I’m not sure why, but I often seem to recall missed shots more vividly than all but a few of my most rewarding ones. I suspect it’s because I tend to mentally play them out over and over again to ascertain exactly what I could have done differently. Such is the case of my first missed opportunity to bag a big whitetail buck – it’s still as vivid a memory today as it was five decades ago. I was but a youth, equipped with a Winchester Model 94 buckhorn sighted 30-30, and while I had taken a couple of deer with this rifle they were shot at close range when I was able to make a decent shot with iron sights. It was mid-November along a cutline in Northern Saskatchewan when a buster ten-point buck was standing broadside to me at a mere 150 metres.
Whether it was a bit of buck fever or those buckhorn iron sights, I’m not sure. Maybe it was both, but I sure as heck missed that shot and the memory has haunted me ever since. I vowed on that day that before the next hunting season I would have a rifle with a good scope on it. Of course, over the ensuing years the concept of “a good scope” has changed quite substantially. Not only have they improved dramatically, but their design has also been significantly altered to meet the specific needs of today’s hunters and shooters. There are greater demands in the way of performance, yes, but also in versatility and in meeting specific requirements whether on a hunt or on the competitive shooting range. Manufacturers have unquestionably met this challenge and, in many cases, have become very innovative in improving their designs. But the flip side of this innovative acceleration has led to a certain degree of confusion as to what much of it all means or what, in reality, is essential for us as hunters. So let’s take a walk down the road of better understanding in an attempt to unravel this potential confusion, as well as to look at some solid recommendations on which scope will meet your needs.
Why Buy A Scope
Rifle scopes have been around for quite some time, dating back, in fact, to the 1800s. Surprisingly they took a while to catch on with modern hunters, despite the fact that buffalo huntsmen used them to all but eradicate the Plains Bison. It wasn’t until the 1920s when writers such as Townsend Whelen wrote of their prowess that hunters started taking notice. Over the subsequent years scopes have become a must for the majority of hunters and hunting situations. There are two primary reasons for this, the first being their ability to magnify the target. This feature alone warrants the use of a scope as it assists in eliminating aiming or sighting errors, particularly over longer distances, the majority of which would simply not be noticeable with iron sights. They offer precision accuracy from shot to shot that is all but unachievable without a scope. Magnification also offers a second benefit as it allows the hunter to confirm more definitively what his or her target is. I don’t know how many times a scope has confirmed for me that yes, it is a buck, without the need to put my rifle down and check with binoculars. This can be a real plus when you have only seconds to decide whether or not to shoot.
The second reason to use a scope is brightness. The naked eye simply does not have the capability in many hunting situations to clearly see the target, particularly in poor light conditions. Let’s discuss both of these features in greater depth.
I have probably entered into more hunting debates on what power a scope should have than all other topics (with the possible exception of calibre selection). I started out (way back when) using fixed power scopes as variable ones weren’t very readily available, and those that were available were said to be unreliable. But I just couldn’t stay away from the concept, as they seemed to have too many advantages not to start using them. Since I made the switch I have never looked back – every rifle I now own, except one family heirloom, is equipped with a variable powered scope. I also have a couple of spares as backups, although in recent years none have let me down.
Needless to say by now you have figured out that I like variables an awful lot. But I have to admit as well that I like them with as much power as the rifle or hunting situation can handle. That, of course, should be within reason, which for most rifles and hunting situations means a magnification range of either 2-7x or 3.5-10x, or between. A scope with that range will provide a wide field of view at its lower setting for close hunting scenarios and all the magnification you would need for accurate long-range shots.
There are a couple of exceptions to this rule of thumb. The first is with a large calibre rifle intended for hunting dangerous game, where a 1.5-5x would be more appropriate (especially if it is mounted with quick release rings where the rifle’s iron sights can be accessed in very heavy cover). I would also step outside these guidelines for a predator rifle, where a 4-12x or a 4.5-14x would be about ideal. For a muzzleloader or a slug gun I would chose a 2-7x or even a 1.5-5x, as distances are generally shorter. However, for all intents and purposes, a good quality 2.5-8x or a 3-9x would be an excellent choice for the majority of big game situations a hunter is most likely to encounter.
