I recently surveyed the top ranked shooters in both the Precision Rifle Series (PRS) and the National Rifle League (NRL) to learn what gear they’re running in long range rifle matches. (Learn about the PRS & NRL.) This group of over 150 competitors represent the best precision rifle shooters in the country. This post focuses on the optics these guys ran, along with some advice they gave related to long range scopes.
Most Popular Scope Brands
Lots has changed since the last time I published info on what scopes these guys run. In 2012, 2013, and 2014 Schmidt and Bender was the most popular scope used among the top shooters in the PRS (see the data). Then Vortex took a commanding lead in 2015 and 2016 (see the data). In 2017 the PRS tried to collect the data in-house and according to what they published on Facebook, Vortex maintained their lead in 2017, but Kahles, Nightforce, and Schmidt & Bender weren’t as far behind as prior years.
A few new scopes have been released recently, and they seem to have shaken this up. The field is much more evenly split, with 4 brands used by at least 20 shooters of the 173 shooters surveyed. This year Vortex dropped to #3, with Nightforce taking the lead at #1, and Kahles not far behind in the #2 spot.
On the chart above, the various colors represent where a shooter landed in terms of rank. For example, the black color indicates shooters who finished in the top 10 in the PRS, the darkest blue is people who finished 11-25 in the PRS, and the lighter the blue, the lower they finished in overall standings. The green colors represents the top shooters in the NRL, where the darkest green is the top 10, medium green is 11-25, and light green are the shooters who’s season rank landed from 26th to 50th. The legend on the chart shows the league and ranks each color represents, but basically the darker the color, the higher up the shooters placed.
Nightforce represented 5% or less among the top shooters in the PRS from 2012 through 2014, but then in 2015 they started making inroads and becoming more popular after the release of the Nightforce ATACR line of scopes. Even more recently, they released the Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 F1 and that seems to have hit a sweet spot, because now even more guys are running Nightforce scopes. This year Nightforce scopes were used by 27% of these top shooters.
Kahles has a similar story, with less than 5% using their scopes up until 2015, when they started steadily picking up market share among these top shooters. That jump in 2015 was likely due to the introduction of their SKMR reticles that same year, which many believe are among the best reticles in the business when it comes to precision rifle competitions. They’ve had a strong following ever since, including even larger numbers this year after their released of the new Kahles K25i 5-25×56. Kahles scopes were used by 22% of these shooters.
Rest assured that Vortex was still well represented among this crowd, at 18%. In fact, Vortex is the only brand of scope that has been used by at least 15% of the top shooters since the PRS started in 2012, with that being as high as 40% one year! The increased competition in this space has just caused Vortex to share a little of the market with other companies.
Schmidt and Bender also made a leap forward in their numbers, with 12% of these shooters running one of their scopes. Over the past couple years, Schmidt & Bender has gotten much more aggressive with their pricing, and a scope that might have cost $4,000 a couple of years ago is priced close to $3,000. A 25% reduction in price seems to have convinced a few of these guys to make the investment in Schmidt glass.
Those 4 brands combine to represent 79% of this group of shooters. Bushnell represents 5% of the shooters, Tangent Theta at 4%, US Optics and Minox both at 3%, and Sig Sauer represented 2%. All the other brands were only represented by 1 or 2 shooters (i.e. 1%), which included Burris, Leupold, Valdada, and Athlon.
A: “Start by getting the best scope you can afford then build your system around it.”
– Scott Satterlee, 5th in PRS & 8th in NRL in 2018, 26 year Special Operations veteran, currently Chief of Operations and head instructor for 1st Special Forces Group Advanced Urban Combat Course
Scott’s scope: Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 w/ Tremor3 reticle
Most Popular Model of Scope
Now let’s dive into a little more specifics by not just looking at what brands were most popular, but which specific models were most widely used by this crowd of élite marksmen:
The chart above tells a similar story, but let’s dive in and the most popular models these guys chose to run, and we’ll start at the top.
The Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 F1 was on more rifles than any other scope. 20% of them to be exact. It has only been out a couple of years, but has quickly become a favorite among this crowd. Nightforce scopes have legendary durability. Respected long range expert, Bryan Litz, says he’s tested a ton of scopes and he’s never had a Nightforce scope that didn’t track true.
