April 05, 2022
By Joseph von Benedikt
Gear is always a popular topic, and it’s easy to get lost in the weeds. For this article, let’s confine ourselves to riflescopes. More specifically, what features are necessary to achieve long-range effectiveness.
Just a couple decades ago, “quality” in a riflescope could be defined as optical quality. Light transmission, clarity, color purity, lack of distortion were all directly linked to lens and coating quality. Sure, good manufacturing in terms of machining and waterproofing and so forth were important, but in top-shelf scopes, those characteristics were just a given.
Now “quality” involves more. Much, much more. And some of those additional features are challenging for manufacturers to hold high standards of QC on.
Probably, the most vital modern feature is a capable dial-up elevation turret. So, in the following discussion of individual features, I’ll start there. However, it’s also necessary to have a capable parallax adjustment, to have a magnification zoom mechanism that tracks true, to have a reticle design that supports rather than inhibits, and more. Most of these features involve moving parts. And that, my friends, makes it exponentially more difficult to maintain high-quality standards.
2. Elevation Turret
The best modern dial-up turrets don’t just dial up and down. They have their own set of features. Of foremost importance is predictable consistency. Long-range shooters tend to run their turret up and down constantly, so internal mechanisms must be of superb quality to prevent consistency-robbing wear.
Next on the feature priority list, I put a zero-stop-type mechanism. Once your rifle is properly sighted-in (zeroed) and the zero-stop is set, this enables you to always dial back to your zero distance. Turrets without a zero-stop allow you to inadvertently dial down a rotation or more too far. It’s easy to lose your place without a zero-stop. As a result, any modern scope without a zero-stop is automatically eliminated from contention, in my opinion.
Multiple turret rotations are also critical. If all you get is one turn on your turret, you won’t be able to dial past 600 or 700 yards. Bonafide long-range is out of your reach.
Finally, a zero-lock mechanism is a really nice additional feature. It’s not as critical as a zero-stop, but it does prevent your turret from getting rotated by accident. Accidental movement is a common occurrence and can happen when your rifle is slid onto a truck seat or into a soft case or even when it brushes against your Levi’s. A zero-lock can save a lot of heartache, particularly among hunters that may have to make a fast shot without examining their turret.
3. Parallax Adjustment
This feature eliminates apparent reticle movement called parallax. Parallax is an optical phenomenon that, if not adjusted out, can degrade precision at long range.
The easiest way to get a grasp on parallax is to point at an object. When you close your non-dominant eye, your finger will still point at the object. When you close your dominant eye, your finger will appear to jump to the side. Yet it hasn’t moved, and neither has the object at which you are pointing. All that has shifted is your perspective.
Similarly, when your head isn’t perfectly aligned behind the axis of your scope, the reticle can shift optically if parallax is present. But you won’t know it unless you know to look for it. This can cause point of impact to shift. Adjusting parallax basically focuses the image in the scope to the same plane as the reticle, eliminating shift.
Most modern long-range scopes have a side-focus parallax knob on the left side of the scope. Get a scope with parallax adjustment and learn to use it. Inside 300 yards or so parallax won’t cause you to miss a deer or a small steel plate, but past that distance, it absolutely can.
4. Magnification Range
Once, with my pet ultralightweight AR-15 and some super-duper Black Hills ammunition featuring Sierra’s outstanding 77-grain Tipped MatchKing bullet, I hit a 20-inch round steel plate eight out of 10 shots at 1,000 yards—using a 6X scope. Yep, that’s with a 5-pound rifle chambered in .223/5.56 NATO.
Competitive shooter Candice Horner was at the event, too, and she asked to give my rifle a try. She outshot me with my own rifle, hitting the same 1,000-yard plate nine out of 10 shots. With the 6X scope.
My point is you don’t need massive amounts of magnification to shoot long. In fact, sometimes excess magnification can cripple you. Zooming in too far makes it hard to locate targets in a hurry and, used in conjunction with a stout-recoiling rifle, makes it impossible to spot your own impacts.
A scope with a power range of 3-15X is plenty adequate, believe it or not. Something in the 3-18X range is better, and for serious disciples of the sport, a 4-24X or the like is probably optimal. But unless you’re a benchrest shooter, rarely will you actually benefit from extreme magnification, such as a 6-36X. Such scopes are too bulky, too heavy, and generally just too much of a good thing.
Whether you’re a MIL or an MOA kind of shooter, your long-range reticle should have some hash marks for holding over (or under) your target and for compensating for wind.
It’s nearly always best to dial for distance, so why would you also want to hold? For those fast, on-the-fly corrections. Whether you’re shooting against the clock at a PRS-type match or attempting to put down a big buck before he makes the timber, being able to precisely compensate for a miss slightly above or below your target is a big advantage. If a friend calls your impact (or better yet you spot it yourself) 1.5 MOA high, for example, you can simply use your hash marks to correct and make the shot before your window of opportunity closes.
As for why you should have hash marks for wind, almost no good, dynamic long-range shooters dial for wind. Nearly always, it’s better to hold. That way, if a fickle breeze swaps directions on you mid-stage at the local PRS tournament, you can adjust on the fly and go on ringing targets. But to do that, you must have good hash marks in your reticle.
It’s worth noting, however, that unless you’re willing to put in the time and practice to master a very capable-but-complex “Christmas tree” tactical reticle, you’re best off with something simple. Your reticle shouldn’t look like a screen-door inside your optic.
As for which is better between a second focal plane and a first focal plane reticle, both have pros and cons and each has its place. But that’s a discussion for another time.
6. Objective Size
Big front lenses are cool…until you have to pack one around in the mountains or while running in a cross-country shooting competition or fit your rifle into a reasonably sized case. Pick an objective size that fits your needs and nothing bigger.
It’s important to note that most modern scopes with a 30mm main tube don’t have lenses in the internal system that are bigger than lenses in a scope with a 1-inch main tube. Why not? Because using 1-inch lenses in a 30mm tube enables a lot of vertical travel in the reticle. That’s how modern scopes achieve enough dial-up for very long shots.
Why is this relevant? Because scientifically, a 1-inch lens can’t transfer more light than is gathered by a 44mm objective lens. Anything bigger than that is superfluous bulk and weight. That’s why the best Leupold and Swarovski scopes made for precision hunting have 42mm or 44mm objectives.
If your 30mm main tube has 30mm internals, however, a 50mm objective does gain you a bit of low-light performance. But aside from a few of the top European brands (which rarely have dial-up turrets, so it doesn’t matter), most don’t.
Moving up to a 34mm main tube (or 35mm or even bigger) gains you 30mm (or bigger) internal lenses. Now that 50mm objective earns its keep. If you’re an extreme low-light hunter, such as the nighttime wolf hunters in northeastern Europe, going even bigger to a 56mm objective has merit.
But for most of us shooting American- or Asian-made precision scopes with 30mm main tubes, we’re best off with a 42mm to 44mm lens on the front end. It’s lighter, sleeker, and allows a closer mount to the action—which in turn makes for a better cheekweld. And it gathers just as much light as that scope can transfer to your eye.
Okay, okay. These really aren’t exactly features of the scope itself, but they’re attached to the scope, and in some cases they really make a difference. So allow me to just point out that a good anti-cant level bubble and a quick-throw level on your magnification zoom ring are worthy add-ons.