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High End Tactical Scopes: Part III


High End Tactical, Part III: New Kids on the Block

Well, they are not all new and they are not kids, but for some reason I liked the name.  The previous installment of the High End Tactical article series was finished just before 2011 SHOT Show.  At the time I figured that there will be something new announced at SHOT worth including in the next article. I was not wrong.

First and foremost, Steiner decided to jump into the realm of scope making and started right in the deep end of the pool with a family of very high end tactical scopes slated to retail in the $2500 – $2700 range.  I spent some time looking at their scopes during SHOT and asked for a 4-16×50 model that I could put through its paces.

Premier Reticles introduced a couple of 3-15×50 scopes based on 30mm tubes (a first for Premier).  One is a Light Tactical which I thought would fit in well here.

Bushnell and Horus teamed up and came out with a Japanese made 3.5-21×50 scope on a 34mm tube.  Technically, this scope is a bit cheaper than the other models I was going to look at, but it is the highest end scope Bushnell makes, so I thought it was worth a look.

Vortex redesigned the eyepiece on their 5-20×50 Razor HD scope to address the complaints about critical eye relief, so I secured one of those as well.
Somewhat unexpectedly, SWFA announced their highest end SS scope to date: 5-20×50.  Both price and configuration seemed to fit right alongside the Bushnell and not that far away from the Vortex Razor, so I added one to the article.

March’s first FFP design, the 3-24×42, featured prominently in my previous High End Tactical article, so I am not going to spend too much time on it here.  However, this time I have a full-on production version with a production reticle so I looked at it as well, mostly to see if it is substantially different from the prototype I saw earlier.

Lastly, I held onto S&B PMII 4-16×50 I looked at earlier to provide some continuity with the previous article.  I mostly used it for the optics comparisons, to see how the newer scopes stack up against it.  I had already testing its mechanical quality thoroughly earlier, and so no need to repeat the effort.

Here are the scopes side by side.  From top to bottom: Steiner Tactical 4-16×50, Premier Light Tactical 3-15×50, S&B PM II 4-16×50, March-F Tactical 3-24×42, Bushnell Elite 3.5-21×50, SWFA SS 5-20×50 and Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50

Here are the specs:


March Tactical 3-24×42


Steiner Tactical




Premier Heritage

Light Tactical 3-15×50

Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50

Bushnell Elite Tactical / Horus HDMR



S.S. HD 5-20×50

Length, in








Weight, oz








Main Tube








ER, in


3.0 – 3.4






FOV, ft


35 – 4.3


26.3 – 7.25


22.5 – 7.5


38.4 – 8.4


22 – 5.76


26 – 5


19.4 – 4.82


Click Value

0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad


0.1 mrad


0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad

Single Turn Adj

10 mrad

10 mrad

E: 2 turns

W: 1 turn

13 mrad

6 mrad

E: 2 turns

W: 1 turn

5 mrad

5 mrad, locking

10 mrad

Total Adj Range

28 mrad

28 mrad

16 mrad

18 mrad

36 mrad

E: 26 mrad

W: 24 mrad

E: 30 mrad

W: 17 mrad

Zero Stop









FML-1, ill

G2B Mil-Dot,




MilDot Gen2, ill

Mod MP-8, ill

MilDot / H59, non-ill

Mil-Quad, ill

Parallax Adj









$2850 ill

$2250 non-ill



$2275 ill

$2145 non-ill


$1400 / $1600


Country of Origin









A few observations based on the spec table:

  • March is the smallest and lightest scope here (again) by a solid margin.
  • S&B and the new Premier Light Tactical have the least total adjustment range (although Premier does it with a 30mm tube vs S&B’s 34mm; 34mm Premier has a lot more adjustment available).
  • Bushnell is the only scope here without reticle illumination.
  • SWFA and Bushnell are the only scopes here without ZeroStops.
  • While all of the scopes here have exposed knobs, Bushnell is the only one with locking turrets.
  • Adjustment per turn varies from 5 mrad per turn (Bushnell and Vortex) to 6 mrad per turn (Premier) to 10 mrad per turn (SWFA, Steiner and March) to 13 mrad per turn (S&B).  For long range shooters, this can make a big difference.

After looking at the configurations and prices, I decided to subdivide the article into two sections with two somewhat different comparisons.  

The first part will focus on how Bushnell 3.5-21×50, SWFA SS 5-20×50 and Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50 stack up against each other.  

These three are a little less expensive than the rest of the scopes here and are very similarly configured.  The other section will mainly focus on the Steiner and Premier Light Tactical and how they compare to the S&B.  March, naturally, does not fit very well with either group, but it is priced closer to the Steiner and S&B.  I will talk about March intermittently in both sections and revisit it a little in the end.

Section 1: under $2000
There are three scopes here that fall into the sub-$2000 category.  Generally speaking, I would not be surprised if there were a couple more entrants into this category over the next year or two, but for the time being these three (along with Leupold Mark 4 ER/T 6.5-20×50 and IOR 3.5-18×50) are it for this general configuration, i.e. max magnificaton in around 20x and 50mm objective lens.  Whether they really belong in the “High End Tactical” article is kinda an open question, but I think they do.  They are excellent mechanically, very good optically, nicely specc’ed out and not exactly cheap.  I briefly considered splitting them out into a completely separate article, but chose against it once I took a good look at the scopes.  No, these scopes are not quite as good as the really fancy stuff (Hensoldt, S&B, etc), but they are not all that far off, so their value proposition is hard to ignore.

All three scopes survived my testing without any hiccups.  They spent a little time on DTA SRS chambered for 338Lapua, had a brief stint on a 223Rem AR-15 (except for the Bushnell which landed on a 308Win boltgun) and ended up on another AR-15, this one chambered for 6.5 Grendel/264LBC where I did the bulk of the tracking tests.
Here is a summary of how these three compare:

High Contrast resolution: Bushnell > SS > Razor
Low contrast resolution: SS > Razor > Bushnell
Contrast: SS > Razor > Bushnell
FOV: Razor > Bushnell > SS
Low magnification distortion: SS > Razor > Bushnell (“better” means lower distortion in this case)
Image circle (i.e. smallest black ring around the image): Bushnell > Razor > SS (all three are pretty close however)
DOF: SS = Razor > Bushnell
Low light performance overall: SS >= Razor > Bushnell
Eye position flexibility at high magnification (above 15x): SS = Razor > Bushnell
Eye position flexibility at low magnification: SS > Razor > Bushnell, but all are quite good

Knobs: I like the knobs on all three.  SS has the advantage of 10 mils per turn.  Razor has zero stop.  Bushnell has locking knobs.  In terms of feel, I still think that March makes the best knobs out there (for me) closely followed by the new SS and Premier.  Bushnell and Razor do have very reassuring widely spaced clicks that are easy to use.

Features: another part that is in the eye of the beholder.  Bushnell has wider magnification range (4-21x effectively) and locking knobs, but no illumination and 5mils per turn.  SS has everything but zero stop.  Razor has everything but with 5 mils per turn knobs

Vortex Razor HD on the DTA SRS:

The controls on all three scopes are pretty well worked out and are smooth and repeatable.  Side focus knobs on all three worked well, but were a touch too fast for my tastes on the SS and Razor HD.  Bushnell seemed to have marginally smoother travel or, to be exact, it is simply a little larger in diameter for better leverage.  Combined with Bushnell’s shallower depth of field, it made side focus easier to use.  They were all very quick to bring the image into focus, but fine-tuning it was slightly easier with the Bushnell.  Bushnell has the closest focus distance of 25 yards.  Razor focuses down to 40 yards, while the SS goes down to 35 yards.  Typically, focusing this close is of importance primarily to rimfire shooters and airgunners.  While I do not expect to see these scopes used on non-centerfire guns a whole lot, Bushnell 3.5-21×50 is the most suitable of the three for close range precision shooting.

Magnification ring on the SWFA SS is machined aluminum and knurled; it looks almost integrated into the eyepiece.  It is a nice look, but it makes it a little harder to grab.  For quick operation I suggest a cattail of some sort.
Here is a picture of the SS sitting on a tripod (that is how I do a lot of side-by-side tests) mounted using a couple of new Aadmount rings.

Razor’s magnification ring, while also not sticking out much, is covered with textured rubber that is very easy to hold onto.  Bushnell is somewhere in between the two in terms of usability.  Its magnification ring is knurled aluminum like the SS, but it is raised up a bit more, so it’s easier to grasp.

Bushnell’s adjustment turrets are interesting in design in that they pop-up to reveal a revolution scale.  They can only be adjusted when they are elevated.  When pressed down, they are firmly locked in place.  There is a quite a bit of travel between “locked-down” and “raised-up”, so there is no confusion what state they are in.  Here is what the two positions look like:

I suppose that in order to combine precision feel with the ability to push down on the turrets to lock them, the clicks had to be very widely spaced.  They are a little lighter than the clicks on the Razor, while the clicks on the SS are heavier yet.  All three are easy to use although for “no eyes” operation I always require a little “hands on” time.  That, however, is true for any scope.  The choice between the three knob types really comes down to personal preference and intended usage: if you really value a zero stop, go with the Vortex.  If you worry about the knobs accidentally turning out of adjustment during transportation (or under some adverse circumstances), Bushnell’s locking knobs look attractive.  On the other hand, the SS offers the most adjustment per turn: 10 mrad vs 5 mrad for Bushnell and Vortex.  If your application benefits from reaching as far as possible within the single turn of the knob, then the SWFA SS should be high on your list.

In low light, Bushnell lagged behind the SS and Razor HD a little, although the margin is rather small.  Generally, in terms of optical performance, SS and Razor are very close.  Bushnell was a little more sensitive to light coming in from bright light sources outside the field of view.  It never exhibited any particularly strong flare, but just enough stray light came in with challenging lighting conditions to make it perform slightly worse then the SS and Razor.  It did benefit considerably from a sunshade and, I suspect, will work well with an ARD (I will try to get my hands on one and add a note on how that worked; with a makeshift sunshade I saw a notable improvement).  Between, SS and Razor, low light performance was very close.  SS had slightly better contrast, but the Razor had better FOV which often helps in low light.

Reticles in these three scope were quite different and the choice between them is very personal.  Bushnell HDMR that is most commonly mentioned has a Horus reticle.  However, the version that I have is equipped with a Mil-Dot, which works fine for me.  I have spent some time with a Horus reticle in the past and overall I like the system.  However, I am a bit wary of them in non-illuminated scopes due to how difficult they can be to use at low magnification in low light.  A simple illuminated dot goes a long way and I see some Horus scopes out there with intelligently executed illumination.  I hope that the next version of the HDMR scope will be so equipped.  In the meantime, for me, the standard Mil-Dot is kinda like an “old faithful”.  While I appreciate the more sophisticated reticles, I do not find myself particularly limited by a standard Mil-Dot.

SWFA SS 5-20×50 is equipped with the new Mil-Quad reticle which I liked a fair bit. It is different from the somewhat ubiquitous dots and hashes that dominate most current reticle designs and the dimensions of the diamonds offer some additional ease of ranging.  Thick bars on the outside of the reticle are prominent enough to be easily visible even at the lowest magnification.  The only thing I wish would have been different is the center crosshair of the reticle: I have grown quite used to reticles with wither open centers or with floating dots (like March and IOR).  I find that on scope with FFP reticles, it can be quite useful on high magnifications to have a somewhat open aiming point.


The EBR-2B reticle in the Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50 is probably the most versatile in this group, but also the busiest.  I have a lot of mileage with the earlier EBR-2 and the “B” version offers a couple of meaningful changes: the numbers on the reticle are now right alongside the vertical wire and the “Christmas Tree” dots for holdover and wind compensation are now bolder.  I like the relocated numbers, but the bolder dots leave me a little split.  They are certainly easier to use than those on the EBR-2, but they are also quite a bit more obtrusive. I actually liked the fact that on the earlier reticle, they virtually disappeared from sight as you dialed down the magnification.  However, I may have been alone on that.  I suppose the preference really depends on how you plan to use the scope.  For people who place a major emphasis on compensating for both wind and drop with the reticle EBR-2B is a better option.  Both reticles maintain a small opening at the center of the crosshairs which I like a fair bit.  Here they are side by side:

Finally, how do they compare overall?
A natural question is how these three scopes stack up against each other.  First of all, I have to admit that all three are very good and I doubt that my shooting would be notably better with any one of them.  All three are sufficiently good that I would have no one to blame for my poor results, but myself.

The choice between the three is ultimately driven by personal preferences and finances.  Overall, I think that the Razor HD is still (marginally) the most complete piece out of the three.  Besides, it comes with a nice set of accessories including a good set of 35mm rings, flip caps, sun shade and bubble level.  Still, even with the accessories in mind, it is the most expensive scope of the three.  I suspect the goodies in the Razor HD box come out to be worth about $200-$250, making the scope itself to be about $1750-$1800.  It is still more expensive than SWFA SS and Bushnell, but not by as much as it looks at first glance.  Nevertheless, the new eyepiece is a notable improvement on the old one and the Razor HD has now been out in the field long enough for its durability to be on record.  My intuition tells me that we will see more development of this scope line in the future and considering how well executed this model is, I am itching to see what is next in the pipeline.  If I were to define two items that would help the Razor move ahead of the competition, I would go with the following: bump the objective lens up a touch and offer knobs with more adjustment per turn.

razor on ar


SWFA SS 5-20×50 offers, in my opinion, the best bang for the buck here.  10 mil per turn turrets really help it stand out.  Equally notably, it manages to be very full featured while keeping a 30mm tube which helps with mounting flexibility.  Overall, I thought it was marginally better optically than the other two scopes here, although the Razor was so close that it could be due to scope to scope variations.  Mechanically, I have encountered exactly zero problems with it, but since the design is new we’ll see how it holds up over time.  It certainly looks well built and the two samples I have seen impressed with both mechanical and optical quality.  Since this scope is new it is too early to talk about future upgrades, but I would like to see a zero stop on it in the future.  I would also like to see a smaller version, perhaps a 4-16×42 or something along those lines.


While SWFA SS and Razor HD are in many ways quite similar, Bushnell Elite 3.5-21×50 marches to the beat of a different drum with its short overall length, wide magnification range and pop-up knobs.  It proved to be a perfect match to my 308Win boltgun, but I can see it equally at home on bigger guns as well.  Its feature set is sufficiently different where it might appeal to a slightly different customer, and the design choices overall seem quite logical to me.  For example, if I were to equip this scope with a Horus reticle, I would certainly welcome pop-up turrets that can be locked down.  Overall, having quite a bit of mileage with other Bushnell Elite scopes, this one was a pleasant surprise for me.  I did not expect it to be as good as it is.  I know Bushnell is working on illumination options and larger adjustment per turn.  Even as is, the scope works very well.


None of these scopes, in my opinion, would really be at home on a compact lightweight rifle, not with 2+lbs they weigh.  However, for applications where a little extra weight is not a major concern, they offer very compelling options.  All three were a good match to my 338LM bolt gun, although I have to admit I liked the Razor and the SWFA SS a bit more in that role than the Bushnell.  I suppose that largely comes down to the reticle differences and magnification ranges.  Wider range of the Bushnell seemed like a better match to guns that would be used a little closer in than a 338LM.  As I mentioned already, it worked flawlessly on my 308Win.  I also thought it was a very good match to a heavy barreled AR platform.   

Section 2: over $2000

Until fairly recently the choice of riflescopes in the uber expensive price range was limited to just a few players with most pricing their products closer to $3000 than $2000.  Only Nightforce F1 seemed to stay in the ~$2300 range or thereabouts.  Now, price variation among different offerings got a bit more spread out with two new entrants to this market segment (and I expect another one fairly soon).

Here are some observations on how the scopes I looked compare head to head.

First of all, they were all good.  Very good as a matter of fact.  Tracking was superb on all of them.  With both Steiner and Premier LT being new designs I spent a ridiculous (in retrospect) amount of time and money (ammo is not exactly free) on testing the repeatability and accuracy of the knobs.  Every time I thought I had found an inkling of something wrong, re-testing showed that it was shooter error.  Parallax knobs did not exhibit any hysteresis that I could find.  While I did not try to outright break the scopes, I did subject them to some measure of abuse and found little to complain about.  I did find one quirk on the Steiner, but it looks like the factory has taken care of it already (I’ll come back to this later though).  The only real differences between these scopes were largely due to design choices.

In terms of overall mechanical quality, to me, March still has the most polished feel of any scope I have tried to date, but the others are not far behind.

I have written about the mechanical quality of the March in an earlier article in some detail, so I will not spend much time on it here.  Suffice to say that this is the third March scope I have been able to thoroughly test and all three have been consistently superb.  Low and wide knobs offer 10 mrad per turn operation and a very simple-to-set zero stop.  Side focus is silky smooth with illumination built into it as a rubberized push button.  There are two illumination modules available, High and Low intensity, and I have both.  I wish that the low intensity module was even dimmer, but it is serviceable.
march-F knobs


Steiner knobs remind me of those on the 34mm Premier Heritage scopes.  The turrets are fairly large in diameter offering good leverage and nice tactile feel.  The scope I tested was configured for the European market so turret markings can appear a little odd at first, but I was comfortable with them.  Models destined for the US market will have different scales engraved on the turrets.  As is, the turrets offer double turn operation and zero stop.  Reticle illumination control is integrated into the side-focus knob and is calibrated in an interesting manner: the first few setpoints are very dim and offer perfect illumination levels for low light.  About half way through the adjustment range, there is big jump in illumination brightness and last few setpoints are very bright and perfect for bright light.  Moreover, every other detent is an OFF position.  I liked the arrangement and find this to be one feature where Steiner is ahead of the competition.  This is easily my favourite reticle illumination scheme in this market segment.  Here are the snapshot os Steiner turrets with Euro version that I looked at on the left and US-spec knobs on the right:

steiner euro knobsSteiner US knobs

As far as the knobs go, Premier’s new Light Tactical is a bit of a departure from earlier 34mm scopes by Premier.  It does not have the innovative tool-less reset feature.  Instead, the turrets are held on via two small hex set screws.  The turrets are also quite a bit more compact and offer double-turn operation with 6 mrad adjustment per turn.  There is an indicator at the base of the elevation turret displaying a number that tells you what revolution you are on.  There is also a small indicator at the base of the windage turret that tells whether the knob has been turned left or right.  Knob repeatability and feel were excellent on both Light Tactical scopes I tested.  Illumination adjustment is built into the side focus knob in a manner similar to the larger 34mm PR scopes, but it is of a non-locking design.

lt knobs

In terms of eye relief, Steiner had the shortest eyerelief in this group, but also the most flexible.  It was very easy to get a good sight picture at any magnification.  S&B and Premier LT were similar in that regard and not too far behind the Steiner.  Up to date, Hensoldt has been the scope with the most forgiving eyerelief I have seen to date.  I have not been able to compare Steiner side-by-side with a Hensoldt, but it might be close.  Perhaps, I’ll be able to do the test some other time.  March had the least flexible eye relief, which is not surprising considering its smaller objective lens and overall compactness.  I suppose that is a part of the compromise.  Either way, none of these scopes gave me any particular trouble with eye relief on any rifle I tried them on.

One interesting thing to note was that I found parallax adjustment knobs to be easier to use precisely with these scopes than with the three sub-$2000 models I was testing side by side.  In this group all scopes seemed to have a little more travel available for the side focus knob.  S&B had the slowest side-focus knob in the group while March had the shortest with Premier and Steiner in between.

Optically, March is as good as or better than any scope I have seen to date that has the same size objective lens.  Even in this group, it performed very well up until the point where it was limited by the smallish exit pupil.  Up until then, it had slightly better resolution and slightly lower contrast than the other scopes here.  This is the same observation I have made with March before, so there are no surprises here.  March does have rather shallow depth of field and middle of the road field of view, which are parts of the compromise for stuffing large magnification range into a 30mm tube.

Between S&B, Premier LT and Steiner, I thought overall Premier was overall the best optically.  It is fully equal of its 34mm sibling and offers superbly balanced performance at all magnifications.  At high magnification (above 12x), S&B and Premier are similarly excellent while Steiner is just a touch worse.  At low magnifications (below 8x), Premier and Steiner are excellent while S&B is a touch worse partly due to the tunneling below 5x.  Between 8x and 12x, there is very little to differentiate these three scopes, with Premier seemingly having just a touch better microcontrast.  There was no difference on black and white resolution charts, but with Premier LT it was a touch easier to discern subtle variations of shades and textures on poorly illuminated objects.  I confirmed this with an extended Macbeth chart and some specialized video testing charts I occasionally use.  Premier LT was unusually good at discerning small shade and tonality variations.

High Magnification Resolution:  March = Premier LT = S&B > Steiner
High Magnification Contrast: Premier LT = S&B = Steiner >= March
Low Magnification Resolution: March = Premier LT = Steiner >= S&B
Low Magnification Contrast: Premier LT = Steiner = S&B >= March
DOF: S&B = Steiner >= Premier LT > March
FOV: S&B > Steiner = Premier LT > March
Eye relief: S&B >= March = Premier > Steiner
Eye relief flexibility: Steiner > Premier = S&B > March

In low light, all three scopes performed admirably.  Steiner had a touch more flare, so it benefited the most from a sunshade.  Otherwise, I did not find anything really worth mentioning there.  March ran right alongside the larger scopes at magnifications of about 7x and below.  At higher magnifications, it suffered from a smaller exit pupil.  On the plus side, it had remarkably good flare control.  Generally, in flare-inducing lighting conditions, all scopes perform better with a sunshade or ARD and these were not an exception.

One thing to note about the Steiner is that it has a noticeable black ring around the image.  Interestingly, it is not tunneling and it does not change with magnification.  Steiner has minimal tunnel effect if any.  It almost looks like the eyepiece is imaging something dark around the image.  It is not particularly large or distracting, but it is more noticeable than on the other scopes here.

Looking at these scope overall, I few things stand out and here are some overall thoughts on each one.

March Tactical-F 3-24×42
Honestly, my thoughts from the previous article apply to this scope.  The only difference between this scope and the one I looked at before is the reticle and I really like this one.  As I have mentioned earlier, I like reticles with a floating dot in the center so FML-1 is right up my alley


March is still somewhat unique in the high end tactical world since there is really nothing in the same overall size and weight envelope that gets close to March’s performance.  I wanted to build a reasonably light weight semi-auto precision rifle that can reach out to a thousand yards, so I put together an AR-15 chambered for 264LBC and equipped with a semi-heavy 18” barrel.  I had the lower and the upper was built by Scott Milkovich of Specialized Dynamics for me.  It shoots tiny groups with 123gr MatchKings while not weighing much at all.  I spent a fair amount of time deciding on a scope for it, since bolting a two pound scope on top of it really changed the balance of the gun (I tried every scope in this article on the little AR-15).  In the end, March was easily the most suitable for it.  With the March sitting on top of it in a Nightforce Uni-Mount, the rifle weighs 10.5lbs, unloaded, but with a Harris bipod.  It is short, light and handy, but it has a lot of versatility and reach thanks to the combination of efficient cartridge and high quality glass.

march grendelmarch3

Steiner Tactical 4-16×50
I was very curious to test this scope since this is Steiner’s first foray into the world of fancy tactical riflescopes.  Generally, I walked away liking the scope.  It is a very solid platform with very well-rounded performance.  I would have liked it to be a little lighter and more compact, but as-is the scope has a lot to recommend itself.  It is positioned to compete against similarly configured 34mm models from S&B, Premier and Hensoldt, while costing a fair bit less.  However, it is still an expensive scope.  The specific piece I tested is from a fairly early production run and when I first put it onto the 338LM, the sunshade flew off after the first shot.  Up until that point the testing was monotonous (read: boring), so I was kinda happy to finally find a problem that I can sink my teeth into.  It turned out that the adapter ring on the front of the scope that the sunshade screws into was coming off under recoil of the 338.  Generally speaking, since this is a new product line, I am not particularly bothered by some early problems.  However, I was very curious to see how Steiner would handle it, so I sent an e-mail to the gentleman I was dealing with there with a brief description of the problem and a picture of what happened.  For a couple days there was no reply, so I was getting a bit concerned.  Then I get an e-mail back basically explaining that approximately thirty seconds after hearing from me, they started pulling scopes from the production line for extensive testing of how both the standard and weighted sunshades hold up under recoil.  It turned out that some number of the scopes exhibited the same problem as mine and they identified them and implemented a fix immediately.  They did not waste any time on trying to tell me that this is an isolated incident or that this stuff never happens or any other such rubbish.  Rather than spend time and effort of PR damage control, they instead found the problem and took care of it.  If this is how they deal with every minor issue that pops up, I have high confidence in the quality of the whole product line.  

The reticle available in the Steiner looks like Mil-Dot Gen II with longer hashmarks.  It worked well and those longer hashmarks actually aid reticle visibility at low magnification.

