Nikon M-223 1-4×20 rifle scope review

 

Review of the Nikon M-223 1-4x scope with Point Blank Reticle.

 

By Les (Jim) Fischer (BigJimFish on AR15.com and SnipersHide)

July 2, 2012

 

I was a bit surprised when Nikon decided to send me this M-223 along with the Premier 8x20mm binoculars I had asked to review. I did a Shot show report on this optic and was less than kind. I didn’t expect they would be keen to have me write about it again. Shot show reports are cursory, though, and hands-on evaluations include more in-depth assessment of the optics, as well as testing of the adjustments, close quarters speed, and a number of other aspects of performance. Nikon was banking on the strength of their optics performance to offset some of my initial impressions. It turns out to be a good bet. While I haven’t changed my mind regarding many of the misguided features of this scope, it does perform solidly.

 

Here is the Nikon M-223 mounted on my 16″ AR:

 

 

 

Due to Nikon’s long loan time for reviews, it has been present for and included in the lineup of two sets of scope reviews.

 

The first lineup, from top to bottom:

 

Leupold CQ/T

GRSC Japanese-made 1-6x

US Optics SN-3 3.2-17x

Nikon M-223 1-4x

Elcan Specter DR 1/4x

GRSC Korean-made 1-4x (prototype)

Leupold VX-6 1-6x

 

 

The second and more price appropriate lineup, from top to bottom:

 

Nikon M-223 1-4x

GRSC Korean-made 1-4x (prototype)

GRSC Japanese-made 1-6x

Firefield 1-6×24

 

 

 

Table of contents:

-Background

-Physical description

-Reticle description, explanation, and testing

-Comparative optical evaluation

-Exit pupil and eyebox discussion

-Illumination subjective and comparative evaluation

-Mechanical testing

-Comment on adjustments

-Close quarters testing

-Summary

 

Background:  Nikon is a very big fish in the small pool of sport optics. It is probably well over twice the size of the next largest optics company, provided its camera and semiconductor divisions are not ignored. This gives Nikon an economy of scale that is unrivaled, but also adds the liability of a slow moving bureaucracy filled with many people who have little to no knowledge of needs of the specific markets for which products are intended. This scope is a perfect product of these realities. It is optically and mechanically very good, better than its competitors at its price, but the lack of understanding regarding of the needs of an AR optic is also present. It has sniper knobs, a poor and bulky reticle, and a lack of illumination.

 

Physical Description:  The M-223 is long and slender with incongruously bulky exposed adjustments. Much of this length is not actually part of the optic, but rather a defacto sunshade consisting of roughly two inches of main tube extending beyond the objective lens. This may explain some of the optic’s excellent anti-glare performance. The machining and fit of the M-223 is generally very good, though the power change ring has a finish that does not match the rest of the optic and looks rather cheap and cast. At 13.93oz, the M-223 is one of the lightest scopes in the table, which will be approved of by the weight conscious. Included in the box with the scope along with the requisite paperwork are flip up scope capes. They are not Butler Creek, but are of good quality and should hold up. They are certainly preferred to the scope bra many makers include. A mount is not included with the M-223, though SWFA does sell a kit for an extra $40 that includes a Burris P.E.P.R. mount. This is a good value and you are not missing anything skipping the M-223 mount. It is functional and of reasonable quality, but it has a slow and less than elegant multi-piece base and would not be my choice at its $80-$100 price point. In my testing I am constantly moving scopes about and the M-223 mount, with its multi-piece rail attachment, does not win any points with me.

 

The M-223 in mount with box:

 

 

Reticle: The reticle is a disaster. Imagine your standard duplex reticle, but shrink the thin section in the center to half the normal size and then put a big dot right in the middle to defeat the purpose of having the thin section in the duplex by obscuring the aiming point. The thinking behind the reticle seems to have been to make it big and thick so that you can’t lose it. Perhaps this has something to do with the lack of an illumination feature and low light use, but more likely the designer just thought that big and thick was easier to see and therefore faster. The thinking is not correct. Large, thick reticles are not faster at close quarters. My CQB testing has been unequivocal on this point. Thick duplex reticles are consistently ranked among the slowest. The fact is that it does not seem to be the reticle, but rather the target that is more important to see. All that reticle just covers the target up. I should also mention at this point that the duplex reticle in the M-223 is of little help in ranging and drop compensation. Most, though not all, AR reticles make some effort towards these ends. While I am not convinced that a ranging reticle is essential for an AR optic or even desirable in all cases, I am quite certain that to justify the giant, sniper rifle styled, exposed adjustments present on the M-223, you must have one.

