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Choosing Optics

By Michael Haugen
Copyright 2001

Choosing optics for your rifle is perhaps the single hardest thing to do next to actually deciding which rifle to buy. The problem is that in many cases the optics cost as much if not more than the rifle itself which only makes the decision all that much harder.

In order to select which set of optics is best for you and your weapon you have to ask yourself some questions:

“What am I going to use this rifle for the most?”
“How much (often) am I going to use this rifle?”

These are the basic questions, which by themselves will not make the complete selection, but will help identify they type, quality and price range.

Depending on your focus optics can be broken into different categories to help differentiate between uses and users. For the purpose of this document we will use three (3) categories; hunting optics, target optics, and tactical optics. Let’s take closer look at them.

Hunting Optics

The most common example of optics are hunting scopes which can be identified usually by screwdriver adjustments for elevation and windage, which are set when zeroing and then left alone during the hunt. Most are variable power and range in power from 6 – 12 (and everything in between). Most hunting scopes come with simple cross hair or duplex type reticles. The majority of hunting scopes are 1” diameter tubes with objective lenses ranging from 40 – 50mm.

Target Optics

Target optics are typified by fixed high magnification, finger adjustments and a simple crosshair or a single dot style reticle (dot in the middle of a crosshair). Most target optics have 1” tubes with 40 – 45mm objectives. Most target optics have adjustable focus and/or are adjustable for parallax.

Tactical Optics

Tactical optics share some of the attributes of the other two. Generally they are of lower power (6 – 10), are sometimes variable, and have finger adjustable target style turrets. Reticles for tactical optics vary greatly in style and complexity.

Now of course the above is VERY basic and in no way is conclusive or probably even helpful. So we will begin to look even closer as we look at the applications and some of the variations.

Anyone even remotely familiar with rifles has seen hunting type scopes. They available at most major department stores to include K-Mart and Wal-Mart. These optics are what the manufacturers make their money on as they have the highest sales rate. Virtually every scope maker today makes scopes for the hunting community and they span the price range from cheap to extremely expensive. The interesting thing about hunting style optics is that they have directly benefited from the specialty scopes made for the target and tactical communities. A high quality hunting scope is made right along side the high dollar tactical scopes many times sharing the internal workings. Even the cheaper scopes today are made much better than the more expensive models of years ago. Hunting scope adjustments are generally ¼ MOA which is fine for all types of shooting, however the screwdriver adjustments are less than desirable for shooters who adjust for environmental conditions or ballistic differences in ammunition. In some cases there is a fix for this situation, a company named Stoney Point makes target knobs that replace the adjustment protective knobs that are factory. These knobs allow the user to make finger adjustments so the scope owner who has a great scope that he uses for hunting and wants to use it for target or tactical work can have the best of both worlds. Reticle patterns have also come along way, it is possible to get virtually any reticle one would desire in a hunting style scope today. Hunting style scopes are designed to be used in a rough environment used on game of relatively close range (300 yards and in) and in periods of daylight and subsequently is very well made. The potential buyer must not discount hunting scopes for other uses but should be careful when buying cheaper scopes for large caliber or magnum rifles. Heavy recoil does very bad things to scopes.

Like hunting optics, target scopes have made some improvements over the last 20 or so years. This statement is directed towards most major brands of scopes like Leupold, Burris, Bushnell, etc. The old style optics like Unertl which were superior quality 20 years ago, still dominate much of the target world. The one thing that target optics normally have is optical clarity, this combined with high magnification allow bench rest shooters to place numerous rounds into one hole (of course the superb rifle doesn’t hurt either). Target optics are generally available in ¼ MOA or 1/8 MOA adjustments and use finger adjustable turrets for finite shot/environment adjustments. It is possible today to get a very good quality target scope for a very affordable price that will suffice for most hobby shooters. Some examples are the Weaver V16 and Tasco World Class target silhouette 24 or 36x. Reticle patterns that are normally found in target scopes are the basic fine crosshair or the crosshair with a dot (1/8 moa is normal). Keep in mind that these scopes are designed to be used on known ranges where the shooter can observe wind flags and has some history of performance there. Target scopes were the norm for tactical work for years before manufacturers began to fill that void. Most quality target scopes can be used on the majority of rifles, but as I mentioned above if you are shooting a heavy recoiling rifle choose well.

