Lately, I have been fielding a lot of question on rimfire riflescopes, so I figured it is worth my while to put down some thoughts on the subject and some specifics on scopes I like for rimfire applications. Additionally, with ammunition prices being what they are, I find myself heading to the range with a rimfire rifle a lot more than I used to in the past. I can definitely see the difference in my monthly credit card bill.
Before going for concrete recommendations, let’s discuss a little what we are looking for in a scope for a rimfire rifle. This used to be easier in the past when “rimfire” effectively meant 22 Long Rifle. Nowadays, there are three other rimfire calibers commonly available:
- 22WMR which has been around for a while, but is now going through a resurgence of sorts with a considerable variety of different ammunition newly available. 22WMR is effectively a 22LR on steroid: the case is designed a bit differently which much greater length and slightly greater diameter resulting significant velocity increase.
- 17HMR is a 22WMR necked down to use 17 caliber bullets. It is even flatter shooting than the 22WMR although it hits a little less hard in my opinion owing to much lighter bullets
- 17 Mach2 is a 22LR necked down to use the same 17 caliber bullets as in 17HMR. This one is the newest and the least popular of the four rimfire cartridges.
There is, of course, the older 22WRF (Winchest Rimfire) cartridge, but I have never even seen one of these live, although there is ammunition for it. Performance-wise, it is somewhere between 22LR and the peppier 22WMR.
The choice of the scope for your rimfire rifle largely depends on the distances you plan to shoot, rather than on the cartridge itself. Most centerfire scopes are optimized for shooting at 100yards and beyond. Typcal big game scopes, like a large variety of quality 3-9×40 offerings, are factory adjusted to be parallax-free somewhere between 100 and 200 yards. Because of that, if you are trying to print the smallest possible groups with your fancy target 22LR rifle at 25 yards you will likely run into significant errors due to un-corrected parallax. Similarly, if you are going for a headshot on a squirrel 30 yards from you, the same parallax problem has a good chance of ruining your shot. If you see a fixed parallax riflescope labeled “rimfire”, chances are it is adjusted at the factory to be parallax free at 50 yards or thereabouts. That is usually good enough for plinking and most small game hunting. However, for target shooting, I strongly recommend going with an adjustable parallax model. If you are shooting groups, you really need to finetune the scope to your specific range and conditions.
As far as durability goes, there is a common misconception that the scopes used for rimfire applications do not have to be built tough. That is simply not true. If the rimfire scope in question is to be used on a hunting rifle, it will be subjected to the same rigors as most big game hunting scopes: transportation, drops, shocks, etc. If we are talking about target shooting application it will be probably be treated with a little more care, but it will be subjected to a LOT of recoil impulses. Rimfire cartridges have very light recoil, but rimfire target shooters tends to practice so much that the cumulative effect of tens of thousands of light recoil shocks can wear out the itnernals of a scope. If all of a sudden you see your groups get larger, that does not necessarily mean your barrel is shot out. Check the scope and mounts too.
Optical requirements for rimfire use are not very different from those for any other application. Because the ranges are typically a bit shorter, it is easier to get away with a smaller scope, but for maximum resolution of your target a larger scope might just be the ticket.
With all that being out of the way, here are the rimfire scopes I like for different applications. Keep in mind that this is written near the end of 2011 and model offerings change from year to year. I expect to update my recommendations every year or two.
Plinking and short range small game
If all you want is a small inexpensive scope for plinking, there are two that I really like: Weaver 2.5-7×32 and Vortex Diamonback Rimfire 2-7×35. I bought the little Weaver for my nephew a couple of months ago, since his father got him a Ruger 10/22. I think these two are perfect plinking scopes: they are well below $200 in price and they offer enough magnification for typical plinking with 22LR.
Precision Plinking and slightly longer range small game
I had to invent the term “precision plinking” since I was struggling with terminology for a bit here. I most commonly see this done with the flatter shooting rimfire rifles and this is effectively plinking at longer ranges: 100 to 250 yards (and sometimes beyond). Since this involves trying to hit small targets that are now fairly far away, it helps to have a little more magnification along with parallax adjustment. If you are doing this with a slower rimfire cartridge (22LR), you will also need some means of significant reticle holdover or turret adjustment to compensate for bow-like trajectories. For those who like using the reticle for holdover there are a couple of different approaches. My favourite involves a calibrated reticle in a front focal plane scope like those offered by Pride Fowler Industries. What they offer is a 3-9×32 scope with three different reticle options calibrated for 22LR, or 22WMR, or 17HMR. Each reticle is calibrated for a specific cartridge, but with those it works very well. This scope does not have parallax adjustment, but it works well enough without it. Another good option is one of Hawke’s excellent Sidewinder 30 Tactical designs. My favourite is probably the 4.5-14×42, but the more compact 4.5-14×38 is also a nice option. With these scopes you can either use the reticle or the turrets for trajectory compensation. If you go with the reticle holdover, Hawke provides a nice piece of software that helps you get set up. Higher magnification 6.5-20×42 model from the same product line also work well, but I like the lower mag version a little more.
