If you have been following my random ramblings for any length of time, you will note that my preferred mode of operation is to pick a particular configuration and approximate price range and compare a good number of scopes that fit those two criteria side by side.
This is not going to be one of those.
The sorta undisputed king of the tactical hill in the 1-8x scope world in the last year or two was Minox ZP8. March 1-8×24 with side focus has been out for a bit, but it seems to appeal to a somewhat different customer. Last year, Nightforce released their 1-8×24 ATACR going largely after the same crowd. S&B now also has their FFP/DFP 1-8x scope and I have a suspicion some other companies are going to join the fray. I intend to gloss over this group almost entirely since I do not see myself spending in the neighborhood of $3k for a low power variable optic (LPVO). Do not get me wrong, these are excellent design, but somehow it is easier for me to spend that kind of money on a long range precision scope and even that is getting to be a more difficult decision as mid-range stuff keeps getting better. Now, as we get into the sub-$2k range, I sorta perk up. I really want to be in the $1k range, but I am willing to pay a little more if it gets me a little more. When I set out to put this article together, I wanted to explore this $1k to $2k range and since I was not able to get my hands on everything I wanted, I suspect I will revisit it again in 2019.
I saw the new March Shorty 1-8×24 at SHOT and thought it was an interesting idea. The guys from March were adventurous enough to loan me one. I have a lot of mileage with their larger 1-8×24 that has side-focus, so the Shorty without the side-focus was really interesting to look at. I am really impressed by March engineering, although there are some questionable decision there from product configuration standpoint (in other words I am very impressed with what the technical people at Deon accomplished, while being a little mystified by some marketing driven decisions).
Same for the GPOTAC 1-8×24 from German Precision Optics. They really should know better than letting me loose on a new product, but I think that bravery will ultimately work out well for them. I think they’ve got a good thing going there. As always, I have some things to complain about, but overall, it is a very solid scope.
Burris XTR II 1-8×24 has been my go to scope in this category since I can actually afford it, so I added it to the mix.
HiLux CMR8 is a lot less expensive, but I have it, so while it does not really belong in this group, it was interesting to see how it fits in. I also had Hawke Frontier 1-6×24 on hand, so you will see it in some reticle pictures. It is a SFP scope, so it is an entirely different animal, but it is an exceptionally nice scope for the money and it was useful to have it as sort of a counterpoint: “if you do not need FFP, you can save some money” sort of thing.
Nightforce essentially told me to go F myself when I asked them for a loaner of the NX8. That was unfortunate since it would have been interesting to test next to the March. Usually, a manufacturer tells me to take a hike if they are afraid of bad publicity, implying there is something wrong with the product. However, I am not aware of any major NX8 issues, and I did have a brief hands on with it on someone else’s gun. I will have to get my hands on one for a thorough review at some point via other means.
I am familiar with the Trijicon Accupower and PA Platinum, which is why you see them in the table below, but I did not have them on hand for this comparison. With the PA, they have a new reticle I was impressed with coming out (Griffin Mil), so I will secure one when it is available. Accupower is not my favourite design, so I am not going to spend more time on it.
|Burris XTR II 1-8×24
|Trijicon Accupower 1-8×28
|HiLux CMR8 1-8×26
|Nightforce NX8 1-8×24 (new)
|GPO TAC 1-8×24
|PA Platinum 1-8×24
|March 1-8×24 “Shorty”
|Main Tube Diameter
|Eye Relief, in
|4 – 3.5
|4 – 3.9
|3.98 – 3.83
|3.4 – 3.9
|105 – 12.5
|109 – 13.1
|114.8 – 14.5
|106 – 13
|107 – 13
|105.8 – 13.25
|105.8 – 13.2
|12 – 3
|11.8 – 3.5
|16.6 – 3.2
|7.9 – 3
|12 – 3
|11.7 – 3
|9.6 – 3
|Adjustment per turn
Looking at the specs, NX8 and March Shorty really stand out for their compact size and light weight, although GPOTAC is also pretty good with weight. Other than March and CMR8, all the other scopes here are made in Japan, buy LOW. I am guessing the NX8 may have some US assembly in it. GPO adds the illumination module to their scopes in Germany. March is made by Deon in Japan and CMR8 is a HiLux product made in their factory in China.
