The aim of this article is to look at optical solutions that help us apply our windage and elevation, the pros and cons of each, and how to build a system that works for you. This article is not intended to tell you what’s the “best” rifle scope. The reality is what suits me and my hunting might not suit your situation, and the scope I want for my 22-250, might not be what suits my 7mm Rem Mag.
Decisions, decision, decisions… When it comes to rifle scopes there are choices galore. What measurement of adjustment do you want? Inches or cm; this can be stated as MOA or mRad and usually translates to 1cm clicks or ¼ MOA clicks – however, there are other variants that offer finer adjustment such as 0.5cm. My own preference is for 1cm (0.1 mRad clicks) but in reality it doesn’t really matter. Being fully familiar and well-practised with whatever clicks you have is the most important thing.
The options continue when we look at what zoom the scope will give us and is it fixed or variable? While I can appreciate the simplicity of a fixed scope I can’t see a disadvantage to having a variable power. The figure most of us will look at is the max magnification; x12, x16, x25 and so on. The penalty for increased magnification is usually increased size and weight of the scope – it’s all a balancing act. I have found that when using x25 scopes I rarely shoot at a magnification greater than x20. The high power scopes can double a spotting scope and be useful for confirming details that are beyond the capabilities of your binos, but they can’t replace a spotter on hunts where you need that long range search capability. It is also important to realise that increased magnification doesn’t necessarily result in better shooting. As the mag increases it makes your target bigger, but it also makes any little shake (from you or the wind) all the more evident. This may in turn may introduce anxiety and translate into poor shooting.
The size of the objective lens is next on the list for consideration – in general terms the trade-off is usually between size and weight versus low light shooting capability. In tandem with this is to decide if you need an illuminated reticle or not. The pros of an illuminated reticle is obviously that it improves the visibility of you crosshair in low light conditions, and a red centre dot may give you a good point of aim for driven game. There are cons, however, and they go beyond that added size and weight. When the centre dot is not illuminated I find that there is often a blurred gap or large grey dot in the centre of the crosshair. This can be distracting when “aiming small”, though is probably an issue that I could come to terms with if I used this style of crosshair more. Again, it’s a case of personal preference, and probably added to by the fact I have rarely found the need for an illuminated reticle in a hunting scenario – that doesn’t mean that there aren’t hunters out there who use it on every hunt and find it really useful.
Another big one for me is the physical size, weight and ergonomics of the scope. For mountain hunting I want something that is in less than 28oz (800 grams) or so and is close to about 33cm in length. I like a low profile elevation turret and a capped windage turret and I can really see the benefit of locking turrets. There are a few different styles of locking turret out there – the most important thing being that they are easy to use and effective. Again, the scope I want for my mountain rifle might not be my optic of choice for a long-range rig in .338 Lap Mag.
Zero stop has its place, but there is also a place for not having one – for instance, if you have a 200-yard zero but want to be able to dial for a precise 100-yard zero without holding under the ability to dial below zero might suit you better. In the hunting scenario this is most likely to be only if you have a particularly small target area and no reticle reference marks above your centre crosshair.
First or Second Focal Plane?
In a First Focal Plane (FFP) scope the crosshair changes size as you change the magnification – this means that if you are using the reticle in a hold over style (like a ballistic plex) then you will never be at the “wrong” magnification. The drawback for some is that they find their crosshair can be too thin at low magnification or too thick at high magnification. In a Second Focal Plane Scope (SFP) the crosshair stays the same at all magnifications – some prefer this because the crosshair is a width that they like regardless of the magnification – a drawback being that if you use your ballistic or mildot style crosshair to hold for elevation and wind then it will only be correct at one magnification. For example; you zero your ballistic reticle so that the stadia line below the centre crosshair is bang on at 300 yards on x14 power. You are out hunting and between the jigs and the reels you end up with a deer in your sights at 300 yards, you hold the correct stadia line and fire – but only realise after your miss that the scope was not at x14 magnification… Companies will sometimes market this quality as the ability to fine tune your ballistic plex zero to your rifle (a .308 Win might zero at x14 resulting in stadia lines neatly aligning at 300, 400 and 500 yards – a .270 Win might need to be at x16 power to do the same). Personally when it comes to ballistic reticles I would prefer to learn my hold overs rather than risk a miss due to being at the wrong magnification. In other words, I prefer First Focal Plane Scopes. There are however a couple of Ballistic reticles available in FFP, the Burris Ballistic Plex E1 FFP being one.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, my preference is to dial for elevation and hold for windage. This would usually mean having a scope that has turrets and a ballistic reticle of some sort, be it a ballistic plex or a mildot variant.
