Compared: Dangerous Game Riflescopes from Zeiss, Weaver, Leupold and Nikon
By the Guns and Shooting Online Staff
The modern dangerous game scope, more often than not, is a low powered variable magnification model with an illuminated reticle (IR). While a fixed power scope of around 2x or 2.5x used to be the popular choice for a dangerous game rifle and is still a good choice, a modern low power variable in the 1-4x range offers a greater field of view at low power and potentially greater accuracy for the occasional long shot at its maximum magnification. However, even when set to its maximum magnification, a good variable power dangerous game scope should offer sufficient field of view to allow the hunter to instantly respond to a short range charge by a large animal. A maximum magnification of about 4x is about ideal and 6x represents the upper limit of allowable magnification (and restricted field of view) for a dangerous game scope. This safety requirement eliminates hunting scopes in the 2-7x (and higher magnification) range from consideration.
Features shared by all of the scopes included in this comparison include one-piece 30mm main tubes, fast eyepiece focusing, German #4 (three post and crosshair) reticle with an illuminated center dot for visibility in very low light and a 1-point-something minimum magnification to maximize the field of view. With their straight main tubes (no objective bell), dangerous game scopes have plenty of mounting latitude and can be mounted low over the rifle's bore for fast acquisition in snap-shooting situations. Lens caps, or in the case of the Leupold a scope cover, are included.
Needless to say, the scopes selected for inclusion in this comparison are from reputable companies with decades of experience in the riflescope business. They are all top-line scopes. (Would you trust your dream safari, and perhaps your life, to an economy aiming system?) Except for the Zeiss Varipoint, they are all new for 2010 models. None are inexpensive, but they do represent a wide range of prices. All are sold in the USA with some sort of lifetime warrantee. Complete individual reviews of the scopes included in this comparison may be found on the "Scope and Optical Sight Articles and Reviews" index page of the Scopes and Sport Optics page.
Zeiss Victory Varipoint 1.1-4x24mm T*
European riflescope manufacturers have led the way in the development of the modern dangerous game riflescope, probably because they are closer to Africa than North American or Japanese manufacturers. Africa is the place where the largest number and variety of dangerous game animals are encountered. Among European scope manufacturers, no brand is more recognized than Carl Zeiss of Germany and their Victory Varipoint 1.1-4x24mm Illuminated Reticle scope epitomizes the European dangerous game scope. Zeiss has been making riflescopes for 100 years and they have put that experience to good use in their top-of-the-range Victory Varipoint line. Here are the manufacturer's specifications for the Varipoint 1.1-4x24.
This five-star Varipoint scope features what Zeiss claims are state of the art, high performance optics, shared with the Diavari line. The difference between the two Zeiss lines is that the Varipoints have illuminated reticles and the Diavaris do not. Certainly, our examination demonstrated that the optics of our test scope are very good, although (advertising claims aside) all riflescope optics are a compromise between contradictory design requirements.
Many European scopes have the reticle in the first image plane, including the Zeiss Victory Varipoint reviewed here. Since the scope's reticle is located in the first image plane, it changes size as the magnification is changed. The crosshairs always subtend the same amount of the target (approximately one MOA in this case). If the target appears bigger (higher magnification), so do the crosshairs. Although it sounds logical, we find this changing reticle size annoying and most North American shooters agree. The result is that the crosshairs appear too thick at high power and too thin at low power. (The answer adopted by American scope companies is to put the reticle in the second image plane, so it stays the same size regardless of the magnification.) Our usual solution with first image plane reticles is to set the zoom ring for the crosshair size we like (about 2.25x in this case) and leave it there when hunting.
That said, the one MOA thick crosshairs of the Zeiss Varipoint are probably the best compromise for reticles located in the first image plane. They are a bit fine at 1.1x, about like a Leupold Fine Duplex, but still adequately visible. The second image plane dot definitely helps reticle visibility at low power, as does illuminating the center dot.
The German #4 reticle is located in the first optical plane, but the illuminated red dot is in the second optical plane, an unusual design. However, since this scope had the best and brightest IR system of all our test scopes, it obviously works. The red dot, which is black with the illumination turned off, makes a helpful aiming point at low power (when the first image plane crosshairs are thin) and virtually disappears at 4x, just filling the square space where the crosshairs intersect when they are at their fattest.
This illuminated dot is small, tidy and very bright, entirely adequate for use in bright sunlight, if desired. Of course, the intensity can be lowered for use at night or in dim light, or turned-off altogether when not needed. Further, the illumination system automatically adjusts the desired light intensity of the red dot during the day to the lighting conditions. The dot illumination control is located on the left side of the adjustment turret, opposite the windage adjustment knob. This is our favorite location for such controls, neater than putting the rheostat/battery case on the ocular bell. Pull out to turn the illuminated dot on and rotate the knob to adjust brightness. The IR is powered by a CR-2032 battery and will function between temperature extremes of -13F to +122F.
The lenses are fully multi-coated using the Zeiss T* system, which achieves over 90% total light transmission and increases light transmission in the blue range to enhance performance during twilight hours. The exposed front and rear elements additionally receive an abrasion resistant LotuTec protective coating, which repels water and dust. Even fingerprints are easier to remove from a lens with LotuTec coating. The view through this scope is sharp and clear with excellent contrast and the field of view at any given magnification is wide.
The Varipoint's windage and elevation adjustments are very accurate and repeatable, making sighting-in a snap. We think that aluminum adjustment caps would be an improvement over the plastic caps supplied with this premium scope. Eyepiece focusing is by means of a rubber covered, fast focusing ring at the rear of the ocular bell.
Naturally, the scope is purged and nitrogen filled to prevent fogging. It is also thoroughly tested to withstand the recoil of the heaviest rifle calibers. We did our testing on a CZ 9.3x62mm caliber rifle and experienced no problems whatsoever. Lens caps are supplied. The Zeiss limited warranty is lifetime in the USA and 10 years everywhere else.
Weaver Super Slam 1.5-6x24mm Euro Style
Weaver, now again owned by ATK, is one of the oldest and best known American scope brands. The four-star Super Slam line is Weaver's top of the line riflescopes. Manufactured in Japan to Weaver's specifications, the new for 2010 Super Slam 1.5-6x24mm Illuminated Reticle scope represents Weaver's interpretation of a modern, Euro style, dangerous game scope. Here are some specifications.
The Super Slam Euro illuminated reticle system offers the option of red or green dots. This is controlled by the rheostat/switch located on the left side of the adjustment turret, the best place for such a control. The comparatively large center dot, which subtends about 2-1/2" at 100 yards at 6x, is black and easily visible in bright light with the illumination turned off. This is a good thing, as the brightness of the illuminated dot, even when turned all the way up, is inadequate for use in bright daylight. In dim light, the illuminated dot works well, which is what matters.
The Super Slam's reticle is located in the first image plane, in the European manner, so the crosshairs always subtend the same amount of the target. The crosshair that runs between the three German #4 posts is quite fine, the most delicate of our four test scopes. Since it is placed in the first image plane, its size decreases with the magnification, becoming so fine at low power that it is hard to see against trees and brush. We'd like a heavier crosshair. Fortunately, the center dot is large and adequately serves as the aiming point in such circumstances.
The optics are fully multi-coated and an extra hard coating is applied to the external lens surfaces to protect them against scratches. The Super Slam is purged, filled with Argon gas and sealed to prevent internal fogging. Lens caps are included.
Eyepiece focusing is by means of a rubber covered, Euro style, fast focus ring at the rear of the ocular bell. The pull up to adjust, fingertip windage and elevation adjustments click in ¼ MOA increments and the turrets are capless, so there is nothing to lose. The windage and elevation adjustments are not quite target quality, but they are sufficient for any hunting rifle and the scope had no problem holding its zero against the recoil of our 9.3x62mm CZ test rifle. Weaver Super Slam scopes are protected by a limited lifetime warranty for the original owner; an original purchase receipt is required.
Leupold VX-3 1.5-5x20mm Metric
Leupold introduced their four-star-plus, VX-3 1.5-5x20mm Illuminated Reticle riflescope in 2010. With the same basic features as the other scopes included in this comparison, plus some unique features of its own, it is the All-American interpretation of a European dangerous game scope. Here are Leupold's specifications.
Illustration courtesy of Leupold & Stevens, Inc.
Leupold's third generation illuminated reticle deserves comment. It is 15% brighter than their second generation IR's and incorporates eight intensity settings (four for dim light and four for daylight), a battery saving motion sensor and integrated battery storage. The motion sensor automatically turns off the IR during periods of inactivity and instantly turns the IR on at the slightest movement. There is an OFF position between each intensity setting, so you do not have to cycle through all of the brightness settings to find the intensity you were using. Just click the IR on where you left it. Also included is a hard stop at the end of the dial, so you can be sure the IR is positively off. Power is supplied by a single CR-2032 battery.
VX-3 optics are fully multi-coated using Leupold's proprietary Xtended Twilight Lens System that specifically matches the lens coatings with each lens element, based on its glass type and index of refraction. Lens edges are blackened to reduce internal reflections. Highly abrasion resistant DiamondCoat2 is applied to all exterior lens surfaces.
Leupold scopes are triple purged and then filled with a blend of inert Krypton/Argon gasses to insure that they are absolutely fogproof and waterproof. This second generation waterproofing was first applied to riflescopes by Leupold and is superior to the Nitrogen gas fill used by most other riflescope manufacturers.
Eyepiece focusing is by means of a Euro style, knurled aluminum, fast focus ring at the rear of the ocular bell. The fingertip windage and elevation adjustments click in 1/4 MOA increments and are protected by threaded aluminum caps. Under those caps is a storage space for a spare CR-2032 battery. The front tube and rear bell of the scope are threaded for Leupold Alumina accessories and a scope cover is supplied.
All Leupold Gold Ring scopes are covered by Leupold's industry leading Full Lifetime Guarantee, regardless of whether they are still owned by the original purchaser, with no receipt or registration card required. Note that this is a "guarantee."
Nikon Monarch African 1.1-4x24mm IR
Also new in the market place in 2010 is the four-star-plus Nikon Monarch African 1.1-4x24mm Illuminated Reticle riflescope. This new model from the best known sport optics manufacturer in Japan incorporates the features noted in the introduction and some of its own. Here are the Monarch African IR specifications.
The 1.1-4x Monarch African is built on a one-piece, 30mm, aluminum main tube with a matte black finish. The German #4 reticle is located in the second image plane, which means that it does not change size as the magnification is changed. This is the kind of reticle with which we prefer to hunt.
The finely knurled, aluminum zoom ring is smooth in operation and features a square tactile bump over the 2x position. The Euro style fast focus adjustment is by means of a knurled aluminum ring with a rubber eyebrow protector at the rear of the ocular bell.
The windage and elevation adjustments click in precise, but closely spaced, ¼ MOA increments. The adjustments are protected by threaded aluminum caps and the windage cap is decorated by a small, gold Cape buffalo head and the legend "Monarch African."
The combined illumination rheostat dial and battery case is located on the ocular bell, as with the Leupold VX-3 Metric (see above). There are click stop intensity settings and a choice of a red or green center dot. The "off" position is in the middle of the dial, between the red and green illumination intensity scales. The illuminated dot at the center of the crosshair is bright enough to be used in daylight, if desired. When switched off, the dot disappears, leaving the intersection of the crosshairs as the precise aiming point.
Optically, this scope is excellent; sharp, contrasty and aberrations are well corrected. It also has good eye relief, suitable for hard kicking rifles, and an adequately generous eye box for rapid target acquisition. Our overall impression of the Monarch African is that it is a premium scope, suitable for the finest safari rifles. Lens caps are included.
Nikon riflescopes are covered by Nikon's transferable Full Lifetime Warranty. No receipt or registration card required.
First, remember that what follows, particularly the comments about optical performance, is based on our subjective impressions. The scopes were compared on CZ 550 Safari 9.3x62mm safari rifles.
In terms of image sharpness (a combination of resolution and contrast) with all scopes set at four power, the Zeiss Varipoint is the best at the center of the field of view, followed closely by the Nikon Monarch, Weaver Super Slam and Leupold VX-3. In edge sharpness, the VX-3 has the advantage, particularly over the Varipoint and Monarch, with the Super Slam somewhere in-between. The views through the Varipoint and Monarch are much alike, with excellent center sharpness that visibly degrades (but only if you look for it!) towards the edge of the field of view. The VX-3 has the best edge sharpness and apparently the flattest field of view, giving the most uniform apparent sharpness across the entire field. The Super Slam is in-between the extremes. In reality, there is not much difference in the optical quality of any of these scopes. They are all good, solid performers.
Internal flare suppression is good across the board. The Nikon and Leupold might be the best in this category, followed by the Weaver and Zeiss, but it is unlikely that flare will be a problem in the field with any of these scopes.
The Varipoint, Monarch and VX-3 have virtually identical fields of view at 4x and all three have noticeably wider views than the Super Slam. Of course, with the magnification reduced, all four scopes have very generous fields of view. Set for the highest available magnification, the Weaver boasts 6x, followed by the Leupold's 5x (4.5x); the Nikon and Zeiss both offer 4x maximum magnification settings.
On the other end, the Varipoint and Monarch offer the lowest magnification setting (1.1x) and the widest maximum fields of view (108' at 100 yards). The VX-3 and Super Slam bottom out at 1.5x magnification, with correspondingly smaller maximum fields of view (66.5' and 63.3' respectively).