Right off hand, CMR8 is not as good optically as the rest of these. It is pretty decent for the money though. I mostly added it in to show what you get for your money. I will say that mechanically, CMR8 is working quite well including a stint on my 458 SOCOM that has killed a few scopes here and there. Generally speaking, all of the scopes here were tested on a 5.56 chambered AR-15.
Before I talk about each individual design, I would like to spend some time on reticles. I mounted the scopes on a tripod and took some pictures through them. The pictures are handheld with a cellphone, so they are not designed to tell you anything about image quality. The church in the background is more than 700 yards away. They are all variations on “primary aiming point inside a circle” theme which I happen to like. CMR8 has a floating dot and a mrad grid inside a circle along with some choke style rangefinders around it. The whole arrangement turned out a little busier than I would have liked, but I like it conceptually and if I had a chance to re-design it, I’d keep the grid, but make it thinner.
March has two concentric circles (they also have another reticle that has only one circle) and an aiming crosshair inside the smaller circle along with the a mil-scale outside it. For some inexplicable reason, the lines in the primary aiming crosshair are quite thick. I am guessing it has something to do with how they illuminate it, but in practice, I would have preferred a small floating crosshair or a dot inside the circle (the scope I used had FMC-2 reticle; their FMC1 has liens that are twice thinner, so the reticle I would want is a combination of the two: FMC-2 circles with FMC-1 crosshair). One of the reasons to get a LPV scope that goes up to 8x is to extend the engagement distance a bit, so a smallish primary aiming point is a good idea. Basically, you want the circle for speed and the dot or crosshair for precision. The reticle in the GPO hets the precision part right, but the circle is fairly small (it is a little hard to see in the 8x picture below, but in real life it is nicely visible at higher mags). GPO’s illumination is continuously variable, so it is excellent in low light. On the scope I had it did not get very bright (I played with a prototype illumination module that did not get as bright as production models). XTR II reticle is very well done in terms of line thicknesses and is the only design here that has a BDC reticle inside a circle. I would prefer a mrad-based design, but it works well enough (as I said this is sort of my reference standard in this category in terms of bang for the buck).
Here is what they look like side by side. With CMR8, the larger circle is outside the FOV at 8x which I like. With March, I think the two circles inside the FOV at 8x is a bit much, but the reticle is quick to use and very visible without without illumination. Other than the thickness of the center crosshair, I really like this reticle. Also note the tapered bars that really help as you go down in magnification.
The next picture below shows the same four scopes at 4x, 5x and 6x. I am also showing the reticle of the SFP Hawke Frontier for comparison. On the CMR8, the large outer circle gets into the FOV and blocks quite a bit of it. With March, the tapered bars start looking more prominent, but the dual circle center arrangement looks to be about the right size for quick target engagement. GPOTAC reticle again looks thinner in the picture than it really is, but in general, as you go down in magnification, it has to rely more on illumination than the other scopes here. XTR II’s 10 mrad circle remains a really good compromise between precision and speed.
As you go further down in magnification, the GPO scope becomes harder to use without illumination. I talked to them about it and the basically said that the 1-8x is more of a general purpose design, while the 1-6x is going to be a little more optimized for speed and AR use with a bolder reticle. Honestly, I think they should add some other reticle options to the 1-8x, but even with the pre-production illumination module it worked pretty well for me in anything but the brightest light, so I am not going to complain too much. WIth March, as you get to 1x you begin to really see why those tapered bars are there. Wisely, the guys at March kept the bars from going all the way to the edge on 1x. That leaves the aiming structure floating in the center and it really works well. With CMR8, that big outer circle keep the reticle visible, but I still think it is thicker than it should be. Also, keep in mind that the XTR II reticle is perfectly usable without illumination on 1x; much more so than the picture indicates.
Now, let’s talk a little about how these scopes compare in other ways. First of all, I have not spent a whole lot of time checking tracking. I did some minimal elevation tracking checks and they all seemed to do fine. Generally, with scopes of this type, I prefer to not mess with the turrets, so I want them either covered or locking, which all of these were, except for March. The Shorty came with March’s excellent low profile tactical knobs. These are some of my favourite turrets, but I think they are a little out of place on this scope. I would feel more secure with a covered design. I brought this up with my March contact, but he disagreed and said that he has never heard of their turrets being bumped. Personally, I think March marketing people needs to spend more time with 3-Gunners and other AR people. That would give them a better grasp of this side of the market.
