ECENTLY I HAD a long phone conversation with a good friend, a custom riflesmith who at one point said, "Rifle scopes are by far my biggest problem anymore. They're the
bottleneck in the whole process." He specializes in making highly reliable big game rifles on controlled-feed bolt actions, mostly with synthetic stocks but also a few
with fancy walnut. While some get chambered for relatively mild-recoiling cartridges such as the .270 Winchester and 7mm Remington Magnum, most are at least .300 magnums
and some are .458 Lotts.
Aside from fine-tuning (and sometimes essentially rebuilding) CRF actions, he also makes his own steel scope mounts. These are precisely machined to fit the customer's
chosen scope, so it's precisely lined up with the bore. This also prevents problems he's encountered with many commercial mounts.
His rifles aren't what most hunters consider "affordable," and naturally many of his customers are pretty well-off, so tend to mount expensive scopes on the rifles they
order. My friend used to range-test each completed rifle with the customer's scope, but gave that up about a decade ago because too many scopes failed in one way or
another. Many were made by high-priced European firms, yet often weren't surviving their first trip to the range. Nowadays he tests finished rifles with an
old 16x Leupold Mark 4 that's been dead-nuts since purchased. (He's also often asked by customers to recommend a scope, but usually refuses, both because he knows the
customer might argue with him, and even if they do buy what he recommends, if it fails they consider it his fault.)
The most recent problem was with another expensive Euro-scope, designed (as many are these days) for the elevation turret to be dialed up and down for shooting at different
ranges. The customer wanted to be able to shoot out to 600 yards, and the scope's adjustment range easily handled that distance — at least
theoretically. After being sighted-in at 100 yards, dialing-up enough for 600 resulted in the clicks not reliably dialing back down to 100, or any other
My friend contacted the customer-service department of the U.S. branch of the company (which he was well-acquainted with), and explained what was happening. The CS guy
said the scope obviously needed to be mounted in slightly sloping rings, so the elevation turret wouldn't be turned anywhere near the end of its adjustment range.
At that point my friend almost lost it, but managed to slowly explain that no, he was NOT going to make special slanted scope rings to help one brand of scope work the way it was
supposed to. (However, he didn't say that he also wasn't going to make special rings for that particular scope because the same brand failed too often in other ways.)
Manufacturers know that most hunters utilize a simple scope, mounted on a "deer rifle," sighted-in at 100 yards.
We discussed that for a while, during which I suggested a couple of scope brands that hadn't given me ANY trouble during the past few years. This is highly unusual,
because over the past couple decades I've have 17 different brands of riflescopes fail on various rifles. That is BRANDS, not individual scopes; often multiple scopes
from certain companies have failed.
But I'd encountered three modestly-priced brands that kept working (at least in the last few years, despite being mounted on rifles of at least .300 magnum recoil. I
usually mount new test-scopes on very accurate .300 or .338 Winchesters, because if they're going to fail I want to know before wasting time writing a report.) Unfortunately,
neither brand was very expensive, which many not seem like a fault to you or me, but is to his customers. Perhaps just as important, they also don't consider the brands
Often their rifles aren't built just for hunting but to impress their friends, which is why so many have high-priced Euro-scopes. We then joked for a while about how
the three scope companies might make their products acceptable to his customers if they tripled the price and gave them German names.
Yet many people hunt their entire lives with scopes costing far less, with brand names unacceptable in high society, and don't have problems. How can this be?
Well, there are several reasons. The first is that 99% of scopes don't get mounted on .300 magnums, much less even larger magnums. Instead they're mounted
on rifles chambered for cartridges that recoil less, often far less.
The recoil level of .300 magnums (except perhaps the .300 Ruger Compact "Magnum," essentially the .30-06 Improved in a different case) is where scope problems vastly
increase. Many scope companies know this, and also know how much more it costs to produce truly magnum-resistant scopes. Since very few scopes will be mounted
on .300 magnums, and almost none on even harder-kicking rifles, they're willing to replace or repair a certain percentage of the scopes they sell in order to keep the price down.
This isn't unethical, and in fact it's the way most manufacturing works. It would be insane for every automobile company to only make high-grade cars costing $75,000
or more. Most people wouldn't buy them — and don't really need them anyway. Instead they want reasonably reliable transportation to get back and forth to
work, so don't require 350-horsepower engines, heated leather seats, or a built-in GPS.
Similarly, most hunters don't need a scope tough enough to survive a parachute jump, then snipe a terrorist half a mile away. The vast majority don't even need a scope
suitable for sniping deer 500 yards away. All they need and want is a scope that can be mounted on a "deer rifle," sighted-in at 100 yards, and used to hunt
deer — and maybe a pronghorn, black bear or elk. It really doesn't take a lot of scope to do this, especially if the hunter (like most) only shoots his rifle a few
dozen times a year.
Even if the hunter does shoot a lot, it's usually at some sort of varmint, whether prairie dogs or coyotes. Prairie dog rifles may be shot several hundred times a day,
but prairie dog cartridges recoil softly. Coyote cartridges may kick a little more, but the rifle may only be shot 100 times a year. Odds are a $300 scope is
going to last a long time on a rifle owned by typical deer hunters or varmint shooters.
This is especially true if the elevation turret isn't twirled up and down constantly — and even the majority of varmint hunters aren't "dialers." And if they do
shoot at longer ranges, they're often satisfied with a multi-point reticle, for a couple of simple reasons. First, the majority of people, including hunters, live in
places where they're rarely able to see (let alone shoot) far enough to get any significant use out of a dialing-scope. Second, they don't have any place to practice
shooting much further than 250 yards — if that.
