Writing about riflescope reticles without illustrations is rather like writing about Impressionist paintings and depending on the printed word to convey the image. It can't be done. There is, however, one critical difference: If a reticle is too complicated to be described coherently in words, it is probably too complicated to be practical anyway.
One huge advantage of open sights is their simplicity: You line up the front bead with the rear V, and when the bead is on the target, pull the trigger. The only decision to be made is where to hold. With many newer scope reticles, the shooter has several decisions to make before pulling the trigger--decisions that take time, when even the slightest delay can cost you the shot.
The earliest reticle to be widely adopted, as far as I can determine, was the familiar, dependable and still eminently usable crosshair: a thin vertical line intersecting a thin horizontal line, with the intersection the point of aim.
Whether it is an actual hair, as the early ones were, or a thin wire, or a line etched on glass, the crosshair is still probably the best all-around reticle for hunting, target and even tactical use. It is capable of extremely fine placement, and its only real weakness is that, the finer the hair (and hence its accuracy) the more difficult it is to see, especially in low light or against dark backgrounds.
Virtually from the moment of its inception, manufacturers have attempted to create better reticle designs. One attempt was the dot, used either alone or in conjunction with a crosshair. Dots were made in different sizes to accommodate different distance targets and became popular with competition shooters but never caught on with hunters.
Since the earliest makers of high-quality riflescopes were German and Austrian, and since both were enthusiastic hunters and target shooters, it was only natural that many early reticle developments came from central Europe.
Not surprisingly, some weird and wonderful designs emanated from the optics capitals of Europe. Posts were particularly popular, both single and multiple, vertical and horizontal, in every imaginable combination.
One that really stood out was a crosshair with thick wires that tapered to thin wires at the point of aim--making it easier to see while retaining precision aiming. This was adopted by Leupold in the United States, named the duplex, and quickly became the dominant reticle design for hunting and all-purpose riflescopes by virtually every manufacturer.
In recent years, with the fad for all things military, sniper and pseudo-tactical scopes have proliferated, along with reticles of ever-increasing complexity. Multiple wires allow aim points for different distances or allow for differences in trajectory between bullet weights.
Others have mil-dot reticles with multiple dots. Some even have crude range-finding capabilities, in which lines of varying lengths supposedly show your distance to target when compared with an object of a known length.
Looking at some of these creations, one wonders if their designers ever tried to use them in actual field conditions. Most of the so-called tactical reticles have little practical application for hunting and even hinder the hunter by cluttering up his view of the animal to such an extent that he cannot find an aim point.
The multiple-choice reticles may be fun to try on a range with targets at known distances, but in the field, with animals moving and the need to concentrate on holding steady with panting breath and beating heart, remembering which line to use can be a baffling puzzle.
A senior representative of one European scope company confided to me, on a hunting trip, that when actually hunting and taking a shot at long range, he ignored the multiple lines of which his company was so proud and simply used the main crosshair and held a little high.
This is an instinctive approach that dates back centuries, which most of us have used since childhood, and which is still the fastest. It may not be the most accurate in terms of actual inches, but it is the most practical in real life.
All of this is not to say the crosshair, dot or duplex is the best reticle design for all time. The other great advance in scope technology has been illuminated reticles, which introduce a whole new range of possibilities. Since they first appeared a decade ago, illuminated designs have been refined and become highly usable.
The main knock on the early ones was the difficulty of getting the right level of illumination under changing light conditions. Generally, one needed less illumination, not more. A too-bright reticle destroys night vision, leaving you able to see the reticle but nothing else.
Trijicon uses tritium, a nuclear isotope, to illuminate its reticles, which are available either as a crosshair or as a tiny tritium triangle atop a post. In low light, you see just the center of the crosshair, or the triangle; in bright light, they are the familiar black.
Generally speaking, I have found that illumination works best with unorthodox reticles. Rather than trying to light up a crosshair or duplex, it is better to design a reticle specifically to make best use of illumination. I have a couple of scopes that make use of these new technologies that I use for special purposes, and they are growing on me. Rapidly.