Bottom line is that I liked the scope and since it is new, my primary interest is in seeing how it holds up.  Aside from that, I think it has the best reticle illumination scheme in the business.  Personally, I would have liked to see it go on a diet a little, but it is a competitive product as is both optically and mechanically.  Price-wise, it is an interesting spot sitting squarely below the S&B/Hensoldt/34mm Premier crowd, but above Nightforce F1 and Premier LT.  In terms of features, Steiner is about as full featured as any scope out there and comes to market with a very complete line-up: 3-12×50, 4-16×50 and 5-25×56 are aimed squarely at S&B PMII, while the 3-12×56 is likely to go head to head against the similarly configured Hensoldt.


S&B PMII 4-16×50
Since this is the same scope that I tested for a previous article, I do not think it is worth repeating myself here.  It is superb both optically and mechanically.  However, it is a somewhat older design than a lot of the competition, which is increasingly significant.  S&B could use a little more adjustment range and better performance and low magnifications.  I suspect that both of those issues are resolved in the new 3-20×50 model, but I have not tested that one yet.  Even as is, S&B with its track record of durability is a very good choice.  However, it is expensive and I find myself leaning toward some newer designs in most cases.  Nevertheless, S&B’s P4F reticle offers the thinnest lines in this group (0.035mrad vs 0.05mrad for the SWFA SS and 0.06mrad for Vortex, Steiner and Premier with March and Bushnell reticle being a bit thicker yet) making it appealing to target and competition shooters who have to engage very small targets.  It also has the largest adjustment per turn available here with 13mrad.


Premier Light Tatical 3-15×50
To be perfectly honest, I think this scope is going to sell like hotcakes for Premier.  It is optically fully equal to the 34mm model (i.e. absolutely superb) and seems to be very good mechanically.  The tradeoff between the 30mm tubed Light Tactical and the full size 34mm model is pretty simple: you save $500 by giving up some overall adjustment range, locking eye-piece adjustment and tool-less turret reset.  You also have to settle for 6 mrad per turn knobs.  However, you end up with a notably lighter scope and extra $500 in your pocket.   For the most part, this scope competes against Nightforce F1 3.5-15×50 and for my money, I will go with the Light Tactical.  Of course, time will tell how durable this design is, but the two scopes I looked at held up just fine.  Both were equipped with Mil-Dot Gen II reticle which I am very well familiar with and like.  With one of the LT scopes I found an interesting optical artefact that I asked the guys from Premier to look at.  Under ultra-high contrast conditions, I was able to discern thin blue lines radially symmetric around the optical axis and only present on tangential interfaces of the reticle.  I have since discovered that several top end scopes have this phenomenon to varying degrees, but I never paid attention to this before.  The guys from Premier tell me that their chief optics nerd looked at it carefully and came up with some sort of an explanation that made sense but they were not sure how to translate from German (I hope that he did not simply tell them that the shmuck with too much time on his hands who found this should go shoot a few rounds and not worry about silly things).  I plan to ping them on that again since I am quite curious to see the explanation.  The other Light Tactical I looked at had this artifact as well, but it was a lot less pronounced.  Interestingly, I could find no impact whatsoever on image quality.  This is clearly some sort of a chromatic aberration-type effect in the relay system, but if it has an effect on the overall image, I can not see it.  In use, I found that the LT is at its best in a 20MOA mount that allows me to get full use of the double-turn knob.  Once properly set up, 12 mrads of available elevation are sufficient for almost every need I may have.  For example, when mounting on the 264LBC chambered AR-15 (below right), 12 mrads gets me exactly to 1000yards, which is the effective limit of how far this rifle can reach.  While the Light Tactical is not as ligh and compact as March, it makes a superb match to both the AR platform and precision bolt guns.
premierlt 2


Final Thoughts
While I split the article into two sections based on price, I did test all of these scopes side-by-side so I developed a good sense of what you gain or give up by moving up and down the price range between $1500 and $3000.  Honestly, if I were paying for this out of my own pocket, I would be staying on the south side of $2500 almost every time with $1500 competitors offering performance dangerously close to the big boys.  Apparently, I am not the only one who arrived to the same conclusion since Premier is clearly trying to capture part of the market in the $2200 – $2300 range.  Mechanically, I found all of the scopes I looked at for this article to be excellent.  I can, perhaps, make a case that a $2800 March offers a more polished package than a $1500 SWFA SS, but whether it is worth $1300 price difference is very questionable.  For an application that can bear a little more weight, the SWFA SS is a much more cost-effective choice with minimal performance penalty, which is why it will find a home on my DTA SRS.  Optically, there is still an advantage to the super expensive scopes, but it is increasingly narrow with slightly better contrast and microcontrast being the most prominent.  Resolution gets dangerously close as do low light performance and stray light control.  Bottom line, you give up very little by going with one of the sub-$2000 scopes.  However, had my work involved using one of these on a daily basis, I would probably still look long and hard at the absolute top of the line models.  It is easy for me to say that the extra performance may not be worth the money, but then again, when I test scopes, no one is shooting back at me…

As things stand right now, if I was looking for a “full-size” tactical scope, Steiner and Premier would probably be at the top of the list for me among the $2k+ crowd.  I am not sure what Hensoldt and S&B offer me for the extra cash they cost (once again, this is for my personal tastes in scopes), keeping in mind that since I do not shoot guns for a living I am quite willing to accept the potential uncertainty of a new product like the Steiner.

For a lighter weight rifle, March and Premier LT are the contenders and this can get a bit tough with March being somewhat more full-featured and lighter, while the LT offers a 50mm objective lens for not much more weight.  

Generally, for an application where 12 mrads of adustment are sufficient (i.e. just about any cartridge that runs out of steam at around 1000 yards or so), the LT is a very strong contender.




A few words about mounts:
After working on the previous installment of the High End Tactical series, I was so impressed with Aadmount single piece mounts that I bought a few of them and I used them for this article.  They continue to return to zero with boring regularity.  Recently, Aadmount came out with conventional rings and I got my hands on a 30mm pair that the SWFA SS was mounted in.  They ended up as boring as the single piece mounts: I found nothing to whine about.  They are remarkably light for how sturdy they seem and they return to zero remarkably well.  I expect to slowly switch a lot of my rifles to Aadmount rings as time goes on, unless someone manages to invent a better mousetrap.
For the March, I used a Nightforce Uni-Mount since I was looking for the lightest option available and the Uni-Mount seemed to be it.  It also worked well and returned to zero without much fuss.
By the time I got my hands onto the Bushnell 3.5-21×50, the only 34mm mounting option I had was a pair of vertically split Warne rings.  They are not quite as good as the Aadmounts, but they are serviceable enough if you set them up carefully.
For all of the mounting I used Borka Tools torque wrench.  Only one scope in this test ended up with serious ring marks and I was able to track that down to user error: I lapped the 35mm mount I used for the Razor, but then I accidentally rotated the ring caps.  I suppose there is no cure for stupidity.  It is a testament to the durability of the Razor that it worked like a charm despite the incorrect mounting.  I was curious whether it had an effect on optical performance, so I retested the Razor after removing the mount and found no change in performance.  I suspect that Vortex guys may have designed it with morons like me in mind.

Here are some links to the products I mentioned above:

Bushnell/Horus HDMR 3.5-21×50

SWFA SS 5-20×50×50-Tactical-30mm-Riflescope-P50662.aspx

Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50:
At SWFA and at WebyShops

Steiner 4-16×50:×50-Military-Tactical-34mm-Rifle-Scope-P48603.aspx

S&B PMII 4-16×50:×50-Police-Marksman-LP-34mm-Riflescope-P8125.aspx

Premier Reticles Light Tactical 3-15×50, with and without illumination:×50-Light-Tactical-Riflescope-P50313.aspx×50-Light-Tactical-Riflescope-P50315.aspx

 Posted by at 9:35 am

Mid-range Tactical: Part 1


Mid-range Tactical Scopes

Somewhat uncharacteristically, I spent quite a while thinking about the title of this article.  Having recently written two lengthy pieces on High End Tactical Scopes, I wanted to look at a few riflescopes that I could potentially afford without resorting to a strict canned food diet for the next year or two.  While I was at it, I also thought that I should focus on scopes of moderate magnification.  Something that could be used at typical ranges where a designated marksman would be comfortable operating, fielding either an M1A or an accurized AR-15 of some sort (an SPR, perhaps?).  Ultimately, once all was said and done, “mid-range” ended up meaning both price and engagement distance, and I settled on the following boundary conditions:

  • Street price had to be in the $500 – $1000 range (lower is better, of course; I would much rather buy a $500 than a $1000 scope if the performance is not excessively compromised)
  • All scopes chosen for this article had to be equipped with reticles that, in a pinch, can be used for both range estimation and holdover
  • All scopes had to have variable magnification topping out at 10x or so (assuming an engagement range is no more than 800yards or so on a human-sized target) with the low-end of 3x or thereabouts which is good enough for anything but CQB.

There is a considerable number of scopes that fits these criteria and after some thought I ended up with four models that take rather different approaches to accomplishing the same basic goal.  That gave me a chance to not only look at the scopes themselves, but to also give some thought to which approach to mid-range shooting appeals the most to me.  Here are the scopes I compared for this article:

  • Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×44: this scope is new on the market and with all the attention the PST line-up has generated, I thought it was worth my time to look at one in some detail.  Additionally, when I first saw it at SHOT 2010, I thought it has some tunnel vision.  Vortex guys said that I did not have the scope set up correctly, so it was natural to give it a closer look.
  • SWFA Super Sniper 3-9×42: I own this scope and I use it for the exact purpose I outlined above, which is shooting at human torso-sized targets out to 800 yards or so.
  • Pride Fowler RR800-1 3-9×42: this scope is expressly designed for hitting enemy combatants out to 800 yards (as the name suggests).  It is in use by some units in the US military, so it was a natural choice.
  • Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44: quite frankly, I have not looked at any of Monarch X scopes for some time and thought it was a good time to do so.

From top to bottom: SWFA SS (on the rifle), PFI RR800-1, Nikon Monarch X, and Vortex Viper :
Here is the spec table for the four scopes above along with a couple other similarly configured competitors that I did not have on hand (so they are for informational purposes only).
  Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×44

Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44


RR 800-1




Sightron SIII 3.5-10×44

Leupold Mark 4 LR/T 3.5-10×40*

Length, in







Weight, oz







Main Tube







Eye Relief, in


3.7 – 3.5

4.2 – 3.5

4 – 3.5

3.7 – 4.1

4.7 – 3.4

FOV, ft@1000y

43.9 – 10.9


41 – 10.5


35.8 – 12.2

33.2 – 14.51

28.8 – 10

29.9 – 10

Click Value

1/4 MOA

(0.1 mrad available)

1/4 MOA

1/4 MOA

0.1 mrad

1/4 MOA

(0.1 mrad available)

1/4, 1/2, 1 MOA or 0.1 mrad

Adjustment per turn

12 MOA

(~3.5 mrad)

12 MOA

(~3.5 mrad)

15 MOA

(~4.4 mrad)

5 mrad

15 MOA

(~4.4 mrad)

Different options

Adjustment range

100 MOA

80 MOA

(~23 mrad)

110 MOA

27 mrad

(~93 MOA)

120 MOA (~35 mrad)

65 MOA


EBR-1 (ill)






Reticle Location







Parallax Adj













$1100 – $1600

*Leupold Mark 4 actual magnification is 3.2x to 9.5x

Simply looking at the table a few things stand out:

  • All of these designs are based on 30mm tubes.
  • Nikon Monarch X is clearly the largest and heaviest of the bunch while the PFI is the trimmest and lightest.
  • Of the four scopes I had on hand only the Nikon has the means for image focus/parallax compensation.
  • Vortex and Nikon have SFP reticles, while Super Sniper and PFI have FFP reticles.
  • The 3-9×42 Super Sniper has notably wider Field of View than the other scopes here at magnifications above 4x or so (it is readily apparent in actual use).
  • The Super Sniper and the Vortex have matching reticles/turrets: mil/mil for the Super Sniper and MOA/MOA for the PST.
  • Vortex was the only scope in the group to have an illuminated reticle (Nikon is available with one, but the model I had was non-illuminated).

As I mentioned above these four scopes espouse very different design philosophies.  Even physically, they differ considerably in terms of size.  From left to right: Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×44, Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44, PFI RR800-1 3-9×42 and SWFA Super Sniper 3-9×42.

Nikon Monarch X is the most traditional configuration of the bunch: Mil-Dot reticle in the second focal plane (calibrated to be accurate at 10x) along with exposed ¼ MOA per click knobs.  This is how tactical scopes were specc’ed until fairly recently someone thought that it might make sense to have the reticle and the turrets based on the same angular units.  

Vortex Viper PST is designed in just such a way: the version I had was equipped with MOA-based reticle and MOA-based knobs.  The reticle is still in the second focal plane, so it is only accurate at one magnification: 10x.  However, the magnification ring has detents at 5x, 3.3x and 2.5x so that at any of those settings the reticle dimensions can be easily calculated for both rangefinding and holdover.   For example, at 5x, you know that the reticle subtensions are double of what they are at 10, at 3.3x – triple and at 2.5x – quadruple.

SWFA Super Sniper and PFI RR800-1 do away with the need to pay attention to which magnification you are at by placing the reticle in the front focal plane, so that the reticle dimensions remain constant with respect to magnification.  The Super Sniper comes with a standard Mil-Dot reticle and beefy exposed knobs that are also mil-based.  

The PFI scope has an FFP reticle that is a proprietary design with holdover marks matched to a family of calibers with similar trajectories out to 800 yards.  The reticle is, appropriately, named RR800, where RR stands for Rapid Reticle.  It is a somewhat unusual design that takes a little getting used to and it is at its best when used with a laser rangefinder.  However, it does have some limited rangefinding capability with a few mil-spaced dots on the vertical axis. The was the only scope in the group with covered knobs.  While the knobs are indeed finger adjustable, they are not intended to be used very often.  This scope is all about the reticle and knobs are intended for “set-and-forget” operation.

In terms of mechanically quality, I liked all four scopes well enough.  Monarch X and Super Sniper felt beefier than the other two scopes, but none gave me any particular problems.  All four have sufficient mounting length for most applications and the various controls worked well.  I did not find any noticeable POI shift with magnification in the two SFP scopes.  I thoroughly checked the tracking on Super Sniper, Monarch X and PST (I actually got a chance to look at two PSTs, but more on that later) and it was within the limitations of my shooting.  One of the PSTs seemed to be a little off in terms of windage adjustment during one of the shooting sessions, but I could not replicate that again.  Perhaps that was shooter error.  The PFI is not intended to be used with frequent knob twisting, so I did not dwell on the turrets too much.  However, they did have a little slop and the feel was not great.  Nevertheless, zeroing the scope was straightforward and the scope never lost its POA, so I have no complaints.  Overall, I liked the turrets of the Super Sniper the most, but I suspect that comes from familiarity: I have a lot of mileage with that scope.  Also, it does not hurt that the Super Sniper has the most adjustment per turn of the bunch.  For my intended purpose: shooting out to 800 yards or so, none of these scope could get there within one revolution of the elevation knob with typical 5.56×45 (I use 77gr SMK) and 7.62×51 (175gr SMK in this case) load.  5 mrad per turn of the Super Sniper got me the furthest though: out to 600 – 650 yards.  Typically, I have it mounted on a flatter shooting 280Rem boltgun, where it does get me to 800 yards within a single turn of the knob.
One thing to note about the Super Sniper though is that once mounted on the rifle the magnification ring is a touch harder to operate since it is fairly stiff and offers less purchase area for the hand (it is somewhat integrates into the eyepiece housing).  However, there is a cattail adaptor (called “switchview”) available for it from SWFA, which I am considering getting.
Monarch X knobs had rather widely-spaced clicks that were less audible than some others, but very tactile with vault-like solid feel.  It was also the only scope in the group with side-focus parallax adjustment which worked well and exhibited no hysteresis that I could see.
Here is a look at the turrets on Monarch X:

Vortex Viper PST knobs did not feel quite as solid as those on Monarch X and Super Sniper, but they worked well and provided good feedback.  I made some rather concerted efforts to abuse the knobs into doing something funky, but unsuccessfully.  Also, it is notable that the PST was the only scope here with a zero stop feature which, although somewhat rudimentary, is quite functional.  The scope comes a set of half moon washers that can be inserted into the turret to set a stopping point.  Depending on where you want to set your zero, you’ll end up using a different number of washers, largely determined by trial and error.  It takes a little while to set it up properly, but it does work adequately well:
And here is a closer look at the turrets:

Optically, there were some clear differences between the scopes.
In terms of pure image quality, Monarch X was the best one of the bunch.  I suspect the side-focus helped there.  However, I suspect that there is generally a fair bit of sophistication in that optical system.  It does not break any new ground in terms of specs, but is very well optimized.  The overall length of the scope gives a lot of room to properly compensate for various aberrations.  It is also not striving for the widest possible FOV, so the edge effects are well controlled.  Eye relief is reasonably long and quite flexible. Chromatic aberration is minimal as are the the off-axis aberrations and distortion.  The only knock on the optical system is the slight tunneling at the lowest magnification.  However, the tunneling is pretty much gone before you get to 3x, so it is rather inconsequential.  Low light performance is also very respectable.  I started looking at the Monarch X at the same time as I was wrapping up with an article on high end tactical scopes.  Even side by side with the much more expensive riflescopes, Monarch X did not look out of place.  Do not get me wrong, it is not as good as the more expensive scopes like Premier et al, but it acquitted itself admirably nevertheless.  Flare control was sufficiently good, for example, to make it effectively equal in low light to the 44mm US Optics SN-3 I had on hand.

SWFA Super Sniper was close behind the Monarch X in terms of image quality.  It has similarly flexible eyerelief, but the FOV is a lot wider.  In terms of contrast, Super Sniper was as good as the Monarch X, but resolution was a touch lower.  There was also a touch more chromatic aberration, although the various geometric aberrations were well controlled.  The Super Sniper also has a bit of tunnel vision at low magnification, but it disappears at around 3.7x or so.  There is a little more flare in presence of off axis light sources, but that largely disappears with a sunshade or an ARD device.

PFI RR800-1 is a well-made Japanese 3-9×42 scope and it performs very respectably.  However, it can not quite hang with the Super Sniper or the Monarch X in terms of optical performance.  Not the optics on this one are bad, they are just not as good.  PFI does not exhibit any bad traits per se; however, the resolution and contrast are a little worse than the Super Sniper.  There is a touch more flare, although a sunshade helps greatly.  There is a slight hint of tunnel vision at low magnification, but it is effectively negligible.  Eye relief is quite flexible.  I also like the design of the eyepiece: the black ring around the image is very thin. The image circle is almost floating in the air.  Depth of field on the PFI is quite good, similar to the Super Sniper and Monarch X.

As far as image quality goes, Vortex Viper PST was notably worse than the rest of this line-up.  I mentioned earlier that I got a chance to look at two different 2.5-10×44 PST scopes.  When i started testing thei first one, I had to conclude that there was something wrong with it.  I could never quite get the image to be perfectly sharp and there was some measurable parallax at any distance where I tried to put the target. I got a hold of Vortex and requested another scope to look at.  When it got here it turned out to be a bit better in terms of image quality, and I was able to find a parallax free distance (at just beyond 100 yards).  Still, optically the scope did not agree with me.  The image looked quite flat.  There was notable chromatic aberration.  Contrast was low and resolution was nothing to write home about.  The image looked quite bright, but not well resolved at all.  If I were to make guess, i would say that the objective lens system was either not well optimized or too ambitious.  I obviously do not have access to the actual design, but simply looking at the scope, it looks like the objective lens system is quite short in length.  That impression is further supported by rather shallow depth of field that accompanies low f/# optical systems.  General rule of thumb is that low f/# lens systems are notoriously more difficult to optimize especially at a price point.  

Before I move on, I think it is worth my while to talk a little bit about the image quality of the whole PST line-up.  One of the reasons this article took me so long to finish is that I wanted to get my hands onto as many PST scopes as possible in an attempt to see if the 2.5-10×44 is representative of the rest of the line-up.  I also spent a fair amount of time at SHOT looking at every PST scope Vortex had on display.  From an optical standpoint, I think the 2.5-10×44 is the weakest link among the PSTs.  1-4×24 looked pretty reasonable. 4-16×50 did not impress me a whole lot, but it was decent.  6-24×50 actually seemed to be quite good.  In terms of image quality, it had nothing in common with the 2.5-10×44 and is generally the gem of the PST line-up, best I can tell.  Now, this is based on looking at a rather small number of units and I have no idea how much production variation there will be with PSTs.  Since the whole product family is new, only time will tell that.

Here are some final thoughts on each scope.

Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44
As I am sure you figured out by now I liked this scope a lot more than I expected to.  There are two things about it I do not particularly like: price (it was increased a bit for 2011) and the fact that knobs are in MOA while the reticle is based on mils.  I think that is a simple tweak Nikon can implement without too much difficulty.  If not for that, the Monarch X would easily make it onto my list of recommendations.  This is a very solid scope both optically and mechanically.  I think it makes for a good match on mid-range bolt guns and on AR-15s of all sorts.  I did most of my testing on a heavy barrel AR-15 where it looked quite at home:
All controls on the Monarch X were smooth and well-calibrated.  Overall, the scope was very easy to get behind.  It did have some slight tunneling at low magnification, which is a bit unusual on SFP scopes, but I did not find it too disturbing.  Personally, I would like to see the Monarch X line-up expand a little into offering more knob variations and into FFP models.  I suspect that would really make Nikon’s riflescope line-up a little better rounded and more suited for tactical applications.

In the future, perhaps I will try to test the Monarch X side by side with Sightron S3.  Both are high quality japanese scopes with SFP reticles and it would be interesting to see how they stack up.

SWFA Super Sniper 3-9×42
This scope sits on my “go to” rifle, which should probably tell you what I think of this scope.  I’ve had it on a few other rifles before and it has never failed me.  The reticle is a simple Mil-Dot, but I am quite used to it.  I also sighted it in in such a way that I can comfortably use the dots for holdover at 100 yard increments if I want to make a quick shot and know the distance well enough.  Otherwise, the turrets are superb both in feel and repeatability.  Low light performance is better than I would expect at this price point.  Here is a picture of the S.S. on my Tikka M695 chambered for 280Rem (there is a sunshade on the scope, but it more commonly has an ARD on it):
Eye relief on the SS is sufficiently flexible to make it very easy to get behind.  All of the controls are reassuringly stiff, so you have high confidence they are not going to move during transportation.  Eye relief varies a touch with magnification, but not enough to make me readjust my head position.

PFI RR800-1 3-9×42
This scope is a direct competitor to the Super Sniper above, but it espouses a somewhat different philosophy.  That philosophy is all about the reticle.  The scope itself is quite nice and offers good performance; however, the S.S. is a bit better optically, has wider field of view and sturdier feel.  What sets it apart is the reticle.  Here is what it looks like:
According to Pride Fowler, this reticle is designed to provide reasonably accurate holdover marks for any cartridge where the projectile starts down range at about 2550 – 2700fps and has a BC of 0.450 – 0.500.  I tried it with a couple of 223Rem (77gr SMK) and 308Win (175gr SMK)  loads and it worked like a charm within the limitations of each cartridge.  Now, unless you get very lucky, the hashmarks do not coincide EXACTLY with the bullet impact at all ranges, but it get quite close.  Definitely close enough to hit human size targets.  It was a little weird to use a hashmark that is above the center of the crosshair for 100yards, but I got used to it quickly.  The length of the horizontal hashmarks is nicely matched to the wind drift, which proved to be useful as well.  The little hashes on the horizontal line, match different wind velocities.  It took me a few shooting sessions to get used to this reticle.  However, once I got the hang of it, it quickly became apparent that this is a faster way to hit the target than using the knobs on the Super Sniper or Monarch X.  Now, if I wanted to hit the bullseye, knobs were they way to go.  Using PFI’s Rapid Reticle implies that you have some other means of estimating distance, like a rather ubiquitous these days laser rangefinder.  That is not an unreasonable assumption.  In a pinch, some reticle features are mil-spaced and can be used for ranging.

The market is awash with scopes that sport holdover reticles of varying sophistication.  However, most of them are in second focal plane scopes, which means that reticle dimensions change with magnification.  I always thought it was a silly idea and used mil-based FFP reticles in my tactical scopes for holdover with reasonable success (like in the 3-9×42 SS in this comparison).  This is the first occasion when I got to spend any significant trigger time with a purpose-designed holdover reticle in a FFP scope.  From where I stand, this is THE way to execute holdover reticles.  It works.  Plain and simple.  And I do not have to worry which magnification I am on.  All I have to do is figure out the range, get the sight picture I want and squeeze the trigger.

In my opinion, this reticle really only has one weakness: low light visibility on low magnification.  It is not all that bad, but I wish the thick outer bars were thicker.  That would make them easier to pick up at 3x and faster to use.
As far the scope itself goes, as I mentioned earlier, it is a solid piece that is pretty decent for the money.  The reticle makes it truly worth looking at.  It is not a perfect fit for all guns and calibers.  However, on the guns where the reticle matches the cartridge, it is a faster way to go than almost anything I have seen to date, especially with unusual shooting positions when you would rather not mess with the turrets.

