What are the most important factors to consider when choosing your rifle scope?

In the worst case that question has about as many answers as the classic "How long is a piece of string?".

Hunters and shooters today have more scopes than ever and sales of quick release riflescope rings (that allows switching between scopes without having to worry about zeroing your rifle each time) has never been higher. With this in mind, we understand that looking through our wide range of optics and riflescope accessories can be challenging so we decided to try and help you out.

As always (in times of great need) we have written an unacceptably long and detailed guide which will hopefully answer all of your questions and inspire you. It isn't really all that complicated, the basic principles of what you need to consider when it's time to buy a rifle scope is actually quite simple and once you understand them the business jargon will be much easier to understand.

This might be a good time to state the obvious: You are of course always welcome to contact us if you have general questions or need help with specific queries about any of our products.  

Another clarifying statement may also be in order before we start. This guide aims to provide basic knowledge for hunters and shooters looking for a riflescope for "normal" hunting and shooting needs. More extreme activities like tactical shooting, shooting at long distances and other similar activities that put a different set of requirements in play for your choice of riflescope will not be addressed in this guide. Those of you who are looking for a discussion on topics like parallax, MOA, mil-dot and such might therefore be a little disappointed, but we hope to make amends at a later time.  

We have also written a few other guides on related topics that might be good reading.

Let's move on...  

Just as there isn't a rifle that is perfect for all types of hunting or a knife that is optimal for every use, there is no rifle scope that is superior in every aspect. However, you can find scopes that are a good compromise that works well all-round for most types of hunting. After all, most hunters settle with one or two rifles and doesn't own more than one riflescope per rifle.

As with all compromises there are disadvantages, so it is might be good to think a few things over before making the purchase decision, such as: "What will I be hunting?", "What time of year/day will I be doing my hunting?" and "What is my budget?"

(Anyone who has family know that the last question is usually answered with two counter-questions: "How much space do I have in the back of the gun cabinet?" and "How believable will I be when I claim it's been there the whole time?")

Well, we are going to let you answer the last two questions on your own. But we will gladly help you with the rest, so lets move forward!

Part 1: Magnification


The magnification indicates the "zooming capability" or how many times closer you will feel to the object you are viewing when looking through the scope. In other words, a magnification of 6x times will give the perception of the target being 6 times closer than if viewed with a naked eye. A moose at a distance of 120 meters in the riflescope thus look as if it is 20 meters away.

99% of all riflescopes feature variable magnification today which means there are two end positions which limit the magnification range of the scope. This is called the minimum and maximum magnification of the scope and they are usually the first two digits of the riflescope model designation.

For example, 4-16x50 (which is read out loud as "four, sixteen, fifty" in everyday speech) means that the lowest possible magnification of the scope is 4x and the highest possible magnification is 16x. With this scope you will then never be able  to "zoom out" more than to 4 times magnification and never "zoom in" closer than 16 times magnification.  

The main advantage of a magnification as high as 16x is that it "gets up close" to the target even at very long distances and (in theory) makes it easier to place your shot exactly where you want it. The flip side is that the target may feel "too close" over short distances even at the lowest magnification, which means that it may be difficult to determine that you are looking at the right target or what might be hiding in the environment around it.

A good example is if there are hunting dogs or other animals in the vicinity of the target that risk getting hurt from a poorly placed bullet. This is vital information that any responsible shooter must know before taking a shot. If the magnification is too high and you find yourself with a target at close range you may also find that "all you see is fur" when looking through the scope. This will make it difficult to determine if you are about to place a clean shot in the "kill zone" or if you are looking at the hind parts, risking to wound the animal and cause unnecessary suffering. (Naturally, this is something we want to avoid at any cost.)

It is also important to remember that the image is perceived as less stable when the magnification is increased. In other words, a riflescope with high magnification needs much better support to be able to aim properly and makes it harder to hit moving targets as the scope will amplify all shaking and other uneven movements with the same multiple as the magnification. Even a small twist of your hand can feel like an earthquake at 16x magnification and make you completely lose sight of the target.  

Lets look a scope with lower magnification as a comparison. A scope designated 1.1-4x24 ("one, four, twenty-four") has almost no magnification at all* at the lowest setting, making it suitable for quick shooting sequencies, moving targets and short range shots. Using a scope with a 1x magnification will also let you fire your rifle with both eyes open. The disadvantage is obvious: you can not get closer than 4x magnification which may be perceived as too little for hunting at longer distances.

