When Scopes Go Bad

When Scopes Go Bad

It doesn't happen often, but when your optics go awry, you need to act decisively.

Scope problems in the field can be insidious, and if you suspect you have a problem and can't isolate it, sometimes you're better off borrowing another rifle.

Over the years I've had quite a few scope failures on the range, either bad scopes right out of the box, or scopes that just wore out and gave up the ghost. But it had never happened to me in the field. This has purely been luck of the draw, a numbers game, since I do a whole lot more shooting on the range than I do in the field.

But it can happen. Since both Murphy's Law ("Whatever can go wrong will go wrong.") and First Corollary to Murphy's Law (". . . at the worst possible time.") apply, it's amazing it hasn't happened to me before. I have had scope mounts break, and I've had mount screws shear, and I've had iron sights bend and twice, I've had rear iron sights fall off a rifle. But until now my scope failures have taken place on the range.

So I've been lucky. Riflescopes, like the rifles we put them on, are mechanical devices and subject to failure every now and then. So, while the odds of it happening at a given moment are low, and are mitigated by sticking with quality brands, it can happen to any scope at any time, and over the years I have seen examples of virtually all makes of scopes fail dismally.

Since scope failure is totally random it isn't something you can guard against, but you must keep the possibility in the back of your mind, because it can be extremely insidious. If you're lucky the failure will be catastrophic--the reticle falls out, or the front objective falls off--because then you know you have a scope problem.

But what if the scope shakes just a wee bit loose inside or the scope mount is just a wee bit loose? The rifle is shifting zero or won't quite hold zero, but the problem isn't so gross that you suspect the scope or mounts as the culprit right away.

Now you can do some damage. On the range you might abandon perfectly good loads, recrown a perfectly good barrel, or, perhaps worst of all, hack on perfectly good bedding, when all that was really needed was to put a different scope on the rifle and send the offending scope back for warranty repair.

In the field, you can wind up missing an animal and kicking yourself for years when it may not have been your fault at all. And of course, since Mr. Murphy is lurking out there, the animal you miss will have been the trophy you had been seeking for decades.

The thing is, scope problems are not uncommon. In my business of frequently testing rifles for various articles I'm often throwing unfamiliar scopes on unfamiliar rifles. There have been too many occasions when I've had a rifle that ought to shoot better than it did--and a "slightly bad" scope proved to be the problem.

However, field shooting is not a perfect science. We are usually shooting from less than perfect positions, not always at stationary animals offering crystal-clear presentations, and not always at known distances.

I'll be honest: I breathe a sigh of relief when I make a decent hit on any game animal, and if I'm an inch or two off from a perfect hit I don't second-guess myself too much. So you can have a situation where you have failure masked by success.

This is exactly what I had going on a recent hunt in Argentina. I was shooting my 7x57, which was shooting perfectly at the range, but when I arrived in Argentina the bullet strike was inexplicably high, so I adjusted the scope.

I shot a water buffalo at maybe 30 yards with a 175-grain Barnes Super Solid, a perfect brain shot. No problem. Hunting with hounds, I shot a capybara at about 10 yards, and I killed a monstrous wild pig at maybe 10 feet. No problem.

I also missed a collared peccary running across a narrow opening, a fast shot at 50 yards. A tough running shot that looked good but wasn't. No problem. But since we were also going to hunt free-range blackbuck antelope I thought I'd better check my zero. I fired a shot at a 50-yard target and discovered it now was a bit low, so I adjusted the scope.

The next morning I missed another shot at a collared peccary, almost the same situation--moving fast across a narrow opening. Had I connected it would have been a fantastic shot, no shame in missing, nothing lost in trying--except the crosshairs had looked really good when the rifle went off.

I headed to the range and hung a target at 100 yards. The rifle was now left, right, up and down and was holding an eight-inch group.

The screws were all tight, humidity hadn't changed, but a very good scope, never mind which brand, has suddenly and mysteriously gone south. I don't much care about missing a javelina, but if I hadn't gotten suspicious I wouldn't have had a snowball's chance of taking what turned out to be a great blackbuck antelope with a borrowed .270.

These things shouldn't happen, but they can and they do. There is no way to properly guard against them, simply because any mechanical device can fail. However, what you can do is follow your instincts.

If you have even the slightest suspicion of a problem, chase it down and try to isolate it. Most of the time the problem will be the shooter, whether it's you or me--but not always--and when a scope goes out you have no choice but to switch it out or borrow a rifle.

Recommended for You


Three Rangefinder Products from Leica

J. Scott Rupp - May 08, 2019

If you're a serious shooter with deep pockets, these Leica products are worthy of...


Winchester Twins: The .264 and .338 Magnum

Craig Boddington - May 24, 2019

Winchester's .264 and .338 magnums were both born 60 years ago but took very different paths.


Rifle Shooter Father's Day 2019 Gift Guide

J. Scott Rupp - May 07, 2019

Rifle Shooter editor Scott Rupp provides a comprehensive list of ideal Father's Day gifts.

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Springfield Armory Saint Victor

The SAINT' Victor Rifle delivers a lightweight and agile rifle solution while maintaining effectiveness at extended engagement distances.

RS Sako Finnlight II

The new Sako Finnlight II sports an innovative stock and Cerakote metal paired with the terrific 85 action.

Tactical Solutions Introduces New X-Ring Takedown SBR Rifle

Keith Feeley of Tactical Solutions sat down with Michael Bane at SHOT Show 2018 to talk about the new X-Ring Takedown SBR .22LR rifle.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories


Browning's New X-Bolt Max Long Range Rifle

Rifle Shooter Digital Staff - April 11, 2019

Browning's new X-Bolt Max Long Range rifle is an accurate rifle tailored for long range...


Anschutz Establishes U.S. Branch, Separates from Steyr

RifleShooter Online Staff - June 10, 2014

On June 2, 2014, Anschutz announced the start of a subsidiary branch in the United States.


Review: Performance Center-Thompson/Center LRR

Alfredo Rico - April 09, 2019

Thompson/Center and S&W's Performance Center team up to build an entry-level long-range...

See More Stories

More How-To


Spit Shine: 4 Steps To A Clean Rifle

Brad Fitzpatrick - May 29, 2012

Aftermarket barrels, good triggers, premium ammo and top-shelf optics will all help your rifle


Tubb's Tips: Serious Dry Firing

February 18, 2011

Everyone dry-fires, or at least knows they should, but how sincerely do you treat...


Getting The Right Overall Length

Joseph von Benedikt - December 11, 2017

Hornady's Lock-N-Load OAL tool (straight and cuved, red) and Sinclair's seating depth tool...

See More How-To

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction.


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.