Vortex Viper PST 2.5-10×44
Coming into this, I really wanted to like this scope.  I like the feature set and on paper it offers a lot for the money.  In terms of size and features, it is an excellent fit for a precision AR-15:

However, I am basically a “meat-and-potatoes” kinda guy: in any scope I look at, I want the fundamentals to be rock solid before I even look at the features.  To me the fundamentals consist of basic mechanical quality (holding zero, repeatability  and tracking) and basic optically quality.  While mechanically the PST was quite good, optically it left me wanting.  Additionally, I walked away with very mixed feeling about the reticle.  The center lines are very thin and in anything but the best light, they were very hard to see without illumination.  Now, the illumination worked well enough, but I generally tend to lean toward reticles that have better visibility.  Now, I am quite comfortable with ultra-thin reticle on high magnification scopes, but on a moderate magnification model, I would much prefer something thicker.  On the other hand, when the conditions were right, it did make for very respectable ranging and holdover capabilities.  Here is what the reticle looked like:
While in principle it does have those thick bars that help with low light visibility, in practice they are too widely spaced to be useful.
Ultimately, the choice of the reticle is a rather personal decision, since everyone has different priorities.

Parting Thoughts
Out of the four scopes I looked at here, two are now present on my list of recommendations: SWFA SS and PFI RR-800-1. Truth be told, the 3-9×42 SS has been there for a while but the PFI scope is a new addition.
The other two scope did not quite make it there, but for different reasons.  Monarch X is a very solid piece that simply needs a slight feature update.
Viper PST, on the other hand, has more fundamental problems and needs an optical system rework.
Since, most of the testing was done on an AR-15, I used the single piece Aadmounts that I still had on hand after the High End Tactical Article.  I liked these mounts enough to buy three of them for use in future tests.  I end up swapping scopes back and forth quite a bit and these mounts return to zero in the most emphatic way.  There are a lot of good mounts out there, but these are probably the most heavy duty designs I’ve played with.  At this point, I have enough mileage with them to have absolute confidence that when I see something funny in a scope’s behavior, it is VERY unlikely to be a mount problem.

Since I often get asked where the scope I review come from:
  • The 3-9×42 SWFA SS is my personal scope.  It is one of the early units SN 006.  I do plan to get my hands on another model for the follow up to this article, since they have a new reticle now.
  • Nikon Monarch X was provided to me by WebyShops.  They asked me to write an overview of Nikon riflescope line for them, which I did not feel comfortable doing not having looked at the Monarch X (Nikon’s flagship, really) for so long.  Here is a link to the model I reviewed on their website: Nikon Monarch X 2.5-10×44
  •  Lastly, the Vortex Viper PST I looked at was provided by Vortex Optics.  I suspect that they are not very happy with what I wrote, but I have learned over the years that they take both good and bad feedback and learn from it.
 Posted by at 12:34 am

SHOT Show 2011


SHOT Show 2011


Important Note #1: The text needs another editing run, so there will be some further small changes.

Important Note #2: I put a lot of time and effort into putting this together.  PLEASE DO NOT COPY ANY PORTION OF THIS ARTICLE ANYWHERE WITHOUT MY APPROVAL.


Here is my yearly round-up of what I saw at SHOT in January.  This is not necessarily an exhaustive list of every new piece of optic on the show flor, but I HAVE visited every scope maker who was present (except Pentax, who I inexplicably skipped for no apparent reason).  Here are my notes on things that I found interesting from the companies I visited.  The companies are listed in no particular order.



I have been in fairly consistent contact with Terry Moore of Minox USA all through 2010, so I was looking forward to having a nice long chat with him at SHOT.  Although Minox rifle scopes have not been on the market all that long, Minox has a fairly complete model line-up now, ranging from the 1.5-8×32 to 6-30×56 with a variety of reticle including one of my favourites: #4.  I tested a 3-9×40 last year and also have a fair amount of hands-on time with the 4-20x50SF model.  I liked both of them enough to plan a couple more reviews involving Minox in 2011. There were a few new scopes in the Minox booth that I had heard about, but not seen before: 1.5-8×32, 3-9×50, 2-10×50, 3-15x50SF and 6-30x56SF.  As it were, two are of particular interest to me. 

The little 1.5-8×32 is a sweet looking riflescope:


 I like tweener scopes and this one promises to be among the better ones out there.  I am hoping to take a look at a couple of version of this configuration: #4 reticle and versa-plex.  Both reticles looked pretty good, although in general I prefer a #4 with less widely spaced bars.  Another configuration I take quite a bit of interest in is the 3-15x50SF:


 It is a very versatile power range that is suitable for most applications from general hunting to varminting.   The overall design is nicely compact (this is easily one of the lightest scopes with this configuration on the market) and the image looked pretty crisp even at high magnification.  Along with new models, there is also a new reticle: high magnification Minox scopes get a new optional holdover reticle: XR-BDC.

There are several things about all Minox scopes that I like a fair bit.  They all have long (at least four inches) eye relief, and all the ones I have seen had superb centerfield image quality.  Some have that slight turret wobble that I have heard people complain about, so I decided to dig into it a touch more.  Looking at it carefully, the turret-cap can wobble slightly, but the stem itself is rock solid.  On top of that, the adjustments on the scopes I have seen were very repeatable.

There were no particularly new binocular configurations, but most of Minox line-up went through a redesign in the last couple of years, so I took a close look at them.  There are a few that attracted my interest and a couple of them I will likely look at in 2011.  Terry Moore seemed pretty high up on the BL 8×33 BR model.  Perhaps, it is worth my while to compare them to Minox’ own more expensive German-made 8×33 HG.  Maybe I can scrounge up an 8×32 Meopta Meostar while I am at it, and make it a proper across the field comparison of mid-to-high range 8×32 (or thereabouts) binoculars.

Among the larger models, I thought that the mid-range BL BR line offered several interesting pieces.   Generally, BL BR configurations range from the rather compact 8×33 up to a fairly substantial 15×56 model.  All the models with 56mm objectives have single piano hinge bodies.  All of the smaller ones (33mm, 44mm and 52mm objectives) have split bridge bodies.  I liked the very secure rubberized finish and the quality of the focusing knobs.  Glass looked very respectable too, but I can’t make too much out of it without a proper test.  For those who like the handling of split bridge binos, the 8×52 and 10×52 models offer a couple of interesting options, since no one else, to the best of my knowledge, offers split bridge binos with 50mm+ objective lenses.  The only split bridge 50mm binos out there are the very expensive Swarovski ELs (new for this year) and they are not available with magnification less than 10x.



There were no scopes in Kelbly’s booth that I had not seen before, but then again I was fortunate enough to test one of the very first FFP March scopes in the country.  If you have seen my review, you know how impressed I was, and I have seen nothing to change that opinion so far.  These are the “no compromise” scopes.  I liked them when I first saw them last year.  Now that I have had a chance to spend some time with a couple of them, I am even more impressed.  The latest March scope I tested had a preliminary reticle design that is not going to make it into production scopes.  I fully intend to review a 3-24×42 FFP March with the final reticle design when it makes it to these shores in late spring.  The way March/Kelbly’s  booth was set up this year, you could point the scopes (mounted on a tripod) toward a target taped to a wall a bit more than 60yards away.  While the inside of a convention center is not optimal for judging optical quality, you can’t help but be impressed by the resolution of these scopes when you can clearly read small print 60+ yards away with the lowest magnification model of the bunch.  Both Kelbly’s and Deon Optical (solo distributor and manufacturer of March scopes, respectively) seem to be paying close attention to market feedback, so I expect them to cautiously and carefully add new models to their product line.  I think they have plenty of configurations to serve the target shooting market at this point, so I hope that the range of FFP tactical models will get some new models.  I made an unsolicited suggestion that they make an FFP version of their 5-32×52 scope.  However, I suppose they will first want to see how the 3-24×42 FFP scope does in the marketplace.  Here is a picture of the 3-24x42FFP scope from my earlier testing:




There were a few things in IOR booth that I found interesting.

There is a new FFP 4-16×50 scope with a 30mm maintube.  It is fairly long and has the same new turret box I have seen on 35mm scope containing large knobs and digital illumination control.  This is a fairly conventional configuration that looked to be well-executed and a nice addition to IOR’s 30mm scope line.  It is sort of a big brother to the 2.5-10x42FFP that has been around for quite some time.

The other new offerings are somewhat more unusual.  First off, there are the two scopes with 35mm maintubes and  very high erector ratios: 1-10×26 and 1.25-10×26.  1-10×26 is a design with two reticles: ranging reticle in the FFP and illuminated dot in the SFP. Both are illuminated with independent controls.  The scope looks pretty good and could do very well if all the kinks inherent to any new design are properly worked out.  We’ll see what production scopes look like.  The 1.25-10×26 is a similar looking scope, except it has a conventional reticle in the SFP and low covered knobs.  Interestingly enough, these knobs are still quite large in diameter and have very nice feel:


 Off hand, they were easily among the better low profile knobs I have seen lately.  Both scopes looked to have pretty clean image across the magnification range, but it is of course hard to tell for sure inside a small ballroom where IOR booth was located.  The 1-10×26 model had a little tunnel vision at 1x, but it was properly gone by the time you get to 1.4x or thereabouts.

Here are the 1-10×24 and 1.25-10×26 side by side (with Scott Cornelia of IOR Valdada posing as well):


The one other new scope IOR has is, in some ways, the most unusual of the bunch.  It is a 12-52×56 design with a 40mm maintube, that they modestly call “Terminator”.  IOR’s US distributor is based in Colorado, so I suppose he does not understand how someone in California might find it not funny at all (then again the Governator’s replacement in Sacramento promises to be even worse by an order of magnitude or two).  IOR guys tell me that this design is aimed at the ultra-long range shooters, the guys who field 50BMGs and 408CheyTacs and shoot more than a mile out.  The reticle is in the SFP and is a MOA-based reticle.  I do not recall seeing it before, so I surmise it is a new design.  The knobs are a variety of the latest IOR large knobs with zero stop.  The collar on those knobs can be swapped out for a unit with BDC markings for a few calibers, 338Lapua being the wimpiest of the bunch.  Most unusual feature of this scope is the means of image focus/parallax compensation.  It is a collar on the maintube, right behind the objective lens.  When I asked why, they told me that this configuration allows them to put in a heavier spring which makes the design hold up better to the pounding of the heaviest kickers.  The scope is pretty big (to put it mildly), so there is still plenty of tube space for attaching the rings.  All in all, it is an interesting design and I am very curious to see how it fares in the market place.  I suspect it is going to be a low volume/high margin product like most niche offerings out there.  However, it also does not have too much competition.  There are simply not all that many high end/ high magnification scopes out there, with a few March models and S&B Field Target scope coming to mind.  However, the catch is that for ultra long range shooting, you also need a fair amount of adjustment range and the IOR with a 40mm tube and 100MOA of adjustment might have an edge over the competition there.




I did not see anything new there.  A bunch of red dot sights with one now coming in some sort of an LE package.  Last year I predicted that full size red dot sights will slowly move toward obsolescence and I maintain that point of view.  Aimpoint Micro red dot sights will continue to be popular, but as time goes on, I suspect that the rest of their current products will lose relevance.  I hope Aimpoint is working on diversifying their product line in some way.  They make good sights, and I am sure the military buys a lot of them, but that will not last forever.  Aimpoint red dots have ridiculously long battery life which makes them really stand out.  I hope they can take that expertise and port it into other weapon sight types over time.



Pretty much all of my comments regarding Aimpoint apply to Eotech.  I like the products, but widespread proliferation of high quality low range variable scope is not a good thing for Eotech, unless they diversify.  Eotech does not have Aimpoint’s battery life, but their claim to fame is the holographic reticle that offers more flexibility than a simple dot.  I have heard some reverberating rumors that they have some new tricks up their sleeve, but nothing concrete.  Time will tell.  In the meantime, and EOtech holographic sight combined with a magnifire is a fairly versatile option for close to mid range engagement.  Personally, I sill think that a low range variable scope or switch magnificatoin unit like Elcan Specter DR is a better integrated way to go.



Trijicon did not have a whole lot of new stuff for the show this year.  There were no new riflescopes, although there are rumors of new Accupoints in the works.  However, I have not been able to get any concrete information on that, and, truthfully, these are the same rumors that have been going around for a while.  I would love to see ACOG’s holdover reticle in an Accupoint, but I have no idea whether that is happening any time soon, if ever.

The diminutive RMR red dot sight gets a new version that allows you to adjust dot intensity.  The option is going to carry a $50 price premium over the regular battery powered RMR.  I really like the implementation: Trijicon added two big buttons, one on each side of the window housing.  It is very intuitive to use and adds minimal extra size to the diminutive RMR, if any.  Here is an image from Trijicon site where you can see the button on the side of the screen housing. The other side has the “-” button.


Trijicon handguns sights get a new version called “HD” (there are so many “HD” labels in the marketplace now, that they are losing any semblance of significance or meaning) .  These are the same tritium sights with photo-luminescent paint on the perimeter of the dots.  When charged with flashlight or sunlight, that improves visibility.

There is a new bow sight that has a sight picture kinda like the post reticle on Accupoint scopes, but I am not a bow guy, so I’ll let someone more competent discuss that.

However, I am not a shotgun guy either, but I liked Trijicon’s new clip-on shotgun sight.  You can attach it to a rib on top of the shotgun barrel and tighten it via a couple of screws.  The sight is pretty long (looked to be about two inches) and contains a very bright fiber optic dot.  I thought it was very visible and easy to use.



Swarovski extended their EL binocular line with a couple of models that have 50mm objective lenses: 10×50 and 12×50.  As you would expect from Swarovski EL, the image looks superb.  Interestingly enough, I have never been quite comfortable with ELs from a handling standpoint.  They never felt right in my hands for whatever reason.  These new 50mm ones have slightly larger barrels that fit me much better.  I wish they had a lower magnification version, but that is a personal preference.  Still, from an optical perspective, EL binoculars have always been superb and I am glad to see the product line expand.  It is also worth noting that the 10×50 version actually has a slightly wider field of view than the 10×42.  That is very unusual since large objective lenses usually make it harder to achieve wide field of view.

As far as rifle scopes go, the news largely pertain to the reticles.  Most interesting to me was the BRT reticle in the 1-6×24 Z6.  It is a holdover reticle expressly aimed at usage on black rifles and is available in both illuminated and non-illuminated scopes.  That is a bit of a departure for Swarovski and I am happy to see them paying some attention to the tactical market.  This Z6 is easily one of the best SFP low range variable scopes out there with highly flexible reticle illumination system that allows two presets: low light and bright light.  For a limited time, the 1-6×24 model with BRT reticle will be equipped with a “cat tail” attachment for rapid manipulation of the magnification dial:


BRH reticle in higher magnification models is also new and is simply a thicker version of their holdover reticle (BRX).  That is another piece of news I am happy to see since BRX is a touch too thin for my tastes.

While I am generally not a major fan of holdover reticles in the Second Focal Plane, Swarovski did a pretty good job with these in order to make them suitable both for ranging and holdover.  When the scopes are at the highest magnification, the spacing between bars and dots is mil-based.  For BRH and BRT, it is 0.5mil between each adjacent bar and dot.  For the BRT, it is 1mil from bar to adjacent dot.  I am very used to mil-based reticles, so this makes it an easy transition for me.

Swarovski spotting scopes, largely, soldier on unchanged.


Premier Reticles

Premier is another manufacturer that I have been in touch with a fair bit lately since I tested two of their scopes in 2010.  Premier makes comparatively few designs, but I like the scopes they make.  They are targeted at very specific market segments and I find the offerings well thought out.  Up till now, Premier has been making two models: 3-15×50 and 5-25×56, both built on beefy 34mm tubes and available with a variety of reticle and turret configurations.  Last year, Premier announced that they will be making another fairly specialized model: 1.1-8×24 (technically, it is a 1.06x, but they round it up to 1.1).  The scope is quite unique, since it automatically switches between the illumination of the ranging FFP reticle at magnifications above 3x and a super bright SFP dot below 3x.  As you rotate the magnification ring, the scope automatically switches between these two modes.  Premier planned to put this scope into production late in 2010, but found a potential manufacturing problem and moved the release date a bit.  I am sure they are anxious to get it to the market, but personally, I am happy to see them take the time and do it right.  This promises to be one of the ultimate AR-15 scopes on the market with enough flexibility to work for anything from CQB out to mid-long range.  8x is plenty of magnification for engaging man-size targets out to 700 yards or thereabouts, so I can imagine a variety of suitable applications for this scope.  Since Leupold and S&B also have 1-8x scopes on the market and IOR has a 1-10x, this is likely to be an interesting market segment to watch.

Also new for this year will be a pair of 3-15×50 scopes built on 30mm tubes (a first for Premier).  One is a hunting version with low covered knobs, and another is the “Light Tactical”: same scope as the Hunter, but with exposed adjustable turrets.  Technically, these scopes are neither small, nor particularly light, but they are notably trimmer than the currently produced 34mm 3-15×50.  In terms of optical quality I expect the 30mm scopes to be very similar to the 34mm ones I tested, i.e. excellent.  To the best of my knowledge, the optical redesign required to fit them into 30mm tubes was minimal.  Naturally, these scopes have less adjustment range available than the 34mm tubes, but at 18 mrad, they are adequate for most needs.  I am not exactly sure how the Light Tactical is going to be priced, but I am certain it will be appreciably less expensive than the 34mm scopes.  The Hunter is expected to retail for around $1650 non-illuminated, and around $1850 or so with reticle illumination.  Most interestingly, for another $300 or thereabouts, you can have a custom holdover reticle matched to your rifle and cartridge.  While not, strictly speaking, cheap, I think this scope offers an interesting value proposition without competing with Premier’s existing products in any significant manner.

Here is the 30mm Hunter scope next to the 34mm Tactical (the 1.1-8×24 is in the background):


One unusual feature I saw on a Premier scope that they had in the booth (which may be available as an option), is a creative way to work around one of Leupold’s patents.  Apparently, Leupold owns a patent on any turret design that has a spring-loaded lock on the turrets, i.e. if a turret is normally locked and you need to press a button or squeeze the turret in order to adjust it, you have to pay Leupold royalties.  Premier, came up with a way to put a knurled ring on the turret that rotates freely, but does not adjust the reticle position.  However, if you pull it up first, and THEN rotate the knob, you will adjust the POA.  I am not sure how useful it is, since I can’t imagine regular Premier turrets knocked out of adjustment accidentally; however, it is an interesting design which may be available as an option if you are so inclined.

As far as availability goes, I expect to see the Hunter scope available in late spring or early summer, with Light Tactical following in its footsteps a few weeks later.  The V8 1.1-8×24 scope should be in production by early fall or thereabouts.

I’ll see if I can get my hands on any of these as they become available.



This was one of the more interesting booths to visit, since Steiner decided to enter the tactical riflescope market with a whole line-up of rather well-conceived designs.  I spent quite a while there talking to Sky Leighton of Steiner/Burris and looking at the scopes (prototypes for now).

As a matter of background, both Steiner and Burris are owned by Beretta and these new scopes seem to be a joint effort of sorts: design and component fabrication are done by Steiner in Germany, while the assembly is done by Burris in the US.  Externally, the scopes look like they have some Burris aesthetic heritage (long mounting length and slightly forward turret box position), although I think these are brand new designs.  The available configurations will be the following: 1-4×24, 3-12×50, 3-12×56, 4-16×50 and 5-25×56. All but the 5-25×56 were displayed in the booth:


The 1-4×24 is built on a 30mm tube (and is the only SFP scope in this bunch), while the rest of the models have 34mm tubes.  They should all be available some time during the first half of 2011 last I heard.  All but the 5-25×56 were in the Steiner booth in prototype form.  Optically, the scopes looked all right, although I would rather not judge them based on early prototypes viewed inside a convention center.  I’ll try to get my hands on production units for a more thorough evaluation.  In the meantime, it looks like Steiner certainly spent some time investigating what the competition offers.  I liked several things about the scopes that were on display.  Windage and elevation turrets looked to be inspired by Premier, for example (which happen to be my favourite adjustment knobs on the market).  The configurations are not particularly ambitious from an optical standpoint, so I have high hopes that the execution will be quite good.  Pricewise, these scopes are slated to come in somewhere a touch above Nightforce and a bit below Premier (S&B and Hensoldt are more expensive yet).  Eye relief looked to be quite flexible, although that can be a double edged sword: you can accidentally position your eye in such a way that you see both the image through the scope and some of the insides of the tube, especially at low magnification.  Still, that is better than a scope with critical eye relief.  The reticles are proprietary to Steiner, but they remind me of MilDot Gen II.  All of the scopes have FFP reticles except for the 1-4×24 model.

The 1-4×24 comes with a different reticle design, which is more appropriate for the low range variable, and is equipped with ultra bright daylight visible illumination.  Honestly, with the influx of 1-6x and 1-8x scopes, I am not sure whether a 1-4×24 for ~$2k is a good idea.  On the other hand, if the illumination is executed well enough and the rest of the scope is well put together, there may be a niche for it.

Personally, I am more interested in the higher magnification models.  5-25×56 seems to be aimed straight at S&B and Premier who offer identical configuration.  3-12×56 goes up against the similarly configured Hensoldt and offers an interesting low light option for less money.  4-16×50 looks to be aimed at S&B.  These are lofty targets for Steiner, but then again, this company has been around for a while and is certainly not new to high end optics.  On top of that, they have a long history of supplying binoculars for the military, so I suspect bidding for some military contracts may have gotten a bit more interesting with Steiner in the picture.  The way MSRP pricing usually works, it looks like Steiner scopes are going to occupy a narrow, but presently empty price range.  With Beretta’s deep pockets behind them, they could certainly do well in a pricing competition.

As a side note, Steiner/Burris booth always seemed to be full of people.  Some of them were even looking at scopes:



or at least I think there were scopes there…



As far as Steiner binoculars go, there some slight changes for 2011 in the Predator Extreme line-up.  Optics have been tweaked slightly and the coatings are new.  They are still designed to suppress green a little and make brown stand out, but the transmission curves are a little different.

While I am not a big fan of Predator binos (I prefer more natural color rendition), I do like the Nighthunter XP series and I am glad to see the line continued with several roof prism binoculars: 8×42, 10×42, 8×56 and 10×56.



Burris did not have anything majorly new for this year aside from the Fullfield E1 riflescopes.   They are not a replacement for Fullfield II, but rather an additional scope line slated right above it.  Fullfield II scopes continue unchanged, except they drop in price a little.  Fullfield E1 scopes come with a redesigned magnification ring (no longer does the whole eyepiece rotate) and new holdover reticle that does away with the thick bars on the outside of the reticle.  While overall E1 scopes looked pretty good, I am decidedly unimpressed with the reticle arrangement.  The reticle itself is an evolution of Burris’ Ballistic Plex, but this version looks suspended in the center of the image and is small and thin enough to likely be effectively useless under challenging light conditions.  Aside from that E1 scopes have somewhat upgraded hydrophobic coatings and tweaked knobs.

The rest of Burris’ scope lines did not see much action this year, but I have a suspicion that we will see an expansion of SixX product line moving forward.  Personally, I like that news since the existing SixX scopes look to be fairly well put together and come with #4 reticles which I like.



Corbett Leatherwood contacted me before the show in order to make sure I come over their booth.   Honestly, I did not know exactly what to make out of it.  I reviewed a couple of Leatherwood scopes in the past and wasn’t especially impressed.  Back when I was looking at those scopes I had forwarded my impressions to Leatherwood and had very little communication with the company since then.  Hence, when they got a hold of me this time around I was mildly curious.  Some companies look at criticism as a chance to improve, while others look at it as a reason to order a hit on someone.  I have encountered both and, historically, I am not very good in predicting how a particular company is going to react beforehand.  It turned out that Leatherwood looks at criticism as a way to get better.  They wanted me to come over in order to show me one of their prototype scopes and in order to talk a little bit about how they are addressing some of my original complaints.  Well, I walked away quite impressed with their efforts and with their apparent drive to get better.