Brightness – Weight and Size
One of the best developmental design features in modern scopes is their ability to gather light. This is influenced by a number of factors such as the size and quality of the objective lens, the coating on the lens, the magnification, and the size of the tube along which gathered light is transmitted. Scope companies have really stepped up their game here, as they are making higher quality lenses with advanced coatings that not only gather more light but transmit a sharper image than ever before. They have also added models with large objective lenses that, because of their sheer size, have the ability to gather substantially more light. Manufacturers have also realized that a larger tube can move more light, so many are now offering 30 millimetre tubes rather than the old standard single inch.
The European scope builders were the first to recognize this advantage, as many hunters there wanted scopes that would allow them to hunt in relative darkness when seeing a target is well beyond the capability of the naked eye. Thus, the era of large objective lenses and 30 millimetre tubes was born. But, as might be expected, these features add up to a heftier price tag and a much larger and heavier scope. As an example let’s compare an average hunting scope – a Leupold 2.5-8x36mm which weighs 11.4 ounces and is 11.4 inches long – with a large Leupold scope – a 6.5-20x56mm with a 30 millimetre tube that has a weight of 24 ounces and a length of 14.6 inches. While I would have no hesitation in mounting the 2.5-8×36 on just about any hunting rifle, I would want to utilize the larger, bulkier but much brighter scope for very long-range hunting or where light was a critical factor and I didn’t have to carry it too far. I have just such a scope on a rifle that I use for hunting large open forestry cut blocks, and it’s a major plus for longer shots under poor light. That scope has netted more than a few bucks I would never have got without it. Companies such as Leupold have also improved the brightness of various standard-sized scopes with sophisticated lens systems and coatings (for example, the Extended Twilight Lens System), so all is not lost if one wants to hunt in low light situations with a smaller objective-lensed and barreled scope. Be selective and keep features like this in mind. For example, I have a 3.5-10×40 with the Extended Twilight Lens System, and while it won’t match the much larger scope it comes reasonably close in a much smaller package. If you are looking for the ultimate in light-gathering ability then choose a 50 to 56 millimetre objective lens and a 30 millimetre tube. But remember that a scope with an objective lens of 40 millimetres with today’s advanced coatings will work very well under most light situations.
The old standby reticle, a crosshair, is a thing of the past. I have seen so many changes in reticles in the past ten years that I’m sure I could spend the better part of this article just trying to cover all the new and innovative options on the market these days. It’s simply mind-boggling, so I will attempt to cover the basics.
One of the first departures from the crosshair was the duplex-type reticle – a first-rate reticle that is still popular today. It can even be used to estimate range and provides one additional aim point at the tip of the lower post. Many of my older scopes are still so equipped. However, when buying a new hunting scope I would now opt for something that can provide a number of aim points, such as the Leupold Boone and Crocket reticle, Zeiss Rapid-Z Ballistic Reticle, Burris Ballistic Plex reticle, Bushnell DOA reticle, or something similar. All provide aim points beyond your crosshair zero for dead-on holds out to various yardages. Many also have correction points built right into the same reticle for a degree of windage or wind shift – it just becomes a matter of learning to use them based on your ammunition.
Some reticles are even specifically designed for shorter-range guns such as muzzleloaders or slug guns. A number of companies also offer elevation-adjustable dials that can fine-tune your crosshair for a dead-on hold based on the known range and ammunition used. Examples include the Zeiss Rapid–Z, the Leupold Custom Dial System and the Swarovski Ballistic Turret. But that’s only half the story on adjustable systems, as a number of companies, such as Burris, have designed range-finding scopes like the Eliminator that will not only provide you with the precise distance to your target but automatically adjust a red dot on the reticle for that exact shot. All are highly efficient if used correctly.
