A few days ago, I had an amazing exchange on twitter after I complained about the lack of modern reticle options available on scopes designed and marketed for hunters. There were a lot of great and valid points made in favor of or against the need and practicality of modern reticle designs when it came to hunting applications. As the conversation continues, I came back to the well accepted idea that application drives gear selection. This applies to reticle selection as well, but it’s not that simple because certain gear choices (rifle platform and cartridge selection) can also play a part in reticle selection.
As a starting point, the main two factors I consider are target size and anticipated engagement distance. In other words, what will be hunted and where will the hunting take place?
Different game animals have different vital zone sizes. For North American game animals the vital zone can range from as small as 8.5″-9″ for a pronghorn antelope to as big as 18″-21.5″ for a moose. This is critically important because target size is a vital input to determining the maximum point blank range (MPBR), which I’ve covered before, for rifle and cartridge combination. MPBR is the shortest and farthest distance one is able to shoot without applying an elevation holdover while aiming at the center of the target’s vital zone. For example, for a pronghorn antelope vital zone of 8.5″ the MPBR of my hunting rifle loaded with my preferred factory hunting load is 0-315 yards assuming I’ve properly sighted it in (3.62″ high at 100 yards). If I was hunting moose with the same rifle and cartridge, then the MPBR would be 0-430 yards (sighted 6.4″ high at 100 yards). Given that I mostly hunt medium sized deer with an average vital zone size of 10″, I generally sight in the rifle 4.12″ high at 100 yards and work with an MPBR of 0-337 yards. This allows me to engage a deer at any distance under 337 yards without worrying about applying an elevation holdover.
Talking with several hunters, I’ve found that many of them stick with using the mythical 50/200 yard zero without knowing or understanding the MPBR concept that zero is based on and assume they will be good out to 300 yards while relying on the good old simple duplex reticle design (basic crosshair) that is exceedingly common in scopes designed for hunting. In most cases, they are fine out to three hundred yards assuming favorable low wind hunting conditions. In my opinion however, faithfully relying on that assumption isn’t a good idea. I hope this discussion will make that apparent as we continue.
The next thing to consider is distance or terrain. Densely wooded environments or terrains with rapidly changing elevations are likely to limit game animal distances to less than a hundred yards with perhaps the occasional long shot in the neighborhood of 150 or 200 yards. For all intents and purposes, there is very little bullet drop and wind drift to deal with at those distances when hunting with a rifle chambered for a common hunting cartridge generally speaking. For example, with my deer rifle and preferred hunting cartridge I can expect a shot taken while aiming at the center of medium sized deer’s vital zone to land about 4.5″ high (based on the typical MPBR I mentioned above) and drift no more than 2.25″ with a 10mph crosswind at a distance of 200 yards.
On the surface, this might seem like there is no need to apply a windage holdover. However, keep in mind that the vital zone of a game animal isn’t perfectly round and a good part of it is covered by the shoulder which contains plenty of harvest-able meat that hunters would rather avoid hitting. As a result, hunters tend to aim just behind the shoulder. Revisiting my example and assuming the crosswind direction is from the game animals rump towards the head, that 4″ high shot might drift 2″ inches into the shoulder hitting both shoulder meat and bone. While this shot will result in a fatal high lung shot, it’s not desirable. I would much rather apply a precise 1 minute of angle (MOA) or .3 milliradian (MRAD or mil) windage hold for a high lung shot that doesn’t damage the shoulder meat. This is the type of scenario where a reticle with reference hash marks or dots along with the horizontal windage line, such as the Mil Dot reticle found on the Trijicon AccuPoint scope or the Dead-Hold BDC reticle I’ve reviewed before, makes a lot of sense.
What about flat terrains with sparse trees or other vegetation?
Now we’re getting into terrains I and many other hunters frequently hunt where 200-300 yard shots are common, 400-500 yard shots aren’t rare, and even longer distances aren’t unheard of. When talking with hunters who are unfamiliar with hunting at these distances, it’s not uncommon to hear suggestions such as “stalk your way and close the distance” or even admonishments such as “taking a shot beyond MPBR is unethical”. The thing is, sometimes it’s not possible to close the distance. I’m all for ethical hunting. At the same time, I don’t have a problem with shots taken beyond MPBR as long as the hunter is skilled enough to confidently and consistently hit vital zones at those longer distances.
While range finding reticles, like the Mil Dot reticle I mentioned, bullet drop compensation recicles, like Dead-Hold BDC reticle I also mentioned, or even other proprietary reticles, like the HRS-4 reticle found the Vortex Razor HD LH scope I’ve previously reviewed, can take the guesswork out of an elevation hold or a windage hold at these longer distances, they leave a lot to be desired when attempting a combined elevation and windage hold. The reason is because it is up to the hunter to estimate where the elevation hash and windage hash intersect and use that intersection as the aiming reference point. This can be very challenging as distance increases with even a modest 5mph crosswind. Going back to the example of my deer rifle with my preferred load sighted in for hunting deer, at 450 yards I would be dealing with almost 22.5″ of drop and 6″ of drift which would require a little more than a 4.5 MOA (or 2.75 MRAD) elevation hold and a little over a 1 MOA (or .3 MRAD) windage hold at the same time. If the wind picks up to 10mph, that wind drift increases to just over 12″ requiring a 2.5 MOA (or .8 MRAD) hold. These types of scenarios are where technical reticles designed for long range precision really shine.
There are a couple of ways of looking at the information I’ve presented. On one hand, picking up a scope with a technical reticle paired with a good precision rifle and cartridge opens up the possibility to hunt essentially any North American game in virtually any North American terrain. However, a fancy scope with whiz bang reticle and a precision rifle can get expensive quickly and is not necessary when folks almost exclusively hunt in terrains where holdovers are the exception rather than the rule. Not to mention that some folks just don’t like spending time behind a scope with a busy reticle.
On the other hand, a more frugal approach would be the “keep it simple” approach and stick to the simplest reticle that meets the hunter’s needs. For those hunters that exclusively hunt animals at ranges under 100 yards and never apply a windage hold, plain old iron sights or a simple scope with a plain vanilla duplex crosshair reticle will save a fair amount of money and get the job done. For those who hunt within MPBR distances and need to apply the occasional windage holdover, a scope with a ranging or BDC reticle will save a few bucks and take the guesswork out of the holdovers. Which leaves the technical reticle for hunters who find themselves hunting open ranges and taking shots beyond MPBR ranges.
Regardless of one’s decision, I can’t stress the value in understanding MPBR in order to optimize their zero distance for one’s own hunting rifle and preferred hunting load. It’s also important to know one’s own limits of their abilities before making the decision to take a shot at a game animal that pushes those limits. Hunting under potentially false assumptions or beyond one’s ability is something I would consider irresponsible and unethical.
As a final note, I’ve found that the features I want from a scope for hunting in terrains where longer shots are likely tend to overlap a lot with features that I want from a scope for extended range target shooting. The reticle design is only one of those features. For those readers who are thinking about going down this path, I suggest reading this post that covers other desirable scope features that one might want to consider.