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Review of the Nightforce SHV 4-14x56mm Illuminated Optic

Les (Jim) Fischer
BigJimFish
July 3, 2015

 

Table of Contents:
– Background
– Unboxing and Physical Description
– Reticle
– Comparative Optical Evaluation
– Mechanical Testing and Turret Discussion:
– Summary and Conclusion
– Testing methodology:  Adjustments, reticle size, reticle cant
– Testing methodology:  Comparative optical evaluation

 

Background:

In the past few years, Nightforce, like many other scope makers, has dramatically increased the variety of offerings from two main scope lines to five with a few extras thrown in. Most of these new lines, such as the ATACR and Competition lines, are more or less higher end updates to existing lines. The SHV line instead of adding features, subtracts them:  with some of the cost being one of those things subtracted.

 

Basically, the SHV line is a less feature rich version of the NXS line. It has simplified adjustments, less magnification range, and is a little less over-built (apparently not much as the weights of similar models are almost the same across the two product lines.) The one I will be looking at is a 4-14x that has an erector ratio of 3.5x, whereas the closest NXS is 3.5-15x has an erector ratio of 4.3x. These two scopes are quite similar in appearance, being exactly the same length, having the same size objective, and being only 2.5oz difference in weight. The lineage is obvious. The difference is that the NXS has more options, higher clicks per rev zero stop tactical knobs, the greater power range, and costs about $700 more.

 

So the concept is simple. You have a market of mostly hunters who want the Nightforce name and quality but aren’t so keen on the high price. They really only use their adjustments for zeroing the scope, so why not make a model with simple adjustments that is more affordable. In a nutshell – that’s the SHV line.

 

Unboxing and Physical Description:

A few years back Nightforce abandoned the strange triangular box that used to distinguish their product and drive anyone trying to stock it to madness, so at this point there is not much to say about the box. Inside, the scope comes with rather sparse manuals, generous amounts of bumper stickers, and the rubber bikini covers that most NF scopes seem to come with. The gem of the extras may be the little baggie with self-contained lens cleaning cloth (though I am always afraid to use this as intended since I get worried it will pick up abrasive dust hanging on my rig or in my pocket, so I usually put it in a plastic baggie, which kind of defeats the purpose). Anyhow, notably in the fairly sparse documentation is a dimensioned reticle diagram which is a whole lot more useful than 30 pages of warnings telling you in tortured redundancy not to shoot yourself or others and also not to use the scope to stare at the sun.

 

Nightforce SHV Unboxing

Nightforce SHV Unboxing

 

The optic itself looks very much like the familiar NXS which, is not surprising since it is virtually identical in size and shape. The obvious difference is the small capped adjustments on the SHV. I probably shouldn’t say small as, for capped adjustments, they are fairly large. They are, with cap on, almost as large the NXS exposed adjustments. Removing the cap reveals that they can be adjusted without tools and have a resetable zero, though, it requires a tool to do the zero reset. This tool requiring system seems unnecessary to me as they are capped anyway and a pull up, push down system would have been easy to implement and is present on many competing designs. Perhaps that would have been a substantial bump in price, price being the great advantage of the SHV line:  it really is a lot cheaper than an NXS. The scope has a 30mm tube, is 14.8″ long, has a 56mm objective, and weighs in at 28.5oz. The sum of this is that it would be on the lighter side for a tactical optic but is both heavy and large for the hunting class. Two features from the tactical lineage remain in the option for illumination and the matched reticle and adjustment units. These are true MOA in the case of my test unit. The scope focuses down to 25M, which I always like to see, and has the euro style fast focus diopter that I prefer and has become almost ubiquitous.

 

Reticle:

One of the differences between the SHV and NXS lines is the more limited options in the reticle department. They generally come in only the MOAR and IHR reticles. The IHR is basically a descendent of the  German #1, or 3 post reticle. As such, it does not offer range finding or drop compensation capabilities. The MOAR is a ladder type reticle with 1 moa graduations. This reticle has proven to be Nightforce’s most popular choice on most of its models. Unlike most reticles in the market, the MOAR strikes me as very carefully designed with respect to line widths, graduation size, clutter minimization, and general appearance, though I am not a fan of true MOAs as a graduation dimension:  the math to range find with it is very cumbersome relative to mils or IPHY. I will admit that when I was designing my reticle, the MOAR was one of a set of reticles I referenced when deciding the angular subtension (thickness as it appears to the user) of some of the lines. The illumination on the model with that feature lights only the central crossing portion of the reticle as is probably most common in hunting optics. This illumination is of the reflected technology used in virtually all high powered optics. The reticle had no measurable cant relative to the adjustments in testing.

