Mid-range Tactical: Part 1

 

Mid-range Tactical Scopes


Somewhat uncharacteristically, I spent quite a while thinking about the title of this article.  Having recently written two lengthy pieces on High End Tactical Scopes, I wanted to look at a few riflescopes that I could potentially afford without resorting to a strict canned food diet for the next year or two.  While I was at it, I also thought that I should focus on scopes of moderate magnification.  Something that could be used at typical ranges where a designated marksman would be comfortable operating, fielding either an M1A or an accurized AR-15 of some sort (an SPR, perhaps?).  Ultimately, once all was said and done, “mid-range” ended up meaning both price and engagement distance, and I settled on the following boundary conditions:

  • Street price had to be in the $500 – $1000 range (lower is better, of course; I would much rather buy a $500 than a $1000 scope if the performance is not excessively compromised)
  • All scopes chosen for this article had to be equipped with reticles that, in a pinch, can be used for both range estimation and holdover
  • All scopes had to have variable magnification topping out at 10x or so (assuming an engagement range is no more than 800yards or so on a human-sized target) with the low-end of 3x or thereabouts which is good enough for anything but CQB.


There is a considerable number of scopes that fits these criteria and after some thought I ended up with four models that take rather different approaches to accomplishing the same basic goal.  That gave me a chance to not only look at the scopes themselves, but to also give some thought to which approach to mid-range shooting appeals the most to me.  Here are the scopes I compared for this article:

  • Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×44: this scope is new on the market and with all the attention the PST line-up has generated, I thought it was worth my time to look at one in some detail.  Additionally, when I first saw it at SHOT 2010, I thought it has some tunnel vision.  Vortex guys said that I did not have the scope set up correctly, so it was natural to give it a closer look.
  • SWFA Super Sniper 3-9×42: I own this scope and I use it for the exact purpose I outlined above, which is shooting at human torso-sized targets out to 800 yards or so.
  • Pride Fowler RR800-1 3-9×42: this scope is expressly designed for hitting enemy combatants out to 800 yards (as the name suggests).  It is in use by some units in the US military, so it was a natural choice.
  • Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44: quite frankly, I have not looked at any of Monarch X scopes for some time and thought it was a good time to do so.

From top to bottom: SWFA SS (on the rifle), PFI RR800-1, Nikon Monarch X, and Vortex Viper :
pic1
Here is the spec table for the four scopes above along with a couple other similarly configured competitors that I did not have on hand (so they are for informational purposes only).
  Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×44

Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44

PFI

RR 800-1

3-9×42

SWFA S.S.

3-9×42

Sightron SIII 3.5-10×44

Leupold Mark 4 LR/T 3.5-10×40*

Length, in

12

13.9

12.6

13.1

13.19

13.5

Weight, oz

18.4

24.7

16.9

19

20.5

19.5

Main Tube

30mm

30mm

30mm

30mm

30mm

30mm

Eye Relief, in

4

3.7 – 3.5

4.2 – 3.5

4 – 3.5

3.7 – 4.1

4.7 – 3.4

FOV, ft@1000y

43.9 – 10.9

12.1@9x

41 – 10.5

11.7@9x

35.8 – 12.2

33.2 – 14.51

28.8 – 10

29.9 – 10

Click Value

1/4 MOA

(0.1 mrad available)

1/4 MOA

1/4 MOA

0.1 mrad

1/4 MOA

(0.1 mrad available)

1/4, 1/2, 1 MOA or 0.1 mrad

Adjustment per turn

12 MOA

(~3.5 mrad)

12 MOA

(~3.5 mrad)

15 MOA

(~4.4 mrad)

5 mrad

15 MOA

(~4.4 mrad)

Different options

Adjustment range

100 MOA

80 MOA

(~23 mrad)

110 MOA

27 mrad

(~93 MOA)

120 MOA (~35 mrad)

65 MOA

Reticle

EBR-1 (ill)

Mil-Dot

RR800

Mil-Dot

Mil-Dot

MD or TMR

Reticle Location

SFP

SFP

FFP

FFP

SFP

SFP or FFP

Parallax Adj

Fixed

SF

Fixed

Fixed

SF

SF

Price

$600

$900

$650

$600

$720

$1100 – $1600

*Leupold Mark 4 actual magnification is 3.2x to 9.5x


Simply looking at the table a few things stand out:

  • All of these designs are based on 30mm tubes.
  • Nikon Monarch X is clearly the largest and heaviest of the bunch while the PFI is the trimmest and lightest.
  • Of the four scopes I had on hand only the Nikon has the means for image focus/parallax compensation.
  • Vortex and Nikon have SFP reticles, while Super Sniper and PFI have FFP reticles.
  • The 3-9×42 Super Sniper has notably wider Field of View than the other scopes here at magnifications above 4x or so (it is readily apparent in actual use).
  • The Super Sniper and the Vortex have matching reticles/turrets: mil/mil for the Super Sniper and MOA/MOA for the PST.
  • Vortex was the only scope in the group to have an illuminated reticle (Nikon is available with one, but the model I had was non-illuminated).

As I mentioned above these four scopes espouse very different design philosophies.  Even physically, they differ considerably in terms of size.  From left to right: Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×44, Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44, PFI RR800-1 3-9×42 and SWFA Super Sniper 3-9×42.
pic2

Nikon Monarch X is the most traditional configuration of the bunch: Mil-Dot reticle in the second focal plane (calibrated to be accurate at 10x) along with exposed ¼ MOA per click knobs.  This is how tactical scopes were specc’ed until fairly recently someone thought that it might make sense to have the reticle and the turrets based on the same angular units.  

Vortex Viper PST is designed in just such a way: the version I had was equipped with MOA-based reticle and MOA-based knobs.  The reticle is still in the second focal plane, so it is only accurate at one magnification: 10x.  However, the magnification ring has detents at 5x, 3.3x and 2.5x so that at any of those settings the reticle dimensions can be easily calculated for both rangefinding and holdover.   For example, at 5x, you know that the reticle subtensions are double of what they are at 10, at 3.3x – triple and at 2.5x – quadruple.

SWFA Super Sniper and PFI RR800-1 do away with the need to pay attention to which magnification you are at by placing the reticle in the front focal plane, so that the reticle dimensions remain constant with respect to magnification.  The Super Sniper comes with a standard Mil-Dot reticle and beefy exposed knobs that are also mil-based.  

The PFI scope has an FFP reticle that is a proprietary design with holdover marks matched to a family of calibers with similar trajectories out to 800 yards.  The reticle is, appropriately, named RR800, where RR stands for Rapid Reticle.  It is a somewhat unusual design that takes a little getting used to and it is at its best when used with a laser rangefinder.  However, it does have some limited rangefinding capability with a few mil-spaced dots on the vertical axis. The was the only scope in the group with covered knobs.  While the knobs are indeed finger adjustable, they are not intended to be used very often.  This scope is all about the reticle and knobs are intended for “set-and-forget” operation.

In terms of mechanically quality, I liked all four scopes well enough.  Monarch X and Super Sniper felt beefier than the other two scopes, but none gave me any particular problems.  All four have sufficient mounting length for most applications and the various controls worked well.  I did not find any noticeable POI shift with magnification in the two SFP scopes.  I thoroughly checked the tracking on Super Sniper, Monarch X and PST (I actually got a chance to look at two PSTs, but more on that later) and it was within the limitations of my shooting.  One of the PSTs seemed to be a little off in terms of windage adjustment during one of the shooting sessions, but I could not replicate that again.  Perhaps that was shooter error.  The PFI is not intended to be used with frequent knob twisting, so I did not dwell on the turrets too much.  However, they did have a little slop and the feel was not great.  Nevertheless, zeroing the scope was straightforward and the scope never lost its POA, so I have no complaints.  Overall, I liked the turrets of the Super Sniper the most, but I suspect that comes from familiarity: I have a lot of mileage with that scope.  Also, it does not hurt that the Super Sniper has the most adjustment per turn of the bunch.  For my intended purpose: shooting out to 800 yards or so, none of these scope could get there within one revolution of the elevation knob with typical 5.56×45 (I use 77gr SMK) and 7.62×51 (175gr SMK in this case) load.  5 mrad per turn of the Super Sniper got me the furthest though: out to 600 – 650 yards.  Typically, I have it mounted on a flatter shooting 280Rem boltgun, where it does get me to 800 yards within a single turn of the knob.
One thing to note about the Super Sniper though is that once mounted on the rifle the magnification ring is a touch harder to operate since it is fairly stiff and offers less purchase area for the hand (it is somewhat integrates into the eyepiece housing).  However, there is a cattail adaptor (called “switchview”) available for it from SWFA, which I am considering getting.
Monarch X knobs had rather widely-spaced clicks that were less audible than some others, but very tactile with vault-like solid feel.  It was also the only scope in the group with side-focus parallax adjustment which worked well and exhibited no hysteresis that I could see.
Here is a look at the turrets on Monarch X:
pic3

