“Inexpensive Scope” Comparison
When I originally conceived this comparison I set out to determine the following: what can you get for under $200 if you are looking for a basic hunting scope. To me a basic hunting scope is a variable scope of 3-9×40 or similar configuration. The catch is that there are quite a few such scopes out there and I was not sure which ones to go for. Hence, I set up a poll on the forum and counted votes. I ended up with the following scopes:
- Burris Fullfield II 3-9×40 (supplied by SWFA)
- Redfield Revolution 3-9×40 (supplied by Leupold/Redfield)
- Vortex Diamondback 3-9×40 (supplied by Vortex)
- Nikon ProStaff 3-9×40 (supplied by SWFA)
- Bushnell Elite 3-9×40 (supplied by SWFA)
After some consideration, I also asked SWFA to loan me Barska SWAT 3.5-10×40 scope. While it is aimed at a different audience, I have been told that it is a better scope than the typical cheap chinese scopes that flood Wally world. I am primarily interested in the five scopes above since they compete with each other directly, but I will also add some commentary on how Barska SWAT stacks up. For the duration of this review, if you see me saying “all the scopes” I mean the five main contenders. If I mean to include Barska with the bunch, I will specifically mention it.
Rather than write up everything after I am done with the scopes, this time around I will do this comparison in a segmented fashion as I go along.
Part 1. First impressions
Here are some specs first:
|Main Tube Diameter
|Eyepiece Diameter, mm
|Eye Relief, in
||3.8 – 3.1
||4.2 – 3.7
||3.5 – 3.3
||33 – 13
||32.9 – 13.1
||33.8 – 11.5
||33.8 – 11.3
||44.6 – 14.8
||29.2 – 9.4
|Click Value, MOA
|Country of Origin
Just looking at the numbers:
- Barska is a much more massive scope that the other five and the only made in China.
- Redfield is assembled in Oregon with glass made somewhere in Asia (not sure where).
- Redfield has the most eyerelief, especially at low magnification.
- Vortex has appreciably more Field of View than the others.
- Barska has appreciably less Field of View than the others.
That pretty much covers the differences. A few notes on warranties: Burris, Redfield, Bushnell, Nikon and Vortex pretty much state that unless they catch you trying to bludgeon a killer whale to death with the scope, they’ll fix it. Leupold/Redfield and Vortex have an exemplary reputation for trouble free warranty service. Burris, Bushnell and Nikon do not quite have the same reputation, but I have been hearing some pretty decent service reports recently. If push comes to shove, I think you will get your scope properly supported by any of these five manufacturers. I know absolutely nothing about Barska’s customer support, so I will not comment on it.
As far as reticle choice goes, I did not request any particular reticle in these scopes. If we are talking about “basic” hunting scopes, then I assume that most or all shots will be within 250 yards and that the scopes will be mounted on fairly flat shooting calibers like 270Win et al.
Hence, I see no need for holdover reticles, and I do not like holdover reticles in SFP scopes anyway. However, in the case of
Burris FFII and Vortex Diamondback, I prefer their holdover reticle to the regular plex ones. The reason for that is pretty simple: I think most typical plex reticles are wither too thin or have thick bars too widely spaced. With Vortex, their BDC reticle is a bit thicker than plex one which makes it easier to pick up. With Burris, the thick sidebars of the BallisticPlex reticle come a little closer together than on their duplex one, which also agrees with my eyes.
Redfield, Bushnell and Nikon have the standard plex reticle in them. Between these three I will see which reticle stands out best in challenging lighting conditions.
Anyhow, I now have all of the scopes in my hands, I am not going to recount everything that was in the boxes, but in case anyone cares here is what the boxes look like:
Here is a shot that shows the comparative sizes of the scopes:
I set the scopes up so that you can see the logos, but just in case, from left to right: Bushnell Elite 3200, Vortex Diamondback, Burris Fullfield II, Redfield Revolution, Nikon ProStaff and Barska SWAT.
Barska is clearly much larger than the others.
The five main contenders, just as the spec numbers suggest, are very similar physically. Redfield seems to have the slimmest eyepiece which can make a difference for bolt handle clearance; however, that difference is very marginal. Vortex has the largest eyepiece. Once again, not by much.
Mounting length varies a little bit across the board with Vortex and Nikon having the shortest mounting lengths. However, even Vortex is listed as having 5.4″ of mounting lengths which is plenty for most uses. Burris is listed as having 5.9″ of usable mounting length. Bushnell claims 6″ for the Elite 3200 and I think Redfield is somewhere in the ballpark as well.
