Catalog Search

Choosing the right scope
Most hunters use scoped rifles these days - and there are also many scoped shotguns taken into the field for hunting deer, turkey, squirrels and other game. This profusion of scope use means that there are many, many choices available in sports optics, and therefore also a need for folks to learn more about the choices available to them before they lay down their cash for scopes to top their favorite deer guns.

Riflescopes are available in almost any configuration of size and power imaginable. The most common scope by far is the 3x-9x with a one-inch tube, with varying sizes of objective (front) lenses. Some are available with an adjustable objective (AO) option, which can help correct for parallax at various ranges. But we're not going to deal with all of the technical aspects of scopes in this article - just the basics.

Why Scope it?

Hunters and target shooters use scopes for varied reasons. Some folks find that as they age, their eyes simply can't focus on iron sights like they used to, and going to a scope is a way to combat that effect. Others choose scopes because their hunting requires them to get a super-good look at their game, and the magnification offered by a scope allows them to make sure, for instance, that the seemingly-antlerless deer they're sighting on is not actually a small buck. Still others prefer scopes simply because they are so easy to use and often allow for more precise shot placement.

No doubt about it, a scope is not the fastest gun sight. That honor belongs to the peep (aperture) sight. Absolutely nothing beats a peep for speed and accuracy when hunting close cover, when identifying the game can easily be done with the naked eye. But the scope IS the easiest sight to use, because all one has to do with a properly zeroed scope is put the crosshairs on the sweet spot and squeeze the trigger - no sight alignment is necessary.

I hunted for many years without a scope, and I did well. But I found myself increasingly in circumstances that made me wish fervently for a scope. Using binoculars to examine a deer to confirm its legality is fine, but often by the time it's identified, there is little or no time to lower the binocs, raise the rifle, and take the shot. With a scope, it's fast and easy to make the shot once the game has been identified. These days I very rarely head to the woods to hunt deer (or squirrels, for that matter) without a scoped rifle.

Choosing a Power (magnification).

As I mentioned earlier, the most popular scope is the variable-power 3x-9x. Actual magnification values vary from scope to scope, but the numbers mean that at the lowest setting (3x), an object viewed will appear to be approximately three times the size it would appear when viewed by the naked eye - and at the top setting, it would appear to be about nine times that size. Adjustment between the low and high settings is infinite - you can turn the adjustment to any position between the low and high, and view the target at varying respective sizes. This is true of any variable-power scope.

For almost all hunting applications, 3x is plenty low. Even at a close ten-yard shot, you will be able to see plenty of your critter in the scope lens. The very lowest I would want on a hunting scope is 4x, because for close shots and/or shots involving moving game, anything higher than that will narrow your view too much. And 9x is usually plenty high for zooming in on far game at reasonable ranges.

In some cases a higher magnification is desirable, but of course that depends on the type of terrain you hunt and how far the longest shot may be, and only you can determine your needs when choosing a scope. Anything above 12x is really overkill for most realistic hunting scenarios, and the higher you go with magnification, the more your every shake and tremble shows up in the movement of the crosshairs on your target.

My first hunting scope was a Weaver V3 1x-3x compact scope, which I mounted on my Ruger 44 mag carbine. This was a step up from the Williams peep sight I'd been using for years, but if I had it to do again I would not choose that scope - I would go with a higher-magnification model. If all my hunting was done in close cover, then it will work fine... but I often hunt in areas where distance to game may vary from right below me to 100+ yards out, and 3x is a bit wimpy for identifying game at longer ranges. A compact 2x-7x would probably be my choice if I were re-scope that gun today. The deer rifles that I use most often have 3x-9x scopes on them.

Fixed or Variable?

When choosing a scope, you have to assess your needs and decide whether you want the flexibility of a variable-power scope or the relatively lower price and somewhat increased reliability of a fixed-power scope. One problem that often arises, but that the average hunter and shooter doesn't seem to know much about, is that some variable scopes will allow point of impact (where the bullet hits) to change according to where the magnification setting is. This is, of course, not at all desirable, and it is almost always found in cheaper scopes.