 

An image of the “Point Blank” reticle in the M-223 at 4x. The target is at 50 yds:

 

 

Comparative Optical Evaluation:  The Nikon M-223 performs better optically than most scopes at its price point. With regards to clarity, it is much closer to the $1025 Japanese GRSC 1-6x that is manufactured by, and therefore representative of, the many Light Optics made scopes in this price range than it is to the $350 Korean made GRSC 1-4x. I wonder how its optics would compare to the $500 Vortex Viper PST scopes. I no longer have one to compare it to, but I suspect that this might be a fair fight. In addition to good clarity, the Nikon is also very good at handling stray light and difficult lighting situations. Even when held at the most problematic angles to the sun, it is quite useable; unaffected even. Perhaps this ability stems from the unusual integrated sunshade composed of the last two inches or so of the main tube. Field of view of the M-223 is less than exceptional. It is comparable to the Japanese GRSC, on the low end of average. Nikon’s great experience designing optics shows in the M-223:  it outperforms its price bracket.

 

Scope compilation photo with scopes set at 1x:

 

 

 

Scope compilation photo with scopes set at 4x:

 

 

 

Exit Pupil and Eyebox Discussion:  I have recently had to re-evaluate my take on eyebox and Exit Pupil. The exit pupil is the size of the disc of light at the point at which it is focused for your eye. Assuming you are using this scope for close quarters work and you are moving about:  your head will not be completely stationary regardless of how good your cheek weld is. A larger exit pupil will allow you to keep view of the object through the scope despite your movement, though it is notable that due to parallax error, the reticle will not be exactly where it should be when your head is far off center. People refer to the range through which your eye can move about and still get a good image as the “eyebox”. As you can see below, the Nikon M-223 has a mammoth exit pupil and, therefore, a mammoth eyebox. Conversely, the Specter DR has a very small exit pupil. It is so much smaller that the area of the Nikon exit pupil is almost 4.5 times that of the Elcan. It has been my thinking in the past that a larger exit pupil would translate into vastly more forgiving head positioning during use and therefore greater speed when movement is involved. In my practice though, neither the cost of an optic, nor its speed when tested at close quarters has correlated well with exit pupil.  This could have something do with the unmeasured axial component of eyebox, but I am not overly convinced of that. While I have noticed some greater forgiveness in eye position in the larger exit pupil scopes, it does not seem to be of much importance unless compared with scopes that are unusually constricted. It seems that as your head naturally centers itself behind the optic it adjusts very rapidly to the demands of each optic. Provided those demands are not unreasonable, this process does not seem to be overly faster in a large exit pupil scope than a moderate one. Also, red dot type scopes, which do not have eyebox limitations, have not proven to have a significant advantage in speed throughout my testing relative to conventional scopes, though I have not tested several examples to determine brand differences at this time.

 

In summary,  the M-223 has a very generous exit pupil. This is to its credit, though I do not think that that credit is as large as I once did.

 

Exit pupil measurement setup:

 

 

 

Exit Pupil measurements of the scopes that I have tested arranged from largest to smallest:

 

Nikon M-223 1x, 16.7mm, 4x, 5.3mm

Firefield 1-6x ffp 1x, 16.2mm, 4x, 4.6mm

Viper PST 1x, 16mm 4x, 6.4mm

Razor HD 1x ,13.2mm 4x, 6.5mm

GRSC K 1x, 13.1mm 4x, 6.7mm

GRSCJ 1x, 11.2mm 6x, 4.6mm

Leupold VX-6 1x, 10.7mm, 6x, 4.4mm

Elcan Specter DR 1x, 8.0mm 4x, 7.4mm

Leupold CQ/T 1x, 9mm 3x 4.86mm

 

Illumination Subjective and Comparative Evaluation:  At this juncture I usually discuss the illumination system of the optic in question and compare it to that of its peers. Despite the lack of illumination capability in the M-223, I have elected to keep a small section here to remind the reader of the almost ubiquitous presence of illumination in optics competing with the M-223. I was surprised that, in designing an optic specifically for the AR platform, Nikon did not include illumination. I have chosen to include the M-223 in my table and to write a review of it despite this fact and it is the only optic that I have made that exception for. I do this because of its popularity and in deference to the largest riflescope company in the world.

 

Mechanical Testing and Turret Discussion:  Power change and box tests are designed to test the accuracy, repeatability, and independent nature of a scope’s adjustments. In the box test, the shooter aims at the same place when firing all shots, but moves the adjustments between groups such that a box is formed by the groups fired. The power change test is performed by firing a group at each end of the power range of the scope without moving the adjustments. Each group is fired at a different target and any shift in the position of the groups indicates a shift in the point of aim when the power is changed. Theoretically, front focal plane scopes will not show a shift in the groups while second focal plane scopes will. The magnitude of the shift will dependent of several factors, including how far from centered the adjustments of the scope are after being zeroed. In practice, almost all scopes I have tested have shown a shift in point of aim when the power is changed. These tests are done using a BKL adaptor on an Anschutz .22lr. This provides very small groups and therefore good resolution while maintaining minimal ammunition costs to yours truly.