The most recent addition to the optic community is the tactical series of scopes. These optics were developed due to a justified need by military snipers and Law Enforcement shooters. As I mentioned earlier on, tactical optics share several attributes of the other two; the lower power of hunting scopes and the finger adjustments of target optics. However, tactical scopes go far beyond the other two styles. Tactical scopes are designed to be used in extremely rough and harsh environments, they normally come with some type of range finding reticle and are normally adjustable for focus and parallax. Common tactical optics have a 30mm tube for durability and an objective lenses that can range from 40 – 50+ mm in size. A wide variety of reticle patterns are available ranging from basic crosshairs to very “busy” range finding/environmental adjustable patterns. Tactical optics are available in different types of adjustment such as ¼ moa up to 1 moa depending on the model and the intended use. The one thing that most tactical optics share is high price, most quality tactical scopes start at $1000 and more. However there are lower priced good quality scopes available if you just look for them, Tasco offers some excellent examples. Most companies make 1” tube scopes with many of the same tactical options as the 30mm variants such as ranging reticles and finger adjustable target turrets and make great additions to any rifle.

By now you are developing an idea of what you are interested in. Now, lets look are some specific aspects of optics in general that will hopefully point you even more in the direction you want to go.


More commonly called power, is as I am sure you know the amount of times that the optics will magnify whatever you are looking at. More times than not, we as Americans think that bigger is better, this type of thinking generally gets people to buy 36x optics when they really need 6x. The main problem when it comes to optics if higher magnification is that on bright days the higher magnification will bring in the haze and mirage so much that the target is obscured. The most recent development and arguably the best improvement is variable power. The problem with variable power scope is that there are moving parts that can break or malfunction. However, long as the optics are good quality and track well variable power is the way to go. Be careful though of optics that have very wide variances in power, such as 6 – 36x or something that extreme. The variance should not be more that quadruple (4 times).

Objective size

This is the “big” end of the scope that the light enters through and is transmitted to the eye through the ocular or “little” end of the scope. Due to American society where bigger is always better, scope makers began making the objective ends larger and larger to the point now where you can find scope objectives 50mm and larger. Without getting overly technical they human eye can only absorb so much light. Large objective lenses transmit more light than can be used by the eye and is therefore wasted. Large objectives also brings height and clearance problems. Now some people would say that “it is better to have too much than not enough” which may be true in some instances but not with scopes. What you need to strive for is a medium between size, light gathering and light transmission. With the advent of high speed lens coatings objective lenses can be smaller and still transmit adequate light. An objective lens of around 40mm is adequate.

Main tube diameter

The controversy between 1 inch and 30mm rages among scope buyers and users. Bottom line here is that they both work equally well. The 30mm variants are generally more durable than the 1-inch tubes. However, everyone should remember that 1-inch tubes served many a shooter very well for years before the 30mm tubes were invented. In fact one manufacturer uses the exact same internals in both their 1” and 30mm scopes. What new users need to understand that in this case size really doesn’t matter unless you intend on really abusing your optics.

Reticle patterns

This is definitely the biggest issue as scopes go. There are so many different reticle patterns available there isn’t space here to go into everyone. Reticles can be placed into two groups, ranging reticles and non-ranging reticles.

Ranging reticles include any reticle that allows the user to determine or estimate range through the use of the pattern in the reticle. I will not champion any specific reticle pattern but what I will say that whatever reticle you use be completely familiar with its use, not just in theory but also in practical application. Most ranging reticles that have a shape such as a circle or rectangle use some known entity or standard (usually 18”, 24” or 36”). Of course the most popular pattern are mil dots. Much has been written about this reticle system and although it may not be the best or easiest system it is reliable if used properly. However, a potential buyer of a scope with mil dots must understand that it is not particularly useful against small targets. One of the better patterns I have seen are those employed by Shepard Scopes which are a series of rings that correspond to ranges.

Non-ranging reticles are simple crosshair, duplex reticle, heavy duplex, etc. These are the reticles you find in hunting and target scopes. There is nothing wrong with these reticles and they are just as useful as any other. Buyers should not discard buying a scope with a duplex reticle just because the rage is mil dots.

Mounting Systems

The last thing I will discuss here is mounting systems. Whatever scope you decide on, ensure that you use quality bases and rings. Do not fall into situation where you have a $500 scope mounted on a $600 rifle with $10 rings on top of a $5 base. Quality mounts do not have to cost more than the optics. Warne rings and bases are extremely good quality and they have applications for almost everything but they are not the only ones available. I will add here however that Weaver rings and bases while aluminum and thought to be of lower quality are generally very good. A key point here is NEVER use steel rings on an aluminum base or the other way around. The stronger material will destroy the other.

For those desiring to learn more check out the Internet, every manufacturer has a web site full of information. Those looking to buy should check out a site called which has the majority of optics you may wish to buy.

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Email: Shooter
Last updated:
February 11, 2003