As far as new stuff goes, there aren’t a whole lot of new scopes, but there were quite a few small improvements.  I spent some time looking at the 1-4×24 CMR scope.  Technically, it was introduced last year, but I never spent much time with it aside from taking a quick glance at it.  That turned out to be a mistake.  I saw a fair bit of very positive feedback on this scope in 2010 and I paid more attention to it now.  It looks exceedingly well executed and has an interesting reticle to boot.  The knobs are the best I have seen from Leatherwood yet both in terms of features and execution.  Clicks are well defined and properly weighted.  ZeroStop is easy to set.  Overall turret size allows for ease of adjustment while being inconspicuous enough to be unlikely to get knocked out of adjustment.   I really liked the reticle and how it is executed.  To Leatherwood’s credit, they develop their own reticle designs and seem to put lot of thought into them.  The reticle in the CMR 1-4×24 scope is called AVS-CMR-R1 and it offers a very nice combination of quick target acquisition and holdover for mid-range shooting.  The scope is clearly aimed at AR-15 market, since the reticle is calibrated for holdover with 5.56×45.  However, if you spend a little time with a ballistic calculator, you will see that it works just fine with a number of other calibers within the distances where a scope that tops out at 4x might be used.  Reticle illumination is green in color and is unusually well calibrated for this price range.  There are 11 brightness settings with the lowest one being suitable for low light shooting, while the brightest is easily daylight visible.  All in all, I am not sure I need all 11 brightness levels (I suspect that bottom two and top two along with one in the middle are perfectly sufficient for anything I am likely to do), but it does not hurt either.   Bottom line, is that I liked the scope and I’ll do a review on it in the spring of this year some time.

The other new scope they had was an illuminated 4-16×50.  It was a fairly early prototype, so I cannot make too many conclusions, but it was apparent that they are trying to address a lot of the concerns I had about the earlier scopes.  I will be very curious to see how the production models are going to perform.  It has another new reticle (AVS-ILR-1), and I thought it was very well thought out.  Illumination will be green just like with the CMR.  I hope to see this scope later in the spring.  I am itching to go and really exercise that reticle.  It should work well, but I won’t know for sure until I spend some time with it.  The reticle is in the second focal plane, but will offer some interesting ranging and holdover options.  The mechanical controls are similar looking to Leatherwood’s Uni-Dial scopes, but the execution looks to have undergone a bit of a redesign.  I expect them to be quite improved.

When all is said and done, my most important takeaway from this year’s visit with Leatherwood is that they are paying attention to market feedback and taking it into account as they continuously evolve their products.  I’ll definitely keep an eye on what else they come up with.  If CMR scope is an indication of things to come, I think Leatherwood will do well.



There are all sorts of new things happening with Vortex.  Some I like, some I am not sure of and some I am absolutely ecstatic about.  I’ll go over them in no particular order.

I reviewed one of Vortex’ Razor HD 5-20×50 scopes last year and liked it a lot.  For about $2k, I thought that was the best allround long range tactical scope I had seen to date.  One criticism that came up was that the eye relief was not particularly flexible on it, although I did not run into any problems.  Apparently, for 2011, Vortex redesigned the eyepiece for much greater ease of eye positioning.  I spent some time with two 5-20×50 Razors that had old and new eyepieces side by side and I think they have a good thing going with the new eyepiece.  As a matter of fact, one of Vortex’ competitors who I talked to later in the show, noted that they looked at the new eyepiece and thought it was exceptionally well-executed.  Most interestingly, Vortex is offering is as a no-cost upgrade to existing owner of Razor HD.  Once they have a reasonable number of new eyepieces available, they will be able to swap them out for existing owners.  There is also a new reticle called EBR2B.  It is an evolution of EBR2 with numbers along the vertical line and thicker “Christmas tree” dots.  It looked pretty nice, but I will reserve judgment until I get to spend some time with it (hopefully later in the year as a part of High End Tactical: Part 3 comparison).

Viper PST scopes that were announced last year are finally going into production now.  There are no new models there, so I will not spend much time on them.  We’ll see how they hold up.

There is a new line of scopes called Viper HS, that are essentially more hunting oriented versions of PST with some unique configurations added in.  These are all 30mm tube scopes with SFP reticle and, in some cases, I actually prefer them to the PST versions.  For example, the 1-4×24 Viper HS has the same TMCQ reticle as Viper PST, but it has covered knobs.  I do not understand the need for exposed tactical knobs on 1-4×24 scopes, so the slightly cheaper HS version makes more sense to me than the equivalent PST:


HS scopes have a new BDC reticle, that is a little thinner than the original one and use hashmarks instead of dots.  One model that is unique to the HS line is 4-16×44, which is a nice option for a walking varminter where you are looking to mount a scope lower than the 4-16×50 model allow.  Both 4-16×44 and 4-16×50 HS scopes are available with “LR” configuration.  The LR option has an exposed elevation knob with 0.5MOA clicks, while keeping the windage knob covered.  The elevation knob supports the same basic ZeroStop setup as the PST knobs.  I like the overall configuration since I tend to dial in elevation, but hold for wind.  Therefore, a covered windage knob suits me just fine.

Here is Paul Neess posing with the 4-16x44LR:


And here is a closer look at the turret arrangement of HS LR scopes:

HS LR knobs


There are no new red dot sights (and, honestly, I am not a major fan of Vortex’ existing red dots: I just do not like the pushbutton controls on those), but there is a new magnifier mount that allows you to swing the magnifier out of the way very quickly.  I liked the design and if you use a magnifier on an AR15, it is worth a look.  Here it is set up behind the red dot sight:


and here is a snapshot with the magnifier swung out of the way:



Solo 8×36 monocular was redesigned and now has a reticle you can focus.  It is nice little piece and I am thinking of getting one to keep in my car.  It is very functional and inexpensive.

Vortex binoculars went through a significant re-design this year.  Razor becomes Razor HD and moves upmarket.  With the original Razor binoculars, I really liked the 8.5×50 model and I am glad to see an HD version of it.  Aside, from optical improvements, the eyecups on Razor HD are new.  They do not offer the same number of click stops as the original eyecups did, but they seem sturdier.  Whether the price increase is a good idea or not remains to be seen.  Once a binocualar is priced above $1k, it ends up facing a different type of competitive pressure.  We’ll see how Razor HD does there.  Personally, I kinda hoped that Vortex would extend the Kaibab HD line-up a little bit, but there are no changes there.  I suggested that the do not have any 7×42 binoculars in their line-up and that it would be a good fit for Kaibab line, but I may be alone here with my affection for top notch 7x binos.

Some Viper models become Viper HD.  The configurations available will be the following: 6×32, 8×32, 8×42, 10×42, 10×50 and 15×50.  Personally, I am very happy to see Vortex keep the 6×32 model in the Viper HD line-up.  I have the original version of it, and it is easily my favourite binocular (and couple with the doubler, a kick-ass 12×32 monocular).  They looked pretty good at SHOT and I think I will try to get my hands on one of the new Viper HD binos for a closer look.  Perhaps, I can add the 8×32 model to a comparison I am planning.

Talon HD line is also new and is a replacement for Fury binoculars.  I thought that Furys were pretty good for the money, so it will be interesting to see how Talons stack up.  The rest of the Vortex binoculars soldiers on largely unchanged.

There are some changes with spotters as well.  Top of the line Razor HD gets a straight eyepiece model, but no new configurations.

Skyline ED spotter is gone the way of the dodo and is replaced by Chinese manufactured Viper and Viper HD spotters.  Both are available in 15-45×65 and 20-60×80 models.  I did not have particularly good luck with Skyline spotters, so I look forward to Viper HD.  I hope it is a more consistent performer.  It looked very decent during the show, but there is really not enough space there to stretch a spotter’s legs, so to speak.  One interesting thing is how the eyepiece on this spotter is marked.  Depending on the focal length of the spotter body, the same eyepiece makes for different magnification.  This particular eyepiece is 15-45x on a 65mm body and 20-60x on a 85mm body and is marked that way.  As it were, the same eyepiece is also marked with a magnification range for use on a 50mm body.  With that in mind, I think it is safe to say that there will be at least one additional configuration in the Viper/Viper HD line.



Most of the interesting things about Sightron this year pertain to their SIII line.  Every existing configuration gets new versions, so to speak.  There is a new MOA reticle available with and without an illuminated dot that is available in every S3 configuration.  The reticle has a floating ¼ MOA aiming dot in the center and hashmarks at 2 MOA increments.  Technically, there are two MOA-based reticles:

  • MOA-2 is used in the all models except for the 3.5-10×44 and provides for 20MOA (i.e. 10 hashmarks) of holdover.  It is calibrated at the highest power in all scopes except for the 10-50×60, where the reticle is calibrated to have 2MOA hashmarks at 24x and 1MOA hashmarks at 48x.
  • MOA-3 is used in the 3.5-10×44 model and it has 30MOA of holdover (i.e. 15 hashmarks)

The digitally-controlled illumination (only available with MOA-based reticle for now) gets very faint, so I expect it to work well in low light.  The control module sits on the eyepiece and has four buttons that control the illumination color (red or green) and intensity:

sightron illum

SIII scopes with Mil-Dot reticle are now matched with mil-based knobs.  The reticle is calibrated at highest magnification in 3.5-10×44 and 6-24×50 models, while in 8-32×56 and 10-50×60 the Mil-Dot reticle is calibrated at 24x.  10-50×60 scope gets knobs with 0.05mrad clicks (2.5mrad per turn), while lower magnifications have knobs with 0.1mrad clicks (5mrad per turn).  For target shooters, the 8-32×56 model with 1/8MOA target dot reticle now gets 1/8MOA clicks, a first for SIII scopes (other MOA-based S3 scopes have ¼ MOA knobs).  Perhaps, most importantly, all SIII turrets now have vastly improved feel.  The adjustments are not nearly as light as they were before, which was the primary complaint with Sightron SIII scopes to date.  If you have discarded one of these scopes because the turrets were too easy to turn, you should revisit them now.  Here is a snapshot of the new exposed metric knob on the 10-50×60 scope:

metric knobs


Somewhat unexpectedly, there was a new scope at the booth: 1-7×24 with #4 reticle and illuminated dot.  It is a true 1x and it makes for a very versatile scope suitable both for DGR use and for black guns.   There were two of these at the booth and I spent a fair amount of time with both.  Image quality looked quite good across the magnification range.  I expect production models to show up some time before summer and I will try to get my hands on one for a thorough test.  


I suspect that we will see other SIII scopes based on the 7x erector system in the not so distant future, but I am not sure on what the exact configurations will be.




Meopta is a major player in the sport optics world behind the scenes.  They are the largest OEM optics manufacturer in Europe.  However, they are fairly low key with their own brand.  Still, I always liked their image quality and they have a few models that I find myself recommending with reasonable regularity.

So far there are two product lines: MeoStar and MeoPro (a little less expensive).  There are scopes and binoculars in both product lines.  I have a fair amount of mileage with MeoStar scopes and binoculars.  I have also tested one of the MeoPro scopes last year and liked it.

There are no new binoculars for this year, but it has been a while since I tested one of these, so I am likely to look at the 8×32 MeoStar some time reasonably soon.

For 2011, the shorter version of 1-4×22 MeoStar riflescope is in full production.  Aside from a short body, it also gets a different reticle and knobs.  It also retains the ultra bright reticle illumination that is visible even in bright sunlight.  One of the chief complaints about Meostar scope in the past has been eyerelief that was a bit finicky and short.  Playing around with this new scope, I thought that they tweaked something in the eyepiece to make eye position more forgiving.  The reticle has an aiming dot a holdover chevrons for shooting at mid-range.  I like the chevrons since they combine both precision and visibility (and I spent a lot of time with chevron reticles, so I am comfortable with them).  The knobs on this model also look to be updated and have an interesting design that is low profile, but easy to adjust:

Another new scope Meopta had was actually not displayed, but they let me take a look at it.  It is also a part of the MeoStar lineup.  This one is a 1.5-6×42 with #4 reticle and illuminated dot.  The illumination is calibrated to have three low settings for night hunting and four bright settings should you need to use illumination in bright light.  This scope also has more forgiving eyerelief than earlier Meopta scopes, so I surmise it has an improved eyepiece.  This scope, like the rest of the MeoStar line should retail for less than $1K and makes for an excellent low light hunting scope.  Pig hunters should really take note of this one.  Image quality looked superb with nice contrast and resolution (best I can tell inside the convention center).  I am not sure when it is going to go into full production (and I will post the dates as soon as I have any concrete data), but I will make sure to test one when it does.  I like the configuration and this model promises to be the only high quality scope of this type that retails for less than a grand.

meopta 1.5-6xmeopta1-4x


While talking about scopes with Meopta guys, another interesting tidbit came out.  I can not go into a whole lot of detail on this yet, but it looks like Meopta is going to enter the tactical precision market with a new model or two some time in the coming year.  Considering their expertise in making high quality scopes, this could really liven things up for some of their competitors.  I’ll keep track on how that progresses and post an update as soon as Meopta is ready to make anything public.


Horus Vision

Horus has a new high magnification scope that is made for them by Bushnell (i.e. LOW).  There were a couple of prototypes of the beefy looking 3.5-21×50 model built on a 34mm tube and equipped with Horus reticle in the front focal plane.  It looked pretty decent, especially considering the fact that it is supposed to retail for $1200 or so.  The knobs are of the pop-up variety, where you pull them away from the turret box in order to make an adjustment.  Then you push them down to lock.  They had pretty decent feel and the large diameter made adjustments easy.  Like many FFP designs, this scope had a little tunnel vision at low magnification, but it was pretty much gone by the time you get to 4.3x or so.  The scope is supposed to go into production some time in the middle of 2011.  There may also be a Bushnell version with non-Horus reticle, but do not quote me on it, I could be wrong.  All in all, I was happy to see this model.  Long range tactical world seems to be fairly “top heavy” with a lot of competition in the $1800 and up price range; hence, I am happy to see some new entries that slot beneath the really expensive stuff.

Here is a snapshot of the non-illuminated prorotype that Horus has (there was an illuminated one that I saw elsewhere on the show floor):



I also took a quick look at the Horus 1.5-8×24 Blackbird with H58 reticle.  I thought it was a pretty nice piece, with clever illumination.  I recently tested a Leupold scope with a Horus reticle and concluded that while I like this reticle at high magnification (it takes a little getting used to, but it does work), it is very hard to see in low light, especially if you dial down on magnification.  With the Blackbird, in low light, the reticle is likely to be less than ideal too, but the scope has an illumination system that lights up the crosshair and several holdover dots on the vertical stadia line.  I think that makes the Horus system a lot more versatile.  I will go so far as to say that as much as I like the concept overall, I would not buy a scope with a Horus reticle that does not have illumination.



No real news for Leica this year.  I think they are still trying to capture some market share with their riflescopes and to that extend they will have some custom dials for their 3.5-14×42 scopes made by G7.  Even aside from collaboration with G7, I liked the adjustable elevation dial available on some Leica models.  It has a well-executed ZeroStop which is a nice touch.  I can’t help but think that with a mil-based reticle of some sort for ranging (perhaps in the FFP), the existing Leica scope could make terrific options for light weight tactical applications.  In other words, I hope the line expands.



Zeiss Sport Optics

The only new product they mentioned is a compact Japan-made (I think) Dialyt 18-45×65 roof prism spotter.  It is very light weight and is supposed to retail for $1300 or thereabouts.  I liked how light and compact it is and I suspect it will make a good option for mountain hunters.  Somewhere in the literature it is mentioned that the objective for it is an Achromat which, I think, is a somewhat less complicated construction than is typical for Zeiss’ higher-end spotters.  We’ll see how it does in the market place.  As is, this is one of the few spotters out there that is somewhat usable handheld with minimal support.  That is certainly something to consider.  The design on the Dialyt is done in Germany, as is the lens manufacturing.  The assembly, however, is done in Japan.


Zeiss riflescopes and binoculars seem to soldier on largely unchanged for 2011.  That is not necessarily a bad thing since they have a rather complete line-up, but I was secretly hoping for a low magnification Conquest of some sort for US market (or some version of Duralyt scope available in the rest of the world).  Maybe next year.

That having been said, Zeiss has easily one of the most complete product lines in the sport optics business.  The only feature that the competition has that Zeiss does not is the availability of erector ratios higher than 4x.  I am sure Zeiss is working on that as well, but it is probably not quite ready for prime time.


Zeiss Optronics (Hensoldt)

No major news there either.  I have it on good authority, the Hensodlt has a kick-ass new scope up their sleeve, but they are not talking about it yet.  We’ll just have to wait.  In the meantime, they have stable of exceptionally nice (and expensive) scopes.  One kinda new thing I saw their was the humongous 6-24×72 SAM scope with a FFP reticle and MTC knobs patented from US Optics.  I seem to recall only seeing a SFP SAM scope last year, so perhaps it is fairly new.  As a reminder, SAM is a fully fledged ballistic computer built into the integrated scope mount of a 6-24×72.  If you have about $12k to spend on a scope, it will give you just about everything other than tying your shoelaces for you.  On a more serious note, it is a very well integrated package aimed at maximizing your first shot hit probability.  However, the price tag is not for the faint of heart.

Here is a snapshot of the knobs:



This year, I was very impressed with how the people in Leupold’s main booth handled themselves.  I talked to several reps there who knew a fair bit about the product lines they were responsible for.  If I asked a question they did not an answer to, they quickly found someone who did.  Overall, I thought that the booth was very professionally managed.  Leupold’s tactical booth was a different story, but more on that later.  For now, I’ll talk a little about hunting optics.

There are two new riflescope lines: VX-R and VX-6.  I liked both of them.  A lot.  I have been a fairly consistent critic of Leupold for some time, but I think that these two product lines are very well thought out and, at first glance at least, are also well executed.

VX-R scopes have an innovative illuminated dot in addition to rather visible reticles (with #4 being my pick).  Configurations are similar to VX-2, but optical quality looks to be quite a bit better.  It is probably along the lines of VX-3 which is quite good for the price range (VX-R scopes retail in the $400 to $650 range).  All VX-R scopes have 30mm tubes, fast-focus eyepiece and clever illuminated reticles that are usable both during the day and during the night.   They also have motion sensors in them, so that if you forget to turn the illumination off, the battery does not get drained: when the scope is not moving there is no illumination.  The configurations are 1.25-4×20, 2-7×33, 3-9×40, 3-9×50, 4-12×40 and 4-12×50.  I am especially happy to see the 2-7×33 configuration persevere (I like tweener designs).

VX-6 scopes replace the discontinued VX-7 as the highest end hunting scope line Leupold makes.  As the name suggests, these are scope with 6x erector ratios and they come, for now, in two configurations: 1-6×24 and 2-12×42, both built on 30mm maintubes with fast focus eyepieces.  1-6×24 is available with duplex and #4 non-illuminated reticles, while the 2-12×42 comes either with duplex or B&C.  These scopes will retail for a touch under $1000, I think.  Glass looked pretty good and all mechanical controls seemed to be well sorted out.  They kept the weight under control nicely and I expect these to do well in the market place.  Every time Leupold has tried to market a high end hunting scope, it ended up crossing into $1k+ price range and not doing too well.  I really hope that VX-6 will do better.  Here is the rather trim-looking 1-6×24 VX-6:

The other riflescope lines Leupold markets continue unchanged.

Binoculars did not change too much for 2011.  Most get new rubber armor and some slight optical redesign.   New for this year is the phrase “Synergy Built”.  It is mostly just a marketing thing, but there is some meaning behind it.  Apparently in the past, a lot of Leupold binoculars were both designed and manufactured by third party suppliers.  “Synergy Tech” models are specced out and designed by Leupold in Oregon, while the manufacturing is done by their contractors elsewhere.  Since most of the optical changes are likely rather subtle, I could not easily form an opinion on the show floor.  One model seemed new and caught my eye: 7×42 Cascade.  The field of view is not especially wide, but the image looked quite clean.  Overall, I liked the line-up, but I think they have a bit too many different product lines.  I think fewer product lines that are more clearly differentiated from each other would make more sense.  Personally, I like porro binoculars and Leupold’s two porro binocular lines. Yosemite and Rogue, look to be very well sorted out and offer a lot for the money.

There is a new FLP spotter with HD glass and a larger objective lens then previously available: 20-60×80.  It is available with a couple of ranging reticle:  Mil-Dot and TMR.  Despite the 80mm objective, it seemed to have very good depth of field which caught me by surprise.  All in all, it is a nice spotter.

Also new for 2011 are Ventana spotters which replace the Sequoia product line.  There are two configurations: 15-45×60 and 20-60×80.  They looked decent and since I have never been a major fan of Sequoia spotters, a change is a good thing.

After I got done with Leupold’s hunting products, I headed over to the other Leupold booth that had the “tactical” products.  That turned out to be a different experience altogether, and I ended up having to visit it twice.  The first time around, I stumbled onto some guy who could not wait for me to leave.  I did my usual thing and walked over to the first rep I saw in the booth and asked what was new for the show.  That is when he started trying to get me to leave.  Some questions he flat out ignored.  Other questions he only answered yes or no.  I do not think I ever got him to formulate a complete sentence.  Perhaps most annoyingly, the one truly new design they had, the 3.5-25×56 long range scope, he never even mentioned.  I only stumbled onto it when I went there the second time around (at that point, I pretty much ignored the various reps floating around the booth and simply scoured through everything they had there).  Overall impression that I got was that Leupold wants to win military contracts and could not care less if they sell a single new tactical scope to the consumer market.  The other overall impression that I got was that the new stuff Leupold had (other than the HAMR) did not look all that hot.  I suppose that the people in charge of the hunting products learned their lesson and realized that they can not continue to exist on Leupold reputation alone and that they actually need to have good products to back that name up.  I suppose that the tactical division of Leupold has not learned that lesson yet.

Although announced last year, the 1.1-8×24 scopes on 34mm tubes are only becoming available now.  The units they had in the booth this year did not look particularly well executed, especially as far as the reticle illumination goes.  It was bleeding all over the place.  I do not recall seeing that effect in last year’s prototypes.  Based on a rather cursory examination, I fully expect the competing designs from S&B and Premier (that are actually cheaper) to walk all over the Leupold’s CQBSS.  Then again, perhaps there was something wrong with the show floor units.  Externally, there did not seem to be any difference from last year:


The new Mark 8 long range scope, the 3.5-25×56 looked decent, but is built on a 35mm tube for some reason and no one could explain to me why they used a 35mm tube instead of the 34mm like that on their other higher end tactical scopes like the CQBSS.  The scope comes with Horus H58 reticle in the FFP.  Illumination is controlled via a third knob that sits on the maintube right in front of the magnification ring (an obvious rip-off of S&B design).  Adjustments have 0.1mrad clicks and the windage knob has a cover while the elevation knob is exposed.  While I was staring at this scope some Leupold guy was talking about the new scope to a couple of visitors from Australian military (he was pretty nice to them oddly enough).  He also was talking about some new upcoming designs and when he saw me listening and taking notes, he walked over and asked me to not disclose what I heard.  That was pretty much the only time when someone was polite to me in that booth (perhaps because they actually needed something from me, but then again this was a guy I had not talked to before).  Still, I will keep my mouth shut; it is the courteous thing to do.  Here is a snapshot of the scope.  Note where the illumination knob is:

There were a couple of other new scopes there that looked like existing ER/T designs shoved into 34mm tubes for large adjustment range and equipped with locking turrets where you need to press a button in order to make an adjustment.  I would probably need to spend some time in the field with it, but to me, that button at the top of the knob seemed to be distinctly uncomfortable.  I much preferred the “squeeze to be able to adjust” knobs on the 1.1-8×24.  Otherwise, I recently tested an ER/T design with a Horus reticle and found a couple of flaws with it.  I think these 34mm designs make those two flaws even more prominent since they are more expensive.  The first problem is the lack of illumination: most Horus reticles are thoroughly useless at lower magnifications or in low light unless there is an illumination system of some sort.  Second is the optical quality.  With a 34mm tube these scope become heavier and more expensive.  While I can compromise a bit on glass in favor of light weight and lower price, these new scopes give up both of those advantages.  Then again, I could certainly be wrong.  However, looking over the rather crowded tactical marketplace, I am struggling trying to figure out what application I could recommend one of these new Leupold scopes for.  The new 3.5-25×56 is an interesting design no doubt, but it is not clear when, if ever, it will be available to consumers.  Here is the 34mm scope with ER/T guts inside:

Now, the HAMR is a different ballgame altogether.  It is a simple and clean 4×24 design that is going after ACOG and Elcan.  It comes either as a standalone piece or with a Delta point reflex sight mounted on top of it.  Eye relief is pretty flexible and image quality looked quite respectable.  I also like the reticle that is reminiscent of ACOG’s holdover design.  Pricewise, I was told that it would undercut the ACOG slightly, although time will tell.  Overall, together with a Deltapoint, it seemed to offer good performance from door kicking ranges out to 600 yards or so.




There wasn’t anything particularly new from Kowa this year.  They have a spotter that doubles as a really fancy DSLR lens, but I am not into digiscoping all that much, so I largely glossed over that.  However, I like the concept and it makes for a nice system.  Essentially, they are packaging the objective lens systems of a top end spotter as a camera lens with several different adaptors available for different camera bayonet mounts.  They are also going to make a separate prism module that you can attach to the objective lens and that takes standard Kowa eyepieces.  In that configuration it becomes a high end spotter.  The idea has definite merit and if I were to get into digiscoping (or telephoto photography), I would give it serious consideration.

Of more interest to me was a single page handout they had on a new binocular line that is supposed to be cheaper than all of their current binos.  It will have both porro prism model with 30mm objectives and roof prism models with 32mm and 42mm objectives.   There was no other information available, but I will keep track of that.