Another caveat is that eye relief often changes with the power setting, too. Eye relief is the optimum distance between your eye and the scope's eyepiece to get the proper view of your target. With a variable scope, that distance will often change somewhat depending on where the magnification is set, meaning that the position of the cheek on the buttstock will have to change as well.

Again, this problem is almost always present in cheap scopes, but it also finds its way farther up the ladder of scope values than does the point-of-impact problem. In comparison, this is a less important malady than a shifting point of impact.

A fixed-power scope solves both of these problems by maintaining a constant setting, and therefore constant eye relief. Because the power doesn't change, point of impact won't, either (as long as the scope doesn't fail) - but you're stuck with one magnification for all of your shooting.

I own only one fixed-power scope, and it's one that I found. I don't think I would buy one myself, because my hunting situations are so varied, and almost all of my guns are used for hunting. But if you can't afford to buy a better scope and must get by with a cheap one, then definitely buy a fixed-power scope rather than a cheap variable. Cheap variable scopes are essentially garbage, in my opinion. Some will work okay sometimes, but every one that I have used will shift point of impact when changing powers, and they are also known to just plain quit working and no longer hold any kind of zero, for no apparent reason.

You Get What You Pay For.

It didn't take me long to learn that this old adage is true of scopes moreso than anything else in the shooting realm. You can buy a lower-priced rifle and get excellent accuracy, often with run-of-the-mill ammo that's available at your local Wal-Mart - but all of that accuracy is moot unless your scope is worthy of the gun and ammo.

Many manufacturers sell "package guns" that include a scope, sling, and other trinkets with a new rifle. In my experience, the scopes that come with these deals are strictly for the birds. When pricing a new rifle, you would do well to ignore the scope on such guns and figure to maybe use it on a 22 for squirrels and such, and factor in roughly $200-$250 for a good scope. You can easily spend more than that amount for a good scope - prices for quality optics climb rapidly, even into the thousands - but it's not necessary to do so to get a good, serviceable scope.

Myself, I keep the cheap scopes that I've gotten when buying rifles. One of them lives on my old Savage 22 mag, which I use to hunt squirrels. The others spend most of their time in a drawer, and if I sell a rifle, my more-expensive scope comes off the gun and a cheapo goes on it, to be sold with the gun. This way I don't have to buy a scope every time I buy a rifle... not that I buy many, for I'm happy with what I have now.

I want a good scope on any gun that I hunt with, and I'm willing to pay the price to do so - even though I am admittedly a bit of a tightwad about many things. I've learned the hard way that cheap scopes are worth even less than their purchase price. That's not to say that some hunters haven't killed deer and many other game species using cheap scopes, because they have. But they are far less reliable, clear, and rugged than the scopes that I choose to use.

An Objective Look

One of the most-hyped and debated features of a scope is the size of the objective, or forward, lens. Simply put, larger objectives gather more light, making for a brighter view, especially in low-light conditions.

That said, the larger (44mm and up) objectives are nothing to get excited about, in my opinion. The largest objective on any of my deer-hunting scopes is 40mm, and that's plenty big. At dusk or daybreak, any of my good scopes will gather enough light to alllow me to peer into dark brushy areas and see much more detail than I can see with my naked eye.

Also, larger objectives invariably mean that the scope must be mounted higher on the gun - and the higher the line of sight, the more awkward the sighting process becomes, and the more awkward the gun is to handle, as it becomes increasingly top-heavy.

Another feature found on some scopes is the adjustable objective. This allows better focus at varied ranges, and requires adjustment depending on how far your target is from your scope. I believe this feature does help make some lower-priced variable scopes more dependable as far as point-of-impact goes, but again it usually means that a higher mount is required. Adjustable objectives are mainly only valuable for long-distance and/or precision shooting, neither of which is required for most hunting situations. Again, your personal requirements come into play here when making your choice.

Final Thoughts

In closing, let me wish you luck in your search for the perfect scope. If you find it, please let me know - because I have never found the perfect scope, just as I have never found the perfect gun, truck, etc. But with a little luck and some useful knowledge, you can find a scope that will do a good job for you, whether you are hunting whitetails in close cover or taking pronghorn antelope in the wide-open spaces - or simply punching paper targets in quest of the ultimate one-ragged-hole group.