All of the scopes here stayed zeroed once zeroed and I really have no complaints about the quality and feel of the physical controls. Subjectively, March has the crispest feel to the mechanics here, but I have always liked how March does the mechanics, so there is no surprise there.
In terms of optical quality, this ended up being a bit of a tricky comparison because of parallax and depth of field. First of all, the CMR8 is clearly the weakest product here, but also the least expensive. The guys at HiLux said that they are working on fixing some of the distortion, so it should get better and at the time of this writing, it probably is (I need to check). Most of the side by side was done with the Burris, GPO and March.
Before I talk about optics, note how short the March is. It is difficult to make very short optics and the complaints I have about March’s optical system are a direct consequence of making it very short.
As an optical system, overall, I probably like GPO the most in this group. However, if you stay in the 75-200 yard range, March has better resolution at a similar contrast. Between 200 and 400 yards, the optical performance of the three scopes is pretty close. Once you get beyond 400 yards, the Shorty falls a bit behind the other designs here. At closer distances, the Shorty also suffers if you stay at 8x, but dialing down magnification really helps and at closer distance with scopes like these, I always dial down anyway. Basically, if I never shoot beyond 350-400 yards, Shorty is the better optical design. However, if I never extend the distance, I might as well save some money and get a 1-6x. All three of these scopes have fixed parallax at 100 yards or so. Because it is so short, the March Shorty has really shallow depth of field, so it loses some resolution at longer distances as you get further away from its optimal focus. For the same reason, it seemed to pick up parallax error faster than the other two. Significantly faster. At longer distances, both Burris and GPO were a lot friendlier. Interestingly, while XTR II and GPOTAC are both made by LOW and are likely related designs, GPOTAC had better DOF (depth of field) and less prominent parallax error at longer distances. Still, XTR II acquitted itself rather well.
Flare was not very prominent with any of theses, although March had a bit more of it than the other two. It comes with a sunshade that really helped, but it does make the scope longer (picture a bit further down).
With scopes that go down to 1X, the ease of getting behind the scope and a wide flat FOV (Field Of View) are really important and all three of these are quite good. March has just a touch more distortion than Burris (and GPO is slightly better still) toward the edges as you move your eye laterally behind the eyepiece, but it is very reasonable. I spent a fair amount of my time with these scopes shooting off hand and shooting quickly. I can see the differences between when I carefully look for them, but in practical terms there wasn’t enough to worry about or make a difference. Whatever difference was there likely was driven by reticle variations more than anything else.
Overall, I am pretty impressed with this scope, except, as previously mentioned, with reticle visibility at 1x. I would have liked to see some tapered lines and thicker horseshoe or something similar that would make the reticle stand out more at 1x. Also, since the scope I looked at is a prototype of some sort with illumination that is not as bright as on production models, I should probably revisit it with a full production illumination module some time.
It is really a very good general purpose 1-8x design and its only real weakness is performance on 1x in bright light which is reticle related. Most scopes of this type have discreet illumination steps. GPOTAC illumination module is continuously variable, which I like a fair bit. In low light, it can be set extremely low, so it does not disturb night adapted eyes.
Another thing I liked was that it was really easy to get behind (same as the XTR II). Eye relief was quite flexible and parallax stayed in check very nicely out to 600 yards which was the extent of how far I took it.
I do not fully understand the need for exposed turrets on a scope of this type, but since they lock in place, I do not have a problem with it.
All in all, GPO 1-8×24 is a pretty good fit for a lot of applications, but for going fast with an AR, there are better reticles out there. Outside of that, I really like this one, although for an AR-15, I do not think I’d be willing to dish out extra $500 for this scope over the optomechanically similar Burris XTR II.
In terms of direct competition price wise, GPOTAC goes head to head against the very popular Nightforce NX8. That is some tough competition. While I am not a Nightforce groupie (there are some Nightforce groupies on every internet forum confidently stating that the reticles of the NX8 is woven from unicorn hair and illuminated by little elves living inside the tube among other nonsense) by any means, NX8 looks impressive on paper being nearly as compact as the March and equipped with extremely bright reticle illumination. The little time I spent with the NX8 suggests that it is a better scope than the GPOTAC on 1x, while GPOTAC seems to be better at 8x. Reticles are in the eye of the beholder. One thing I dislike immensely about the NX8 is the exposed elevation turret. Interestingly, for some inconceivable reason they offer a version with covered turrets, but for LE/Mil only. Still, it costs the same as GPOTAC and is enjoying immense popularity.
