Doing yourself a favor: Riflescopes

Some of my friends and family are perplexed by my propensity to not only mount a scope on practically every rifle I own that I use regularly, but also by the amount of money I spend on the scope compared to the rifle.

There are reasons for this. The first being that on all but the lowest powered rifles (< 22LR) the practical performance limiting factor is usually eyesight. Another reason is the single focal plane of a scope is far easier and quicker to align with the target than the two focal points of iron sights, and less significantly, magnification of the target can reveal important details about the target that would be otherwise unavailable.

Now, I am well aware that a few folks can shoot at very long ranges very accurately with iron-sighted rifles. I’ve done it. I have found no rifle with as effective sights as the M1/M1A type rifles. There are also “race gun” sights that are explicitly for competitive shooting, like these on my Kimber 82. But the hardware is not what makes this possible; though without good sights consistently good shooting is an impossibility.

IMG_1281

Note the large, effective, and very unwieldily sights of the Kimber 82. Such sights are easily broken or kocked out of alignment. Also note the grooves in the receiver and mounts on the barrel which can be used to mount scopes. 

The people that bring up the matter of “not needing scopes” are usually people that have not seriously tried shooting past 100 yards with iron sights, because if they had done so, they would understand a few things about the matter that would make them re-evaluate their claim. To begin with, the targets used at extended ranges usually feature large, black bull’s-eyes on light colored paper. The target is also perpendicular to the line of shooting and doesn’t move. Because of the ideal visibility characteristics of these targets you can see them very well out to even 1000 yards (where the bull’s-eye is the size of dinner plate). But the field, either the hunting kind or the battle kind, is seldom this way.

Most animals and or soldiers are quite good at making themselves less than ideal targets, and their success depends on it. Even at ranges well inside 100 yards you seldom can get a good look at them, let alone carefully line up the front and rear sights and squeeze off the perfect shot before they move again. If you can’t see something well, you can’t shoot something well. It’s as simple as that, really. So, if your rifle is ballistically capable of shooting accurately beyond 100 yards, and that is pretty much everything except a 22LR or air rifle, the limiting factor to practical performance is YOUR ability to see the target. Scopes improve YOUR ability to see the target, and so help to remove this limitation. This is why scopes are the cheapest way to improve accuracy, too. Given the same ammunition, give me a $400 rifle with a $200 scope over a $6000 rifle with iron sights any day!

Now, there are other benefits to scopes. One is that they have only one focal plane (the reticle or cross-hairs), which is simply placed over the target in order to aim. Compare this to aligning the front and rear sights and then keeping them aligned while placing them over the target. In practice this process is so difficult and slow that handgun shooters (where speed is much more important) focus almost exclusively on the front sight and target and shotgun shooters (where speed is of supreme importance) just glance over the bead and mainly look at the moving target. They are both employing a single focal point to accelerate the aiming process, and sometimes, shotgunners are simply pointing! This greater speed achieved by scopes with a single focal plane goes a long way towards improving the likelihood of making a shot on a slowly moving target, which describes medium and big game hunting well.

Scopes also help you resolve details of the target much better. There have been times when I could see a deer well enough to shoot with iron sights, but at this range (about 150 yards) I couldn’t tell if it was a yearling buck or a doe (yearling bucks have very small antlers). If you’ve already taken a buck, and therefore can’t take another, this means you can’t take the shot, and it may mean you just miss an opportunity (if was a doe). And if you take the risky shot, get the deer, and then realize when you are ten feet away that you just shot another buck thinking it was a doe, you will dread that you are now afoul of hunting regulations, can’t tag the buck, and are in a pickle. A scope with some magnification (even as little as 2x) could have prevented this.

Another matter is that scopes just make for better shooting in every circumstance. Even on my non-hunting rifles I prefer to use a scope. One can’t really assess anything but gross accuracy in a rifle without a scope (unless you have a shooting sled). There are innumerable rifles in this world that have been given the “closet treatment” because “they couldn’t shoot” when in fact the person shooting it was the problem, either because they never mounted a decent scope on it, or because they never cleaned it. I generally laugh at guys on forums or on Youtube that claim sub-M.O.A. groups with a given rifle and there is no scope on it. Even expert shooters using iron sights have trouble keeping sub-M.O.A. with superbly accurate rifles and quality ammunition. People that make these claims are either deceived or are trying to deceive.

Now, do I have a scope on every rifle? No. There are many rifles that don’t take scopes well. I consider this a great demerit to a rifle. While a shotgun or handgun doesn’t have the range to make use of a scope, centerfire rifles do. 22LR is ballistically limited to about 50 yards. It can certainly shoot accurately beyond that, but there is so much drop and wind-effect, it is practically difficult to achieve that theoretical accuracy in the field, but even at 50 yards, a scope is helpful, particularly in dark squirrel woods. I have one mounted on my Marlin 39. High velocity rimfires, like the 17HMR or 22WMR, make good use of a scope.