All of these scopes except for Barska have covered low knobs. All are finger adjustable except for the Nikon for which you need either a coin or screwdriver. I doubt that click feel is particularly important with scopes of this type, but I spent a few minutes cranking the knobs back and forth. Elite 3200 has the most solid clicks by a considerable margin. The other ones have a fair amount of play in them. Redfield has very strange plasticky feel to the knobs with clockwise clicks being substantially different from counterclockwise ones.
Redfield has a typical Leupold eyepiece focus with the whole eyepiece rotating on semi-fine threads (not as fine as Leupolds of old). The other scopes have fast-focus eyepieces. All seem quite stiff, and I do not expect them to be accidentally bumped out of adjustment.
Magnification rings are nice and smooth on all of them. With the Burris, the movement is very good between 9x and 4x, but takes a lot more effort to move from 4x to 3x. I am not sure if that makes any difference, just making an observation. All of the main contenders go through the whole magnification range within a 90 degrees (Redfield) to 180 degrees (Bushnell) of the rotation of the knob.
The next step is to take them to the range.
Part 2. At the Range, Day One.
After spending a little more time with the scopes in question, I decided to put Barska SWAT aside for the time being. I will have a separate section on it later. Comparing it to the other scopes in this review is simply “apples and oranges”.
All of the scopes were tested on Tikka M695 chambered for 280Rem. I was firing handloads using 150gr Sierra Marchking bullets and varying amounts of H4831 powder.
I carefully inspected the lenses on all scopes before shooting and had to clean the lenses on two of them: Burris FFII and Redfield Revolution.
That having been said, here is what I set out to do today:
- check optical performance in daylight and as the sun starts setting (early twilight)
- check basic mechanics
- check for indications of more subtle problems
In order to accomplish the above goals I started off by firing 10 shots with each scope:
- 3 shots for sighting in with the first shot fired at 25 yards and two at 100 yards(this also checks the accuracy of adjustments somewhat)
- one 3 shot group at 100 yards
- one 4 shot group at 100 yards with the the first shot fired with the scope set at 9x magnification, second shot at 6x, third shot at 3x and fourth shot at 9x again
This is by no means an exhaustive test, but I found that if I do my part these ten shots let me check for indications of all sorts of different scope problems. I am not particularly worried about some shots being fired from a cold barrel and some from a hot barrel with this rifle, since it is remarkably consistent and accurate regardless of how many shots in a row I fire. Still, I usually let it cool a little after a few shots. I used those breaks to look at the scopes side by side and see how the compare. I also happened to have another rifle with the 10×42 Super Sniper on it for comparative purposes, so to speak.
I will be spending more time with each scope at the range, but subsequent tests often depend on what I see during these first ten shots.
This is the order in which I had the scopes on the rifle: Nikon ProStaff, Bushnell Elite 3200, Vortex Diamondback, Redfield Revolution, and Burris Fullfield II.
First of all, all scopes seemed to have enough eye relief to keep the scope from coming into contact with my face. From a perception standpoint, Vortex looks to have the shortest eye relief by a solid margin. When actually measured, that is not the case, but Diamondback’s eyerelief looks shorter than it is since the eyepiece is a bit bigger than the others.
In terms of eye relief flexibility, all of these seem largely comparable. At high magnifications, there is nothing to separate them from each other in terms how flexible your eye position has to be. At 6x, Vortex and Bushnell were slightly more restrictive in that regard, but not by much at all. At 3x, all five scopes were pretty easy to bring up to the eye. I experimented a little trying to quickly acquire the target from different shooting positions (bench, prone, sitting, off hand and standing), and I do not think one is sufficiently better than any of the others in this regard to be of note.
In terms of overall optical quality one scope here is clearly better than the others: Vortex Diamondback. Field of view is substantially wider and the image is “punchier” (to use a photography term). It both outresolved other scopes in this test and provided for a high contrast image. I did not bring a spotting scope with me to the range, and if I was not sure about the exact placement of bullet holes with any of the other four scopes, I could always see them with the Diamondback. It was also the only scope in the group that could kinda hang with the 10×42 S.S. (non-HD version). The S.S. still allowed me to see more, but the difference was not nearly as noticeable as it was with the other four scopes.
In terms of centerfield resolution, Burris Fullfield II is pretty close to the Diamondback, but once you get away from the center a little, the image of the FFII starts picking up distortion pretty quickly. This distortion appears to be simply field curvature, but I will look into it in more detail.