March Shorty 1-8×24
As I mentioned earlier, from a technical standpoint, I really like what March has accomplished here and, if you are staying inside of 400 yards, this is an excellent option. The things I take issue with are primarily related to the decisions made by product planners, not by engineering. As a general disclaimer, I took all of my concerns to March before publishing them and while they got a little defensive, they were fairly mature about it. That’s a good thing. I’ve seen people really get their panties in wad after much milder criticism.
Most of my criticism has already been mentioned, so I am not going to rehash it too much: depth of field is shallow and the turrets should be locked or covered. Reticles are in the eye of the beholder.
Interestingly, I really liked this scope as a 1-6x. As a general purpose design, March’s larger 1-8×24 with side focus is a far superior option since adjustable parallax takes care of the bulk of my concerns.
Also, with March scopes, reticle illumination control is a large rubberized button inside the parallax turret. With the Shorty, they use essentially the same turret housing, except it does not rotate since parallax is not adjustable. However, on a tactical scope, a large rubberized pushbutton is not an optimal solution since it is really easy to press accidentally. In addition, March has two illumination modules: Hi and Low. Each has four brightness settings. I have used both and the low module works well in low light, but is not nearly bright enough for anything else. The Hi module is too bright for low light, while still not being bright enough for daylight. It is just right for the dusk. All twenty minutes for it. The saving grace here is that March has a third illumination module that they never talk about for some reason. It is a six position module where the rubberized button is just ON/OFF and there is a rotary lever that lets you choose between six settings. This module has a lot more dynamic range and March should really be shipping the Shorty with it. You can probably request it in this configuration if you are so inclined.
When I summarized my take on the Shorty for the guys at March, it became apparent that while we agree it is a niche product, we disagree on what that niche is. I am perhaps criticizing the Shorty a bit too unfairly, but I think I have to make clear that with all my reticle and DOF complaints, if I could get it with covered or locking turrets, I would have bought the Shorty on the spot with either of the two available reticle (FMC-1 which I slightly prefer is on the left) and with the six position illumination module as pictured below.
Overall, the scope’s strengths really outweigh its limitations and the only thing that is a real deal breaker for me is the exposed non-locking turret. I know how to deal with the rest of it and I can think of many applications for this design.
That having been said, while I do not think they will listen to me, I would really love to see what March engineers could do if they were tasked with making and ultra compact and light weight 1-6x or 1-5x design. For an ultra light AR carbine with a good barrel, I would comfortably sacrifice a little bit of top end magnification for better DOF, light weight and compactness.
I also like the mounting solution: a single wide ring which makes positioning the scope on the rail very easy. The scope March sent me had the sunshade, covers and cat tail included. I am not sure how it is configured for retail, but if I were to choose the right configuration, I would leave the sunshade in the box and keep the scope short. The more time I spent shooting with the scope the more I appreciated its strengths and ignored the weakness, although I did stay inside of 400 yards for the most part.
Burris XTR II
I have already written about this scope in a different article, so I am not going to say too much here. In the field of 1-8x FFP scopes, this is sort of a “goldilocks” product. It is well priced, very robust, optically good, and comes with a very serviceable reticle. It is my go to scope for an accurate AR-15 carbine that I want to use across the course for everything that the 5.56 cartridge is capable of this side from varmint shooting. It is $500 less expensive than GPOTAC and $800 less expensive than the Shorty, while giving up very little in performance. At some point, I will get it side by side with the Nightforce NX8 to see if the compact size and nuclear bright illumination of the NX8 are sufficient to make me pay the extra money it requires. Maybe there will be something else announced at SHOT that peaks my interest. Until then, the XTR II sits on my AR. The most direct competition for the XTR II comes from Primary Arms Platinum which is likely the same basic scope with a more mall ninja friendly reticle. However, PA does have a mrad based version out and a better Griffin Mil reticle is coming out too. I look forward to testing it side by side with the Burris.