A few weeks ago, I surveyed 100+ shooters who competed in this year’s Nightforce ELR Steel Challenge in Casper, Wyoming. That is a one-of-a-kind, 2-day, flagship match with 20+ stages featuring targets from 720 to 2,091 yards. The average target distance is year was 1,180 yards, with 70% of the targets beyond 1,000 yards!
This match is somewhere between a “traditional” long-range rifle match (like the PRS and NRL matches) and an Extreme Long Range (ELR) match, which makes equipment choices very interesting. The match director, Scott Satterlee, refers to these distances as “Extended Long Range.”
In this article, we’ll dive into what scopes and scope mounts the shooters at the 2020 Wyoming ELR match were using.
Most Popular ELR Scopes
Let’s dive into the data. Below you can see what scope brands the 100+ shooters surveyed used in this year’s Wyoming ELR match:
Nightforce is the clear favorite, with 39% of this group of competitive shooters trusting them for their optics. It takes the next 5 brands combined to add up to as many shooters as those using a Nightforce scope. Since the release of Nightforce’s ATACR line of scopes, they have taken a massive leap forward in popularity in precision rifle shooting. The most popular model of Nightforce scope among this group of shooters was the Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 F1 scope, with 60% of these shooters opting for that specific model.
Since so many shooters were using Nightforce scopes, here is a view of the specific models these guys were running:
Kahles was the 2nd most popular choice among these shooters engaging targets at extended long-range, representing 14% of those surveyed. Kahles is the tactical sister-company to Swarovski, designed for heavy use and repeatable adjustments in harsh environments. Unlike Swarovski, Kahles scopes offer full-featured, tactical reticles, including reticles designs by Shannon Kay, a top-ranked competitive shooter. Kahles has been popular among serious precision rifle shooters for the last several years. Those using Kahles scopes in this group were pretty much evenly split between the 5-25×56 and 6-24×56 models. The Kahles K525i 5-25×56 is a newer design that was released in 2018, but there was still an equal number of shooters using each of those models in the top 10, in the top 25, and overall.
10% of these shooters were using a Vortex scope, which made them the 3rd most popular brand. The Vortex 4.5-27×56 Razor HD Gen II was the most popular model among the competitors surveyed, although there were also a couple of shooters running a Vortex 6-24×50 FFP Razor HD AMG or a Vortex 5-20×50 Razor HD. I did notice only 2 shooters were running a Vortex scope in the top 50, and only 1 of those was in the top 25, and none were in the top 10. 60% of those surveyed who said they ran a Vortex scope finished 100th or higher. I’m certainly not claiming their Vortex scope caused them to finish lower on the leaderboard, but it is simply interesting that their representation among these shooters wasn’t more uniform in terms of overall finish, like the other brands.
One interesting note is the #1, #2, and #3 spots are in the same order of popularity as what I found last time I surveyed the top-ranked shooters in the Precision Rifle Series (PRS) and National Rifle League (NRL). You can see that data here. Both were in this order: Nightforce, Kahles, then Vortex – and both had the Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 as the overwhelming favorite model from Nightforce. The Wyoming ELR match is different enough from PRS/NRL style matches that it isn’t affiliated with either of those organizations. Both of those limit calibers to 30 caliber or less, and also limit muzzle velocity to 3200 fps or less. Match Director, Scott Satterlee, didn’t want to impose any such limits in the Nightforce ELR Steel Challenge, and competitors are free to use anything up to a 416 Barrett and there is no velocity limit. So not only are the distances different, but the rules and gear are different. That is why it was interesting to see the same overall trend in terms of what scope brands were most popular.
Tangent Theta 5-25×56
Tangent Theta was the 4th most popular brand of scope, representing 7% of these shooters. All of the shooters using a Tangent Theta scope were running the Tangent Theta TT525P 5-25×56 model. I noticed the opposite pattern for Tangent Theta as what we saw for Vortex, in that a significant number of those in the top 25 were running a Tangent Theta scope, and actually, no shooters who finished 100+ were using one. In fact, the shooters who finished 1st and 5th were both using a Tangent Theta scope. The rest of the top 5 were split among Zero Compromise, Burris, and Nightforce. That means Tangent Theta was the most popular brand among the top 5. Now, 4 of the top 10 were using Nightforce, so it was the most popular among the top 10 and overall, but it is interesting to note how well Tangent Theta is represented among the best of the best in this crowd.