Vortex Viper PST knobs did not feel quite as solid as those on Monarch X and Super Sniper, but they worked well and provided good feedback.  I made some rather concerted efforts to abuse the knobs into doing something funky, but unsuccessfully.  Also, it is notable that the PST was the only scope here with a zero stop feature which, although somewhat rudimentary, is quite functional.  The scope comes a set of half moon washers that can be inserted into the turret to set a stopping point.  Depending on where you want to set your zero, you’ll end up using a different number of washers, largely determined by trial and error.  It takes a little while to set it up properly, but it does work adequately well:
pic4
And here is a closer look at the turrets:
pic5

Optically, there were some clear differences between the scopes.
In terms of pure image quality, Monarch X was the best one of the bunch.  I suspect the side-focus helped there.  However, I suspect that there is generally a fair bit of sophistication in that optical system.  It does not break any new ground in terms of specs, but is very well optimized.  The overall length of the scope gives a lot of room to properly compensate for various aberrations.  It is also not striving for the widest possible FOV, so the edge effects are well controlled.  Eye relief is reasonably long and quite flexible. Chromatic aberration is minimal as are the the off-axis aberrations and distortion.  The only knock on the optical system is the slight tunneling at the lowest magnification.  However, the tunneling is pretty much gone before you get to 3x, so it is rather inconsequential.  Low light performance is also very respectable.  I started looking at the Monarch X at the same time as I was wrapping up with an article on high end tactical scopes.  Even side by side with the much more expensive riflescopes, Monarch X did not look out of place.  Do not get me wrong, it is not as good as the more expensive scopes like Premier et al, but it acquitted itself admirably nevertheless.  Flare control was sufficiently good, for example, to make it effectively equal in low light to the 44mm US Optics SN-3 I had on hand.


SWFA Super Sniper was close behind the Monarch X in terms of image quality.  It has similarly flexible eyerelief, but the FOV is a lot wider.  In terms of contrast, Super Sniper was as good as the Monarch X, but resolution was a touch lower.  There was also a touch more chromatic aberration, although the various geometric aberrations were well controlled.  The Super Sniper also has a bit of tunnel vision at low magnification, but it disappears at around 3.7x or so.  There is a little more flare in presence of off axis light sources, but that largely disappears with a sunshade or an ARD device.

PFI RR800-1 is a well-made Japanese 3-9×42 scope and it performs very respectably.  However, it can not quite hang with the Super Sniper or the Monarch X in terms of optical performance.  Not the optics on this one are bad, they are just not as good.  PFI does not exhibit any bad traits per se; however, the resolution and contrast are a little worse than the Super Sniper.  There is a touch more flare, although a sunshade helps greatly.  There is a slight hint of tunnel vision at low magnification, but it is effectively negligible.  Eye relief is quite flexible.  I also like the design of the eyepiece: the black ring around the image is very thin. The image circle is almost floating in the air.  Depth of field on the PFI is quite good, similar to the Super Sniper and Monarch X.

As far as image quality goes, Vortex Viper PST was notably worse than the rest of this line-up.  I mentioned earlier that I got a chance to look at two different 2.5-10×44 PST scopes.  When i started testing thei first one, I had to conclude that there was something wrong with it.  I could never quite get the image to be perfectly sharp and there was some measurable parallax at any distance where I tried to put the target. I got a hold of Vortex and requested another scope to look at.  When it got here it turned out to be a bit better in terms of image quality, and I was able to find a parallax free distance (at just beyond 100 yards).  Still, optically the scope did not agree with me.  The image looked quite flat.  There was notable chromatic aberration.  Contrast was low and resolution was nothing to write home about.  The image looked quite bright, but not well resolved at all.  If I were to make guess, i would say that the objective lens system was either not well optimized or too ambitious.  I obviously do not have access to the actual design, but simply looking at the scope, it looks like the objective lens system is quite short in length.  That impression is further supported by rather shallow depth of field that accompanies low f/# optical systems.  General rule of thumb is that low f/# lens systems are notoriously more difficult to optimize especially at a price point.  

