by Wayne van Zwoll
As sights accumulate features, they become more capable, more versatile. But more useful?
LAST FALL the scope on my .30-06 was of a new optics line. At a list price $1,300, it was the least expensive, but still more costly than my rifle. It had a 30mm tube, an illuminated first-plane reticle, six-times magnification range, resettable dials calibrated in mils. And of course the latest lens coatings. With batteries, it weighed about twice as much as the scope on my old .270 that has the uncanny ability to send bullets to the middle no matter the load or how many years pass between firings.
I turned the new scope’s power ring to 4x and left it there. It helped me kill a deer and an elk. It is a good scope.
But so is the .270’s 2½x Lyman , which sold, when new, for $45. About $5 more than I paid for my very first scope, a 2½x Bushnell.
I fired my first shot with a centerfire rifle — from a long-barreled, open-sighted Krag, at an oil can that escaped injury — when only about half the hunters used scopes. These optics were commonly cradled in swing-over mounts, so iron sights could quickly back them up. Three decades earlier, before a Zeiss engineer put magnesium fluoride on glass, scopes leaked light badly from uncoated lenses; wet weather fogged them. Windage and elevation adjustments moved spider-web reticles out of center; recoil tore them. Bill Weaver’s 3x Model 330, which he built by hand at age 24 in 1930, prompted many hunters to try optical sights. At just $19, complete with a “grasshopper” mount that resembled a giant paper clip, the 330 was much less costly than Zeiss scopes (the 4x Zeilvier listed for $45 in 1926!). Weaver had equipped the ¾-inch tube with internal adjustments: 1-inch graduations for windage, 2-inch for elevation. A flat-top post was the standard reticle, but you could order a crosswire for $1.50. Hunters who learned to aim through a 330 were apt to upgrade later to Weaver’s K2.5 or K4, Lyman’s Alaskan or the Redfield Bear Cub (first manufactured by Kollmorgen).
Nitrogen purging to prevent fogging (courtesy Leupold), constantly centered reticles and multiple coatings of rare earths to further reduce light loss later made scopes more reliable, practical and popular. Early variable-power devices, like the ring on one scope that let you choose 2½ or 5x, were replaced by rotating dials that ran smoothly from 3x all the way to 9x. At last, a scope that could do it all for hunters!
But hunters would find new tasks for their sights.
Though the 3-9x remains popular, higher-powered glass is eclipsing it. “I sell more 2.5-10x42s,” a dealer told me recently. That’s partly due to inventory heavy to the type. High magnification dominates in top-end scopes; it’s a feature ably hawked to justify high prices. Still, every scope manufacturer I can think of lists a 3-9×40, and brisk sales keep a lid on prices. Not long ago Zeiss ran a promotional program, peddling its fine 3-9×40 Conquest at discount. The scopes sold to the walls.
In this era of coffee-mug objectives, you might think a 40mm front lens limits light transmission. It doesn’t — at least not until you dial to 8x or higher and conditions are so dim that your eye fully dilates! Truly, pupil dilation reaches 7mm only in total darkness; figure 5 or 6mm in the forest at last legal light, less if you’re old enough to remember Nixon as VP. Calculate the scope’s exit pupil diameter by dividing objective diameter by power. For example, a 3-9×40 scope at 5x has an exit pupil of 40/5 = 8mm, a bigger shaft of light than your eye can use at night! In daylight, as your eye’s pupil shrinks, even the 5mm shaft of light from a 3-9×40 scope at 8x is generous.
A 10×42 is a bigger, more powerful sight than I prefer. Swarovski’s Z3 3-9×36 and the Leupold 2.5-8×36 VX-3 rank among my favorite variables. They’re lightweight (11½ ounces), and with 36mm objectives, sit low. Among many fine mid-priced scopes with 40mm front lenses, I like Meopta’s MeoPro 3-9x. Mostly, I carry variables at 4x. If someone super-glued the power dials of my scopes to that setting, I might not notice for years. The few fixed-4x scopes still made all have front bells, so deliver more light than I need. Straight tubes on 1-4x, 1¾-5x and 1½-6x sights have less bulk up front but more weight and a longer eyepiece in back, where I want neither. A stock-crawler, I’m sweet on eyepieces that let me place the scope well forward, the ocular lens roughly in line with the end of a short tang.
