Alert, I won’t pander or kiss your butt.

S&B 5-25x PMII
S&B 5-25x PMII

1. Mission:

What is your intended use? It’s that simple. Do you only have access to 200 yards, and plan on putting it on your 308? Or are you interested in shooting PRS, F-Class, just plinking, because all these details matter? The first thing you need to do is be honest about your intended use for the scope.

To reach 1000 yards with a 308 rifle you want at least 40 MOA of useable adjustment from a 100 yard zero. And trust me you want a 100 yard zero on your rifle. So if that means you have a scope with 60 MOA + or – of adjustment you are in good shape. You do not need a scope with 32 Mils of adjustments if you can only reach 600 yards at your local range. So the long and short of it, the cartridge you are shooting matters too. By understanding your caliber choices, you can determine the best scope for your given application.

Magnification

Nightforce Scope
Nightforce 2.5x10x on the GAP Gladius

Magnification has very little bearing on how far you are shooting, but what you are shooting. If you are shooting F Class on paper, you want to see the X-Ring, so they use very high magnification scopes. But the trade off is less elevation adjustment. You don’t want a 55x optic for your 338LM if you plan on shooting to 1 mile. More magnification usually limits your total travel. Instead, understand most field shooters stick to scopes that hover around 25x or less. Many are shooting them below 18x enjoying the increased elevation adjustment.

Magnification magnifies problems in the air like the mirage. Yes, you can shoot 1000 yards with a 10x scope, but most will use between 12x – 18x to maintain a good field of view and clear sight picture. The days of the fixed 10x are coming to an end. Those scopes are normally used as a by-product of their owners budget. Get a little bit more magnification, so you have it, but don’t over do it. You do not need a 32x scope to shoot 1000 yards on steel. You want 25x or less. I love and use a ton of 16x scopes. I shoot beyond 1000 yards all the time, and the 16x does not hold me back. Lots of people are magnification whores and not for a good reason. Balance the magnification and have it suit your mission.

2. Budget:

Super important, how much money do you plan on spending? What is the top end of your budget and is it worth holding off a bit to take the next step up? If your budget is $2000, you might want to wait until you have $2500. If your budget is $1500, you might be better served spending $1250.

Many leave out the budget constraints and will let people endlessly talk about scopes out of their price range. It’s sort of like going to the Cadillac dealer, letting the salesman show you every bell and whistle and then going out and getting a Ford Focus. Sure both cars will get you from point A to point B, but why waste the salesman’s time on all that Caddy talk. Let’s go straight to the Ford Dealer, and start spec’ing out your Focus. It’s a weird fetish to hear about everything you can’t afford.

It used to be the top of the line Leupold Mk 4 was $1250, now that is a low-end scope regarding money spent. If that is your budget there is nothing wrong with it, but accept the fact, you’re now looking at the lower end of the spectrum and not the higher end. When everyone was running Leupolds’ I switched to S&B, and my budget immediately jumped to $2000 and up. Here is a bit of history; I have one of the first S&B 5-25x PMIIs that hit US Shores. New it cost me $2350. Today that same scope can retail for as much as $3800+ depending. A few things changed over the years with them, but you are not gonna see the difference. I also have a $7000 Hensoldt 3-26x, it does not help me shoot any better than my $2400 Vortex. In fact, if I walked down to my local mall and placed my Vortex GEN2 Razor on the table next to my $7k Hensoldt, playing the Pepsi Challenge to see who can pick out the scope that cost $7000. 50% of the people would be wrong.

Yes, you get what you pay for so be careful when someone says it’s a Giant Killer. The odds are that your $1500 scope is really only competing with other $1500 scopes. If it were really a Giant Killer, it would cost the same as the big names. Hype aside, I think the Athlon is better than a Bushnell but not quite a Vortex Gen 2 Razor. Get what makes you happy, not the other guy.

Quality is not Marked by where it is “Made”

Vortex Scope Glass
Vortex Glass Blanks Before Polishing

Today, in 2017, you are not gonna win by simply choosing a country of origin. Scopes Made in Japan, probably the most plentiful of the bunch are excellent. Consider this, the majority of great cameras come from Japan. Nobody bitches about Nikon or Canon coming from Japan. It’s all in the spec as they have the same machines we do that can hold very respectable tolerances. It comes down to what the vendors want to pay, and how much Quality Control goes into the scope. An example of this is the Vortex Get 2 Razor. It’s a widely popular, very reliable scope that is also Marked Made in Japan. Vortex Spec’s it out a certain way than when they arrive in the US, Vortex tears them apart. Yes, that scope is cheaper to get it into the country complete, after which Vortex replaces the internals to ones made here in the US. It’s not enough to change the country of origin, but it is an important reason why those scopes work so well.