Nightforce offers a model that is virtually identical with a 5-25 magnification range, but clearly most shooters prefer the extra magnification of the 7-35 scope. Almost 4 times more shooters picked the 7-35 over the 5-25. That was interesting for me to see. I’ve personally ran one of these on my 300 Norma rifle for over a year (and love it), but that rifle is intended for ranges out to 2000+ yards. The ATACR 7-35×56 was also the most popular scope at the King of 2 Miles competition on heavy 375 CheyTac and 416 Barrett rifles shooting out to 3600 yards (see What The Pros Use – King of 2 Miles Edition). Yet most of the targets this crowd are engaging fall from 300 to 1200 yards, so it was a little surprising to see so many move to this higher magnification. However, once I think about it, I can’t remember the last time I ran at less than 7x magnification in a competition. I do prefer less magnification in a hunting scenario, in case I bump an animal up from their bed at close range, but in the long range world it’s rare to engage a target at less than 10x magnification, and up to 35x magnification can be nice on the high-end not just to see the target better and have finer adjustments, but also to read the mirage. (Hint, hint to the other manufacturers … maybe consider 7-35.)
Clearly, Nightforce has hit a home run with this new scope, with it being widely adopted in many shooting disciplines, including PRS-style competitions, ELR competitions, a few military teams, and I’d think some F-Class competitors as well. Well done, Nightforce!
The Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 has been a staple of the PRS world for several years. It’s definitely proven, and I’ve heard some of the top shooters swear by it. One in particular told me about a time his rifle got kicked over before a stage when he was using a different scope, and he lost his zero and it cost him several points before he even figured out what was going on. He was convinced that some scopes can’t maintain their zero through even light side impacts. He said since he switched to the Vortex that hasn’t happened again. He felt it was more rugged, and it had definitely won his confidence. Apparently it has won the confidence of 18% of these shooters, of which the guy I’m talking about is one. It is the only one of these top models that is under $3,000, with a current street price of $2500.
One surprise here for me was the absence of the Vortex Razor HD AMG 6-24×50, which was released as their flagship, top-tier, long-range scope a couple of years ago. I believe that is the only Vortex scope where virtually all the parts are made and assembled in the USA. At this point, the 4.5-27×56 Razor HD Gen II and the AMG are both priced at $2500, so I guess shooters just prefer the 4.5-27 for some reason. If anyone has insight into that, please enlighten us by leaving a comment below.
Kahles released the new Kahles K25i 5-25×56 earlier this year, and it’s already had fairly widespread adoption in this community. It’s becoming more rare that someone hasn’t heard of Kahles, but just in case: they’re the tactical sister company to Swarovski. As a Swarovski rep explained to me, in Europe hunting is seen as an elitist activity (think tweed jackets and Downton Abbey), but the tactical world and things like mil-dot reticles are seen as blue-collar (think 511 pants and American Sniper), so they work to keep the brands separate. Both have top-shelf glass. This model has a 5x zoom ratio over the older 6-24 design, which has a 4x zoom ratio (i.e. the magnification range is not as large).
10% of the shooters were still using the Kahles K624i 6-24×56, which has been a popular model for the past couple years. However, I think it may have been the only scope in the lineup that still has a 4x zoom ratio. The rest had at least a 5x zoom ratio, all the way up to 9x. It doesn’t mean it isn’t capable – it clearly is. If anything, I hope this shows you don’t have to have the newest, shiniest whatever to be competitive. Remember, it has more to do with the shooter behind the scope! Having said that, I’d expect these guys to upgrade to the new 5-25 version over the next year or two.
And back toward the top of the list is the legendary Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-25×56. This is the scope that took the best all-around award back when I did the huge scope test a few years ago. You can buy a new one now for less than I bought one for a couple of years ago, which is rare in the optics world. While this design is now more than a decade old, it’s still one of the best scopes out there. I’ve used a ton of different scopes, and this is still what I use on my match rifles.