Bushnell Elite 3200, Nikon ProStaff and Redfield Revolution provided largely comparable image quality. Redfield had a little less chromatic aberration than the other two, but it had slightly lower contrast as well. However, these differences are pretty small.
Mechanically, the only obvious thing of note was the power adjustment ring on the Burris. It started out having a rough spot near the low magnification end. Now it has two rough spots. I am not sure what the cause, but I will look into it further. Burris is mounted using Warne QD Maxima rings with the screw tightened using Warne pre-set torque wrench. If that is causing problems, then Burris needs to make a scope with thicker tube walls (I have used these rings on other scopes with nor problems).
At 100 and 200 yards, none of the scopes exhibited much parallax error. I could see a little bit of it, but definitely not enough to spend any more time on it.
I do not think any of the knobs here are exactly 1/4 MOA, but once zeroed, they all stayed zeroed. Ultimately, it makes no difference to me whether the adjustments on these scopes are perfectly accurate or perfectly repeatable. They are not designed to be twisted all the time. My original impressions on the knobs still stand: Elite 3200 has the most solid knobs by far. Redfield has the flimsiest. Nikon makes me look for a coin or a screwdriver to adjust them (minor annoyance).
The only scope that appeared to have an appreciable shift in zero with magnification was the Redfield which seemed to have about 2 MOA of shift from 9x to 3x. However, I was shooting that group quite a bit later in the day, so it is possible I was tired and pulled a couple of shots. I’ll revisit this during the next trip to the range.
Here are a few pictures.
Here is how I was doing the actual comparisons. I was looking at scopes two at a time: one mounted on a rifle and one on a support pointing toward the targets down range. In the picture below, Vortex Diamondback is mounted on the rifle and Nikon ProStaff is on the shooting rest next to it:
Here is what the knobs on the Nikon ProStaff look like (you have ot have a tool of some sort to adjust them):
The knobs on the Bushnell Elite 3200 look very ordinary, but have a surprisingly confidence-inspiring feel (I experimented a little bit with putting this scope on a different rifle, but ended up mostly testing it on the Tikka):
Redfield Revolution 3-9×40 sitting on a rifle and looking very much at home:
Redfield Revolution 3-9×40: here is a look at the knobs with the caps removed:
Burris Fullfield II 3-9×40. Here is a good look at the mounting height. Because I use a pretty long one-piece base on this rifle, I often have to mount scopes (especially compact ones) a little higher than I would have liked:
Burris Fullfield II 3-9×40 knobs are both finger and coin adjustable (there is not much space to grab them with your fingers, but it is definitely doable):
Here is a view downrange. The closest target is at 25 yards. The second target I used (right in front of the first berm) is at 100 yards. Successive berms are in 100yards intervals. I start out with one target at 25 yards to simplify sight in. Later on, I plaster on a couple of resolution charts and move it over to the 100 yard line. Typically, I shoot groups at 100 yards either from the bench or prone. When trying other shooting positions, I usually shoot at metal plates at 200 yards and beyond.
Part 3. Same Shooting Range, Same Rifle, Same Scopes, but Another Day
I headed out to the range for another day of shooting in good light in order to tie some loose ends, so to speak.
First of all, here is some follow-up on yesterday’s impressions:
- Odd rough spots in the zoom ring of Burris FFII seem to have worked themselves out. Now changing magnification is reasonably smooth.
- I re-checked POI shift with magnification on Redfield Revolution and while it is there, it is less severe than it looked to be earlier. Perhaps, I was indeed tired when I looked at it before. At 100 yards, POI shifts by about an inch or so to the left if you go from 9x to 3x. From 6x to 9x, there is not enough POI shift for me to be able to notice it. Overall, I do not think it is a big deal on a hunting scope. At close range it makes no difference, and at longer range you are likely to use a little more magnification than 3x.
All of these scopes have noticeable edge softness at low magnifications (3x to 4x). Above 4x, the sweet spot appears larger. Overall, Burris FFII seems to have a smaller sweetspot than the others, while Vortex Diamondback has the largest sweetspot. The other scopes are somewhere in between. Depth of field is comparable across the board.
Three of the scopes have plex reticles: Redfield, Bushnell and Nikon. The latter two have reticles of approximately the same thickness. Duplex reticle in the Redfield is a little thinner. All are a little thinner than I would have liked, but they are serviceable.