Vortex Scope Factory
Vortex Scope Factory

See the Sniper’s Hide Legend in the Scopes’ Forum

Which brings me to Glass. Fuck Glass and screw you for making it an issue.

Glass Quality

It’s 2017; every damn scope looks good out of the box. They have learned enough over the last 50 years to make outstanding glass. The optical prescription and how they spec them is such that we can barely tell the difference when all else is equal.

Glass is subjective; no two users see through the scope the same way. Especially if it was not properly adjusted for the shooter’s eye. There is only so many suppliers of raw glass and the difference actually lies in the coatings. The problem with coatings is durability. So while your cheap, budget minded scope, “Looks just as good as my Friend’s S&B” in 2 years your coatings will be worn down and not nearly as nice, and his glass will be the same as the first day he bought it. Things like sunlight can wear on coatings over time. So just showing up with a scope can degrade it.

I think people tell themselves how good something is just to justify the purchase they weren’t sure about it in the first place. After that, it’s a case of misery loving company.

 

Scope Reticle
Scope Reticle

Coatings are what gives a scope its “look, ” and that look is the same as asking your friend what his favorite color is. They design the coatings and the look for a specific set of results. That usually means, outside in the sun, which is one color on the spectrum chart or to break down shadows so you can see your prey through the camouflage. If you want low light performance, you get a large objective and reduce the power to open up the exit pupil. If you test your scope on 25x at night, you will be disappointed, try turning the power down. Same goes for the elevation, if you want to see the best sight picture, the erector has to be centered. You cannot crank 50MOA on one scope and compare it to scope that is centered. It’s like testing a scope indoors with fluorescent lights when it’s color corrected for daylight. All will make a scope look bad. Bay window reviewers are plentiful on the internet, some of the best reviews come from safe queen rifles.

Glass is discrete and controlled by the Abbe number. Schott, Hoya and Ohara are brands, not a quality value. Each brand has their equivalent model with a matching Abbe Number. In fact, there are versions of Ohara glass which out score a similar Schott models. The Bird Watchers and Star Gazer have this down to a science. They can tell what lenses are combined in their scopes to get the desired effect and neither favor one brand over another. They understand what the Abbe number means and how the design is impacted by the choices made in optical design.

Bottomline, don’t get wrapped up in the glass. The scope companies have taken care of this for you. Today, glass quality is more so by-product of your budget than your choice in brand. In many cases, you need a machine to tell the difference.

Through the Scope
Through the scope

Features to look for:

Check the Legend in the Sniper’s Hide Forum

Elevation adjustment is attached to Main-Tube size. Most common are 30mm to 34mm. The erector inside is the same, so you are not getting more light out a 34mm vs. 30mm. The brightness of the scope is determined by other factors. If you are putting the scope on your 338LM, you want 100MOA or more of elevation. That is equal to over 26 Mils of adjustment. So for ELR Shooting, you want a scope with 28 to 36 Mils of adjustment. If you are using your 308, you can get away with 15 Mils or less. That is about 60 MOA. I do recommend getting more elevation than you think you need, you may decide to swap it over or travel to a location with more distance. So add more weight to total adjustment when considering a new scope.

Zero Stops, definitely worth having this feature. Zero Stops prevent you from being off a turn. Some scopes allow you to set them at a specific point; other scopes are set at the factory. I always like to have a tiny bit, about 1 MOA of down, below the zero stop.

Locks, Brakes, Capped Windage

Vortex Locking turrets
Vortex Locking Turrets

This was designed around the Military using the Horus Reticle. They are unnecessary for most shooters but often come on scopes as a default feature. These will be a bit more complicated and will drive up the cost of the scope. If you have a choice between a S&B Double Turn Turret and a Locking Turret, I would personally recommend the Double Turn over the locking. But really it’s not that big a deal. Locks are barley used for every day shooting. If I can get a scope cheaper by skipping the locking turret, I will do that.

Front Focal Plane vs. Second Focal Plane

If you are a dynamic shooter, field shooter, PRS Shooter, even the Hunter, you want a Front Focal Plane scope. This may also increase the cost.

 If you plan on shooting F-Class, Benchrest, or if you shoot by yourself, you want to get a Second Focal Plane Scope. A SFP Scope is considered a more durable design and will be a bit cheaper compared to an FFP scope. For this reason, you see guys shooting ELR distances and heavy recoiling rifles using a Second Focal Plane Scope. You can 1/2 the power on a Second Focal Plane Scope and double the reticle value giving you more range when holding at extended distances.



Reticles, Reticles, and more reticles

 

P4F L MOA
P4F L MOA

Reticles are like shoes; you get the pair that fits and for your desired use. You don’t buy sneakers to match your business suit. People buy sneakers to run in, hiking boots to hike in, and dress shoes to look good but feel uncomfortable. Same with reticles.

