All Riflescopes Are Not the Same!

By Randy Wakeman

What are the real differences between riflescopes? Scope manufacturers often try to highlight the most trivial of features as benefits, but trivia remains trivia. Scopes are often presented as �special duty� types. There are shotgun scopes, target scopes, rimfire scopes, centerfire scopes, muzzleloading scopes and tactical scopes. No one seems to know what "tactics" are being employed, of course, except the obvious tactic of trying to sell glass in a tube.

Words are funny things, like the idea of a �premium� product. Premium may mean an exceptional product. Premium may also mean just higher-priced. I suppose most people balk at the notion of paying a premium for a premium product, but paying a low price for a premium product is more palatable. The Oracle of Omaha still had it right saying, �Price is what you pay; value is what you get.�


Let's start with the notion of the 30mm tube compared to the standard one-inch tube. What does that get you, except for the premium price? The answer, optically, is essentially nothing. No better low-light performance, no better clarity, a whole bunch of nothing in the part you look through. It doesn't automatically get you a better scope; in fact, a 30mm scope might be an advance to the rear. It does give you a stronger, but heavier, tube. Mainly, it allows for more internal adjustment range, which is the real motive behind 30mm tubes. Fine if you need it, but if you don't it is of no value. Increased adjustment range and a higher price is what you really get.


(The sad fact is that many mass produced rifles have scope mounting holes that are so far out of alignment with the bore that scopes with one inch tubes and the typical +/- 50 inches of windage adjustment at 100 yards cannot be zeroed. The customer then blames the scope, instead of the rifle that is the real culprit. Scope manufacturers are understandably fed-up with this, hence the drift to 30mm tubes. -Editor)


One of the most important things a scope can do is stay together under heavy use (build quality) and hold its zero. If it does not, nothing else matters. One fellow was having a whale of a time trying to sight in his muzzleloader. It sure sounded like a scope issue, but he assured me he had tried six scopes, so it could not be the scope. So, what was it? It was the scope. As it turned out, the six scopes he tried were all �lightly used� scopes from EBay. I guess now he knows why they were on EBay. After several months of experimentation, his exasperated gunsmith, tired of listening, finally did something. The gunsmith pulled off a confirmed scope from his 7mm Rem. Mag. and said, �Here, go shoot your muzzleloader.� The random accuracy problem vanished immediately.


Of course, light transmission is touted to the point where it often becomes the battle of the lens coatings. A light transmission comparison is typically flawed, as one color of light (bandwidth) may give one scope the edge in one test, its competitor the edge in another. This is not to suggest there are no differences, there are, including from scope to scope of the same brand and model. Once you get beyond the threshold of modern lens coatings, fully multi-coated lenses being the key for better light transmission, it gets into a very narrow range if you are comparing similar priced, name brand scopes. For example, if you compare image quality of 3-9x40mm scopes, a Burris Fullfield II, a Bushnell 3200 and a Sightron SII are all eerily close. Machines can generate numbers, but human eyes cannot look at similar images and discern that one might be brighter than the other.


I am mentioning Burris Fullfield II, Bushnell 3200 and Sightron SII here, as those are among the scopes in the two hundred dollar price range that hold their zeros, offer adequate eye relief and have consistent build and image quality on which you can bet your hunt. I have done just that. Are there better scopes on the market? Of course there are. Twice the money does not get you twice the brightness or twice the clarity, though. The more you spend, the more diminishing returns apply.


Two scope lines that I have used extensively are the Burris Signature Select series and the Sightron SII �Big Sky� series. The Burris Signature Select 3-10x40 is one bright, clear scope. I can say the same about the Sightron SII Big Sky 3-12x42 model. These two scopes offer a clear notch up from the two hundred dollar level of optic.


Beyond image quality, there are other considerations. One is scope mounting. As scopes get shorter and stubbier, there can be mounting issues with long or longer bolt actions and two-piece ring sets. To avoid extended bases, extension rings and the like, a full size tube addresses the issue before there is one. This suggests a full-length scope with a six-inch or so main tube as in a standard Bushnell Elite 3200 3-9x 40.Not a consideration with a one piece rail mount, though, so the choice is yours.


What about scope tracking, or "dialing the box" with your shots at the range? Some scopes are known for more accurate and repeatable adjustments than others. The Zeiss Victory, Sightron SII and Sightron SII Big Sky scopes are known for accurate adjustments. Important if you intent on knob-twirling in the field, but if you aren't going to touch the adjustment of your scope after sight-in or conformation of your zero, it is much less important.


What about ballistic reticles? If you are limiting your shots to maximum point blank range shooting, they are meaningless. They still generally only work with your scope cranked all the way up and do nothing for a more important factor: wind drift.


Internal adjustment is a consideration, particularly on rifles that tend to eat it up. They do vary. Take a peek, again, at a Sightron SII 3-9x42, for example. It includes 80 inches of internal adjustment at 100 yards where many scopes in the same configuration have 50 inches or so. A scope like that Sightron can be used on more rifles without complications.

Envelope scope dimensions are also good to look at both from a practicality perspective and fitting the style and application of the rifle. The Burris Fullfield II 2-7x35mm is not only a great value, it does not overwhelm lighter rifles. More than seven magnification is very rarely needed or desired on big game rifles. Higher magnification is usually more of a hindrance than a help in the field. At the bench, you might prefer more magnification, so once again the choice is yours.


What about large objectives? Adult eyes do not get much benefit from more than about a 5mm exit pupil. (Objective lens diameter divided by magnification equals the diameter of the exit pupil.) The heaviest part of a scope is the glass itself and larger objectives increase both the weight of the scope and the distance it needs to be mounted away from your barrel. Anything more than a 40mm objective is of little value on a hunting rifle. To the contrary, you pay more for larger lenses of the same quality, but often it is nothing you can appreciate with your eyes. Very high magnifications, oversized objectives and 30mm tubes typically cost far more money for the same quality of scope. They get you nothing that your eyes can use and they negatively affect the handling of your rifle. If you cannot use it, there is no reason to pay for it. Higher magnifications on the low end severely reduce your field of view, which is not a good thing!


Hunting scopes are not the same, but they are used for similar applications, whether labeled a center-fire scope, shotgun scope, or muzzleloading scope. They must all provide useable views of the target, stay together and hold their zero. The manufacturers decide the features, of course, but only you can decide the benefits.

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Copyright 2010, 2016 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.