 

Comparative Optical Evaluation:

At the time I tested this optic, the optics that I had on hand, and therefore was able to compare it to were:  the Vortex Razor HDII 5-25×56, USO LR-17 3.2-17×44, Leupold MK6 3-18×44, Burris XTR II 4-20×50, and an older Zeiss Conquest 4.5-14×44. This suite of test optics varied widely in price and included both scopes aimed at the tactical market and those designed to appeal to hunters. To learn more about the exact methodology of the testing, please refer to the testing methodology section at the conclusion of the article.

 

The comparison lineup from left to right- Vortex Razor HDII 5-25x56, Nightforce SHV 4-14x56, Burris XTR II 4-20x50mm, USO LR-17 3.2-17x44, Leupold MK6 3-18x44 not pictured* Zeiss Conquest 4.5-14x44.

The comparison lineup from left to right- Vortex Razor HDII 5-25×56, Nightforce SHV 4-14×56, Burris XTR II 4-20x50mm, USO LR-17 3.2-17×44, Leupold MK6 3-18×44 not pictured* Zeiss Conquest 4.5-14×44.

 

Pretty early on in the optical evaluation it became apparent that the scopes were sorting themselves into three groups. The USO and Vortex were clearly optically superior to the others. They had bigger fields of view, higher resolution, better contrast, and lower chromatic aberration. They were also very close to each other in performance. After a bit of a gap in performance, the next group was also very close to each other and included the Leupold, SHV, and Zeiss. The Burris brought up the rear, not really comparing closely with anything else in the analysis despite its price being very close to that of the SHV and almost double that of the Zeiss. Because of these clear tiers, I spent most of my time comparing the Nightforce to the Leupold and the Zeiss and contemplating the implications of this since the Leupold costs nearly 2x as much as the SHV without illumination and 3x as much with. The Zeiss, when it can still be found, costs a bit over 1/2 as much as the SHV. This is quite a price disparity for optics that are very similar in optical performance, owing to the fact that though the most similar in optical performance to each other, these three were also the least similar in features.

 

The best thing the SHV had going for it in the testing is that it is very comfortable and easy to get behind. The eyebox is not critical at all and instead gives the user a good bit of movement latitude without much distortion. Similarly, the image though the SHV is also very flat and distortion free. There is really no noticeable curvature of field in the SHV, so the whole field of view appears in focus at the same time and same head position. Adding to this appearance, this scope has great depth of field so objects that are substantially different distances from the user often appear simultaneously in focus. The user should be mindful of this forgiveness when using the optic, as parallax error is easy to introduce when you have so much latitude regarding head position and depth of field without making any adjustment:  the parallax is still there even if things all appear in focus.

 

Flatness, I would say, was a recurring term for this optic. While this was good regarding depth of field and curvature of field, it was not good when it came to color rendition. The Nighforce generally muted colors and beat only the Burris in rendering the color blue, the primary color most scopes had the most trouble with, rendering it instead black. Also in the color department, the SHV had noticeable chromatic aberration with green tending to bleed out above dark lines and violet below. Both it and the Leupold showed this noticeable CA that was not present in the Zeiss, USO, or Vortex. The magnitude was such that it would be noted if you were not looking for it. The SHV was less plagued by this CA than the Burris, however. The SHV handled resolution and contrast comparatively much better, finishing just behind the much more expensive Leupold on both and ahead of the Zeiss and Burris.

 

All in all, my feeling regarding the optics of the SHV was that they were very comfortable, a bit dull, and generally solid performance wise. Judging performance / cost I found difficult as the scopes it competed with most closely span such a huge range of cost. I think it is probably a more useful statement to say that if you pick up this scope you will find it very comfortable to be behind and you will not be dissatisfied with the optical performance:  it is solid but not exciting.

