By Bill Meyer (Glassaholic)
The name Leupold, or more officially Leupold & Stevens, Inc., has been around for over 100 years, having been started by two German immigrants looking for a fresh start in the USA; however, it wasn’t until soon after the end of World War II that Leupold began building riflescopes when Marcus Leupold was on a hunt where his scope fogged up causing him to miss a deer, he decided he could build a better scope and since that time Leupold has steadily grown in the sport optics industry to being one of the most well-known names in the marketplace today. A few years ago Leupold introduced the Mark 6 and Mark 8 lines of tactical scopes with the Mark 8 representing the pinnacle of Leupold’s optical/mechanical quality while the Mark 6 3-18×44 represents one of the lightest and shortest FFP scopes within its magnification range; however, the high cost of entry for these scopes as well as some initial tracking and turret issues kept them out of many shooters hands, and for all their innovation they never really caught on in the civilian marketplace. For that reason, some have speculated Leupold engineers went to work on a model that would bridge the gap to the Mark 6/8 and be able to introduce them at more consumer-friendly price point, which brings us to the Mark 5HD introduced at SHOT Show 2018. With two models, a standard 5-25×56 and an ultra short 3.6-18×44 Leupold hopes to regain some ground it has lost over the past few years as the industry has been changing quickly to accommodate the rise of long range shooting sports. While there is a plethora of 5-25 and similar magnification scopes available from multiple manufacturers today, the Leupold is one of the lightest and comes at a price point below most of the alpha class scopes if you do not require illumination. That being said, the scope that intrigued me the most was the 3.6-18×44 (hereafter referred to as the “Mark 5 Shorty”) offering especially since short and light scopes have always had an appeal for me. Coming in at an MSRP starting at $2399.99 and a street price around $1800 this model is certainly not cheap; however, it is not easy to manufacturer ultra short designs and most of the Mark 5 Shorty’s competition comes in at a stiff price point of $3,000+! Coming in at almost half the price of the competition while being one of the shortest and lightest scopes in its class (bested only by Leupold’s own Mark 6 3-18×44 in length and weight as of summer 2018) this scope has the potential to find its way on many rifles, the big question is how well it will perform optically and mechanically.
Please understand this is a “subjective” review as anything that involves the human eye as an instrument for measurement should be classified as “subjective”. Asking someone “what is your favorite scope” or “who has the best glass” is almost akin to asking “what is the best color”, we can all give our opinions but at the end of the day, it is still our opinion and often times those opinions are further jaded by bias and we all have our bias’s whether we admit it or not. I have been reviewing high end scopes since 2013 and am no stranger to what would be considered tier one, alpha and elite scopes, so it is with this knowledge and experience that I make an effort to give a fair and honest review. Understand I am not a brand loyalist (someone who is committed to only using and promoting one brand), I look for the tools that will better serve me in my sport and if one brand makes a better tool then I don’t have a problem investigating the viability of that tool for my own personal use. One final thought, we typically do not review multiple copies of the same scope and there can be sample variance from the same manufacturer so keep in mind this review focuses on one copy of this scope.
One of the first things we look at (or ought to look at) when a scope is announced or captures our interest is the specifications. This can give us information about the scope and its intended use, things like the magnification range, the front objective, FOV, size, weight, reticle and turret information can help inform us whether this particular scope would be a good candidate for our own personal use. Often times I am asked on the forums, “what is the best scope for me” and I often respond with “what is your intended purpose: how far do you intend to shoot, what kind of rifle is it going on, will you only be shooting during the day or will you have low light situations, do you have a SFP or FFP preference, will you be shooting, paper, steel or game or a combination of all the above, do you care about how heavy the scope is?” These types of questions or rather the answers to these questions help us understand better the environment the scope will be used for, which helps narrow down the choices from the vast array of options. While this review focused on the Mark 5 Shorty I did have some other scopes available to provide a basis for comparison, here is a list of specs for comparison:
The scopes from left to right: Bushnell LRHS 4.5-18×44, Vortex PST II 3-15×44, Schmidt & Bender Ultra Short 3-20×50, Tract Toric 4-20×50, Leupold Mark 5 3.6-18×44
Over the past few years the conversations on the forums have shifted somewhat whenever the question is asked “what scope should I get”. Of late, you can often find someone (myself included) recommending the poster consider the reticle first and then choose the scope. This is a testament to both how reticles have changed as well as their importance in long range shooting and how good the scopes have improved regarding reliability and optical performance. The new “craze” of late seems to be the .2 mil hash Christmas tree style reticles like the Kahles SKMR3, Minox MR4, Sig Sauer DEV-L, Vortex EBR-7B to name a few. Unfortunately, Leupold doesn’t have any design like this other than their busy CCH reticle. If a plain mil hash or Horus style reticles float your boat then Leupold has you covered, but if you prefer some of the more modern designs then you’ll be left wanting something more. The scope I chose came with the Horus TReMoR3 reticle as I’ve wanted to experience a bit of what the hype is about with these busy reticles.
