Hawke Sidewinder 30 and Leatherwood Uni-Dial

Hawke Sidewinder 30 6-24×56 vs Leatherwood A.T.R. Uni-Dial 7-30×50

This is the third in a series of reviews involving Hawke products and my first review of a Leatherwood scope.  So far, I have looked at Hawke’s top-of-the-line binocular, Frontier ED, and a top-of-the-line Japanese riflescope, Frontier SF.  Here, I will talk about Hawke’s flagship China-made scope, the Sidewinder SS.

As is my custom, here is the short version for those who do not feel like going through all of my ramblings:
Overall, I was not particularly impressed with either scope.  Hawke is a nice mechanical package, but optics are mediocre (and I may be a bit generous here): both resolution and contrast are pretty bad.  A holdover reticle in a SFP scope is, in my opinion, just a bad idea (once again, just my personal opinion).  Leatherwood Uni-Dial is a nice concept, but badly executed both optically and mechanically: knobs have a lot of slop in them, tunnel vision is horrible and field of view is very narrow.
Now onto the long version: 

The sample Hawke sent me is the 6-24×56 model with the proprietary SR12 reticle, big wheel side focus parallax adjustment, pop-up finger adjustable knobs, and green/red reticle illumination.  There is also an included sunshade.  This is definitely a very feature rich scope.

The Leatherwood scope is not far behind as far as features go: No-Math Mil-Dot reticle (normal Mil-Dot with a couple of hashmarks added to it for bracketing a target of specific size), exposed tall finger adjustable knobs, Uni-Dial elevation knobs (same idea as Kahles Multi-zero, with ten holdover marks; I have heard numerous accounts that Leatherwood was the first with this idea), side-focus parallax knob (it is the knob that sticks out at about 45 degree angle in front of the W/E knobs).  This one also has a sunshade included.

Let’s look at the numbers (I included the more expensive Sightron S2 Big Sky 6-24×42 SIL for comparison):

Hawke Sidewinder 30
Leatherwood A.T.R. Uni-Dial
Sightron S2 Big Sky 
6-24×42 SIL
Length, in 16.4 17.2 15
Weight, oz 27.2 29.7 17.6
Field of View, ft@100 yards 16 – 5 10.6 – 3.5 15.7 – 4.4
Eye Relief, in 3.6 3.3 3.7-4.0
Side Focus or Adjustable Objective? SF SF AO
Click Value, MOA 1/4, 15MOA per turn 1/2E, 40MOA per turn, 1/4W 1/4, 20MOA per turn
Adjustment Range, MOA 62 60 60

These two scopes are among the most expensive scopes coming out of China now.  They are also, arguably, the most feature rich (with Hawke especially, having every feature under the sun included).  Both profess to be designed for long range shooting, but espouse somewhat different approaches to it.

Another thing to note is something of a disclaimer about my personal preferences:  I generally lean toward scopes that are simple to use.  Abundance of features is unlikely to impress me if the fundamentals are not properly sorted out.  If the scope has a lot of extraneous options, I expect those to be properly sorted out as well.

Hawke Sidewinder 30 6-24×56 with SR12 reticle

This is a substantial scope.  It is well proportioned, so it looks trimmer than it is, but it is big and bulky and clearly designed to be mounted on equally substantial rifles.  As far as fit and finish go, this is the best I have seen come out of China yet.  Bar none.  The whole package is very well polished.  All knobs turn smoothly.  The edges are nicely radiused and machining tolerances appear tight and well maintained.  Illumination and side focus are integrated into the same turret on the left side of the turret box via two concentric knurled rings.  The illumination is adjustable via the outer one and parallax via the inner one.  Parallax adjustment feels very stiff, but it is designed to work with the included big wheel that slides right over the knob and can be tightened over the side focus adjustment ring without effecting the illumination adjustment in any way.  The wheel adds a lot more leverage to the side focus, so that it feels smooth and fairly light.  Once the adjustment wheel is properly tightened, there is a touch of hysteresis in the system, but nothing that bothered me in practical use.  Parallax is adjustable from 10 yards on out.  For airgunners and rimfire shoters that is a welcome feature.

