An optics snob doesn’t need to know what he’s talking about, so if you want to be an optics snob, don’t bother reading this.
Don’t Be a Riflescope Snob
A guy on the customer side of the counter at Tall Tales Sporting Goods muttered in a voice loud enough for everyone to hear, “It’s a Chinese scope—it’s junk.” The guy beside him added, “You better spend at least $300 or you’re wasting your money!” The truth is that neither of those statements is true. It’s possible to spend half that on a good scope sourced from Asia, and be very happy with it. So if you don’t want to be an optics snob, read on and find out seven basic things you need to know to make a smart scope purchase.
Spend all you can, but not more than you can, and don’t be embarrassed about spending less than your buddy did. He has a different income, different responsibilities, different priorities. No hunter needs to go broke on a scope, but stretch as much as you can and you won’t be sorry. The market is full of good, affordable scopes. It’s just a matter of finding the one for you.
The number of riflescope brands keeps growing. Brand is important, but it’s not all-important. (Photo by Steve Sorensen.)
2. Name Brand:
Name brand is where lots of the debate happens, and it’s no wonder. Tasco, Leupold, Bushnell, Nikon, Trijicon, Weaver, Zeiss, Vortex… the list is long enough to muddle the mind of Stephen Hawking—but all you have to do is take the advice of Stephen Sorensen, and my advice is simple. Consider the brands you’ve heard of, or maybe what others have had good luck with. But don’t let brand names become a battleground. Plenty of brands not well known will give you very reliable service. It’s a world of tiers (not tears)—low, middle and high—and no brand name stands head and shoulders above the rest. (Do be aware that some brand name labels have been put on pirated scopes, so buy from a dealer you trust.)
Scope discussions turn quickly to how much power your scope should have, and whether you need a variable power scope. Those questions have easy answers. Unless you’re doing some kind of long-range specialty shooting, or tend to hunt only in the thick stuff, stick with magnification in the range of 4 to 6. More, and you’re likely have trouble finding your target in your field of view. What about variables? In the early days of variable scopes quality was inconsistent, but today most hunters will be perfectly happy with a variable power scope of 3 to 9, or 4 to 12. In most variable power scopes, the highest magnification is approximately three times the lowest power, though technology now gives us scopes where the power range is a multiple of five. (They’re more money, of course.)
4. Lens coatings:
It’s time to consider what most people overlook. The coatings on the glass lenses in your scope are important, and you should know why. Contrary to what many people think, lenses are not coated for protection. The function of coatings is far more important. Lens coatings are microscopically thin layers of metallic molecules that reduce the amount of light reflected off the glass, thereby increasing the amount of light transmitted through the glass. Lens coatings make a scope brighter, and that’s why coatings are critical.
You need to know three terms: coated, fully-coated, and fully multi-coated. These all sound good, but are very different. The cheapest scopes advertise “coated optics.” That designation requires only that a single lens in the scope have an anti-reflective coating. Let’s say the objective lens (the end of the scope farthest from your eye) is coated. That doesn’t help a lot when every surface of every lens inside and outside the scope reflects light, reducing the amount of light that gets to your eye. “coated optics” will not give you good light in dim conditions.
Next comes “fully coated.” That means every lens surface has an anti-reflective coating, but only a single coating, not enough to maximize the amount of light passing through. As you might guess by now, “fully coated” lenses are brighter than “coated” lenses.
Finally, you’ll see scopes advertised as having “fully multi-coated” lenses. That means each surface of every lens in the scope has more than one lens coating (usually at least three). That increases brightness dramatically, and you’ll notice it at dawn, dusk, on overcast days and in dark timber. You want a scope with “fully multi-coated” lenses. It’s an important feature that doesn’t break the bank.
The following chart explains that benefit. An uncoated lens allows about 96% of the light to pass through. That’s not much of an issue when you’re looking through the window at a squirrel in your back yard. But if you’re judging antlers on a buck in dim light through 10 lens surfaces, each one diminishing some of the light, only 66% of the light passing through uncoated lenses will ever reach your eye.
The more layers of anti-reflective coatings a lens has, the more light passes through. If you have a line-up of lenses with no coatings, much of the light entering the scope will never reach your eye. (Photo by Steve Sorensen.)
On the other end of the spectrum, one multi-coated lens (usually at least three layers) allows 99.5% of the light to pass through. When that light passes through 10 multi-coated lens surfaces, approximately 95% of the light reaches your eye. You will never be sorry about that. The lesson is that all three words are important to the hunter:
1. Fully (both sides of all the lenses).
2. Multi (multiple layers of light-transmitting coatings).
3. Coated (what lets light pass through rather than being reflected away).
No good scope has less.