Image disclaimer: the below through the scope images are to give an idea for how the reticle looks only, please do not use through the scope images as an indication of IQ, the image is always sharper to the naked eye than it is for a camera due to lens, focus, position, vibration, etc.
Another very subjective opinion is turret feel and it seems that no two manufacturers have the same feel of turrets, nor does it seem that many can agree on “what is the best feel”, so if you prefer a heavy thunk, a light tick or a high pitched ting when you move between mils, this is going to have to be something that you experience yourself. Personally, I do not get too caught up in turret “feel” or sound, what matters more to me is whether I can accurately and quickly spin my turrets to the position I need for the shot, and I’ve found I can do that with relative ease with most manufacturers turrets these days. That being said, I can confidently say the Leupold Mark 5 has some of the best “feeling” turrets I’ve experienced yet – there is very little play (wiggle) between clicks and each click is very succinct with an audible tink-tink-tink. One thing to mention is that Leupold went with an odd 10.5 mil per revolution turret, not a big deal for me but something to keep in mind. Instead of a full locking mechanism where the whole turret is locked out unless you lift up, Leupold instead went for a locking zero so that you have a push button if you want to spin the turret up that you must press in, but once you start spinning the turret can move either way without further depression of the locking mechanism; likewise, this button will magically move flush with the turret after rotating past the first revolution as a mechanical indicator letting you know you’re past one revolution and there is an additional silver button on top of the turret that raises when moving into the third revolution. This same unit also acts as your zero stop so if you spin all the way back, the button will lock when you’ve arrived at zero. As an added bonus, you do have .5 mil to dial down after depressing the turret lock.
I’ll keep this short. If you want to get a full field analysis of a scopes mechanical reliability I recommend you look for reviews from Lowlight on Snipers Hide, of course ILya of opticsthoughts.com and some others on the web who torture test their scopes for months on end. Outside of some anomalies the majority of $1k+ scopes manufactured today have very good tracking, if your scope exhibits any anomalies (e.g. does not track) I recommend that you send it back to the manufacturer and request they fix it, any $1k+ scope manufactured today should track true, if it does not then it is a manufacturer’s defect and should be repaired. I highly recommend you perform your own box test (https://www.snipershide.com/snipers-hide-scope-calibration/) to verify tracking after properly mounting your scope.
Ergonomics and design:
Smooth parallax that goes down to 75y in marking but lower in actual use, quick throw knob, locking elevation, capped windage all make for one fine package in this short body scope. The only odd anomaly is the 35mm tube and the windage zero is offset at the 11 o’clock position instead of the 9 o’clock position on virtually every other scope out there, this does make it a little difficult to identify where true zero is, if you hold elevation it may not be that big of a deal as the knob will most likely always be covered by the cap, but if you spin elevation it might take a bit to get used to. The most important ergonomic aspect of the Mark 5 Shorty is its length, at only 12.06” long this scope is easily classified as an “Ultra Short” design, a term coined by famed German scope manufacturer Schmidt & Bender and represents scopes with high magnification in a short design. One aspect of an Ultra Short design is that it is much more difficult to build and build right which is why we typically don’t see short designs dominating the market. The Mark 5 Shorty doesn’t just work as an ultra short design, it looks good doing it.
The parallax has set screws and can be reset which is a nice feature as I found it was off from factory, notice the set screw which allows user adjustability.
Instead of using a cantilever mount, the Badger riser rail along with ARC M10 24mm (low) rings put the scope at the perfect height for an AR flat top.