Before I move on, I think it is worth my while to talk a little bit about the image quality of the whole PST line-up.  One of the reasons this article took me so long to finish is that I wanted to get my hands onto as many PST scopes as possible in an attempt to see if the 2.5-10×44 is representative of the rest of the line-up.  I also spent a fair amount of time at SHOT looking at every PST scope Vortex had on display.  From an optical standpoint, I think the 2.5-10×44 is the weakest link among the PSTs.  1-4×24 looked pretty reasonable. 4-16×50 did not impress me a whole lot, but it was decent.  6-24×50 actually seemed to be quite good.  In terms of image quality, it had nothing in common with the 2.5-10×44 and is generally the gem of the PST line-up, best I can tell.  Now, this is based on looking at a rather small number of units and I have no idea how much production variation there will be with PSTs.  Since the whole product family is new, only time will tell that.

Here are some final thoughts on each scope.

Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44
As I am sure you figured out by now I liked this scope a lot more than I expected to.  There are two things about it I do not particularly like: price (it was increased a bit for 2011) and the fact that knobs are in MOA while the reticle is based on mils.  I think that is a simple tweak Nikon can implement without too much difficulty.  If not for that, the Monarch X would easily make it onto my list of recommendations.  This is a very solid scope both optically and mechanically.  I think it makes for a good match on mid-range bolt guns and on AR-15s of all sorts.  I did most of my testing on a heavy barrel AR-15 where it looked quite at home:
pic6
All controls on the Monarch X were smooth and well-calibrated.  Overall, the scope was very easy to get behind.  It did have some slight tunneling at low magnification, which is a bit unusual on SFP scopes, but I did not find it too disturbing.  Personally, I would like to see the Monarch X line-up expand a little into offering more knob variations and into FFP models.  I suspect that would really make Nikon’s riflescope line-up a little better rounded and more suited for tactical applications.

In the future, perhaps I will try to test the Monarch X side by side with Sightron S3.  Both are high quality japanese scopes with SFP reticles and it would be interesting to see how they stack up.

SWFA Super Sniper 3-9×42
This scope sits on my “go to” rifle, which should probably tell you what I think of this scope.  I’ve had it on a few other rifles before and it has never failed me.  The reticle is a simple Mil-Dot, but I am quite used to it.  I also sighted it in in such a way that I can comfortably use the dots for holdover at 100 yard increments if I want to make a quick shot and know the distance well enough.  Otherwise, the turrets are superb both in feel and repeatability.  Low light performance is better than I would expect at this price point.  Here is a picture of the S.S. on my Tikka M695 chambered for 280Rem (there is a sunshade on the scope, but it more commonly has an ARD on it):
pic7
Eye relief on the SS is sufficiently flexible to make it very easy to get behind.  All of the controls are reassuringly stiff, so you have high confidence they are not going to move during transportation.  Eye relief varies a touch with magnification, but not enough to make me readjust my head position.

PFI RR800-1 3-9×42
This scope is a direct competitor to the Super Sniper above, but it espouses a somewhat different philosophy.  That philosophy is all about the reticle.  The scope itself is quite nice and offers good performance; however, the S.S. is a bit better optically, has wider field of view and sturdier feel.  What sets it apart is the reticle.  Here is what it looks like:
pic7
According to Pride Fowler, this reticle is designed to provide reasonably accurate holdover marks for any cartridge where the projectile starts down range at about 2550 – 2700fps and has a BC of 0.450 – 0.500.  I tried it with a couple of 223Rem (77gr SMK) and 308Win (175gr SMK)  loads and it worked like a charm within the limitations of each cartridge.  Now, unless you get very lucky, the hashmarks do not coincide EXACTLY with the bullet impact at all ranges, but it get quite close.  Definitely close enough to hit human size targets.  It was a little weird to use a hashmark that is above the center of the crosshair for 100yards, but I got used to it quickly.  The length of the horizontal hashmarks is nicely matched to the wind drift, which proved to be useful as well.  The little hashes on the horizontal line, match different wind velocities.  It took me a few shooting sessions to get used to this reticle.  However, once I got the hang of it, it quickly became apparent that this is a faster way to hit the target than using the knobs on the Super Sniper or Monarch X.  Now, if I wanted to hit the bullseye, knobs were they way to go.  Using PFI’s Rapid Reticle implies that you have some other means of estimating distance, like a rather ubiquitous these days laser rangefinder.  That is not an unreasonable assumption.  In a pinch, some reticle features are mil-spaced and can be used for ranging.