If you are setting up a rifle purely for targeting shooting, there is little downside to going with some sort of a high magnification scope. Chances are that you are using a fancy rifle from Anschutz (or some other similar maker) chambered for 22LR. Your shooting distance is probably not very long, but you are looking to print one-hole groups. Moreover, you want to see as much target detail as possible. If money is no object for you, high end March scopes practically own the benchrest world for a reason (although there are occasional Nightforce and S&B users out there as well). For the rest of us there are less expensive options.
If your shooting distance is beyond 50 yards and you are not planning to sell one of your kidneys, you should be looking at Sightron S3 scopes with three high magnification models to choose from: 6-24×50, 8-32×56 and 10-50×60. In the sub-$1k price range these are the scopes to beat. There are often weight limitations with rimfire competition, so make sure you look into that. Sightron S3 scopes are comparatively light for what they offer.
Still, if they prove to be too heavy, but you are still looking for high magnification, try one of the high magnification fixed power target scopes out there offered by Weaver (T-series scopes come in 24×40 and 36×40 configurations), Sightron (there are 24×42 and 36×42 models in the S2 Big Sky line) and Leupold (25×40, 30×40, 35×45 and 40×45 Competition scopes).
Alternatively, Sightron’s S2 Big Sky 6-24×42 riflescopes are comparatively light weight and come with optional target dot and crosshair reticles. Ditto for Leupold’s 6.5-20×40 EFR and Bushnell Elite 6-24x40AO. All three can comofrtably focus down to rimfire ranges. Please note that for a while Bushnell marketed two 6-24×40 Elite scopes: one with a side focus short overall length while the other with adjustable objective and long overall length. You want the one with the adjustable objective (it is also available in a 8-32×40 configuration which I like a lot less).
People have a tendencey to create challenging problems for themselves to solve. I am sure there are other strange application out there that I am not aware of, but this is the one that came to mind.
One such application is using a subsonic 22LR for shooting out to 500 yards (I know at least one guy who does that). if you are into that you’ve got a whole different set of problems to face. I went through a lot of discussion with the gentleman who does this type of shooting and the best recommendation I can come up with is the following: get Sightron S3 6-24×50. Use fancy mounts to set the scope up for maximum utilization of adjustment range. prepare to use some combination of turret adjustment and reticle holdover to cover the whole range from 50 to 500 yards.
I want to do EVERYTHING with one scope
If money is no object, one of March scopes might be it for you. For everything from plinking to hunting to target shooting with a reasonably sized scope, March’s 2.5-25×42 scope is just the ticket. Prepare to spend close to $2800 for an illuminated reticle version or ~$2300 for a non-illuminated one. This is the single most versatile scope I am aware of with a crazy magnification range, reasonably light weight and ability to focus down to 10 yards.
If you are like most of us, spending that much money on a scope ranks only marginally higher than colonoscopy on your list of things to do, so here are some less versatile and more reasonably priced options. Hawke Sidewinder Tactical 4.5-14×42 that I already mentioned above is a good allround choice. Sightron S2 Big Sky 3-9x36AO offers a little less magnification in exchange for lighter weight and better glass quality. Leupold 3-9×33 EFR scope is another popular option, although I like the Sightron a little more.
If you are itching for more magnification, Sightron S2 Big Sky 4-16×42, while not marketed as a rimfire scope, can focus down to 10 yards and is available with a thin plex reticle.
Same goes for Bushnell’s excellent Elite 6500 2.5-16×42 scope. Its side focus parallax adjustment comfortably takes you down to rimfire ranges and the wide magnification range makes it kinda like a “March scope on a budget”. It is still not cheap, but is certainly much more affordable.
Hawke Sidewinder 30 Tactical 4.5-14×38 at SWFA
Sightron S2 Big Sky target scopes at Webyshops and at SWFA
Leupold Competition scopes at Webyshops and at SWFA
Sightron S2 Big Sky 6-24x42SIL at Webyshops and at SWFA
Leupold 6.5-20×40 EFR at Webyshops and at SWFA
Bushnell Elite 6-24x40AO at Webyshops and at SWFA
Sightron S2 Big Sky 3-9x36AO at Webyshops and at SWFA
Leupold 3-9x33EFR at Webyshops and at SWFA
Sightron S2 Big Sky 4-16×42 at Webyshops and at SWFA
Bushnell Elite 6500 2.5-16×42 at Webyshops and at SWFA
March 2.5-25×42 at Kelbly’s (the only dealer for March scopes)