 

M-223 box test:

 

 

 

M-223 power change test:

 

 

 

The Nikon M-223 box test is slightly different than ones I have done in the past. This time I started in the lower left corner instead of the upper left. I also moved the adjustments 4 inches at 25 yards (16 s-moa) instead of the typical 3 inches at 25 yards. I started at the bottom of the box because the scope had been adjusted far down from its center due to a mount with built-in MOA and I didn’t want to run out of elevation travel. In any case, the box test was perfect. The adjustments are accurate and independent.

 

The power change test showed a shift in point of aim of 1-2″ at 100 yards. Given that this is a second focal plane scope that, as I mentioned before, had its adjustments far from centered due to the angled base; I consider this an excellent result.

 

Comment on Adjustments: The adjustments on the M-223 are large and exposed. They protrude roughly .9″ from the tube and are almost 1.3″ in diameter. The 1/4 inches per hundred yards clicks are satisfyingly audible and tactile. Each knob offers 20 s-MOA per revolution and the zero can be reset by pulling up the knob which disengages it from the screw. You will be pleased to learn that the knob indexes properly at each hash mark and also can be set at any hash. This has recently been a problem on some brands’ long range scopes. I mention long range optics because that is the kind of optic these adjustments belong on. They are well suited to a scope with ranging capability that requires drop compensation via the adjustments. This scope lacks these features. On the M-223, the knobs are just oversized and, being exposed, will be subject to accidental adjustment. One last thing to mention before leaving the adjustments is the sticker on the ocular housing of the M-223 that proudly proclaims “Precision AR Optic Ballistically Matched.” As mentioned before, the reticle is a duplex and therefore not matched to any combination of rifle, cartridge, and load. Similarly, the adjustments do not bear any markings that could justify this assertion. I consider this sticker to be false advertising as the words “ballistically matched” do have meaning and this scope makes no attempt to fulfill that meaning.

 

Close Quarters Testing: This is a fairly new section in my reviews. I have received many requests for my opinion regarding which optics are the fastest at 1x. This has led me to start testing specifically to that end. The testing consists of a display of vital-sized targets between 10 and 25 yards away that are engaged from a variety of positions as quickly as possible. The targets are audibly reactive, making hit identification easy. It is not unlike some stages of three gun competitions except that, being as cheap as I am, I use an air-soft rifle. The air-soft also allows for targets that move since having someone downrange poses no safety hazard beyond welts. This course of fire was run though by several individuals of varying abilities in order to get as diverse a set of opinions as possible. In the future, I will be writing a composite article with generalized recommendations and guidelines for picking close quarters optics, but for now I will be focusing specifically on the M-223.

 

You might suspect that the lack of illumination in the M-223 slowed it down in the CQB testing, and this would be true if I had done the testing in low light. However, in full natural illumination very few of the scopes I have tested have illumination systems substantial enough to be useful. Most are run absent illumination and therefore the Nikon did not suffer a disadvantage. This is not to say that the M-223 performed:  it was one of the slower optics tested and generally not well liked by the individuals doing the testing. The primary problem is the reticle, which is bulky and gives the shooter the sensation of firing at the enemy from behind a thicket. In addition to this, some minor barrel distortion is noticeable at 1x. This was less severe than in the VX-6 tested earlier. In the M-223, the distortion seemed more to annoy the reviewers than to impede the ability of images captured by the users’ off eye to synchronize with the eye behind the optic. I wonder though if eye strain would become problematic with extended use. All told, the M-223 was not a favorite for close quarters use in good lighting and would obviously be of little to no use in poor lighting.

 

The effect of barrel distortion on parallel lines:

 

 

 

Summary:  The M-223 is a quality piece of glass with features chosen by a marketing department living in a city that doesn’t allow you to own guns anyway. Ok, I don’t really know that, but it might as well be true. The mechanics and optics are spot on, really solid. The features, though, are almost totally unattractive to me. While the performance in testing combined with my trust of and history with Nikon have convinced me that other scopes in Nikons lineup might be interesting depending on the application, I do not see this one as fitting the AR bill.

 

For those of you looking for the simple pro and con list, here you go:

 

Pros:

Optical clarity is excellent; above par at this price point

Handling of stray light is excellent

Generous exit pupil

Adjustments are accurate, independent, and repeatable

Adjustments have excellent feel and a zero indicator that resets easily and accurately

Lightweight

Excellent warranty from a longstanding industry leader

 

Cons:

No illumination

Reticle is not even a duplex. It fails to be precise at long ranges because of a large dot in the center portion

Adjustments are large, their features unnecessary given the limitations on their functionality imposed by the reticle design.

Slow at close quarters because of reticle design and slight barrel distortion

No significant ranging capability

Power change ring is a bit small and slippery