Burris and Vortex have holdover reticles: BallisticPlex (left) and Dead-Hold BDC (right), respectively.
The pictures above are from Burris and Vortex websites. They are not shown to scale here and in the the scopes I looked at, the Vortex reticles is a bit thicker and more visible. As far as holdover goes, Vortex uses dots, while Burris uses hashmarks. The actual holdover marks are in just about the same locations in both reticles: 1.5MOA, 4.5MOA, 7.5MOA and 11MOA (top of the post). The manufacturers actually list them slightly differently, but the numbers above are quite close.
Vortex’ reticle, in addition, has two mil-spaced dots on the horizontal stadia, ostensibly to aid with range estimation.
I tried using the holdover marks for shooting at metal plates out to 400 yards with two different loads: 150gr Sierra MatchKings and 140gr Sierra SPBT. After some experimentation (and a few mintues with a ballistic calculator) I concluded that 150gr bullet works well with 100 yards zero and 140gr bullet with 200 yard zero.
Overall, both reticles are usable, but not really my cup of tea. I slightly prefer the Vortex one since it is a little thicker and a little more visible. I also like having a couple of MilDots there simply because I am very used to them. Still, I would prefer a #4 reticle for allround use or MilDot reticle for ranging and holdover.
Between all five scopes, Vortex BDC reticle is the most visible one, but none of them are really designed for low light.
Part 4. Low Light plus tying up some loose ends
In order to do a reasonable low light evaluation, I headed out to the same parking lot by the beach near the historic Ventura Pier where I have been doing a lot of my evaluations lately. At around 9PM when I set up shop, the lighting there is not pitch black. Rather, there are several spotlights around so I can change my location and viewing angle to simulate all sorts of adverse lighting conditions, from looking out toward very dark objects to fairly well illuminated buildings and everything in between.
In order to have a steady platform to support the scopes, I dragged out my Velbon tripod with a Picatinny base mounted on it (Samson makes these bases already threaded for mounting on tripods). On that base I have bottom halves of Weaver Grand Slam 30mm detachable rings. These rings are the worst machined pieces of excrement ever sold to an unsuspecting consumer: they are so oversized, they can’t clamp down on a 30mm tube. However, in this case I did not need to clamp anything, so the bottom halves of the rings worked as supports. That setup allowed me to quickly swap scopes out while always staring at the same scene.
Most of the low light evaluation was done at 6x, although I did some rudimentary screening at other magnifications as well.
Overall, Vortex Diamondback maintained its optical edge in low light just like it did in good light. The image was brighter and sharper than with the other scopes. The closest behind the Vortex was Burris Fullfield II, but the difference was noticeable. Redfield and Elite 3200 behaved somewhat similarly and a bit worse than Fulfield II. Nikon ProStaff was comfortably edged out by all four scopes here. I also brought the Barska SWAT 3.5-10×40 with me and, quite frankly, it does not belong in this group. My first reaction to looking through the Barska after the Vortex was: “who is the wise guy that turned off the light?”
All of the scopes here suffered from a fair amount of flair although the specifics varied from scope to scope. Nikon ProStaff had severe veiling flair: with a bright object in the field of view, all you can see is a shiny veil with faint traces of whatever scene you are actually looking at somewhere in there. Redfield seemed to have pretty strong reflections off the edges of the objective lens, plus some odd irregular scattering all over the image. Elite 3200 performed similarly to the Redfield, except it has less scatter and more veiling flair (plus ghost images almost as sever as in the Nikon). Fullfield II and Diamondback seem to have the best coatings of the bunch since veiling flair was much weaker and ghost image formation was much less pronounced. However, Diamondback’s wider field of view and better contrast really stood out.
All of the scopes were susceptible to strange reflections when presented with bright light sources just outside the field of view. I suspect it is due to light bouncing off the edges of the objective lens and/or some internal hardware.
Not surprisingly, the thickest reticle was the easiest to see against dark backgrounds: Vortex’ BDC. Between the three plex reticles in the test (Nikon, Bushnell and Redfield), all were equally mediocre in low light when faced with a dark background. Burris’ BallisticPlex was somewhere in between.
Another thing that I had noticed earlier and spent some time examining in more detail is the odd distortion in the Fullfield II. It is an interesting phenomenon: in the outer 30% of the field of view instead of typical image softness you get an unusual curvature. Straight lines appear curved, but it did not look like a typical pincushion or barrel distortion. There was something more complex going on. Since it is not in the center of the image, it does not effect the functionality a whole lot, but it is interesting to see.
