There are dozens of things to consider when choosing a telescopic sight that will be perfect for you, and remember what is perfect for you may not be for everyone else.
People in the shooting and hunting industries often have very firmly held opinions about the merits and failings of different products but remember what they need from their scope might be different than what you need from yours so make a choice that will be perfect for you.
What do YOU need from your scope?
You will need to consider your budget, the calibre of the rifle, If you are even fitting the scope to a rifle or do you want a specialist one for use with a pistol or shotgun, the planned use of your firearm/scope combination, the range you expect to use it at, the options for fitting the scope, whether you need additional features such as illuminated reticles or dial in windage and elevation turrets, and a hundred other things.
Before we address these issues and start to choose our scope, let’s look very briefly at the origins of the telescopic sight.
A brief history of the telescopic sight
Before telescopic sights iron sights were all that was available to the shooter, iron sights were generally made of metal and normally permanently attached to the weapon, although some models of Vernier and aperture sights could be detached. Iron sights generally come in two parts and at their simplest consist of a blade situated towards the muzzle which would be aligned with a notch situated nearer to the shooter. Aligning the two elements of the sight on the target this would allow an accurate shot to be fired.
In a constant quest for technological and military advancement, the first documented use of telescopic sights occurred between 1835 and 1840 in the United States as documented in John R. Chapmans 1844 book The Improved American Rifle. This first scope was manufactured by Morgan James of Utica, NY and was followed by others in the United States and abroad.
Telescopic sights were used in battle during the Civil War and gradually became common on the battlefield as sniper tactics were developed and were eventually adopted by hunters until they became a vital part of a hunters outfit. The use of scopes has become so universal that many hunting rifles are now sold without any form of iron sights. With scopes being such a ubiquitous part of a shooters equipment nowadays let’s look at their basic features;
Anatomy of a Scope
The function of a telescopic sight is normally expressed by two numbers separated by a ‘x’ for example 6×40 or 4-12×50. The first of these numbers indicate the magnification of the scope, so a ‘6x’ scope has a magnification of 6 times what your eyes see, the 4-12 power scope can zoom from 4 times magnification to 12 times magnification.
The second part of the numbers which describes your potential scope is the measurement of the objective lens in millimetres, so a 4-12×50 scope has a 50mm objective lens. The objective lens is the front lens of the scope and while larger objective lenses can be harder to mount on a rifle due to their size they do provide a wider field of view and better light gathering capability.
The reticle is the part of the scope that allows you to aim your rifle, the very first reticles were made of wire fastened inside the body of the scope and would have been in the form of a simple ‘cross hair’, later when the reticles began being etched into the glass of the scope other types of reticle started to appear, this change also meant that a problem with wire cross hairs being obscured by sunlight was overcome. There are so many different styles of reticle now that it’s hard to choose one. Consider the following options though;
A duplex reticle is a cross hair which is thicker, these ticker portions are the ‘duplex’, at the edges and steps down to a fine cross hair in the center. This style of cross hair is popular for hunting and allows for slightly faster target acquisitions than a standard cross hair, it can also be used to assist in range finding if you know how big your target should appear in relation to the sight picture.
Getting a feel for this will take a bit of practice on the range, with that practice you can also learn to use the upper and lower duplex to assist with your aiming when taking shots at longer or shorter range than your main zero range.
These reticules feature dot’s along both axis of the reticle which can be used to assist in aiming. These dots are spaced one ‘milliradian’ apart. A milliradian is a measurement of angle equal to 3.6 minutes of angle. A minute of angle is equal to one inch at 100 meters so a one inch group at 100 meters is known as a minute of angle group and a milliradian sized group will be about 3.5 inches across.
These milliradian markings on the reticle can be used to judge range based on your knowledge the size of your target but can also be used to adjust your aim to compensate for range or wind. This is useful for very precise shooting at range or for shorter range shooting with weapons, such as air rifles, that are relatively low powered and have a poor trajectory as the mil dots provide additional points of aim which can be used to match with the trajectory of the rifle.
