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Killer Optics

by Terry Wieland   |  September 23rd, 2010 0

The right scope for your dangerous game rifle.


Interest in really big rifles is at an all-time peak. Cape buffalo hunting is more accessible than ever before, and we are embarking on a silver age of elephant hunting, with elephant numbers reaching “pest” levels in Botswana and Zimbabwe.

Today, a riflescope is primary sighting equipment with iron sights secondary, so it is no wonder that interest in scopes for big rifles is growing at the same pace. And, like elephants in Botswana, the market is in danger of being overrun. Everyone, it seems, has a scope in their lineup that qualifies.

My definition of a dangerous game rifle is one that you would carry into thick bush after a wounded buffalo. Similarly, the scope would be a piece of glass suitable for this rifle (although the scope would probably be taken off the rifle when you went into the bush, which is another consideration).

Ask a scope salesman what he considers vital requirements in such a scope and, unless he has actually hunted the big stuff, you are likely to get a list of points completely divorced from reality. The same is true of most technical experts with the optics companies. What is important to them, and what will be important to you when you creep up on a buffalo in the thorns, are two different things.

The most critical attribute of a dangerous game scope is durability, the ability to withstand nasty recoil and hard use without a whimper. Unless you have this, you have nothing. After durability come size and weight, a suitable power or range of powers, and sufficient eye relief. On a dangerous game rifle as we have defined it, a detachable scope mount is essential, and that alone demands certain characteristics in the scope.


DANGEROUS GAME SCOPES: A SAMPLING
Make/Model Power Weight (oz.) Length (in.) Eye Relief Bell (in.)

LEUPOLD
FX-II Ultralight 2.5 x 20 6.4 8.0 4.9 2.25
VX-II 1-4 x 20 8.4 9.25 4.3-3.8 3.25
VX-III 1.5-5 x 20 9.5 9.4 5.3-3.7 3.125
VX-7 1.5-6 x 24 15.2 10.0 4.5-3.8 3.0

MEOPTA
Meostar R1 1-4 x 22 16.0 11.65 3.15 3.75

NIKON
Monarch 1.5-4.5 x 20 10.0 9.5 3.7-3.5 3.25

SCHMIDT & BENDER
Zenith 1.1-4 x 24 17.4 11.4 3.7 3.75

SWAROVSKI
Z6 1-6 x 24 14.8 12.0 4.72 4.0

TRIJICON
AccuPoint 1.25-4 x 24 11.6 10.4 5.0-4.75 3.75

WEAVER
Classic Extreme 1.5-4.5 x 24 15.4 9.25 4.0 3.5

ZEISS
Diavari 1.1-4 x 24 15.2 11.2 3.15 3.25

Scopes with 30mm tubes shown in bold. Others are one-inch. Both overall and bell length vary on scopes with adjustable eyepieces. Eye relief is given from lowest to highest magnification, from manufacturers’ literature.

Light transmissio
n? Superb optical quality? Wide field of view? Illuminated reticles? These are either unnecessary or so far down the list as to be frivolous. Simplicity and durability are paramount. If you start with a scope from any of the respected names, you will get all the optical quality you can use and then some, so it is not a worry.

Power
As long as your scope has a low end no greater than 2.5X, you’re fine, and a high end around 5X is more than enough. The usual range is 1.5-5X or something similar; stretching that to 1.5-6X (the current fad) gives you nothing you need and, I think, detracts from overall usability.

Some makers rate field of view as a major consideration, but it only matters if you are trying to use a scope at too high a power. At 1X or 1.5X, any scope gives you all the field you need. This also allows you to shoot easily with both eyes open, which immediately solves the problem anyway.

Configuration
Every scope considered here has a straight tube except for the Trijicon, which is a slight exception. Why? Because only a straight tube lends itself readily to every type of detachable mount, including the Rolls-Royce of detachables: the claw mount.