Surprisingly, essentially the same things are often true of the hunters who spend big bucks on my gunsmith friend's rifles. They may hunt more than the average
deer/varmint hunter, but don't shoot a lot more, because most are successful professionals who, almost by definition, are very busy. They also tend to live in or near
major metropolitan areas, where getting to a range requires considerable time and effort.
I know this partly because I know several custom riflemakers, who often deal with customers who can't shoot very well. (One reason the customers buy expensive,
super-accurate rifles is the assumption that such a special rifle will help them hit big game.) While not many gunsmiths make rifles as expensive as my scope-blocked
friend, their rifles normally start at $3000, and often cost twice as much. Yet the majority of their customers don't get to shoot those nifty rifles enough to become
really proficient, and one of the sad facts of life is that a half-inch rifle does not help an unpracticed shooter.
One of these gunsmiths eventually decided to do something about this, so started a practical field-shooting school on a hunting ranch in Texas, several years before such schools
became popular. He asked me to be one of the three instructors, and we set up the course to be shot for score, so his client/pupils could gauge their success and progress.
The day before the clients arrived several people shot the course, including the gunsmith, instructors and the manager of the ranch. The "stations" were primarily
typical hunting shots, at animal-targets set up at various ranges, often only partly visible in brush, one simulating shooting offhand at a "charging" Cape
buffalo. Another station went out to 400 yards, not considered long-range these days. None of the testers were avid competitive shooters, but hunters who shot
far more than an average number of rounds a year, despite making decidedly average incomes. (No doubt we'd all make more money if we hunted and shot less.)
The clients showed up that evening, one of them flying his private plane from the East Coast. After they all shot the course, the winning score was considerably less
than the lowest score anybody shot the day before. The reason? None of clients practice their shooting any more than the average once-a-year deer hunter, and
when they do it's usually off a benchrest, testing handloads.
As a result, even manufacturers of very expensive scopes realize most of their scopes get mounted on rifles that are shot relatively little. Often the majority of the
price is expensive optics, because that's what's obvious to prospective buyers, but the internals may not be much tougher than those on $200 scopes. In fact, in my
experience (and my gunsmith friend's) quite often they're not. This was also the opinion of the very first professional hunter who guided me in Africa, who named a really
expensive Euro-scope and a really inexpensive Asian scope as the two brands he'd seen fail most over the years.
However, most scopes are tough enough to survive most guided elk hunts, where the hunter might shoot a few shots to check the zero on their .300 magnum after a plane flight, and
another couple at an elk. But the scope-survival rate on African safaris is lower, partly because so much time is spent bouncing around on rough roads (or even no roads)
in Toyota Land Cruisers, but also because the rifles are shot far more. They're not only shot at more animals, but many PH's have learned (through long experience) to
have their shooters recheck the zero every couple of days, both to detect any Cruiser-jiggle, and to boost the confidence of hunters after they've missed a kudu. I've
seen far more scope failures on African than North American hunts.
Those are the realities of scope manufacturing: Because relatively few scopes see really hard use, relatively few hard-use scopes are made. Manufacturers would prefer
not to have any scopes fail at all, but that's not possible, especially when the vast majority of their customers don't want to spend more than $300, especially for a scope with a
miniscule chance of being used hard.
So what can hunters do to avoid scope failures? If they're one of the vast majority who simply sight-in a scope and don't dial the elevation turret up and down, they
should buy a relatively simple, smaller scope. Variables no more than 10x on the top end tend to be somewhat tougher than larger scopes, for several reasons: They're the
most popular-selling size, so companies can afford to make them a little tougher at a relatively low price, thanks to higher-volume sales. They don't usually have
parallax adjustment, and the now-popular side-adjustment is another item that can wrong. (Fixed-power scopes tend to have even fewer problems than variables, because of
fewer moving parts, but so few hunters want fixed-power scopes anymore not many are made.)
Shooters can also mount relatively inexpensive scopes on relatively light-recoiling rifles, something better bullets have made possible in both big game and varmint
hunting. While some hunters think a 7mm or .300 magnum is needed to kill deer, it isn't, and not even required for elk. Many prairie-dog shooters still think
they need a .22-250 or .243 Winchester for "long shots" of over 300 yards, when simply switching to a more ballistically efficient bullet in a .223 Remington will easily handle dogs
beyond 500. And even a .223 isn't required to shoot PD's inside 300 yards, where the vast majority are hit (not just shot at).
Unless you plan to shoot often beyond 400 yards, don't buy a scope designed for dialing the elevation turret. A multi-point reticle will work just as well out to 400
on big game, and also do quite well on varmints out to 300. Again, a multi-point reticle doesn't involve more moving parts that can go bonkers.
Swarovski's BRX reticle works great for 400-yard shots, and beyond.
If somebody does plan to dial their scope, they can buy one of the relatively few brands of "real" tactical scopes, instead of a hunting scope with a hash-marked elevation
turret. A hunting scope will last a while, but if you dial up and down a LOT the adjustment system's going to wear out. Luckily, some pretty tough dialing
scopes are available for pretty affordable prices these days. They don't normally have optics as bright and sharp as more expensive scopes, but they're far more likely
to help you put a bullet in the right place. Though only if you practice.