Finding the right scope is like running through a maze, you don’t know WHERE you’re going. Couple that with the countless landmines of confusing technical jargon, specs, acronyms — and you might be in the maze for LIFE.
That’s why I wrote this article — to help serve as a guide through the scope maze. In fact: This will be the LAST guide you’ll ever have to read to find the right scope…for YOU.
Let’s dig in!
This is the part 99% of people screw up on. They either buy TOO much magnification or too little — ESPECIALLY when buying the best AR-15 rifle scope. Rest assured — you won’t make that mistake after reading this. So, let’s first start off by defining magnification.
Magnification is how much closer you can see the target than a naked eye.
For example, if the magnification is 2X that means you can see TWO TIMES closer than the naked eye. Easy enough?
How Do You Find Magnification?
It’s usually the first number (or range of numbers) on a scope. For example: if a scope says 3×32… then the first number (‘3’) is the magnification. However, if it says 2-7×32… then the first range of numbers (2-7) is the magnification. In other words: you can choose a magnification between 2-7X. Because of this, there are actually two scope types:
- Fixed power scope
- Variable power scope.
Fixed power scope means there’s only 1 magnification (Ex: 3X), while variable allows you to choose from a range of magnifications (Ex: 2-7X).
Easy, right? But…which should you choose?
Fixed Power vs Variable Power
That depends on your use. If you require more than one magnification, then go for the variable. However, fixed power scopes are faster, higher quality, and cost less. So, keep that in mind when you’re choosing your scope. Don’t worry about making a decision now — we’ll touch on that in just a bit. But for now, let’s answer the lingering question that we left unanswered:
How Much Magnification Do You Need?
This is HIGHLY dependent on your rifle usage. If you use your rifle primarily for small game or homestead defense (>100 yards), then go for a magnification between 1 – 4x. Pro Tip: Go for a fixed power scope. It’ll make your short-range encounters faster.
However, if you use your rifle primarily for hunting large game in forests or mountains (>200 yards), then go for a magnification between 5 – 8x. Or, if you’re a sniper that hunts in fields or deserts (200+ yards), then go for a magnification between 9 – 12x. Simple enough, right? Now that you have your magnification, the next thing to find is the right…
The objective lens is the lens at the end of the scope. The size of the objective lens is usually found at the END of the numbers (or after the x). For example: 3x32 means it has a 32mm objective lens. What about if it’s a variable scope? Same thing.
For example: 2-7x35 means it has a 35mm objective lens.
Understood? Cool. So…
WHY Is Objective Lens Important?
In layman’s terms: The more objective lens you have, the clearer and brighter your scope will look. However, it does come at a costly price. Larger objective lenses mean smaller scope rings, a heavier scope, and it may even give away your position due to the reflection of sunlight off the lens. So be careful.
With that said…
How Much Objective Lens Do You Need?
If you hunt in close range (>100 yards) with low recoil, go for 28mm & under.
If you hunt in medium to long range (150+ yards) with medium recoil, go for 30-44mm. (Also great for low-light hunters.)
And finally, if you’re solely a long range shooter, then go for 50mm & up objective lens.
With your magnification and objective lens in hand, now it’s time to talk…
Rifle Scope Lens Coatings
This is usually the second feature advertised. It may come packaged in fancy names, however ALL rifle coats fall under one of these criteria:
- Coated: They cover at least one surface of the scope in one layer. The budget man’s package.
- Fully-Coated: They cover ALL external glass surfaces in a single layer. The standard package.
- Multicoated: They cover at least one surface in several layers. The upgraded package.
- Fully Multicoated: They pamper ALL your scope’s external glass surfaces in several layers. The luxury package.
Which Rifle Coat Should You Choose?
Most scopes today are fully multi-coated. In fact: Over 90% of the scopes I’ve reviewed on my site so far are fully multi-coated. And if it’s not fully multi-coated, don’t sweat it — coats don’t make up for poor glass quality. However, something you DO have to sweat is…
The reticle is the crosshair (or the aiming point) you see. This will either make shooting easier or harder.
Here’s the best reticle to choose based on your use:
If you’re a hunter or target shooter, go for a Duplex. It’s the simplest and fastest reticle to use.
If what you’re shooting is a life and death situation (like the Military), go for a Mildot. It helps estimate target’s distance.
This is for the long-range shooter. Sure, it takes longer to use, however it helps adjust for bullet drop. Insanely useful for long distance shots.
