It seems like advertising around long-range scopes is sometimes very misleading, or they at least get you to focus on features that differentiate them from competitors … even if they aren’t really that important. I’ve had a few friends ask me about this, so I thought I’d just combine the emails I’ve sent out to them into a blog post that maybe other people could benefit from too. Of course you are likely going to have to make trade-offs between the different features, unless you are willing to pay over $2,000 for a scope (which many people do). This will at least help you sort through all the different specs and help you understand the things the major things you should be looking at when comparing riflescopes.
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 Ziess 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 is west Texas). So they make the adjustment on the scope for vertical drop, so they can hold dead on up and down … 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 Scopes For The Money
Nikon Buckmasters 6-18x40mm Mildot ($275 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 ($550 street) – I personally used this scope for long range shooting while I was saving up for my Nightforce, 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. Again, this one has a mildot reticle with MOA turret adjustments, which isn’t ideal … and also 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 another huge value for the money.
This is a hard spot for me. When you are spending this much, it would be tempting for me to just save a little more and jump to the next level of scopes. I feel like for $500 more you could upgrade to something with the high-level glass, but having said that there are a few good options at this price point.
- Leupold Mark 4 LR/T 6.5-20x50mm Mildot ($1300 street) – But the Leupold Mark 4 is a nice scope, with improved glass, a 30mm tube, 50mm objective, and more elevation adjustment range. Lots of people swear by these scopes, and some competitive shooters go with a Leupold setup like this. Leupold also has an “Extended Range” (ER) model that has a few improvements over this “Long Range” (LR) model … but it is $1700, and at that price you’ve entered the next price bracket and I think there are better options out there.
- Bushnell Elite Tactical 3.5-21×50 G2DMR ($1400 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.
- Nightforce NXS 5.5-22x50mm MOAR ($1770 street) – This is my go-to scope, and I love it. I actually have the Zero Stop option on mine, which adds about $200 … and I’m not sure if it’s worth that much now that I’ve been using it for a while. The image clarity on these are great through the entire zoom range, although not as clear as the Schmidt & Benders. I have compared side-by-side on multiple occassions and that is just the truth. 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. Nightforce also came out with a new ATACR 5-25x56mm model for $2300 street, which uses a 34mm tube instead of the 30mm that the NXS uses. It supposedly uses ED glass, which is supposed to be a little better than the NXS model. However, I have a good friend that owned several NXS models and bought an ATACR only to be disappointed. He didn’t think it was as good of a scope as the NXS series and ended up trading it in. You can get the NXS or the ATACR 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 rugged as well. Note: I paid retail out of pocket for my scope and Nightforce has never given me anything for free … so this is real advice, not a paid advertisement.
- Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50 EBR-3 MRAD ($2000 street) – Vortex is a newer company on the scene, but is making a splash in the long range community with their Razor HD scope. In fact, in the Precision Rifle Series this past year there were 5 Vortex scopes represented among the top 20 finishers. Only Schmidt & Bender had more scopes in the top 20, and you’d have to spend $1,500 more to get an S&B. I’ve not used one of these scopes personally, but there are a lot of competitive shooters that have started using them and the specs are impressive.
Money Is No Object ($2500+):
Schmidt Bender PMII 5-25×56 P4 Fine ($3700 street) – I know some people have strong opinions about S&B, but this is the best glass … period. Two of the guys I shoot with have these, and I can’t deny they are clearer and sharper than any other scope I’ve ever looked through. 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. But other than that … this scope has it all. It definitely has the best glass of any scope, which is the most important feature and really doesn’t fall short anywhere else … except maybe value. They also offer the Schmidt Bender PMII 3-20×50 H2CMR model ($3500 street) that provides lower power magnification, which some people prefer. The H2CMR reticle is a popular choice, as is the MLR reticle. In the Precision Rifle Series this past year half of the competitors in the top 20 were using one of these scopes. You just might have to sell a kidney to buy one!
Short to Long Range Scope Setups
Lots of people have asked me about what the best scope setup is for a long-range rifle that they plan to take hunting. The problem with most long-range scopes is that it can be almost impossible to engage targets that pop-up at close ranges unexpectedly. Nothing is more frustrating than bumping up a trophy animal at close range, and struggling to find them in your scope to take the shot. There are a couple other options for handling the combination of long-range and close-range shots with the same gun.
To learn more about these types of setups (like the one shown below), check out another post I wrote: Long-Range & Short-Range Hunting Scope Combo Setup.