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Best Long-Range Scopes

Best Tactical Scopes & Reticles – What The Pros Use

I recently surveyed the top 100 shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS), and this post reviews the scopes and reticles those guys were running in 2015. The PRS tracks how top competitors place in major rifle matches across the country. These are the major leagues of sniper-style competitions, with targets typically from 300 to 1200 yards. For more info on the Precision Rifle Series and who these guys are, or to view what other gear they’re running scroll to the bottom of this article.

This is one of several posts based on that gear survey of the top PRS shooters. Want to be the first to know when the next set of results is posted? Sign-up to receive new posts via email.

Top Long-Range Scopes

Wow! While some gear choices may not change much year over year … that isn’t true for scopes in 2015! Manufacturers are aggressively competing in this space, so shooters have many more choices than they did just a few years ago. The dramatic growth and popularity of the PRS over the past couple years has also attracted more manufacturers to support and be actively involved in matches and sponsoring shooters. So all of that has combined to shake things up in terms of what scopes the top marksmen are running. Here is a breakdown of the scopes used by the top 50 shooters in the PRS each year since its inception in 2012.

Best Rifle Scope

You can see Vortex has taken a dominant lead in 2015, with more than twice as many scopes represented than any other brand. Vortex had more than an 80% increase in popularity among these top shooters over last year! Wow. That was largely driven by the release of the new Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 scope a year ago, which was a big upgrade over the previous model and a very capable scope.

I asked Scott Parks, who is involved with Product Development at Vortex, what he thought drove this jump in popularity. Scott has unique insight, because he not only attends many PRS events, but he also competes in them (finishing as high as 4th in a 2015 PRS match). First, Scott knew he’d seen an increase in the number of Vortex scopes at PRS matches, but was surprised to see the jump was this dramatic. One thing he thought might have contributed is a surge of new competitors over the past year or two. While most of those guys may not be new to rifle shooting … many are new to competing at this level. He thought those guys are likely the newer generation that grew up using Vortex equipment, and it’s what they know and are comfortable using. So as they became more proficient, and upgraded gear … they just slid up the band in the Vortex line. They may have originally had a Vortex PST or Vortex Viper scope, so it was a natural progression to upgrade to a Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 as they became competitive at higher levels.

Vortex has always been an active sponsor of the PRS and while they do sponsor some shooters, they certainly don’t sponsor this many (which is why Scott was surprised by this). Sponsorship may influence some choices, but I know a few of these guys personally … and they’re fierce competitors. You won’t land in the top 100 of the 1000+ competitors who shot in PRS-style matches this year if you aren’t really competitive. The guys I know couldn’t force themselves to use a product if they thought it somehow handicapped their chances. They’re too competitive to do that. It is good to see a company so vested in the PRS be well-represented. That hasn’t always been the case, but the new Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 seems to have created a lot of believers among these top shooters.

Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27x56

Another noteworthy point is the jump in the number of Nightforce scopes represented. In fact, just 3 years ago there wasn’t a single Nightforce scope represented among this crowd. But earlier this year, Nightforce released the Nightforce ATACR 5-25×56 F1 scope, which was a First Focal Plane scope with all the features shooters were asking for. 86% of the Nightforce scopes at the championship were that ATACR F1 scope, so it has apparently been well-received by the precision rifle community. Just a couple years ago, almost all of Nightforce’s scopes were Second Focal Plane designs. In 2015 there was only one shooter in the top 100 using a Second Focal Plane design, so the overwhelming majority prefer FFP scopes. It isn’t a huge surprise that Nightforce is represented in larger numbers now that they offer FFP models in the 5-25x magnification range that most of these long-range shooters prefer to run.

Nightforce ATACR 5-25x56 F1

Kahles has also made a significant jump in popularity, which could be due to the excellent SKMR and SKMR2 reticles they released this year. Those reticles were designed by Shannon Kay from K&M Precision Rifle Training “to be uncomplicated, practical and visually expedient for both tactical operations and the most demanding long range competitors.” I stopped by the Kahles booth at SHOT Show earlier this year, and Jeff Huber quickly handed me a scope so that I could see these new reticles … as soon as I looked through the scope I laughed out-loud. It is almost identical to a custom reticle I had drawn up myself. I hadn’t shown that design to anyone, so I’m not claiming they copied it (Shannon is probably smarter than me and definitely has decades more experience). I’ve just put a lot of ridiculous amount of thought into what the ideal reticle might look like, and the SKMR reticles integrate virtually all of the design features I was looking for in an elegant and uncluttered way. A reticle can dramatically enhance how you use a scope, and it seems like Kahles hit a home run on those two.

SKMR and SKMR2 Reticles Kahles

The other dramatic change was the decline of Schmidt & Bender’s popularity among these shooters. There are likely several things that play into that. First, a Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-25×56 costs 50% more than most of the scopes these guys are running. They start at $3750, where most of these other scopes run $2000-2500. S&B seems to have small price increases each year, and could be gradually pricing out a large part of the market. Another factor could be that S&B does virtually no advertising, marketing, or sponsorships. They just aren’t involved in the precision rifle community (at least in the U.S.’s competition world), and they don’t appear to be as interested in integrating feedback from competitors as other brands. One industry expert also mentioned that a couple prominent shooters had issues with their S&B scopes in recent years, and while that may not be representative of the majority of S&B scopes … their poor experience combined with their substantial influence could be scaring others away. Vortex, Nightforce, and Kahles had to get their increases in market share from somewhere, and it looks like S&B may have taken the brunt of that shift. Whatever the reason, the data shows 75% fewer shooters were using S&B scopes than just a year ago.

In 2015, the PRS expanded the number of shooters invited to the championship match, so I was able to survey the top 100 shooters (previous years were only the top 50). So while the chart above shows what was most popular historically among the top 50 shooters, the graph below breaks down the 2015 results in more detailed groups: top 100, top 50, and top 15.

Best Scope Among Top Shooters

What’s interesting here is Vortex is clearly the most popular among the top 100 shooters, and even more popular among the top 50 shooters … and it turns out they were even more popular among guys who finished at the very top of the list. There were only 4 guys in the top 15 that were NOT running a Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56!

