September 23, 2010
You don't have to pay a fortune for a decent riflescope.
There are plenty of great inexpensive scopes on the market, including some bargain lines by high-end makers — such as this Pro Staff from Nikon.
The mountain of optics catalogs and price lists on my office floor tells me what you'll probably find more easily on-line: There's a huge range in prices for riflescopes. From $48 to $2,444, at a glance. I'm sure these aren't the limits, but they do beg the question: How much should a scope cost?
I've made something of a study of hunting optics for 40 years, and it seems to me riflemen often spend too much on scopes.
That said, a scope is a vital link between you and the target. You must see the target clearly, the reticle sharp. You must be confident your zero will not shift over time or through power changes or when Old Blaze rolls in the dust before you can yank the rifle from the scabbard.
At dawn and dusk, or in dark timber, you must get enough light through the lenses to aim quickly and accurately. And in the rain you will want to dismiss the possibility of fogging.
You could say shooters these days are spoiled. For not much more than we paid for scopes half a century ago, today we get fully multicoated lenses in lightweight alloy tubes. Reticles stay in the middle of the field during sight-in. Wide power ranges boost versatility, but zero shift is negligible, top to bottom. A loaded pack mule could tap-dance on most modern scopes without affecting point of impact. And fogging is as dead an issue as the livery stable on Main Street.
Whoa. If all modern scopes are so blessed, why the differences in price?
Well, first, modern scopes are not all equal. Prices reflect disparities in performance, features and reputation. Yes, you do pay something for a name. Zeiss, Swarovski and Schmidt & Bender trade on the sterling standing of European optics among the upper crust. If you want the best, the names save shopping time.
In North America, Leupold has earned a huge chunk of the market--and keeps it in part because the name has become synonymous with rugged scopes that look good and carry an iron-clad warranty. Nikon stands tall among Asian scope suppliers, and Weaver sights, once made in the U.S., are now of Asian extraction. Optically, they're better than the Texas-built K-series of my youth. Actually, many firms with American names import riflescopes from the same east-Asian factories that produce optics for their competitors.
If name matters not to you, and you want all the performance you can get for your dollar, you'll do well to focus on low- to mid-priced scopes. A step or two up from the bottom, you'll get a serviceable sight and a bargain. How much you'll pay depends on what you want in terms of optical quality and magnification and extra features.
Here's the minimum I expect in a hunting scope: fully multicoated optics (every lens surface, in and out, coated to reduce light loss), one-inch alloy tube, three-times magnification (3-9X or 4-12X, for example) and an objective no bigger than 42mm.
Finger-friendly dials are a plus but not a necessity. Ditto a helical eyepiece. In truth, my requirements are easy to meet. Lots of inexpensive scopes qualify.
If you want bigger front glass or an adjustable objective (or turret-mounted focus knob), the price goes up. If you insist on a 30mm tube and/or a broader power range (four, five or six times), you'll pay more. High magnification adds cost, as do complex reticles and reticle illumination.
Expect anything labeled "tactical" to suck more cash from your denims--in some cases because the scopes are built to more rigorous durability standards but mostly because tactical hardware is trendy.
Last fall I used a Leupold VX III 4.5-14x50 with trajectory-tracking elevation knob. For one long shot, I was mighty glad I had it. On earlier hunts, though, I carried a BSA Catseye variable, a $120 scope. It worked just fine.
There are a ton of models today that sell for less than $250 (see my list at RifleShooterMag.com). In fact, if your cap is $200, you have quite a choice. Alpen, BSA, Bushnell, Cabelas, Simmons and Tasco catalog many scopes for under $100.
I've been much impressed by inexpensive scopes from Leupold, Sightron, Simmons and the new Redfield. The Cabela's wish-book includes a bundle of affordable scopes.
Some shopping tips: Read the spec sheets first. If "fully multicoated" isn't stated, the optics still may be. Make sure of that. Also check eye relief to ensure the scope is not designed for forward mounting (for most rifles, you'll want eye relief of 31„2 to four inches).
Pick up the scope and peer through it--outside. You can't tell much about optics at a gun counter. Look into the shadows and obliquely toward (not directly at) the sun. Rotate the eyepiece to bring the reticle into sharp focus. Distant images should be in sharp focus too.
Secure the scope in a clamp or place it on a support; if the scope has a parallax ring or dial, use it to focus. Move your head side to side, up and down. A reticle that moves noticeably off a distant target indicates excessive parallax. Without an adjustment, you'll have to endure it. Check for image curvature and color fringing at the field edge.
Inspect the tube. Many modern variables have long eyepiece assemblies on short tubes, affording you little free tube either side of the turret. Your mounting options may thus be limited, especially on long rifle actions. I don't like to use extension rings or bases, or rails, although they will solve the problem.
Also, mind ring requirements. I prefer low rings, and on most rifles they'll work with 40mm scope objectives. Sometimes 42mm bells will clear. But from 44mm to 50mm, you'll need medium rings--high with 50s on some rifles. An adjustable objective adds beef to the front end and eats up clearance.
Shop catalogs, the web, discount stores, gun shops. Street prices of hunting optics are seldom as high as suggested retail. For any given scope, you may find a wide range of prices. Don't dismiss names you normally associate with high prices. Leupold's top-line scopes are much more costly than its entry-level Rifleman and VX-1, for instance, and Nikon has the lower-priced Pro Staff series.
Finally, give a second thought to your wish list. Most hunters buy more power than they need in a riflescope and bigger front glass. It's better, in my view, to focus on scopes of more mod
est power and size. You can use the savings to buy higher quality.