The reticle system is one of the more interesting features of the scope and deserves a special mention.  Note that I am referring to it as a “reticle system” rather than a reticle.  The reason for that is the BRC (Ballistic Reticle Calculator).  BRC is a piece of software available through Hawke’s website that is designed to work together with the reticle for precise holdover.  The scope is available with three reticles: SR6, SR12 and Mil-Dot (BRC does not support holdover with Mil-Dot, but does support Hawke’s proprietary reticle designs).  The scope in question here  has the SR12 reticle.  Here is what it looks like:

This reticle has something for everyone: little circles, hashmarks, horizontal bars for windage correction and a choke style rangefinder.  Translation: this is a very busy reticle.  Due to the reticle sitting in the Second Focal Plane (SFP), reticle dimensions change with magnification.  That is where the BRC comes in.  Using the software, you can figure out the holdover ranges for the cartridge of your choice at any magnification.  All you need to give the software is some information regarding the velocity of the bullet, height of the scope over the bore and the ED Value.  ED stands for Estimated Detrioration and, the best I can tell, is an alternative to using Ballistic Coefficient.  A brief search of the internet revealed that ED value is commonly used by airgunners, which explains why I have never heard of it until now.  Hawke does provide a calculator for determining the ED Value of your cartridge, but I would still prefer to have an option to use the BC instead.  I suspect that if you set up your ED Value correctly (by chronographing the speed of your cartridge and two distances, for example, or by providing bullet drop at tow distances), that it is more accurate than using BC.  I had to jump through some hoops to set everything up correctly, but I did get it working.  Here is what a BRC screen looks like:

Hawke BRC

Once you select the reticle you have from the drop down menu, you start tweaking.  At the top left you set up the caliber, scope height over the bore, zero range and magnification.  As you adjust zero range and magnification, you can optimize the holdover points for the type of shooting you do.  The software lets you print out the holdover information as a list or as a picture (left most applet above).  You can also print out a reticle snapshot with holdover marks (center applet above) sized to fit on the inside of the flip-up cap.  The right-most applet can also be printed out and it contains the dimensions of the choke style rangefinder at the bottom left of the reticle.

Now, the natural question is whether all this wizardry works.  Yes it does, but with some limitations.  While the BRC software is very helpful for tuning the reticle to work with your cartridge, we are still dealing with a SFP reticle which changes dimensions with magnification.  In order to use holdover with reasonable accuracy, you essentially end up using it as a fixed power scope at a magnification you determined at home rather than in the field.  If the conditions require a different magnification your plans of using holdover fly out of the window.  If you want to use holdover at multiple magnifications, you have to calibrate the reticle for every magnification separately and have multiple printouts with you.  That works at the range, but is not the most intuitive way to go.  I tried to use this reticle with 22-250 and 308Win at three magnifications: 12x, 15x and 18x.  It worked to within my ability to shoot accurately.  It did take me some time and effort to set up the ED value correctly for both rifles.

One of the things I did not like about the general reticle design is that the aiming points are alternating hashmarks and circles.  I would prefer it if it was one or the other.  Going back and forth between them offers a different sight picture depending on the distance to the target.  I am not sure that makes sense to me (well, actually, I am pretty sure it doesn’t).  Generally, I prefer hashmarks to circles.  If circles are the order of the day, I like to have a tiny dot in the center of the circles.  On the other hand, that may simply be a matter of being used to something specific: I am very used to hashmarks and to solid dots.

One word of caution: BRC software includes an option to choose one of the preset calibers from a drop down menu.  I suggest you ignore that right off the bat since it is not at all clear what the presets are.  If you load one of the presets, it sets the velocity and ED Value.  There is no information on the bullet type and weight or BC of the preset caliber.  Basically, you have no way of knowing if the preset information has any relevance to the specific cartridge you are shooting.  The overall user interface in the BRC software is pretty decent, but the caliber preset option, to me, is worse than useless: it is misleading.