Tube Diameter
We are in the midst of a 30mm fad. For a dangerous game scope, the 30mm has greater strength but imparts no optical benefit. On the negative side, 30mm scopes are bulkier and usually heavier.


Sufficient eye relief is critically important with a scope for dangerous game because of the heavy recoil. Remember that this measurement changes with power on variables.

Weight
Weight is a consideration for one reason: Recoil. Adding weight to a hard-kicking rifle is not itself a disadvantage. Where it becomes a problem is inertia. The heavier the scope, the more it wants to remain at rest; the recoiling rifle insists that it move, however, and the result is increased stress on the scope mounts. Since detachable mounts are the weak link in the chain, this is no small consideration.

Size
Size–length and diameter–is important insofar as it limits the type of scope mounts that can be used and obstructs access to the magazine well when you frantically need to stuff more cartridges into the rifle.

Hunt Cape buffalo long enough and you will eventually need to do this. Also, the bulkier the scope, the harder it is to carry and handle the rifle quickly and easily. This is critically important with a dangerous game rifle. An oversized scope gives you nothing you need and detracts from handling qualities.

As well, turrets on a 30mm-tube scope are sometimes so large they obstruct access to the magazine well, or even interfere with cases ejecting.

Eye Relief
Eye relief–the distance from your eye to the scope when you are getting the full field of vision–is critical with a heavy-recoiling rifle. Longer is better because it keeps your eye out of danger. With the new super-scopes, the size of the ocular bell is also a consideration, as these get longer and bigger. To take advantage of long eye relief, the scope must be mounted as far forward as possible; if the ocular bell is exceptionally long, it puts the end of the scope closer to your eye, and there’s nothing you can do about it.

Low-Light Capability
Illuminated reticles and light-transmission capability are the passion of optical designers and engineers, but neither are vital considerations with a dangerous game scope. Dangerous game is not hunted in the dark, and wounded animals are not followed up in the dark. Leopards from a blind are an exception, but then rifles for that purpose are a class unto themselves.

I don’t like illuminated reticles of any kind. Most of them require batteries, which go dead at the wrong time; they can ruin your night vision or be so bright you cannot see the animal. In the worst case, you find yourself fiddling with the setting for the reticle when you should be keeping your wits about you and concentrating on hunting.


Trijicon’s tritium-tipped post reticle is an excellent, simple sighting point in everything from bright light to pitch dark. It’s the most usable “after dark” reticle the author has seen.

Of the 11 scopes considered here, all have more than enough brightness in low light to see a gray rock under a tree after dark and to see the reticle against said rock clearly enough to get a good shot. Not a very scientific comparison, perhaps, but I found them all eminently usable under conditions in which one would be hunting Cape buffalo.

The Schmidt & Bender has an illuminated reticle, and that marginally improved the situation only with careful adjustment to get the right level of brightness. I was just as well off with the light turned off. The Trijicon’s tritium aiming point, on the other hand, requires no adjustment and was really an improvement in reticle visibility with no negatives.

Optical Quality
A one-ton animal at 75 yards does not require hair-splitting precision and razor-sharp optics. The worst scope on the market, optically, would still be perfectly acceptable, although it will be inadequate in other ways. Buy a high-quality, durable scope, and you will get all the optical quality you need.

Reticles
Any uncomplicated reticle except a fine crosshair will work perfectly well. I like a duplex, others like a large dot or a post. But the simpler, the better: One thing you don’t need is a confusing clutch of wires, lines, mil-dots, drop indicators and so on. Leave those to target rifles.

A reticle specifically designed to excel under one set of conditions may be found wanting (and sometimes unusable) under a different set of conditions. The simple duplex, dot or post all work well in a wide range of conditions.

The 11 scopes I evaluated are all fine names, in a configuration suitable for hard-kicking rifles in dire circumstances. Any of them could go on a .458 Lott today and go hunting tomorrow. As with anything, though, some are better for this purpose than others.

