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How to Choose a Scope for Rifles

Whether hunting broad-reaching beanfields or river-bottom timber, African svelt or frosty tundra, these tips will help you choose the right scope for the job and your rifle.

How to Choose a Scope for Rifles

The very first scope I used as a youngster was a Marlin Micro-Vue. It had 4X magnification with a 3/4-inch tube and was mounted on a Marlin 39A. While the optical quality of that scope was far below what we expect today, it – along with the excellent accuracy of that Marlin rifle – enabled me to reach up and tumble gray squirrels from tall trees considerably farther away than I had dreamed possible during my iron sight days.

Riflescopes have come a long way since those innocent days of autumn. Lenses are clearer and brighter, adjustments are more precise, units are more durable, and possibly most important of all, it is extremely rare to have one leak during inclement conditions.

There is a bewildering variety of scopes available today, and choosing one can be a bit confusing. Perhaps the following recommendations on optics for various types of rifles will clear the air and make picking the right one easier.

How To Choose The Right Scope
Those who ambush deer from a tree stand or ground blind can get by with about any scope, but still-hunting requires something particular.

The Woods Rifle

The best choice in a scope for a woods rifle depends on the type of hunting one prefers. Those who ambush deer from a tree stand or ground blind can get by with about any scope, but still-hunting requires something particular. Since shots are often taken at close range and sometimes at a moving target, a scope of low magnification with plenty of field of view is the way to go. A couple of my older woods rifles wear Redfield and Leupold variables with a magnification range of 1-4X. With a tremendous field of view (over 40 feet at 50 yards when set on 1X), they are ideal for quick shooting at close range. Much of the southeastern country I hunt consists of thick woods where shots are usually close, intermixed with open areas where shots can stretch out to several hundred yards. Most of the time a 4X scope is plenty.

Those wonderful old Leupold and Redfield scopes were discontinued long ago, but there are others available today that are equally at home in the woods. Those I mention in the section on dangerous-game rifles are great for hunting deer in heavy timber, and their optical quality leaves absolutely nothing to be desired. Most other low-magnification scopes made today do not have the broad fields of view that those on the dangerous game list do, but for the most part they still have enough for still-hunting deer. A few that come to mind are the Burris Signature 1.5-6X, Bushnell Banner 1.5-4.5X, Leupold Vari-X-III 1.5-5X, Nikon Monarch 1.5-4.5X, and Weaver V3. When set on their lowest power, the fields of view of those scopes are spacious enough for woods hunting, yet a twist of the wrist will zoom them to enough magnification for longer shots.

The Open-Country Rifle

Hunting in open country often presents opportunities to shoot at long range, and while no hunter should take a shot he is not confident in making, a bit of magnification in a riflescope does make precise bullet placement easier. There was a time when most hunters considered 9X plenty for long-range shooting, but more Xs have become popular among many experienced hunters. Even so, I still believe that 9X is all anyone needs, 12X is bordering on too much, and anything higher is best reserved for varmint shooting.

The Trijicon 3-9X scope on this Ruger Model 77 Hawkeye in 6.5 Creedmoor offers plenty of magnification for hunting any big game in open country.

There are several problems with choosing too much power in a big-game scope. One is a limited field of view. The typical 16X variable with 4X at its lower end has a maximum field of view of less than 3 feet at 25 yards. Field of view is approximately 7 feet for a top-quality 4-12X scope and roughly the same for a 3.5-10X. While a high-magnification scope is great for shots at long range, its cramped field of view makes it a poor choice should a wounded animal make it to thick timber and have to be followed up and finished off at close range.

While I occasionally use scopes of higher magnification when hunting pronghorn antelope or perhaps when watching for deer from a tree stand located beside a huge soybean field in the southeast, for all-around use I believe a variable with no more than 6X to 9X at its top end is not only the most practical, but also the most useful scope a hunter can own. When I move up to more magnification on a big-game rifle, I usually choose a 2.5-10X because it offers a bit more magnification and bottom-end field of view than the typical 3-9X with little to no gain in size or weight.

A variable scope like this Burris, with 12X at the top of its magnification range, represents about the minimum power range that's useful for most varmint shooting.

The Varmint & Small-Game Rifle

Most of the time I like plenty of magnification for varmint shooting, but I do often try to match a scope to whatever cartridge a rifle might be chambered for. When using rifles in .17 HMR, .22 WMR, .22 Hornet, or .218 Bee, I find 12X to be plenty. On the other hand, when reaching far across the Back Forty and surprising a target with a rifle in .22-250 or .220 Swift, I like at least 16X magnification. When conditions are right, I get along quite nicely with as much as 24X. I also like plenty of magnification when shooting small targets, regardless of the cartridge I am using. The rifles I use most for shooting prairie dogs are chambered to .223 Remington and wear scopes of 16X or more.

I still use a few fixed-power scopes for varminting, but I prefer variables. As the weather warms up and mirage becomes a problem at maximum power, zooming to a lower magnification makes it appear to go away. The variable is also the way to go when calling in coyotes. On more than one occasion I have had a dog sneak in from behind me and suddenly appear at only a few yards, and if I hadn't had my scope turned down to low magnification, I might have missed the opportunity.

The scope I use on a small-game rifle depends on what it is chambered for. For rifles chambered in .22 Long Rifle, I find 9X or 10X to be plenty for head shots out to as far as I will shoot with that cartridge. These days I usually use a rifle in .17 HM2 when hunting tree squirrels, and since my rifle and that cartridge shoot flat enough and are accurate enough for head shots out to a good 100 yards, I prefer a variable with either 14X or 16X at its top end.

A small scope like the Leupold 3-9X Compact shown here on a Weatherby Mark XXII is perfect for a small-game hunting.

The Low-Light Rifle

A scope with an exit pupil diameter of 5mm transmits about all the light the human eye can use, although many shooters believe a diameter closer to 7mm is optimum for a scope to be used during extremely poor ambient light conditions. When we consider that exit pupil diameter is determined by dividing objective lens diameter by magnification, it is easy to see why a fixed-power scope of 8X with a 56mm objective has long been the traditional favorite of European hunters legally shooting big game by moonlight. Except where it is legal to take animals such as coyotes and raccoons at night, we here in America don't customarily hunt in the dark, but since game movement is often at its best just at daybreak and late in the evening when light it at its worst, choosing the right scope for those conditions is important.


A large exit pupil is desirable in a scope to be used in low light, but equally important is lens quality. As light passes through each separate lens inside the scope, a bit of its intensity is lost due to reflection. Manufacturers reduce this effect by applying special coatings to each lens. Each coating costs money, and the more coatings a scope has, the higher its price will be.

The superb optical quality in this Swarovski 4-14X—combined with a 50mm objective—make it an excellent choice for shooting in low light.

The quality of the lens itself is also important in light transmission, and the higher the quality, the bigger the price tag. But you don't necessarily have to mortgage the farm to buy a good scope. Top-of-the-line scopes from Nikon, Swarovski, Trijicon, Zeiss, Schmidt & Bender, Leupold, Bushnell, Burris, and others are not only affordable, they will transmit all the light most of us need for the worst of conditions. Just remember that regardless of the scope, an exit pupil diameter of 5mm to 7mm will transmit all the light to the eye that particular scope is capable of. In other words, if you have a 3-9X scope with a 40mm objective lens, its optimum magnification setting for maximum light transmission is around 6X (or about 5.7X to be more precise). The optimum low-light setting for a 4-12X scope with a 50mm objective is around 7X.

I have two rifles set up specifically for low-light shooting. One is a custom Remington Model Seven with a Shilen barrel chambered in .308 Winchester. It wears a Schmidt & Bender 1.5-6X scope. Another rifle I often use for late-evening deer sniping over a southern soybean field is a Cooper Model 52 in .25-06; its scope is a Swarovski 4-12X Habicht. Both scopes have 50mm objectives, and both are incredibly efficient at pouring light into the eye of the shooter.

Slug Guns & Muzzleloaders

The maximum practical range of a shotgun with a rifled barrel shooting a sabot load is around 200 yards, so a fixed-power scope of 4X or a variable with no more than 4X to 6X at the upper end of its magnification range is plenty. A bullet fired from a shotgun travels in a sharply curved trajectory, so regardless of magnification, the use of a laser rangefinder in conjunction with a scope incorporating a range-compensating reticle greatly simplifies the job of accurately connecting with the target out beyond 100 yards.

With the BDC 200 zeroed to place a bullet at the intersection of the main crosshairs at 50 yards, the two circles on the lower quadrant of the vertical crosshair are used for aiming at 100 and 150 yards.

Reticles designed specifically for use with both slug guns and muzzleloaders are available. Good examples are Nikon's BDC 200 and BDC 250 in Slug Hunter and Muzzleloader versions of the Omega scope, available in 1.6-5X and 3-9X magnification ranges. The BDC 200 reticle will work with any slug load, but it was designed specifically for use with the flatter-shooting pointed bullets, such as the Hornady SST, Remington AccuTip, and Barnes Tipped Expander in Federal ammo. With the gun zeroed to place a bullet at the intersection of the main crosshairs at 50 yards, the two circles on the lower quadrant of the vertical crosshair are used for aiming at 100 and 150 yards. For a 200-yard shot, simply place the top of the lower post where you want the bullet to go and squeeze the trigger.

The BDC 250 reticle for muzzleloaders is basically the same, except its crosshairs intersection is zeroed dead on at 100 yards, and the four circles spaced below it are for 150-, 200-, 225-, and 250-yard shots.

The Dangerous-Game Rifle

Most experienced hunters of potentially dangerous game know that shooting at an unwounded animal at distances much greater than 200 yards is not only risky business, it's foolish. Some professional hunters I've hunted with in Africa insist on stalking to within 100 yards of Cape buffalo before taking the shot. Had they not, I would have insisted that we do so.

The lion and leopard I have taken have all been within 100 paces when I squeezed the trigger. Here in North America, I have taken two brown bears, and both were well inside the 100-yard line when I shot them. Wounding any animal is never a good thing and should always be avoided if possible; the situation is made even more serious if the animal has the capability of fighting back with horn, hoof, fang, or claw.

The ideal scope for a dangerous-game rifle should have just enough magnification for medium-range shooting and more than enough field of view for finishing off an animal at close range in thick brush. A field of view of 30 feet at 100 yards sounds like a lot, and it is for shots at 100 yards and beyond, but it shrinks to a mere 3 feet at 10 yards. You simply cannot squeeze an enraged buffalo or bear inside 36 inches. While many companies have discontinued models with extraordinarily large fields of view, a few are still available.

Excellent scopes for a dangerous-game rifle are Swarovski's PH 1.25-4X with its 98-foot field of view at 100 yards, Nikon's 1-4X Monarch African (93 feet), Zeiss's 1-4X VariPoint T and 1.24-4X ZM/Z (120 and 105 feet), Burris's 1-4X Euro Diamond (100 feet), Kahles's C1-4 and CSX1-4 (108 and 110 feet), NightForce's 1-4X NXS (95 feet), and the Schmidt & Bender 1-4X Zenith with 96 feet at 100 yards. Since a dangerous-game rifle is almost always chambered for a heavy-recoi

ling cartridge, the scope it wears must be durable. Equally important, it must have a minimum eye relief of 3.5 inches, and 4 to 5 inches is none too much.

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