Generally, Kowa binocualr line does not seem to quite generate the attention it deserves.  Kowa Gneesis binos are absolutely world class, with the 8×33 being one of the best ones of its type.


Schonfeld Optix

I had never heard of Schonfeld brand before so I stopped by to take a look.  Despite the German sounding name, the products are manufactured in the Pacific Rim somewhere (not sure exactly where).  They retail mostly in the $200 to $270 range and include a few riflescopes, binocular and spotters (~$350).  There were also some tripod mounting adaptors.  The guy who runs the operation (or perhaps IS the operation) was mostly talking about his monoculars which looked all right.  Overall, I was a bit turned off by snazzy scope model names like “Vaporizer” “Xtreme Kombat” and “Starfighter”, and spent very little time in that booth.



Not a whole lot of tangible news there, but there are some.

All of the various Elite 3200 and 4300 scopes have been merged into a single Elite scope line and slightly ungraded with better broadband coatings.  Models with ranging reticles and exposed knobs have been separated into an Elite Tactical line.  Elite 6500 scopes retain their separate designation.

New for this year is the 3.5-21×50 FFP design done with Horus (I mention it in the Horus section).  I am not entirely sure whether it is going to be marketed by Horus or by Bushnell since I got two different stories on that in the two booths.  Either way, I am curious to see what the production scopes will look like.  This scope is likely to be priced in a way that avoids a lot of direct competition, so I expect it to do reasonably well.

I also got to see a prototype of a 1-6.5×24 FFP scope with nice reticle design that combines a donut with holdover scale.  It still needed to be tweaked slightly, but I think it has a lot of promise.  There was no obvious tunnel vision and overall it looked like a nice piece that will be reasonably (comparatively speaking) priced.  Another design that, I think, will do well if it gets to the market soon enough.  I’ll definitely get my hands on one as soon as I can.  A compact 1-6.6x or thereabouts deesign with an FFP reticle is just about a perfect scope for a lightweight AR-15.  Since, I am planning to put one of these together some time later this year, I am keeping close tabs on this market segment.  Here is the scope sitting in a LaRue mount:  It looks like the illumination knob will have a couple of night vision settings.  Hence, I am confident that it will be well optimized for low light (my primary complaint about most illumination systems out there).




Kahles scopes and binoculars are distributed by Gamo, so instead of having its own booth, there were a part of a Gamo exhibit.  Honestly, I am not sure it is such a good idea to have Kahles scopes next to BSA which is also distributed by Gamo.  That makes BSA scopes look like junk (more on that later) and makes Kahles scopes look expensive.

With that out of the way, Kahles seems to be making a come back, or is at least making a solid attempt at it.  They had a nice story about an old Kahles scope that was lost in the Alps for a few decades and was recently found in perfect working condition.  While that is impressive, I am more interested in new products and there were a couple.

Apparently, Kahles decided to re-enter the tactical scope market with a couple of FFP designs based on 34mm tubes.  One is a version of existing K312 3-12×50 and the other is a new 6-24×56 model called K624 that really got my attention. 

kahles brochure

Aside the usually good Kahles craftsmanship, it has an unusual way of controlling parallax.  Instead of using a third knob for it, Kahles built it into the elevation knob assembly in an interesting way: it is large diameter knurled disc at the base of the knob.  It is sufficiently larger than the main body of the knob to make it pretty much impossible to confuse the two.  That frees up the turret on the left of scope tube for reticle illumination control and makes for an overall nicely streamlined package.  The parallax knob has detents at 50 meter increments.  While that by itself is not particularly remarkable (it is very rare to have the parallax adjustment sit at one of the marked spots), it does allow you to have a tactile feel of where within the image focus adjustment range you are.  There was no apparent tunnel vision that I could detect.  Turrets had 0.1mil clicks with excellent feel and were nicely calibrated.  There is a visible and tactile indicator that tells whether you are on the first or second turn.  Each turn is 14mrad of adjustment.


Optically, the image looked very clean, but I expect nothing less from Kahles.  How it will do in the market place remains to be seen.  The Austrian guy who was there said that they are primarily aiming to beat S&B.  That is not an easy task, so I am curious to see how it will do.  Kahles has been in this business for a long time and the know how to make good scopes.

The FFP K312 will get the same turret treatment as the K624 some time this year.  Also, I was told that Kahles will introduce some sort of an “assault rifle scope” in 2011, but no further details were offered.  I suppose that implies a low range variable of some sort, but I am really guessing here.

Also new for this year is the resurrection of a couple of Kahles binoculars: 8×42 and 10×42.  They looked quite decent, although the field of view is somewhat narrow, especially on the 8x model.  However, the focusing knob had a very nice feel.  When I asked a rep who happened to be nearby where these are made, he said that “they are made where Kahles binoculars have always been made: in Austria”.  That confused the heck out of me since I know for a fact that the most recent Kahles binoculars were made in Japan.  However, I could not get any further information out of him.  All that aside, these look to be well-made magnesium body binos that could do well if they are priced right.

kahles binos



There are new scopes from BSA that have 6x magnification ratios.  To be blunt, I have never seen a quality scope from BSA in the past and these new models do not seem to be an exception.  Image quality looked to be somewhere between bad and crappy.  Tunnel vision was prominent at all magnification and on all models I saw.  I got my hands on four samples (I think) and no two knobs felt alike.  The good part is that BSA’s primary competition (Baraska, Leapers, etc) seems to be equally mediocre.

Just about the only thing about these scopes that was well put together was the marketing campaign.  I wish they would put all of that creativity into making better products.



Pro-staff scopes went through a re-design.  There are now fully multicoated and made in the Phillipines.  They also have a fast-focus eyepiece along with a new knob design.  They looked pretty decent and I think I will re-visit them next time I look at scopes in this price range.  Magnification ranges remain the same.

I did not see anything particularly new in the rest of the Nikon exhibit.  EDG binoculars switch over to a piano hinge from a dual hinge design, but optically they remain the same (quite good).

There is a new ProStaf binocular that looked to be rather well put together for the price point.



Carson has been marketing some Chinese-made, but decent for the money binoculars for some time, but I never paid much attention to them.  This time around, I stopped by for a quick look.  The inexpensive binos were actually decent and I liked the case that unfolds and allows you to use the bino without yanking it out of the enclosure fully.  It is a neat concept.


Aside from that, I think Carson has introduced a few chinese-made riflescopes that looked vaguely familiar to me.  I think I have seen the same designs marketed by other companies, so I did not look at them too carefully.



Two scopes caught my attention in the Weaver booth: 1-5×24 and 3-15×50.  Both are FFP designs with illuminated reticles.  Illumination was a touch brighter than I would have liked, but that could change on production models.  Both scopes will retail in the $700 – $900 range (I think) and they felt to be very well sorted out both optically and mechanically.  I think these are priced right and well-executed tactical scopes.  There are not all that many good options in the sub-$1k range, and these seem to be among the better ones.

They also had a new 2-8×36 shotgun scope in the Buck Commander line.



Here is another company that I keep close tabs on, since I like how they do business.  Once again, there isn’t a whole lot of stuff there that I have not heard of before, but that is partially due to the fact that I stay in touch with Hawke on a fairly consistent basis.

New to me was the Endurance 30 1-4×24 scope.  I have an earlier version, which is a 1.25-4.5×24 design and I have been pretty happy with it (and have not been able to break it).  Now they have a model with true 1x on the low end.  I comes with a #4 reticle equipped with a bright (daylight visible, I think) illuminated dot.  Eyerelief is long and pretty flexible.  The scope itself is fairly beefy, but the one I have proved to be quite durable and I expect no less from the newer model.  I suspect it is aimed at DGR use as well as black rifles.  Here is Brad Bonar of Hawke with the 1-4×24:


Another scope in the Endurance 30 line that caught my eye is the 1.5-6×42 with the same #4 reticle with illuminated dot (L4 reticle in Hawke-speak).  It is a very underrated configuration and I am glad that there is a comparatively affordable scope so configured.

On the binocular front, open hinge Frontier PC binoculars are new.  They slot right underneath the excellent Frontier ED binos.  Basically, if you like the handling of open-hinge Frontier ED binos, but are not willing to pay for them, these offer a very decent alternative with phase-corrected prisms and full multicoating, but without ED glass.



Two of the most recent scopes in S&B line-up are the 1-8×24 model built on a 30mm tube and a 3-20×50 34mm design.  I liked both quite a bit.

Last year’s 1-8×234 prototype was not quite ready for prime time, but this time around it seemed to be almost ready for production.  Of the current crop of scopes with 8x (or thereabouts) erector ratios, this is the only one that is a 30mm design, so it is trimmer than the competition.  Interstingly, the magnification dial is marked for 1.1-8x with a somewhat cryptic “CC” setting just to the left of 1.1x.  Apparently, that is the true 1x setting.  However, aside from lower the magnification, there is also a change in parallax setting that goes along with it.  Ostensibly, that is supposed to help in CQB situations.  The scope is equipped with two reticles: a ranging reticle in the FFP and dot in SFP.  Both can be illuminated, although not simultaneously.  Illumination of both reticles is controlled by a single knob.  Rotating it in one direction illuminated the ranging reticle and is calibrated to be at its most useful in low light.  Rotating the knob in the other direction illuminated the SFP dot and is bright enough for broad daylight.  All in all, I like the system.

There is also a somewhat simpler hunting version of the 1-8×24 scope in the Zenith line.

short dot

The 3-20×50 PMII scope is aimed at longer range shooting.  I have recently reviewed a 4-16×50 PMII and while I liked the design, there were a couple of things that I thought needed to be fixed.  Apparently, I was not the only one to think that since this 3-20×50 design addresses both and does in a more ambitious configuration.  The first thing I did not like was the tunnel vision at low magnification.  This scope does not seem to have any.  The eyepiece is of a notably larger diameter, which helps with field of view and eliminated the tunnel vision.  Also, total adjustment is now 36mrad, which is more than double of what the 4-16×50 PMII has.  The rest of the scope is typical S&B: good glass and crisp mechanicals.  Knobs are of the MTC variety and you need to pull them up to adjust.  Reticle illumination is accomplished via a 3rd knob on the scope body just in front of the magnification ring.

Overall, I think this is a very strong competitor in the high end tactical scope market segment.



US Optics

USO did not have any new scopes, but it looks like they will finally have their digital illumination control module available.  That is good news, since I was not very happy with illumination calibration on the last USO scope I reviewed.  With digital control, I think it is going to be easier to set-up the system for varying light conditions.




There is an upgraded version of Kruger’s “OLSLO”: Odd Looking Scope Like Object.  It is, however, a fair bit more polished than last year’s prototypes and now sports a carbon fiber body.  It is an odd looking thing, but it does have some nerdy appeal.  While, I am not entirely sure how this one is going to pan out long term, I am happy to see people think out of the box.  Also, the unconventional body shape of this design prepares the market for coming fully digital sights that do not need to be in a tube.

It is designed to go onto flat top AR or similar system.  With a flip of a lever you can transition between a non-focusing red dot sight and 2-8×40 conventional scope.  The natural question that arises, of course, is why this is superior to a conventional scope (like the excellent 3-9×42 Super Sniper) with a tiny red dot attached to the tube.  With the Kruger method, you have to move you hand to flip a lever in order to switch operating modes.  With a conventional scope with a red dot, you have to shift your head slightly.  A am not sure which is preferable, but time will tell.




There were no new scopes (or at least not that I saw).  However, there were new reticles and I liked them quite a bit: MLR2, Mil-Dot2 and MPR-F1.  I always thought Nightforce reticle were a bit on a thin side, and these versions are a little bit thicker without being obtrusive.  I suspect that it will help low light visibility quite a bit.  I especially liked MLR2.



New for this year are the fixed magnification Specter scopes.  Switch magnification Specter DR models have been around for a couple of years in the 1x/4x and 1.5x/6x configurations.  Now there is also a straight 4x Specter OS which I thought looked very good.  It is available with two reticle options.  One has an illuminated chevron together with holdover hashmarks.  The other has a small illuminated crosshair also with holdover marks.  It also has a choke-style rangefinder.  Honestly, I am not sure which I like more, but both seemed like very clean and functional designs.  Specter scopes have external adjustments that look very beefy.  While I am generally not a fan of external adjustments, these look to be very tough.  Glass looked very nice and I thought that the field of view was very wide, considering the rather decent eyerelief.

Another model that caught my eye was the somewhat more compact 3.1x ATOS 3.0 sight.  It has a somewhat thicker and faster reticle design and looks to be geared more toward close to mid-range target engagement.  Still, one of the reticle options offers holdover marks for 5.56 cartridge, and a BDC knob is also available.  Field of view is a bit narrower than on the Specter models, but I suppose that is a price to pay for compactness.  This sight is available with both picatinny and carry-handle mounts.  The adjustments are internal.

Overall, it looks like there are several interesting fixed power models now on the market and I wonder how these Elcans stack up against the ACOG, Hensoldt 4×30 and new Leupold HAMR.


In conclusion, here are some random thoughts on the activity in the sporting optics world

It looks like there is a lot more happening in the tactical market segments than in the hunting world.  I suppose margins are higher there.  The competition is truly heating up with Stener and Kahles jumping into the fray on the high end, Premier extending its product line and S&B coming up with a couple of very polished models.  Meopta is likely to join in although with a somewhat lower price tag.  Bushnell/Horus will have a 34mm tube model as well.  Honestly, I think in a couple of years this will be a VERY saturated market segment.

Scopes with high magnification ratios are here to stay and they are slowly moving into lower price brackets.  I think that will result in a lower number of distinct models needed to cover all useful magnifications, thereby providing manufacturers with better economies of scale.  For example, instead of having six or seven models in a complete scope line, you could easily get away with two or three.  For example, look at the new Leupold VX-R line-up.   It is based on 2.5x erector and the line-up consists of six models, that are primarily aimed at big game hunting.  That gives a lot of SKUs, but for a smaller maker, the economies of scale would not be there.  If I were to spec out a complete mid-range scope line in the current market based on a 6x erector (which is becoming fairly commonplace), I would only have three models: 1-6×24, 2.5-15×42 and 5-30×56.  Different versions of these configurations (SFP and FFP reticles, along with knob variations) could cover almost every conceivable application I can think of whether we are talking about hunting, varmint shooting, or tactical use.

I talked about red dot scopes elsewhere, so I will not go there again.

The low end Chinese makers like BSA, Barska, Leapers, etc seem to be going for more gadgety configurations, but not for higher quality.  Conversely, a lot of inexpensive scopes by well established brand names are simple configurations that are increasingly well-executed whether they are made in Phillipines or China.  As far as gadgety stuff goes, some genius at NcStar, for example, thought that this was a good idea (the camera is looking straight down into the objective lens of a scope):

This monstrosity is supposed to be a good way to add a laser pointer to the scope.  I could be wrong, but something tells me that an asymmetric obstruciton right behind the objective is not an optimal way to go.  Nor is directing a laser beam through the objective lens (near the edge).  On the other hand, since the rest of the scope is also junk, the addition of the laser does not make it a whole lot worse.  After all, you can’t really fall out of the basement.


My criticism aside, brands like Leapers, NcStar, etc are clealry doing well based on how much money they spend on their SHOT show booths.  The fact that people actually buy these products is mind boggling to me.


This year, I thought I would see a larger number of well-made Chinese scopes, but based on what I saw in various OEM booths, they still have a ways to go in terms of Quality Control.  However, they are making considerable strides with binoculars and spotters.

As far as Chinese-made riflescopes go, in the last couple of years, Hawke seemed to be the only one to maintain good enough QC.  This year, I am inclined to cautiously add Leatherwood, although I will keep track on how their products hold up.


Based on what I saw at SHOT, there are a few comparison test I expect to pursue:

  • Modern tweener scopes: Minox 1.5-8×32, Vortex Viper 2-7×32, Kahles 2-7×36 and perhaps one or two others.
  • Mid-size binoculars: 8×32 models from Minox, Meopta and perhaps Vortex.
  • High End Tactical: Part 3 with the new Steiner, another Premier and perhaps Kahles and S&B if I can get my hands on them
  • Low range variables: I am not sure if I can pull this off, but I will try to get my hands on Premier and S&B 1-8x scopes.  After this article, i suspect my chances of borrowing a Leupold CQBSS are effectively zero, but perhaps I’ll look at some 1-6x designs as well.


Copyright ILya Koshkin 2011

 Posted by at 9:33 pm

High End Tactical Scopes: Part II


This article is a follow up to High End Tactical: East vs West.


High End Tactical Scopes: Part II

In the past, I never spent a whole lot of time on the most expensive scopes out there, designs I refer to as “High End Tactical”.  While these scopes are a LOT of fun to play with, I never really had an opportunity to test several of them side-by-side.  Then at SHOT 2010, I ran into Jim Kelbly, who was adventurous enough to let some Joe Shmoe from the Internet (namely, me) borrow a March 2.5-25×42 scope for testing.  I do not like to do solo reviews, since it is very difficult to relate my impressions without comparison to a known quantity.  For example, if I tell you that scope A was in some way better than scope B, unless you are familiar with one of these scopes, it does not give a whole lot of useful information to work with.  Now that I had that March scope on the way, I was forced to scramble a bit and get my hands on a few nice scopes for a proper comparison.  After it was all said and done, I wrote a “:Part 1” article, titled “High End Tactical: East vs West”.  It was not exactly an apples-to-apples comparison, but it was the best I could do under the circumstances.
There was a lot of positive response to the first article, so I decided to put together a follow-up that would make for more of an apples-to-apples comparison.  With SHOT Show 2011 right around the corner, I am sure there will be some new product introductions for this rarefied market segment, and I wanted to round up the “state of the art” tactical scopes as of late 2010.  When selecting the scopes I imposed a few restrictions on the choices:

  • All scopes I was going to look at had to have reticles in the Front Focal Plane (FFP).  In my mind, these scopes are designed to engage targets of varying size at varying (and unknown) distances, so they had to be set-up for both ranging and trajectory compensation (either via the reticle or knobs).
  • For these scopes, I was looking at maximum versatility, so they all had to have sufficiently flexible magnification available to engage targets that are both fairly close and quite far.  I was aiming for a low-end of 4x or less, with the high end magnification of 15x or more.

Originally, I did not intend to have quite so many scopes for this article.  Some were no-brainers: Hensoldt, Premier, S&B and US Optics.  Usually, when people talk about high end tactical scopes, they mean one of these four brands.  However, most of us (me included) can not afford to spend that much on a scope, so I thought it would be natural to include a couple of scopes that are a step down in price.  Aside from wanting to have a good look at them, I thought it worthwhile to see what you give up if you go with one of these compared to the uber-expensive stuff.  With that in mind, I figured I should look at Nightforce and IOR.  Nightforce has a tremendous reputation for being mechanically superb.  On top of that, in the last couple of years, they made some features available that were of interest to me: FFP reticle and Hi-Speed knobs.  IOR just came out with two new scope models that have a redesigned eyepiece, so I thought they were worth a look.  For those of us who do not like the idea of dropping ~$2k on a scope, I included a scope I already had on hand: SWFA S.S. 10x42HD.  It is not really comparable to the rest of the scopes here in terms of features, but it is very well built and comparatively inexpensive.  After some thought, I decided to add a Leupold to the mix as well, since it has a lot of traction with law enforcement and military (an interesting tidbit is that I  ran into a former Army ranger at the range while testing these scopes.  He was thoroughly unimpressed when I showed him Hensoldt, S&B and others.  All he ever shot in the military were Leupolds and he was totally convinced that nothing else even comes close).   March is new to the tactical scope market segment and when Jim Kelbly offered to loan me a prototype of a first FFP March scope, I added it to the comparison.

I have to admit that I had an absolute blast using these scopes and, in practical terms, I could comfortably live with almost all of them (you’ll understand the “almost” shortly).  It is also a lot of fun to come to the range with an assortment like this.  There is just something about showing up with $22k+ worth of riflescopes. Here is the range officer who was walking by and thought that Christmas came early this year.  Too bad I had to tell him that none of these are going home with him (he briefly considered putting up a fight about that, but I am about 80lbs heavier so he chose against it):

Here is the spec table that contains all the numbers one could find by browsing the internet and sending out some e-mails to manufacturers.  I am also adding the S.S. 10x42HD for comparison.  It did surprisingly well in the original article, so I figured it makes for a nice way to maintain continuity.

March Tactical 3-24×42





Premier Heritage 3-15×50 DT

IOR 3.5-18×50 FFP

Nightforce NXS F1 3.5-15×50



Leupold ER/T 4.5-14×50

US Optics SN-3 T-Pal 3.2-17×44

SWFA S.S. HD 10×42

Length, in










Weight, oz










Main Tube










ER, in


3.8 – 4.0





4.4 – 3.6



FOV, ft


35 – 4.3


26.1 -7.5


37.2 – 7.8


30.5 – 6.8


27.6 – 7.3


22.5 – 7.5


20.2 – 8.2


25.3 – 8.3



Click Value

0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad




0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad

1 turn Adj

10 mrad

12 mrad

15 mrad

10 mrad

10 mrad

13 mrad

5 mrad

9 mrad

5 mrad

Total Adj Range

28 mrad

V: 22 mil

H: 10 mil

34 mrad

20 mrad

E: 32mrad W: 22mrad

16 mrad

29 mrad

E: 22mrad W: 16mrad

38 mrad


FML-1, ill



MilDot Gen2, ill

Mod MP-8, ill

MLR, ill



Horus H27  non-ill

Mil-scale GAP, ill

MilDot non-ill

Parallax Adj











$2850 ill

$2250 non-ill










Country of Origin











Simply looking at the prices of these scopes, I can roughly subdivide them into three sets of direct competitors: Hensoldt and S&B both run over $3k and clearly compete for the same customer.  March, Premier and US Optics (as configured) are similarly priced (to each other) and cheaper than Hensoldt and S&B.  However, all five are largely aimed at the same target market.  This is the “no compromise” price range.  If you are looking at any of these, that means you are willing to pay and the choice likely comes down to specific features.  On the other hand, the rest of the contenders (IOR, Leupold and Nightforce) are a step below in terms of price.  That usually implies some sort of a compromise has been made to keep them a little more affordable.  Still, these are expensive scopes and, aside from comparing them to each other, I am also trying to determine how they stand up to the uber-top end products like Hensoldt et al.  Ideally, I would have liked to still have the Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50 to compare with these, but I already wrote about it in an earlier article and had to send it back to Vortex.  I will offer my thoughts on how it stacks up against this group where appropriate.

Digging into the numbers a little more, a few things stand out:

  • In terms of weight, March, Leupold ER/T and SWFA S.S.HD are significantly lighter than the rest of the scopes here.
  • Japanese scopes (March, S.S.HD and Nightforce) have somewhat narrower fields of view than the Euro contingent.
  • If you look at the FOV numbers for the IOR, you’ll note they are different than those on IOR’s website.  The data on the website did not look right to me, so I measured it.
  • All scopes here have at least 3.5” of eye relief.  Leupold has the most eye relief variation with magnification.
  • I list two different prices for the Leupold ER/T since the version I am looking at has a Horus reticle that adds more than $500 to the price.  With a MilDot or TMR reticle, this Leupold costs a lot less.  March is available with and without illumination, hence two prices as well.
  • Something not mentioned in the table above: Leupold’s actual magnification range is 4.9-14.5x, which explains why it has the narrowest filed of view at low magnification in this group.  It also means that it has a rather low erector ratio of just below three times.
  • Conversely, Premier and March have the lowest magnification available (3x) and wider field of view at the lower end of the range than the other scopes here (I did look at the 3-12×56 version of the Hensoldt briefly, but the bulk of my testing was done with the 4-16×56 version).
  • March has the highest available magnification in this bunch: 24x.
  • S&B has the least amount of adjustment available.  I suggest using a 20MOA base with it (it is a good idea with any scope used for long range shooting, but it is particularly important with the S&B).
  • Hensoldt, S&B and Premier have the most adjustment per turn.  Leupold and S.S.HD the least.
  • As a general observation, I really prefer to have 10mrad or more adjustment per turn.  However, I am not sure how much money I am willing to pay for that feature alone.  Still, 10mrads takes my 338LM beyond 1200yards within one turn and that keeps things simple (it is also enough for 1000yards with some 308Win loads).  However, the range where I do most of my practice only goes out to 600yards, so 5 mils per turn is sufficient for that distance even with a 223Rem.
  • Two scopes in the table do not have reticle illumination: Leupold ER/T and SWFA S.S.HD.  The rest have illuminated reticles, for the most part with timers.

“Guys at The Range” Impressions
I had a few people of varying experience look at the scopes side by side and tell me what they think.  Most of the time they were looking at the scopes two a time, mounted on two tripods.  Here is a snapshot of Premier and S&B side by side:

It is not an optimal way of looking at scopes, but it does allow to transition from one to another quickly.  Since both of the tripods have picatinny rails on them (made by Samson Manufacturing), I was able to quickly switch scopes around without losing the zero established on the rifle.

