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I learned a couple things, but I'm sure many of you can add to it, so feel free.

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Purchasing a rifle scope is a major investment, and sometimes the scope costs as much or more than the rifle itself, depending on the application. In some specialized cases, like bench rest shooting, the scope can cost several thousand dollars. This is clearly an area that requires much research and planning before purchasing.

Checking out scopes online can also be an intimidating proposition, as outwardly, they tend to look very similar; sometimes with only radical price differences to differentiate what would otherwise look like the exact same scope. In this guide, we will lay out the steps in the process of buying a scope and clear up any questions.
Step 1-Decide what the scope will be used for:

There are very few true “general purpose” scopes and most such scopes that are labelled as such probably are not very good. This is because different types of shooters will want different features in a scope. As we stated earlier, the requirements of a short range deer hunter will be vastly different from a bench rest target shooter.

No other specification is as important as the intended application for the scope. The three main categories for scopes are generally:

Hunting Scopes: Hunting scopes are the most basic type of scope. Since the scope and rifle must be hauled on the back of the hunter, Mildotsometimes for long distances, hunting scopes will usually place a premium on light weight. Generally, hunters will not have much time to adjust the scope after an animal is spotted, and will only engage targets at relatively close ranges, so hunting scopes are not normally designed with target style adjustable turrets. Fixed power scopes (more about those later) are popular in this range, again, due to rapidity of target acquisition and ease of use. The shooter puts the scoped rifle in their shoulder, places the crosshairs on the target, and squeezes the trigger. Simplicity rules in this market segment.

Tactical Scopes: Tactical scopes are geared towards law enforcement and military style shooting. They are extremely popular with tactical firearms enthusiasts even if they may never plan to engage a hostile target with them.

Tactical scopes normally have adjustable turrets and are available in fixed and variable power settings. They often have adjustments for parallax or focus. Some tactical scopes have found favor with varmint hunting enthusiasts, who use them to engage rodents and other such creatures at long range, but this is merely an adaptation of their use rather than a new market segment. While tactical scope manufacturers tend to make the scopes as light as possible, since the tactical operator must also carry the rifle around, less emphasis is placed on overall lightness since most of these rifles are shot from bipods or sandbags. The emphasis is placed more on durability than weight.

Bench Rest and Long Range Scopes: This category of scope is all about long range shooting. They are available as fixed or variable power and have the largest objective lenses available. Little to no consideration is paid to the weight of the scope, since it will be mainly used on a bench rest or in a shooting vise as opposed to being carried. These scopes will have detailed target style turrets and will be among the most expensive scopes on the market, since the glass needs to be of the highest quality to prevent mirage beyond ranges of 1000 yards.

Rifle scopes are specialized tools, and there are performance penalties for using the wrong kind of scope for the job. After the shooter has identified the purpose of the scope they can move onto the next step.
Step 2 – Determine the budget:

Unfortunately, budget needs to be considered before any other individual feature or specification. While it is easy to define an arbitrary not-to-exceed budget, there are some things that need to be kept in mind:

A suitable scope may not be available in the buyer’s price range. The buyer may need to be flexible, and save money a little longer if necessary. Even the rifle itself is not as important as the scope, since a cheap scope can make even a fantastic rifle shoot poorly, while a marginal rifle with an excellent scope will be more accurate.

If the buyer is truly constrained to a small or immovable budget, then they should shop for the best brand and the best glass before looking for higher magnification. A fixed power Burris scope, for example, beats a variable power high magnification BSA scope any day of the week.

The shooter needs to think of a scope as a lifetime purchase, a tool that they will have for the rest of their life. Buying a scope is like buying a home or a car; it is a long term purchase, not a short term solution. Therefore, it is always better for a shooter to wait until they have the funds than waste hard earned money on a spur of the moment purchase.
Step 3 – Fixed or variable power:

A fixed power scope is very much like one half of a pair of binoculars: It has a fixed degree of magnification. In practical terms, this is expressed as a number followed by an X. A 10X scope is referred to as a ten power scope, which means that it nominally magnifies the image ten times that of the original. A fixed power scope will remain at that power setting because it has no internally movable lenses to change the power setting. Fixed power scopes are the oldest type of scope, going back to early telescopes that were nothing more than an arrangement of fixed lenses that magnified the image a certain amount. Fixed power scopes are popular due to their simplicity and reliability; so much so that they were used by the USMC Scout Sniper program for over 4 decades.

