September 23, 2010
In tough economic times, it is good to know there are plenty of scope bargains available.
A good friend of mine, who stays in a constant state of financial duress, saved up his pennies, put off the creditors for a month, and purchased a new rifle. He called and asked a tough question of his friend the optics editor.
"Man, I need a cheap scope," he said. "What's the best one?"
I launched into my standard diatribe of how the optic should cost as much as the rifle, and that the scope is probably the most important part of the accuracy equation--all things he had heard and read before. My buddy broke it down, plain and simple.
"Dude, I have $300 to spend, and that's it," he said. "What's the best cheap scope out there?"
With all the bad economic news and fun budgets getting smaller and smaller, inexpensive optics is a subject that needs exploration. Living very near a Bass Pro Shops store, my friend has the distinct advantage of going to a sporting goods store and looking through scopes that cost anywhere from $50 to $2,000. I gave him a list of things to look for and think about, and I hope it will help Shooting Times readers who want good glass at a great price.
It's In The Glass
Scope performance begins and ends with the quality of glass contained within the tube. If the glass is trash, the image you see through that scope will be more of the same. At one time, a manufacturer's ability to get its hands on good glass was the logjam that slowed production and raised prices. The great news for shooters is the proliferation of manufacturing houses that can turn out precisely ground lenses. Factories in Asia are punching out good lenses faster than you can say, "chopsticks."
Onto that glass must go coatings, and these coatings are what really do the work. Coatings cancel out natural reflections that distort images, tune color so that red is red and green is green, and often protect the lens from scratches. Most scopes have coatings simply because they would be almost unusable without them. Generally speaking, the more coatings a lens has, the better it will perform. Tip even the cheapest scope on end, and the lens will have a green, blue, yellow, or red hue. But all coatings are not created equal, and the better the coating quality, the more expensive it will be.
The lens and coating quality test is pretty simple. Pick up a scope and look across the store. If the colors you see with the naked eye are replicated in the tube, the manufacturer did a pretty good job with color tuning. Next, look into a darkened corner and see if you are able to pick out details you were unable to see before peering through the scope. If the image is brighter and more detailed, the coatings are doing a good job of transmitting light. Remember that no optic, no matter how expensive, gathers light. They simply transmit it. How well they transmit it is a function of coating quality.
If the about-to-be-purchased riflescope is variable power, dial the power ring high and low while looking around the edges for sharpness. If the image falls apart around the edges at one end of the power range, you should probably move on to another scope. After all, you cannot hit what you cannot see.
This simple Bushnell Banner Rimfire scope cost only $50, but it has provided more than two decades of flawless performance.
Keep It Simple
Just like cars, scopes can come plain vanilla or with lots of extras. These are things like target turrets, illuminated and specialty reticles, parallax adjustments, etc. The less money you spend on a scope, the fewer extras it should have.
Companies that make high-end target and tactical glass have the engineering know-how and manufacturing capability to put extras into their scopes and make them work every time in any weather condition. As the price comes down, something has to give, whether it is in the materials or engineering. While the extras might look really appealing on a budget-priced scope, there is a good chance something will break or not work as well over time.
After you get a scope home, there are some things you should check right off the bat. If the scope has target turrets, shoot the square to make sure it tracks. After first checking the warranty's coverage, drop the scope in a tub of water to check for leaks before mounting it on an all-weather rifle.
Even at a certain price point, if a scope is trash right out of the box, you might have wasted both time and money.
That is not to say there are not some fantastic bargains out there. When accused of being an optics snob, I simply point to one of my favorite rifles--I received it for Christmas when I was nine years old.
The Remington 581-S is in near-perfect condition, despite thousands of rounds, hundreds of hunts, and a pile of dead squirrels that would not fit in the bed of my pickup truck. It wears a Bushnell Banner Rimfire 4X 20mm that cost a whopping $49.95--if memory serves--that I bought to replace the first one that finally quit tracking after five or six years of hard service. After almost two decades, the scope is as bright and clear and as fog proof as the day it was delivered. I have changed the zero exactly twice and will only touch the adjustments again when my supply of CCI Small Game Bullets finally runs out.
The ability to produce less expensive optics has allowed several companies to cater to specific segments of the shooting world. My good friend down the street has a nifty Savage bolt-action chambered for .17 HMR that wears an inexpensive scope with target turrets specifically calibrated for that cartridge. The little rig is on the money and did not cost a fortune, allowing for the allocation of an extra case of ammo.
Cheap scopes are essential for shooters like me. With a wife in medical school, it pays to know which brands perform for less money. I have had stellar luck with Bushnell, Nikon's ProStaff series, Sightron, Leupold's VX-II series scopes, and Weaver, among others. Their field performance was exceptional, and the price was right. It pays to spend the money on a riflescope, but there are certainly deals to be had.