My romance with 2½x scopes and Leupold’s M8 3x (re-introduced as a Custom Shop item) has much to do with their straight front ends and compact eyepieces. I’ve shot game as far as 300 yards with them and seldom wished for more power. Legions of young hunters who’ve never changed a bias-ply tire will no doubt think me daft. For them, 3x should still make sense as the floor of a power range.
At 3x, most scopes deliver a field of 33 to 35 feet at 100 yards — big enough to lasso a bounding buck quickly and lead it. It’s a deep field too, so you see detail in sharp focus, near to far. At 3x, you can confirm an antler is not a branch, and plot a bullet path through brush. Ditto for 2½x sights. Less power leaves me cold. Variables that dive below 2½x commonly show curved fields there. Front sights become visible. At 1x or even 1½x, the target image can seem to diminish in size, compared to what you see with the naked eye. While the big exit pupil erases the shadow when your aiming eye fails to center the scope’s optical axis, parallax error can remain. Besides, eye-axis alignment should come naturally with practice.
I own few so-called “dangerous game” scopes, because I’ll never use the bottom power. A 2½x scope is faster than iron sights and shows clearly where the bullet will land. At that setting, I can fire as soon as my cheek hits the comb. Once, racing around a bush to the cry of a Namibian tracker, I triggered my .375 at a leopard crouched in the grass 11 steps away. It was as instinctive a shot as if at a grouse. But the crosswire found the proper spot on the section of spotted hide I could make out. The cat leaped into the air and fell back dead, its shoulder broken and vitals minced. Two elk I’ve taken recently died at 9 and 14 yards. My scopes were set at 3x and 4x. I’ve used 1x red-dot sights but prefer some magnification.
While the trend to higher power in hunting scopes seems as inexorable as reality television, it is arguably no more fruitful. I’ve often seen hunters come to grief by leaving their variables set high. Once a pal and I crept over a ridge toward an elk we’d spotted. Suddenly six bulls, two of them enormous, rose from their beds and trotted off. “Shoot!” I shrieked. Alas, my friend had left his scope at 8x, which gave him a field of just 10 feet at that distance. The bulls accelerated. All vanished before he could take aim. Another time I spied a fine mule deer shuffling along in sage below a fellow looking for just such a buck. I pointed him out. The hunter couldn’t find him in his 9x sight. Frantically, he ran the dial down, then up, then down and up again, jabbing his rifle this way and that. The activity alerted the deer, which became more visible as it bounced away. But my amigo couldn’t corral the animal in his kaleidoscope.
A SCOPE that does it all is effective only if it does it all without delay. Having a broad choice of magnification can prove a hurdle if you choose poorly or use precious time to choose differently.
But choice is being sold as a virtue. Magnification ranges have increased from three times (3-9x, 4-12x) to four-times (3-12x, 4-16x) and, now to five, six, even eight times. That is, the top magnification is eight times the bottom. The 1.8-12×50 Leica I used in Scotland a couple of years ago (seven times) is truly a fine optic, as are Leupold’s 2-12×42 and Swarovski’s 2.5-15x (both six times). Schmidt & Bender has upgraded the superb PM (Police Marksman) line with the PM II, adding PM II Ultra Short and PM II High Power sub-series. The 3-27×56 and 5-45×56 High Power boast 9-times magnification! March lists a 3-24×42, but also 1-10×24 and 2.5-25×42 models with 10-times power! Not to be outdone, Zeiss beefed up its flagship Victory stable with a new V8, whose 4.8-35×60 version weighs 34 ounces. It has a 36mm tube. The 34mm tube of the Vortex Razor HD Gen II 4.5-27×56 and Leupold’s 7-42×56 VX-6 had a short reign indeed as the biggest you’ll find!
