In previous installments of the Getting Started with Long Range Shooting series, we’ve covered fundamental skills and developing a shooting solution. As predicted, several readers have expressed their desire to get into weapon system component selection (in addition to cartridge selection). I’m happy to finally oblige by taking a dive into rifle scope selection.
There is no way to sugar coat the fact that a good high quality rifle scope is going to be a large expense. In most cases, it will be the most expensive component of the weapon system. A silver lining, if there is such a thing here, is that a good rifle scope can be mounted on different rifles chambered for rifle cartridges. While that will require zeroing the scope every time it’s moved, it does provide a little flexibility if one ends up with multiple long distance rifles without having to make a large investment for every rifle.
One more thing, the quality of the scope is, in my opinion, more important than the quality of the rifle when it comes to long range shooting. This is one component that can hinder a person with terrific shooting skills and a terrific rifle. While there is a point of diminishing returns between high quality and ultra high end scopes, you get what you pay for definitely comes into play between entry tier and high quality scopes. What I mean by that is that the difference between a $100 and a $1000 scope is much greater than the difference between a $1000 and $2000 scope. I understand money doesn’t grow on trees, but if one is serious about long distance shooting this is not a component one should skimp out on.
Now with that out of the way, let’s break down the scope features that, in my opinion, are important for long distance shooting. Spoiler: even among high quality scopes some are better suited for long range shooting than others. I’d rather use a high quality scope that is well suited for long distance shooting than an ultra top tier scope that is better suited for another shooting application.
I’m starting with reticles because I personally use this as a binary discriminator. Frankly, I firmly believe everyone should. Seriously, it’s the very first thing I look for. Technical reticles, commonly called Christmas tree reticles, are what I’m looking for. When employed correctly, these reticles enable the shooter to apply much more precise holdovers than is possible with any other reticles and precision is the name of the game when it comes to long range shooting.
I can’t stress this enough, if in the market for a new scope for long range shooting, then look past anything that doesn’t include a technical reticle.
Every long range shooter is going to become intimately familiar with their elevation and windage turrets. There is a little bit of room here for subjective feel and even some specifications that can be used to decide between a handful of candidate scopes, but there are also some characteristics that can be used as a hard and fast discriminator. There is a lot to turrets, but let’s begin with the discriminators.
First off, exposed turrets are a must. Some scopes will offer an exposed elevation turret and capped turret. As a rule of thumb, for me, caps are a no go. At extended distances turret based elevation and windage adjustments will be necessary. Caps will just get in the way and even with the caps removed the turrets are generally small and difficult to manipulate.
Another hard and fast, walk away from that scope rule is unmatched measurements between the reticle and turrets. Believe it or not, high quality scopes that use MOA adjustments along with a reticle that has MRAD reference points exist (look no further than the Trijicon AccuPoint I reviewed in the past for an example). There is plenty of math to do in long distance shooting, the last thing anyone needs is to be converting between MRAD and MOA. I’ll cover MRAD and MOA in a bit more detail later in this post.
Half MOA turret adjustments are a no go. Just about every high quality scope will offer turret adjustments in 1/4 MOA or 0.1 MRAD. Remember precision is the name of the game when it comes to making long distance hits. As such, finer adjustments are better. At 100 yards, 1/4 MOA translates to 0.2625″ while .1 MRAD translates to 0.36″. This suggests 1/4 MOA turrets should be preferred over .1 MRAD turrets. However, these are close enough that personal preference can come into play. Additionally, 1/2 MOA adjustments is a good indicator that the scope isn’t at a high enough tier to be considered for long distance applications.
The last discriminating factors lay in the turret’s ability to hold a zero and to track precisely. The first factor is self explanatory. If the scope loses zero under recoil, then it’s trash. Period. End of story. The application is irrelevant.