While the charts above grouped all the scopes from a particular brand together, here is a more detailed breakdown on the specific models these guys were using:

Best Tactical Scope

The top two scopes (Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 and Nightforce ATACR 5-25×56 F1) were both released within the past 18 months. They’ve clearly been a big hit for the tactical guys trying to hit small targets at long-distance.

There were only 5 scopes being used by five or more shooters in the top 100. Here is a look at those, along with the street price of each one. (Note: These prices were as of Oct. 2015 and intended for informational purposes only. Pricing is set by manufacturers and distributors and is subject to change without notice.)

  1. Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 = $2,500
  2. Nightforce ATACR 5-25×56 F1 = $2,800
  3. Kahles K 6-24×56 = $3,000
  4. Bushnell Elite Tactical 4.5-30×50 = $2,150
  5. Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-25×56 = $3,750

Best Long-Range Scopes

Best Long-Range Reticles

Now let’s look at the reticles the top 100 shooters were running this year:

Best Scope Reticle

You can see the Vortex EBR-2C reticle was the most popular, followed by the EBR-1C reticle. Next most popular was the Nightforce MIL-R reticle, the Bushnell G2DMR reticle (also known as the G2 or GAP reticle), the Horus H59 reticle (used on multiple brands of scopes), the Kahles SKMR reticle (the 1st version without the Christmas-tree hold-offs), and then Schmidt & Bender’s H2CMR reticle. Those 7 reticles represent are all of the reticles used by 5+ shooters within the top 100. Here is a look at those tactical reticles that were the most popular:

You can see about half of these are Christmas-tree style hold-off reticles, like those made famous by Horus. However, the EBR-2C and G2DMR reticles are simpler than Horus designs, which some shooters find distracting. Those hold-off reticles give you the ability to hold for wind and elevation for really quick shots. The other reticles allow you to hold for wind, but you’d typically need to dial your elevation adjustment so you aren’t holding off into empty space. Given enough time, it seems like most precision shooters prefer to dial for elevation, but if you need to make really quick shots a hold-off reticle can offer a huge advantage.

I went to a PRS match earlier this year with a stage that required you to engage 4 steel targets scattered at random distances from 300 to 800 yards … and you had 15 seconds. (Those Oklahoma boys can shoot fast!) Without a Christmas-tree style hold-off reticle that is a very tough stage. You obviously don’t have time to dial. But would you believe one guy cleaned it in just 11 seconds?! (Cleaning a stage means he hit all of the targets.) I bet he was running a hold-off reticle.

Almost all of the reticles that were popular among this crowd at least had 0.5 mil hashmarks on the horizontal axis. The Horus H59, Kahles SKMR, and Schmidt & Bender H2CMR reticles all feature 0.2 mil hashmarks on the horizontal axis. That is something that some shooters feel is important, because it allows you to have more precise wind holds.

If you found this interesting, you might also be interested in a really in-depth scope field test I did a few months ago. Based on 400+ hours of research, this epic field test compares 18 of the top rifle scopes in the $1500+ price range in a very objective and data-driven way. It quantifies optical quality, mechanical performance, and many other aspects.
View the PRB Tactical Scope Field Test

Other “What The Pros Use” Articles

This post was one of a series of posts that look at the equipment the top PRS shooters use. Check out these other posts:

Meet The Pros

You know NASCAR? Yes, I’m talking about the racing-cars-in-a-circle NASCAR. Before NASCAR, there were just a bunch of unaffiliated, regional car races. NASCAR brought structure by unifying those races, and created the idea of a season … and an overall champion. NASCAR identified the top races across the country (that were similar in nature), then combined results and ranked competitors. The Precision Rifle Series (PRS) is like NASCAR, but for rifle matches.

Watch PRS In ActionThe PRS is a championship style point series race based on the best precision rifle matches nationwide. PRS matches are recognized as the major league of sniper-style rifle matches. These matches aren’t shot from a bench or even on a square range. They feature practical, real-world field conditions, and even some improvised barricades and obstacles to increase the difficulty from hard to you-have-to-be-kidding-me. You won’t be able to take all shots from a prone position, and time stressors keep you from getting to comfortable. Typical target ranges are from 300 to 1200 yards, but each PRS match has a unique personality with creative stages that challenge different aspects of precision shooting. You might start off the day with a single cold bore shot on a small target at 400 yards, then at the next stage make a 1400 yard shot through 3 distinct winds across a canyon, then try to hit a golf ball on a string at 164 yards with no backstop to help you spot misses (can’t make that up), then see how many times you can ring an small 6” target at 1000 yards in 30 seconds, next shoot off a roof top at 10”, 8”, and 6” targets at 600 yards, followed by a speed drill on 1” targets at 200 yards and repeated at 7 yards … plus 10 other stages, and then come back tomorrow and do some more! Many stages involve some type of gaming strategy, and physical fitness can also come into play. For a shooter to place well in multiple matches, they must be an extremely well-rounded shooter who is capable of getting rounds on target in virtually any circumstance.

There are about 15 national-level PRS matches each year. At the end of the year the match scores are evaluated and the top ranked shooters are invited to compete head-to-head in the PRS Championship Match. We surveyed the shooters who qualified for the championship, asking all kinds of questions about the equipment they ran that season. This is a great set of data, because 100 shooters is a significant sample size, and this particular group are experts among experts. It includes guys like George Gardner (President/Senior Rifle Builder of GA Precision), Wade Stuteville of Stuteville Precision, Jim See of Center Shot Rifles, Matt Parry of Parry Custom Gun, Aaron Roberts of Roberts Precision Rifles, shooters from the US Army Marksmanship Unit, and many other world-class shooters.