Most of these guys really did not have a chance to look at the March 3-24×42 since I received it a bit later and did not have it for too long.  Also, depending on when I ran into them at the range, these guy saw different subsets of the scopes.

Tester A had a chance to look at Premier 3-15×50, IOR 3.5-18×50, USO SN-3 3.2-17×44, Nightforce F1 3.5-15×50 and Leupold 4.5-14×50.  He could not quite decide whether he liked Premier or IOR more, but for him one of these two definitely looked like a top choice.  He noticed that the IOR has a warm color cast and did not like it too much, but he liked how much detail he could see with it.  He thought the other three scopes were not in the same league as Premier and IOR.  Nightforce did not agree with him at all.  He had a hard time maintaining proper sight picture with it and thought that the image lacked vibrancy.  To his eyes Premier was a little better than the IOR, and USO was a little better than Leupold.  Generally, he has some interest in scopes of this type since he recently acquired a GAP-built rifle chambered for 338 Lapua.  Once I told him what all these cost, he liked the IOR even more.  He is somewhat new to scopes, so the Horus reticle in the Leupold got him more than a little confused.  He thought that Mil-Dot Gen-2 reticle in the Premier was a nice uncluttered design and he preferred it to the other reticles here.  With the Nightforce, he noted that at low magnification the reticle is very difficult to see.

Tester B was the range officer who looks so excited in the first picture of this article.  He thought that most of these scopes were great and they can all be used just fine.  He is a target shooter, so he liked thin reticles.  To his eye, the S&B with the fine center lines and crisp image was the best scope, closely followed by the Premier and USO.  Hensoldt, while very nice, did not have that visual pop for his eyes, but he liked the compactness of it.  With the IOR, he could not get over the thick reticle, but liked the image.  Leupold’s Horus reticle did not do anything for him and Nightforce looked dim compared to S&B and Premier.

Tester C was a guy who has looked at a lot of scopes with me over the years, so he knew what all of these were and how much they cost.  He thought that optically, Premier agreed best with his eyes, closely followed by the S&B.  At high magnification, the image quality between these two was very close to his eye.  However, he did not like the tunnel vision that the S&B has at low magnification.  With March and Hensoldt, he liked the detail in the image, but thought that it lacked some pop due to shallower depth of field.  He did note how flexible the eyerelief of the Hensoldt is.  Overall, he liked the image through the IOR and the depth of field.  However, the warm tint stood out to him and in bright light the image, and I quote: “looked too bright, almost so bright that it hurts my eyes”.  I suspect that is his reaction to a different color gamut.  With Leupold, he noticed rather strong CA, which bothered him.  On top of that, he simply could not get over how busy the Horus reticle is.  He found it distracting.  With Nightforce, while he liked the solidity of the adjustments, he thought the image looked dull and also noted that at low magnification the reticle tends to be hard to see.

Tester D only had a chance to look at Premier, S&B and Nightforce in any detail.  To be succinct, he thought that Nighforce is not in the same league while he would be happy to take S&B or Premier home with him (and he made a solid attempt to sneak one out forgetting that I know where he lives).  On a more serious note, he really liked the color saturation and depth of field on both S&B and Premier.  Nightforce looked bland to him.

Impressions by EventHorizon (owner of the 3-12×56 Hensoldt).
This gentleman stopped by a couple of times and put a lot of effort into looking at the scopes.  Unfortunately, the March FFP scope was not yet available, so he did not get a chance to look at it.  His evaluation was done during the daylight and primarily involved looking at the scopes side by side, mounted on a couple of tripods during the day.  However, a few of them he also played with while they were mounted on my rifles.  He and I disagree on a few points, but that mostly illustrates that we all have different eyes and different priorities.  He e-mailed his impressions to me, and I thought they were worth adding in their entirety with very minor editing to remove some personal details and a few typos.  The following italicized test is written by him:

Overall Impression
The Hensoldt I felt was the overall winner but the margin of victory is by no means huge or insurmountable by the second place Premier.  The Hensoldt is the easiest to use in regards to FOV, ease of attaining and maintaining sight picture and eye relief through the mag range.  While the Premier had the best turrets for firm clicks and ease of use, the Hensoldt’s were close enough for the difference to not be a game changer.  The functional use of the Hensoldt as a scope for target observation as well as for target interdiction should not be overlooked.  I know I can look through that scope for prolonged periods of time at challenging targets and not suffer eye strain or have to maintain an unreasonably still position.  The Premier, on the max magnification of 12x would not afford this level of comfort.  
Further, for non-bench shooting, it would be reasonable to assume that there would be some compromise in Natural Point of Aim.  With this in mind, the Hensoldt afforded the greatest level of off-center forgiveness.  I could move my head side to side and right up until the target (in the center of the sight picture) became obscured it remained in focus.  None of the other scopes could match this and only the Premier came close.  The S&B had a very low level of forgiveness and it was bested by the USO in fact. The Nightforce had about the same level of forgiveness as the S&B.  If USO solved their design issue of overcrowding the turret box I think Premier would have a serious run for their money.  The EREK knob was great, the glass was perfectly suited to task and their GAP reticle is great.  Build quality is well established with both makes as they were both tanks.

The USO had the widest of all the fields of view and it had the best ‘natural’ color representation.  I thought the depth of field was as good as the SB and the contrast and detail/resolution was excellent.  I felt no compromise with the USO at all.  Again, the Hensoldt won out over the Premier and the SB because it felt like I was looking through a pair of binoculars.  When focusing on the target I felt I could see in very clear details the surrounding terrain and could pick out movements of shrubs and debris in the wind with ease.  Everything seemed ‘bigger’ and so it stood out more and I could relax better.  While the others have better depth of field, they demanded more eye work I felt.  I want to be able to focus on body mechanics, on seeing movement around the target as indication of wind, not ‘work’ at the vision.  Hence even though the Hensoldt doesn’t have the depth of field of the others, it was the better scope for usability.  
However, the actual ‘pop’ of the view went to Premier and SB/USO equal and then Hensoldt.  Again, the divergence here is minimal.  This was judged by looking at the stones in the berms behind the target, when trying to keep my attention on the crosshairs and target, I felt the difference in peripheral vision was minimal and not easily distinguishable.
The Nightforce had good contrast and clarity but I felt it wasn’t as bright as the others.  When I went back from it to one of the others -Hensoldt, Premier etc, I had a visual ‘ahh, that’s better’ feel.  I did not like the view through the SWFA 10x42HD.  The sight picture felt tiny, like through a key hole to be honest.  I felt I had to strain my eyes even though the actual picture quality was good and the detail was there. I know that people like it for what you get in relation to the price but to be honest, I wouldn’t buy that scope.  I’d feel that I was never getting 100% from my shooting or my rifle because of the scope. Even with the crappy turrets, I’d prefer the IOR or Nightforce.

Premier, Premier and Premier.  The size of the turret is great, the new turrets seem to not have the issue of jumping out of the full Mil marks. I felt you could turn and feel that turret change
with even the thickest of gloves but without ridiculous amounts of effort. The SB also has excellent turrets.  They all had good turrets with the exception of the IOR which I was not a fan of at all. Mushy, easily ran onto each other and didn’t feel anywhere near as well made and precise as the above.  I liked the Leupold but the turrets had half the travel and so the clicks were much wider and afforded a better feel as a result.  While I really liked the USO EREK turret with it’s wide click, I did not like the windage turret at all.  Hard to grab, to turn and frequently skipped because of the compromised grip due to the over-crowding.  It’s worth noting that the turrets on the SWFA 10x42HD were sharp! That thing grips, better than any of the others but if you’re going to be handling that turret under high speed conditions better wear gloves.

Premier’s Gen 2 Mil-Dot is pretty much a perfect reticle in the 3-15 mag range.  Very easy to work with, to use to measure objects and thin enough for any kind of precision work I’d say.  Even on the minimum mag level the reticle was usable but I’d not say I could easily make out the half-mil hashes.  The USO’s Gap reticle is also extremely nice and would be my second choice after the Premier with the S&B a very close third.  The Hensoldt’s is thick in comparison to all of them. I must admit that when I looked at the Hensoldt after looking at the others, I wished I had the Premier’s reticle in that scope.  However, I’d be interested in seeing how that reticle matched up to the others in poor light conditions and when the reticles are illuminated.  

Eye relief.
For me this is important. When I shoot I like to spend a long time doing it and easy eye relief is key I think.  The clear winner and by a real margin is Hensoldt.  I could go from minimum to maximum mag and not have to move my head.  The worst was Leupold, forget it!  After Hensoldt I’d say it would be Premier, USO/SB and then Nightforce with the IOR to follow although not that far behind.  With the Premier, I had to start shifting my head forward slightly once I started to get into double digits on the mag.  Also I noticed that maintaining sight picture became harder as well with less side to side forgiveness.  The Hensoldt remained forgiving.

It would have been nice to have mounted the scopes to see how they effected the handling of a rifle.  I thought that the Hensoldt made the right choice to leave some depth of field clarity on the table in return for field-friendly ergonomics and weight.  I think the Hensoldt does the least amount of damage to a rifle center of gravity and balance and so for anyone who wants or will have to do off-hand shooting, this is a serious design consideration.  When people scoff at  a half pound of weight difference they are thinking only about the hiking part of field shooting, not of holding the rifle without a rest.  The Premier, USO are just tanks.  I can’t really recall the size/weight of the IOR.  The SWFA was light and I thought pretty nimble too, but the sight picture was just too much of deal breaker for me to really consider it seriously. I can’t recall the Nightforce perfectly.

Value for Money
If money were an issue and I had to get one that maximized my value for money it would be Premier as the overall winner.  Having said that, for the extra couple hundred bucks the luxury and compactness afforded by the Hensoldt would be money very well spent. In the second hand market, there are Premier’s going for several hundred off and these have to be the best deals I’d say.   I thought the real surprise of the lot was US Optics.  Great scope and the stuff people say about the glass not being on par with the top players did not hold true on that scope.  I just wish it wasn’t a meter long.
With the “Guys at the Range” impressions out of the way.  Here is my take on the scopes.Mechanical Quality
As you would expect from scopes in this price range, mechanical quality is quite good.  They are all a little different, naturally, and in a couple of cases I ran into a hiccup or two.
Before I get into more details, I want to note that I do not make it a point to stress the scopes from a durability standpoint.  If they fail (or simply do something funky) in normal use, I report it, but I do not really have the facilities or access to sufficient quantities to do serious reliability testing.  I work out the knobs on each scope quite thoroughly and check that all controls work properly, but that is as far as it goes.
Now let’s talk about the hiccups.  None of the scopes here gave me any problems except for the IOR and the Leupold.  Both suffered somewhat cliche issues.
IOR 3.5-18×50 somehow sprouted a large fleck on the inside of the ocular lens.  It stubbornly sat near the edge of the field of view and annoyed me (a bit).  It did not interfere with the functioning of the scope: it still tracked just fine and the image quality, aside from that piece of debri stuck on the lens (you could see it move if you rotated the eyepiece focus ring), remained the same.  Interestingly, during one shooting session, I noted that windage adjustment was slightly off.  However, when I went back to check it, it worked fine: both accurate and repeatable.  Perhaps, that was a bad shooting day for me.
Leupold ER/T 4.5-14×50 came with a slightly canted reticle.  I did not see it right off hand until I started really exercising both the knobs and the reticle.  Since the scope came with a Horus reticle I spent some time shooting out to 600 yards (or thereabouts) with the reticle only.  When the time came to exercise the knobs, I noticed that the point of impact was different than when I was using the reticle.  I went back to 100yards and doublechecked it on a large piece of cardboard.  Lo and behold, the reticle is canted counter-clockwise a little.
None of the other scopes gave me any trouble whatsoever.  All of them tracked well enough and consistently enough for me to not find anything to complain about.  Recoil and repeated twisting of the knobs all over the place did not seem to have any perceptible effect on function.  Every scope spent some time on two rifles: DTA SRS chambered for 338 Lapua Mag and an AR-15.  Even the 338LM does not really have all that much kick, but it does have a muzzlebreak and this rifle has played a number on a few scopes in the past.  There is something about that funky recoil pulse which makes a difference.
All of the testing was done using a number of 30mm and 34mm Aadmounts which are very consistent, so sighting in was a breeze and I never ran out of adjustment due to initial sight-in.

As far as the knob feel goes, it is kinda personal and I expect different people to prefer different knobs.  I thought that March 3-24x42FFP had the best knobs in this group (in terms of feel) although by a small margin.  Generally, March has the best executed mechanical package I have seen on any scope to date.  It has a very nice combination of precision and comparatively low effort in a low and wide knob.  If you have to go beyond a full turn of the elevation turret (10 mrad), there is a secondary scale on the knob (in yellow).  ZeroStop is well designed and works as advertised.  Consistency and calibration of the clicks were flawless.

Premier Heritage 3-15×50 has stiffer adjustments than March, but not sufficiently stiff to get in the way.  This scope feels overbuilt in every way possible.  Knobs are large and offer very good purchase area.  I really liked the ability to reset them without having to deal with any hex wrenches.  This scope is available with both Single Turn (22 mrad per turn) and Double Turn (15mrad per turn) knobs.  The scope used in this article has the latter, while the one I used in an earlier article was the former.  DT turret seems a bit lighter, but if I were to buy one, I would probably go with a Single Turn version.  Both were very precise and tracked nicely.

With US Optics SN-3 3.2-17×44, I really liked the feel of the EREK elevation knob.  With 9 mrad, it has a touch less adjustment per turn than the March, but enough for my purposes.  The windage knob on the SN-3 I liked a bit less, but it worked.  The way I shoot I seldom mess with the windage knob: I tend to adjust for drop and hold for wind, so USO’s arrangement worked well for me.  Style-wise, EREK knob is low and wide which I like.  It is larger in diameter than the March’s turret and the clicks feel slightly wider-spaced.  They are a bit different going clockwise vs counterclockwise, but not enough to cause any trouble in actual usage.  The windage adjustment turret also had somewhat different click feel depending on the rotation direction.  More importantly to me, because the reticle illumination knob is so close (that is the covered turret in the picture below), using the windage knob was not very convenient.

Hensoldt knobs had slightly less positive feel than March, USO and Premier, but by a small margin.  They felt to me like there some sort of really thick grease inside the turret, which is not abnormal in mil-spec scopes.  it helps with waterproofing.  It took me just a touch longer to adjust to Hensoldt knobs, but I quickly developed confidence in them.  I wish that they had a zero-stop available, but it is not a necessity.  Then again, considering how much Hensoldt costs, I expect perfection or as close to it as is feasible.  I had a chance to look at two Hensoldt scopes for this review: 3-12×56 that someone else (a SnipersHide member who goes by EventHorison) brought to the range and the 4-16×56 that I used for the bulk of the test.  Knob feel was very similar between the two scopes.  The turrets on the Hensoldt are a bit smaller in diameter than I like, but still easy to grab and adjust.  The turret also has markings for two turns with the second turn numbers in yellow.  However, with 12 mrad per turn, I did not need to go into the second turn at any point in my tests.

To the best of my recolleciton, noone ever complained about Nightforce knobs and for a good reason.  These are the new “High Speed” knobs and I liked them quite a bit.  Nightforce adjustments were absolutely superb in terms of feel and repeatability, but I prefer somewhat larger diameter knobs of March, Premier et al (same comment as for Hensoldt).  ZeroStop is pretty easy to set up and use.

Still, IOR 3.5-18×50 has larger knobs than Nightforce, but clicks on the IOR were less distinct.  I have a lot of mileage with IOR scopes, so I am used to them.  However, it was certainly easier to skip a click with the IOR than with the other scopes here.  Interestingly, my (older) 3-18×42 IOR has somewhat more distinct clicks.  Perhaps, this is simply sample variation.  With this particular scope, similarly to the SN-3, windage adjustment knob had different (less crisp) click feel than elevation adjustment knob.  Still, tracking was excellent with the IOR as well.  This scope has those secondary aiming point rings on the turrets.  Honestly, I think it is a solution looking for a problem, but it does not get in the way, so I do not mind it.  ZeroStop seems to work fine.

Leupold and S.S.HD were the only scopes here with 5mrad adjustment per revolution.  It is easier to make good knobs with less adjustment since you physically have more space to work with.  Both of these scope had nice knobs, but the S.S.HD really stood out with superb feel and predictability.  While I would have liked to have more adjustment per revolution, I have to admit that how picky I am about these things is proportional to the price of the scope.  While I am not going to whine too much about 5 mrad per revolution on the $800 Super Sniper 10x42HD, I feel that a $2k Leupold ER/T (and Vortex Razor HD, I looked at earlier), should have 10 mrad per revolution o rmore.  Still, all of these are serviceable.  With the Leupold the knobs look just like the traditional tactical knobs Mark 4 scopes have had for years.  However, these have 0.1mrad clicks and the feel is better than I expected.

The knobs on the S.S. 10x42HD (as I have noted before) are absolutely rock solid and have superb feel.  If they had 10mrad per turn and were slightly larger in diameter, I would comfortably rank them just as good as March and Premier.  As is, I have enough mileage with them to know full well how consistent they are.

Daylight Image Quality
During the day all of these scope are quite good.  However, they are not priced the same and they do not perform the same either.
In terms of ability to see detail, it was hard to tell much difference between March, Hensoldt, S&B and Premier.  When used with the sunshade, Hensoldt was, perhaps, a touch better than the others, as it should be considering it has the largest objective lens of the bunch (56mm).  The fact that March with a measly 42mm objective lens was able to hang with this crowd is remarkable by itself.  Coupled with the fact that, if conditions allowed it, I could crank it up to 24x, gave it unmatched versatility.  Still, once the exit pupil gets down to 2mm or thereabouts (21x for the March), the sight picture gets a bit difficult to maintain.  On the other hand, for target shooting, I could crank up the magnification with the March and see the details other scopes in this group could not show me.  Admittedly, the situations where that is useful are not common, but I like having the option.  Once, I started looking at how good these scopes are at low magnification, the top group narrowed down to March, Hensoldt and Premier.  These three are virtually devoid of any unpleasant low magnification artefacts, like tunnel vision, which is present on the S&B between 4x and 5x.  Once you get above 5x, Premier and S&B offer very similar image quality with excellent resolution and superb sharpness.  March and Hensoldt seem to emphasize resolution a bit more, so the contrast on those two is not quite as good as on Premier and S&B, with Hensoldt being a touch more contrasty than the March.  All four scopes are sharp and clear right to the edges of the FOV. which is narrower on March than on the other scopes here.  Perhaps, that is the penalty for the large magnification range.  In terms of depth of field, that is pretty much the only (mild) knock on March and Hensoldt: depth of field is a bit shallow.  Both Premier and S&B have great depth perception and superb depth of field.  Here is a picture of S&B PMII 4-16×50, Hensoldt 4-16×56 and March 3-24×42 side by side:

One thing that immediately jumps out is how much longer the S&B is than Hensoldt and March.  Longer objective lens system is appreciably easier to build and optimize.  It is also directly responsible for the greater depth of field.  Both March and Hensoldt sacrifice some performance and force some design complexities onto themselves in order to keep the scopes compact (and to help with the zoom ration on the March).  To be more exact, combination of a large objective lens and a  short focal length makes for complicated optical designs.
In terms of color balance, to my eyes, Hensoldt had a slight blue-green tint to the image.  So did Premier and S&B, but it was a bit less pronounced than on the Hensoldt.  Colors through the March scope looked perfectly neutral to me.  It was pretty difficult to induce any sort of chromatic aberration (CA) in any of these four scopes.  March was the most resistant to CA, until you cranked the magnification all the way up, and even then it was very mild.  With Hensoldt, Premier and S&B, I could induce some lateral CA, but not the longitudinal type.  Bottom line, unless you are really looking for chromatic aberration like I was, you will not find any with these four scopes.  Color saturation was greater with S&B and Premier than with Hensoldt and March.  Greens and reds simply looked richer with them than they did to my naked eye.
IOR and US Optics scopes were also optically excellent, although half a step worse than March, Hensodlt, S&B and Premier.  USO SN-3 has the widest field of view in this bunch and the most natural color gamut (along with March).  It had two shortcomings that I noticed: tunnel vision at low magnification and stray light control.  The tunneling effect was apparent from 3.2x to 5.7x.  That is a bit more than I am willing to tolerate in this price range.  As far as stray light goes, there was slight white-out effect in the image in bright light and slight diffuse flair.  I thought that stray light suppression was not optimal and my suspicions were confirmed later when I did the low light testing.  Do not get me wrong, it was not bad, per se.  However, in this price range I expected better.
The new IOR 3.5-18×50, like quite a few IORs I have seen over the years, had a bit of a warm bias in terms of color accuracy.  However, aside from that, the image quality was virtually on par with the more expensive Euro scopes in the center of the field of view.  Edges were a touch soft, but the the center 80% of the FOV were superb.  Depth of Field was excellent (same for USO SN3).  With the IOR, similarly to Premier and S&B, there is almost a 3D-effect of a sort because of that depth of field.  The image has an almost pulpable texture, that I did not get with Hensoldt and March.  This is a difficult effect to describe, because in terms of the actual amount of detail, there was no difference.  However, those details jump out at me more with scopes that have better depth of field.  IOR 3.5-18×50 has very slight tunnel vision between 3.5x and 4x, which is much better than the 6-24×56 model I looked at earlier.  The 3.5-18×50 and 6-24×56 are the two newest models IOR has introduced and in terms of image quality, these are easily the best I have seen from IOR to date.  At lower magnifications, below 6x or so, there is some image distortion near the edges, but I did not find it particularly objectionable.
Nightforce, in terms of image quality, was a bit of an enigma to me.  It performs pretty well in the upper half of the magnification range, but has odd artefacts at lower magnifications.  Above 8x or so, the Nightforce resolved very well.  Not as well as March, Hensoldt et al, but resolution is very respectable.  Still, the image looked pretty dull: colors were muted and contrast was pretty low.  Oddly enough, depth of field was quite decent, but there was little pop to the image.  Bottom line, though, is that the details was there, but they did not pop out at first glance.  I had to look for them.  At lower magnification, however, flare started to become apparent as did the field curvature.  The center of the FOV remained pretty clean, but the outer third of the image had some distortion as well as some odd bluish haze creep in.  I have a fair amount of hands on time with other Nightforce scopes (primarily 5.5-25×50), and while the comparatively low contrast did not come as a surprise, I was surprised by the low magnification effects.
Optically, the weakest scope of the bunch was the Leupold, which should come as no surprise considering the price differences between different models.  This particular Leupold model retails for more than $2k, but that is largely due to the surcharge that comes with a Horus reticle.  Without it, the ER/T would run about $1600, which is not cheap, but still makes it the least expensive scope out of this bunch with a notable exception of the fixed power S.S.HD.  At 10x, S.S.HD showed me more detail than Leupold, but then again this is an easier scope to build.  Leupold had a reasonably contrasty image, and the resolution was adequate as well.  The most obvious image artefact was the chromatic aberration.  It was readily apparent above 10x or so and I saw fringes with two different colors.  That usually means that the objective lens system needs work.  Both lateral and longitudinal chromatic aberration were present, although the lateral type was more apparent.  Color accuracy was quite neutral and overall the image was clean and clear.  Flare seemed to be fairly well suppressed as well.
The S.S.HD is actually very well optimized with good resolution and contrast.  Optically, its only obvious flaw is some tunnel vision.  Among the people I have shown it to, some were bothered by it and some were not.  If you find yourself particularly sensitive to tunnel vision, this might not be the scope for you.  For everyone else, this is very good image quality for the money.