Properly using a given reticle takes understanding and training. We use reticles today like very few did before. The biggest consideration is to match the reticle to the turrets. Mils for Mils and MOA for MOA. If you don’t need all the clutter, don’t get it. Nobody I know of has won an F-Class match with a Horus reticle holding over. It’s a tool, one that might not be necessary for your type of shooting.

Our brains like focus, we like a defined intersection, and the hold over reticles are designed for speed and big targets. Sure given time and opportunity we can get very precise with them, but they can also block the impact causing us to hesitate and have to “think” about what just happened. When you expect one outcome, and that doesn’t happen, some people lock up. Also under stress with limited training, I have seen people hold the wrong line, repeatedly. Practice is important. But they are just Mils, so they do work as advertised. They also add more money to the scope. The Horus reticle adds $400 to the cost, that is the license fee which is passed on to the end user.

Look at the schematics of the reticles you are considering, get to know them first and understand what they provide you and what they don’t. You have to wear the shoes, not me.

Nightforce Mil R Reticle
Nightforce Mil R Reticle

I trained on the Horus, I have taught others on the Horus, and I personally dislike the Horus. Doesn’t mean I can’t use it, I just don’t like it, never did since day one. I tend to opt for less and do very well with less because I understand both and can use my P4F or MSR in the same manner as my Horus reticles. Sure, I still own them, but I don’t need it to hold over, or to be successful when holding. 

Study the reticles and pick one based on your Mission. The one or two stages at a PRS match where there is not enough time to dial can easily be shot with a plain old Mil Dot. Effectively too, just takes practice. There are no free rides; a Horus will not make you a better shooter.

Mils vs. MOA

Mils vs MOA
Mils vs MOA

Match the turrets to the reticles. I have articles about this in depth, but they are the same damn thing. If you’re gonna shoot F-Class you use MOA, if you are gonna shoot PRS, use Mils, if you shoot alone it doesn’t matter, just match the turrets to the reticle. For the guys that say I think in inches, therefore, use MOA, you’re silly, you know 10 pennies is a dime, well that is a Mil in a nutshell. You cannot hold the difference you can get 1/8th-inch clicks in mils too. The difference between the two is 1/2 a bullet width. I promise you dialing 7.5 MOA is the same as me using 2.2 Mils. We’ll both hit center of the same target. Your DOPE is your DOPE, see above, the drop chart shows both.

Both are angles use the angle to your advantage and forget the linear equivalent.

Scope Angles
Scopes adjust in Angles

The Mil vs. MOA argument is tired. I personally think MOA scopes should be retired because the industry cannot decide if they want a MOA scope or IPHY. Inches Per Hundred Yards scopes are an issue. They are the reason your ballistic computer is wrong. Here you are thinking you own a MOA based scope, and the company rounded it to inches without saying. That mistake at 1000 yards is at least 17 inches off. It compounds the farther out you shoot. So if you decide to shoot MOA, test it and make sure you have True MOA vs. Shooter MOA. You need to test every scope for tracking, but that is a different conversation.

That said, if you shoot F-Class, the targets are in MOA, so it makes perfect sense. Their dope is a just a new zero range for that yard line, so it matters more for windage vs. elevation.


What is the Best Scope out there

Every day the question is, “Who makes the best scope?” Scope A or Scope B, well if there were one scope that solved it all we’d be using it. You’d find it under “What the Pro’s Use” except every pro cannot be sponsored by one scope company. When you see a scope in the list that doesn’t quite fit in, it’s probably a sponsor’s optic being used by a very good team. Doesn’t make it better, just makes it sponsored. It also proves that a $1500 scope will not hold you back when shot against a $3000 scope. That scope is not doing something different or better at a lower cost; it’s doing the same thing. 

Scopes are sights, not spotters. We need the internals to track and repeat correctly. We try to eliminate the need to use Customer Service by picking a scope with a better track record, but still, there is no guarantee of perfection.

The Scope is your weakest link next to the actual bullet. It’s a mechanical device subject to potential failure. If 4 out of every ten sold need repair but the company is super nice about it, do you still want it? Imagine traveling to a precision rifle competition, $500 airfare, $500 for the room, rental car, ammo prep only to have the scope go down on day one. You get back on Monday call the company, and they are super nice about “checking it out” or even replacing it. That doesn’t replace the time and money you wasted. So look at track records vs. customer service praise. If nobody can answer a customer service question, it’s because more people are not using the customer service from that company.

I have used everything from the Weaver to the Hensoldt and all scopes in between. Each one has its place, and some are more user-friendly than others. The features I like are not the same as the features someone else will like. You have to define your mission to figure out where you sit in that spectrum.

Do your homework, ask smart questions and don’t let others pick your favorite color for you. Spend your money wisely observing the features you need vs. what other people are selling you. Look at the context of your shooting when making this decision.

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