Another word of caution: the horizontal bars are supposed to provide hold compensation marks for 10mph wind.  I was able to use them after some trial and error, but it took appreciable amount of experimentation.

When all is said and done, I have to confess that I am not a big fan of holdover reticles in SFP scopes.  Also, I am not an airgunner and this reticle seems to be popular with that crowd.  I mostly shoot centerfire calibers and I like to shoot at fairly extended range. I believe that for shooting at extended ranges, reticle holdover is seldom the way to go.

I think Hawke went to extraordinary lengths in order to find a solution to a problem that should have never existed: how to simplify the use of a holdover reticle that changes dimensions with magnification.  I am aware of only one solution to that problem: put the reticle into Front Focal Plane.  Then the question becomes: how to simplify the use of a holdover reticle that has the same dimensions at all magnifications.  Everything else I have seen to date (and I have played with most holdover reticles on the market) is a band aid, not a solution.

I enjoyed the challenge of getting the SR12 reticle to work for me, but if I were to buy this scope for my own needs, it would be configured with a Mil-Dot (interestingly, Hawke’s BRC does not support Mil-Dot reticle, although it is offered in the scope).  For long range shooting, I would be dialing in with the knobs, although I have used MilDot for holdover in the past with good results.  

Speaking of the knobs, as much as the reticle system left me cold, the knobs I liked.  These are of the pop-up variety: in the “all the way down” position they are fixed in place and can not be knocked out of position.  In order to make windage or elevation adjustment you pop the knobs up.  The whole arrangement is kinda like Leupold VX-7, conceptually, except the knobs do not need to be twisted to lock down.  The clicks are 1/4MOA and seem quite accurate.  Sighting in took all of two shots: I fired one shot, calculated how many clicks I need to get to POA and the next shot was dead on.  One word of caution: if you plan to use your left hand to adjust the elevation knob, you will have to reach over the oversized side focus wheel.

A couple of words on reticle illumination: the scope has both red and green LEDs, with each color supporting five intensity levels.  The illumination was not quite as bad as it usually is on most scopes this side of a Short Dot, but still not great.  It did not cause any particularly adverse optical effects (reflections and such), but it was a bit too bright for shooting in very low light. It was dim enough to not totally destroy my night vision, but I wish it was dimmer yet.  Another thing I do not quite get is why you need two illumination colors on a scope like this.  If anyone can explain that to me, I would like to know.  When it gets really dark, red is the way to go since it has the least effect on your night vision.  In bright light conditions, I do not see the need for illumination on a scope of this type at all.  With that in mind, what do you need green illumination for?  Perhaps, I am missing something (wouldn’t be the first time).

As far as optics go, I will talk more about that later.  In a nutshell, no matter how you slice it, the optics are not good enough for this price range.  Not even in the ballpark.

Here are some pictures of the Hawke Sidewinder 30 mounted on a Savage 12FV using TPS rings (with the Leatherwood Uni-Dial scope next to it).
Here is a closer look at the turret box and the “Big Wheel” parallax:
Other side of the turret box:
Hawke Turrets

