Buying your first scope

 Buying a first scope for a center-fire rifle is like a roller-coaster ride. You either get to the end feeling exhilarated, or feeling sick. Exhilarated because the scope does everythig beautifully, and you can't miss out to the maximum range, or sick because you invested so much time, money and effort, and it turns out the scope is not adequate for your purpose.

 If you keep a few fundamental concepts clear in your mind throughout the process, your chance of getting what you need and it actually working the way you expect, is much improved.

First Considerations

Additionally to the rifle scope, you may need to have a rail or mounts fitted [ or re-fitted ] to the rifle, and you will need rings for the scope. That is an extra cost you need to budget for as well.

Avoid cheap rings, they are cheap for a reason, and that's not a reason you want to explore at your own expense. See what others use successfully for their scope with the same tube as yours, and follow their example. You want steel or aircraft aluminium, and the torque on the fasteners to the scope tube need to be rated at least 60 foot pounds.

You should consider a steel rail for a heavy recoil caliber.

A very good guideline to quality is to look up what the PRS [ Presion Rifle Shooting ] sport shooters use. No need to use the same top-end model as they do, if you can choose a cheaper model from one of those brands, the probability of making a good choice increases.

The stats are nicely aggregated at the Precision Rifle Blog.

Next :

Decide what your budget is. Have a clear idea in your mind of how much you are prepared to spend. understand that the features you want in a scope of reasonable quality might not be available within your budget, and be prepared to adjust if necessary.

Avoid a cheap scope. Look at the brands of scope used in PRS, and pick a different model from those brands in your price range with the features you need.
Decide on what you're using the scope for. All scopes are not suitable for every purpose, no matter how much you pay for them.

Decide on the range the scope will be used. The scope needs to be functional at the range you need.

  • Will you be using the scope under adverse conditions : will it be cold, freezing, hot, humid, raining, dusty or any of the above.
  • Will you be handling the scope often, with the probability of it taking the occasional knock.
  • Will you need to frequently adjust the range.

Second Considerations

Considerations on Price

You get what you pay for. That FFP tactical illuminated high magnification scope on eBay that is supplied from China is a steal at $100, compared to the local retail of $1000 for a known brand name, but you will be getting a $100 scope, not a $1000 scope at a $100 price.

The price of a scope reflects the quality of components used. Good, clear glass is not cheap. A turret that tracks correctly is not assembled from paper clips.

A cheap scope will not hold zero, it will not track reliably and repeatedly, it will be damaged from repeated subjection to recoil, the optics will be poor due to focussing problems and the user experience will be lacking.

If you are determined to buy a very cheap scope, then you are on track to getting a lot of first hand experience on why that is not a good idea.

 Considerations on Purpose

All scopes cannot be used for all purposes. There are a few general purposes that most people need a scope for :

  •  recreational target shooting
  •  hunting
  •  competition shooting

and of course there are combinations of the above, and most scopes are multi-purpose.

Purpose determines 

  • what optical quality you need
  •  what reticle
  • first or second focal plane
  •  if the turrets are exposed or capped
  •  the elevation and windage adjustment range
  •  the physical size and weight of the scope

Going into a bit of detail on the scope purpose helps narrow the field on which options are desirable, which are undesirable, and which make no difference either way.

Recreational Target Shooting

Here the buyer can consider the range at which targets will be engaged, and if he will use holdover or dial in the required elevation. Those considerations lead to determining the need for magnification, the reticle type, first or second focal plane, and if the turrets are capped or not.

Longer range needs higher magnification. True to a point, but beyond that point, the optical quality makes a bigger difference to the sight picture than the magnification. A good quality 14x scope can be used to shoot steel at 1000 meters, for example. People that shoot long range with scopes that have 25x magnification, actually use the scope at 14 or 16x magnification for shots to one mile.

Holdover requires a reticle that has holdover points.

First focal plane scope has reticle that changes size with magnification, meaning the ranging distance is constant between hash marks at any magnification. Second focal plane reticles are constant size at any magnification, so the ranging distance between hash marks increases with lower magnification. Second focal plane scopes have hash marks corresponding to a unit of measure at a specific magnification only. It's a detailed subject, do some reading to become familiar with it.

Dialing in the range needs turrets that are adjustable, and if the range changes frequently, you would probably want turrets that do not have caps that need to be removed and replaced every time you make an adjustment.

Hunting

  • The range you expect to shoot at. This determines reticle, turret type and magnification.
  • What are you hunting. Varmints at long range need a very different optic to big game at close range, especially when the big game can kill you.
  • Scope weight and size is also a consideration for hunters that hunt over long distance on foot and have to carry their own rifles.

Competition Shooting

This is not so complicated as it seems, The work has already been done. it's a lot simpler selecting a scope for this purpose than the others, because every shooting sport will have a list of what the most popular scopes are for the top shooters in that sport. For example, search online for the top scopes used in PRS. Pick a scope on that list in your budget, and you're good to go.

Choosing a scope becomes an exercise in futility when you start looking at making a certain scope fit your purpose, when it was not designed for that purpose. So avoid doing that. For example, you need a scope for PRS competition, and can't afford any of the types in regular use in the sport : avoid buying a cheap alternative that you think should be fine. No man ever made a silk purse from a sow's ear.