The Varipoint's windage and elevation adjustments are very accurate, positive and repeatable. All of these scopes have accurate adjustments and all of them were easy to sight-in, but the Varipoint probably had the most precise adjustments of the lot. Next in terms of positive adjustments would probably be the Monarch. The Super Slam's adjustment knobs were notable for the absence of cover caps, which are not needed on this scope, a convenient feature. The spare battery storage area under the windage and elevation covers of the IR Leupold is a thoughtful touch not found on the other scopes.
The Varipoint had the most user-friendly illuminated reticle. It is very bright when needed, easy to use in all lighting conditions including bright daylight, yet small and not intrusive when turned off. The Monarch's IR was similar to the Varipoint, but not as bright. Still, it is satisfactorily visible in daylight, with the red dot more visible than the green dot against foliage. The Leupold's illuminated dot is minimally visible in bright sunlight at its maximum intensity, but does not stand out, while the Weaver's illuminated dot is not visible at all. In dim light, as during pre-dawn, twilight or nighttime, all of the IR's worked well and provided highly visible aiming points. These are the times, of course, that these reticles are intended to be used.
The Varipoint and Super Slam have their IR controls mounted on the left side of the center turret housing, opposite the windage adjustment knob. We feel this is the most convenient location. The Leupold VX-3 and Nikon African scopes have their IR controls on the ocular bell, where they make the scope look bulkier and can interfere with turning the zoom ring. The Nikon's rheostat/battery housing is at the 12-o'clock position on the ocular bell, in line with the elevation knob. The Leupold's housing is canted to the left, in the 11-o'clock position. This might make it a bit more accessible for a right-handed shooter with his rifle at his shoulder, but it looks a bit strange.
The Leupold VX-3 and Nikon African feature a second focal plane reticle, which does not change size as the magnification is changed. Americans traditionally prefer this type of reticle, as we do. The reticles of the Zeiss Varipoint and Weaver Super Slam, located in the first focal plane, change in size as the scope's magnification is changed. Compared to the Super Slam, the Varipoint's first optical plane reticle was considerably easier to use at low magnification, while remaining functional at its highest magnification setting.
All four scopes have a European style focusing ring at the rear of the ocular bell. This is a fast focus ring on the Varipoint, Super Slam and African that does not require much rotation to change the focus, much like focusing the eyepiece on a binocular. The VX-3 focus ring operates on finer threads, requiring considerably more turning to achieve proper focus.
The VX-3 has some unique positive features that will appeal to many customers. One difference that will likely be viewed negatively is a 20mm objective lens, while the other scopes have 24mm objectives. This means that, when set at 4x, the VX-3 has a 5mm exit pupil and the others have a 6mm exit pupil and are, therefore, brighter. However, this only matters if your (1) eye is fully dark-adapted, as at night, and (2) the pupil of your fully dark-adapted eye is larger than 5mm. If you are young and have good eyes, your pupil may be able to attain 7mm of dilation; if you hunt at night, a 24mm objective may have an advantage for you. (Reducing the VX-3's magnification to 2.85x increases the exit pupil to 7mm.) If you are middle-aged or older, as we are, your pupil's maximum dilation is probably limited to about 5mm and becomes the factor limiting how much light can enter your eye, so a 24mm objective will have no advantage for you, even in the middle of the night.
The Weaver Super Slam is the heaviest scope among the four included in this comparison, while the Leupold VX-3 is the lightest and most compact. The more massive the scope, the more it detracts from the rifle's handling and carrying qualities. In riflescopes, smaller and lighter are better.
Mounting was not a problem with any of these scopes. They all have adequate mounting latitude, a real advantage of having the outside ocular diameter and tube diameter the same. (None of these scopes has an ocular bell.) Naturally, 30mm mounting rings are required.
As you can see from the specifications given for each scope, the Weaver Super Slam is the least expensive, a cool $150 less than the Leupold VX-3 at 2010 online prices. The VX-3, in turn, is about $260 less than the Nikon Monarch African and the African is a whopping $1300 less than the Zeiss Varipoint. There are, therefore, clear distinctions between these four scopes in price, as well as in features.
All four of these scopes have some sort of lifetime warranty and are backed by reputable companies. (What good is any warranty if the company tries to avoid honoring it?) The Leupold, Zeiss and Nikon guarantees have the advantage of remaining valid even if you are not the original owner and proof of purchase is not required.
Built for the same purpose and with similar basics, we expected these four scopes to be very similar in use, but we were surprised by how different they actually are. Each has advantages and disadvantages. The four Guns and Shooting Online staff members who participated in this review all picked a different favorite, thus each scope received one first place vote! They are all good dangerous game scopes, but the wise hunter should try them all before deciding.
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