But which to choose? If you hypothetically put a gun to my head (please don’t) and said: “Choose a reticle or die!” I’d honestly go for the Duplex. It’s easy, fast, and it plain up WORKS. But don’t take my word for it. Instead, test all these reticles and see which one you like best. The best reticle is the one YOU prefer.
With that said, it’s time to talk…
This is the most common scope question I get asked: “Should I choose the First Focal Plane or Second Focal Plane?”
Here’s the straight up answer: go for second focal plane. Here’s why: For most general situations, the second focal plane works better. It’s cheaper and doesn’t obscure your view while the first focal plane does. That said, should you ever go with first focal plane? In only one condition: If you’re a long-range shooter (10X+ magnification).
The reason? It’s more accurate as the reticle size adjusts as you move up in magnification. Yet for most general situations, go for a second focal plane. It won’t disappoint. Once you’ve got your focal plane selected, it’s now time to discuss adjustment systems…
Minute of Angle (MOA) vs Milradian (MRAD)
To be completely honest, this part doesn’t matter much, but I’ll cover it anyway. So, which adjustment system is better: MOA vs MRAD? The straight up answer? Neither.
In fact, they operate interchangeably like miles per hour and kilometers per hour. Just choose an adjustment system your hunting buddies use. If you don’t know what your buddies use, just opt-in for MOA. It’s easier and more popular. Simple.
Let’s move onto…
Parallax is bad. It happens when your scope’s reticle kind of bobs around with your head movement. Not good. If left unchecked, it can lead to bluriness, fuzziness, and missed shots. You want as LITTLE of parallax as possible for maximum accuracy.
The good news? There’s a way to…
This is dependent on the scope (and cheekweld). Scopes usually correct parallax in one of three ways:
- Factory-Set. Parallax adjustment is built-in the scope by the manufacturer. This will be advertised.
- Adjustable Objective (AO). This corrects parallax through a ring on the objective lens.
- Third Turret. Move this knob to correct the parallax.
With that said, which option is best? They all do their job. Obviously the factory-set will be the easiest, but don’t worry about it too much. Only look at parallax adjustment as a tiebreaker between scopes. Speaking of tiebreakers, there’s one core feature that breaks all ties…
Windage and Elevation Turrets
This is by FAR the most important part. Actually, if these knobs (turrets) don’t work, you WON’T be able to zero your scope properly. In other words: You won’t be able to shoot JACK–So it matters. Here’s what you’ve got to know about windage and elevation:
First, make sure the turrets produce a loud “click” sound when they adjust. That way you know when you’ve adjusted. This is usually mentioned in the reviews.
Second, make sure the turrets are reliable. Don’t listen to the advertisers. Instead, read what people say about the turrets’ reliability.
Once you’ve done that, you’ll have found reliable windage and elevation turrets. Now, it’s time for the last important feature…
Do this part wrong and you’ll look like Mad Eye Moody from Harry Potter. Do you want to look like him? I hope not. (If you do, you’ve got bigger problems than scopes).
Here’s how to save your eye (and comfort) from pain with proper eye relief. Let’s start off by defining eye relief: Eye relief is the distance between your eye and the lens you look through (ocular lens). If your weapon is higher recoil, you’ll need more eye relief. And vice versa for lower recoil.
In short: Aim for at least 3.5 – 4 inches of solid eye relief. Simple enough. With that, you now know EXACTLY what makes a good scope. But the million dollar question remains…
How Much Should You Spend On A Scope?
Here’s the ugly truth: It depends. You can be spending anywhere from $50 up to $1,000+. There’s really no ‘optimal’ amount to spend on a scope. Why? It’s HIGHLY dependent on your rifle, caliber, and usage. But you now know what makes the very best scope. The next part is easy:
Find The Scope That Calls Out To You
Yes, it’s true… you’re going to have to do a BIT of Googling before finding the right scope for you. That’s part of the process. Alternatively, if you’re having trouble finding the right scope for your rifle, visit my site: Scopes Field.
I’ve actually reviewed (and hand-tested) scopes for almost EVERY major rifle and calibers (like the Mini 14). So if you’re having problems finding a good rifle scope, then feel free to stop by for some tips.
And there you go! You’re now fully armed with EVERYTHING you need to know about choosing a rifle scope. Now go out there and buy yourself a great scope!
Feature image: U.S. Marine Corps photo by Lance Cpl. Alexis B. Betances
Richard Douglas is a scopes expert with over 10 years of hands-on experience and has been featured on Burris Optics, War History Online and more. No wonder his friends call him the “James Bond of Scopes.” Richard now spends most of his time reviewing scopes and sharing his exclusive findings on his blog, Scopes Field.
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