Let’s first look at dialling. Long range shooting will mean you need a double turn elevation dial, and there are a number of very clever designs to show you that you are on the second turn – most of these are visual and one I think works particularly well is the Steiner M5Xi. When you get into the second turn the first turn ring moves up to reveal the second turn number – fool proof!
Most hunting scopes will be single turn elevation turrets. A great development here is the ballistic turret. These are now tuneable by the shooter. You can either replace the ring to match your rifle or you can tune a set of rings to give you the solution. Two respective examples here are the Leica Direct Dial set or the Swarovski Ballistic Turret Flex. Here’s how it works; range the target at 300m, dial 3, shoot. Here’s the disadvantage; range the target at 380, do I dial 4 and hold low? Do I dial 3.5 and hold high? Is there a mark for “50’s” – do I count the clicks between 3 and 4, dive them by 10 and multiply by 8? You get the idea…
Another consideration is atmospherics. If you zero your rifle at the same air pressure and temperature as you hunt then there’s no problem. In my own experience I have found that I can hunt anywhere in Ireland in any temperature variations that we get and my zero will be exactly the same out to 500 yards. If you zero your rifle at sea level at 20°C and hunt at 10,000ft in -5°C then you will have a problem at longer ranges and will probably need to retune you ballistic turret or go back to using cm clicks and your ballistic app. Dials come in clockwise (CW) or counter-clockwise (CCW) – it’s all what you’re used to.
A ballistic reticle has similar advantages and limitations to a ballistic turret, but you are holding over instead of dialling. The advantage of the turret and dialling is if you have a Second Focal Plane scope you cannot be on the wrong magnification. The advantage of the ballistic reticle is if your animal is at a range that is between two of your ballistic stadia lines then you can “gap hold”. For example, you range the animal at 380 yards, your first stadia is 300 yards and your second stadia is 400 yards. Judge where the 380 would be and use that as your hold. To help with precision, you can use a definite reference, let’s just say that when you hold your imaginary 370 yard mark on the deer’s vitals, that the 400 yard mark is in line with the brisket; use that as an “aim small” point and execute the shot. Another advantage of the ballistic reticle is that it is a faster system for multiple shot scenarios – no need to dial. Furthermore you cannot forget to put your turret back to zero or dial it wrong – you can of course use the wrong stadia or be on the wrong magnification – so whatever the system, practice will help prevent errors. For me I need to have wind hold-off marks on the reticle. This is common on ballistic reticles but absent on ballistic turrets that are mated to a type 4 or plain reticle. We can see in the picture that the reticle is calibrated for wind matching the range. This means that once you work out at what mile per hour wind your bullet matches your reticle then that will hold true for each stadia line as the range increases.
I will use my own .270 Win scope to illustrate the advantages and disadvantages of a “normal” dialling system. The scope is First Focal Plane – the crosshair is too fine at x4 magnification but I can live with it. The elevation dial is in 0.1 mRad (1cm). It has a Gen 2XR reticle, which is a mildot variant. I have a 200 yard zero, at 100 yards I hold under .5 mil (5cm). My rifle/bullet combo means that for where I normally hunt my data for elevation is shown in the table on the previous page.
As you can see from the data table on the previous page, my data is easy to remember and I can dial or hold – it’s all the same. I always make a little sticker for this data and have it on my rifle and on my scope cap; that way, I can see it from the shooting position if I need reassurance. I usually use some medical strapping-type tape and a marker to make this sticker – it’s simple and it works.
When in a hunting situation where the atmospherics might matter, such as at high or changable altitudes, I make a chart that I can use that makes sense. An example of this was Tahr hunting in New Zealand. I examined how the data changed as the air pressure changed (temperature seemed to have minimal effect out to 600 yards). I then made a chart that bracketed three “zones” of air pressure (station pressure) and made this chart. This meant I could simply check my station pressure (using my Leica binos or Kestrel Weather Station), see what bracket the station pressure fell into, and use that data. This will work up to about 600 yards, but for longer ranges you need to revert to inputting accurate data into a ballistic solver.
For hunting in Ireland and the UK the ballistic turret or ballistic reticle is a good option. If you regularly encounter windy conditions then it’s worth having a system that allows you to accurately dial or hold for wind. If we are seeking precision at longer distances and at varying altitudes and climates then perhaps a standard dialling solution coupled with a weather meter and ballistic app is more appropriate. We are now seeing the introduction of ballistic solvers into scopes that will do a lot of the math for you. I haven’t had my hands on these yet, but look forward to seeing the concept develop.
In summary, use what you’ve got, practice, learn, and if you are upgrading your gear then make sure you know what you are getting and how it’s going to work for you. Part of all this is the journey; the best we know is the best we’ve used. Be proficient with your hunting tools, know your limits and be a responsible hunter.