Choosing the Best Rifle Scope: The Definite Guide (2018)

In this guide, we’re taking you step by step through the common features of a rifle scope. Before you buy, we want to make sure that you know exactly what you’re getting.

Without the knowledge, you can fall prey to marketing ploys that trick you into buying a scope you don’t want. Don’t worry, it’s easy to get lost in all the technical jargon.

That’s why the first thing you’ll see is a glossary of terms covering the most common rifle scope terms. They’ll take you exactly where you want to be in the guide. Otherwise, scroll down to step one and begin your journey for the best rifle scope.

Step 1: The Basics

In its simplest form, a riflescope is some glass lenses – that you can manipulate – in a tube casing. Before you ever start fumbling with knobs, here’s what you need to know about the lenses themselves.

Breaking Down the Numbers

When browsing for the best rifle scope, you’ll see something like “2-7×40” or “3×32”. The first number (or range of numbers) is your magnification while the second set measures your objective lens diameter.

Fixed or Variable Power?

  • Magnification (aka Power) is designated by an “X”. It determines how much closer the target appears than what is seen with the naked eye

We’ll use our examples above to explain the two types of magnification, then decide which one is best for you.

3×32

This is our fixed power example, meaning it only works at one power. In this example, you could only see 3 times closer than with the naked eye – no more, no less. However, these types of scopes come available in just about any power you’re comfortable using.

Why use a fixed scope?

2-7×40

This is our variable power example, meaning you can adjust from 2X power through to 7X power. Some variable scopes offer wide ranges while others are narrower. While there are scopes that go as high as 12X power or more, it’s not always necessary to have that much.

Why use a variable scope?

Magnification in Action

1 – 4x:Homestead defense | Target shooting up to 100 yards | Stalking small game
5 – 8x:Target shooting up to 200 yards | Stalking large game | Hunting in closed landscapes (forests, mountains, etc.)
9 – 12x:Target shooting beyond 200 yards | Hunting in open landscapes (deserts, fields, etc.)
Takeaway: Use smaller powers for closer targets and larger powers for long-range targets.

Objective Lens Diameter

  • Your Objective Lens is at the end of the scope closest to your target and has a measurement in millimeters.

Dispelling the Myths

Your objective lens size does not directly affect:

1

Glass Quality

  • While the objective lens plays a small role in overall image quality, there is much more at play. Size will not make up for poor lens quality.
2

Light Transmission

  • Ultimately, the exit pupil determines how much light comes through the scope. While a larger objective lens at low magnification can offer a huge exit pupil (more light), there is a catch. Since our pupils only open between 4 – 7mm at the most, an exit pupil larger than 7mm is wasted light.

To calculate the exit pupil (in mm), divide your objective lens diameter by your current magnification.

What does it ACTUALLY affect?

1

Scope clearance

  • Smaller lenses will mount easily with normal scope rings and leave sufficient space between the scope and rifle barrel.
  • Larger lenses require taller scope rings, which can make sighting awkward and uncomfortable.
2

Weight

  • A larger lens or an adjustable objective lens equals more weight on your gun.
3

Reflection

  • Larger lenses are more prone to reflecting sunlight, which gives away your position.

Objective Lens Diameter in Action

28mm & Under:Firearms with little recoil | Close range hunting | Low power scopes
30 – 44mm:Firearms with more recoil | Low light hunting | Higher power scopes
50mm & Up:Uses higher magnification in low light | Extreme long range targets
Takeaway: Larger lenses are ideal for higher power scopes, low light, and bigger calibers, but are not necessary for everyone.

Don’t Forget Your Coat!

Most scopes have some type of chemical coating on the lens to reduce glare and increase light transmission. Some lens coats will prevent fogging, keep water off of your glass, or protect it from scrapes.

While many companies have their own formulas with fancy names, these are the basic terms you should know:

Coated:One layer on at least one surface
Fully-Coated:A single layer on all exterior glass surfaces
Multicoated:Several layers on at least one surface
Fully Multicoated:Several layers on all exterior glass surfaces
Takeaway: Not all coats are made alike. That’s why you get what you pay for in optical coats.

Step 2: Line Up the Target

Now that we’ve laid the foundational concept of our lens, let’s check out the building blocks to the perfect aim.

All About Reticles

  • Your reticle is the aiming point (or crosshair) you see when you look through the riflescope.

Basic Reticle Types

Infamous optical giants like Nikon and Bushnell offer pages and pages of reticles to choose. While they all serve a purpose, many of them are specializations of one of these basic patterns:

1

Duplex

  • A duplex reticle is the simplest crosshair pattern, which is what makes it so popular. Crosshair lines are thicker on the outside edges to guide your eyes to the finer, center lines.
2

Mildot

  • Although the mildot reticle looks very similar to the duplex, there are important distinctions. In the center, there are dots are aligned in a way that let you estimate your target’s distance based on its size.
3

BDC (Bullet Drop Compensation)

  • In a BDC reticle, you can save time in adjusting your elevation for varying distance. On the lower half of the center crosshair, each line corresponds to a particular distance.

Reticle Types in Action

Duplex:Hunting and Target Shooting
Mildot:Military, Law Enforcement, and Security
BDC:All-Purpose

Takeaway: Before choosing a specific reticle type, make sure it uses the basic pattern you prefer.

Focal Planes

  • The focal plane refers to the position of your reticle within the scope. Currently, there are two different styles.