Tracking refers to the turret’s ability to be adjusted and return to zero. A commonly employed method to confirm this ability is the tracking test. Here is how a tracking test works. After confirming zero, dial the scope up by a preselected number of clicks (let’s say 5), then the same number of clicks to the right, and shoot a group while aiming at the center of the target. Then dial the scope down by double the number clicks (10) and shoot another group while aiming at the center of the target. Dial the scope left by double the number of original clicks (10) and shoot yet another group while aiming at the center of the target. Up by double the original clicks (10) and shoot a fourth group while aiming at the center of the target. Left by the number of clicks (5) and down by the same (5) [bringing us back to zero] and shooting a final group while continuing to aim at the center. The groups should make a box around the zero and the final group back at the center of the target. If the resulting pattern isn’t a box and the final shot back in the center, then the scope may not be tracking right (and should be returned for a refund or sent to the manufacturer for warranty repair). A scope that doesn’t track well isn’t going to cut it.
Zero stop features are generally available on all high quality scopes nowadays. A zero stop is a feature on the elevation turret that allows the owner to prevent a mechanical adjustment below the elevation zero after the scope has been zeroed. Personally I consider this feature a must have, but I wouldn’t give another person too much grief for overlooking a scope missing this feature in exchange for other features. The reason I think this feature is a must have is that we are constantly counting clicks and sometimes we lose count (not uncommon when transitioning between targets at different distances). The zero stop allows the shooter to quickly return to zero without counting before adjusting for the next shooting solution. For example, consider we ranged a target and determined we needed to dial in 2.7 MRAD (or 27 clicks). Then we identify and range the next target and determine the next target needs 3.3 MRAD (or 33 clicks) of adjustment. If we remembered we were already at 27 clicks and only needed 6 more, then we dial in 6 more clicks. However, if for whatever reason we forgot how many clicks were dialed in, then we can just zip back to zero and count up 33 clicks. It’s a neat feature that allows us to reset quickly.
At this point, I’m now looking at turret features to take into consideration and use to select between candidate scopes when it comes to adjustment turrets. The first consideration is the overall adjustment range. Larger adjustment ranges are preferable as they function for longer distances. For example, let’s consider a candidate NightForce NX8 scope and a Vortex Optics Razor Gen II. The NX8 has a total elevation adjustment of 26 MRAD (260 clicks) versus the Razor’s 28.5 MRAD (285 clicks) of elevation adjustment range. Both of these scopes are high quality candidate scopes. In terms of mechanical adjustment, the Razor will be functional to longer distances than the NX-8. On the other hand, the NX8 offers 20 MRAD of windage adjustment against the 10 MRAD of windage adjustment offered by the Razor. This means the NX-8 will be mechanically functional when shooting in conditions with stronger winds than the Razor. There are other features to consider, but total adjustment range is one to keep in mind.
There is something to be said about turret feel. Tactile adjustment clicks are a must and present in every scope. However, some turrets have a much more pronounced click where others tend to be much softer and less crisp. I prefer overly pronounced and sharp clicks (the same as many of the long distance shooters I’ve met). However, the feel of the click itself is subjective and something that can be somewhat overlooked when a scope has other desirable features.
Adjustable Parallax (and Illumination)
Adjustable parallax is a must. Adjustable parallax allows us to refocus the reticle and target (for a sharp target and reticle). This is important for precision at extended ranges. Without adjustable parallax, we have to ensure proper eye, reticle, and target alignment (similar to traditional iron sights) to ensure we have a proper reticle alignment. Scopes with a fixed parallax are a no go for me. Most high quality scopes will have adjustable parallax from a close range out to infinity. However, the parallax adjustment on some scopes will allow alignment at closer ranges and “infinity” seems like an undefined or unspecified upper range to me. It’s hard to compare apples to apples when it comes to parallax adjustment, at least for me, but it’s definitely a deal breaker for me when it’s not present.
An illuminated reticle is subjective because it’s not a mechanical limitation of the scope. I like illumination. I prefer it. But it’s not a deal breaker for me. It might be for you and that’s fine. However, it’s low on my list of priorities.
Reticle Focal Plane
Reticles are most commonly etched into the second focal plane (SFP) this results in a reticle that doesn’t scale as the magnification is changed. This renders the reticle useless at any magnification setting other than the magnification value the reticle was scaled for (most commonly the highest magnification available on the rifle scope). Not something desirable for precision long distance shooting applications.
