Updated in February, 2022
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 Gen3 Razor 1-10×24 is now one category up. In principle, Nightforce NX8 1-8×24 would seem like the right choice here, but there is strong competition and NX8 is not my favourite design. Yes, it has very bright reticle illumination, but it is a little tricky to get behind and not great above 6x.
If you prefer SFP scopes, Kahles K16 1-6×24 is really excellent and the Gen2E Vortex Razor 1-6×24 is still probably the fastest LPVO on 1x or close to it. Meopta Meostar R2 is worth a look as well for tactical use now that it has more reticle options.
With FFP designs, the new SAI 1-6×24 has really grown on me. It is around $1200, so it is on the low end of this price range, but I like it. The reticle is not daybright, but it has features designed to be usable on 1x and the scope is exceptionally user friendly.
Probably the more famous FFP LPVO in this price range is the Sig Tango 6T 1-6×24 that was shredded by the US military and I have to admit I do like the design overall, but I have to admit I am not crazy about the reticles. I tested the one with DWLR reticle and made it work though.
Trijicon has a couple of 1-8×28 options here as well and, once again, I am perplexed by the reticle choice and they are kinda heavy.
The interesting tidbit here is that there are two very capable entrants coming up in the $1500 range: Primary Arms PLxC 1-8×24 and EOTech 1-10×28
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. 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.
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.
The best of the general purpose SFP hunting designs is probably Swarovski Z5i 2.4-12×50, although 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 think once you get to this price range, you should insist on illumination and when Swarovski added illumination to their Z5 line, they immediately got onto my list. It has always been an excellent scope optomechanically. Honorable mention to Leupold VX-6HD 3-18×44 that I really liked and Meopta Mestar R2 1.7-10×42 an 2-12×50.
Dark horse here is proably 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.
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, but 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.
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. 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 year 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 design.
Burris finally has XTR 3i 3.3-18×50 with illuminated reticle about to hit our shore and it will be a really strong contender.
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 are looking to use a clip-on, the very short EOTech Vudu 5-25×50 with MD3 reticle is a compelling option. I see these pop up on sale with good regularity.
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. Base don the prototype I saw, this might be the one to beat. Stay tuned as I test it.
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, so I’ll touch on them as we go up in price.
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. 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 just squeaks in under $2k. There really isn’t anything in this price range that can get close to the March on 48x in terms of image quality.