The Truth about Forward Mounted (Scout) Scopes on Hunting Rifles
By Chuck Hawks
Don't believe everything you read about the "scout scope" concept, at least as applied to hunting rifles. There is an unbelievable amount of mis-information out there. For example, contrary to one common misconception, scout scopes, which are simply extended eye relief (ERR) riflescopes mounted forward of the rifle's receiver, have a much smaller field of view than a conventional riflescope of the same magnification.
Who am I to make such statements? Well, I have been involved with optical devices (including riflescopes, camera lenses, binoculars and astronomical telescopes) for most of my life. As a lifelong shooter, amateur astronomer and a retired professional photographer who also managed a large camera and telescope store for a couple of decades, I have considerable experience with optics, both in the field and on an optical bench. I also taught various photography classes at the local community college. In addition, since understanding optics has been crucial to my professional success as a photographer, teacher and gun writer, I have made it a point to research and understand the fundamentals of optics and optical designs.
I began shooting rifles with telescopic sights mounted forward of the receiver even before the legendary Jeff Cooper began writing about and promoting them, and I was certainly not the first rifleman to do so. I still use forward mounted scopes on a couple of my rifles, including a 1961 vintage Model 94 .30-30 and a BLR takedown .358.
I have used rifles with scout scopes to shoot a lot of running animals, so my conclusions are not based solely on theory. I was shooting at running jack rabbits in the desert with such a rig before Mr. Cooper popularized the phrase "scout scope" and I discovered that tracking and aiming at a fast moving target, especially at short range, is more difficult with a scout scope than with a conventional riflescope.
Jeff Cooper and the scout scope
The late Jeff Cooper was a gentleman, a fine shot and an experienced big game hunter. He was the gun writer who popularized the forward mounted riflescope (scout scope) concept. However, he did not invent the forward mounted hunting scope, nor was he the first rifleman or hunter to use one.
Mr. Cooper was an excellent writer and I still love to read his articles and books. Unfortunately, he was also a fast man with an idea and such a persuasive writer his theories were often accepted without rigorous examination. Many of Mr. Cooper's ideas were widely accepted at the time and are still quoted today by true believers, although they have proven erroneous. Such is the case with certain aspects of the scout scope.
Apparently, his brain was able to easily compensate for the disadvantages of a forward mounted riflescope, including seeing the target at 1x with the left eye and 2x with the right eye. More power to him. However, having let other shooters try my rifles with forward mounted scopes for over 50 years and counting, I am quite sure Mr. Cooper was relatively unique in this ability, which is not shared by most shooters and hunters.
Comparing forward and conventionally mounted riflescopes
An extended eye relief riflescope mounted forward of the receiver of a hunting rifle is much better than iron sights, but in most respects it is inferior to a conventional scope mounted on the receiver. A scope of the same magnification mounted closer to the eye is simply easier to use than a scout scope. There is potentially less initial eye to scope alignment error and a conventionally mounted scope provides a larger field of view in which to acquire the target. This larger field of view makes conventional scopes faster to get on target than a scout scope, at least for most shooters.
To compensate for the scout scope's limited field of view, you are supposed to aim a scope mounted forward of the receiver with both eyes open. A right handed shooter is supposed to aim through the scope with the right eye and see the area outside of the scope's field of view (primarily) with the left eye. As you might imagine, seeing the target and reticle through the scout scope at 2x magnification and the area around the target at 1x (no magnification) makes it more difficult for the brain to sort things out.
The advantages of "binocular vision" credited to scout scopes is greatly exaggerated. Either conventional or forward mounted scopes can be used with both eyes open. A 2x20mm scout scope magnifies the target the same amount as a 2x20mm conventional scope and integrating the magnified (2x) view of the target with the unmagnified (1x) view of the off eye with either type of scope presents the brain with the same problem.
Scout scopes are particularly appropriate on rifles, such as the pre-1964 Winchester Model 94, that for technical reasons cannot accommodate riflescopes mounted low and over-bore on the receiver. Take-down rifles, where the barrel separates from the receiver, are another good candidate for an EER scope mounted on the barrel in front of the receiver. Otherwise, the rifle is apt to change its point of impact every time the barrel is removed and replaced.
A riflescope, whether mounted on or forward of the receiver, is much better than iron sights at placing a bullet on target. Once it is aligned with your eye and the target, a 2x scout scope is as accurate as any other 2x riflescope of the same quality.
Very hard kicking rifles can drive a conventional riflescope mounted atop the receiver into the shooter's eyebrow if the scope lacks sufficient eye relief, or the rifle is held loosely. This is particularly true when shooting at a sharp upward angle, such as up a steep hill, or at an animal high in a tree. Lightweight rifles chambered for powerful cartridges and a scope with short eye relief are a bad combination!
A conventionally mounted scope with about four inches of eye relief should eliminate this "scope cut" problem, even on medium weight rifles of heavy recoil. I once owned a Remington Model 600M carbine in .350 Rem. Mag. caliber, a rifle renowned for its recoil and muzzle jump, which I shot a lot. It carried a conventional Bushnell 2.5x riflescope. The most powerful rifle I have ever owned is a Browning/FN safari grade bolt action in .458 Win. Mag. This rifle wears a Leupold Vari-X 1-4x20mm scope mounted low over the receiver. Both scopes have adequate eye relief and scope cuts have never been a problem.
However, because forward mounted scopes are a long way from the eye, no matter how hard a rifle kicks it cannot drive the scope's ocular bell into the shooter's eyebrow. A forward mounted scope on a relatively lightweight rifle chambered for an exceptionally powerful cartridge, such as .460 Weatherby Magnum or .600 Nitro express, might be a pious idea.
Carrying and handling
The assertion that a scout scope makes it easier to carry a rifle in one hand, gripping it around the receiver, is correct. This is especially true for a slender single shot or lever action rifle, such as a pre-1964 Winchester Model 94, and I have hunted with traditional Winchester lever actions and slender single shot rifles a lot.
However, carrying a centerfire bolt action or autoloading hunting rifle of normal weight around the receiver only works for relatively short periods of time, or in special circumstances when you need one hand, but not both hands, free. In the long run, carrying a rifle in one hand becomes tiring. Mostly, a rifle is carried in the field on a sling, which is why all of my hunting rifles have slings, in two hands, or over a shoulder.
Mounting a scope forward of the receiver moves a rifle's balance forward. Whether this is good for handling depends on the rifle.
Generally speaking, hunting rifles should balance between the hands. If a bare rifle is butt heavy, a forward mounted scope will help correct the problem. If, like many hunting rifles, a rifle is slightly muzzle heavy out of the box, a forward mounted scope will make its balance worse. A scope mounted over the receiver is likely to have a neutral effect on the rifle's fore and aft balance.
Any scope, regardless of mounting position, tends to make a rifle top heavy. This is a good argument for smaller and lighter riflescopes mounted as low as possible.
Summary and conclusion
Overall, a forward mounted riflescope is functionally inferior to a conventionally located riflescope, unless the design of the rifle makes it difficult or impossible to use a scope mounted low and directly over the receiver. On the other hand, a scout scope is superior, for most hunting purposes, to iron sights, or even a red dot optical sight and I have no problem hunting with one.
I find statements that a scope mounted forward of the receiver is superior in the field to a scope of the same magnification mounted low and over the receiver tiresome. I have been reading this claptrap for well over 50 years, written mostly by people with no significant experience of their own, who are simply quoting Jeff Cooper's old theories.
Copyright 2018 by Chuck Hawks. All rights reserved.