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Light At The End Of The Tunnel: Illuminated Reticles

by J. Guthrie   |  September 23rd, 2010 0


Picking up the reticle at last light, when game is most likely to be moving about, is
difficult in the shadows or dark timber (left). But an illuminated reticle (right) allows the shooter to precisely place the crosshair no matter what the lighting conditions.

The hog shooting had been pretty steady during the day, but as the sun slipped behind the mesquite and huisache, we could see hundreds of the critters filing into the crop and cattle fields as darkness swallowed up the scene. Several of us were trying to ease the rancher’s current feed and future crop losses, and our best work would come after dark. In Texas, hogs are varmints, and you can shoot them anytime with anything.

I swapped my conventionally scoped bolt rifle for an AR-15 variant chambered for 6.8mm SPC. Atop the nifty little rifle sat my ace in the hole–a scope with an illuminated reticle. Opposite of the windage turret sat a matching rheostat that adjusted intensity, allowing me to customize the reticle’s brightness to the lighting conditions. The 1-4X allowed me to maintain a good field of view when the varmints took off running or precisely place 110-grain V-Max bullets at longer ranges. At night, either shot would have been impossible without an illuminated reticle.

Illuminated reticles have been around for a while, but advances in technology have made them more practical. There are quite a few ways to light up your life and bring an aiming point into the light. Many scopes, like the NightForce NXS I had mounted on my AR, use an etched reticle. Jeff Huber, vice president at NightForce, explained that the reticle pattern is first chemically etched into a piece of glass and then filled with a black chrome material. Then, luminescent material is added to the portion of the reticle to be illuminated. Another flat piece of glass is permanently bonded to the etched piece, sealing the etching and making the total thickness of the plate around 1/4-inch thick. When a light source–usually a light emitting diode (LED)–is shined into the plate, the luminescent material reflects light back to the shooter, thereby illuminating the reticle. During the day, the chrome particles allow the reticle to function just like a normal scope.

The trick is to not illuminate the entire lens and blind the shooter, and that’s easier said than done. Lenses with blackened edges and various coatings make sure the only light the shooter sees is that reflected by the luminescent particles.

Many cheap scopes and even some expensive ones will have a halo and/or lens tint the same color as the LED because getting the coatings right without negatively affecting the rest of equation is an awfully tough bill to fill. Be sure to try before you buy because a scope that reflects a large amount of light back to your eye will be practically useless in the field during periods of low light.

Most illuminated reticles are powered by common watch batteries, and the addition of some very basic wiring and circuits only adds an ounce or so to the overall weight of the scope. LED technology has advanced to the point that batteries provide hundreds of hours of run time. The catch is that, depending on the amount of engineering and quality of components, the extra little switch can increase the price by $100 or $150.


Trijicon has eliminated batteries from the equation by using a long length of fiber-optic cable as well as a tritium lamp to illuminate its reticle.

Illuminated reticles should not be confused with, and differ greatly from, other devices like reflex or holographic sights. Aimpoint, for example, uses an LED but reflects the dot off the objective lens. The concept is similar to shining a flashlight from one hand to a mirror held in the other and aligning the two to see the flashlight’s beam. If the mirror or objective lens were flat, you would be unable to see the beam. But with a slight cant, the beam is reflected back to your eye, hence the term reflex sight. Other scopes use the pointy end of an optical fiber placed in the reticle that gathers ambient light or light from a tritium lamp.

On our hog hunt, I adjusted the rheostat so that the reticle was just slightly brighter than the light we used to illuminate the hogs. A reticle that overpowers your illumination source is almost as bad as not being able to see the crosshairs at all. But being able to quickly pick up the reticle has obvious advantages in several different situations.

During the heat of the day, I often stalk hogs laid up in the shade of an oak motte or in a deep-river swamp. Picking out the head and tail ends are not that difficult, but placing a black crosshair on a black hog standing in the shade makes bullet placement tough. Just a little illumination is, well, enlightening. I imagine the same would hold true for dark, dangerous game like Cape buffalo.

Those in the tactical world and good citizens defending their homes will most likely do so in the dark. Traditionally, most close-quarters combat sights had an illuminated reticle but lacked magnification. But with the advent of a true 1X variable scope like the one on my AR, many shooters are equipping their patrol, ranch, or general zombie rifles with an optic that allows for some magnification when the shots get a little long. An illuminated reticle is almost a prerequisite for these types of rifles.

Hunters taking advantage of an illuminated reticle should be very careful. With the few aforementioned exceptions, if you need to turn on the illumination, you are likely to be shooting past legal shooting hours. Add into the equation the safety issues that arise from shooting late, and the venture could be ill advised. You also need to be aware of your state’s regulations on the use of electronic devices for harvesting game animals. Your scope’s illuminated reticle might or might not be considered an electronic aid, and that is a question for the local game warden.

On my recent Texas hog hunt, the let-there-be-light option proved absolutely invaluable. The latest illumination systems are durable, adjustable, and battery-efficient. If the shots come fast or late or late and fast, the addition of a light switch on your scope might be well worth the investment.


The rheostat on this NightForce 1-4X NXS allows the shooter to slightly outdo the ambient light with the reticle. Too much light is nearly as bad a
s no light.

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