Despite all these advancements I must note that a lot of game is still shot at less than 250 metres and that with the majority of modern calibres (if you remember to never hold off hair within that range) you will still bring home the bacon no matter what reticle your scope may have.
Another feature that many scope companies are now using that I find very advantageous is raised-finger adjustable elevation and windage dials. They are easy to see and adjust with your fingers, meaning you no longer need to use a coin to access a recessed adjustment where, at times, you are not too sure how many clicks you may or may not have turned.
I also want to mention lighted or illuminated reticles. I must say for a number of years I wasn’t all that excited about their introduction, but that all changed on trips to Europe and Russia. The first was to Finland where I hunted in all but absolute darkness with a scope equipped with a lighted reticle. The results were nothing short of impressive as I could make shots that would have been totally impossible without one. Then on a follow-up trip to Russia, where I was hunting Eurasian brown bears under similar light conditions, I quickly realized that I should have been hunting with an illuminated reticle rather than a standard duplex.
Now if I have any hunts planned where low light is a real possibility, I don’t leave home without a lighted reticle scope.
Parallax adjustments – are they necessary? The simple answer is “no”, as in most instances hunting scopes are adjusted at the factory to eliminate or reduce parallax for the majority of potential shooting ranges. The question, however, remains: what is parallax and why should a hunter even be concerned? Parallax is a condition that occurs when the image is not focused on the reticle plane and is visible when the hunter moves his or her head. It is seen as an apparent movement between the reticle and the target or, in extreme instances, as an out-of-focus image. The good news is that it only becomes a real concern in scopes with a higher magnification than 10x, which is why most scopes of 10x or less don’t even have a parallax adjustment.
But what about those higher-powered scopes for varmint or long-range hunting? Unquestionably, this is where parallax adjustments are needed. On my high magnification target scopes they are essential, as I can be shooting at ranges from less than 50 metres right out to 500 metres, and precise target focus or image would not be possible without. But they can be a bit of a pain in the backside, as you are constantly adjusting them for the range of your target. As a result I often make the adjustment for the most likely distance I expect to shoot (frequently somewhere between 200 and 300 yards) and just leave it there. Having said that, when time can be a critical factor parallax is just one too many concerns for my liking, so for the majority of my general purpose big game scopes I shy away from adjusters. And unless you intend on buying a high-powered scope for varmint hunting or long-range hunting, I wouldn’t lose any sleep over trying to decide whether your potential scope should have one or not. So here are my recommendations for reticle choices: for a dangerous game scope use a heavy duplex-type reticle, for a general purpose big game scope choose a Boone and Crocket-type reticle, and for low light add an illuminated reticle of the same design. For extreme long-range hunting I would choose an elevation-compensating turret such as Leupold’s Custom Dial System. For a muzzleloader or slug gun look for a reticle that is designed for either, such as the Leupold SABR or the Nikon Omega BDC 250 reticle. For small game a fine duplex or crosshair reticle is all that you need. I would, however, clarify that for hunting turkey with a shotgun, Nikon’s Turkey Pro or Leupold’s DCD or Turkey Plex reticle are about as good as one can find. As a closing note on reticles, if you don’t like what you now have in one or more of your scopes, many manufacturers will change them for a nominal fee.
I would be remiss if I didn’t end with a few comments on scope care. Today many scopes, particularly good quality ones, are guaranteed for life. They are also waterproof and shockproof and so on – but that does not mean they are indestructible, so here are a couple of tips. Buy the best scope that you can afford with a lifetime guarantee that matches your firearm and your hunting needs. Mount it with high quality mounts, keep the lenses free of dust and grime and wipe it down occasionally and prior to storage with a clean rag. One of the best lens protections you can provide your scope with are, of course, lens caps. If your scope does not come with them, buy a set and keep them on at home or in the field. They will keep the rain, dust and grit off your valuable lenses, ensuring a bright clear image when removed. The see-through models will even allow you to shoot with them in place. The image is at best marginal, but in a pinch they can save the day. I don’t go anywhere without a set of caps on every scope I own. Take care of your scope and it will give you a lifetime of service.