Updated in February, 2023
General disclaimer: due to dissatisfaction with their business practices, I will no longer review or recommend any Swarovski/Kahles products.
Low range variable scope for tactical use (think AR-15 or similar) and for hunting:
This one used to be pretty easy, but Vortex increased their prices and it got complicated. I spent a lot of time and effort on this segment and there are still several designs I have not tested. Still, if I am shopping in the $1k to $2k range, it boiled down to three LPVOs:
Compact fixed power scope for tactical use (think AR-15 or similar):
I am kinda on the record that the fun stuff with prismatics is happening in the sub-$500 range. If you want to pay a lot of money for a fancy prismatic, one of the switchpower Elcans is your best bet, but they are not really under $3k any more. While it is getting increasingly more difficult to recommend fancy prismatics, switch power Elcans do not really have a good low price equivalents. They had a couple of good wins with European militaries last year and there is a reason for it. They are robust and optically excellent. I keep on seeing Elcan Specter DR 1x/4x and TR 1x/3x/9x under $2k. It is a compelling option. Aside from these, if you have this much money to spend, I kinda recomment LPVOs.
That having been said, Trijicon’s 3×30 ACOG is a fairly unique design with narrow FOV and incredibly flexible eye relief. It does not really have a lower price equivalent. The narrow FOV is a trade off for that eyerelief. It makes it less ideal for observation, but really quick for aiming. If you shop around you can even find these for under $1k. None of these have adjustable eyepiece, so they may not be ideal for aging eyes, but low magnification mitigates that to some degree and 3×30’s FOV/eye relief balance does as well.
All-round hunting use:
I think Meopta Meostar R2 2-12×50 is the way to go here.
This sorta comes down to whether you want FFP or SFP. If this is a crossover scope that will also be used for precision shooting and long range hunting, the new Vortex Razor HD-LHT 4.5-22x50FFP is easily the best out there right now. This was my scope of the year for 2021.
Leica Amplus 3-18×44 looked good (since I have not yet done a thorough test on it, I can’t really recommend it). I really need to spend more time on this category. In the meantime, honorable mention to Leupold VX-6HD 3-18×44 that I really liked and Meopta Meostar R2 1.7-10×42 an 2-12×50. The prices on the R2 have gone up, so I am not entirely sure they are worth at $2k or more. Still nice scopes.
There is a lot of room between $1k and $2k, so it you want to stay on a lower end of that, Vortex Razor HD-LHT 3-15×42 is a superb general purpose SFP hunting scope.
Dark horse here is probably Schmidt and Bender’s Klassic 3-12×50 and 3-12×42 riflescopes. 3-12×42 with P3 (essentially Mil-Dot reticle) would be tempting. These are not new designs, but they have truly stood the test of time. The one with illuminated reticle and exposed elevation turret. If you do not push it to the distances that require side focus, it is really hard to overlook that 3-12×42.
Historically, this would be Meopta Meostar R1 3-12×56 and Meostar R2 2.5-15×56 taking it in terms of bang for the buck in this category. That might still be true for the R1, but R2 has gone up in price substantially and is well above $2k most of the time. Leica might have something to say about it since they do have a new Amplus 6 2.5-15×56. It is on my list to take a careful look at.
S&B, of all brands, might be the sleeper here though. They have a simple 1″ tube 8×56 and Hungary-assembled 2.5-10×56. If I were shopping for a low light scope under $2k, I would have a hard time overlooking that 2.5-10×56 Schmidt. S&B’s Klassik scopes are made in Germany, so they sorta fly under the radar, but these are very proven designs that are built to a very high quality. With Meopta prices going up, I am sorta leaning more toward S&B Klassic scopes on this one.
Allround tactical use:
For this category I like scopes with no more than 5x on the low end. I used to hold it at 3x, but changed my mind over time unless you need to use a thermal clip-on in front of one of these. With well designed eyepieces, I can use 5x for shooting offhand fairly well and that is effectively my gating item for a general purpose scope. Still, I restrict this category to scopes that are not outrageously huge and heavy. I am looking for designs with objectives in the 40 to 50mm range and reticle illumination.
My favourite crossover scope for close to a while now has been Vortex Razor HD-LHT 4.5-22×50 that also gets the nod as an allround hunting scope. It is just an excellent lightweight design.
Burris finally has XTR 3i 3.3-18×50 with illuminated reticle that should be on this list. With lower magnification and wide FOV, if you plan to use a thermal clip-on, this is probably the one to consider.
Element Nexus 5-20×50 should not be overlooked either. It is a very competent crossover design.
Tract Toric UHD 4-20×50 with PRS reticle is another excellent design. FOV is a bit narrow, but aside from that I have nothing to complain about for the price.
If you do not mind a fairly long scope, Trijicon’s Tenmile 3-18×44 is a nicely robust option.
Long range tactical use:
My favourite scopes in this category for now are probably Delta Stryker HD 4.5-30×56, Athlon Cronus Gen2 4.5-29×56 and Tract Toric ELR 4.5-30×56. The upcoming Burris XTR Pro might throw a wrench into that party though. Based on the prototype I saw, this might be the one to beat. Stay tuned as I test it. Still, at regular prices it looks to be above $2k. XTR3i 5.5-30×56 is comfortably in this price range, so it will be interesting to see how it compares.
Since I last updated this category, Vortex Razor Gen2 4.5-27×56 got a price hike, but there are still some in this price range floating around. It is such a time proven design that is is kinda difficult to bet against it.
Some Leupold Mark 5HD scopes do squeeze under $2k, but they do so without illumination. Opinions on that differ. For me personally, if you are paying this much money for a FFP scope, it should have illumination.
All of a sudden, there are some real options here. Delta Stryker HD 5-50×56 takes the cake as the best generalist in this group and Trijicon offers its own version of 5-50×56. However, Sightron SV ED 10-50×60 is better as a pure target scope owing to the advantages its dual speed parallax knob offers.
Honorable mention goes to Vortex Golden Eagle 15-60×52, except I wish it came with a mrad reticle.
Lastly, if you can live with a fixed power scope, March’s 48×52 High Master is right around $2k. There really isn’t anything in this price range that can get close to the March on 48x in terms of image quality.