Realistic scope selection for field shooting, what the salesman didn’t tell you

We’ve all seen them, the large objective, high powered variables with huge target knobs in the glass case at our favorite sporting goods stores. How we’ve coveted the capability to spot the left eyeball on that prairie dog or bad guy at 500 yards, just like in the movies or the promotional photos, with the crosshairs perfectly still. Ever tried to use that twenty-four powered scope in a prairie dog town? Pretty hard to find those little critters, isn’t it? Or how about finding and tracking that running deer with that variable set to ten-power?

Take a close look at the photos coming out of Iraq and Afghanistan . The troops are using a lot of zero magnification Aimpoints, Trijicon low powered ACOG’s and Leupold 3-9x MR/T’s (xx). When time is critical and second place goes home in a body bag, what works is what gets used.

Don’t get me wrong, I own my share of high powered scopes, and they have there place, usually on the target range or in competition, but seldom in the field.

In the 1960’s, the US Army embarked on an extensive study of field optics. The study found that anything above sixteen-power suffered under field conditions because of mirage. That is why most dedicated sniper scopes, like the Leupold Mk4’s and Kahles ZF-95 or Schmidt & Benders Tactical are made in fixed, six or ten-power versions.

Better Choices for big game

First let’s define our conditions. Most hunting of big game can be broken down into three categories: open country, woodlands or a mix of the two. Pretty straight forward really, you either spot your game a long way out, or in close. I haven’t conducted a scientific study, but I’d bet ninety percent of all game is taken within 300 yards. That being the case, lets talk about better choices. I grew up reading the likes of Bob Milek and Jack O’Conner, I don’t ever recall them talking about high powered scopes. The .270 Winchester is what O’Conner loved for open country, and fixed six-power scopes were the norm in the Western United States and Canada . In the heavy bush east of the Mississippi River or in the Pacific Northwest, Weaver K series and Redfield Widefield fixed two or three-powered scopes ruled the day.

For hunting in the heavy woods and thick brush, I’d choose a fixed two power scope. It’s lighter, less prone to failure (yes, scopes do fail) and provides a large field of view for close shots, even on moving game. If I’m expecting to encounter open areas with a shot potentially in the 100-200 yard range, then the choice is a low powered variable like a 1-4x or 1.5-5x from a quality manufacturer.

If most of your hunting, or the hunt you’re planning has some woodland and wide open spaces, consider a fixed four power scope. If it’s nothing but the prairies of the western US and Canada , go with a straight six power scope. Should you need a variable, the best all around big game variable scopes are the 1.5-6x with forty two millimeter objectives. Again, stick with the high quality manufacturers. My favorite big game hunting rifle, a Blaser R93LX in 338WinMag, wears a Schmidt & Bender 1.5-6x with the illuminated reticle.

There is nothing wrong with more power in a variable, just make sure you have a low side option of not greater than three-X. You will need the larger field of view more often than the highest power settings. 2-7’s and 3-9’s are acceptable all around variables, but the 1.5-6 is still the best for big game.

Things to avoid for most big game hunting are large objectives and target knobs. The 50mm and bigger objectives look cool, but they tend to place your head too high spoiling a consistent cheek weld. Tall scopes create a fit problem with most rifle scabbards and target knobs and big objectives are easily broken off or damaged. Ever seen what a scope looks like after a horse has rolled over on to a rifle that’s still in the scabbard? Not a good way to see your expensive hunt end.

Varmints, bigger is not always better

Despite the stories about ultra long shots on varmints, nearly all prairie dogs are hit at ranges of less than 300-350 yards. Don’t confuse the taking of long shots with actual hits, but the real ratio of shots to kills goes south outside of 400 yards, especially when the wind starts blowing for most shooters. I have scored my share of ultra long range prairie dog hits, but they are almost never on the first shot.

On the hot prairie, mirage is a serious problem. I was taught in the army that scopes of greater than fourteen to sixteen powers are almost worthless in the field due to excessive target distortion from mirage. They might work when it’s cool, or on a rifle range, but in the field, don’t count on them.

Another benefit of staying under fourteen to sixteen power is enhanced ability to spot your own hits or misses, particularly under recoil. Very high power scopes have very limited fields of view. The recoil from the shot is sufficient to disturb your aim enough to miss seeing the hit or near miss. If you have a spotter sitting next to you, no problem, but if not, you’ll waste a lot of ammo on that one animal.

For most varmint shooters, variable power scopes are a good choice. I like the 4.5-14 and 3.5-10 power range scopes myself. They are the most versatile and allow you to locate the small targets then zoom in for the shot. When calling in predators, the lower power variables allow you to get on the moving target fast; that’s why variables are tops for predator control.

My personal choice of scopes for my 223’s is the M8-6x42mm Leupold. I use the 223’s for lots of shots per day and because of the Leupold’s simplicity, it tends to be more rugged. I have never had a Leupold fixed power scope fail me yet. The other benefit is if I cannot clearly see the prairie dog in the scope, I know that I need one of my longer range guns. On my 6mmBR, I use a 3.5-10 Zeiss scope. My son uses the 10 power Kahles sniper ZF-95 on his 22-250. This year’s new caliber in my battery is the hot 204 Ruger, the scope on that rifle is a straight M8-12x Leupold varmint, and it should work great for the small targets from 100-500 yards.

Range work, unusual situations and reality

When I bought my Steyr Scout rifle years ago, I discovered an unusual phenomenon. I shot better groups with the low powered scout scope than when I put a ten power target scope on that rifle. I have been doing some informal research and many riflemen I respect have had the same experience. The lower powered scopes show less wobble and most shooters tighten up and aim more carefully and jerk fewer shots out of the group on the range. Once again, high power scopes are not necessarily the best choices for group testing, go with a power range you can shoot well, not just the highest you can find. I know serious bench rest competitors use higher powered scopes, but that is a specialized game that doesn’t really apply to practical field shooting situations.

Incidentally, I have also found that the forward mounted scout scope is great at mid day and on target ranges, but in the field, at dawn and dusk, it has some serious limitations. I now carry two scopes for my Scout, the original Leupold scout scope and a second conventional scope for low light or high glair conditions.

Many shooters dismiss the use of iron sights, but if you spend enough time hunting in adverse conditions, eventually you will either encounter scope failure, or weather conditions so bad, you have to remove your scope. Serious, big game hunters, have backup iron sights on their rifles. I like the popup ghost ring rear sights or quickly installable versions. Express sights rule Africa for dangerous game. They work — that’s why.

Target shooters learned a long time ago that iron sights and scopes are equal in the precision they provide. Those are shooting games, not seeing games, that is the reason many shooters use corrective diopter sight inserts.

Next time you’re in a gun shop or sporting goods store, do your research before you put good money down on a scope. Buy what you really need, not just what someone wants to sell you based on the currently available inventory.

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