Think of the best shooter you know … it’s actually very unlikely that person is good enough to break into the top 100. I know I’m not! I competed against a few of these guys for the first time earlier this year, and I was humbled. It’s incredible what these guys can do with a rifle. For example, the match in Oklahoma I was in had a station that required you to engage 4 steel targets scattered at random distances from 300 to 800 yards, and you only had 15 seconds! I think I hit 2, and rushed my 3rd shot. I didn’t even get the 4th shot off! But, one of these guys cleaned that stage with 4 seconds to spare! Yep, he got 4 rounds on target at distance in 11 seconds. That’s the caliber of shooter we’re talking about. It’s very different from benchrest or F-class competitions, but make no mistake … these guys are serious marksmen.

Thanks to Rich Emmons for allowing me to share this info. To find out more about the PRS, check out What Is The Precision Rifle Series? or watch this video to see it in action.

About Cal

Cal Zant is the shooter/author behind PrecisionRifleBlog.com. Cal is a life-long learner, and loves to help others get into this sport he's so passionate about. Cal has an engineering background, unique data-driven approach, and the ability to present technical information in an unbiased and straight-forward fashion. For more info, check out PrecisionRifleBlog.com/About.

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  1. That’s interesting.

    Technical tests are true and give a factual opinion to shooters to decide the right choice.

    Popular = Marketing (advertising, FB, sponsoring, etc…)

    The Vortex’s and Kalhes marketing efforts paid 😉

    SB, german brand, received what they do, nothing. They are the king, and the king doesn’t take care about the civilian shooter (in Europe)
    Five years ago, you paid a 5-25 for 2400 euro and now you pay 3200 euro!

    • Yes sir. I agree, as I tend to lean towards technical tests for comparisons (you’ve probably seen the ridiculous scope test I did last year). But it’s still interesting to see what these guys are running. I haven’t had a chance to test all of these, but the fact that some of the best shooters in the world are running them means they are worthy of consideration.

      I do disagree that these results have a direct correlation to ads and Facebook. I think you might not understand who these guys are. You really can think about the best shooter you know, and that person is probably not good enough to break into the top 100 in the PRS. It’s not like these people are uninformed consumers. I’ve bet the majority of the shooters have tried pretty much all the scopes on the list. Now sponsorships can skew the data, but I addressed that in the post. The guys wouldn’t be using it if they thought it hurt their chances. I think it’d be a stretch that they’d give scopes to all the guys in the top 100. Each shooter listed out what team/company they shoot for, and a few list out optics companies … but most don’t.

      I can appreciate your skepticism … but it may be shortsighted to completely dismiss this data.

      And yeah … the S&B price inflation has to stop at some point. They are pricing people out. I know some guys who jumped off the S&B wagon because of price. It’s still what I personally run, but I’m about to buy another one … and I’d be lying if I said I didn’t think about trying out one of these other scopes because of the stupid price tag of the S&B scopes. They might be the best (and I still think they are), but at 50% more cost than the rest of these … is it worth it? At some point it isn’t. Where that line is will vary for each person based on the amount of discretionary income they have, but at some point everyone will jump ship. I’m not sure where that will be for me, but I think they’re getting close.


      • Thanks for your fast and complete reply.

        I highly appreciate to read your awesome scope test.

        I agree with you. My reply was short and miss some data, for sur.
        My intervention was just to advert the simple consumer that is business and to be aware about the marketing.
        It was not my intention to cast doubt on the top 100.

        In my opinion, it’s important to cross informations depending of use, features of rifle scope and what “mum” authorized to spend in this purchase 😉

        I own and owned severals brands you test.

        the rules in marketing is to propose a product and a service to the customer. The customer have to pay the price without any regrets.
        I own Premier and S&B. The customer service at PR (Tangent Theta, now) is perfect, and no problem to pay high price for these awesome scopes and quality lifetime service. S&B, in Europe, warranty is two years.

        Thank you for this work. It’s always a real pleasure to read you.

        Greetings from France

      • Price was my determining factor as I’m more varmint hunter than PRS competitor. …. ( precision hobbyist / student / wannabe per se). Running a Nightforce 5-25X with .1 mil radian Mil-R reticle on a LaRue 7.62 PredatOBR. Its a second focal plane that works fine for my needs.

        Very very grateful for your work, time and effort ……. Regards from Panhandle Texas.

        Stay Safe !!

      • Hey, Caylen. That certainly sounds like a very nice setup that is more than capable of varmint hunting and most anything else for that matter. Nightforce makes some great products, and that ATACR great scope in FFP or SFP. Glad to know there is another long-range guy here is West Texas!


  2. I have a nightforce 10×42 that works well, thankyou

  3. What did the top five finishers use?

    • Great question! Here’s the top 5:

      1. Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 with EBR-2 reticle
      2. Kahles K 6-24×56 with SKMR2 reticle
      3. US Optics ER-25 5-25×58 with Gen 2 XR reticle
      4. Bushnell Elite Tactical 4.5-30×50 with G2DMR (GAP) reticle
      5. Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 with EBR-1 reticle

      The list gets pretty boring for a while past that. They’re mostly Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 with EBR-2 reticle for the rest of the top 15. There is one Schmidt and Bender PMII 5-25×56 with a P4L Fine reticle in the top 15. That’s what I’ve been personally using and I’m starting to hate it. I think I’m going to sell it and move to a Horus H59 or a H2CMR so that I can have 0.2 mil marks on the windage axis. The P4L Fine doesn’t even have 0.5 marks on the windage. The first mark is at 1.0 mils. How many times do you need to hold 0.4 mils or 0.6 or 0.7? On the P4L your just floating out in the middle of nowhere guessing at anything less than 1 mil. It’s probably belly-aching, because obviously the guy who landed at #10 did well with it. I just get a little more irritated every time I use that scope now. 1st world problems, right?!


      • So what are you saying? Are you saying that you are going to buy another Schmidt and bender with a H59 or H2CMR reticle?
        I am wondering about the statistics on the scopes. Do you think that those competitors that are sponsored would by a Vortex instead of a Schmidt and Bender because of the money? It seems like these guys have plenty of money to just buy the best. It just seems like they would buy what was best no matter the cost.
        As you have said many times these guys are competitors and try to do everything they can to win. If they have spent $12,000.00 on a rifle why would they buy a second best optics for the rifle?
        It doesn’t seem to make any sense to me. It seems to me that they just bought what they thought would give them the best chance of winning and not worry about the money. Besides most of the top competitors would already have a Schmidt and Bender optics lying around from previous years of competition. So knowing they already have a Schmidt and Bender, why spend the money to buy second best rifle optics?