So, if you are convinced of the practical necessity of mounting a scope on appropriate rifles, one might wonder how to go about it reasonably. I would suggest a few guidelines. One is that you want to keep price in perspective. Really cheap scopes (under $150) may work, or they may not. The companies that make such scopes usually offer little to no support, so if it doesn’t work, or it breaks, you just burned your money. Generally, scopes in this price range are made in China. Some decent scopes are made in China, but country of origin is something that I think is worth noting in riflescopes. Most of the benefit of a scope comes simply from having one. All riflescopes have the advantages of improving visibility and a single focal plane–from the $40 Tasco to a $4000 Savorski–so realize that increasing price is not a linear increase in advantage or performance. In fact, I doubt there is much practical difference at all between a $500 and a $2500 scope, and I’ve looked down a few of them. Now, from about $150 to about $800 you will see an improvement in clarity, brightness (percent light transmission), durability, and customer support (warranties). You may also get features of dubious or genuine merit. I am not at all sold on the supposed advantages of ballistic or illuminated reticles, parallax adjustment (for the average guy), or extremely high magnifications (over 10x). After looking at many scopes, I think the most bang for your buck will be found in the $200-300 territory where there are many good scopes with solid warranties and customer support. Beyond this price zone it is a matter of diminishing returns on performance (with some exceptions), and unlike firearms, scopes do not hold their value well.

Another guideline has to do with the specifications of the scope. First realize that every specification of a scope is a matter of compromise. If you have high magnification, you will have a narrower field of view. If you have generous eye relief, you will have a narrower field of view. If you have a large range of magnification adjustment, you will have a large range of eye relief. A scope with magnification adjustment will have more parts that can fail compared to a non-adjustable scope. Without getting into all the details of scope manufacture and design, you want to keep a principle in mind that you want to have a scope with specifications that overlap with its intended purpose and then choose a scope with those specifications that you think is the best value. A 20x “sniper scope” with parallax adjustment is pretty stupid on a 30-30 WCF lever gun. Likewise, a $200 1-4x scope is pretty silly on a designated marksman’s rifle. In general, for Eastern deer hunting, I am seeing WAY too much magnification out there. I sincerely doubt there is any advantage offered beyond 6 or 7x at the ranges deer are normally encountered East of the Mississippi. The much more common problem is that the deer present at close ranges (like 15 yards) and you’ll point that cranked up scope at them and if you are lucky you will see some brown fur and if you are unlucky, you will see some leaves or bark and desperately swing the thing around looking for the deer through that narrow field of view. I like to keep my scope set at 2 to 3x, at the most 4x, and sometimes I have it on 1x in really close, dark woods. So, for me, a 1-4x scope is perfect. If one were to expect a greater frequency of long range encounters, then perhaps going up the 6x would be advisable. 2-7x and 3-9x are common magnification ranges for deer, though I think they are a bit overkill, thinking them more appropriate for varmints and predators. I like at least 3″ of eye relief at the highest magnification because I don’t like getting a scope in the eye. I also like narrow ranges of magnification so that “eyebox” doesn’t wander all over the place making a consistent cheek-weld troublesome. A popular trend I’ve noticed lately are 1-6x scopes. This is quite a range, and it means that you will basically have to memorize different cheek positions depending on what magnification is set. Also, I know of no place one may hunt deer at night in this country, so what’s up with ads selling illuminated reticles with great big bucks on them? For hogs, or coyotes, or law enforcement/military, yes…illuminated reticles are worthwhile indeed, but not for much else. And a flashlight mounted to the rifle can do a great job for nighttime pest problems (even better: a spotter with the light and a shooter with the rifle).

Now, a few words on the merit of sights. I do not like the recent trend of equipping factory rifles with no sights at all. Sights have three advantages over scopes (other than being much less expensive). They are more stable and durable and less obtrusive. A good quality sight can be set and it will remain “on” indefinitely, even with the bangs and bumps of years of handling. Sights are also less likely to come to harm because they are so small and unlikely to grab hold or bang up on something. Every year I go out a few weeks before deer season begins to assure my scope’s reticle matches point of impact with the ammunition I plan on using, and I am conscientious to handle the rifle with care after that. I’ve had scopes get knocked out of alignment, but I’ve never had it happen to typical small sights (large competition diopter sights are another matter and are extremely fragile!). By far the greatest cause of scopes getting knocked out of alignment is the use of cheap rings and bases made of materials other than steel. Good rings and bases cost a fair price (usually around $20 for a set of rings and $20 for the base(s)). The good brands of scopes often make rings and mounts. I’ve been satisfied with Leupold, Burris, Weaver, and S&K bases, rings, and mounts. By selecting a good scope and good bases and rings, you will virtually eliminate the possibility of loss of alignment from ordinary use, though having sights as a back up in cases of the extraordinary use I consider essential. One can drop the scope on a rock and break the glass, or it could get fouled in the field with little means to clean it. If you keep with you a little hex or torx wrench the same size as the screws used on the rings/base, then you can dismount the scope and continue to hunt with the sights. Usually a little hex or torx wrench costs a fraction of the extra cost of quick-release rings, and standard rings are more durable and less obtrusive.

So, if you are budgeting for a rifle, the leave some for not only several boxes of quality ammo, but also for a decent scope and some rings. It will really get you off to a better start.  I will be featuring some scopes of merit in coming posts, so stay tuned !

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