Have you been thinking about buying a rifle scope, but find yourself having trouble figuring out where to start?
The terminology, the technical specs, and all of the acronyms can make scope purchases a trying ordeal for inexperienced buyers.
Fortunately, all it takes is a little bit of knowledge to make choosing a rifle scope easy as pie.
If you are in the market for a new rifle scope, or simply want to have a better understanding of scope buying we’re here to help!
Or if you’re looking for non-magnified optics such as red-dots and holographic sights, take a look at this.
Table of Contents
What Do You Need?
Whatever your level of knowledge might be regarding scopes, the first thing is to decide what exactly you want from your new glass.
Are you a long distance target shooter?
Are you a small game hunter who generally takes shorter range shots?
Do you often find yourself shooting in low light conditions?
During this process, you will also want to make sure to understand the mounting capabilities of your gun.
Also, if you’re running an AR platform, make sure you’re not overloading your gun and making it unwieldy…
Understand the Market to Get the Best Scope
Once you start researching actual scopes online, you will be bombarded by dozens and dozens of scope models and optics companies and you will likely feel a little lost.
I know that I was the first time I began researching rifle scopes.
There are scopes ranging from cheap $50 Chinese imports all the way up to $4,000+ ultra super high-end scopes, and knowing when to scrimp and when to splurge can be difficult.
While no blog post is going to make you a complete expert on rifle scopes, this will hopefully provide you with enough information to feel confident in your rifle scope search.
Buy Once, Cry Once
I can say right off the bat that many of the very cheap scopes that are out there for sale are as cheap as they are for a reason.
Between poor craftsmanship and unnecessary features, these cheap scopes should be completely ignored by everyone.
This is coming from someone who has fallen victim to all of the impressive claims that are made by cheap scope manufacturers and resellers.
Luckily, my mistake and experience with a dirt-cheap scope can save you from the same fate now.
Let me just say that it didn’t take long for my past self to realize that in the world of scopes, like credit card offers and prenuptial agreements, if it sounds too good to be true it most definitely is.
If you want some first-hand proof though, we took a bunch of sub-$100 red dots and ran a destruction test. The results were… predictable.
The dirt-cheap scopes aren’t worth anyone’s time and the very expensive scopes really aren’t needed by anyone except elite competition shooters and military/law enforcement members.
There is a middle ground in the riflescope market that includes a great variety of quality scopes at prices that fit within a comfortable budget for the majority of shooters.
Things to Know Before Choosing a Rifle Scope
As I mentioned before, this article isn’t really going to make you a rifle scope expert.
You’ll still need to do some more research to fully understand this stuff, but after we finish here you should at least know enough to know what you don’t know.
Understanding some of the more basic terms will not only help you to know which scopes fit your personal needs, but they will also make rifle scope product descriptions and reviews easier to comprehend.
This is the front lens of the scope, and is measured in millimeters. The larger the objective lens is, the more light that can enter the scope.
More light means that a larger objective lens will typically perform better in low light conditions.
The size of the objective lens is found immediately after the magnification of a scope. For example, a 3-9×40 scope has a magnification range of 3x to 9x and the objective lens has a diameter of 40mm.
No, not the dragon from Skyrim.
When talking about scopes and optics, parallax is the difference between your reticle and the focal plane of what you’re looking at.
In short, it is an optical illusion that can really throw off your shot, especially at long ranges.
When you’re looking through your scope, the reticle should stay at the same spot on the target, no matter what angle you’re looking into the objective lens from.
If you shift your gaze and find the reticle shifts with it…then you need to adjust for parallax. This is usually accomplished by turning a side turret on higher-end scopes.
However, your scope might have an Adjustable Objective. This is basically the same thing, except adjusted by turning a ring on the front end of the scope.
Or you might not have either. While most long range scopes have a parallax adjustment of some kind, not all of them do.
Here’s a video that explains things so you can get a better idea of how parallax works, and how to correct for it to make those long range shots.
Understanding Scope Coatings
Most any rifle scope is going to come with lens coatings to improve performance.
These are found on the surface of the lenses to reduce light loss and reduce glare. In general, the more coatings a glass surface has, the better the light transmission will be.
However, with that being said, it is possible for a scope with multiple coatings on the lens to still perform worse than a scope with only a single coating. These variations are due to differences in glass quality and coating application.
Scope companies with respected names will typically use good quality glass and can be trusted to provide good to great light transmission.
There are four different accepted industry terms to describe the different levels of coatings:
- Coated – single layer of coating on at least one lens surface on the scope
- Fully Coated – single layer on all glass surfaces exposed to air
- Multicoated – multiple layers on at least one lens surface
- Fully Multicoated – multiple layers on all air to glass surfaces
Getting Acquainted With Scope Reticles
Reticles are the lines, dots and hashmarks that are used to aim the rifle at the intended target. The reticle is also commonly called the crosshairs.
There are many different types of reticles available in rifle scopes. Many scope companies even have their own original reticle styles.
I personally am a fan of the standard mil-dot reticle. I find it to be the most intuitive reticle that offers a lot of versatility.