72% of these top shooters that were surveyed were running one those top 5 scopes, but there were still 48 other shooters that were running a different scope. Here are links to the full list of scope models these guys were running (sorted by # of shooters using them, then alphabetically), along with the street price when this was written:
- Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 F1 $3,500
- Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 $2,500
- Kahles K525i 5-25×56 $3,300
- Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-25×56 $3,200
- Kahles K624i 6-24×56 $3,000
- Nightforce ATACR 5-25×56 F1 $3,000
- Bushnell Elite Tactical XRSII 4.5-30×50 $2,250
- Tangent Theta 5-25×56 $4,650
- US Optics B-25 5-25×52 $3,200
- Minox ZP5 TAC 5-25×56 $3,200
- Sig Sauer Tango 6 5-30×56 FFP $2,500 (on sale for $1,850)
- Burris Xtreme Tactical XTR II 4-20×50 $1,400 (Lowest)
- Bushnell Elite Tactical DMRII 3.5-21×50 $1,600
- Leupold Mark 5HD 5-25×56 $2,300
- Athlon Cronus BTR 4.5-29×56 $1,700
- Nightforce ATACR 5-25×56 (SFP) $2,600
- Nightforce BEAST 5-25×56 $4,000
- Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-45×56 High Power $5,400 (Highest)
- Valdada Recon G2 4.8-30×56 $2,750
A: “Practice. Get a trainer rifle and shoot a hundred rounds off barricades 1-2 days before every match. Make sure your rifle is solid and trust in it throughout a match. Get good reliable gear with the best possible scope you can afford. Shoot a couple local matches and then jump in to 2 day matches.”
– Sgt. Ben Gossett, 28th overall in the PRS, US Army Marksmanship Unit
Ben’s scope: Kahles 5-25×56 w/ SKMR3 reticle
Most Popular Reticles
Now let’s look at what reticles these guys were running, but before we dive in I wanted to bring everyone up to speed on a few terms related to reticles, like what we mean by a “milling reticle” and a “hold-over reticle” (aka Christmas tree, gridded reticle, etc).
You can see that hold-over reticles provide reference points that allow the shooter to more easily hold for elevation AND windage. Most long range shooters dial for elevation and hold for wind, but some of these competitions have stages that explicitly require the shooting to hold for both or the time constraints are so tight on a stage that you’d run out of time if you tried to dial your elevation adjustment on every target. Also, many stages require the competitor to send two rounds at each target, and a grid allows you to quickly visualize and correct off the first shot so the follow-up is centered.
Since the top 4 brands made up almost 80% of the shooters, let’s start by taking an in-depth look at what reticles the shooters were running on those scopes:
On the Nightforce scopes, it looks like most of the guys were running a Mil-C reticle. That’s interesting considering that isn’t a hold-over reticle. It is basically an improved mildot reticle with hash marks on the windage and elevation axis in 0.2 mil increments. Many shooters prefer 0.2 mil increments for more precise holds. This Mil-C reticle from Nightforce has only be out for a couple of years, but is obviously very popular. The Horus Tremor3 reticle was the next most popular, which is obviously a hold-over reticle with a ton of advanced features. Watch Todd Hodnett explain Wind Dots and other features of the TREMOR 3 reticle.
Here are links to the exact scopes these guys were running by reticle:
When we started 2018, Nightforce only offered 4 reticle choices in the ATACR 7-35×56: Mil-C, Tremor3, Mil-R or MOAR. Most of these shooters prefer mil-based systems, because it’s what most shooters in their squad will be using and that allows them to speak the same language and share info. Mil-based scopes are also popular because almost all high-end optics (rifle scopes, spotting scopes, rangefinders, etc.) are available in mil-based systems (because of military contracts or hopes of those), but may not be available in MOA. Nightforce just had 3 mil-based choices, and the Tremor3 is the only hold-over reticle in that group – and some find that reticle too busy/cluttered. That may be why so many guys chose Mil-C, even though they might prefer a hold-over reticle – just not the Tremor3. Because of that it seemed like Nightforce didn’t have as strong of a selection of reticles as most other companies. Obviously lots of guys still went with Nightforce, but I wondered if it might be even more if they had something more similar to the EBR-2C that has been extremely popular among this crowd in Vortex scopes or the SKMR3 from Kahles.
