How do you choose a scope when: 1. They’re all mysterious black boxes with whatever magic makes them work hidden inside. 2. They cost anywhere from $100 to $3,000, and when you look through them in the store there’s hardly any difference!
So, what’s up?
Well, a lot of secrecy, sleight of hand and fluff and stuff, especially in advertising. Because scope performance is poorly understood, manufacturers can wow the crowd with vague buzz words, including but not limited to: crisp, bright, compact, ergonomic, HD, ED and hee hee heee.
Reality is, you can’t go wrong buying a top-end scope such as a Swarovski, Nightforce or Zeiss—if you can afford it. But if you have to save dollars, you can find scopes with sufficient performance for half the price. And if you’re counting quarters, you can get by for half again as much. And if you’re scrounging for loose change in the sofa cushions, your can get surprising value and performance in an instrument that costs as low as $250. Here’s what you give up: a little brightness (that you’ll only notice for perhaps 10 minutes out of every shooting day); perhaps a bit of precision (not a problem if you’re not dialing turrets right and left and up and down each time you shoot … and you shouldn’t have to); and longevity. Yes, scopes wear out eventually. If the dials and turrets don’t go, then certainly the springs that keep the reticle on target will weaken or break.
Here’s the big industry secret: Those $150 to $300 scopes are built to withstand the average number of shots from the average hunter’s average deer rifle over its average life. This means, roughly, that such scopes are assumed to be mounted on a .30-06 or smaller rifle that might be fired 20 times a year. In 30 years it’ll handle 600 shots. So, manufacturers build such scopes with materials engineered to withstand about 1,000 to 1,500 shots. Recoil wears parts, and that wear is cumulative, so eventually something breaks.
Now, if you put such a scope on a .223 Rem., it should last for many, many more shots. But stick it on a .338 Rem. Ultra Mag. and you could be looking at the junk heap after 10 shots.
The other way scopes are “cheapened,” or made more affordable, is by minimizing those expensive anti-reflection coatings. This isn’t a bad compromise. While these coatings are essential for minimizing flare and maximizing light transmission, a 10-percent difference in brightness is hardly noticeable to the average viewer. Compare the view through a $300 scope to a $1,000 one and you might not notice anything until the last minutes of legal shooting light. But then the difference will really matter.
Waterproofing means fogproofing and dustproofing, too, and it isn’t difficult to achieve, so even the cheapy scopes include this, but the guarantee or warranty that comes with them could indicate how effective the manufacturer thinks this “proofing” is. A scope that’s guaranteed to be waterproof or fogproof for life suggests it’s built a lot more sturdily than one guaranteed for a year.
HD, ED glass and the like are largely superfluous. They provide minimal benefit at less than 15X, after which they reduce color fringing around objects, making them sharper. You’d be hard pressed to notice fringing at 10X or maybe even 15X. Save the ED lenses for spotting scopes or varmint scopes.
If you want to save money on a hunting scope, stay away from bells and whistles such as dialing turrets and super-zoom ranges. You don’t need a scope that powers from 2X to 25X for coyote, deer, pronghorn or elk hunting. And you don’t need a dial to hit a deer at 100 yards, 200 yards, 300 yards or 400 yards. Learn and apply the MPBR sighting system and you’ll be deadly to 300 yards or more with a dead-on hold. With practice, a good hunter can take any game under any reasonable hunting conditions with a 3-9X. And don’t worry about big 50mm and 56mm objectives—they don’t add brightness nearly as much as do multiple layers of anti-reflection coatings. A 40mm to 44mm objective is plenty for magnifications up to 10X or 12X.
Smart shoppers able to resist hype and fluff can find effective, functional riflescopes for less than $300 that should serve well for decades.