The market is awash with scopes that sport holdover reticles of varying sophistication.  However, most of them are in second focal plane scopes, which means that reticle dimensions change with magnification.  I always thought it was a silly idea and used mil-based FFP reticles in my tactical scopes for holdover with reasonable success (like in the 3-9×42 SS in this comparison).  This is the first occasion when I got to spend any significant trigger time with a purpose-designed holdover reticle in a FFP scope.  From where I stand, this is THE way to execute holdover reticles.  It works.  Plain and simple.  And I do not have to worry which magnification I am on.  All I have to do is figure out the range, get the sight picture I want and squeeze the trigger.

In my opinion, this reticle really only has one weakness: low light visibility on low magnification.  It is not all that bad, but I wish the thick outer bars were thicker.  That would make them easier to pick up at 3x and faster to use.
As far the scope itself goes, as I mentioned earlier, it is a solid piece that is pretty decent for the money.  The reticle makes it truly worth looking at.  It is not a perfect fit for all guns and calibers.  However, on the guns where the reticle matches the cartridge, it is a faster way to go than almost anything I have seen to date, especially with unusual shooting positions when you would rather not mess with the turrets.

Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×44
Coming into this, I really wanted to like this scope.  I like the feature set and on paper it offers a lot for the money.  In terms of size and features, it is an excellent fit for a precision AR-15:
pic8

However, I am basically a “meat-and-potatoes” kinda guy: in any scope I look at, I want the fundamentals to be rock solid before I even look at the features.  To me the fundamentals consist of basic mechanical quality (holding zero, repeatability  and tracking) and basic optically quality.  While mechanically the PST was quite good, optically it left me wanting.  Additionally, I walked away with very mixed feeling about the reticle.  The center lines are very thin and in anything but the best light, they were very hard to see without illumination.  Now, the illumination worked well enough, but I generally tend to lean toward reticles that have better visibility.  Now, I am quite comfortable with ultra-thin reticle on high magnification scopes, but on a moderate magnification model, I would much prefer something thicker.  On the other hand, when the conditions were right, it did make for very respectable ranging and holdover capabilities.  Here is what the reticle looked like:
pic9
While in principle it does have those thick bars that help with low light visibility, in practice they are too widely spaced to be useful.
Ultimately, the choice of the reticle is a rather personal decision, since everyone has different priorities.

Parting Thoughts
Out of the four scopes I looked at here, two are now present on my list of recommendations: SWFA SS and PFI RR-800-1. Truth be told, the 3-9×42 SS has been there for a while but the PFI scope is a new addition.
The other two scope did not quite make it there, but for different reasons.  Monarch X is a very solid piece that simply needs a slight feature update.
Viper PST, on the other hand, has more fundamental problems and needs an optical system rework.
Since, most of the testing was done on an AR-15, I used the single piece Aadmounts that I still had on hand after the High End Tactical Article.  I liked these mounts enough to buy three of them for use in future tests.  I end up swapping scopes back and forth quite a bit and these mounts return to zero in the most emphatic way.  There are a lot of good mounts out there, but these are probably the most heavy duty designs I’ve played with.  At this point, I have enough mileage with them to have absolute confidence that when I see something funny in a scope’s behavior, it is VERY unlikely to be a mount problem.

Since I often get asked where the scope I review come from:
  • The 3-9×42 SWFA SS is my personal scope.  It is one of the early units SN 006.  I do plan to get my hands on another model for the follow up to this article, since they have a new reticle now.
  • Nikon Monarch X was provided to me by WebyShops.  They asked me to write an overview of Nikon riflescope line for them, which I did not feel comfortable doing not having looked at the Monarch X (Nikon’s flagship, really) for so long.  Here is a link to the model I reviewed on their website: Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44
  •  Lastly, the Vortex Viper PST I looked at was provided by Vortex Optics.  I suspect that they are not very happy with what I wrote, but I have learned over the years that they take both good and bad feedback and learn from it.
 Posted by at 12:34 am

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