Earlier this year, Nightforce did add the Horus H59 reticle as an option on the ATACR 7-35×56 scope, which has been very popular among this crowd. More might have used it, if it’d have been available. But, just within the past few weeks Nightforce announced their new Mil-XT reticle. In fact, at the time I wrote this article there were still no details about it on their website, but I read an article about it in the latest issue of RECOIL magazine. I’ll go out on a limb and predict that the Mil-XT will become the most popular NF reticle among this crowd over the next year or two. It is a killer design. In fact, I designed a custom reticle from scratch not long ago, and the two share a ton of features. The RECOIL article about the Mil-XT opened with this line: “Some reticles are too simple, some are too complex, but Nightforce’s new Mil-XT is just right.” I couldn’t agree more. While reticle preference is a very personal choice, the Mil-XT seems to be in that Goldilocks zone for many of us.
The Nightforce Mil-XT may look like a Horus design, because of the Christmas tree grid, but it’s slightly simpler and less cluttered than the H59 and Tremor reticles. By keeping the field of view more open, it reduces the likelihood that you’d accidentally miss seeing an impact because the bullet splash was obscured by the reticle. So what’s it missing compared to the Horus? Mover holds, rapid ranging stadia, and wind dots. Let me be clear: I’m personally a big fan of H59 reticle, it’s what I currently run in competitions, and I also own a Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 and specifically chose the Tremor3 reticle in it. So I’m not knocking Horus reticles – I buy them. But I don’t find myself using those 3 features, and while I’m sure some do, for me they’re simply in the way. I 100% agree with Nightforce’s decision to remove them for a simpler, cleaner design. I also love how they labeled the hash marks. I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about reticles over the years, and believe this a great design and may now be my favorite design on the market. Well done, NF! Bottom-line is the Mil-XT may have just taken Nightforce reticles to the next level, and I’d be shocked if it didn’t become a favorite over the next couple years.
Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 F1 scopes with Mil-XT reticles were released for pre-order today on EuroOptic.com! They’re expected to arrive late January 2019! A rep I know at Nightforce was able to share this PDF with me, which was just finalized: Mil-XT Reticle specs.
59% of the guys running Kahles scopes were using the SKMR3 reticle, which some consider the one of the best reticles in the business. It has all the must-have features, without getting too cluttered – another reticle squarely in that “Goldilocks zone.” The SKMR series of reticles stands for Shannon Kay Milling Reticle, and they were obviously designed by Shannon Kay. Shannon recently became the owner of the PRS, is the owner/primary instructor at the K&M Shooting Complex in Tennessee, and still serves active duty in the US Army where he has trained hundreds of students while instructing at the US Army Sniper School. Shannon’s obviously a busy guy with a TON of experience in the long range shooting, and the SKMR reticles are among the best because of that.
Remember shooters were split between the new 5-25×56 scope from Kahles and the 6-24×56. Here are links to those scopes with the SKMR3 reticle:
When it comes to Vortex, there is just one reticle that these guys are using and that is the EBR-2C. You might think that means they don’t have much of a selection, but I guess you don’t need a lot of reticles to choose from – if you just have one that is really good. That seems to be the case with the EBR-2C. More of the top shooters have run that reticle over the past couple years than any other, so clearly it has all the features you need for these types of long range matches. The only complaint I’ve heard about this reticle is that it only has 0.5 mil increments on that main windage axis, although it has dots in 0.2 mils on the hold-over grid. That does seem funny to me, although some shooters like the 0.5 mil increments for quicker holds.
With Vortex, this is really simple: There was just one model of scope and one reticle these guys were running. However, Vortex does offer a few options, so here is a link directly to the scope that these guys were running:
A: “Just shoot, and shoot, some more. Don’t get caught up on caliber, stock, scope, etc. just shoot. It’s the only thing that will make you better.”
– Justin Vinyard, 51st overall in the PRS in 2018, 17th in 2017, 15th in 2016
Justin’s scope: Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-25×56 w/ H2CMR reticle
Over half of the shooters surveyed were using one of the 4 reticles I just mentioned (excluding the brand-new Mil-XT). The rest of the field was split 20+ other reticles! But, I don’t want to leave you in the dark on what exact reticle these top shooters chose to run on the other models of scopes represented, so here is the full list of the numbers of shooters that were running different reticles grouped by brand:
|# of Shooters
|Schmidt & Bender
|Gen 2 XR
|Gen 2 XR
|Gen 2 XR
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