Variable power scopes are user adjustable and can vary the amount of magnification. Usually, they are expressed as the least amount of magnification, then a dash, followed by the maximum amount of magnification, for example: 5.5x-15x means that at the lowest setting, the scope will magnify the image 5.5 times, while at the highest setting, it will magnify the image 15 times – but the important part to remember is that anything in between those extremes is possible to view. Variable power scopes are popular because the lowest power setting can be used in target acquisition and then zoomed in to see it in detail. A quality variable power scope is like having two scopes in one. The downside is cost; variable power scopes are more expensive than fixed power scopes because they require more lenses and moving parts. Reliability is no longer a factor as it was 40 years ago; scope manufacturers have stepped up the quality and both types are equally reliable.

Fixed power scopes usually have less magnification than variable power scopes because a 25x fixed power scope, for example, has a very narrow field of view and would be virtually useless for rapid target acquisition. A larger objective will yield a greater field of view, but the field of view will decrease as magnification increases.
Step 4 – Select magnification:

This will go hand in hand with the application and whether the shooter has a fixed or a variable power scope. If the shooter never plans to engage targets beyond 300 meters, there is no use in buying a 25 power scope. Some general guidelines on magnification:
Fixed Power Variable Power
Hunting: 5x up to 12x 5x-20x
Tactical: 10x-12x 10x-18x
Bench rest: 4x-25x 10x-40x

There is no hard and fast rule for magnification. While most types of hunting generally involve lower magnifications, not all hunting does; especially if the game is varmints like groundhogs or coyotes at extended ranges. Deer, elk, moose and other large herbivores are usually shot inside of 300 yards, and as such, an 8 or 10 power fixed scope will be just fine.

When it comes to tactical shooting, the threshold for variable power scopes is a very low magnification of 4 power. This is because when rapid target acquisition is important, low magnification allows the shooter to find the target and then rapidly zoom in to take the shot. Long range and bench rest shooting use higher magnifications since low magnifications are seldom necessary. The targets are easily visible, even though they might be located hundreds or even one thousand yards away, and as such field of view is not as important a consideration.
Step 5 – The main tube and objective lens diameter:

The scope’s body is a cylindrical tube of a fixed diameter. On one end, the objective lens flares out and allows the light in. On the other end is the eyepiece, which flares out slightly but generally not as much as the objective lens. In between is the main tube, and there are currently two primary sizes out there -1” and 30 mm. Although there are more sizes besides these two; they are the main ones. The 1” tube is really an American dimension and many scopes come in this size. The 30mm tube is larger and is quickly overtaking 1” as the tube to have, but either way, the tube needs to match the rings.

Objective lens is another matter altogether. The larger the objective lens, the more light that the scope allows into the main tube, which generally results in a clearer picture and it can be used in lower light conditions.

However, the objective lens size alone cannot be the sole shopping metric when buying a scope. Like magnification, it depends on how good the glass is. All things being equal, however, the better scope has the larger objective lens. Although the shooter must make sure the lens is not so big that it will require super tall rings that can affect the check weld, which can result in alterations to the rifle.

The trend with low quality scopes lately is to have obnoxiously large objective lenses and giant main tubes resulting in a big scope for not much money. We cannot state it enough: the shooter should go for quality each and every time.
Step 6 – The scope’s turrets and reticle:

These items might already be decided by the scope’s manufacturer. In case they are not, there is an easy way to make a choice.

The application will sometimes decide the turrets and reticle. Hunting scopes often have duplex reticles and capped turrets than cannot be adjusted on the fly. Tactical scopes usually have mil dot or some other form of ranging reticle and adjustable target style turrets. The reason why we are linking turrets and reticle in the same step is that they are very closely related.