      • Yep. That is my plan for now. But first, I’m trying to figure out if there is any way I could pay someone to install a custom reticle I drew up a long time ago. But I’m not sure I’ll be able to do that on an S&B. The Schmidt and Bender glass is just ridiculously clear. I’m still convinced it’s the best scope money can buy, but I haven’t tested it against the Vortex Razor HD Gen II or the new ATACR FFP.

        I’m not sure these guys have unlimited budgets. Sure, many do their own gunsmithing or can get that at cost (so their rifle didn’t really cost them $12k) … but many of these guys are working-class people with day jobs like you and me. I only know one civilian shooter that shoots for a living, and he does precision rifle training on the side. My point is most of these guys probably don’t have unlimited budgets, and sponsorships aren’t as widespread as many think … I’d bet most in the top 100 bought their scope out of pocket and probably paid retail. They run nice stuff because they pour most of their discretionary income into this (like me) and have been doing that for a while.

        The question is probably this: Does the 50% increase in price with the S&B help you hit more targets? I’m pretty sure that answer is no. Honestly, I don’t think my S&B helps me put more points on the board. Now I DO enjoy shooting with that scope more than any other one I’ve ever used, but I don’t think it helps me hit any targets that I wouldn’t have been able to hit with the Vortex, Bushnell, Nightforce, USO, Kahles, or any of these other high-end scopes. Now there are cheap scopes that will impact your score, but the ones in this list are all very capable.

        I think these guys make pragmatic decisions. What do they think will give them the best chance at winning, without needlessly spending more than they have to? If I’m 100% honest, the S&B is probably needlessly spending money. The benefit is enjoyment. I live a mile away from my office, and I could drive a Ford Focus or a Corvette to work every day. While I’d enjoy driving the Corvette more, but I bet the Ford Focus could reliably get me from my house to the office every day. In practical terms, it can do everything I need. It’s kind of like that. Now that’s not a perfect analogy, because I’m not saying those others are a Ford Focus compared to my Schmidt & Bender Corvette … but maybe it helps illustrate what I’m talking about.

        Let me try one more analogy: It’s like a mechanic with Snap-On tools. Does paying $50+ for a regular flathead screwdriver have any impact on how well he can repair a car? I bet he could fix the same car with a Craftsman screwdriver, but I’d bet most mechanics end up using Snap-On, Mac, or Matco screwdrivers. Why? They enjoy using them more, and they feel like for whatever reason “it’s worth it.”

        “Is it worth it?” is a loaded question, and depends on a lot of things including how something will be used, the perceived benefit or differentiation, and the amount of discretionary income someone has to work with. We’re fortunate to be talking about which is the best $2000+ scope, aren’t we?! 1st world problems, man.

        Hopefully I didn’t offend anyone out there with my analogies. But hopefully they got my point across. I enjoy using a S&B 5-25 more than any other scope I’ve tried (at least so far). The glass is absolutely 5 star (none of those others are better … period), the turrets are perfectly crisp, I love the double-turn turret, the revolution indicator is ideal, the eye box is forgiving, the field of view is huge, the zero stop is automatic and allows you to turn 0.5 below zero (like I like it), and a million other nit-picky intangibles … plus it’s never let me down. As I read back through that list, I noticed none of that is about getting rounds on target … it’s all about the experience of using the scope. I’m 100% positive another scope will come out that I like better, but I just haven’t seen it yet. The Tangent Theta might be it, and I’m excited about that one … but haven’t tried it yet. I’m not an S&B fan boy. That 3-27 scope I tried is crap. The 4-16 is bad. The 3-20 is poor. But that 5-25 is something special. My advice: Don’t ever look through a Schmidt & Bender 5-25.

        I’ll keep using it until I’m convinced something is better … or they raise the price another $1k. I can’t see myself paying $5k for a scope. I just don’t have the discretionary income at this point to support that, and even if I did … that feels a bit excessive.


      • All of what you said makes sense to me. There is something to be said for comfort especially if you’re a sniper. All of what you said sounds like what I would want. I have a Vortex Razor HD Gen 2 4.5x27x56 EBR2C reticle (MOA) because I am a MOA kind of guy. It has some excellent features too. I am going to put it on a Savage PS Precision rifle I had Savage put together for me in 270 Winchester.
        I wish I had access to a Schmidt and Bender to compare the two scopes. I do like the Vortex. But the Schmidt and Bender sounds good too.
        How about you trying a Vortex and see what you think and letting us know what you discover? For me I would want a comparison Vortex with a Schmidt and Bender.

      • I may do another round of scope tests in 2016, and those results will be directly comparable to the test I did big scope field test I did several months ago. I essentially did everything in a controlled environment so that the tests could be repeated at a later date, and the results be directly comparable. I spent of a lot of time developing a benchmark score and thinking about how the tests were setup for that exact purpose. If/when I do test another batch of scopes in the future, you can bet that the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 will be included. I will also include the Tangent Theta 5-25×56, which is completely missing on this list. I’ve only handled one briefly, but it seems to be a very capable scope.

        I’ve only had a brief experience behind a Vortex Razor HD Gen II, but the overall design seems really well thought out. The optical clarity isn’t as good as the Schmidt and Bender, but then again we aren’t trying to read license plates at 1 mile either. At a practical level, I’m sure I wouldn’t be able to hit any targets with the S&B that I couldn’t have hit with the Vortex. That true for pretty much all of these scopes. They’re all very capable.


  4. 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.

    • Great points, and I couldn’t agree more.


