Shooting Mystery is reader-supported. When you buy through links on our site, we may earn an affiliate commission. Learn more

Rifle Scopes Explained: Why You Need Them & What to Know

Rifle Scopes Explained

Are you missing your target lately? Don’t worry! It doesn’t mean you’re not getting out of your range as a shooter.

It’s a sign that you need a shooting companion to step up your game. There’s no better partner for shooters (like you) than a scope.

If you’re into long-range shooting, a scope is one thing you shouldn’t forget.

Keep reading to know why.

Hit-or-Miss: Why Do You Need a Rifle Scope?

Hit-or-Miss

Many shooters would tell you this: You can’t always rely on your eyes to aim for a long-range target.

You’re better off with scopes along with your rifles. You could see for yourself when shooting with the best scope out there.

You might have experienced lining up with metal sights, such as iron sights. Perhaps, you could tell that lining up the sights and your target is a bit challenging.

Well, you’ll shoot easier with these bad boys. You only need to sight in your scope, line up the reticle with the target, and you’re all good.

Besides accuracy, a scope can also ensure your safety and precision in a shooting. You can see what’s around your target day and night.

Even in low-light conditions, you can ace the big game at TWO prime times. Rifle scopes collect light available in your surroundings so you can shoot precisely in dim places.

The best part about scopes is they can come with shotguns and handguns, not just rifles. All you need is to get the ideal scope for your gun.

So, how can you tell you get the best scope? Well, there are many things you need to consider.

The New Classic in Scopes

When it comes to scopes, an old hat is NOT BETTER better than a modern scope. There are plenty of reasons why modern scopes work better and come on top of the big game.

  • They are cheaper. Today’s medium-priced scopes could be even better than expensive compact scopes back in the 20th century.
  • They are more reliable. Thanks to the modern manufacturing techniques that made new features possible.
  • They come with better lens coatings. With computer optical design programs, you can now say goodbye to the terrible optics of old scopes.

Yet, modern scopes are in no way perfect by all means. That’s the case, especially for the cheaper models.

So, here’s a quick guide to choosing the ideal scope for your gun.

Don’t Go Nuts About the Numbers!

Have you tried searching for rifle scopes in any store, whether online or offline? You’ll see numbers either in their packaging or description.

What do these numbers mean? Well, some of these numbers refer to the scope model. 

You need to pay attention to the other set of numbers that appear like this: 3-9×40. Check out the video below for more information.

As you can see, there are two sets of numbers that correspond to power-power and lens diameter, respectively.

So Close, Yet So Far: Magnification Explained

The first set of numbers tell you the magnification you can achieve with your scope. You might ask then what magnification is.

In simple words, magnification tells you how much closer your target is when you look through the scope than your naked eye alone.

Considering our example, 3-9x means a power range of three to nine. It means that you can see your target 3-9 times closer than it would appear with your naked eye.

So, the HIGHER the scope magnification, the FURTHER DISTANCE you can see. Yet, it’s not good to settle with a high-powered scope all the time.

Having higher magnification could also mean increased mirage, bulk, heft, visible shake, and price. As the saying goes, less is more.

There are plenty of factors to consider when eyeing the ideal scope. And the first thing is to determine the type of scope you will need for your shooting needs.

Stick to One: Fixed Power Scope

When you look for fixed power scopes, you’ll notice a single power number only. It means that you can have a single magnification, so it’s crucial to pick the best fixed power scope to suit your needs.

Despite its limited range, you can enjoy some advantages using fixed power scopes. In general, they are cheaper and better in quality.

While you can only shoot from a certain range, you can aim faster with a fixed scope. Another thing about this scope type is its simplicity and few moving parts.

But, how do you choose the best magnification for your scope?

Choosing the Best Magnifications

Choosing the Best

Several factors can identify the magnification ideal for different shooting situations. In general, the range depends on the distance you want to cover when shooting.

Here’s the magnification range ideal for different distances.

  • 1-4x: NOT GREATER than 100 yards
  • 5-8x: NOT GREATER than 200 yards
  • 9-12x: GREATER than 200 yards

Yet, there’s more to scopes than your target ranges. Different events require ideal power values.

  • Big game hunting: 2-10x or 3-9x,
  • Varmint hunting: 6-24x, and
  • Long-range hunting: 9-12x

When it comes to hunting, there are specific ranges ideal for various animals. It’s more complicated compared to any non-moving targets.

  • Whitetail deer: 3-9x,
  • Squirrels: 4x,
  • Antelope/mule deer: 4-12x or 4.4-14x, and
  • Prairie dogs: 6-20x or 8-25x

These power ranges best apply to rifles. It’s a different case for shooters using a handgun instead.

Not Just for Rifles

Most handgun shooters prefer any 2x scope. With this gun type, it is harder to find the target on higher magnification.

Also, using a scope with your handgun requires many practices. Only experienced handgun shooters can use higher-powered scopes from a rested state most of the time.

