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Optimal Optics: Comparing Tactical Riflescopes

Optimal Optics: Comparing Tactical Riflescopes

Until shockingly recently, fighting rifles wore iron sights and nothing else. And that went for the soldier carrying a .58 caliber M1861 musket while preserving the Union, an M1903 Springfield "over there" or an M16A2 liberating Kuwait. Not so today, with battle rifles increasingly wearing versatile low-magnification variables scopes. To gain some insight into the numerous examples available, I selected nine different commercial models. All are intended for use on AR-15s or similar designs. Models ranged from economical to fairly expensive. Each was subjected to the following test:

  • Submersed in water to a depth of 18 inches for 12 hours
  • Subjected to a steam bath for 15 minutes
  • Cooled in a 20 degree environment for 24 hours
  • Heated to 130 degrees for 12 hours
  • Test-fired on a 7 pound .458 SOCOM with 405-grain handloads to induce stress. Ten rounds, rapid fire.
  • Test-fired to check mechanical adjustment accuracy and consistency at 100 yards.

A bit to my surprise all 10 examples passed these tests without issue. None fogged internally or suffered from a mechanical issue. All of them tracked consistently. How well their tracking holds up under hard and long-term use though is beyond the scope of my testing ability. However, to be fair it's doubtful a rifleman would be dialing in windage or elevation with a scope of this type in the field. They are designed to provide rapid hits, and once properly zeroed, riflemen simply hold off for wind or distance.

Next I checked the optical performance and reticle illumination of each scope in bright, overcast and low-light conditions. I measured field of view and eye relief and also checked the reticle designs against a man-size silhouette at 50, 300 and 700 yards at highest and lowest magnification settings. The results were then tabulated and scored on a scale of 1 to 10.

Find all this and more on the accompanying charts:


[nggallery id=45]

Decades ago the environmental tests performed for this article would have proven very difficult or impossible for most riflescopes to pass. Times change, and with the advancements in sealing technology all the scopes shrugged off these tests as if they were nothing.

Optical performance has also come a long ways.

Lens design and coatings have made constant strides that have trickled down into economically priced models.

Today the big push is to increase magnification range and reticle intensity. The smoke is already visible on the horizon, and the models of tomorrow will be even better.

When it comes to optical sights, we live in exciting times.

Burris MTAC 1-4x24 Ballistic CQ

In recent years, Burris has moved aggressively into the tactical scope market. Its MTAC 1-4x Ballistic CQ is the result of user feedback. This is a good-looking scope that offers a lot of value for the price. Built on a 30mm tube, it sports a 24mm objective lens. Length and weight are both well suited for use on an AR or similar rifle.

The capped turrets prevent accidental rotation. Beneath the caps you find nicely designed finger adjustable turrets with tactical and audible adjustments, so you can dial if you'd like.

The reticle is located in the rear focal plane and provides bullet drop compensation out to 600 yards. I found the reticle very fast to use up close on 1X. The BDC reticle worked well out to about 500 yards when set on 4X. Just keep in mind the reticle is located in the rear focal plane, and the BDC is calibrated at 4X. Optical performance is quite good, and aesthetically it's a very nice-looking scope that looks well built. One neat touch is the objective lens is recessed 1.5 inches, so the front of the tube acts as sunshade. All in all I liked this scope very much. Suggested retail price is a reasonable $399, making it a great buy.

Bushnell SMRS 1-6.5x24

Bushnell has put a great deal of work into developing high-quality tactical scopes, and its SMRS 1-6.5x24 is ample evidence of this — an optic that ups the ante with a wide magnification range from 1X to 6.5X. This provides a truly usable increase in magnification for both identifying and engaging distant targets, and it does this without sacrificing 1X on the bottom end.

Available with either a front or rear focal plane BDC reticle (two reticle options are offered), you can have exactly what you want. I tested the front focal plane model with the BTR-1 reticle.

This model is an animal past 100 yards but a bit slow at 1X because it lacks a daylight illuminated reticle. Crank it to 1X and the reticle becomes small and slow to pick up in bright light. In low light the reticle is bright enough to be quick, or you can dial it down for use with night vision. It just needs daylight illumination for it to reach its potential.

The BDC reticle works well, optical performance is good and build quality is nice. This would be a great match for a rifle used from 100 to 600 or yards. Minimum advertised price is [imo-slideshow gallery=44],400.

Hi-Lux 1-4x24 CMR

Hi-Lux's 1-4x24 CMR scope has grabbed the attention of many simply due to its economical price. But what's really most impressive about this scope is the performance it offers for the money. This is an extremely well thought out 1-4X scope stuffed full of features. The rear focal plane BDC reticle is intended to be fast up close on 1X while offering ranging and bullet drop compensation out to 900 yards.

The illumination features a setting for use with night vision, and the elevation turret sports a zero stop. Optical performance is quite good and much better than one would expect. Durability? This model was tested by a Russian military arsenal and stood up to abusive testing on medium caliber belt-fed machine guns.

My only complaints are I wish the horseshoe reticle was thicker and that it featured daylight illumination. Hi-Lux is also introducing a new model of this scope featuring a reticle calibrated for the 7.62x39 cartridge, which should also work with .300 BLK supersonic loads. Plus the company has an entirely new model called the CMR-4 that will offer a noticeable step up in performance. Hi-Lux wants to be recognized as China's first premium optical house, and it seems to be serious. Street price of the CMR is $419.