      • Thanks for the info. having said that-I think that I will stick with issue optics-seeing as how some real world targets (not paper and steel)have a very nasty propensity to shoot back-the guys there are the REAL EXPERTS

      • Absolutely. In combat, the stakes are higher than in competition. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that the military always uses the best product. I’d love to believe that is true, for our troops sake … but things work a little differently in the real world. Often times military products do undergo testing, but the decision at the end of the day comes down to more factors than performance. It includes other reasonable things like confidence in the manufacturer that they can provide them in very large quantities, and how it aligns with the very specific and narrowly focused application they have in mind … but it also includes A LOT of politics. Being friends with the right people can sometimes make the difference in whether you get the big contract or not. I wish it weren’t true, but any mature person will admit that plays some role in this.

        I say that not because I think the military is using crap gear … in most cases it is good gear. But I just see a lot of guys think that whatever the military uses must be the best universally. And that is a fallacy. It does tell likely mean it is a proven manufacturer and that it may also be a durable product … but that may be about all it says. I’ve met a lot of retired military snipers that don’t use the same equipment they did in service. In fact, many of them use the scopes in this list … because they are outstanding products. So I just recommend that you take the list of gear the military uses and this list the competitive world uses just as data points that lead you in the right direction for gear choices. Neither is the complete story or definitive, universal answer.


  5. Hi,

    I love all the analysis and would be curious to see some data on the extent of sponsorship on what the pros use ? It feels that sponsorship is growing rapidly and IS influencing what products the pros use and having some credible data behind that would enhance the quality and validity of the research findings presented.


    • Great question! I totally get where you’re coming from. Sponsorships do seem to be growing, although a large number of the top 100 aren’t sponsored. I did ask what team/company they shoot for on the survey. The problem is a lot of these guys shoot on a team, but that doesn’t mean they get any equipment for free or even at a discount. They might get a rifle build at cost, but no help on the scope or other gear … or nothing but a nice jersey to wear and some added camaraderie at matches. I’m not sure there is a way to get the details of shooter sponsorships in the way you’re hoping to see it.

      Last year, I had a survey question that asked what equipment guys paid out of pocket for, and that turned out to be a very offensive question to a few guys, or at the very least very politically charged. In fact, some guys refused to take the survey because of that. I honestly didn’t know it’d offend anyone … but it was clearly seen as taboo and struck a nerve. So I deleted the question within a few minutes of it being sent out, and I’ll never ask that question again.

      I feel like I’m trying to strike the balance between getting useful info from these guys to help the rest of us, and at the same time not piss off the best shooters in the country by asking too many questions. It’s a balancing act, and it seems like some of the shooters already find it invasive, and hundreds of my readers always asking why I didn’t gather some other piece of info that they really wanted to see. I’m just trying to provide what I can.

      So I totally get you … but I’m afraid it looks like I can’t help.


      • Another thing that would be hard to quantify is the fact that, as top-level shooters, these folks often have some excellent options from prize tables. This would allow them easy access some of the products they use, or at least the opportunity to recoup the cost of the equipment they need to buy.

      • Never thought of that, but it’s a good point. I’ve won some stuff on the prize table, and it ended up on some of my rifles. So it’s a good point, Drew.


  6. Wow, very interesting. Hard to believe just a year ago, the amount of s&b scopes on rifles. Looks like NightForce hit a grandslam with their f1 series.

  7. FYI, The Kahles AMR reticle is completely based on .2mrad stadia. Very Horus-like, but not as intrusive.

    • Absolutely. That is a great reticle as well. Kahles doesn’t have as many reticle choices as some of the other brands, but the ones they have are great.


  8. I think Scott’s assessment of Vortex’ popularity is pretty spot on and it describes me perfectly. Started out with a Viper PST and then upgraded to the Gen II Razor. I also feel the feature set to price ratio is just about unbeatable for the new Razors. Also, were can you get a K624i for $2350??

  9. Excellent job, this is very valuable information. My theory on Vortex gaining so much momentum can be described as the “ear to the rail”. Basically the SB PMII came out of military contracts and the designs has been the benchmark for 10 years, if you really think about it no one has trumped it. Lots of people trying to get to it but no one really being able, with most companies undershooting and trying to offer better value.

    But SB does not listen much to the base, and as the competition reaches and even eclipses military thinking and data everyone is looking for a company to incorporate their ideas. Vortex has shown that they will update based on feedback with each of their product cycles. The Gen 2 is light years ahead of the old 5-20.

    Very surprised Tangent Theta has not been able to get to one competitor. I thought the tool-less re-zero would be popular, but they seemed to have priced themselves out.

    • Chris, I’m with you all the way. I was surprised to not see Tangent Theta on this list as well. It looks very impressive, but they are even higher than the S&B 5-25, so it seems like the market may be saying $3500 or more is too much to pay for a scope.


      • As far as I know TT hasn’t sponsored anyone yet. I am a TT dealer and received scopes that were ordered 1.5 years ago a couple months ago.

        There were not many TT scopes out in shooter’s hands before the PRS finale. I am sure we will see some next year.

      • Hey, thanks for the input. That’s good to know, because I was wondering the same thing.

  10. I wonder if not only the marketing and sponsorship of Vortex has not only influenced their popularity, but their customer service as well.

    I own several Vortex products (range finder, spotting scope, and 3 of the Gen II scopes [no, I don’t have an unlimited budget, just an unlimited addiction 😉 ]) and I have found that their customer service has been outstanding, literally. They have gone above and beyond any expectations I have ever expected as a customer.

    An example is nearly destroying my Gen II and range finder recently. Dummy me forgot to strap some equipment down before driving down a desert road to my favorite coyote spot, followed by a friend. Long story short, my equipment was run over by a 5000 lb vehicle.

    Unserviceable and unlikely it could be repaired, I called Vortex and asked for a quote to fix it and expecting to pay FULL price on a replacement. They said “let’s take a look at it,” emailed me a shipping label, I boxed it up, and approximately 9 days later I received BRAND NEW glass and range finder. I was so flabbergasted that I called them to ask how much I owe because I thought they made a mistake. They wouldn’t take one cent from me, not one. They simply stated, “if you break it again, send it back, we will take care of you.”

