Tim Pilbeam takes out over £6,000 worth of glass from top manufacturers Swarovski, Zeiss and Schmidt & Bender. Can one of these high-specification scopes outshine the others?
If someone asked me what was the best hunting riflescope on the market, my first answer would be: “Tell me how big your pocket is, then I can give you a clue.” Let’s assume you are in the market for a really top-end piece of kit. At the more expensive end of the market there are arguably three top European manufacturers: Schmidt & Bender, Swarovski and Zeiss. How easy is it to compare them? Is there an outright winner in terms of clarity and brightness when used in the field?
I tested the Schmidt & Bender PMII 5-25×56, Zeiss Diavari 6-24×56 and Swarovski Z6i 5-30×50, all of which are at the top end of their respective ranges and cost over £2,000. I concentrated on brightness, clarity, field of view and ease of use. All of these models are used for hunting in the UK, and two can cross over to target shooting thanks to the easily adjustable target turrets. All three have reticles in the second focal plane (the crosshairs do not enlarge when zoomed in).
Schmidt and Bender 5-25×56 PMII
The PM2 or Police Marksman II ‘generation 2’ is by far the most rugged and heaviest (2.3lb) of the scopes on test. There are many models in this range, from 1-4x magnification to this 5-25x power model. This scope comes with a 34mm tube, enabling it to have up to 90MOA vertical adjustment (depending on MOA or Mil model), giving it the capability to shoot these large calibres out to beyond 2,000 yards.
Despite its weight, it is a very popular optic and is equally capable when used as a hunting piece. I have used one for over two years for all my foxing, as well as culling fallow deer with my .243 RPA Thumbhole Hunter. The elevation and windage turrets are stiff and precise to turn, with distinctive clicks for all adjustments. The ‘double turn’ facility tells you when you have gone beyond one whole turn. Having said that, you are probably well beyond 800 yards at this point, so it is not relevant to hunting situations. Once zeroed, you can reset this turret to turn only one way (upwards) and back to zero.
The large parallax wheel on the left-hand side is easy to use, and goes from 50 metres up to infinity. On 5x zoom the field of view is restricted, but other than that the scope’s clarity and brightness is superb – although this was to be expected given its 2,000-yard capability.
This is a well engineered piece of kit that does not mind being abused, but with 34mm mounts and a hefty weight, it is certainly for the specialist. I do most of my hunting with it, but I also shoot with it out to beyond 1,000 yards – so it is very versatile, if not a little over the top.
Swarovski Z6i 5-30×50 P
The Z6 family consists of eight models, offering a wide range of hunting applications – from the easy-to-use 1-6×24 for running boar to this longer-range 5-30×50 scope. The Swarovski family is dedicated to hunting, and does not produce scopes for tactical or military applications. This is the most appropriate model from their range to compare to the others.
The 30mm tube has a small parallax adjuster knob on the left, next to the covered elevation and windage adjusters (1/8in per click). As an option (£110 extra), a ballistic turret is available for quick elevation adjustment, made of four incremental settings to suit the shooter’s range requirements. This model came with the BR-1 ladder reticle, and when illuminated, a central dot lit up with a switch on top of the ocular lens. The switch has a day (bright) and night (not so bright) setting, and the intensity of the dot can also be adjusted by pressing the two pads either side of the switch.
My colleague Matt uses a Z6i and tells me it is easy to knock on the illumination switch when taking it in and out of his rifle slip. Other than that, it is easy to use. In the field, the Z6i, despite having a smaller (50mm) objective lens than the others, can gather light in all conditions. I tested the Z6i at all ranges from 100 to 800 yards, and though it doesn’t have a quickly adjustable elevation turret, its ladder reticle allowed me to judge precise hold values. At 1.4lb, it is lighter than its competitors, maybe due to the lack of the target turrets. As expected, it is optically brilliant on all power settings, suitable for both short- and longer-range hunting without complicated target ‘knobs’.
Zeiss Victory Diavari 6-24×56 T*FL
I was told the new FL series from Zeiss was an equally capable stablemate to my much-loved PMII, so I ordered one for my .308 for deer control and for use on the ranges all the way out to 1,500 yards.
The Victory FL Diavari range is available in three models, from the 4-16×50 to the massive 6-24×72. The FL glass significantly reduces “chromatic aberration with no colour fringing”. For example, in bright sunlight many scopes will suffer from slight colour blurring, but the Zeiss scope’s Fluoride (FL) glass eliminates this. In other words, it provides a clearer and crisper sight picture than it did in its previous incarnations.
The Zeiss comes with a 30mm tube and 6-24x zoom. Parallax is easily adjusted by turning a dial to the left of the top elevation turret. The elevation BDC turret (1cm clicks) is standard, and I specially ordered the same windage adjustment for shooting at longer ranges. To adjust, lift the cap and twist it. Once you have reached the desired setting, the cap will spring back down to lock it. Once zeroed, you can set the elevation cap to start from this setting, with all further adjustments being upwards.
On this model, I opted for the ‘43 mil-dot’ reticle, which illuminates the whole centre of the reticle and can be adjusted by turning a dial that sits next to the parallax adjuster. It is a very crisp reticle at night, and it is easy to adjust the brightness of the reticle while shooting. At 1.9lb, it is heavier than the Z6 but much lighter than the PMII. I have been using the Zeiss for over six months now, and I am impressed with all aspects of it and have found no niggles.
As with so many bits of kit, your choice of scope will come down to personal preference or the specific use it is intended for. These three scopes can all be used for hunting, and the Zeiss and PM2 can also be used for long-range disciplines. Which is the best optically, and which one stood out above its competitors for the sporting rifleman? I asked two shooting colleagues to compare them in the field, with the scopes fixed on a gun, and they did not find it easy to pick a winner. I was not surprised.
We tried them all at different times of day and at night, with red and white filters on my spot lamp. During the day, I personally found the Zeiss a little brighter on 24x than the PM2, but one of my colleagues preferred the Z6i. At over 800 yards, the PM2 gave me a clearer target picture, but one of my buddies favoured the Zeiss.
In the wood, the Z6i performed just as well as the others despite its smaller objective lens. At night in pursuit of foxes, the Zeiss and Z6i were, in my view, a little clearer than the PM2. The Z6i’s illuminated dot is perhaps easier for a quick woodland shot, but the clarity of the others means it’s down to personal preference. Despite the differences stated in the technical data between the Z6i and Zeiss, they had virtually identical fields of view on comparable zoom values, while the PM2’s was narrower.
The PM2 is an extreme target riflescope, but still versatile enough to be used on foxes and deer. It is, however, more expensive than the other two scopes. The Zeiss is probably the best all-rounder – it is lighter and smaller than the PM2 and will be a very capable scope for those who shoot targets from 500-1,000 yards. If you are paying over £2,000 for a scope and you are not interested in medium- to long-range target work, then adjustable turrets are surplus to requirements, leaving the Z6i as a simpler and lighter choice of optic.
At this level of investment, you will not be disappointed with the performance of any of these riflescopes. Having quality kit does not guarantee a ‘perfect shot’, but it goes a long way to help. Nowadays, most ‘off the shelf’ rifles are reasonably accurate, so my advice is: Invest more in the glass than the gun. I just wish it was that easy.