First Focal Plane (FFP)

In a scope with FFP reticles, the reticle sizes adjusts as you scale through different magnifications. Why is this important? No matter what power you’re using, the marks on your reticle will remain accurate. However, its main disadvantage is obscuring your view at low powers (about 1 – 3x).

Second Focal Plane (SFP)

Most scopes use SFP reticles. Unlike a FFP reticle, it stays the same size regardless of what power you’re sighting through. This gives you a clear picture through all powers, but only if you zero your scope at its maximum power.

First Focal Plane vs Second Focal Plane

Focal Planes in Action

FFPLong-range tactical shooting with powers 10x and higher – Ideal for open environments
SFPHunting and target shooting with powers 8x and under – Ideal for busy environments
Takeaway: For most general situations, you’ll be more successful with SFP. If you specialize in long-range shooting, spend the extra cash for a FFP reticle.

Measuring Scope Adjustment: MOA vs. MRAD

The MOA (Minute of Angle) unit measures 1/60th of an angular degree. Simply, this rounds off to 1” at 100 yards. Many scopes adjust at ¼ MOA, meaning ¼-in at 100 yards, ½ at 200 yards, etc.

Benefits: 

  • More precise zeroes
  • Easier math for yards and inches

The MRAD (Milradian) unit measures about 3.6-in at 100 yards (1/1,000th of a radian). Many scopes adjust at 0.1 MIL, meaning 1/3-in at 100 yards, 2/3-in at 200 yards, etc.

Benefits: 

  • More ideal for long-range
  • Easier math for meters and centimeters
  • Used by most pros

Which One is Better?

The only answer to this question is…neither. While one may hold a very slight advantage over the other, the differences aren’t large enough to matter. Just because more pros use MRAD doesn’t mean it’s more effective than MOA.

Regardless of which one you choose, here are a few important tips to keep in mind:

1

Try to align your system with your hunting buddies

  • If you’re adjusting in MOA and they’re talking in MRAD, it’ll lead to some confusion.
2

Make sure that your reticle measures in the same system as your turret

  • Accuracy drops when you’re adjusting in MRAD for a reticle that measures MOA.
Takeaway: The difference between MRAD and MOA is as narrow as that of MPH and KM/H speedometers. Simply, it’s all about preference.

Parallax Adjustment

  • Parallax refers to the reticle’s drift from a position in relation to the target when the shooter moves their head slightly. This happens when the scope can’t focus the target and reticle within the same optical plane.

Parallax Adjustment

Using Parallax Adjustments

In some rifle scopes, the parallax adjustment will be factory-set instead of an actual knob. Usually, the factory settings are at 50, 100, or 150 yards and will be mentioned as a feature of the best rifle scope.

If there is an adjustable objective on your scope, it is capable of correcting parallax.

Otherwise, the only other option is that you’ll have a third turret (aka knob) to manually adjust the parallax yourself. In this case, you should adjust the parallax every time you change magnification. If you don’t, you will experience a lot of blur, fuzziness, and a lot of missed shots!

Takeaway: Although they are good to have, parallax adjustments are not a crucial feature for your scope. They are useful in breaking the tie when you can’t decide on a scope.

Windage & Elevation

  • Windage and elevation are the horizontal and vertical adjustments of your scope, respectively.

Windage and Elevation

Do you remember the MOA and MRAD units? For each “click”, you’re adjusting by the measuring system built into your scope.

Now it’s all coming together under your final set of turrets (knobs) – windage and elevation. Typically, your elevation knob is on top and the windage knob will be on the side.

When you adjust the windage, your aim is moving left or right by one click. Adjusting elevation moves it up or down by one click.

Takeaway: If you want to keep your scope zeroed, reliable windage and elevation turrets are necessary.

Step 3: Taking the Shot

We have our aim lined up just right and are ready to pull the trigger. What other features are relevant at this point?

Eye Relief

  • Eye relief refers to the distance your eye rests from the ocular lens to get a full field of view.
  • The ocular lens is the lens closest to the butt-end of your rifle.

Eye Relief

Why is Eye Relief Important?

How many times have you paid the consequences of underestimating the power of rifle recoil? Without a scope, it might just knock you back or bruise your shoulder. Of course, you can blow that off in front of your buddies to save face.

With a scope, it can bruise your brow and leave a big, purple shiner, especially if you aren’t using it right. This is why most rifle scopes come with about 3.5 – 4 inches of eye relief. THAT’s how you save face at the range!

Takeaway: The more powerful your rifle’s recoil, the higher priority you should place eye relief.

Step 4: Break Out the Dollar Bills

Congratulations! Now you not only understand the technical jargon, but you probably have an idea of what you want.

Regardless of what your friends or range buddies have told you, you don’t have to spend your entire savings. It’s perfectly reasonable to find very good quality scopes under $350. We just have a few tips for making a financially responsible decision:

1

Do you want a variable scope but can’t find just the “right one” for the right price?

  • It’s better to buy a quality fixed scope rather than a poor quality variable scope.
2

Have you narrowed your options down to a few different scopes and can’t decide on one?

  • Don’t base your decision on price. Go ahead and spend an extra $50 if that scope has the features you like. Why buy a rifle scope that’s missing a few of your priority features?
3

Are you finding lots of scopes with extra-special features that you love like illuminated reticles and fancy phone apps?

  • Simply, if you’re a beginner, you don’t need these just yet. However, if you’ve got the experience, don’t let guilt prevent you from splurging on something that will improve your shot.
4

Is browsing the web through pages and pages of rifle scopes overwhelming?

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