For Recreational Target Shooting
You've determined the range you expect to engage targets.

Can the scope compensate for the maximum range ?

This means that you need to determine if there is enough holdover on the reticle, or if the turrets have sufficient adjustment range. This means you need to do some homework. Quite a bit of homework, actually.

At this point you need to become familiar with ballistics, because you need to be able to understand how to read a bullet drop table for the load you expect to be shooting at targets with. The bullet drop chart will tell you what drop to expect at the maximum range you shoot at. The choosing of a load is a whole process in itself. If you are unsure, pick a mid-range load with the most readily available rifle bullets for that caliber that have a BC of at least 0.4 . That is a good point to start, and you can refine your bullet choice over time with experience.

Then determine if you have sufficient holdover with the reticle, or if the turret elevation can adjust that far. For example, you need 25 MOA holdover or elevation adjustment for 155 grain bullets in your .300 Win Mag to reach 1000 yards. A scope has an elevation adjustment range, only half of the total of which is available on either side of the zero. To elevate 25 MOA, you need a scope with at least 50 MOA total elevation adjustment. If your scope elevation adjustment is lacking, and you can't afford a scope with greater adjustment range, you can find a rail or scope rings that have the required MOA adjustment built in , and this is cumulative with your turret elevation capability. For example, a scope with a total of 50 MOA elevation adjustment, and a 20 MOA rail, gives (50/2) + 20 = 45 MOA total elevation capability. MOA rails can be found for all popular rifle actions, and range from 10 to 40 MOA.

Now decide what magnification you need. Keep in mind need and want are two different things. In practice, you don't need a lot. Long range ( 1000 yard ) competition shooters get by very well on a 14x magnification.

You will find that beyond 14x magnification, the quality of the glass suddenly becomes very important, so choose a higher quality sight picture with a smaller magnification over a lesser quality sight picture with a higher magnification, and you'll come out ahead every time.

Hunting

What are you hunting ? "Everything" is not an answer.

Reticle, magnification, scope weight and scope durability are paramount considerations here.

Pick a sensible magnification according to the animal size. A large animal needs less magnification than a small animal. Dangerous game can be hunted adequately with open sights, and usually under 100 yards. If you prefer a scope for dangerous game hunting get a 1-4x or 1-6x so you can use the reticle at 1x for close range with both eyes open.

Understand that hunting at longer ranges does not mean a high magnification scope. You probably won't be able to see the target at long range on a very hot day when the mirage is jumping through your 25x scope. If you are hunting in cold weather, with clear visibility, then a higher magnification scope could work for you. For comparison, use the PRS as a guide, see what magnifications they favor at what range.

Make sure the reticle can be well discerned against the background color that is the animal. This means you could favor an illuminated reticle, in green or red.

Pick a magnification that can give you the required optical resolution on the vitals area at the range you expect to be hunting.

Every hunter has their own idea of what the maximum range is that they are prepared to hunt at. With very few exceptions, hunters that claim to hunt at long range are target shooting at live animals in the hope of a hit.

Your hunting range is the range where you are completely certain of a one-shot kill on game.

Take yourself and your rifle to a shooting range, and confirm you can hit where you're aiming at the range you think you can. If may be a humbling experience.

Reliability can be critical. A lot of time and money is usually invested in a hunt. Don't skimp on scope quality at the risk of ruining the hunt. The scope will get knocked against something, the rifle will get dropped, it will rain, dust and dirt will coat the scope. The scope needs to take all that and hold zero with a clear sight picture. Not all scopes can

For Competitive Sport Shooting
Do some research on what the most used scopes are in the sport you want to shoot, and buy the one you can best afford.

It's really that easy, don't try re-invent the wheel. If a scope is good for your discipline of sport shooting, it's already in use. Just go find out which ones they are.

Inquire of the local club members what they use, and pay attention to what is used in any competitions. Focus on the top shooters at your club, what are they using ?

Just follow suit.

Don't expect to find some oddball, bargain scope that no-one has ever heard of and make it work in your sport. If it could work, someone would already be using it.

Recoil Rating

Make sure the scope you buy is rated for the caliber you will be shooting.

  •  A rimfire scope is not adequate.
  •  An airgun scope is not adequate.
  •  A common standard of recoil rating is 1000 times 1000G .

 If you are not sure what the recoil rating is, find out, don't assume the scope if fine for any level of recoil.

Final Consideration
Manufacturer reputation and customer service should be a big factor in your purchasing decision.

You need to consider that at some point, through no fault of your own, you may discover a defect in the scope, or a defect could be introduced by normal usage.

Good customer service from the scope manufacturer is a big plus, and cannot be over-rated.

If you have no after-market service, or recourse to rectify a damaged product, you've effectively thrown your money away and have to go buy a new scope.

A well priced, full-featured scope with no customer service backup is a gamble you must be prepared to lose.

Rather pay extra for the peace of mind, knowing that whatever defect is found, or problem with the scope arises, the manufacturer or supplier will repair or replace it within a reasonable time.

There is no customer service for cheap scopes on eBay.