The magnification range is always based on a multiple called the magnification ratio, commonly around 3-4x. A magnification ratio of 4x means that the maximum magnification is four times greater than the lowest (1-4 / 1,5-6 / 2,5-10 / 3-12 / etc.) . There are even scopes that have magnification ratios as high as 8x which should be great as it can give both small and big magnification at the same time, right?

There is a catch, of course. The disadvantage of higher magnification ratios is that they require more lenses to bet put into the riflescope. Each lens that the light has to pass trough on its' way to your eye will degrade the image to some extent and "steal" some of the light and make the image darker. Depending on the manufacturing quality of the scope and external conditions this effect may be more or less noticeable, but a higher magnification ratio will in theory always give poorer light transmission and more "distortion" of the image.

A final thought on this subject may be: "More poorly placed shots have been fired by hunters who used a high magnification at short range than by hunters firing their rifles over a long distance with low magnification."

A common beginner mistake is to think "more magnification is better" but the fact of the matter is that 33% of the moose in Scandinavia are shot within a distance of 60 meters and only 5% are shot at a range exceeding 100 meters. About 6x magnification should be more than enough for a normally skilled shooter to place a clean kill shot at a target as big as a moose at 100 meters (many recommend using lower magnification than that, especially at moving targets). In other words, a rifle scope with a maximum magnification of 6-8x magnification will cover 95% of the Scandinavian hunter's needs, provided that it can also zoom out to a much lower magnification.  

*Extracurricular information: it is quite complicated to manufacture rifle scopes with both "true magnification of 1x" and variable magnification because all lenses must have a certain degree of magnification in order for the mechanism to work (since X mulitplied by zero is always zero) and therefore there will be a certain magnification even at the lowest setting . The effect is so small that most people will not even notice it, meaning they can still aim with both eyes open which is often the purpose of a scope with 1x magnification.  

Part 2: Objective Diameter - Twilight properties , light transmission and exit pupil


The term twilight properties is wide to say the least . Basically, it is an attempt to describe how your riflescope will perform in poor light conditions. There are some objective ways of measuring this with mathematical factors such as light transmission, exit pupil and the twilight factor that will be adressed below, but this subject will also touch a variety of soft factors and individual preferences, making it hard to say with any degree of certainty what exactly is required in order for you to feel confident enough to fire your rifle in challenging lighting conditions.

What suits your eye is impossible to determine on the basis of a technical specification, but by understanding the technical terms we can make sure that you have the best theoretical basis for choosing a good riflescope for your needs.

So, lets start from the theoretical beginning. When you look at something your eye collects light of different wavelengths that your brain then translates into an image. This means that the riflescopes ability to collect enough light and forward it (without too much distortion) to your eye is critical in order for you to create a clear picture of what you are watching.

The amount of light a rifle scope may collect and pass on to the eye is primarly determined by the size of the front lens and the quality of the other lenses behind it. The front lens size is expressed as the objective lens diameter and it is commonly specified as a value in millimeters after the "x" in the model designation. In the examples above, the 4-16x50 scope has a lens diameter of 50 mm and the 1.1-4x24 has a lens diameter of 24 mm.

As stated earlier, the size of the front lens determines how much light the riflescope can collect. We know for a fact that  some of the light that hits the front lens will never reach your eye. The light that actually makes it "all the way" is what is measured as the light transmission and it is expressed as a percentage. Scopes of high quality have lenses that are made of special materials and have different types of coatings to provide a light transmission as high as possible, which also means that the price tag of more advanced optical equipment is substantially higher than their cheaper counterparties.

The twilight performance of your riflescope is also affected by the so-called exit pupil. The exit pupil describes the diameter of the image projected from the lens into your eye and is high relevant in poor lighting conditions. The human pupil dilates (expands) in darkness and dim light to let in more light and give better night vision. The pupil of a young, healthy individual can normally dilate up to about 7 mm, but the pupil's ability to dilate declines with age. (Which also explains why young people generally have better night vision than older ones. )  

This means that a rifle scope that has an exit pupil that is smaller than the size of the maximally dilated pupil of the individual using it will decrease the brightness of the image. In other words, the shooter feels that the image gets darker through the riflescope than when viewing the same scene with the naked eye.  