The absence of adequate lens coatings can make a big difference in a scope’s brightness. (Photo by Steve Sorensen.)
So far you’re committed to spending all you can afford, you’re considering some reputable brands, you’ve decided to buy a scope with a power range you’re comfortable with, and you understand the benefit of fully multi-coated lenses. Now what?
5. Exit Pupil
Exit pupil is another technical term, but it’s easy to understand. The exit pupil is simply the small dot of light you see when you hold the scope away from your eye and look through it. It’s the product of simple math. Let’s say your scope has a 40mm objective lens, and a power of 4. Divide 4 into 40mm, and the product is 10mm. That is the size of the exit pupil on that scope.
Simple math will tell you what the exit pupil is for any scope. Here’s a 3.5 to 10 power Leupold Vari-X III scope with a 40mm objective lens. It’s set on six power, so the exit pupil you see here is 40mm ÷ 6, or 6.66mm. Most hunters’ eyes can use all of it. (Photo by Steve Sorensen.)
That’s important because it relates to the pupil of your own eye. A normal eye opens to about 7mm (in older folks it’s less), so a scope with a smaller exit pupil will give you a dimmer view. For example, if your scope has a 40mm objective, and its magnification is 10 power, you have an exit pupil of only 4mm. No matter how wide your own pupil opens, only a 4mm dot of light will get to your eye. In a variable scope of 3 to 9 power with a 40mm objective, you will have a large exit pupil of 13.3 mm at 3 power and small exit pupil of 4.4 mm at 9 power. The general rule is that higher power scopes deliver less light to your eye. Lower power gives a brighter view.
6. Eye Relief:
Eye relief doesn’t mean “eye rest.” Eye relief is the distance your eye is from the ocular lens (the lens nearest your eye), and still give you a maximum field of view. On many rifles that’s not important, but when you get to the ones that punch like Muhammad Ali, you want that scope far from your eyebrow because it will cut you if it hits you. For me, that stopped being fun the fourth time. As a general rule, a hard-kicking rifle with a scope having under 4 inches of eye relief puts the guy behind the scope in a dangerous place.
Don’t have an unfortunate experience with a scope having too little eye relief. (Photo by Steve Sorensen.)
The riflescope business is very, very competitive. New names regularly enter the field. Competition forces many companies to back their scopes with strong guarantees. Even the best manufacturers are capable of producing a defective scope now and then, but that’s no problem if you get a scope with a good, no-questions-asked guarantee. Twice I’ve sent scopes back—in one a lens coating bubbled up and in the other a crosshair moved when I turned the power ring.
Germany once manufactured the best optical products, but today almost nothing is made in one country, or even one factory. The digital age has enabled virtually every aspect of optical production to improve over the last 20 years. Thanks to computer-controlled manufacturing which reduces human error, a high quality scope can be made anywhere in the world.
The key today is quality control. Strong quality-control policies throughout the process of manufacturing make a big difference in producing very good riflescopes. You might have other reasons to reject a scope from a particular country—politics, labor, balance of trade, maybe even terrorism—but quality probably isn’t one of them.
The Bottom Line
If you can’t take it from Sorensen, take it from one of today’s leading experts in hunting optics. John Barsness said, “For decades, hunting writers have been stating that you get what you pay for in optics, implying that price is an absolute guide to quality.” That’s no longer true. (Source: https://www.24hourcampfire.com/binoculars.html.)
Or take it from Randy Wakeman, “There is no basis extant to automatically assume that quality of assembly of a scope is better (or worse) based on the nation in which a scope is assembled. It does not hold true in electronics, cars, cameras, video equipment, or computers.” In other words, no one is saying, “Chinese smartphones are junk,” so it doesn’t have to be true that “Chinese scopes are junk.”
There’s more to know. We could talk about parallax, adjustments, turrets, mounts, and many other topics, but if you know these seven things, you know enough to go out and get a good riflescope without overspending. Of course, if your pockets are deep enough you can spend a lot more than $150, but these things still apply.
Of course, all of this has one big downside. The more you know about buying a scope, the less you’ll be able to blame your scope when you miss that deer.
Steve Sorensen has published articles in top hunting magazines across the USA, and won the prestigious “Pinnacle” Award for outdoor writing in 2015 and 2018. He writes an award-winning newspaper column called The Everyday Hunter®, and frequently contributes to the Havalon website. Invite Steve to speak at your next sportsman’s event, and follow him at www.EverydayHunter.com.
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