As with motorcycles and airplanes, the most advanced scopes aren’t fashioned for everyday use. You get the latest technical wizardry in products that best benefit from it and show it off. Swarovski’s new X5i 5-25×56 is a brilliant sight, but not what you’d slip in a scabbard. Dean Capuano, who leads the Swarovski team stateside, told me, “Our engineers in Austria continue to push the envelope in rifle-scope design. The Z6 illuminated version has 64 brightness settings with automatic shut-off. Now there’s the X5i. With wider power ranges, shooters get more features too.”
Mark Thomas, an optical engineer, established Kruger Optical in Sisters, Oregon after a decade at Leupold. He points out that wide power ranges require more components. His patented three-cam optical system reduces changes in eye relief in short, wide-range variable scopes. “Some of those components are lenses to correct for aberrations that appear as each lens works harder. Added glass commonly requires a longer erector assembly. So the main tube must be longer too. To maintain a useful w/e adjustment range, we increase main tube diameter and either install bigger erector lenses to increase resolution and field or leave them a standard size to add elevation clicks for long shots. Whatever the final design, more numbers on a power dial mean more complexity and higher cost.” Mark says new software makes possible optical systems once devilishly hard to engineer.
Leupold’s Rick Regan and Lance Scrivens share his views. “Tolerances must be tighter for extra-wide power ranges,” Rick says. “Figure plus or minus half a thousandth for erector cams. Lenses in a 6-times scope travel about twice as far as in a 3-times system, so variation in the measure of a part has twice the effect on the image.” Old manufacturing methods don’t pass muster. CNC machining plays a big role in turning out close-tolerance components. “At 5- and 6-times magnification, it’s harder to maintain sharp focus and rein in parallax. Vignetting increases at the low end. You solve such problems by adding lenses and aspherical glass — more weight and expense.”
Lance reminds me that “broad power ranges are pretty recent. And it wasn’t until Albert Fideler’s work at Swarovski that they got market traction. Prices have limited sales. But now shooters are buying.”
Long-range shooting at steel has fueled a demand for higher magnification. The Vortex Extreme Challenge, a seven-mile hike over sagebrush hills, humbles you with targets to 1,200 yards. Most recently there, I used a Vortex 6-24×50 Viper, its power span popular among other competitors.
For scopes you plan to adjust frequently for distance, repeatable dials are a must. To check dials after zeroing, I “shoot around the square,” 20 clicks at a time: first right, then down, then left, then up to my original setting. Quarter-minute clicks should yield groups 5 inches apart, the last covering the first. Resettable dials let you index the dial to its “0” without changing zero.
Another good idea: a zero stop that sets a travel limit on the dial, for no-look return to “0.”
Swarovki’s X5, a 3.5-18×50 with 122 minutes of elevation range has yet another useful feature: A window that shows the dial rotation number, so you won’t make a full-rotation error (forget which spin you’re on). Such indicators should become more common.
The option of killing animals at great distance has growing appeal as hunting opportunity shrinks, and as rifles, loads and optics become more capable. Long reach can also bring to bag records-book game that might appear only once in a hunt. Ethical questions, however, have made such shooting controversial.
While one of the last five elk I’ve shot fell at 280 yards, the other four were each killed at under 100, the closest at 9. Of the last five deer, two dropped at around 200 yards, the others inside 100. And in all these cases I was prowling relatively open country. In Scotland I kept the Leica on my Sauer 404 at 4x and killed a fine stag with one shot. Magnification above 4x wouldn’t have helped me down any of these animals, or brought me any other game.
After 50 years of big game hunting, I can recall only twice appreciating more magnification than 6x in a scope. On a cold dawn in Arizona, the sun a red splinter piercing mountain shadows, a Coues buck came off the slope a quarter-mile away. I dropped prone. At 20x, the Leupold pulled the diminutive gray deer from a veil of glare. A 168-grain MatchKing from the .300 Weatherby felled the deer at 410 yards.
The other shot came in New Mexico. The elk, far away in a sea of tall sage, were nicely front-lit; but they’d be hidden if I left the ridge, and dusk’s oblique rays would soon snuff out. My best chance was from where I lay. At 14x, the Leupold was at its limit, the GreyBull dial spun to the distance. A 129-grain Hornady from my GreyBull rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor hit a hand’s width from point of aim, killing the bull.