 

 

Mechanical Testing and Turret Discussion:

In making an SHV from the blueprint of an NXS, I expect most of the money was saved in the adjustments. It should come as no surprise then that they are pretty basic in their features and don’t feel great. The design is of the kind popular a number of years ago with a single coin slotted fastener holding in place the graduated knob. Oddly, the knob actually is indexed and the oddity is that the index lines don’t well line up with the indicator makings, making you wish that they hadn’t bothered to index it into place and left you free to position it any way you wanted. The feel of the clicks is at the same time stiff and loose. with each click being stiff but with enough play between them to be able to move the knob a bit. The clicks are audible, though not particularly boisterous. The feel is otherwise best described as ‘dry’, I think. It’s sort of the opposite of that full-of-grease feeling you get with some other scopes.

 

When the adjustments were tested for deviance from stated magnitude, they were found to be uniformly 2% larger in magnitude than spec. For instance, 80 clicks, 20 MOA measured 20.4 MOA on the target. This was true for elevation as well as windage. Interestingly, the reticle also measured 2% larger and even the adjustment range came out to 102.05 MOA instead of the 100 MOA spec. The uniformity of this deviation brings me to speculate that whatever deviation from spec is responsible effected all three measurements in precisely the same way.

 

Though the adjustment magnitude was off by a bit more than average for the scopes I have tested, average being more like 1%, it was not all bad news mechanically. Despite being a 2nd focal plane scope, the Nightforce showed no shift in point of aim when the power ring was adjusted. This type of shift is more common than not in 2nd focal plane designs, though Nightforce specifically prides themselves in eliminating it:  something they proved to be quite adept at in my testing. This is important as a several MOA shift has not proven uncommon from other makers in past testing. I should also note that though the adjustment magnitude tested a bit large, the adjustments returned to zero without any problems and did not display any other issues in my testing.

 

 

Nightforce Adjustments with some disassembly

Nightforce Adjustments with some disassembly

 

 

Summary and Conclusion:

Of all the scopes I have ever tested this is probably the one that offered up the least surprises. That is neither a indictment nor an endorsement. It is perhaps an observation on the nature of optics in my experience. Most have just not been exactly what I expected even with a good deal of experience. The view is usually better or worse than you expect and often you get a nasty surprise such as improperly sized reticles, poor adjustment magnitude, or a heavily canted reticle. I got exactly what I expected from this Nightforce and was left with very much the same impression I had of it upon first picking it up at SHOT show. That opinion is of a solidly constructed optic that is very comfortable to get behind, but not particularly exceptional in any other way. The glass is good but not exceptional and the size and weight are more than that of a typical hunting rig.

 

I think the decision really comes down what you’re looking for. The SHV is exactly what you should expect it to be:  an NXS with minimal adjustments at a very aggressive price. I expect that is what a lot of people want. What it is not is a ground up designed hunting scope. It is bigger and heavier than that. It is also not just an NXS without the price. Its adjustments are a long way from that. It is an old saw in the optics industry that you get what you pay for and the SHV is perhaps the best exemplar of that maxim to date. It will be your bombproof reliable hunting scope at a fair price – if you’re willing to carry it.

 

Here is Your Pro and Con Breakdown:
Pros:
Exceptionally comfortable eyebox
-Aggressive pricing
-MOAR reticle and matching adjustments
-Illumination offered
-Solid but not exceptional optical and mechanical performance
-Nightforce reputation

Cons:
Heavy and large for a hunting scope
-Adjustment feel and accuracy are merely acceptable
-Few configuration options available

 

Testing Methodology:  Adjustments, Reticle Size, Reticle Cant:

When testing scope adjustments, I use the adjustable V-block on the right of the test rig to first center the erector. About .2 or so mil of deviation is allowed from center in the erector as it is difficult to do better than this because the adjustable V-block has some play in it. I next set the zero stop (on scopes with such a feature) to this centered erector and attach the optic to the rail on the left side of the rig.

 

Test rig in use testing the adjustments of the Vortex Razor HD II 4.5-27x56
Test rig in use testing the adjustments of the Vortex Razor HD II 4.5-27×56

 

 

The three fine threaded 7/16″ bolts on the rig allow the scope to be aimed precisely at a Horus CATS 280F target 100 yds down range as measured by a quality fiberglass tape measure. The reticle is aimed such that its centerline is perfectly aligned with the centerline of the target and it is vertically centered on the 0 mil elevation line.

