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

Rifle Scopes Explained

I like to frequent the shooting range a lot, but there were times when I was just off my game and couldn’t get any shots to land where I wanted.

Does this sound like you? 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 rifle scope.

If you’re into long-range shooting or are just looking to get into a new hobby, a new rifle scope is one thing you SHOULDN’T forget.

Keep reading to know why.

What Is a Rifle Scope?

What is a Rifle Scope

Simply put, a rifle scope is a magnifier placed on a firearm that helps you see and shoot targets more clearly and accurately.

Think of it like a telescope for your gun!

A scope usually consists of a series of glass and lenses used to increase the size of a target from varying distances.

As you look through the scope, you should see a reticle (or crosshairs) which will help you see WHERE the bullet is supposed to land.

There are many considerations when choosing a rifle scope, which I will break down later.

Why Do You Need a Rifle Scope?


Your eyes will sometimes fail you when aiming for long-range targets, even if you have normal vision like me.

You’re better off with scopes along with your rifles.

I speak from experience when I say lining up iron sights is challenging and involves a lot of guesswork and rough estimates.

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

Besides accuracy, a new rifle scope can also ensure your safety and precision in a shooting. They help me see what’s around my target day AND night.

Even in low-light conditions, you can ace the big game at TWO prime times.

A rifle scope collects light available in your surroundings so you can shoot precisely in dim places.

The best part about scopes is their versatility; there are even handgun, shotgun, and muzzleloader scopes.

All you need is to get the ideal scope for YOUR gun.

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

The Rise of New 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.

First, they are CHEAPER; today’s medium-priced scopes could be even better than expensive compact scopes back in the 20th century.

They are also more reliable, thanks to the modern manufacturing techniques that made new features possible.

They come with better lens coatings. With computer optical design programs, I can 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.

Regardless of which scope you use, you will need to learn how to use it correctly!

Understanding the Scope Numbers

At first, I was super confused by all the numbers in the product name, and I’m sure you were too.

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

Scope Magnification Explained

The first set of numbers tells you the magnification you can achieve with your scope.

In simple words, rifle scope 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 rifle scope 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. The first thing is to determine the type of scope you will need for your shooting needs.

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 of using fixed power scopes, like affordability and better quality.

While you can only shoot from a certain range, you can aim FASTER with a fixed scope.

Another thing about this rifle scope type is its simplicity and few moving parts.

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

Variable Power Scope

You’ll notice that only a few experienced shooters use variable power scopes. 

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

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!

I like using variable power scopes as I don’t have to worry about adjusting to my target as it moves closer to me.

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

Also, you’ll be dealing with many glasses as you look through the lens. 

In my experience, the images I saw were not as sharp as I would see in a fixed scope.

As you have multiple magnifications, it could be hard to control your variable 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.

Choosing the Best Magnifications

Choosing the Best Magnification

Several factors can identify the rifle scope 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.

Most handgun shooters prefer any 2x scope. Although with this gun type, I found it  harder to find the target on higher magnification.

Also, using a rifle scope with your handgun requires many practices.

Only experienced handgun shooters can use higher-powered scopes from a rested state most of the time.

If you’re a beginner, I recommend sticking to iron sights for your handgun first or using red dots instead of scopes.

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?

Understanding the Objective Lens

An Eye for an Eye

Sorry, folks. I’m not yet done dealing with numbers at this point.

Don’t worry! I’m 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 indicates the power of your scopes.

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

Why Is the Objective Lens Important?

The objective lens 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.

It’s one of the MOST important parts of the rifle scope you should know about!

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 objective lens 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, in my experience, it’s been hard to master many objectives at once.

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

Choosing the Right Objective Lens

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 objective 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.

I sometimes have days where my eyes struggle to focus while aiming, so a large lens is a good assistant.

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 scope rings required
  • High prices

So, a large objective lens is NOT ALWAYS the best pick. Besides, there’s more to light quality other than lens diameter.

Objective Lens 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. I’ve been able to take my scopes out in the rain or fog with no problem!

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.

The Scope Tube

All the optics behind the scope workings are inside a tube. So, scope 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. I 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.

The Importance of Eye Relief

Eye Relief Illustration

Speaking of the oculars, you might want to keep some distance between your eye and the scope.

I made the mistake of not maintaining distance, which lead to a nasty black 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.

I mount my rifle scopes to get the BEST VIEW without moving my head!

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

The Different Types 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 (Bullet Drop Compensator): 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. These are what I personally use.

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 scope reticle is best for YOU.

Getting 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 turrets. Most long-range hunting scopes have parallax adjustments, too.

Dials or knobs control both elevation and windage 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.

Meanwhile, 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, which means aligning your points of aim 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

  1. Parallax Adjustment Turret: It comes as the third turret knob.
  2. Factory-set: Almost any modern rifle has this type. The manufacturer would readily set it at about 50 to 100 yards.
  3. 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.

Frequently Asked Questions

What Range is a 3-9×40 Scope Good For?

I would recommend a 3-9×40 scope for 50-300 yards. If you’re daring enough, it can even go up to 1000 yards!

Its magnification and objective lens make it versatile enough for hunting target shooting from ALL distances.

How Much Should I Spend on a Rifle Scope?

I’m afraid there is no clear-cut answer to this question.

Rifle scopes come at varying price points and offer different features. The amount you should depends on YOU, the user.

I have spent $1000 on scopes that were quite lackluster, while some scopes priced at around $200-$300 performed EXCEPTIONALLY.

At the end of the day, consider your own finances and what kind of shooting you want to do before determining how much you should spend.

What Magnification Should I Use for 500 Yards?

I recommend a minimum magnification of 4-5x and a maximum of around 10-15x.

Fortunately, many scopes perform well at far distances, like 500 yards, so you are likely to find one that works best for you.

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.

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