Here is a closer look at the scopes represented among those that finished in the top 50 at this year’s match:
You can see that Tangent Theta is ranked above Vortex in this view, with Vortex just having two shooters represented in the top 50, and Tangent Theta at more than double that.
Nightforce continues it’s dominant lead, regardless of whether you look at the top 10, top 25, top 50, or overall. There were clearly a ton of shooters who trusted their Nightforce scope to give them the best chance at hitting targets first-round at distances up to 2100 yards.
Zero Compromise Optic 5-27×56
You can see that Zero Compromise Optic (ZCO) was represented among the top 10. Adam Cloaninger placed 2nd overall and he was running a ZCO ZC527 5-27×56 FFP.
Some of you may not have heard of Zero Compromise Optics, but while the name is new, the guys behind it are veterans in the optics industry. One of the men behind ZCO is Jeff Huber, who made significant contributions to the massive scope test I performed years ago. Jeff not only served as an industry pro who helped me fine-tune my test methods, but he also educated me on many technical aspects of optics design and provided a valuable historical perspective on how scopes from different brands had been developed and the design tradeoffs that are often made. Jeff has worked with several of the top-tier optics companies, including Kahles and Nightforce. He brought his broad experience in the optics industry and teamed up with serious competitive rifle shooters and other industry pros to create Zero Compromise Optics. Here is an intro to ZCO:
Zero Compromise Optic is and always has been a multi-national affair. Since the company was created, we combined the best optical, mechanical, new design creation, and performance driven minds from Austria and The United States. The ZCO staff include members that hold multiple patents in the rifle scope industry, have designed some of the most robust mechanical systems that are still being used today, have held top level management positions, as well as a retired U.S. military officer among many other backgrounds. Our headquarters and machine shop are located in Austria while our original and new product design, testing, and development staff is located in both Austria and the United States. The level of brilliance and intellect throughout the entire company is the major driving force behind our success. ZCO may be a new company, but our talent in this industry runs about as deep as the Marianas Trench.
With someone placing 2nd at this national-level match using a Zero Compromise Optic scope, clearly the name isn’t an overstatement. ZCO scopes can perform at the highest levels.
If you’re interested in learning more about Zero Compromise Optics, you should check out this interview with Jeff Huber from the Everyday Sniper Podcast. If you listen to that interview, you’ll understand why I believe we’ll see ZCO grow in popularity over the next couple of years among precision rifle shooters.
Burris XTR III 5.5-30×56 Scope
Jason Chipley placed 3rd overall using a Burris 5.5-30×56 XTR III scope. That may surprise some people to see a Burris that high on the leaderboard. Many people know Burris for their entry-level, budget scopes, but they also make some high-performance models – obviously at a higher price point. That what the XTR III 5.5-30×56 represents, with a street price of $1,800.
The other scopes represented among the top 50 were:
But Aren’t These Guy’s Sponsored?
Now, I always have a few readers who are skeptical about whether sponsorships skew data like this. While that might be the case when looking at the very highest-ranked PRS/NRL shooters, I don’t think that is the case here. I can tell you that I finished 4th overall, and I’m not sponsored. I choose to not be sponsored so my readers can trust my content. I bought the Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 I used in this match from EuroOptic.com with my own hard-earned money. Nightforce didn’t give me any discount or even ask me to run their scope. I personally believe it’s the best option for my application (super durable/rugged, with very repeatable adjustments and proven return to zero), so it’s what I bought and mounted on my rifle. While there were some sponsored shooters at this match, I don’t think the winner, Jorge Ortiz was sponsored either. There are much less sponsored shooters that get free gear than what most people think, and that is probably especially true in a match like this that is a unique, stand-alone match, and not affiliated with the PRS or NRL. I would bet at least 97% of these shooters bought their scope out-of-pocket. I feel like knowing that makes this data more trustworthy. It certainly carries more weight in my mind because of that.