    That one incident made me a customer for life. And I hope they continue to improve their products based on their customer’s needs.

    • Thanks for sharing, Noah … but I’m not surprised. I believe Vortex has the best after-sale warranty and service in the industry. Scott said it’s rare for a scope to be in their shop for more than a couple days. They overstaff their warranty team on purpose, so they can provide quick turn-arounds. And you can literally buy a broken Vortex scope off Craig’s list, send it in and you’ll get back a repaired (or new) scope … no questions asked. How many companies stand behind their product like that?! My S&B came with a 1 year limited warranty, which is completely ridiculous. Those Germans could learn a few things from Vortex.


      • I haven’t had a chance to experience the Vortex customer service yet, but if it’s anything like the Steiner/Burris system then it’s a huge plus in terms of value. I shoot my Steiner 3-12 Military (German model) knowing I can always send it to Burris in Colorado for any reason forever. It’s also transferable, which makes for a great second hand option. I sent the scope to Colorado for a mounting issue on the windage knob and it was as if they had someone waiting by the phone for my call. It only took 8 days for a complete turnaround door to door, and they offered a loaner scope (I didn’t need it that badly so I said it was ok.) If Vortex does that as well then I am very impressed.

        My SB PMII 12-50 is a different story. 3 years now and no coverage, it’s not a huge overwhelming fear but it does factor into a few decisions about where and when it comes out to shoot. They do their service stateside but it’s still going to be interesting if and when something breaks.

        I had to send my March to Japan for a zoom ring problem, that took 4 months back in 2012. Good service I guess because they fixed it, but no communication. I did wonder if it would ever return.

        Another shocking thing is the total lack of any Leupold. 20+ years ago EVERYONE had a Mark 4 and there was no talk of anything else. People thought Nightforce was a flashlight.

      • Absolutely! BOTH the Vortex and Steiner warranties are the best in the business. I actually highlighted that in a post I wrote last year. Here is an excerpt from the warranties of those 2 companies to show you what I’m talking about:

        Vortex VIP WarrantyOur VIP warranty is about you, not us. It’s about taking care of you after the sale. We will repair or replace your Vortex product in the event it becomes damaged or defective – at no charge to you. If we cannot repair your product, we will replace it. You see, it doesn’t matter how it happened, whose fault it was, or where you purchased it. No warranty card to fill out. No receipt needed. If you ever have a problem, no matter the cause, we promise to take care of you. (Note: The VIP warranty does not cover loss, theft, or deliberate damage to the product.)

        Steiner Heritage WarrantyWe are committed to building optics that never need service. However, should one become damaged or defective, for any reason other than theft or deliberate misuse, we will repair or replace it at no charge – no questions asked. That’s our promise to not only you, but to all those who will own your Steiner optic after you. No warranty card needed. No receipt required. Fully transferable – from generation to generation.

        In the days of “Made in China” and fine print … this is REALLY refreshing. I agree the S&B warranty is ridiculous, but luckily I’ve never had to excercise the warranty on my S&B. That reminds me of that scene in Tommy Boy where he is talking about guarantees:

        And Leupold is missing off this list. It is a little surprising. The Leupold Mark 8 and even the Leupold Mark 6 seem like they’d work for this type of competition, and they have good reticle options. I guess they just aren’t as involved or don’t have a compelling differentiators compared to these other models. I’m honestly not sure why they aren’t better represented, but it’s a good point.


  11. schmidt bender and night force is used in armies of the world in 20mm enzo and cal 50

    vortex what army of the world the used ?

    • You got me. I’m not sure if Vortex has any military contracts. I’ve heard Bushnell Elite Tactical scopes are now being issued on some equipment, so it doesn’t seem out of the question that Vortex scopes are worthy of topping military rifles. It’s a common fallacy to believe that something is the best just because the military uses it. That is often far from the truth. There are a lot of factors that drive those decisions, and performance is just one of them.


      • I’ve a close DM Ranger friend that’s trained with and used the Bushnell Elite for work. He also purchased one for himself.

      • Yeah, I’ve heard rumors that the military were now using those scopes. They’re obviously very capable.


  12. Cal, you probably have more inside access than anyone. My question is, do you think NightForce will offer the f1 WITHOUT the capped windage. IMO that would be a even bigger seller. Thanks!

    • Grady, I’m sure some guys would prefer it that way … but I like the idea of a capped windage knob. I hold for wind 99% of the time, so the exposed windage knob is a liability to me more than anything. I might accidentally nudge it, and not notice it for a while. I normally only touch it when I zero, or if the wind is blowing and I’m having to hold more than 3 mils. In that case, I’ll dial 3 and hold the rest. I shoot in west Texas, and when we say the wind isn’t blowing that just means it’s under 10 mph! The wind is shifty here, and you just typically can’t hold the same wind for minutes at a time … or even shot-to-shot at times. I was giving Leica some advice on a new scope design a few months ago, and I actually suggested a covered windage knob. So you might not like that one either! 😉

      It’s a personal preference thing. Since most tactical scopes don’t a covered windage, you may be right … more people may like it without.


    • I believe I read that their exposed windage knob is just as rugged as its ever been if you choose to leave the cap off.

      • Yeah, I’d believe that. I really like that design. It essentially just gives you the option to cover the knob if you’d prefer to. I prefer to. I noticed on 8541 Tactical’s Mail Call Monday this week John McQuay said he liked the idea of a dust cover on the windage knob as well, so I guess I’m not alone. It is just a personal preference item though. No right or wrong approach.


  13. Cal,
    You had me sold on the Bushnell Elite Tactical 3.5-21×50 G2DMR, now this (another) great article highlighting the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56.
    With the Vortex being an inch longer and a pound heavier, how much better is the Vortex for someone that isn’t a top competitor. I’m looking at getting involved with my Ruger PR 6.5CM. A new PR comp range opened up a mile from home.
    With old man eyes, how’s the eye adjustment on the Vortex? I like the quick adjust on The Bushnell elite tactical i already own.