 

Horus CATS 280F target inverted and viewed though the Leupold Mark 6 3-18x44
Horus CATS 280F target inverted and viewed though the Leupold Mark 6 3-18×44

 

The CATS target is graduated in both mils and true MOA and calibrated for 100 yards. The target is mounted upside down on a target backer designed specifically for this purpose as the target was designed to be fired at rather than being used in conjunction with a stationary scope. Since up for bullet impact means down for reticle movement on the target, the inversion is necessary. With the three bolts tightened on the test rig head, the deflection of the rig is about .1 mil under the force required to move adjustments. The rig immediately returns to zero when the force is removed. It is a very solid, very precise, test platform. Each click of movement in the scope adjustments moves the reticle on the target and this can observed by the tester as it actually happens during the test. It’s quite a lot of fun if you are a bit of a nerd like I am. After properly setting the parallax and diopter, I move the elevation adjustment though the range from erector center until it stops, making note every 5 mils of adjustment dialed of any deviation in the position of the reticle on the target relative to where it should be and also making note of the total travel and any excess travel in the elevation knob after the reticle stops moving but before the knob stops. I then reverse the process and go back down to zero. This is done several times to verify consistency with any notes taken of changes. After testing the elevation adjustments in this way, the windage adjustments are tested out to 4 mils each way in similar fashion using the same target and basically the same method. After concluding the testing of adjustments I also test the reticle size calibration. This is done quite easily on this same target by comparing the reticle markings to those on the target. Lastly, this test target has a reticle cant testing function (basically a giant protractor) that I utilize to test reticle cant. This involves the elevation test as described above, a note of how far the reticle deviates horizontally from center during this test, and a little math to calculate the angle described by that amount of horizontal deviation over that degree of vertical travel.

 

Testing a single scope of a given model, from a given manufacturer, which is really all that is feasible, is not meant to be indicative of all scopes from that maker. Accuracy of adjustments, reticle size, and cant will differ from scope to scope. After testing a number of scopes, I have a few theories as to why. As designed on paper, I doubt that any decent scope has flaws resulting in inaccurate clicks in the center of the adjustment range. Similarly, I expect few scopes are designed with inaccurate reticle sizes (and I don’t even know how you would go about designing a canted reticle as the reticle is etched on a round piece of glass and cant simply results from it being rotated incorrectly when positioned). However, ideal designs aside, during scope assembly the lenses are positioned by hand and will be off by this much or that much. This deviation in lens position from design spec can cause the reticle size or adjustment magnitude to be incorrect and, I believe, is the reason for these problems in most scopes. Every scope maker is going to have a maximum acceptable amount of deviation from spec that is acceptable to them and I very much doubt they would be willing to tell you what this number is, or better yet, what the standard of deviation is. The tighter the tolerance, the better from the standpoint of the buyer, but also the longer average time it will take to assemble a scope and, therefore, the higher the cost. Assembly time is a major cost in scope manufacture. It is actually the reason that those S&B 1-8x short dots I lusted over never made it to market. I can tell you from seeing the prototype that they were a good design, but they were also a ridiculously tight tolerance design. In the end, the average time of assembly was such that it did not make sense to bring them to market as they would cost more than it was believed the market would bear. This is a particular concern for scopes that have high magnification ratios and also those that are short in length. Both of these design attributes tend to make assembly very touchy in the tolerance department. This should make you, the buyer, particularly careful to test scopes purchased that have these desirable attributes as manufacturers will face greater pressure on this type of scope to allow looser standards. If you test yours and find it lacking, I expect that you will not have too much difficulty in convincing a maker with a reputation for good customer service to remedy it:  squeaky wheel gets the oil and all that.