Single dot scopes
These are generally low powered and sometimes designed with a long eye relief. Eye relief relates to the distance your eye needs to be placed from the rear lens of the scope to see an unvignetted image. Normally, this will be between 25 and 100mm but this style of scope might have a significantly longer eye relief.
Whether long eye relief or not scopes with a single dot reticle are aimed at hunting or tactical users for fast target acquisition and for taking targets on the run. They are often fitted to scout style rifles and occasionally on pistols and shotguns.
Illuminated reticles come in different shapes and sizes, dot reticles are often illuminated but other styles can be too. Scopes are an immediate improvement over iron sights when it comes to shooting in low light conditions and illuminated reticles provide an even greater advantage. They also draw the eye and help with target acquisition in general. Scopes with illuminated reticles will have an additional adjustment turret to adjust the brightness of the reticle, they will also require batteries.
Scopes are mounted to weapons with ‘mounts’ which clamp the body of the scope securely and then attach to the rifle via a ‘dovetail’ milled into the receiver of the rifle. Some weapons designed for tactical applications may have alternative mounting solution such as weaver or picatinny rails for scopes and other accessories such as flashlights and lasers.
When mounting a scope, it is very important to align the reticle properly, to ensure that we are aligning it properly the easiest and most reliable method is to place the rifle in a bench rest and make sure is level, you could use a spirit level and align the reticle using a plumb line which will give a dead straight line to match the reticle to, clearly this won’t work and would be unnecessary with a single dot scope.
For those of you who really can’t make up your mind on what scope you need consider twist off mounts which allow a scope to be detached from a rifle and stored separately or even allow you to have multiple sighting options for the same rifle, useful if you only want, or can only afford a single rifle but want to put it to multiple uses. These mounts are expensive and some doubt their reliability but having used several models I can vouch for their reliability and usefulness.
The very first Parker Hale ‘Targetscope sight’ had no built in turrets for adjusting it but rather relied on an adjustment turret built into the rear mount for the scope. Modern scopes however will always feature at least turrets for adjusting ‘windage’ and ‘elevation’. In simple terms windage is left to right adjustment and elevation is up and down adjustment. Sometimes these adjustment turrets will be protected by screw on caps which prevent the turrets moving by mistake. On
Modern scopes these adjustments will be made by turning the turrets with your fingers, although older scopes will require a small screw driver to turn them, the base of a cartridge case is often just as good though. Some Scopes dedicated to longer range target shooting do not have caps on their turrets and have finger friendly turrets which allow adjustments to be made very easily to engage targets at different ranges.
When a Scope Isn’t a Scope
These are the very basic features of a scope that you will need to consider when making your choice but it’s worth mentioning that there are some sights which can be fitted to your weapons which are not technically iron sights but aren’t scopes either.
It’s worth knowing about them but they won’t feature further in this guide to choosing a scope. They are often called reflex sights and have actually been around since the 1900 and were often used as the sighting mechanism for aircraft mounted guns in fighter aircraft during the Second World War. More recently they have been adapted into much smaller, more compact units and are now often mounted on tactical firearms.
They work by reflecting a reticle onto a piece of glass so that the user can view the target as well as the reflected reticle. Some models look like small scopes and feature a tube design others look more like a miniature aircraft Heads Up Display. These types of sights are great for fast target acquisition, relatively close range shooting but can’t provide the same level of precision accuracy as a scope.
Choosing Your Scope
Having rejected reflex sights as not technically scopes let’s get down to choosing your scope. Different types of scope, just the same as any other type of sighting and aiming apparatus are designed and made for specific purposes so your first task will be to decide what role you want your rifle/scope combination to fill.
For longer range target shooting consider a scope that has finger friendly adjustments turrets to allow you to make easy adjustments for targets at different ranges and which has at least sixteen times magnification. Remember that through scopes which zoom to such a high magnification every movement you make will visible through the scope, every breath, flinch or twitch will be seen as a movement of the reticle on the target which will at the best be off putting and at the worst ruin your aim.
On the plus side, showing every movement gives a true representation of the effects your movements will have on your accuracy and will encourage you to perfect your shooting position and technique to minimize those movements. Mil dot reticles are helpful at long range to assist with range estimation and also to provide additional points of aim should you need them, which you may well at long range. Remember though that some target disciplines do not allow the use of telescopic sights.
For hunting you will need to be a little more specific.
Short range hunting with rim fire rifles;
Although the .17hmr can be used at ranges of over 200 yards most rim fire cartridges are used at relatively short range, rarely exceeding 100 yards so a 6 times magnification scope is normally adequate.
As rim fires are useful for hunting small vermin, they are particularly useful at dawn and dusk so although high magnification is not necessary a large objective lens is very useful to gather light for shooting in low light condition, so a 50mm objective lens is very useful. You could also consider an illuminated reticle for shooting under these conditions.
Consider as well that the recoil of rim fire rifles is insignificant and you can fit your rim fire rifles with relatively light weight inexpensive scopes which might not be robust enough to handle the recoil of a larger centre fire rifle.
Longer range hunting for deer and larger game;
I personally use a fixed 6 times magnification scope for deer hunting as hunting in relatively remote areas demands equipment that will be reliable in the field, that doesn’t require lots of adjustment, and which is simple. For longer range shots out towards 300 yards a slightly more powerful magnification might be useful though maybe something up to twelve times magnification.
Again, larger objective lenses for light gathering are useful for shooting at dusk and dawn. At these longer ranges mil dot’s might be useful but the more traditional duplex is perfectly adequate. Finger adjustable turrets are not necessary on these scopes even thought the ranges are significantly longer than you will use a rim fire at but generally a hunting rifle will be zeroed at a certain range, around 100 meters is sensible and regular adjustments won’t be necessary like they might be with a target rifle.
Consider a long eye relief scope and something with very low magnification, an absolute maximum of 4x. A simple reticule such as a single dot will allow you to pick up targets quickly. Illuminated reticles draw the eye easily and will aid with quick target acquisition. This is a role where you might want to rethink using a scope at all and consider the value of using open sights or a reflex sight.
For tactical and self-defense again consider the value of open or reflex sights to aid with fast target acquisition, to save weight and improve the maneuverability of your weapon if you need to use it in confined spaces.
Remember, as well that scopes are relatively fragile and in a self-defense scenario unless you really need the range and accuracy provided by a scope consider the security of having a more robust sighting option that is less likely to be damaged. If you are dead set on a scope though, go for something relatively low powered and with a simple reticle, one that can be illuminated for use indoors and the dark.
Also, consider using weaver or picatinny scope mounts, this type of mount can be used to fit many other accessories to your rifle which might be useful for tactical applications, such as flashlights.
Fitting Your Budget
Now that you have decided on the features you need in your scope consider your budget, scopes are available which meet all the requirements described above within any budget. At the budget end of the scale consider brands such as Simmons and Nikko-Sterling, for mid budget consider brands such as Leopold (my personal favorite) or Kite Optics, or at the very top of the range, Shmidt&Bender, Swarovski and Zeiss.
While you do get what you pay for in terms of crystal clarity and high quality glass in the more expensive scopes you get perfectly functional scopes from the less expensive brands. Spend as much as you can afford but don’t worry that not being able to afford an expensive scope will hold you back in any way because ultimately, although scopes can make your shooting very precise and certainly have benefits, they won’t automatically make you a better shot.
Scopes do not compensate for poor technique or lack of practice so whatever scope you eventually purchase, practice with it.
Good luck with your choice.
Geoff is a lecturer at Hartpury College. He has been teaching at colleges for eight years and in that time has worked at some of the most prestigious land based colleges in Britain. He trained as a professional hunter and game keeper and as well as his teaching job he still manages deer professionally as a deer stalker, carrying out culls, guiding clients and advising on deer management strategy.
He has operated his own bushcraft and survival skills training companies since 2010 and has also managed outdoor and environmental education centers in Norfolk and Scotland over the course of his career. A keen traveler, Geoff has honed his survival skills in New Zealand and Scandinavia, he speaks fluent Swedish and has proven his bushcraft ability on many expeditions.
Several of these expeditions were on long distance trails in the UK to raise money for Whizz Kidz a charity that supports disabled children, Geoff has hiked over 2000 miles in aid of this charity.