A shooter with a range finding reticle such as a mil dot, Horus, or some variation thereof will want turrets to match the reticle. In the past, many scopes had a mil dot reticle and ¼ MOA (minute of angle) turrets, so that one click of the turret equalled one quarter MOA. This required some math to convert clicks into adjustment, but nevertheless worked for over 40 years.

Lately, the trend is to have what’s called a mil/mil scope, meaning that the reticle is a mil dot, and the turrets are mil turrets that usually are graduated in tenths of a mil (.1mil). What this means is that the shooter can simply use the scope and keep everything in mils without having to work out a math problem.

For a hunter, the decision will be quite a bit easier. The turrets will have caps that are threaded over the adjustments. The hunter will need to unscrew these caps in order to expose the turret itself. Adjustments are made by using a screwdriver (or coin or similar tool) to rotate the turret. The main idea here is to set it and forget it. The rifle is sighted in once at a known distance and left alone. It can be checked periodically at a range to ensure the scope is still zeroed.

A hunter really needs a clear and wide open reticle. Standard cross hairs will do fine, and there is no need for mil dots or some other fancy lines cluttering up the field of vision as the hunter is trying to spot game in the midst of a bush. Even with a ranging reticle, the hunter would not be able to switch the turrets fast enough.

Other things to consider:
There are some other things to keep in mind while shopping for a scope. Here are a few to look for:

Glass quality: This one is subjective and almost impossible to tell by specification alone, but can normally be discerned by a combination of factors, not the least of which is cost.
Unfortunately, no other single scope buying metric is as indicative of the glass quality as the price paid for the scope. The cutting of the glass, the grinding of the glass, the polishing of the glass and the coating of the lenses is perhaps the most expensive part of manufacturing a scope. A scope that costs a lot of money will be expensive because of the glass. Assuming a $200 scope and a $2000 scope, the difference between the two will undoubtedly be glass. The second factor is the name of the manufacturer.

Premium brands such as Nightforce, Leupold, Swarovski, Zeiss, Schmidt& Bender and US Optics are top of the line manufacturers, who represent the best in the business, and command top dollar. Second tier brands such as Bushnell, Nikon and Burris are more value conscious. The budget lines are brands such as Tasco, BSA and Redfield which can be found at department and sporting good style stores.

Ultimately, the shooter needs to buy the better brand if they can afford it. It will represent a lifetime of use.
First Focal Plane vs. Second Focal Plane: If the shooter has a variable power scope that uses a ranging reticle such as a mil dot, they will need to establish exactly where that reticle lies within the body of the scope. For decades, most manufactures made their scopes second focal plane scopes, and without going into the science of this, suffice to say that the reticle stayed the same size regardless of the magnification setting.

This means that if a 5X-10X mil dot scope was set to 5X and then the knob was turned to 10X, the space between the mil dots would remain the same. This is because the reticle was mounted on the second focal plane of the scope. The implication here is staggering: unless the magnification was set to that stated by the manufacturer for ranging (usually the highest magnification), the reticle was inaccurate for ranging. The shooter would take a shot, see that it was off, line up the cross hairs, count two mils, do some math, squeeze the trigger, and find the round missed by ten feet. Then he would realize that he did not have the magnification right, and by the time he made an adjustment, the target would be gone.

First focal plane scopes eliminate this. As the magnification knob is turned, the shooter will see the reticle grow or shrink to fit the size of the target. No matter what magnification is set on a first focal plane scope, it will always give a correct reading on the ranging reticle. For that reason, a serious target or tactical shooter who wants a variable power scope should go with a first focal plane unit even if it costs a little more.
In conclusion

Buying a good scope does not have to be hard or daunting task. A smart shooter will carefully evaluate all the available options to find a scope that fits their needs. A smart consumer will know to eliminate the extras they do not need to make a wise decision when it comes to making what could be the purchase of a product that can last many lifetimes.

A rule of thumb for the smart shooter and consumer to keep in mind is: Good optics are not cheap and cheap optics are not good. Make sure you read this article to make sure you avoid the Top 10 Scope Buying Mistakes.
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