IOR Valdada 1, 4x32 Pitbull

The Romanian optics manufacturer IOR and its U.S. distributor Valdada Enterprises have continually pushed the U.S. market. They led the charge of wider magnification ranges and fatter scope tubes. Well-regarded for their optical performance, they have a number of innovative designs under their belt, including the Pitbull. Rather than being a conventional variable scope, this optic offers either 1X or 4X with nothing in between.

Built on a fat 35mm tube, it's surprisingly compact. It was the shortest of all scopes tested. Normally when you shorten a scope this much you expect the optical quality to suffer. However, in this case performance is impressive. Field of view was the widest of all the models tested. Resolution and low-light performance were also excellent.

Reticle design is user friendly with bullet drop compensation out to 800 yards. The reticle also is designed to range a target the width of a man's shoulders. Downsides: It was the heaviest of all the optics tested, and it's expensive. Suggested retail price is [imo-slideshow gallery=44],395 including rings.

Leupold 1.25-4x20 VX-R Patrol

Leupold's 1.25-4x20 VX-R Patrol stands out from the crowd primarily for one reason: It has daylight illumination. Sure, it's a nifty scope that's small in size and light in weight. Yes, it has handy uncapped turrets with 0.1 mil adjustments and a rear focal plane mil reticle. The optical performance is indeed good, and the piece is nicely made.

However, it's the FireDot daylight illumination that makes this scope special. Even though it dials down only to 1.25X instead of 1X it's a game-changer. Crank up the illumination and you have a brightly illuminated dot that catches your eye and indexes quickly onto a target.

I found the eye-box a bit touchy regarding eye position, and I really wish it was 1X instead of 1.25X. Even so, it's fast up close. On longer shots the mil reticle can be utilized for ballistic compensation or you can dial it in. The one feature I really don't like, though, is the push-button switch. Call me old-fashioned, but I'd rather have an traditional knob to twist.

However, this model does offer Leupold's Motion Sensor Technology. Basically this feature turns off the dot after five minutes of inactivity to conserve battery life. Then it turns it back on as soon as the rifle is moved. It's not cheap at $725, but it's not euro expensive either.

Millet 1-4x24 DMS

Least expensive of the group was Millet's 1-4X DMS. The second biggest of all the scopes tested, it's intended to be an economical piece of glass. Performance is about what you would expect from a scope with a street price just north of $200 (suggested retail for the matte version is $386). Field of view appears to be narrow, and I wonder if it actually goes all the way up to 4X. The reticle is a simple circle with a dot in the center and floating posts at three, six and nine o'clock.

No problems were encountered with it, but I was not impressed by its build quality. It looks like a cheap scope. That said, if all you have are a couple hundred bucks in your budget and you want a scope for recreational use, this could fill the bill. While not sexy, it provided reliable service and an illuminated reticle.

Nightforce 1-4x24 NXS WL-FC2

While the Millet is less than impressive, the Nightforce is a slick optic with handsome good looks. Better still, the NXS has the performance to match its looks. Available in a wide variety of configurations, the model I tested is just one example of how this scope can be ordered. Different reticle and turret options are available.

Nightforce is highly regarded for its optical performance and reliability, and my review scope stayed true to form. Color rendition, resolution and low-light performance were all extremely good. The FC-2 reticle performed well on man-size targets, and the turrets adjusted crisply. My only wish would be for daylight illumination. Keep in mind this is a professional-grade optical sight, and it performs as such. It's also priced accordingly at [imo-slideshow gallery=44],495.

Steiner 1-4x24 Rapid Dot 5.56

The surprise of the test came in the form of Steiner's 1-4x24 Rapid Dot scope. I've never really been a huge fan of Steiner, and I was unimpressed by this 1-4X when I first pulled it from its box because of its large size (it was the biggest scope in the test).

But once I started working with it I have to say my attitude changed. Yes it's big, but that's a plus in this case. The Steiner engineers got things right, and its optical performance is very good indeed. Mechanically it also performed extremely well.

What really fired me up was its daylight illuminated Rapid Dot reticle. This proved lightning quick at close range, almost like a red dot. At distance, the rear focal plane BDC reticle worked well. The image was bright, the field of view wide and the resolution excellent. It's a wonderful piece of glass. Downside: If your battery dies, the reticle is fine and hard to pick up at speed. Plus there's the German price tag of [imo-slideshow gallery=44],895.

Trijicon 1-4x24 TR24G Accupoint

Trijicon's highly regarded 1-4x24 TR24G Accupoint is a bit different from the norm. Rather than relying on a battery to illuminate the reticle, the Accupoint features a combination of tritium and fiber optics. In low-light conditions, the triangular aiming point is illuminated by tritium. In bright light, it's illuminated by fiber optics.

A rotating collar on the eyepiece lets you adjust the intensity of the fiber optic illumination. This system provides a brightly illuminated aiming point, which is easy to see even in bright day light. Better still no batteries are required. Optical performance is very good.

There's a lot to like about this scope. However it does have some drawbacks. Due to its design you basically have a post reticle with an illuminated tip, so at distance you need to dial in elevation.

In low-light conditions when it's running on tritium I've found a weapon-mounted light will often wash out the reticle's illumination. So there are trade-offs. Even so, it's a solid performer that has proven very popular. Suggested retail is $995.

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