If you’re left a bit bewildered by the sheer amount of scope options out there, Chris Parkin has the guide to narrowing your choice down
One of the most commonly asked questions I hear is, “what is the best scope?” Well, I can tell you there is no magic solution to cover all requirements, so the first questions you must ask yourself are:
What are my needs
What is my budget
What is my target species
What are my likely ranges
What light conditions will I be shooting in?
Concentrating on hunting optics, the species you intend to pursue is the starting point. Deer on open hills in daylight are very different to those in woodland at dawn and dusk; a 300-yard daytime crow is a different proposition to a fox at last light 50 yards away emerging from shadows. Many consider light gathering a priority, but light transmission is often the real consideration. A high-quality optic with a 40mm objective lens can offer a brighter image than a cheaper 56mm scope with all other variables equal, as the internal optics allow 90 per cent of the visible light spectrum to pass through with crystal clarity rather than leave you with a grainy, drab exposure. Objective lens size will influence exit pupil size, though.
When I started shooting, many European optics came with bold no.4 reticles, which, although fantastic in low light when engaging a fox and perfectly adequate in daylight on large quarry like deer, were of little use when varminting in daylight as the reticle obscured the target. With a reticle’s centre subtending (covering) an inch at 100 yards and set in the first focal plane, when zoomed in to 16x and engaging a visibly larger crow at 400 yards, you were ‘peeking around’ a crosshair subtending 4in. Over the last few years I have noticed an increasing trend towards finer reticles, like the Zeiss no.60, which has fine lines from the perimeter meeting a discreet central dot. This style has appeared across many budgets, and offers an ideal solution to all light conditions when it is coupled with illumination. On the original, the dot is fine enough in daylight that any small target can be engaged at longer ranges, yet in lower light conditions or with heavy cover in woodland, the adjustable pinpoint illumination can be used to highlight its position for immediate target/reticle alignment. Cheaper illuminated reticles often flare out and destroy what image you have by being too garish and dazzling. The No.60 permanently changed my opinion of illumination for the better, and I have since seen similar sublime quality from Swarovski, Kahles and Meopta.
The argument of first (where reticle size remains in proportion with the image, ‘growing’ as you zoom) versus second focal plane (where the size remains constant to the viewer but not in proportion to the target) is fairly moot. Both have advantages and disadvantages relevant to your requirements, and the hunting world can accept either. It is what suits your needs that is important. With first focal plane you can aim off using the reticle, and it makes sense to have one with markings that match your turret click values. Second focal plane certainly makes more sense with hunting rifles where a slight ‘aim off’ within the kill zone is appropriate as it is the target you’re using as a measure, not the reticle. For example, on a longer-range deer, you might prefer to aim a little higher toward the spine rather than start dialling corrections. Turret options like the Swarovski BT and Zeiss ASV+ have really made ‘dialling’ more fashionable to the hunter and are very effective in the right circumstances – but make no mistake, there is a lot more to shooting at longer ranges than turning a dial, both morally and technically.
What really differentiates European from Asian glass is the ability to resolve and aim at small targets at low magnification. I recently zeroed two similarly specified scopes at 100 metres alongside each other and at 12x magnification. The Euro glass was happily quartering a 1in orange patch whereas the USA/Chinese optic at the same size of reticle needed a 2in patch to clearly hold centre. That is not to say either scope will not adequately assist your hunting activities, but the resolution difference is unmistakable. (But for treble the cost!) Where light is concerned, the lenses and, just as importantly, the coatings used start to spread the gap. Maintaining clear point of aim on quarry emerging from dingy cover when you are in bright conditions is a real test for scopes, even more so where the sun may be shining towards you and causing flare.
When you really start to research the complexities of optics, you learn about factors that, when comparing glass side by side in identical scenarios, really highlight where your money has gone. For example, when viewing a target on a bright day with the sun shining towards you, can you see without the lenses flaring out, or reflections off the external surfaces interfering with your view? Do you notice colours fringing around the external profile of an animal as they are distorted through a process called chromatic aberration, in which differing frequencies (colours) of light refract through lenses with different points of focus and cause halo effects? On the finest glass, red, green and blue are all corrected for, but cheaper optics often show up the green fringing first. All those thousands of hours spent developing closely guarded lens-coating secrets are well represented in these conditions, and the fact that manufacturer ‘A’ uses twinned compound lenses where manufacturer ‘B’ uses single lenses isn’t the kind of fact you notice looking out of a shop window at a telegraph pole across the road.
Don’t assume more magnification will improve matters. It can be a false perception that increased size is clearer. Perception of colours from one human to the next is very personal – my own left and right eyes see small differences, so it it no surprise to encounter the same among other shooters.
Parallax correction is present in all optics. In some it is fixed at 100/200 metres; others offer adjustability. On a hunting scope, the general rule for centrefire scopes is that 12x is about the maximum magnification that can be used before parallax (although ever present) becomes noticeable. The addition of its internal adjustability adds further cost. Recent testing on a 15x scope with otherwise superb image quality, but parallax fixed at 200 metres, was slightly out of focus at 100 metres when zeroing. Parallax is a complex subject in itself but essentially, as well as allowing the user to obtain clear focus at the intended magnification and range (more so with higher mag), it focuses the image on the same plane as the reticle, and keeps the two in sync to prevent any misalignment of the eye effectively shifting the point of impact. High magnification and longer ranges amplify the significance. You won’t make a parallax error with a slightly fuzzy 4x image at 40 yards on a rabbit with a 6x scope, but that 400-yard crow with a 20x scope might easily evade you if an unrealised parallax error was involved.
Externally dialling target turrets and the newer hunting-specific designs with calculated ranges add further options to the equation, but that is another article in itself. Many buyers think recoil is the big killer of scopes, but repeated mechanical adjustments made to any scope not really intended for repetitive dialling will wear internal mechanisms, so be aware. Warranties on optics are subtly changing as the trend to dial scopes for more precision grows. Size and weight are factors to consider, and compact controls are certainly preferable on a pure hunting rifle. There is no point destroying all the gunmaker’s elegant workmanship with unnecessary optical features and weight. The option to remain at fixed magnification and keep everything simple is tempting!
Choosing a scope at any budget should be a well-researched task. Anybody criticising scopes from lower price ranges is wrong to do so as the facilities they offer are amazing considering the technology and precision involved. Likewise, scopes at the premium end of the market are worth their cost. Although the improvement is hard to see when peering through the glass in a daytime shop, those last 10 minutes of hunting time at dusk may be the difference between an £80 stalk offering a shot or not, and when you multiply that throughout the life of a scope, it is money well invested. Optics made in the US and Asia have rapidly caught up with the technologies in European brands, often outpacing their marketing inertia when it comes to newer mechanical specification choices, but they aren’t quite there with the glass yet. What they do offer is fantastic value for money. Warranties are a fact that should be observed carefully, as some companies offer quibble-free lifetime guarantees where some brands only offer two years. It reflects their confidence in the products they make and their suitability to the intended task, so it’s reassuring in the long term. The world is alive with subjective opinions, but factual knowledge has never been easier to research. Read around the technical facts of the subjects and then apply those facts objectively to the optics you question. Even the big names in Europe aren’t afraid to admit some of their glass is a little oriental, so keep an open mind!
Where to look
Schmidt & Bender
Leupold, Burris, Steiner
0845 099 0252
Leica, Bushnell, Weaver
Chris Parkin, freelance shooting journalist