Low Light Image Quality
There are simply too many scopes here for me to look at simultaneously.  Low light testing is all about finding small artefacts and I can’t easily track these for nine scopes at the same time.  I had to subdivide them into a couple of groups and price seemed to be a worthwhile criterion.  First I took the more expensive scopes out for a nice bout of staring at resolution charts a bit after sunset: March, S&B, Hensoldt, Premier and US Optics.  Without any bright light sources to cause stray light problems, all of these performed quite well, although there were a couple of surprising discoveries.  I compared these all across the magnification range and the results clearly vary on whether exit pupil was a factor or not.  With exit pupil not a factor (i.e. at lower magnifications, below 7x or so), March showed the most detail, edging out Hensoldt, S&B and Premier by a very small margin and surpising the hell out of me in the process.  US Optics SN-3, while still very good, lagged a little behind these, which I found a bit surprising considering how wide USO’s Field of View is.  As I increased magnification, objective lens played a bigger role.  Here Hensoldt, edged ahead of the competition by a bit, starting from about 10x and upward, while between 7x and 10x, I could not tell much practical difference between Hensoldt, S&B and PH.  Above 10x, S&B and PH stayed neck in neck and a bit behind the Hensoldt.  At higher magnifications, compared to those three, March suffered a bit from having a smaller exit pupil, but still stayed comfortably better than the USO despite having a slightly smaller (42mm vs 44mm) objective lens.  Once a few point light sources were introduced, the pecking order did not change a whole lot, but I did make a few worthwhile observations.  At first I tested all of the scopes without sunshades, and then experimented with sunshades a bit (I did not technically have sunshades for all of these scopes, but I made same makeshift ones out of opaque black optical paper).  First of all, with bright light sources in the picture, US Optics SN-3 promptly fell out of contention with the other four scopes here.  It had noticeable flare and various stray light artefacts induced by light sources both inside and outside the Field of View.  March and S&B were the least effected.  Honestly, to my considerable surprise, I could not simulate any sort of a challenging lighting setup that would have an appreciable effect on the March.  In this case, smaller objective lens actually helps, but still the March performed better than I expected and, honestly, better than any scope I have seen to date.  S&B only had very weak flare present, which also makes sense, since the scope seems to have a rather long objective lens system.  That makes it easier to build and easier to baffle properly.  Premier had a touch more diffuse flare caused by light sources outside of the FOV.  Just enough to effect the ability to see detail ever so slightly, but perceptibly.  Under these conditions, S&B outresolved Premier although barely (I could only see the difference at higher magnifications, above 12x or so).  Hensoldt surprised me a little.  I expected that looking for flare would be interesting: it has a rather fast, i.e. low F/#, objective lens system (combination of comparatively short focal length and large objective diameter).  That makes Hensoldt shorter than most other scopes here, but it also makes it pretty difficult to build.  It also makes it more difficult to baffle against stray light coming in from just outside the field of view and that is exactly what I saw.  However, Hensoldt was remarkably immune to bright light sources within the image (very little veiling flare).  With an objective lens that big I went in with the expectation of finding some stray reflections and there were almost none.  It was a little susceptible to light coming in from wider angles, but a sunshade helps with that..  Now, before I cause any alarm here, it is better to say that it was comparatively susceptible, and next to pretty much any other scope out there you would be hard pressed to see any difference.  Keep in mind that these are truly state of the art optical sights.  It really does not get any better than this, and I am looking for small differences that I find interesting, but sane people (almost everyone else) do not care about.  Now, let’s get back to Hensoldt for a moment.  When Zeiss engineers decided to make this scope short and comparatively compact while housing a large 56mm objective lens, they pretty much elected to make things complicated for themselves from an optical design standpoint.  I suspect that this scope has either the most complicated or one of the most complicated objective lens systems of any scope in existence today as a direct consequence of trying to shoehorn a large objective lens into that compact of a chassis.  On top of that, this eyepiece on this scope has that phenomenally flexible eyerelief.  The downside is that in low light, when flare-inducing light sources are around, you can end up with your eye in a non-optimal spot where you see the image together with a lot of flare.  If you shift your eye position slightly to a more optimal spot, a lot fewer artefacts are present.  Bottom line, this is a fairly minor flaw of an otherwise excellent scope and if this is something that bothers you, make sure you buy a sunshade for it.  I experimented with my makeshift paper sunshade and found that it helped considerably.  Before I move on, here is a snapshot of a page from the manual that comes with the Hensoldt:

I do not know how accurate this schematic is, but I suspect it gives a reasonable idea of the construction of the Hensoldt.  I have seen complete scope designs that have fewer elements than the Hensoldt’s objective system alone.  This is a pretty complicated design and it is pulled off nicely.
Moving on to the remaining scopes, there were no surprises.  Between IOR, Leupold, Nightforce and S.S.HD, IOR was easily the better low light scope.  It was also better than USO owing to better flare suppression.  With all scopes set at 10x, S.S.HD held its own pretty well and outperformed both Leupold and Nightforce until it got sufficiently dark for its exit pupil to become the limiting factor.  Between, Leupold and Nightforce, low light performance was fairly close, with Nightforce edging the Leupold out by a little bit.  The IOR, was clearly the best one of the sub-$2300 crowd.  I spent a couple more sessions doing low light testing and side by side with the likes of Premier and the IOR looked almost as good.  It had a touch more flare, but no major low light artefacts to speak of.  It was not particularly effected by off-axis light sources, but a sunshade did help.

Usability, Features, Shooting Impressions, Reticles, etc
No matter how well a scope performs in any specific test, it all has to come together into a usable package.  Some scopes end up being more than the some of the individual components and some make all those features hard to put into use.  Here, I will mostly talk about these scopes one at a time and in no particular orderBefore, I get to it though, I would like to talk about reticles a little and about what I look for in a reticle.  Everyone looks for something different in a reticle and I should offer some details regarding what I consider important.  Most of all, I am looking for usability and balance.  With FFP scopes, reticle design is not straightforward.  Reticles that offer a fine aiming point at high magnification are often too thick at low magnification, and vice versa.  Oftentimes, for proper functioning at low magnification, reticle illumination is required (which most of these scopes have).  Personally, I want a reticle design that is functional both with and without illumination.  For my purposes, I found that ultra-fine reticles are not necessary, although I fully admit that they superb for certain applications.  Aside from these considerations, I find that I can get used to most reticles fairly comfortably with some practice.  I suspect that if I were a competitive shooter I would develop some more strong preferences, but as is, I think the in most cases the issue is overblown and is simply a matter of personal preference.Also, I think it is worthwhile to talk a little about mounts.  Generally, I do not review mounts.  I use them.  That having been said, improper mounting can wreak havoc on a scope’s performance, so for this test I wanted as much uniformity as possible.  Thankfully, Jon of Aadland Mounts stepped up and loaned me several of his one piece mounts for this article, on top of the one modified 35mm model I had before.  In retrospect, it likely saved me a lot of time and headache.  His mounts returned to zero every time, and I kept on moving them off the rifles continuously whenever I needed to set the scopes up on tripods.  The mounts themselves (as you can see in the pictures) are pretty beefy and look like a good visual fit with larger scopes.  With smaller scopes, like the March, they look a little big.  However, I am a big fan of “form follows function”, and these functioned so well, that I will be sending Jon a check for a couple of these that I want to keep for my personal use.  I have played with a number of mounting systems over the years and some worked great while others did not, so I tend to err on the side of caution.  This thing is so overbuilt that I have the utmost confidence in it.  I also like how the warranty is written.  Here is a quote from Aadland Engineering website:
Lifetime Warranty:
If you break your AADMOUNT, no matter how you did it (it must have been pretty spectacular), simply return it for a replacement.  You don’t need a receipt, you don’t need to be the original owner and the damage can be your fault.  It matters not, we’ll take care of you.
I generally do not do destructive testing of any gear, but I just might try to destroy one of these simply to find out what it would take.

March 3-24x42FFP
March is the only scope in this group that is not a production sample.  However, except for the reticle, it is identical to what the production units will look like.  The reticle is already being redesigned, but I have not yet seen the final version live.  I have seen the drawing of it and it looks like something I can comfortably get used to.  Also, I suspect that over time different reticle versions might become available.  As far as other aspects go, I found this scope to be superb.  I reviewed the SFP version in an earlier article (that one was 2.5-25×42) and thought that it had the most refined mechanical package of any scope I have seen to date.  Well, this 3-24x42FFP version sits on the same chassis, so all of my earlier comments hold.  Windage and elevation knobs are excellent.  ZeroStop execution is the best I have seen to date.  All controls are butter smooth and perfectly weighted: not too light and not too heavy.  This scope does not have that “I can pound nails with it” feel of Premier Heritage, but I’d be surprised if there are any durability issues.  I sure did not stumble onto any.  Eye relief was pretty long and fairly flexible.  Not as flexible as on the Hensoldt, but not bad at all.  It also did not change with magnification in any perceptible manner.  Even at high magnification the scope could focus all the way down to 10 yards.  Side focus knob did no exhibit any hysteresis I could detect.  Reticle illumination is pretty well sorted out with four different brightness levels available.  Just like with the SFP scopes, there are two illumination modules available with one being brighter than the other.  I had the brighter version and thought that it was pretty good even in low light.  Had I been buying one, I would probably lean toward the lower power version.  However, they are user replaceable and you can always get a spare.  The illumination control is integrated into the side-focus knob in the form of a large rubberized pushbutton that cycles between five states: OFF and four brightness levels.

Physically the scope is similar in size and weight to any number of of 2.5-10×40 scopes out there.  Except it is a far more flexible design that comfortably competes with larger scopes.  Here is how much smaller it is than Nightforce and USO:

Leupold ER/T 4.5-14×50
Honestly, in this crowd, Leupold was a bit overmatched.  It is a nice enough scope in its own right and using was a breeze, except for the canted reticle.  In a scope like this, equipped with a Horus reticle ($500+ on top of the regular price) I would likely set it up to use the reticle.  Honestly, I would probably like it more if instead of those tall tactical turrets, it had some sort of unobtrusive low profile knobs.  This was the first time I got really practice with a Horus reticle and I like the concept.  It takes a little practice to get used to the fine grid, but once you put in the time, it is pretty fast and accurate.  With the Horus H27 reticle in place, I think tall knobs are superfluous.  The scope itself is quite compact and makes a good match on an AR platform:

Magnification ring was smooth and easy to use.  However, eye relief varied considerably with magnification.  Sufficiently so, that I had to readjust my shooting position a little bit.  Side focus knob was smooth and well weighted.  However, it exhibited a little hysteresis (something I do not see much on good scopes these days, so perhaps it is a fluke).  The biggest problem for me, came back to the reticle however.  As much as I liked that Horus reticle when shooting a bit further out, I thought it was too thin for anything else.  It was very difficult to use in low light and at low magnifications it looked like moskito mesh.  I suspect that reticle illumination would have helped, but this scope does not have it.  I recall seeing a prototype Leupold scope at SHOT last year that had a Horus reticle with a superimposed illuminated dot.  It would have been a good fit to this scope.  All in all, I suspect that the Leupold would have done better had I been comparing it to something a little less high end than this bunch.

SWFA Super Sniper 10x42HD
I have spent a fair amount of time on this scope in the past, so I will be brief here.  It is an exceptionally robust design with excellent mechanical quality.  Somewhat unusually, parallax adjustment is in the rear of the scope where variable designs have the magnification ring.  I find that to be a fairly comfortable configuration, especially when practicing shooting as a lefty.  Eye relief is fairly flexible, and adjustments are always spot on.  It is a somewhat bare bones design compared to the other scopes here, and using it is also very straightforward.  There is something to be said about simplicity.

Nightforce NX F1 3.5-15×50
This scope, for me was a bit of a hit and miss.  Mechanically, it performed superbly.  However, I am not crazy about the whole eyepiece rotating when you change magnification.  On the other hand, I am not especially bothered by it either.  I could live with that.  Eye relief is pretty long, but not especially forgiving.  It did not change a whole lot with magnification.  The reticle really did not agree with me though.  I like to have fairly thick outer bars in FFP reticles.  At high magnification, they are out of the way, while at low magnification they move in toward the center and really help in low light.  With the MLR reticle, they are skeletonized, making them largely useless for my purposes.  Additionally, reticle illumination method is a bit clunky, especially considering the limitations of the reticle.  Having one preset illumination level that is difficult to adjust is a bit limiting.  On the other hand, since the illumination is engaged by simply pulling the side focus knob out until it clicks, keeps the turret box nice and streamlined.  Still, I much prefer the equally compact turret arrangement of the March that offers more flexibility of illumination control.

Premier Heritage 3-15×50
I have, quite literally, nothing bad to say about this scope.  It is built like a tank and it is heavy.  Aside from that, it is very well rounded design with every possible feature included.  Eye relief is fairly flexible and constant with magnification.  All controls work as advertised, although they are pretty stiff.  Reticle illumination is integrated into the side focus knob and allows for a range of illumination levels from very dim to fairly bright.  As far as the reticle goes, Mil-Dot Gen II is one of my favourite allround designs that allows both good precision and high visibility.  As a side note, I think that a lockable fast focus eyepiece is a nice touch.

US Optics SN-3 3.2-17×44
This scope surprised me in both good and bad ways.  In good lighting conditions, the image quality exceeded my expectations.  In low light, it was not quite as good, but still very decent.  The way the turret box is arranged, however, felt fairly uncomfrtable to me.  The scope I tested had T-Pal side focus.  While the side-focus itself worked quite well, the reticle illumination knob ended up sitting on the opposite side of the saddle right next to the windage adjustment knob.

That made both the windage adjustment and illumination knob more difficult to use.  Had I been in the market for a USO scope, I would likely have opted for a version with ERGO adjustable objective.  Aside from being cheaper by about $230, it allows for a more streamlined turret arrangement.  Do keep in mind that with the overall length of USO scopes, you would have to reach pretty far forward to adjust the ERGO objective.  GAP reticle is well-designed.  It is well matched to the magnification range of the scope.  However, reticle illuminaiton is too bright for low light use even on the lowest setting.

The collar that adjusts magnification, while adding some bulk to the eyepiece, was the easiest to use, offering a lot of purchase area without making the whole eyepiece rotate.  Eye relief changes a little bit with magnification, but I did not find it especially disturbing.  While the scope itself is pretty long and heavy, it is intended for substantial rifles and it did not look out of place on my DTA SRS:
IOR Valdada 3.5-18×50
I was very impressed by this scope, and a little disappointed by a piece of debris that got stuck to the ocular lens.  I hope that is an isolated incident, but time will tell as more of these make it out into the field.  Aside from that incident, everything on the scope worked well.  Eye relief was long and flexible as well as constant with magnification.  The new eyepiece is a serious improvement over the earlier design: it improves eyerelief without negatively effecting the field of view.  Similarly, I like the new digital reticle illumination control.  It is well executed and takes little space.  As far as reticle illumination control goes, I prefer the way it is done with buttons on IOR and March over the more traditional rotary dials on other scopes here.
The reticle is very familiar to me since I have been working with John Boyette’s modified MP8-A5 for some time.  It was originally designed for a scope that had no reticle illumination, so the center lines are fairly thick at 0.1mrad.  However, the aiming dot in the center of the reticle is floating, and there is enough open space around it to make sure very little of the target is obscured.S&B PMII 4-16×50
This scope has an enviable track record as being easily one of the best out there, and in terms of usage, I found very little to complain about aside from some tunnel vision at low magnification.  All controls were smooth and repeatable.   I liked the knob feel, although just like with Nightforce I would have preferred large diameter knobs for more leverage as well as more overall adjustment range.  P4F reticle is a fine allround design.  It is, perhaps, a touch thinner than I would have liked, but it worked well.  Reticle illumination is controlled with a separate knob that is placed separately on the maintube, right in front of the eyepiece.  I am not sure I like this arrangement too much, but it worked and did not get in the way.  I certainly prefer it to USO’s overcrowded turret box.  While the scope itself is pretty long, that extra turret does limit mounting option a little bit.  However, with a quality one-piece mount like the one I used, I did not run into any problems.  Here is a picture of a few scopes side by side that shows how different the mounting length is between various scopes.  From left to right: US Optics SN-3 3.2-17×44, Hensoldt 3-12×56, Premier Heritage 3-15×50, Nightforce NXS F1 3.5-15×50 and S&B PMII 4-16×50.

Eye relief on the S&B was sufficiently long for my applications and pretty flexible.  However, maintaining sight picture was easier with both of its prime competitors: Premier and Hensold.  On the other hand, PMII does have a somewhat slimmer eyepiece overall, and for some rifles that might make a difference.

Hensoldt 4-16×56
In many ways, this scope has the highest “usability” factor of this group and that is largely due to the superlative eyepiece design.  Eye relief flexibility on this scope is better than on any design I have seen to date (and in all fairness, I have had my hands on just about every decent scope out there at one time or another).   The scope is comparatively light and compact, while housing the largest objective lens of all the scopes here.  All controls are butter smooth and repeatable.  Reticle illumination goes from very dim (perfect for low light) to pretty bright.  The reticle itself is a simple MilDot with a choke-style rangefinder at the bottom.  I have a lot of experience with the Mil Dot, so it is easy for me to use. On balance, I somewhat prefer MilDot Gen II and MP8-A5, but I can use all of them in reasonable comfort.  The thickness of the MilDot in the Hensoldt lends itself well to excellent low light visibility and does not obscure too much of the target at high magnification.

Final Thoughts
I did not set out to determine which is the best scope here.  I was mostly out to verbalize how they differ.  However, I will invariably be asked which one(s) I, personally preferred and why.  Honestly, I think this should be modified to “which one I prefer for which application”.
As I have stated earlier, I can use any of these in pinch:

If price is an object (and for me it is), I suggest you take a close look at the 10x42HD Super Sniper.  It does not have all the features of the other scopes here, but it works and works well.
If you are willing to open up your wallet, in my mind it comes down to March 3-124x42FFP, Hensoldt 4-16×56 and Premier 3-15×50.  Between these three the choice comes down to the application and your personal preferences.
For example, I am putting together an accurate AR-15 chambered for 264LBC.  It will likely take me out to 1000 yards in reasonable comfort.  However, the rifle itself will be fairly trim and not too heavy, so I would like a moderately trim scope for it.  For this application, the March is the one to beat, and I am trying to figure out how I can afford it.
On the other hand, for my Desert Tactical, I am less concerned about how compact the scope is.  I expect to shoot it at pretty extended ranges (if at some point I’ll have the time to actually go practice rather than test scopes all the time) that can challenge even 338Lapua.  I might even look at higher magnification models for that, but both the Hensoldt and Premier will work fine for that.  15x or 16x magnification may not sound like much, but considering how good the optic quality is in these scopes, it is plenty.  More importantly, those large objective lenses allow for a respectable exit pupil even at maximum magnification.  As good as March is, once the light gets low, it simply does not have the exit pupil to hang with these scopes at high magnification.  I suppose that is the price to pay for compactness.
The choice between Hensoldt and Premier largely comes down to personal preference.  If you prefer greater depth of field, go with the Premier.  If you are more interested in ultra flexible eyerelief, go with the Hensoldt.  Also, if you really expect to spend most of your time shooting in low light, it is worth your while to go with the largest objective lens you can get your hand on, so Hensoldt moves to the front of the pack here is as well.
For me, if I could afford either Hensoldt or Premier, I would gleefully slap one on top of my Desert Tactical.  Until then, I have my old IOR 3-18x42FFP sitting on top of that rifle.
What if you really do not want to go with a fixed power scope like the Super Sniper and can not quite come up with the cash for a scope in the neighborhood of $3k?
For about $2k, there are a couple of options out there that I would seriously look at: IOR 3.5-18×50 and Vortex Razor 5-20×50.  Both are fairly new to the market, so I will keep track of how they hold up going forward.  Neither is exactly cheap, but they both offer a lot for the money and are worth considering.

Copyright ILya Koshkin 2010.  All Rights Reserved.


 Posted by at 10:03 am

Riflescope Fundamentals



Originally, this article series was commissioned by WebyShops, but in the time since they changed their name to  The various sections appear on their website and other electronic publications.  Writing this took a lot of time and effort and would not happen without their support.  I have since edited and modified a fair bit of it and will continue to do so in the future as appropriate.  The latest revision is in the works and should be wrapped up around the end of 2016.  Essentially, this is a living document.

Feel free to link to this article, but please do not copy any part of it anywhere without explicit permission.

Riflescope Fundamentals


  1. Introduction: What is a Riflescope?
  2. Which configurations work for different applications?
  3. Non-focusing sights
  4. Scope mounting pitfalls
  5. Mechanical Quality: they all kinda look the same, is there really a difference?
  6. Adjustments and Controls
  7. Durability vs Repeatabiilty
  8. Optical Quality: good glass, bad glass, it’s all the same, isn’t it?
  9. Resolution and Contrast
  10. Coatings and Light Transmission
  11. Stray Light, Scattering and Flare
  12. Distortion and Aberration Control
  13. Tunnel Vision
  14. Exit Pupil and Low Light performance
  15. Reticle Selection
  16. Is there a sweetspot in riflescope pricing?
  17. Should there be a relationship between the price of the scope and the price of a rifle you mount it on?
  18. After all is said and done, how much should you spend on a riflescope?




Introduction: What is a Riflescope?

This may sound like a silly question, but bear with me. There is a method to my madness.

To a shooter, it is a weapon sight. It is supposed to be slapped on top of a weapon, sighted in and used for its intended purpose: aiming.

To an engineer, it is an opto-mechanical device that is used for aiming. Nowadays, it is not even always a pure opto-mechanical device since quite a few riflescopes have some electronics in them (reticle illumination, for example).

The distinction is important: to a shooter, this is just a means to an end. To an engineer, there are a lot more details to it, and the “means to an end” may be something else entirely.

An engineer tasked with designing a riflescope should have a pretty clear idea what it will be used for and what kind of abuse it is likely to be subjected to. He has to design it to withstand all reasonable (and sometimes unreasonable) abuse, while staying within other design requirements pertaining to size, weight, optical performance and, last but not least, budget. This last requirement is the reason behind most compromises made in riflescope design.

A shooter trying to select the right scope often ends up considering very different factors. Typically, he will have an idea of how much he wants to spend and a rough idea of what the overall configuration should be. However, all too often, a shooter is blissfully unaware of the challenges that an engineer faces in designing riflescopes. That is not necessarily a bad thing, since getting into the nitty-gritty of technical details is often counterproductive. However, some basic knowledge of riflescope construction is very useful, especially if you are looking for a scope on a budget. If you have unlimited funds and can drop somewhere in the neighborhood of $3k or thereabouts on a riflescope, you are paying for not having to worry about any of that. For that much money, it better be bloody perfect! For the rest of us, a little consideration goes a long way.

Before we dig into the details of how scopes work and how to select them, it is important to clearly define how much you can spend and what you need out of it. Here are a few questions that need to be answered before you get any firther:

What is your budget? How much are you willing to spend (keep in mind that you also need good quality rings and bases)?

What will be the basic application for the scope? Hunting? Target shooting? SHTF? Law Enforcement? etc.

What are the extremes of the lighting conditions you are likely to run into? Is low light performance critical?

What are the weight limitations? Is this going onto an ultra-light rifle that you plan to drag all over some distant mountains with you, all the while cursing every extra ounce you have strapped to your back? Or are you mounting this scope on top of a fifteen pound varmint rifle that gets moved twice a day on a good day?

What is the likely target size? You do not need much magnification to aim at something the size of a grizzly bear. However, aiming at a prairie dog barely sticking out of the ground is an entirely different story.

How far do you plan to shoot? If you plan to shoot at extended ranges, you will have to decide whether you want to dial in your point of aim using turrets or use a holdover reticle of some sort

What are the likely weather conditions you’ll face? If you live in a climate where mirage can be a factor, you need to take that into account. Similarly, unusually wet climate creates its own set of problems.

How much recoil will the riflescope (and the shooter) be subjected to?

All of these questions are important in picking the right scope and, most importantly, picking a high quality scope for the right price.

Today, there are high quality riflescopes manufactured all over the world: Germany, Austria, Romania, Czech Republic, Japan, Phillipines, Korea and China. There are also quite a few “less than worthwhile” scopes out there, most of them manufactured in China. Price ranges from $20 scopes that might as well be disposable to $7000 masterpieces of optomechanical engineering that are as near to a family heirlooms as scopes get (for the record, I do not condone spending that much money on a scope unless you have extra cash to burn).

The sheer number of different riflescopes available in the market place today is staggering. Some are “me too” products, while others are true innovations. Some are narrowly focused on one particular application, while others are designed to be allrounders.

On top of all that, innovative designs of just a few of years ago, look like perfectly ordinary items today. However, the basics of rifle scope design and construction do not change much, so the subsequent sections hold equally true to virtually all riflescope regardless of when they were manufactures. Any specific scope recommendations, on the other hand, need to be re-evaluated with reasonable regularity.

Configurations: what do all those numbers mean and which one is right for you?

Sig Sauer Tango6 3-18x44

Sig Sauer Tango6 3-18×44


Redfield Revolution 3-9x40

Redfield Revolution 3-9×40


The two pictures above show two very different scopes. The first one is intended as a mid-long range tactical scope, and the second one is an allround hunting scope. The basic anatomy of both scopes is about the same though:

  • the flared front of the scope that is hanging over the back of the barrel is the “objective bell”, with the front element often referred to as the objective lens
  • the other, also flared, end that is over the open bolt in both pictures is the eyepiece
  • the middle (cylindrical) part of the scope between the eyepiece and the objective is the maintube
  • right around the center of the maintube are the adjustment turrets often referred to as “knobs”. In picture 1 above, there are three turrets: elevation adjustment (top of the tube), windage adjustment (on the right of the tube) and a combination turret that controls reticle illumination and image focus (on the left of the tube). In picture 2, there are only two turrets: elevation and windage adjustments. Those adjustments physically move the reticle inside the scope, so that you can change where the scope is pointing (i.e. tweak it to point to the same spot as the rifle barrel)
  • just in front of the eyepiece is the magnification ring; you rotate it to change magnification

also, please note that on most scopes, the eyepiece contains some sort of a reticle focus adjustment. In picture 1 above, it is the so-called “fast-focus”, which looks like a ring at the very back end of the eyepiece. In picture 2, the whole eye-piece rotates, and the lock ring that keeps in place once adjusted is right behind the magnification ring.  Whichever type of the mechanism it is, the function is the same: to make the reticle look as sharp as possible. It is important to remember that the eyepiece focus is NOT for making the image as sharp as possible; it is for focusing the reticle ONLY.