In addition to accurately placing shots on target, the standard mil-dot reticle can also be used to easily adjust for windage and even approximate the range of targets.
Some scope companies have developed their own custom reticle or crosshair systems that are unique to the different brands.
One example of that is the Primary Arms ACSS family of reticles.
These reticles are geared for accurate shooting at know distances and include a BDC system for extended range. They also allow the shooter to roughly range targets, if you know how.
Scope Turrets are the two knobs protruding from the main tube of the scope that allows the shooter to adjust the reticle for accuracy.
The knob on top of the scope is called the elevation turret and is used to adjust the point of impact vertically up or down.
The knob on the side of the scope is called the windage turret and is used to adjust the point of impact horizontally left and right.
Generally speaking, turrets come in two major flavors — exposed (or tactical) and capped (or hunting).
Exposed turrets are great for quick adjustments or for dialing in your shots (the act of adjusting your turrets while aiming to account for range and wind) but are normally heavier, more expensive, and can be unintentionally adjusted while moving in the field.
Capped turrets are basically the opposite. They are often lighter, cheaper, and do not get bumped around in the field or hung up on gear. But they can’t be adjusted on the fly with ease. Once zeroed, you’re going to rely on your reticle and some Kentucky windage (estimating) for final adjustments for wind and range.
Some audibly click with each single adjustment and some don’t. This can vary from company to company and the quality of the scope.
If you can, make sure you get a scope with turrets that click audibly. Being able to see, hear, and feel your clicks is a strong sign of a quality scope.
Field Of View
Field of view or FOV is the amount of area from left to right, typically measured at 100 yards, that can be seen when looking through the scope. Field of view is an important factor to consider when choosing your scope.
For example, if you do a lot of hunting in heavy cover and require fast target acquisition, a lower powered scope and a larger field of view would be ideal.
For long distance target shooters, a wide field of view tends to be less important. Magnification, or the scope’s power has an inverse relationship with field of view.
As magnification goes up, field of view distance goes down.
Magnification is just the power rating of the scope. For example, a 10X scope will make an object appear ten times larger when viewed through the scope.
There are both fixed magnification scopes and variable magnification scopes. Variable scopes allow you to change the magnification for different shooting conditions and requirements.
Minute-Of-Angle (MOA) And Milliradians (Mil or MRAD)
Understanding Minute-of-Angle (MOA)
Minute-of-Angle, or MOA is a unit of measurement of a circle that is equal to 1.0472 inches at 100 yards. If you’re shooting at short to mid-range, you can just consider 1 MOA = 1 inch at 100 yards.
So if you hear a shooter talking about shooting a sub-MOA group with their rifle, that means that the circle that all of their shots fit inside on the target is less than one inch in diameter at 100 yards.
At 1000 yards, a one MOA gun and scope will translate to a ten-inch group.
Minute-of-Angle is a common unit of measurement for scope adjustment.
For example, a scope that lists ¼” MOA as the adjustment rate on the turrets will move the point of impact ¼ MOA per click of the turret.
Understanding Milliradian (Mil or Mrad)
So, like MOA, a mil or mrad is just an angular measurement.
The difference is, while there are 21,600 minutes in a circle, there are 6.2832 radians in a circle, and each radian has 1,000 milliradians in it, so there are 6,283.2 milliradians per circle.
Really, the only practical difference between MOA and mil is that the unit of measure is different. There’s nothing magical or mysterious going on here.
Conceptually we’re just talking about the same difference between inches and centimeters. Neither is wrong, they are just different.
At 100 yards, a mil subtends — or measures, for our purposes — 3.6 inches. Just like 1 MOA measures roughly 1 inch at 100 yards. At 200 yards, 1 mil is 7.2 inches. At 1,000 yards, 1 mil is 36 inches.
Common Misunderstanding in MOA Vs. Mils
Something you’ll see, read, and hear people say is that the difference between MOA and Mils is basically (or exactly) the difference between the imperial system and the metric system.
And that if you want to use yards, you should use MOA. Or if you want to use meters, you should use Mils.
This… really isn’t true. Sort of.
1 MOA at 100 yards is 1.047 inches, that makes it easy to round to 1 inch at 100 yards and in turn makes using yards with MOA very simple and quick.
However, mils don’t require the use of meters. At 100 meters 1 mil is 10 centimeters and since most mil scopes use 1/10th mil clicks, 1 click equals 1 cm at 100 meters. While convenient to use meters/centimeters, this isn’t required.
This is where the breakdown in communication occurs. Since mils are an angular measurement, the unit of measurement is irrelevant — it just needs to be the same. 1 mil at 1,000 yards is 1 yard. 1 mil at 1,000 meters is 1 meter. 1 mil at 1,000 inches is 1 inch.
If you want to use yards and mils, you can. If you want to use meters, you can. The math stays the same, mostly.
1/10th mil click at 100 yards = .36 inches.
1/10th mil click at 100 meters = 1 cm
Mils Vs. MOA
The first thing to understand is that there is no major advantage to either system. Despite what you may see on different forums and in different articles, both systems can be equally as effective and accurate.