Leupold The VX-III 1.5-5×20 is the standard by which all dangerous game scopes are judged. It is light, compact, reliable, and gives all the optical quality one could ask for. The VX-II 1-4×20 is all of the above, but a little less: lighter, shorter and lower-powered at both ends.

The VX-7 1.5-6×24 with its 30mm tube scope, on the other hand, goes the other way: considerably heavier and half an inch longer. The one serious knock on the VX-7 is its turrets
, which are the largest I’ve ever seen.

The caps are part of the adjustment mechanism, which pop out, turn to adjust the reticle, then go back in and screw on tight to become a cap again. This turret size, combined with the 30mm tube, presents a formidable obstacle to access to the magazine well.

The FX-II Ultralight 2.5×20 is the little darling of the group. Of the scopes tested, it is the lightest, shortest and most compact by a substantial margin. At 4.9 inches, its eye relief is among the longest, and it has the shortest ocular bell. In fact, the eye relief is almost too long–but far better too much than too little.


Eye relief is critical in a dangerous game scope. This Trijicon AccuPoint, for instance, boasts five inches of relief, making it a good choice.

Meopta The Meostar R1 1-4×22 is a fine optical instrumentbut would not be my choice for a hard-kicking dangerous-game rifle. Of the 11, it was the second-longest and second-heaviest, with the shortest eye relief and one of the longest ocular bells.

Nikon The Monarch 1.5-4.5×20 is the right size, right power, right everything. A little more eye relief would be nice. But it is a good scope for this purpose.

Schmidt & Bender The Zenith 1.1-4×24 is touted by some as the best dangerous game scope available. Optically it is superb, but at 17.4 ounces it was the heaviest scope tested and, at 11.4 inches, one of the longest. Eye relief was middling, and the ocular bell was also among the longest. This scope has an illuminated reticle and is not available without one. A great riflescope but not, in my opinion, a really great riflescope for dangerous game.

Swarovski The new Z6 series scopes are the optical wonder of the year, with a magnification ratio from top to bottom of six–in this case, from 1X to 6X. The price you pay for that extra rung of magnification is a scope that is the longest and bulkiest of them all.

The ocular bell is abnormally long (4.0 inches), which puts the scope back close to your eye regardless and renders its long eye relief irrelevant. The bell is also the largest diameter of any, making this one bulky instrument. It has all the Swarovski optical quality, naturally, but the overall length and bulk of the bell rule it out, for me.

Trijicon The AccuPoint 1.25-4×24 is a great little number. It has a one-inch tube and a very slight objective bell. The bell is so minimal, however, it would not preclude a claw mount. Mounted on a Ruger M77, the rings hugged the ocular bell at one end and the objective at the other. Under recoil, that scope could not slide either way.

The really interesting feature is its reticle, a post with a pointed tip. The point is a tiny tritium triangle which glows gently greenish-white in low light but is otherwise a normal black post.

There are no batteries, and it does not need to be turned on or off. For those who insist on an “after dark” reticle, this is the best I’ve seen by a mile.

Weaver At just over nine inches long, the Classic Extreme 1.5-4.5×24 is compact but, at 15.4 ounces, was the third-heaviest scope of the bunch. It has a 30mm tube and an illuminated reticle, with the adjustment mechanism atop the ocular bell. With the illumination off, the reticle is a simple duplex-type. Like the Leupold VX-7, the turrets seem larger than necessary, possibly obstructing access to the magazine. But it is a good, solid scope.

A major reason we now have so many scopes in this category is the growing use of scoped shotguns for both deer and turkey hunting, but just because a scope is low-powered and works on a heavy-kicking shotgun does not mean it will be ideal for a dangerous game rifle. There is no requirement in these uses to make the scope detachable, and no chance of dealing with a charge at close range with the scope still on.

The best criteria for deciding on a dangerous game rifle is to ask yourself what you would want in your hands going into the thornbush after a wounded Cape buffalo. The same question applies to the scope that goes on that rifle. •

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