As you can see, there’s a wide span to work with your scope. So, how can you work with a huge span with a scope?

The More, the Merrier: Variable Power Scope

You’ll notice that only a few experienced shooters use variable power scopes. There’s a lot of reasons for that.

If you want to experiment on your hunting session, a variable power scope is for you. But, using this kind takes a lot of trial and error.

Pros

The idea of having multiple magnifications might sound like a great opportunity. You can adjust your lens depending on your location, as well as the proximity of your target.

In other words, you have the power to hunt ANYWHERE. You don’t have to worry about adjusting to your target as it moves closer to you.

Cons

Yet, all these benefits come with some costs, literally. Expect higher prices for variable tactical scopes compared to fixed ones.

Also, you’ll be dealing with many glasses as you look through the lens. There’s a high chance that the images you’ll see are not as sharp as you would see in a fixed scope.

As you have multiple magnifications, it could be hard to control your variable tactical scope, too. It could be dangerous if you could not adjust your scope properly when your target is close.

You see that both kinds of scopes have their advantages and disadvantages. It’s up to you which kind you’ll choose to suit your needs and demands.

An Eye for an Eye: What’s with the Objective Lens?

An Eye for an Eye

Sorry, folks. We’re not yet done dealing with numbers at this point.

Don’t worry. We’re here to help you decode the meaning of these numbers.

Let’s go back to our example earlier: 3-9×40. Earlier, you learned that the first set of numbers indicate the power of your scopes.

Now, what’s with the second number? In this case, 40 is the diameter of the objective in millimeters.

Why is the Objective Lens Important?

The objective is what separates your eye and the bull’s eye. In other words, it’s the one thing that determines your scope’s brightness and clarity.

When it comes to the objectives, you’re better off with bigger ones. You’ll learn more about this later.

While that’s the case for the diameter, you DON’T necessarily get better results with more objectives. Dealing with more objectives could lead you to problems like:

  • Bulkier scope
  • Ring problems
  • Position giveaway

So, it’s better to stick with fewer objectives. After all, it’s hard to master many objectives at once.

Now, let’s talk about the most crucial thing about objectives.

Casting an Eye Over the Objectives

When you search for scopes out there, you can see that the objectives vary in size. The standard objectives have diameters ranging from 32 mm to 75 mm. 

For starters, here are the recommended diameters for different occasions.

  • Below 28 mm: Close-range hunting,
  • 30 mm – 40 mm: Low-light hunting, and
  • Above 50 mm: Extreme long-range hunting

Here’s a thing: the scope power and lens diameter influence one another.

  • Low power scopes work well with smaller objectives.
  • High power scopes do great with medium-size objectives.

Another thing to consider is the recoil activity of your firearm.

  • Small objectives fit better in firearms with few recoils.
  • Medium objectives fit in firearms with many recoils.

The Bigger, The Better?

So, what can you get with bigger objectives? Aside from having wide scope, large objectives give you the following advantages:

  • Hunt in dim conditions
  • Better magnification as it darkens
  • Have versatility with higher exits of the pupil
  • Get brighter and wider field-of-view
  • See improved image quality at higher magnifications.

If you’re someone struggling to get your eyes focused while aiming, a large lens could be your reliable buddy. 

Yet, as always, these advantages also come with compromises. Some of the drawbacks hunters had with large objectives include:

  • A bulky and heavy scope that disrupts positioning
  • Altering cheek and weld methods
  • Obstructing proper eye alignment
  • Susceptibility to dirt buildup
  • Higher mounting rings required
  • High prices

So, large objectives are NOT ALWAYS the best picks. Besides, there’s more to light quality other than lens diameter.

Turn Your Objectives’ Coatings

If you look closely at the objectives, you’ll notice some not-so-invisible coatings. These coatings help improve the sight quality through the riflescopes.

The right coating must increase clarity and brightness due to improved transmission of lights. It should also reduce glare and reflection to keep your focus with an enhanced view.

As always, different coatings are available in the market. High-end coatings are made of high-quality scratch-resistant glass.

Yet, most coatings offer protection for your scopes against fog and water. So, it’s fine to hunt, even if it’s raining or foggy outside.

You’ll encounter different kinds of coatings. 

  • Coated: A single surface is covered with one coating layer.
  • Fully-coated: All surfaces are covered with one coating layer.
  • Multi-coated: A single surface is covered with multiple layers.
  • Fully multi-coated: All surfaces are covered with multiple layers.

Depending on the coating quality, you can even see no significant difference between single-coated and multi-coated objectives.

It now all depends on your judgment which type you’ll choose.

Saved by the Bells and Tube

All the optics behind the scope workings are inside a tube. So, tube size can affect the quality of the image you see through your scope.

There are two popular scope tube sizes:

  • 1-inch: popular in America
  • 30-mm: more common in Europe

These two tubes might differ in size, but this difference tells what each can offer. You might have heard people saying that larger tubes allow greater rifle scope light transmission.