First focal plane (FFP) reticles, on the other hand, are etched on the first focal plane (as implied) as a result, the size of the reticle will scale as the magnification is changed so that its measurements remain functional at any magnification value. This is a very desirable feature for long range applications.
Due to the additional complexity in manufacturing scopes with reticles on the first focal plane, scopes with FFP reticles tend to be more expensive. Not long ago, the price difference was significant. Fortunately, advancements in manufacturing have made scopes with FFP reticles much more affordable. While a price difference still exists, the difference is small enough now that I hold a very strong preference for scopes with FFP reticles.
Generally speaking, the higher magnification on the top end the better. The entire point of this is to send a tiny projectile as far as possible. So it follows that more magnification allows us to make smaller (i.e., more precise adjustments) at further ranges. There is a reason the NightForce ATACR 7-25×56 F1 scope was the most used scope amongst competitive Precision Rifle shooters in 2020.
In my mind, there are other features (like the ones I’ve listed above) that are more important than magnification. But all else being equal, higher magnification is a tie breaker. Personally, I wouldn’t consider any scope with less than 25x magnification on the high end.
MRAD or MOA
I think choosing between MRAD and MOA mostly comes down to personal preference. When I got started with long range shooting, I found a wider selection of high quality candidate scopes with MRAD reticles and turrets to choose than scopes with MOA reticles and turrets. However, recent window shopping seems to suggest that there are more MOA based scopes available to choose from today. I suspect this is due to the rising popularity of long distance shooting over the past few years.
While one could become proficient with both measurement units, I suggest focusing on one or the other. This limits the number of distance formulas and conversions (like 1 MRAD = 10 clicks versus 1 MOA = 4 clicks) we have to keep in our head.
If one is already familiar with one or the other, then I’d suggest sticking with it.
If one isn’t familiar with their one, then consider what the shooting buddies (who might participate in this activity) are familiar with. It helps when the group speaks the same language.
My preference is for MRAD. Not because I consider it superior. Simply because I’ve invested more money and time with MRAD scopes for long distance shooting. While I have a strong preference for MRAD, I do still use MOA based scopes for other activities.
There are other scope features to consider. These include, but are not limited to, objective lens and tube sizes, reliability, ruggedness, quality control, and lens quality. While all of these have value especially for applications where personal well being is at risk, these characteristics and qualities are secondary when looking at scopes purely from a long range shooting application perspective. Most of these qualities will be good enough when opting for a high quality scope. Again some other considerations might have a much higher priority when considering long distance shooting beyond typical civilian activities.
Putting it Together
A high quality scope with features catering to long distance shooting is essential to long range applications. It’s an important and worthwhile investment that will enable a shooter and rifle to effectively engage targets at longer distances. Yes, it’s a big investment, but a necessary one.
Some of you might be wondering what scope I am using. I’m using a couple of different ones. I already mentioned the Trijicon AccuPoint mounted on the AR-10 (chambered for 308 Winchester). Even though it’s a high quality scope, it has some limiting factors that should have made me look for another for longer distance applications (had I known better when I picked it up). The scope that I rely on for the longest distances I’m engaging targets is the Athlon Cronus BTR mounted on the Savage Arms 110 FCP HS Precision rifle. While I’ve been happy with the Athlon and it’s worked well for me, there are times I wish I would have spent a bit more on a higher end scope.
To recap, my must haves for a scope are:
- A technical reticle
- Exposed adjustment turrets with either 1/4 MOA or .1 MRAD adjustment values that hold a zero and track well
- Matched measurement units between the adjustment turrets and the reticle
- Adjustable parallax
- Preference for a first focal plane reticle
- Preference for the highest magnification available
I’m not suggesting that readers who already have a scope that might fall short on some of these qualities run out and get another scope. Just be aware that the scope can be a limiting factor, but replacing the existing scope can wait until it does become a limiting factor.
I hope that I have given readers some things to think about that will guide them to a scope investment they will be happy with for a long time to come. I will reiterate that it pays off to not skimp in this area. If there is a scope that fits the bill better than is slightly out of reach, then I suggest waiting and saving a little longer to make that out of reach scope a reality. Again, this is one area where “you get what you pay for” is extremely relevant.