There are some terms that are thrown around in the community that may have different meaning to different people, one of the most misunderstood terms is eyebox which is most often confused with the spec for eye relief and while having long eye relief can be a good thing it does not define how good of an eyebox a particular scope has, I have seen scopes with long eye relief that have a really poor eyebox and scopes with shorter eye relief that have a forgiving eyebox. So, let me give my definition for eyebox which will help you understand what I’m looking for – put simply, eyebox is the ability to be able to quickly obtain a clear sight picture when getting behind a scope. Something else that can affect eyebox performance is where you mount the scope and your cheekweld, if you mount too far forward or too far back you will experience a “tunneled” sight picture and if your scope is high or low and your cheeckpiece is not in the right position then once again you’re going to have a distorted sight picture making for a difficult eyebox. So rule number one is getting the proper mount of your scope on your rifle, my recommended method for getting the proper position is to put your scope at its maximum magnification setting (this is where most scopes have their worst eyebox performance) and then place the scope in the rings without fully tightening, now, close your eyes and bring the rifle up to your natural hold, open your eyes, do you have a clear sight picture? If you have to wiggle your head or adjust your position slightly, then you do not have the proper mounting position, move your scope forward or back and repeat the process. You may also need to adjust your cheekpiece, if you have an adjustable one that’s pretty simple (if you do not then I recommend you get one or look into a good stock pack like the ones from Triad Tactical). The goal is that every time you bring the scope up to your natural hold, the sight picture is spot on, if you do this then even scopes with a very finicky eyebox should perform decently for you.
With that in mind, how does the Mark 5 perform in regard to eyebox – for an ultra short design I would say it performs admirably well, keeping in mind that designing Ultra Short scopes and getting them to perform alongside their regular length peers is not an easy task which is usually reflected in the price of the scope; however, more recent trends have shown some newer designs like the Mark 5 Shorty which do not break the bank.
Probably the most subjective test there is of a scope is identifying optical quality; there are so many factors that go into a good optical formula that it’s hard to quantify, which is why there is no spec by any manufacturer that defines the quality of the image/glass, for that you have to rely on either looking through the scope in the poor lighting of a store or if you’re lucky, find a store that will allow you to take multiple scopes outside on a stable mount and look through them side by side in good lighting and then go back right after sun set and ask to look through them again because I have found that many scopes perform well in good lighting conditions, but when the light gets low, you begin to see a separation of quality.
Things I look for in a scope for optical quality are resolution, color, contrast, control of CA and low light performance. If a scope performs well in all these areas then I consider it to have excellent IQ, if it suffers in one area but excels at others I am usually okay with that, but if it suffers in two or more than it really needs to be a niche scope for me to want to keep it and/or recommend it. I determine optical quality by first setting up the scope properly for the diopter and parallax and then conduct a combination of tests both near and far, as well as perform an analysis at 100 yards using a modified Snellen eye chart as well as a High/Low Contrast target. However, keep in mind that atmospheric conditions can affect the outcome of any tests not performed in controlled environments, I do not have access to these environments, so I do the best I can with the conditions nature provides. I also try to compare the review scope(s) to another that I am confident in its optical performance as well as a few other scopes of similar design to get an idea of overall performance. One final note, most of the time I only review one scope and there can be sample variation so if you hear of everyone else raving about the quality of their scopes (same model) and yours just does not perform, it may be wise to send your scope in to the manufacturer to test and adjust as necessary.
For this review the Leupold Mark 5 3.6-18×44 was put up against a Bushnell LRHS 4.5-18×44, a Vortex PST II 3-15×44, a Schmidt & Bender Ultra Short 3-20×50 and a Tract Toric 4-20×50.
- Resolution – upon initial review I was fairly impressed with the Mark 5 Shorty and it wasn’t until I started comparing side by side with the other scopes that I realized the resolution fell a bit short, that’s not to say the Leupold was bad, it was that the other scopes performed better. Looking at detail like blades of grass, grain in wood, rocks and dirt revealed the Leupold was not as sharp as the other scopes, this was also apparent in the Snellen eye chart test.
S&B Ultra Short > Bushnell LRHS = Tract Toric > Vortex PST II > Leupold Mark 5
- Contrast – Contrast and resolution kind of go hand in hand; however, contrast can be another term that might be misunderstood so let me define – the ability of the scope to differentiate between smaller and smaller details of more and more nearly similar tonal value (this was pulled, in part, from an excellent article on Luminous-Landscape https://luminous-landscape.com/understanding-lens-contrast/). Using the contrast chart and determining detail in distant objects you begin to get a feel for “how much” detail a scope provides. There were situations where I felt the Leupold image was a bit more washed out than the others which reduced contrast, I got the feeling that whatever Leupold engineers did to improve low light performance it came with a less than optimal performance hit to daytime contrast.
S&B Ultra Short => Bushnell LRHS > Tract Toric > Leupold Mark 5 = Vortex PST II
- Color – in recent years I have found more and more scopes getting better at color, whether improvements in multi-coating or better manufacturing techniques I’m not certain but it is nice to see this improvement.