Is This True?

Well, the 30-mm tube comes with more elevation adjustments. But, it does not necessarily transmit more light.

One thing’s for sure. Expect the 30-mm tube to be more sturdy and durable than its 1-inch counterpart.

Don’t worry! ALL modern scopes are stronger yet lighter than the older ones made of steel. Today’s scopes are constructed using either anodized or coated aircraft-grade aluminum.

Modern scopes can also come with a shiny or matte look. Most hunters prefer shiny ones, which are great outdoors.

At each end of the tube, you could see the bells. The one near your eyes houses the ocular, while the other bell houses the objectives.

To accommodate more light into the scope, the manufacturers increase the bell diameters. In that way, the bigger lenses could fit in.

Always Keep a Distance via Eye Relief

Eye Relief Illustration

Speaking of the oculars, you might want to keep some distance between your eye and the scope. Otherwise, you might end up hitting your eye instead of your bull’s eye.

For this purpose, you must consider eye relief, which is simply the distance between your eye and the oculars while staying focused.

Beyond your safety, eye relief also affects your field of view: the amount of view you can see through scopes from right to left at a distance.

With a larger eye relief, you compromise getting accurate hits for your eye safety. You get a lower field of view as you increase your distance from the tube.

Here’s a piece of advice as you mount your scope to your rifle. Mount it in a way that you get the HIGHEST power and your neck and head are comfortable.

An experienced shooter mounts their riflescopes to get the BEST VIEW without moving their head.

Remember that your riflescope must have an adjustment for your eye to see better and not the other way around.

Splitting Hairs: The Importance of Reticles

Enough for what you see outside. Let’s now focus on what you see inside the riflescopes system.

When you look through riflescopes, you’ll see fine crosshairs called reticles. These crosshairs help you focus on your target with some distance estimates in some reticle kinds.

In general, there are THREE main types of reticles.

  • Duplex: The ideal reticle for beginners. It’s quick and easy to use.
  • Mil-Dot: If you are looking for distance estimates, this one’s for you.
  • BDC (Ballistic Drop Compensating): The accurate reticles for long-range shooting. It gives you estimates of the bullet drop and holdover point, among others.

What’s the Best Reticle for Your Riflescopes?

Well, fine Duplex reticles work well with varmint and tactical riflescopes.

Beyond these general types, there is also an illuminated reticle with LED lights. If you want to improve your aiming speed, it’s your best pick.

There are also range-compensating reticles with small dots, circles, or hash marks aside from crosshairs. They are designed to work with specific powers.

Some of these reticles are calibrated for mils, while others work in angle minutes. In the end, it’s your choice what type of reticle is best for you.

Change for the Better: Get to Know Scope Adjustments

Change for the Better

Having your rifle mounts on isn’t enough. Over time, you need some internal adjustments for your rifles.

The GOOD NEWS is ALL scopes have windage and elevation adjustments. Most long-range scopes have parallax adjustments, too.

  • Dials or knobs control both windage and elevation adjustments on the adjustment turret. Manipulating these dials can shift the location of the crosshairs to the bullet’s point of impact.
  • The adjustable windage mechanism shifts the bullet’s impact to left or right.
  • The elevation adjustment is responsible for the up or down shifts of the impact points.

When using a rifle, you want to zero the scope. It means aligning your points of aims with the center of the points of impact.

You might have heard about parallax with rifle hunting. Parallax occurs when your target seems to be off upon making head or eye movements.

If left unchecked, parallax would make your rifle miss the shots. The good thing is that different rifle mounts come with a parallax adjustment.

Several Types of Parallax Adjustments for Your Rifle

  • Parallax Adjustment Turret: It comes as the third turret knob.
  • Factory-set: Almost any modern rifle has this type. The manufacturer would readily set it at about 50 to 100 yards.
  • Adjustable Objectives: It appears as a ring on your rifle’s scope. You just twist this on your rifle to erase parallax.

With all these parallax adjustments on your rifle, there should be no excuse for you missing the shot. 

Final Thoughts

Final Thoughts

Your rifle would not be complete without a scope. It’s your ever-reliable friend that won’t leave you on a hunt or competition.

With hundreds of scopes on the market, there must be one that fits your gun and personal needs. Remember to consider the things mentioned in this article.

Don’t hesitate to go back to the previous sections if you need to review the concepts.

FINAL TIP: Another important thing you should understand is focal planes. We have a full comparison guide between FFP and SFP if you’re interested to learn more.

 

CHANGELOG:

September 16, 2021 - Reviewed and updated article links, updated article title

About the author

Christopher Wade

Christopher Wade is a true outdoorsman. After spending most of his career as a firearms expert and instructor in Nebraska, he retreated to the great outdoors to enjoy retirement.

Christopher’s expertise in handling firearms and hunting gear are what propelled him to create the Shooting Mystery blog. He hopes for all readers to gain useful and practical knowledge for enjoying their time outdoors.