Part 5. Conclusions
In retrospect, I should have set this comparison up differently. I assembled several scopes that were under $200, thinking that they all compete for the same customer. I ended up with two scopes right at $200 mark, and three scopes ranging from $150 to $175. As it turned out, in this market segment, this $25 – $50 difference in price indicates a significant level change in terms of overall quality and especially in terms of optical quality. Perhaps, these five scopes should not have been lumped together into the same test.
I am beginning to think that a more reasonable way would have been to split it up into two comparisons along different price points:
- $150 +/-$20 which would include Bushnell Elite 3200, Nikon ProStaff, Redfield Revolution and some others.
- $200 +/-$20 which would include Vortex Diamondback, Burris Fullfield II and Nikon Buckmaster.
Unfortunately, hindsight is always 20/20 and the comparison was set up they way it was set up.
Here is how the scopes stack up after all is said and done:
1st Place: Vortex Diamondback 3-9×40
This is the best overall scope here and not by a small margin. It is mechanically good and optically excellent for the money. The eyepiece is a little fatter than on other scopes here, but I doubt it is sufficiently large to cause bolt handle clearance issues on most rifles. The reticle remains fairly visible even in rather nasty lighting conditions (I still think that #4 reticle in this scope would be better) and low light image artifacts are well controlled.
2nd Place: Burris Fullfield II 3-9×40
FFII is in a firm second place. It is not quite as good as the Diamondback, but it is appreciably better than the other scopes I looked at. This model has been around for some time, so perhaps it is overshadowed by the Diamondback simply because it is an older design. On the other hand FFII has an excellent record for durability and performance in the field. Optically, its center field performance is very good, but Diamondback offer a more contrasty image and wider field of view.
3rd Place: Bushnell Elite 3200 3-9×40
While I was pretty sure of where this scope fits in this comparison, I was not entirely sure of how to summarize my impressions on it. For example, Burris that ranked above it was pretty good in everything, but I can’t say there is one feature that stands out. It is just a good allround scope. Elite 3200 is a different story altogether. Mechanically, it is the most solid-feeling scope here. Also, it has Rainguard outer coatings which are helpful in wet weather. On the other hand, it has a little bit of tunnel vision (not much) and it needs better coatings since there were some fairly strong internal reflections off of the glass. Another positive is that Elite 3200 line up is very extensive and offers several reticle choices including the FireFly reticle that works very well in low light. Like the Fullfield II, Elite 3200 3-9×40 has been around for some time now. Perhaps, I would have been better served by one of the more recently designed Elite 3200 scopes, but 3-9×40 was the configuration I wanted.
4th Place: Redfield Revolution 3-9×40
This is the new kid on the block, and it is getting a pretty good start. It has a few things going for it:
- assembled in USA by Leupold (i.e. built in customer base of Leupold fans)
- slim eyepiece and nice styling: the scope looks right
- good allround performance
This scope, to me, was kinda like Burris FFII only fifty bucks cheaper and not quite as good. I wish it had a little better contrast, and I wish the knobs were less flimsy feeling. Aside from that, I liked the scope and I can’t think of another scope that costs $150 and performs better. I think I have a Sightron S1 3-9×40 sitting in my safe somewhere. I think I’ll dig it out and quickly compare it to the Redfield. I suspect that these two are your best bets in this price range (assuming it holds up long term, but only time can determine that).
5th Place: Nikon ProStaff 3-9×40
I might get some flak for what I am about to say, but here it is anyway: I do not get the reason behind this scope. I just can’t figure out who I would recommend it to. That is my litmus test: “will this scope be my recommendation for any sort of situation?” With the ProStaff, the answer is an emphatic “no”. Optically, is pretty close to Elite 3200, except it does not have Rainguard, knobs are not finger adjustable and available reticles do not work well in low light. Redfield is cheaper and sleeker styled. Plus it has the support of Leupold customer service behind it. Now, here is the kicker: ProStaf is most certainly not a bad scope; however, the competition is awfully good and numerous.
Finally, will there be any follow up comparisons to this? Maybe.
I will try to briefly see how the Redfield compares to Sightron S1 before I return the Redfield.
It would be interesting to compare Vortex Diamondback and Burris Fullfield II against Nikon Buckmaster. These three are direct competitors and all three are good scopes (I have played with the Buckmaster a fair bit before). However, this may not happen for a little while since I have other tests and comparison in the queue.
Here is the OpticsTalk thread with the relevant discussion: