Advertising around long-range scopes can be misleading, or at least marketers try to get you to focus on features that differentiate them from their competitors … even if they aren’t really that important. I created this post to boil it all down to the biggest features you should focus on when comparing long-range scopes. Of course you are likely going to have to make trade-offs between different features, unless you are willing to pay $3,000+ for a scope (which many shooters do). But if you’re on a budget like most people, this list should help you make sense of all the different specs, give you an idea of which are more important, and help you filter out some of the marketing noise when researching rifle scopes.
Most Important Features To Look For In Long-Range Riflescopes
- Quality Glass – High-end glass cannot be overvalued in a long-range scope. It is the biggest difference between a $200 scope and a $4000 scope. Clear, sharp glass can make it easier to see at lower power magnifications. This is especially important for reading mirage, which is how you can judge what the wind is doing at the target. In long-range shooting, the wind may be very different at the target than it is at your shooting location. Unfortunately there isn’t really a good spec that quantifies how good of glass a scope has. It is just a subjective factor, but is usually obvious when you compare scopes side-by-side. I once thought “Light Transmission” was an emperical way to compare this, but there isn’t a standard test methodology for that and most manufacturers really game the system on that to make themselves look better. After talking with multiple scope manufacturers, my suggestion is to ignore that spec all together. The best way to go about this is side-by-side comparison with your own eyes, but when you don’t have that luxury … the next best approach is to stick with one of the manufacturers that is known to use high quality glass:
- Schmidt & Bender
- U.S. Optics
- Premier Reticles
- Higher-end Leupold models
- Higher-end Zeiss models
- Milling Reticle – You need a reticle that has evenly spaced dots or hash marks (in either mils or MOA) along the vertical and horizontal axis. Essentially for long range shooting, most people “hold for wind” and “dial for elevation”. Dialing for elevations means you estimate or measure the distance to the target, calculate what the drop would be, then rotate the turrets on the scope to account for the drop so that you can put the crosshairs dead center on the target like it was at 100 yards. However, people “hold for wind” because wind changes so fast, that you can’t really turn the turrets for the adjustment and get back on the gun in time to fire the shot before the wind changes (especially in west Texas). So they make the adjustment on the scope for vertical drop, which allows them to hold dead center on the vertical axis … but just hold a little to the left or right to account for wind (always in the direction the wind is coming from). They calculate how much they need to adjust for a 10mph wind for example, and maybe that adjustment is 3 mils at whatever distance they are shooting. But right before they pull the trigger they feel the wind die down just a little, so they shift to a 2 mil adjustment at the last second and hit dead center. If they would have kept the 3 mil hold they originally had in mind, they may have missed the target completely. The diagram below shows what “holding 2 mils” would look like in this example.
If you look at the different reticles below, there are only two that have marks on the horizontal axis. The Bullet Drop Compensation reticle has a few on the vertical axis, but that doesn’t help you “hold for wind”. That just makes it so that you could “hold for elevation” and in long range shooting most people don’t do that. I personally prefer the finer hash marks and “floating crosshair” like the Nightforce MOAR reticle shown.
- Zoom Range/Power – I think you need at least 18x for long range shooting. The difference between 18-25 is not as much as you think it would be. If you are using the rifle for hunting, the low end of the zoom range is important too. If an animal pops up at 50 yards it is hard to find in a scope that can only be zoomed out to 8x. The sweet spot is probably 5-25.
- Elevation Adjustment Range – This is simply how much adjustment does the scope allow internally. When you are shooting long range, the more the better. I prefer something with at least 100 MOA (27.3 mil) of elevation adjustment. If your ballistics say you need to adjust by 55 MOA for the shot you are about to take, but your scope bottoms out at 50 MOA of adjustment … uh oh. You end up having to hold for elevation for 5 MOA, and if you are also holding for wind you end up with the target floating out in the middle of nowhere in the reticle. It is difficult to make those shots. One thing that can help the amount of elevation adjustment available is a larger tube diameter. Common scope tube diameters are 1”, 30mm, 34mm, and 35mm. According to OpticsPlanet.com, “The larger main tubes are most useful for allowing for a greater range of elevation adjustments, not greater light transmission. In fact, most 30mm scopes have the same size lenses that are in one inch tubes.”
- Objective Size – More light is always better, so it makes sense that a larger objective lens (56mm) would be able to gather more light than a smaller one (40mm). But there is a diminishing return the benefits of a large objective size, and once you start getting over 50mm the only scenario where you might notice a slight difference in the amount of light is in very low-light conditions when the scope is set to the highest power. Of course for hunting, low-light conditions are the most critical (dusk and dawn), so that does matter some. There is also the problem of being able to mount the scope low enough to get proper eye alignment. Without a stock that has an adjustable cheek rest, its hard to get good alignment with the bigger objective lens sizes. I personally prefer a 50mm objective, although 56mm are more popular among long-range shooters.
- Matching Reticle & Turrets – If you decide to go with a mildot reticle, you should make sure the turret adjustments are in mils (typically 1/10th mil clicks). If you get a MOA reticle, you should make sure the turret adjustments are in MOA (typically ¼ MOA clicks). Lots of scopes (especially low to mid-range scopes) have a mildot reticle with MOA adjustments … that doesn’t make a lot of sense, and can make life a lot harder. Essentially if they match, you can watch your bullet impact … and if you were off, you can measure the distance using the reticle then make that adjustment to the scope. If they don’t match, you get to do a lot of complex math and/or have a dope sheet with both units. There is no major “inherent advantage” to the mil or MOA system (see MIL vs MOA comparison for more details on this), but whichever one you pick … make sure the reticle and turret adjustments match, either MOA/MOA or mil/mil. The only argument that might be able to hold water between the two systems is that MOA is more natural if you think in “yards” and mils are more natural if you think in “meters”.
- Front Focal Plane – This is a debatable point, but is a big feature on long-range scopes. Reticles are on either the front focal plane or the second focal plane, which just means it is located in front of or behind “the zoom” on the scope. On front focal plane scopes, when you adjust the zoom on the scope the reticle will appear to change size. When you zoom in it will get bigger, when you zoom out it will get smaller. That might mean the reticle is “too thick” when zoomed all the way in, which can obscure the target … or it might be “too thin” when zoomed all the way out, which can make it hard to see, especially for closer, quick reflex shots. The advantage to front focal plane scopes is that the lines are always the same relative distance apart. If you are using a mildot scope, the dots are always 1 mil apart regardless of the zoom setting on your scope. This is a big deal, because it essentially takes out one more thing you have to check or think about before taking a long range shot. On second focal plane scopes, when you adjust the zoom the reticle remains the same size. However, that does mean you have to be at a very specific zoom setting for the marks to be the correct size. That is just one more thing to remember before you take a shot, but some people prefer it in order to avoid the too thick/thin reticle issues.
- Other Features – There are a lot of other wiz-bang features marketing tries to get you to focus on, like Zero Stop, Locking Turrets, 1/8 MOA adjustments, illuminated reticles, and a million other things. Some are cool, but none are in the same class as these features. I do like the Zero Stop for using a long range setup in hunting scenarios. I hate 1/8 MOA adjustments … most people can’t shoot between those numbers, so ¼ MOA is almost always enough fine control and is more speedy and less error prone to dial the correct adjustment. I have a scope with an illuminated reticle, and I never use it … ever. It’s one of those things that seems like a good idea, but you probably won’t ever actually use.
Best Rifle Scope For The Money
I make updates to this list regularly … so rest assured, these are still my current recommendations.
Nikon Buckmasters 6-18x40mm Mildot ($325 street) – Without a doubt this is a huge value. The mildot reticle model is exclusively sold through MidwayUSA.com. Dollar for dollar, it would be hard for any scope to compare to this one. It isn’t the best glass, but is good. It does have a mildot reticle with MOA turret adjustments, but you can live with that for the price point. The scope tube is only 1” and the objective is 40mm … but seriously, for this price it packs a lot of punch.
Leupold Mark AR 6-18x40mm Mildot ($500 street) – I personally used this scope for long range shooting while I was saving up for a higher-end scope, and it is legit. I was able to hit at 1350 yards on a rifle setup with this scope before some other shooters that were with me could, and they were using Nightforce scopes and even a $4000 Schmidt & Bender. Honestly, it might have been luck … but it shows this scope is capable of a lot for the price. The newest version features a mildot reticle with mil-based turret adjustments, which is ideal. It does feature a 1” tube and 40mm objective, which are a little small. But the glass is good (not great), and the zero is fairly repeatable … not like a high-end scope, but better than most in this class. This scope is a HUGE value for the money, and I’ve recommended it to a ton of my family and friends. Don’t let the “AR” in the name fool you, this scope pairs well with bolt-action rifles too.
Bushnell Elite Tactical 3.5-21×50 G2DMR ($1450 street) – This has become a very popular scope, because of its incredibly wide range from a impressive 3.5x on the low end, and 21x magnification at the top end. It has a quick Horus-style reticle that was designed in conjunction with GAP (i.e. G.A. Precision). It is used by quite a few guys in the Precision Rifle Series. I’ve looked through this scope side-by-side with a Nightforce NXS and a Schmidt & Bender, and it isn’t in the same class as those guys. But, its undeniable that this scope packs a lot of punch for the money. In fact, the fanatics over at Rifles Only sell some great products in their Pro Shop, but under optics there is only 1 choice for a scope … this one. To me, that says a lot. I believe it has all the must-have features for long-range shooting. You compromise some on image quality, but it’s unlikely you’ll miss a shot because the image was razor sharp. To me, it is the first scope on this list that doesn’t require you to make a big compromise in terms of features or quality.
- Nightforce NXS 5.5-22x50mm MOAR-T ($1770 street) – This is an older scope design with a smaller zoom range than most, but it seems to be a huge value for the price. They have a model with Zero Stop, which adds about $200 … and I’m not sure if it is worth that. It likely depends on how you plan to use it. The image clarity on these are very good through the entire zoom range, although not as clear as the Schmidt & Benders. The zero is very repeatable, even if you adjust all the way out and then back down to zero … you are dead on. They have high-speed turrets, which have 20 MOA of adjustment per revolution. It is also available in a 56mm objective for the same price, although I prefer the slimmer 50mm. I’ve looked through both side-by-side and there is very little difference, even in low light. You can get the NXS in mil-based reticles as well, with the MLR being the most popular. There are a ton of serious shooters out there like Bryan Litz that swear by Nightforce scopes. In Bryan’s new DVD training he mentions that he has seen a lot of bad scopes in his career, but he has never had a single Nightforce scope that didn’t track well. They are machined from a single piece of aluminum that is thicker than all other scopes out there (that I’m aware of), so they are very, very rugged as well.
- Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 ($2500 street) – Vortex is a new company, but is quickly becoming one of the largest optics company in the world, and for good reason. This represents the pinnacle of their line of scopes, and was specifically designed for long-range, tactical shooting. It was released in 2014, and is already one of the most popular scopes among the top 50 shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (view the data). Only Schmidt & Bender had more scopes in the top 20, and the S&B glass is better … but you’d have to spend $1,200 more to the starting price of a S&B. Vortex has good reticle selection, the turrets are easy to read and use, and the scope has all the features precision rifle competitors look for.
- Nightforce ATACR 5-25x56mm F1 ($2800 street) – This is a newer scope that has outstanding clarity, and all the features long-range shooters are looking for. Nightforce makes some of the most durable scopes on the market, and this one is no different. They also offer it with Horus reticles, like the outstanding Tremor3 reticle, which adds about $500 to the price.
Money Is No Object ($3000+):
Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-25×56 DT ($3700 street) – I know some people have strong opinions about S&B, but this is the best glass … period. I performed the most thorough scope test ever published, and the S&B PMII 5-25×56 was the undisputed king of scopes. I personally use this scope, and love it. Just in case it sounds like I’m a fan-boy, I did buy this scope out-of-pocket from a retailer. Schmidt and Bender doesn’t sponsor me, and haven’t given me anything. I also own Nightforce, US Optics, Leupold, and Nikon scopes … but this is my favorite. It does have a couple drawbacks, including the fact that the elevation only allows two revolutions of adjustment, meaning the elevation range is more limited than most scopes in this class. It is also very heavy, and I think a few other companies might have a slightly better choice of reticles. But those are all nit-picky things compared to the glass, mechanical precision and repeatability, amazing turret design, and overall easy of use. This scope pretty much has it all. Now, is it the best value? Probably not. But it is the best (at least for now). In the Precision Rifle Series, more shooters in the top 50 use this scope than any other (view the data). It’s just an exceptional product.
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