Leatherwood A.T.R. Uni-Dial 7-30×50

This is a big scope.  That is the first thought that came to my head when I unpacked the box.  Then I thought about it for a bit longer an concluded that it is indeed a big scope.  Construction of this scope is somewhat unique with the turret box extending forward a fair bit and housing the Side Focus knob that is not really on the side, but sticks out at about 45 degrees to the side.  I think that limits the mounting options considerably, but I do not think a scope this big is likely to be mounted on itty-bitty rifles with tight mounting space.  I had no problems finding an optimal mounting location on both a Mauser and a Savage.  Mechanically, this is not as refined of a package as the Hawke, but it works.  Still, it is hard for me to get over the fact that the knobs are pretty sloppy.  The clicks are fairly accurate, but there is some slop between clicks.  Parallax adjustment works, but it is heavy.  The parallax knob itself is rather small in diameter, so the stiffness of adjustment is coupled with comparative lack of leverage.  It did smooth out a fair bit with use but remained heavy.  On the plus side, the location of the knob (at a 45 degree angle to the elevation turret) makes it easily accessible to a southpaw.  I am not a lefty myself, but I do make it a point to shoot both ways whether I am practicing with rifles or pistols.  Typically, side focus scopes are a pain for lefties, but this one is an exception.  The reticle is a Mil-Dot.  Leatherwood calls it “No-Math” Mil-Dot.  This is the same bracketing arrangement I have seen used on Leupold scopes: bracket a target of know size with a couple of hashmarks that are added to a normal Mil-dot reticle:

You adjust the magnification ring until you bracket a 36 inch target between two hashmarks (or an 18 inch target between a hashmark and the crosshair).  Once that is accomplished, you read out the range from the back of the magnification ring.  That is a fairly easy to use system.  It is not the most accurate ranging system in the world (how many targets out there are exactly 18 inches in size?), but it will get you pretty close for any reasonable range.  Ultimately, ranging with a Mil-Dot reticle is a similarly difficult to use system, but workable with practice.  Luckily, you still have the Mil-Dot reticle to fall back upon if you are skilled in its use.  While the “No Math” part of the reticle does not do much for me, I welcome the addition of the hashmarks since they offer some additional ranging flexibility by providing half-mil marks.  You can also use the dots for holdover if you are so inclined, but you run into the same complications as you do with the Hawke Sidewinder: the reticle is in the Second Focal Plane, so you’d better be very aware of which exact magnification you are on.  Ultimately, using knobs to dial in the range is a more precise and versatile way to go.  Apparently, I am not the only one with that opinion, since there are a lot of scopes with target knobs out there.  The elevation knob has ten little flags built in as well as a zero stop.  You can move the flags around by loosening two screws at the top of the turret.  Same for the zero stop.  Once you tighten the screws again the holdover marks are fixed in place.  The little flags are of different lengths, so you can figure out which flag is which in a pinch without looking.  They are also marked 1 through 10 in case you do decide to look:

The elevation knob has 1/2 MOA clicks and one full turn of the knob covers 40MOA of adjustment.  You can set the flags for any distance you want.  On the range I use, the furthest I can shoot is 700 yards.  What I did to check the knob was the following: first I set the flags for 100yards increments according to the ballistic calculator.  That got me in the ballpark and I proceeded to fine tune the holdover marks by actual shooting.  Once that was done, the system worked admirably and zero stop made coming back to the original zero a no-brainer.  Optically, the scope was somewhat unexceptional.  The field of view is narrow and there is tunnel vision.  Eye relief is pretty critical, as you would expect in a high magnification design like this one.  Also, it is pretty easy to accidentally end up with your eye in the wrong spot so that you are staring at the insides of the scope.  Since I was staring at the insides of the scope anyway, I did notice that the reticle mount is screwed to the tube rather than glued. I would imagine that the reticle is unlikely to be knocked out of place on this scope.  The scope achieves its maximum field of view at about 10x and going to a lower magnification does not make it any bigger.  It is important to note that the field of view is very narrow at any magnification.  Parrallax is adjustable from 50 yards on out, so I think it is safe to assume that the target market for this scope is not airgunners.  We are talking about centerfire ranges here.  Leatherwood rep I talked to was very particular about insisting that there is no POI shift as you change magnification, so I made it a point to confirm that.  It stayed solid on this scope.

Here is what the Leatherwood looks like on my 308 Mauser mounted in Burris Tactical rings:

And a closer look:

Now, how do these scopes compare to each other?

As you may have figured out, I am not terribly impressed with either one.