S&B Ultra Short > Bushnell LRHS = Tract Toric > Leupold Mark 5 = Vortex PST II
- CA – another hotly debated topic is chromatic aberration which is typically seen at the edges between high and low contrast objects in what is termed as fringing and usually comes in a band of color along the green/yellow and magenta/purple spectrum, some are greatly annoyed by this optical anomaly while others insist they cannot see it, one thing to know is it has nothing to do with your ability to hit a target; however, Ilya has mentioned “It is not terribly critical for aiming, but it is important for observation and image fidelity during twilight before your eye transitions into scotopic vision.”
S&B Ultra Short > Vortex PST II > Bushnell LRHS > Tract Toric => Leupold Mark 5
- Low Light – My testing takes into account all the above but in low light settings, usually after the sun sets and into where it almost gets too dark to see. In these conditions I like to set my scopes at 12x to take advantage of the exit pupil with fading light while still providing enough magnification to stress the limits of the scope. The amazing thing here is that all scopes performed admirably well in low light, contrast this from scopes I reviewed 5 years ago and the “budget” scopes then just couldn’t cut it while today’s scopes seem to be built for low light performance. I had to look long and hard and minute details in fading light to truly discern which scopes performed better, when not side by side it would be very difficult indeed to determine which, if any, performed better.
S&B Ultra Short = Tract Toric > Bushnell LRHS = Leupold Mark 5 = Vortex PST II
The below image shows an example of heavy CA which can be seen in high contrast situations (black to white transition).
In the 3.6-18×44 the only reticle that offers illumination is the TMR. I opted for the Tremor3 so no illumination option unfortunately (oddly enough the Mark 5 5-25×56 does offer an illuminated Tremor3), but with close to $600 for the illumination option from Leupold when most manufactures offer it as standard, I do not see many buyers going this route.
The Kahles K318i:
As I was wrapping up this review a Kahles K318i 3.5-18×50 showed up at my door, this scope is the closest in regard to size and magnification. While I didn’t have the opportunity to spend as much time comparing the Leupold Shorty with the Kahles K318i my experience alongside the other scopes gave me a good enough basis from which to say that the Kahles K318i does indeed perform better optically than the Mark 5 3.6-18×44; however, as mentioned before this comes at a cost of well over $1000 more than the Leupold albeit with no illumination for the Leupold, and at close to $600 that would close the gap considerably between these two scopes. Truth be told, I like the turret feel better than the Kahles as well as the overall build is very much on par with Kahles.
The below image shows the difference between the matte black of the Leupold and the reflective anodized black of the Kahles.
The below image shows the turret size of the Leupold (left) to the Kahles (right).
The size of these two scopes are very close
The fit and finish of this scope is top tier, I am highly impressed with the overall package with a truly matte black finish where many other scopes are an anodized black – this scope will not be reflecting light, the addition of the semi-flush scope caps and removable quick throw lever and sunshade are nice touches to complete the ensemble. The short, compact size and weight of the Mark 5 3.6-18×44 makes this an ideal scope for an AR platform or covert style build, that alone along with Leupold’s reputation will earn sales for this optic simply because the competition is so scarce at this price point. Are there better scopes, yes, are there cheaper scopes that perform better in certain situations, yes, but none of those scopes meet the same size parameter as the Mark 5 3.6-18×44. Sure, it has a few issues with CA and overall resolution but with it being as short as it is and having the excellent turrets it has, this will more than make up for its shortcomings for many shooters. If Leupold came out with a Christmas tree style reticle and brought down the high premium for illumination, this scope would be an even bigger seller. For optical purists looking for the best glass this scope will undoubtedly not meet your requirements, but the only scopes that do at this time run more than $3k, for those who are moving up where the Mark 5 is an upgrade to an existing scope I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised.
About the author:
Bill Meyer has been shooting since the early 80’s and enjoys shooting for fun as well as hiking around the Rocky Mountains in search of big game. Bill was a professional wedding and portrait photographer for over 17 years which gave him his obsession for good “glass” and translates into his pursuit for the perfect scope (which he’ll readily tell you does not exist). Bill served in the US Army in the late 80’s and in 2012 he caught the long range bug and began having custom precision rifles built, as well as building some AR platform rifles himself. Bill’s passion for shooting has driven him to find gear which will best serve his shooting style and he enjoys sharing the knowledge he picks up along the way with other sportsmen.