Mil vs. MOA
I don’t want to spark the age-old debate about mil/MRAD vs. MOA, but I thought you guys might like to see a breakdown of what units these shooters were using for their reticle and their turret adjustments.
Mil/MRAD is the overwhelming favorite, representing 80% of these precision rifle competitors. In fact, there was only 1 shooter surveyed who finished in the top 25 that was using MOA. Now, that isn’t because mils are inherently better than MOA. They are both simply angular units of measurement. There are pros and cons to using both of them. If you are interested in learning more, I’d encourage you to read my objective comparison between the two.
Most Popular Scope Mounts
A scope mount is the critical bridge between what you’re using to aim (the scope) and what is physically controlling the bullet trajectory (the rifle). When you’re engaging targets at this kind of distance, your scope mount has to be 100% rock-solid to have any chance at repeatable hits. It seems like some shooters try to save money when it comes to scope rings, but I always advise my friends against that. It’s not the place to cut corners! The issues that can stem from cheap/faulty rings can be difficult to diagnose, and they’ll rob your confidence in the whole rifle system. Ask me how I know! 😉
Because the scope mount is so critical, let’s look at the most popular scope mounts and rings these shooters were using:
You can see how the darker colors are kind of scatters in the results, with some long gray lines in some of the top few. So before we go further, let’s narrow this to just the top 50 shooters:
I’m not surprised by these results. Spuhr, Hawkins, ERA-TAC, Nightforce, American Rifle Company, Masterpiece Arms, Warne, TPS, Larue, and Badger are all great options for scope mounts and rings. Others like Seekins, who had several shooters represented overall, also make a solid set of rings.
Unfortunately, I haven’t come across any scope rings that I’d trust on my rifle for less than about $120-150. That doesn’t mean you have to spend $300-500+ on a Spuhr or ERA-TAC one-piece mount, but I’d recommend against any lightweight rings. This isn’t the place to try to save money.
Total Taper In Rail + Mount
Finally, the chart below shows the total amount of taper the shooters said they had in their rifle system, whether that is built into the rail on their rifle and/or their scope mount. Some shooters refer to this as taper and others refer to it as cant, but either way, it is simply tilting the scope in a way that allows you to use more of the scopes internal adjustment range.
If you aren’t sure what I’m referring to here, you should start by reading this post, which explains why this becomes important as you stretch out to further distances: Extreme Long Range Tips – Optics & Mounts.
Here is what these shooters said they had built into their rifle system:
You can see that most shooters said they had 20 MOA total. That is the amount that is built into the rails on most rifles designed for long-range. That likely means their scope mount didn’t have any additional amount of taper/cant built into it. However, you can see there were a few shooters in the top 10 and top 25 that had 40 or 60 MOA of taper in their rifle system. That would allow those shooters to dial their elevation adjustment to much further distances.
I was the top 10 shooter that had a total of 60 MOA of taper. My rifle’s rail had 20 MOA and my scope mount had an additional 40 MOA. 60 MOA of total taper paired perfectly with my Nightforce ATACR 7-35×56 scope and made it so almost 100% of the scopes internal elevation adjustment was useable. Only 1.7 mils of travel were “below” my 100-yard zero, which allowed me to dial up to 35.9 mils of elevation adjustment. With the ammo I used and atmospherics at the Wyoming match, that would allow me to dial out to 2900 yards!
If you aren’t sure what I’m referring to above or how to calculate what the ideal amount of taper/cant is for your scope and rifle, I’d encourage you to read two things: 1) Extreme Long Range Tips: Optics & Mounts, which explains these concepts along with visuals to make it easy to understand, and then 2) read my reply to a comment on this post that provides some context and a formula to help you calculate this for your scope and rifle.
When I originally wrote about the Nightforce ELR Steel Challenge, I had a few people ask about what optics shooters were using. I hope this post answers some of those questions more definitively than I was able to at the time.
If you’re interested in reading more about the rifle system I used in this year’s match, check out this post: Accuracy International AXSR 300 Norma Mag Review.