The exit pupil is calculated by dividing the objective lens diameter by the magnification setting. This means a rifle scope with 50mm front lens and 4-12x magnification range will have an exit pupil of 12.5 when the magnification is set to 4x and about 4.17 when the magnification is pulled up to 12x. Since the most a human pupil can dilate is about 7 mm this particular riflescope will not limit the brightness of the image at all at the lower magnification settings, but if we turn the magnification up to 12x and get an exit pupil of 4.17 the scope will impair the night vision of any individual who can dilate his or her pupil more than 4.17 mm. (Those who cannot will have equally poor night vision through the scope and with the naked eye.)

A final thought for this section could be: "The size of the exit pupil is only relevant in relation to your own pupils ability to dilate and will only affect the riflescope performance in poor lighting conditions. It is mainly a problem that needs to be considered when dealing with high magnification and/or scopes with small objective lenses."

Part 3: Reticle


Choosing the reticle of your riflescope is often what comes next in line on the list of priorities after choosing the magnification range and objective lens diameter of the scope. There are (of course) a large variety of options and more advanced riflescopes for long range shooting and tactical use often have special reticles (such as mil-dot) for range estimation, compensating for moving targets and wind drift, etc. Since the purpose of this guide mainly is to help those who are looking for a riflescope for normal hunting and shooting purposes (and keeping this a blog post and not a book) we will skip the more advanced parts of the subject.

There are several common types of reticles. The most common of all (among Swedish hunters) is probably 4A or "the German four". This is a simple reticle that is clear and well suited for most common types of hunting. There are also several other reticles in the same manner of style as the 4A.

Generally speaking there is no sensible reason to buy scopes with more complex reticles than necessary if they are to be used for normal hunting. Too many lines, crosses and figures are more likely to do harm than good as they may confuse the shooter in fast hunting sequences and stressful situations. In other words, think "less is probably more" in this matter unless you have a very clear idea of what reticle you want and what you need it for.

It has also become increasingly common with illuminated reticles as the prices of this technology have dropped, which is a great thing. Illuminated reticles have several advantages, the most obvious being that they are much easier to see against the dark background presented by the fur of a moose or a boar (especially in poor lighting conditions).

A final thought might be in place for this section, as well: "The easier it is for your eye to find and perceive the reticle and the more intuitive it is to use, the less strain is put on your eyes. This helps the rest of your body relax, providing a safer and more accurate overall shooting."

Conclusion


Those who have tried many different types and brands of riflescopes will likely agree with us when we say there is a big difference in quality and that you (more or less) get what you pay for when it comes to optics. A riflescope that costs €1500 is likely several levels better than a rifle scope that cost €300 although the specifications may look comparable at a glance. This does not necessarily mean that the more expensive choice always has to be the right thing, of course. It all comes down to what you are going to use your scope for,  what your budget allows, how often you are going to use it and under what conditions.

There is also the fact that with experience comes knowledge and understanding of personal preference. If you are a complete rookie and needs to buy your first rifle scope (maybe you don't even know what type of hunting you will be doing most yet) our tip to buy a riflescope that is all-around and will let you try many different types of hunting without feeling limited. A scope with magnification range that starts somewhere around 2-3x and goes to 10-12x, with a lens diameter around 42/50mm will be good as an all-round scope for Scandinavian hunting purposes..  

It may also be a good idea to start with a riflescope in a lower price category to get you started on the journey towards knowing your personal preferences. This will let you change between different scopes if the first one isn't a "perfect match". When you've found what you like you can always upgrade to a scope of higher quality with similar specifications. This is also a good way to make sure you don't feel trapped into using a riflescope that doesn't really suit you, just because it happened to be very expensive...

For those who are a little more experienced, have a larger budget or know that they will engage in very wide variety of hunting types a good option may be to invest in two riflescopes . One that is smaller, lighter and with a lower magnification for fast hunting sequences and short ranges and the other with higher magnification and a larger objective for shooting over longer ranges and poor lighting conditions. These can preferably be mounted with quick release rings so you can easily switch between the two scopes without having to buy more than one rifle.

The advantage is obvious: you can both have the cake and eat it. The downside is equally obvious: it quickly becomes pretty expensive.

We hope this guide will help you in making a great choice when buying your next riflescope. In our shop you will find all of our riflescopes sorted by brand and model family to make it easier to find exactly what you seek. We also have a wide range of accessories and mounts for rifle scopes.  

If you need any help finding what you are looking for or have other questions,please contact us and we will be happy to assist you. Feedback, comments and suggestions on this guide are also welcome!

Best regards,
Active Outfit