 

Before I leave adjustments, reticle size, and reticle cant, I will give you some general trends I have noticed so far. The average adjustment deviation seems to vary on many models with distance from optical center. This is a good endorsement for a 20 MOA base, as it will keep you closer to center. The average deviation  for a scope’s elevation seems to be about .1% at 10 mils. Reticle size deviation is sometimes found to vary with adjustments so that both the reticle and adjustments are off in the same way and with similar magnitude. This makes them agree with each other when it comes to follow up shots. I expect this is caused by the error in lens position effecting both the same. In scopes that have had a reticle with error it has been of this variety, but less scopes have this issue than have adjustments that are off. Reticle size deviation does not appear to vary as you move from erector center. The mean amount of reticle error is about .05%. Reticle cant mean is about .05 degrees. Reticle cant, it should be noted, effects the shooter as a function of calculated drop and can easily get lost in the windage read. As an example, a 1 degree cant equates to about 21cm at 1000 meters with a 168gr .308 load that drops 12.1 mil at that distance. That is a lot of drop and a windage misread of 1 mph is of substantially greater magnitude (more than 34 cm) than our example reticle cant-induced error. This type of calculation should be kept in mind when examining all mechanical and optical deviations in a given scope:  a deviation is really only important if it is of a magnitude similar to the deviations expected to be introduced by they shooter, conditions, rifle, and ammunition.

Testing Methodology:  Comparative Optical Evaluation

The goal of my optical performance evaluation is NOT to attempt to establish some sort of objective ranking system. There are a number of reasons for this. Firstly, it is notoriously difficult to measure optics in an objective and quantifiable way. Tools, such as MTF plots, have been devised for that purpose primarily by the photography business. Use of such tools for measuring rifle scopes is complicated by the fact that scopes do not have any image recording function and therefore a camera must be used in conjunction with the scope. Those who have taken through-the-scope pictures will understand the image to image variance in quality and the ridiculousness of attempting to determine quality of the scope via images so obtained.  Beyond the difficulty of applying objective and quantifiable tools from the photography industry to rifle scopes, additional difficulties are encountered in the duplication of repeatable and meaningful test conditions. Rifle scopes are designed to be used primarily outside, in natural lighting, and over substantial distances. Natural lighting conditions are not amenable to repeat performances. This is especially true if you live in central Ohio, as I do. Without repeatable conditions, analysis tools have no value, as the conditions are a primary factor in the performance of the optic. Lastly, the analysis of any data gathered, even if such meaningful data were gathered, would not be without additional difficulties. It is not immediately obvious which aspects of optical performance, such as resolution, color rendition, contrast, curvature of field, distortion, and chromatic aberration, should be considered of greater or lesser importance. For such analysis to have great value, not only would a ranking of optical aspects be in order, but a compelling and decisive formula would have to be devised to quantitatively weigh the relative merits of the different aspects. Suffice it to say, I have neither the desire, nor the resources, to embark on such a multi-million dollar project and, further, I expect it would be a failure anyway as, in the end, no agreement will be reached on the relative weights of different factors in analysis.

 

The goal of my optical performance evaluation is instead to help the reader get a sense of the personality of a particular optic. Much of the testing documents the particular impressions each optic makes on the tester. An example of this might be a scope with a particularly poor eyebox behind which the user notices he just can’t seem to get to a point where the whole image is clear. Likewise, a scope might jump out to the tester as having a very bad chromatic aberration problem that makes it difficult to see things clearly as everything is fringed with odd colors. Often these personality quirks mean more to the users experience than any particular magnitude of resolution number would. My testing seeks to document the experience of using a particular scope in such a way that the reader will form an impression similar to that of the tester with regard to like or dislike and the reasons for that.

 

The central technique utilized for this testing is comparative observation. One of the test heads designed for my testing apparatus consists of five V-blocks of which four are adjustable.  This allows each of the four scopes on the adjustable blocks to be aimed such that they are collinear with the fifth. For the majority of the testing each scope is then set to the same power (the highest power shared by all as a rule). Though power numbers are by no means accurately marked, an approximation will be obtained. Each scope will have the diopter individually adjusted by the tester. A variety of targets, including both natural backdrops and optical test targets, will be observed through the plurality of optics with the parallax being adjusted for each optic at each target. A variety of lighting conditions over a variety of days will be utilized. The observations through all of these sessions will be combined in the way that the tester best believes conveys his opinion of the optics performance and explains the reasons why.

 

A variety of optical test targets viewed through the Leupold Mark 6 3-18x44
A variety of optical test targets viewed through the Leupold Mark 6 3-18×44