    • Hey, Andy. The Bushnell Elite Tactical scope is a very capable scope. I still think it is the highest value scope on the market, and it’s able to compete at the highest level. Now, I won’t say it is better than the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56. It’s not. But it’s also half the price. I don’t think the Vortex is twice as good, so that’s why the Bushnell is still the best bang for your buck. But the Vortex is better. But I think the Schmidt and Bender PMII 5-25×56 and Tangent Theta 5-25×56 might be even better … of course those cost 50-70% more, so really it comes down to striking the right balance for your budget. There is always going to be something new and amazing coming out, but don’t feel like you always have to adopt it. The whole concept of “Is it worth it?” is all relative to what you’re trying to do and the amount of discretionary income you have. So there is never a one-size-fits-all “right” answer. If you like your Bushnell, I’d suggest not trying to fix happy!

      Cal Zant

  14. Cal, could we be looking forward to another scope test in the future?

    • Perhaps. I haven’t started planning one yet, but I’ve been thinking about it. It will probably happen at some point. It’s a massive amount of work, but hopefully I’ll be able to test another batch at some point.


  15. Cal,
    In looking over the reticles for the tactical scopes in your very thorough review I see some are illuminated and some are not.

    Do you have any knowledge if major PRS competitors use lighted reticles? I see no daylight advantage for them except for hunting at dawn and dusk.

    • The only daylight advantage is when using a fine reticle (which most of these are) at low magnification. I tested the S&B 3-27×56 a few months ago and it had the H2CMR reticle. When I was dialed down to 3x, you could barely see the crosshairs. I serious didn’t see it at first, and thought the scope was broken. It was there, but very faint. But, flip on the illumination … and it’s really noticeable. So that’s a big advantage to these thin reticles, which work great for precision long-range work … but may not be great at closer range targets.

      That’s the only advantage I can see, other than the low light one you mentioned.


  16. Cal,

    Thanks for the insight. Could the jump in Vortex have anything to do with sponsorship, i.e., Vortex providing the shooters with scopes at a discount or free? Or, do all shooters have to purchase their own equipment and therefore the data is free from any financial influence?


    • Hey, Kent. Sponsorships could influence equipment decisions. Vortex does sponsor some of the top shooters, but I get the impression that they mostly just approach guys who consistently finish in the top 20. That’s why I was especially excited this year to survey the top 100 shooters, because that should include a lot of guys who do buy all their gear out-of-pocket. If you just looked at the guys who finished 50-100 … there are still a ton of Vortex scopes represented. Honestly, it is just a good scope with all the must-have features these types of shooters are looking for … and at a price that most people can afford. The S&B 5-25 really is 50% more than this scope. So even if it really is better (which many people debate), I don’t think anyone would claim that it is 50% better than the Vortex. I personally bought a S&B 5-25 for my rifle out-of-pocket, and I’m about to buy another one … but even I wouldn’t say that they’re 50% better than the Vortex. They just aren’t. A lot of this comes down to personal preference and how much discretionary income you have to play with. The Vortex seems to strike the right balance for most of these shooters, even among the guys who aren’t sponsored.


  17. Hey Cal first I think you’ve done an awesome job with everything that you have published. Especially with what the pros use. I do have a suggestion however for next years scope portion of what the pros use. It would be nice to know whether or not the guys who run a christmas tree mostly dial or hold the elevation. Just a thought.

    • Yeah, that is a great question, Tyler. I’ll add it to my list, and if we do the survey again this year, I’ll consider adding it. Thanks for the input.


  18. Hi Cal– Fantastic write-up! Really great info here. Any chance you’ll be getting your hands on a Kahles gen 3? I’d be really curious to hear your thoughts on the newer version.

    • Hey, Andrew. Thanks for the kind words. Honestly, I’d be curious to hear what my thoughts were on the newer version! 😉 I did look through it briefly at SHOT and have been staying in touch with the US Distributor about the improvements they’ve been making. It looks like an exceptional scope. The older version was already a great scope, which is why it got 3rd overall in my big scope test. But they’ve clearly improved the glass (over the one that I tested), and they’ve also come out with some outstanding reticles in the past 2 years. Honestly, I think they have the best reticle choices of ANY scope brand. I love the new SKMR designs. They are very similar to some reticles I have designed, and I think they’re pretty ideal.

      I still don’t have plans to test additional scopes, but if/when I do … you can bet that one will be in the group.


  19. Cal,
    Thanks again for your continuing research into top of the line shooting gear. Your comparative graphs pack a LOT of info into an easily understandable visual. Like you I firmly believe that competition spurs improvement in not only the competitor but the gear they use.
    There is a saying, “either you are building your reputation or living off of it.” Vortex, to name just one company, is certainly building their reputation.

    Although I plan to begin competing with my Bushnell Elite 3.5 – 21 scope W/ H59 reticle sitting on my Ruger Precision Rifle I’ve decided my next hunting scope will be a Vortex PST with mil/mil setup. After an extensive search I landed on that scope to sit on my re-stocked, re-triggered Ruger American Predator because the PST is so feature rich and of such high quality for the money.

    • Thanks, Eric. That means a lot. I do put a ton of effort and thought into my graphics. I try to make them speak clearly and immediately. They can say so much more than you can in writing. So it means a lot that someone recognized that.

      And to your other comments … that might be EXACTLY what scopes I’d pair with those rifles. And I don’t say that lightly. In fact, I’m not sure I’ve ever said that. That Ruger Precision Rifle seems to be an amazing value, and that Bushnell scope is in the same league. In fact, that is exactly the setup I recommended to a friend this week. You could spend more on a scope, but you certainly have to pay a lot more for any measurable improvement. The Bushnell Elite Tactical 3.5-21 has all the “must-have” features for serious tactical long-range shooting. It provides a ridiculous amount of value for what it costs. I really believe anything beyond it is the point of diminishing returns. I personally own a Schmidt & Bender 5-25 that I love … but I know I paid a ton of money to get that slight improvement in glass. The Bushnell is at least 70% of the way there … but I spent 4 times as much. I know that although I really enjoy shooting behind that S&B scope, I’m not hitting any more targets than I would have with that Bushnell scope. It’s just an amazing value. I used to have a low-brow view of Bushnell, until I started doing my own independant, data-driven testing … and they just make an incredible product. The big tactical scope test I did makes that abundantly clear. That scope outperformed some $7000 scopes. How crazy is that?!

      And that Vortex PST is a very popular scope for a reason, and you’re spot on with the Vortex reputation. They are a fascinating company on a number of levels. But they’ve proven they’re willing to stand behind their product at any cost. Buy a broken scope off eBay and ship it to them … they’ll either fix it or replace it, no questions asked. In fact, tell them you did that … and they’ll still fix it. That’s rare … but refreshing. It’s also why they’re growing faster than any optics company, and they’ll likely become the largest optics company in the world over the next year or two. The Vortex PST pairs very well with the Ruger American Predator. That will be a sweet setup too.

      Best of luck to you! I appreciate your comments.


  20. Comment and question for you, Cal.
    I purchased an S&B PMII 5-25 some time ago. My disappointment is that goofy reflective ring that appears at low magnification (5 to 7X). I’ve heard the term “tunneling” used to describe this. Anyway, yes, it’s a brilliant scope however, for the price I paid, I expected perfection. Silly me.
    Do you know if any of the other “top 5” scopes on this list have the same problem?
    Thanks again.

    • Aaron, I do know what you’re talking about. I think you’re right … when you spend oer $3k on a scope, it’s reasonable to expect perfection. You shouldn’t have to make compromising at that price range, but I’ve yet to find a perfect scope. Unfortunately, I couldn’t think of a way to quantify tunneling back when I did my scope field test. It does just happen at the lowest power, which I don’t find myself at often. I honestly, can’t remember which of the others have that tunneling effect. I’ve noticed it on a lot of scopes, but not all of them. I’m afraid I might give you bad intel if I tried to remember which was which. Sorry I couldn’t be more help.


  21. On the vortex scopes, why is there more use of the EBR2 reticel over EBR 1? im cosidering a gen ll for myself and the only thing that is holding me back is reticle options. I do think im definitely going mil/mil.

    • Hey, Luke. They prefer the hold-off reticle, because it gives you the option to hold for BOTH elevation and windage. That can be handy if you need to make several quick shots at targets at different ranges. Honestly, it’d shock you to see how fast some of these guys shoot using a hold-off reticle. I’m about to trade out my scope to get one. It doesn’t mean you have to use it … it just gives you the option to use it. If you just have a typical crosshair mildot … you don’t have the option to hold-off for windage and elevation or you’ll be floating out in the middle of nowhere. I’ve done it … it’s not very accurate. 99% of the time, I dial for elevation and hold for wind … but sometimes you just don’t have time to dial for elevation in competitions. They arrange the stage so that you don’t have time. That is pretty common in the PRS, so its important to these guys to use a reticle that will help in those scenarios.

      Hope this makes sense!


      • That’s what I was thinking also but I wanted to hear what you had to say about it as well. I’m leaning more toward the hold off reticle. The only con is it might be a little hard to spot bullet trace with that style but when spotting you should probably be using a spotting scope anyway. Thanks for the reply!

      • You may be right. The top 1/2 of the reticle is still usually very open on grid-style reticles, but the lines on the bottom could obstruct the view some. I’m not sure it is as bad as what most people think. Honestly, I’d say most of the experts I know in the shooting world prefer this grid-style of reticle. I had another conversation tonight with a few guys at the 1st Annual Applied Ballistics Seminar, and they like the Horus-style reticles. It takes some getting used to, but they might be worth a shot.


  22. Thanks, Cal. I look forward to your next round of scope tests. That was an awesome write up!

    • Hi Cal,
      Great job on all your reviews and field tests. Do you have any inkling on what the 2016 season will bring in regards to what the top shooters are using in scopes and reticles? I need to buy a scope for my AIAT with the hopes of shooting in a few PR matches this year. I’m not in the S&B or Tangent price range, but I am looking at Nightforce, Kahles, Steiner and Vortex. How do you think the MSR or Mil-R reticles compare to the Xmas tress style reticles for easy of use?


      • Hey, Rick. I think Vortex will remain a popular choice, but I’d expect the Nightforce ATACR FFP scope to gain a little ground. The Kahles scopes are excellent, and I think they have the best reticle options on the market at this point. I know lots of people might argue that, but they’d be wrong. 😉 Just kidding. I am a big fan of the Kahles reticles. I wish they had a higher zoom ratio (they’re currently 6-24, which is a 4x zoom ratio … newer designs are 6x or more).

        The learning curve on the MSR and Mil-R reticles is lower, so in that way they’re easier to use. While the tree-style reticles can be intimidating to new shooters, they really aren’t that difficult to use. They do offer added flexibility if you find yourself in situations with EXTREME time constraints. In competitions, they sometimes force you into situations like that. But, at the end of the day … most guys dial for elevation adjustments and hold for wind. And the MSR and Mil-R reticles are great for that approach. Personally, I’m about to convert over the Horus-style reticles. I’m just waiting for S&B to release the Horus TRMR3 reticle in their PMII 5-25×56 model, which should be any day here. I’ve been using reticles similar to those you mentioned for the past several years, but I like the flexibility of the Horus reticle. It just gives you the option to hold for elevation and wind, even though 99% of the time I’ll dial for elevation and hold for wind.


  23. Cal,

    I have followed and read several of your articles in the “What The Pros Use” series. Immensely informative and useful.

    What I have noticed the most of which you deserve kudos!!! Is that from what I can tell you personally respond to each and every comment. I can’t think of any other blog, news, or whatever that has a comment section in which the article author gives such personalized attention.

    Thank you very much for what I believe is one of the best information sources of this topic.


    • You bet, Lee! Just trying to help people out. That really is the motivation behind all of the energy I put into this. Glad you found it helpful! I know I always appreciate it when someone just presents the data and doesn’t just give me their opinion … so that’s what I’m trying to do here.