Picking the Perfect Scope

An old hunting buddy of mine, Dave Morin, called the other day with really big news.

In 10 short months, he was headed to Utah's famed Devil's Canyon with a bull elk tag in hand. Naturally, the one-in-a-lifetime hunt called for a new rifle, and most every new hunting rifle needs a scope.

"So I have been looking online, picking through catalogs and have even been to a few shops to look at scopes, but there are a million choices," Morin said. "What's the perfect scope for my rifle?"

It's something that seems simple enough at the onset, but matching the right piece of glass to a firearm takes some thought if you hope to maximize the pairing's field or range performance. A few decades ago, the decision would have been pretty simple since there were just a few makes and models around. Now, the Cabela's Fall Master Catalog alone lists 77 models from Leupold and 41 from Nikon. The variety of available power ranges, reticle patterns, lens coatings, parallax adjustments, and objective sizes is staggering.

A lot of guys choose the scope based on what manufacturer has the best looking box or most breathtaking display in the gunshop. On a recent range trip, I saw an M4-configured AR mated with a monster

6-24X target scope, with a sunshade and adjustable objective, no less. A man is entitled to use whatever he wants, but the M4 would have been just as deadly at average 5.56mm ranges and much handier if the target was up close and personal if it was paired with a variable 1.5-5X or even a 3-9X.

On a recent mule deer hunt, my hunting partner picked up my rifle and peered through the optic at a distant target. "Man, these little marks below the crosshairs are cool," he opined. "What are they set for?"

I could have told him, had I not switched to a heavier bullet for this hunt and not had the time to compute the ranges at which the bullet's trajectory would coincide with the aiming marks. Instead, I offered a sheepish grin and shrugged my shoulders.

"You could probably shoot better if you actually knew how it worked," he said.

No kidding.

I did know that my zero and the bullet's trajectory would still allow me to "hold on hair" of an average-size mule deer buck out to 300 yards. I was stumped in Colorado, but I usually make it a point to know if my fancy new reticle works as advertised in the manufacturer's instructions.

Many shooters buy scopes equipped with cool new reticles and never bother to read the instructions to learn how to use them, much less double-check that the 400-yard aiming point is actually the 400-yard aiming point. They would have done better by saving $50 or $100 and getting a standard reticle.

The same could be said for illuminated reticles and huge objective lenses. Many of those riflescopes were purpose-built for hunting from raised stands in the long twilight of Northern Europe. If you need an illuminated reticle and the late-evening light transmission of a 56mm objective, you are probably shooting past legal shooting hours in most parts of this country. High-magnification, side-focus scopes are a dream for precision long-range shooting but wholly unnecessary if stalking wily bucks in thick timber is your game.

The key is to ignore the hype, concentrate on what you need, and use all the resources available. Visiting manufacturer's websites on the Internet is an easy way to quickly sort through the mechanical specs and features of different scopes. Basic web searches can also give you a good idea of street prices and possibly lead to a good deal on a used optic. We have all been assaulted with unwanted advice from gunshop commandos, but the problem is magnified tenfold in online forums, so caveat emptor. Forums are a great source of information if you know and trust your online confidants.

A quick review of online and printed literature will reveal that a gun owner in search of an optic can spend $30 or $3,000 on a scope. Budgets are a fact of life, but I suggest you spend the money and get a quality scope. A good rule of thumb is to spend as much on the optic as you spent on the rifle. That is not to say there are not bargains out there. My dad put a Bushnell 4X rimfire scope on the Remington 581S bolt-action he gave me for Christmas when I was 8 years old. That was 24 years ago, and the scope is still ticking. I cracked the piggy bank and mowed more lawns than I cared to count to scope my first deer rifle, almost 20 years ago, with a Pentax 3-9X. The rifle still wears the scope and holds zero, so that hard-earned money was well spent.

Morin found a great rifle for his hunt, a classy new-in-the box Ruger Model 77 Mark I in .338 Winchester Magnum. He figured his chances of taking a long shot--300 yards or more--were pretty good. He also wanted a simple reticle, having tried a few different ballistic-drop-compensating reticles on other scopes with limited success. Since the Ruger is not exactly a featherweight and Hell's Canyon did not earn its name because walks through the countryside are easy, Morin thought any weight that could be saved would be a plus.

We took a close look at several different manufacturers and came up with a dozen different models that offered good magnification, a simple duplex reticle, were relatively lightweight, and offered exceptional optical performance. Leupold's compact VX-III 2.5-8X with a 36mm objective seemed perfect, but it turned out the rifle's ejection port was too long to use standard mounts and extended mounts negated any weight savings. A Swarovski with similar features was an inch longer and only weighed an ounce more. Though quite a bit more expensive, the rugged construction and high-quality glass are perfect for a place named Hell's Canyon.

We all put a lot of thought into what rifle and which caliber, but the scope is an important component of the accuracy and function equation. Set your performance parameters, use the available resources, and pick the perfect scope.

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