Riflescopes and Ballistic Reticles: The Pet Rock of Optics?

By Randy Wakeman

So called �ballistic reticles� have been around for a very, very long time. Even reticles no referred to as range-compensating, rangefinding, or hold-over types of reticles always have been, such as the �30/30 reticle� that often represents thirty inches between the fine cross-wires at 4X at 100 yards. If your estimated thirty inch target fills only half of the width of the cross-wires, then your target is about 200 yards away. A discussion of Mil-Dot and ballistic reticles as applied to one load in particular can be found at http://www.chuckhawks.com/mil-dot_scopes.htm

2009 may well be the year of the ballistic reticle. Hardly new, it is old wine in new bottles that has appeal to the inexperienced hunter, as Jack O'Connor long lamented. The hyperbole of ballistic reticles can hardly be aimed at one manufacturer. Most all of the major manufacturers offer them. In a case of classic one-upsmanship, several manufacturers claim that their approach is somehow more accurate than the others. A closer look at the reality of the matter reveals that not just one of them is wrong, they are all horribly wrong.

You don't have to shoot through a reliable chronograph for very long to quickly understand that factory-published velocity tables and trajectory charts are bogus data, performance that no hunter will likely see out of his rifle. This muzzle velocity data is invariably wrong, as it the static BC number assigned to the bullet, so naturally everything that flows from is also completely wrong and unreliable. That's why the notion of having a factory scope reticle �pre-calibrated� to a factory load is a practical impossibility.

Lab velocities use �industry standard� barrel lengths. The problem is, standard barrel lengths from a lab's point of view and the barrel length you are using are two totally different things. Rarely will your rifle produce the velocities mentioned on the ammo box. Ballistic coefficients may vary by as much as 30 � 35% based on ambient conditions, meaning of course that the ballistic coefficient number you are asked to rely upon for downrange data is often not just a little bit off, but wrong by 30% or more.

High muzzle velocities sell ammo and high ballistic coefficients tend to do the same. Don't expect things to change anytime soon from an ammunition manufacturers perspective. Putting more realistic numbers on the box and in the catalogues will cost them sales, making their ammunition appear slower with poorer trajectories than the competition by doing so. This shouldn't surprise anyone as any manufacturer wants to present their product in the most favorable light possible.

With the same logic of accepting factory data as infallible, we can look at the EPA estimated highway gas mileage of an automobile. We can take our �HWY MPG,� multiply it by the factory stated fuel tank capacity, top off our respective tanks and head out on the highway and drive for that number of miles. If we try that, though, it won't come as much of a surprise that we had better have our pushing shoes on, as autos rarely function precisely as claimed. The little footnote, �your mileage may vary,� is of little consolation sitting in a dead car on the side of the road. Unfortunately, no such disclaimer appears on most ammunition boxes or factory ballistic tables.

It gets even worse, with gimmicks like �rack bracket technology,� which is no technology at all. I just lost a good friend, one of the funniest people I've known in my life, Carl Ballantine. Carl loved to play the ponies, and like to go on about his incredible, uncanny ability to pick the best mudders. Yep, with just a glance at a racing form, the Great Ballantine could always pick the best mudders with amazlingly infallible precision. As Carl used to say, there was just one problem with this uncanny, amazing gift that he had. Just one tiny complication that slowed the Great Ballantine's complete domination over the parimutuel betting system. Naturally, I asked Carl what that little, minor complication happened to be. His reply was, �No mud.�

That would have been a problem on the deer I took just a short while ago with the Savage 220F, meaning �no rack.� Of course, racks come in all kinds of sizes, few deer pose perfectly for a rack bracket reticle, and we hardly hunt off of mechanical rests as a matter of course in the field. There are all kinds of ways to miss or wound deer, rack bracket technology just offers the neophyte hunter another way of doing it.

Sometimes you have a bit of time in the field, but often you do not. Ballistic reticles assume a lot of things, including a 100 yard zero. The hunter that uses �six inch kill point blank range� type of hunting can have has his animal stone dead and soaking in his own blood while rack-bracketers are still trying to bracket a rack (only possible with your scope cranked all the way up or at one set power). A .270 Winchester or similar cartridge often has a 300 yard six inch kill point blank range. At any range out to 300 yards, it is a center of the body hold, pull the trigger, and go pick him up. It works with your scope set to any magnification. Not so with the the rack bracket, knob-spinning, or chutes and ladders hash mark approach.

Our poor rack bracketer has to crank his scope all the way up whether he wants to or not, hope his animal stays still enough (and he can hold his rifle steady enough) to bracket his rack. Now, he can go up and down vertically until the rack or the ears fit into the width of the various hold points on the reticle. If the deer is still there, he can now move the reticle away from the head and onto the center of the body. The incorrect factory ballistics have �calibrated� the scope incorrectly, of course, and trying to accurately measure deer ears at 300, 400, or 500 yards isn't at all an easy thing to do.

If our nimrod hunter thinks he can manage all that with his .270 Winchester at 500 yards I suppose he will go ahead and pull the trigger. With a 3000 fps MV .41 BC load you think he might have a chance? Unfortunately, all of our rack-bracketing and holding over failed to compensate for any animal movement whatsoever and also ignores wind. At 500 yards, a 15 mph crosswind moves the bullet over thirty inches. In this case, the technological marvel of the ballistic reticle enabled a long range gut-shot, sending our trophy off to die a lingering death with great �precision.� Perhaps they should market the reticles as the DRT, the �Dumb Right There� aiming system?

Those familiar with the history of the M40 sniper rifle quickly realize that the standard scope for many years was the Unertl 10X fixed power scope, for a ballistic reticle that only works at one power makes a lot of sense on a fixed power scope. Of late, the USMC has gone to a modified Schmidt and Bender 3-12 x 50, with the reticle in the first focal plane. Unlike most hunting scopes, the first focal plane reticle changes in size in concert with magnification, so the Mil-Dot is always usable. Consumers can buy similar scopes, but a S & B PM-II LP Tactical 4-16x42 with an illuminated Gen II XL reticle and Mil adjustments will likely run you over three thousand dollars. It is not what I'd call popularly priced, and you'll also discover that this type scope weighs around two pounds.

If you haven't guessed it by now, I think that most ballistic reticles are beyond worthless to the knowledgeable hunter. If you want to really know the range of a big game animal, guessing at body part spacing though a magnified reticle is a horribly bad, sloppy approach compared to a good laser rangefinder. Apparently most gunwriters are not experienced enough or are just too cowardly not to mention all of these issues?

I'm not one to guess at what another individual's capabilities may or may not be. As to what range a big game animal can be taken cleanly with confidence and precision is up the the individual and the individual's responsibility. It may be 100 yards, it may be 1000 yards, or any range in between. Only the individual knows what he can do, not me.

What I can say, though, it that if we can't do it (or haven't done it) consistently on a stationary paper target, we have no business torturing a game animal that we claim to respect due to our lack of homework and training. Field accuracy is never better than shooting range accuracy, and the hallmark of an experienced, seasoned hunter is not the shots he does take, but the shots that knowledge, wisdom, and self-control compel him not to take.

Like most shortcuts, so-called calibrated ballistic reticles are of little or no value the way they are presented. If you intimately know your personal range, your personal trajectory, and your personal field accuracy you are far ahead of what any gimmicky reticle can possibly give you.

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Copyright 2009 by Randy Wakeman. All rights reserved.