And despite what some may claim, there really isn’t a difference in precision either for the vast majority of people. .10 mil at 100 yards is .36 inches, 1/4 moa at 100 yards is .26 inches.
If you really need more precision of adjustment, get a scope in .05 mil clicks or 1/8th MOA clicks.
Really the major advantage comes from communication with other shooters.
Mils are by far the most common in long range competitive shooting disciplines like NRL or PRS. Whereas F-Class more commonly uses MOA.
Tactical shooting is also more commonly done in mils since mils are what law enforcement and the military teach.
Hunting can use both, but it’s still more likely to see and talk in MOA since the convenience of 1″ = 1 MOA at 100 yards is just too simple to ignore.
The second thing to understand is that no matter which one you decide to go with, it is vitally important to get a scope with a matching reticle and turret system.
Otherwise, you’re going to be (hopefully figuratively) shooting yourself in the foot when it comes to making those long range shots. Finding scopes that aren’t in MIL/MIL or MOA/MOA isn’t common these days, but it’s good to check.
Recommended Zeroing Distances for Rifle Scopes
Your zero is the distance at which your rifle is sighted in at. For example, a 100 yard zero means that your rifle is sighted in for that distance and the center of your scope’s reticle will be on target at that range.
Here’s an expert shooter with some more information.
You’ll need to adjust for targets that are further away or closer than your zero by compensating for bullet drop.
What zero is right for you totally depends on what you’re shooting at and what you’re shooting with.
For me that means my hunting and long range rifles are zeroed at 100 yards, my AR-15s are normally zeroed at 36/300 yards, and my handguns at 10 yards.
Why 36/300 you ask? Check out the Best Battlesight Zero for that answer!
First Focal Plane vs. Second Focal Plane
During the process of doing research on rifle scopes, you will likely come across the terms first focal plane and second focal plane. These terms refer to what the reticle does during magnification changes in the scope.
Pros and Cons of Second Focal Plane Reticles
At the most basic level, the reticle in a rifle scope using the second focal plane will stay the same size at any magnification level the scope offers.
This means that a rifle with a drop compensating reticle such as the ACSS reticle will have to remain at the same magnification setting that was used during the sighting in of the rifle (or you’ll have to do some quick math to compensate manually).
For example, if you zero your rifle at 100 yards at 4x magnification using a second focal plane scope, the scope will need to remain at 4x magnification for the ranging capabilities of the reticle to remain accurate.
This can make shooting at longer ranges using higher magnification levels on that scope a challenge.
Second focal plane scopes are more common and normally a good bit cheaper.
Another benefit of the second focal plane is that the reticle will remain thin over the target even at higher magnifications which can allow for more precise shot placement.
Pros and Cons of First Focal Plane Reticles
On the other hand, the reticle in a scope using the first focal plane will get larger or smaller as magnification is increased or decreased.
This means that your ranging capabilities of your reticle will remain consistent at any magnification, which becomes very useful when using the reticle to estimate range and for determining hold-over in longer range shots.
One downfall of a first focal plane reticle is that the reticle grows at higher magnifications which can partially obscure targets at long ranges and make pinpoint shot placement a little less precise.
I personally prefer first focal plane reticles, but I’ll stop short of recommending one strongly because other shooters do have different needs.
You should also note that while they are becoming more common, first focal plane scopes are still less common on the market than second focal plane scopes.
Extra Advice For Choosing a Rifle Scope
First off, make sure to include the approximate cost of a good quality scope and mount into the budget for your rifle.
It doesn’t make any sense to buy an expensive rifle and then put cheap glass on top of it. Trust me, you will not be happy if you wind up going that route.
As a general rule, to get the most out of your rifle, you’ll want to plan on spending at least half as much on the scope and scope mount as you do on the rifle itself.
Of course, if you’re going to make a serious run at being a competition shooter, or are going to be ringing steel at a thousand yards regularly, you may want to spend a bit more.
Secondly, there is nothing wrong with purchasing a used scope. You can find some great deals this way and it can also help you get a scope that would be out of your budget if purchased new.
Many scope companies offer great warranties on scopes and some are even transferable between owners.
Finally, don’t be afraid to pull the trigger on a rifle scope. Pun intended.
It is easy to fall in the trap of too much research and getting lost in the details when trying to choose a rifle scope. Try to avoid overthinking it.
If nothing else, the resell market for most scopes stays pretty high.
Now that you know what you’re looking at, you’ll want some recommendations!
That… is a very long topic though, so I strongly recommend reading the articles for dedicated types of scopes.
- Best Long Range Scopes
- Best Night Vision Scopes
- Best 1-6x Scopes
- Best Budget Red Dots
- Best Scopes for 1,000+ Yards
- Best AR-15 Scopes & Optics
- Best ACOG Scopes
And some additional reading that you’ll find helpful!
I hope that this article was able to clear up any question you may have had about researching scopes and deciding on which one to buy.
And that it also gave you some good places to start looking for your new rifle scope. I know that I would have appreciated a lot of this information when I started the process for the first time.
What advice would you offer to a first time rifle scope buyer? Or if you are a first time scope buyer, are there any areas where you are still confused? Let us know in the comments below!