Hawke Sidewinder 30 is a good scope from a mechanical standpoint that has the worst glass I have seen in this price range recently.  Some scopes trade off resolution for contrast or vice versa.  This scope manages to be pretty bad in both resolution and contrast.  Moreover, at higher magnifications it got a little milky.  This scope had an odd effect where I kept on thinking that I simply did not focus it well enough and if I only tune the parallax knob carefully, it will look better.  That was not the case and the image never quite looked sharp.
If the guys from Hawke are still willing to talk to me after this review, I will try to push them to upgrade this scope with better glass.  The good part is that the rest of the scope is pretty decent, so glass change alone would help greatly.  Field of view is reasonably wide and eye relief is properly sorted out.  The whole SR12 reticle business, however, is not my cup of tea.  I think it is not a good way to shoot long range.  Then again the system was designed by Nick Jenkinson who is a 3-Time World Champion Field Target shooter and knows hell of a lot more about shooting than I do.

With Leatherwood Uni-Dial, I really like the concept: zero stop and adjustable flags on the turret with full turn getting you out to 1000 yards if needed.  The execution, however, leaves a lot to be desired.  In terms of being able to see detail, the Leatherwood was actually noticeably better than Hawke.  It did get quite milky at higher magnifications, but at the same magnification it was always clearer than Hawke Sidewinder 30.  On the flip side, the tunnel vision is horrible.  The worst I have seen in a long time.  It is quite distracting.  I am OK with a little tunnel vision, but this is way too much.  Image quality itself, aside from the tunnel vision, is a bit better than I expected and a definite improvement over the last Leatherwood I looked at a few years back.  It is still not all that great and at higher magnifications the scope is barely useable due to a blurry and milky image.  I suspect I would have liked a lower magnification version of this scope more.

In low light, neither scope did particularly well.  Both had flare and some ghost images, although Leatherwood was visibly better than Hawke in terms of resolution (in low light as well as in good light).  The image through the Hawke looked a touch brighter, probably due to a larger objective lens and larger field of view.  However, resolving details in that image was not easy with the Hawke at all.  Both scopes benefited from having the sunshades on when off-axis bright light sources are present.  With or without a sunshade, ultimately Hawke was a little better in controlling stray light.
Typically, I do not have a whole lot of high magnification scopes on hand.  I did happen to have a Sightron S2 Big Sky 6-24×42 around, so I looked at the Hawke and Leatherwood next to the Sightron.  To be blunt, there is no comparison.  The Sightron does not have all of the features of Leatherwood and Hawke, but as far as being able to see something well enough to shoot it (i.e. where it counts), there is no comparison.  Sightron blows both of them out of the water at all lighting conditions and magnifications despite having a smaller objective lens.
Keep in mind that this Sightron is a couple of hundred dollars more expensive than the Hawke and a hundred bucks or so more expensive than the Leatherwood.  However, there are quite a few other scope in the $350 to $500 range that will offer better optical performance than the Hawke and Leatherwood scopes in question.  Two that come to mind are Weaver Grand Slam and Vortex Viper.  There are others, like the Sightron S2 (non Big Sky), Nikon Monarch and Buckmaster, etc.

What is the conclusion from all this?
If you ask me whether I would recommend either one of these scopes to someone, the answer is no.
All features aside, both have fundamental issues with their optics.  On top of that, Leatherwood could also benefit from some mechanical improvements as well.
As far as the approach to long range shooting and trajectory compensation go, opinions differ and some will like Hawke’s reticle-based approach while others will prefer Leatherwood’s knob-based method.  I used to be firmly in the “reticle camp” and still like to use the reticle for holdover at closer ranges (within 400-500 yards) when using scopes with Front Focal Plane reticles.  For shooting further than that, I am firmly in the “knob” camp.  In a perfect world, I would get a scope with a build quality of Hawke Sidewinder and conceptual approach to long range shooting of the Leatherwood Uni-Dial (and optical quality superior to either).
OpticsTalk discussion:

 Posted by at 12:49 am