Such shots argue for high magnification. But they’re rare.
Big, powerful, sophisticated scopes work best only when shooting conditions are ideal, because only those conditions permit shots beyond the effective reach of a 4x optic. If the wind is up or the target poorly lit, if the animal is quartering too steeply or shielded by twigs, if your pulse is bumping the reticle or your position less than stone-steady, you probably can’t score a lethal hit at 400 yards nine times in 10 tries. Given ideal conditions, on the other hand, a 4x should suffice. At 400 it delivers a better image than iron sights at 100. The deer appears the same size, but the reticle is sharply focused in the target’s plane and hides less than does a brass bead.
There is, in my view, no scope that “does it all” — not if you include sniping at prairie dogs many leagues hence, or arcing bullets toward steel plates in the next township. But for big game, a 4x or a mid-range variable that hunkers low and scales no more than 15 percent of your rifle’s weight is my choice.
OK, if there’s one thing I could add …
Range-compensating scopes let you hold center far away. The Leatherwood sniper scope was a pioneer in this field. The mount had a cam calibrated for bullet drop. Rotating the cam moved the scope the equivalent of many clicks, to position it for a first-round hit at extreme range.
Trajectory-matched elevation dials are the modern equivalent. Each is marked to yield center hits with a specific load when the shooter “dials the distance.” With that load, all you must do to hit a target 600 yards off is to index the “600” on the dial with the turret’s witness mark. Dial graduations reflect the bullet’s parabolic arc, so far away you tally more clicks between each yardage mark. I first saw trajectory-matched dials as cut by GreyBull Precision, for Leupold VX-3s. GreyBull changed click values from 1/4 to 1/3 minute to get more elevation gain per rotation. Now many scope makers offer dials cut to the arc of customer loads. You provide velocity and ballistic coefficient; dials are easy to install at home.
At long range you’ll get help from scope bases with “gain” — commonly 20 minutes of slope up to the rear. With the elevation dial in the middle of its range the scope points down toward the muzzle. So you get elevation adjustment for a distant zero and make full use of the scope’s optically superior center.
A WORD about reticles …
In my youth reticle options were, typically: crosswire, post, sometimes dot. Now we get must sift more options than Sherwin-Williams has colors. Some light up; some help you peg yardage; some let you hold center as the bullet plummets. In my view, simple reticles are best. I like the dot for small targets, but dots fail in poor light and against mottled canvases. A Lee dot in my Lyman Alaskan was lost to me long ago on an elk at dusk. I had to find it in bleached grass below the bull. It vanished again in the elk…. Best reticle? Leupold’s Duplex, and “plex” spin-offs, deliver fine aim with a center crosswire. Posts intruding part-way help you aim fast. Even better, in my view: The similar German #4, without a post at 12 o’clock. It’s better as a range-finding device because posts are square-ended, not tapered. Of rangefinding reticles, I like the Burris Ballistic Plex for its simplicity. Find zero range for each of three tics intelligently spaced at 6 o’clock, and you can hold center there.
A reticle in the first (front) focal plane stays the same size relative to the target through a scope’s power range. It’s a handy and consistent rangefinder at any magnification. I don’t like the way it “grows” in variables to cover small targets at the high power most useful on small targets, and shrinks to obscurity at the low power, which you’ll use in cover. A second-plane reticle stays the same apparent size, whatever the power. Of course, its dimensions change in relation to the target with changes in magnification.
Wayne van Zwoll has published 16 books and roughly 3,000 magazine articles on firearms and hunting. Five of his most popular books are: Shooter’s Bible Guide to Rifle Ballistics ($20), Shooter’s Bible Guide to Handloading ($20), Mastering Mule Deer ($25), Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting ($30) and Gun Digest Shooter’s Guide to Rifles ($20). Limited numbers are available, autographed, from Wayne at 2610 Highland Drive, Bridgeport WA 98813. Please add $4 shipping.