Just to be thorough: 3-9×40 means that this is a variable magnification scope with a 40mm objective lens and with magnification ranging from 3x on the low end to 9x on the high end. Similarly, the 3-18×44 scope has a 44mm objective lens diameter and magnification range from 3x to 18x. Magnification range is often described by the “zoom ratio” or “erector ratio”. For example, in a 3-9×40 scope the zoom ratio is 3x, other common zoom ratios are 4x, 5x and 6x, although there are now scopes with even larger magnification ranges.

Naturally, not all scopes have variable magnification. While they are not as popular as they used to be, quite a few riflescopes out there have fixed magnification. The most popular configurations of this type are 4×32, 6×42 and 10×42, although there are others.

As far as other specs go, first, there are the obvious ones: overall length and weight.

Then there is the maintube diameter. There is a number of different maintube diameters out there. The most common ones are 1 inch (25.5mm) and 30mm (in the pictures above, the somewhat larger scope is 30mm). However, there are also 7/8 inch, 26mm, 34mm, 35mm and 40mm scopes. I am sure that someone out there has made, at one time or another, scopes of other diameters. A natural question here is why are there so many different diameters out there? Most of the differences are simply due to historical reasons: different standards arose in different parts of the world. However, for some more complicated designs it helps to have a little more space inside the tube. For example, most scopes with higher erector ratios are built on 30mm or larger tubes.

Additionally, if the scope has a large objective bell, it creates a lot of inertia when the rifle moves under recoil. While we are used to think of recoil mostly going backwards, because the should typically contacts the buttstock below the centerline of the bore, there is also a considerable upward jolt. That upward jolt exerts a lot of force onto the scope. Slow motion videos of a rifle being fired have shown that the scope can bend significantly due to recoil. Since larger diameter tubes are stiffer (for the same wall thickness), they are better suited to supporting large objective lens systems. The downside of course is that larger tubes are heavier.  Don’t get me wrong, all of these are simply design challenges that can be mitigated by good engineering.  You can have a large objective and high erector ration on a 1″ tube, but it a bit more complicated than on a 34mm tube



Which configurations work for different applications?

Selecting a correct scope for a particular application mostly requires common sense. For the time being, I will leave out price range and optical quality. For the most part, I will concentrate on the configuration only: magnification range, objective lens diameter, etc.

Here is the common sense part: if most of the time you plan to shoot at very small targets very far away, you need a rather large scope with high magnification. Here is another common sense argument: if you do not expect to run into these long shots with any regularity, you need an “allrounder” scope of some sort.

Most people tend to overscope their rifles, by that I mean that they pick scopes too large in size and too high in magnification for their usage. As a matter of fact, there are not all that many applicaitons that require very high magnification. I often run into an argument that “if faced with such a shot once in a blue moon, it is better to have all that magnification available”. While sounding good on the surface, the truth is that most scopes that give you high magnification are not well suited for anything else. On the other hand, there are quite a few all-round configurations that allow you to take those long shots in considerable comfort. I suppose, what I am trying to say here in such a round-about way is very simple: when in doubt, err on the side of more conservative configurations. Besides, think of it this way: an object that is 300 yards from you, when viewed through 6x magnification appears to be about the same size as an object at 50 yards looks to the naked eye. The implication is that for most reasonable shots, 6x is more than enough and often less is more.

The most common configurations for big game hunting rifles are “mid-range” scopes such as 3-9×40 and 2.5-10×40, and for good reason. These are fairly easy scopes to build with the low magnification offering enough field of view for close up shots and high magnification being sufficient to clearly aim at a deer-sized animal pretty far out. Definitely further than most people have any business shooting at an animal. Here, it is important to keep in mind that a hunting scope is not an observation device. That is what binoculars and spotters are for. A riflescope is there to allow you to clearly see the target and aim at it; being able to resolve every little detail of the target is not necessary for a weapon sight (although it does not hurt if other properties are not sacrificed). Additionally, most scopes of this configuration are fairly light and can be mounted sufficiently low to not upset the balance of the rifle.

Things change of course once the application becomes a little less general. Some hunting is done high up in the mountains where very light rifles are often preferred (of course some people prefer very light rifles for all big game hunting). In those situations, 3-9×40 or similar is still a very good configuration to go with, but it is worthwhile to find a fairly light scope so configured. Some 3-9×40 scopes are distinctly lighter than others.

Alternatively, you could go with a “tweener” scope of some sort for a mountain rifle.  Tweener scopes are 2-7×32 and similar designs. They give up a little magnification compared to 3-9×40, but are lighter and offer wider field of view at the low end. Because of this wider field of view, tweener scopes are also well suited for hunting in densely forested areas where long shots are not typical.

On the other hand, if most shots you take will be pretty long (western plains game hunting, for example), you might want a touch more magnification than a typical 3-9×40 scope provides. However, you still do not want to sacrifice too much field of view. For this, I’d be looking at scopes of following configurations: 4-12×42, 3-15×42, 4-16×42, etc.

For the sake of brevity here are some configuration suggestions in a tabular form. I included both variable and fixed power scopes (this is by no means exhaustive):


Application Typical usage Riflescope configuration suggestions
Allround big game hunting rifle shooting at deer-size game at close to moderate ranges (50 to 300 yards)

3-9×40, 2.5-10×40, 2-10×42, 4×32, 6×36 or 6×42


High altitude hunting/light rifle applications same as above except you are more winded when you take the shot 1.5-8×32, 2-8×32, 6×36 or 4×32
Brush Hunting mostly close range shots in wooded areas 1-4×24, 1.5-8×32, 1-6×24, 2.5×20
Reflex Sight
DGR (Dangerous Game Rifle) you are after the largest and most dangerous game that might try to eat or trample you 1-4×24, 1-6×24, 2.5×20,

Refelx Sights, iron sights

Open Plains Hunting sometimes you just can’t get any closer, so you may have to take a 400yard shot, while anything less than 100yards is not likely 3-12×42, 4-16×42, 3-15×42, 4-16×50
Ultra-low Light Use Most of your shots will not be particularly long, but visibility is likely to be atrocious 2.5-10×56, 3-12×56, 7×56 or 8×56
Tactical Carbine/SHTF (typically AR-15 with 16″ barrel) Anything from clearing buildings to mid-range engagement 1-4×24, 1-6×24, 1-8×24
Compact prism sight (Elcan, ACOG, HAMR)
Reflex Sight w/magnifier
Walking Varminter You plan to mount this scope onto a rifle that you need to be able to carry with you.  You mostly plan to shoot at coyote-size targets, or a little smaller and the distances can be pretty significant 4-16×40, 2.5-16×42, 3-15×42, 3-18×44
Long-range Varminter This scope is likely to be mounted on a heavy-barrel rifle to shoot at prairie dogs or similarly small targets that are never that close 10-50×60, 6-24×50, 8-32×56
Target Shooting You are trying to print the smallest possible groups out on the range with a dedicated heavy barrel rifle 6-24×50, 8-32×56, 10-50×60, 15-60×52, 20×42 or 24×42 or 36×42
Mid to Long Range Tactical You plan to shoot WAAAAAY out there at human-sized targets (that are, hopefully, not shooting back at you) and you might do it in some very adverse lighting and environmental conditions 3-15×50, 5-25×56, 5-20×50 (10×42 if you are originalist or want to go light)


Here are a few of additional guidelines

  • atmospheric and lighting conditions that allow usage of magnifications above 15x or so are pretty rare where I live. Even in categories where I recommend high magnification variables, I mostly keep them below 15x.  Higher magnifications are really useful for reading the conditions though even when you can’t easily use them for shooting.
  • for long range applications you need scopes that have a large reticle adjustment range (70MOA/20mrad or more) and finger-adjustable exposed turrets.
  • most of my recommendations above are somewhat generalized and within each application type there are further divisions. For example, some target shooting disciplines almost exclusively use ultra high (often fixed) magnification scopes.


Non-focusing sights


So far, all the riflescopes I mention are “focusing” optical instruments. What that means, is that the scope re-creates an image of the object in front of it somewhere (there are a couple of focal planes inside the scope where the image is re-created). Then that image is effectively “cast” back out by the riflescope’s eyepiece for your eye to pick up and re-create again on the retina of your eye.  The distance where your eye has to be to pick-up the entirety of the image is called “eye relief”, and it is typically between three and four inches (75 to 100mm).  In order to see the image presented by the scope, your eye has to be in a specific spot behind the riflescope. There is some leeway to the eye position (sometimes referred to as “eyebox”), of course, but if you happen to place your eye too far off, you won’t see much.

Non-focusing sights are the ones that do not have that eye positioning limitation, but they also do not offer any magnification. These are non-magnifying sights that include various red-dot and holographic sights. There are a few 1x (unity magnification) focusing scopes out there that are usually identified as 1x prism sights. They have pretty flexible eye position requirements, but they are still not quite as lenient in that regard as true non-focusing sights.  They do offer some significant advantages for people with astigmatism.

Red-dot and holographic sights are designed for super-fast target acquisition with both eyes open and work well for close-range tactical applications. These are the sights your most frequently see in pictures from Iraq and Afghanistan mounted on the army issued M4 carbines. US military issues a large number of Aimpoint red-dot sights and Eotech holographic sights. They represent the two most common types of non-focusing sights out there.  Since the success of these two brands, many others jumped into the fray.  In terms of the battle of technologies, red dot sights (aka reflex sights) are by far the more prolific.  Holographic sights, in principle, represent some very interesting advantages in terms of complex reticle designs and use with magnifiers.  However, holographic sights have small lasers inside, while reflex sights use LEDs.  That gives reflex sights substantial advantages in battery life.  While they did not start out that way, as of 2016, there are dozens of reflex sights out there that you can leave on and expect the battery to last for a couple of years.  Reflex sights can also be made smaller and, personally, I strongly prefer compact red dot sights to the full size ones.  Holographic sights, on the other hand, work better with magnifiers and offer some other advantages.  Ultimately, it comes down to what you prefer. 

Here is a picture of an Aimpoint Micro:

Aimpoint Micro

Aimpoint Micro

Effectively, all you are trying to do with a sight like this is look through a short tube that makes up its body. If your eye is positioned along a straight line behind the sight (or close enough to it), you’ll see a red dot, which is your aiming point. In order to have reasonably fast target acquisition, the dot is pretty large (although this varies between models). Unfortunately, a large dot that aids target acquisition also makes it harder to shoot accurately at longer ranges. Still, a red dot sight is easily good enough to shoot deer-size targets within 100yards, and, in the hands of a skilled shooter, a fair bit further than that.

Here is what the latest Eotech looks like:

Eotech EXPS3

Eotech EXPS3

Aiming with the Eotech, in principle, is similar to aiming with a reflex sight: look through the squarish tube and place the reticle onto your target. However, the reticle of the holographis sight can be any pattern, like the circle-dot arrangement on most Eotechs, rather than a large dot of most red dot sights:


With the Eotech, you are looking through a holographic screen and, in some circumstances, the reticle can appear pixelated which some people find distracting. However, on balance, both Aimpoint’s large dot and Eotech’s circle-dot are very effective.

In recent years, in order to extend long range capabilities of red-dot sights, a few companies introduced magnifiers. These are essentially short monoculars with 3x or 4x magnifications that can be placed immediately behind a red-dot sight. When not in use, they can be either removed or flipped aside.

Lastly, there is quite a number of so-called “micro red-dot sights” on the market. These are simply red-dots small enough to be mounted on handguns or as secondary sights onto riflescopes. Aside from tiny size, their operation is not different from any other red-dot sight. Here is an example of Leupold and Vortex miniature red dot sights:





Scope mounting pitfalls


If I try to list all of the possible scope mounting screw-ups I have seen over the years, this will be a very long (and likely very boring) section. Even a very nice scope, if improperly mounted, will not work very well. Pretty much any modern rifle comes set-up for scope mounting in some way. It is either configured with a grooved receiver for proprietary rings (CZ, Tikka and Ruger for example) or drilled and tapped for bases of some sort (just about every other maker). Problems can start with something as simple as the holes in the receiver being slightly misaligned from the factory, which in turn causes the rings to be misaligned thereby putting undue pressure onto the scope tube. Then there are the potential problems with improperly machined rings and bases themselves.

All of that is pretty well known, but I still often see people getting $5 rings for their $500 scopes. If that is not “asking for trouble”, I do not know what is. Reasonably well-made rings and bases can be had for as little as $30-$40 with prices going all the way up to $200-$300 for fancy quick-detachable designs. Whichever version you decide to get, it helps to check and make sure that the rings are concentric (there are kits available for that or a gunsmith can do it for you). Oftentimes, it also helps to epoxy-bed the bases to the receiver. If the rings are not concentric, they should be lapped (once again there are kits available for that). Alternatively, if you do not need a quick-detachable mounting setup, Burris Signature Zee rings have self-aligning plastic inserts that take care of ring alignment problems.

There are quite a few different mounting systems out there and most of them, if properly executed, are equally suitable for most applications. One exception to that is the so-called “universal” or “standard” system that has a dove-tailed front ring and windage-adjustable rear ring. In this set-up, the brunt of the recoil is absorbed by the front ring alone, so I do not recommend this system for hard-kicking rifles.

If you choose to mount the scope yourself (and it is generally not very difficult if you have the right tools), make sure you know the torque specifications for both the rings and the bases. Some manufacturers have that information on their website, while with others you may have to give them a call. This is probably the most common problem I see with scope mounting: overtightened rings. I have seen scope tubes crushed to the point of permanently mangling the scope. In more mild cases, overtightened front ring prevents the side-focus knob from operating properly. Combination of overtightened and mis-aligned rings can cause most scope adjustments to seize-up completely.
Bottom line is that if you plan to mount your scope yourself, pay attention to little details; it can save you all sorts of headache later on.



Mechanical Quality: they all kinda look the same, is there really a difference?


Yes, absolutely!

Cheap scopes, on average and assuming the same configuration, are less durable and reliable than their more expensive brethren (although mid-range scopes are not necessarily any less durable than the expensive ones), have less precise adjustments and are prone to other mechanical problems. Now, I am mostly talking about really cheap scopes here. These days most scopes from the mid-price range onward are quite good, but that of course depends on the application and on the user’s expectations.

Oftentimes, it is difficult to generalize about the quality of a particular scope. Besides, there are exceptions to all generalizations, and naturally, those are the ones that people remember. It is an unfortunate consequence of producing anything mechanical that there will be occasional flawed samples that make their way through QC (quality control). Typically, part of the price you pay for an expensive scope goes toward more extensive QC, but regardless of how expensive, all things mechanical can (and occasionally do) break. There is no way to guarantee with 100% certainty that any particular scope will be both repeatable and reliable, but common sense suggests that we can come up with some reasonable guidelines. Bottom line (and this is going to be a rather recurring theme) is that if the riflescope configuration that you are looking at is difficult to make, consider spending more money. Affordability and complexity simply do not make a good combination. Moreover, keep in mind that something considered difficult to make twenty years ago is not considered to be all that difficult today, so this is a moving target of sorts.

However, the general principle holds: it you are looking at a $300 scope with the same feature set as the latest and greatest $4k instrument, chances are that you are trading away some mechanical quality for all those features.

In terms of the mechanics, the things that are hard to make are somewhat self-explanatory, like the high zoom ratio designs that are so popular now: 3-9×42 is easier to get right than a 3-18×42.

Similarly, the higher the magnification of the scope, the tighter the positioning tolerances for the mechanical elements are.

Then there is a case of somewhat misplaced expectations: for example, most hunting scopes are intended to be used in a “set and forget” mode. One implication of that is that the adjustments, although marked 1/4MOA, may not be exactly that. They might not even be very uniform or very repeatable, but, once the scope is sighted in, if the point of aim does not move then the scope works as intended. Finally, there are the economies of scale to take into account: if a particular design has been made for some time and in volume by a reputable maker, it is likely that most of the kinks have been worked out.


Adjustments and Controls

Most riflescopes, thankfuly, do not have all that many adjustments and controls that can be screwed up, but there are enough of them to occasionally complicate matters. What is worse is that there has been very little clarity in how to use some of those adjustments and controls. The number of things you can adjust varies (looking at a couple dozen scopes in my safe) from two to six. I am going to first list them here and go into a little more detail afterwards:
  • Point of Aim (POA) adjustments:
  • Elevation adjustment knob
  • Windage adjustment knob
  • Magnification ring
  • Eyepiece focus (reticle)
  • Image focus (image and parallax correction via either Adjustable Objective, Side Focus or Rear Focus)
  • Reticle illumination control

Operationally, the simplest scope I have is a rather old (made in the 1980s) Israeli Nimrod 6×40. It has a grand total of two adjustments: elevation and windage knobs. All these knobs do is move the internals of the scope slightly in order to change the position of the reticle.

For the most basic of scopes you use the windage and elevation knobs to dial in the Point of Aim (POA) of the scope to coincide with the Point of Impact (POI) of the rifle. Additionally, if the elevation knob is set up for it, you can use it for trajectory compensation when shooting at extended ranges. That is the case with this old Nimrod scope.

Most modern scopes, even the very inexpensive ones, have more controls than that. First of all, since vast majority of scopes currently made have variable magnification, they also have a magnification or zoom ring, rather predictably located at the forward end of the eyepiece. In the picture below, it is a wide rubber-covered patch that has a the magnification numbers right next to it (the scope is Minox ZA-3 3-9×40 and is set to 9x magnification).




As far as other controls go, this scope also has an eyepiece focus, which is located right at the tail end of the eyepiece (in the picture, it is on the right-most end of the scope next to the “+|-” markings on the scope). The eyepiece focus exist for one reason and one reason only: to make the reticle look as sharp as possible to your eye. It should never be used to focus the image, only the reticle. In effect, it allows you to adjust the scope to the peculiarities of your eyesight. Ideally, you should set the eyepiece focus once, when you first set the scope up and not touch it unless your eyesight changes.

The scope configuration in the picture above is probably the most common one for modern big game hunting scopes. You can adjust windage and elevation (i.e. change the POA via the position of the reticle inside the scope), magnification, and eyepiece focus.

Higher magnification models often add some sort of an image focus adjustment. Image focus adjustment works via one of three means: adjustable objective (AO), side focus (SF), or rear focus. All three acomplish the same task: get the image as sharp as possible and reduce parallax. All three work equally well when properly executed. Unlike the eyepiece focus, this is the adjustment that gets used every time a target at a new distance is engaged. The first two are the more common methods. Rear focus is only used on a couple of scope lines I am aware of and only for fixed magnification scopes. For those designs, image focus adjustment is in the same spot where magnification ring would have been otherwise on variable scopes.

Adjustable Objective looks exactly the way it sounds: there is a knurled ring around the objective bell of the scope that you rotate to bring the image into focus. A good example of AO is on this Sightron S2 Big Sky 6-24×42 (mounted on the rifle):



Side Focus is also quite descriptive: it is a knob on the side of the scope, usually on the left of the turret box opposite the windage adjustment, although there are some variations on its exact placement.  This is the most “fashionable” of the image focus adjustment methods these days.  Here is a look at the center portion of a March Tactical 2.5-25×42 scope.  The Side Focus knob is on the left side of the scope:


In principle, AO is somewhat more fragile than Side or Rear Focus; however, in practice, I found that there is little difference between them except for the obvious: location of the control. Depending on the shooter and shooting position, one may be more comfortable than the other. For example, for left-handed shooters, AO and rear focus tend to be more convenient than Side Focus. For a lot of right handed shooters, Side Focus is the most conveniently located option.

Lastly, there is the reticle illumination control. This comes in a bewildering array of shapes and sizes. Most frequently it is an additional knob you can turn, that is placed either on the eyepiece or on the turret box (for scopes without side-focus). In some designs, reticle illumination control is integrated into the side-focus knob or, more recently, simply consists of a couple of pushbuttons on the turret box. For fast majority of the scopes equipped with the reticle illumination, there is a way to adjust its brightness. One hand, that is a good thing, since different lighting conditions require different illumination levels. On the other hand, it is a bad thing since most manufacturers (especially the inexpensive ones) get the illumination levels totally wrong and generally screw up on reticle illumination execution with alarming regularity. For night time, the reticle illumination illumination should be very faint, otherwise it effects your night vision. For day time use in bright sun (to speed up target acquisition for example), in order for the illumination to be visible, it has to be very bright. Vast majority of illuminated reticles out there satisfy neither requirement, so make sure you look into that when choosing a scope. Here is another general rule of thumb: if you want properly executed reticle illumination, prepare to spend a fair amount of money on your scope. There is one company that effectively made its name largely because it developed an unusual and highly effective method of illuminating the reticle: Trijicon. These scopes use a combination of fiber optics and tritium illumination for a, largely, self adjusting brightness level. If your application really requires reticle illumination at a sub-$1000 price, Trijicon should be on your short list of companies to look at.


Durability vs Repeatability

Talking about durability of rifle scopes typically results in opening a major can of worms, so I will keep it short and to the point.

Durability refers to how well the scope holds up to being used over time, i.e. a durable scope’s performance does not change in any perceptible manner as it is used.

Repeatability refers to the consistency of controls and adjustments.

Technically, neither good durability nor good repeatability guarantees that a scope is going to work well, since neither one guarantees precision and accuracy. A scope can have uneven reticle adjustments, click value can be off, POI can change with magnification. However, for as long as it maintains this behavior without deteriorating or changing, the scope is both durable and repeatable. In order to make it a good scope, it also has to have adjustments that perform to spec.

Durability is very difficult to discuss since it is by nature a statistical parameter. Only the manufacturers have access to the statistics of how many of their scopes break (and are sent back to them). All the information we typically have is simply anecdotal evidence that is rarely statistically significant. All things mechanical can and do break occasionally. If one scope breaks, it is not necessarily an indictment of the rest of that product line. However, if the person whose scope broke is vocal enough, he can create enough reverberations on the internet to blow up the problem. That having been said, in many cases there is enough anecdotal evidence to provide valuable information. For example, one brand that recently emerged with particularly obnoxious advertising is certifiable junk. The brand I am referring to is “Counter Sniper Optics” and this is a case where there is enough anecdotal evidence to make it statistically important.

Still, by and large, all we have to go on is word of mouth and that tends to be dominated by a few “loud” voices. Over the years, I have managed to coerce a few manufacturers into privately disclosing their return rates, but I swore to keep that information private (and I will not break that promise). All I got out of that is a simple fact that mid-range scopes are typically well-made.

What makes things even more complicated is a simple fact that many riflescope designs go through small quiet changes that are never disclosed to the customer. For example, it is not uncommon for a new product to reveal a design flaw during the first few months on the market. As soon as the maker learns of this and does appropriate Failure Analysis, the design flaw gets fixed. However, if the owners of original faulty scopes are loud enough (and if the manufacturer is dumb enough to provide less than stellar customer service in today’s competitive market place), the reputation of the whole product line can end up tarnished.

Then there are the different failure modes: if your scope is going to fail, you want it to fail catastrophically, so that you know right away something went wrong. The worst kind of failure is the gradual decline in precision and repeatability, since it is often difficult to diagnose until it is too late. Bottom line is that if you want to avoid surprises, check your scopes periodically for precision and repeatability of adjustments.

Lastly, there is a case of unreasonable expectations (yet again). I expect every scope I have to be durable. If it does not hold zero, it is a paper weight, not a scope. However, if it is a truly inexpensive piece, I do not have very high expectations on repeatability, so I do not mess with the adjustments too much. The more I pay for the scope, the more I expect from it. By the time we get to mid-price scopes ($500 to $1000), I do not expect any nasty surprises. For the truly high end stuff, I expect everything to be flawless, since I have just paid twice more money for 10% more performance. The rest of that extra price tag goes into QC.



Optical quality: good glass, bad glass, it’s all the same, isn’t it?


No, it is not the same. Not Quite. All you have to do to confirm that is get a couple of scopes with widely differing price tags but similar configurations and look through them side by side for a few minutes, preferably under some sort of challenging light conditions (not inside a gun store). However, comparing a $100 scope to a $3000 one sure looks like a rigged election, and it is. For products that are closer in price the differences are often quite small. Some companies offer more for the money than others, but overall, you get what you pay for. I’ll cover that in more detail further on, but, for the time being, it is worthwhile to talk a little bit about optical quality and image quality. A lot goes into making a riflescope with good optical quality: system design has to be properly worked out, all of the optical components have to be shaped and polished to very high standards, coatings have to applied both correctly and consistently, etc. However, from an end user perspective, none of those details by themselves should be of any interest. Still, I see internet discussion all over the place on how a particular scope features glass X which must be totally superior to glass Y. These discussions are largely a testament to how successful marketing departments of large equipment makers in diverting their customers’ attention from what is actually important and toward the useless, but cool-sounding details. I am not saying that the materials used are unimportant. They are important. However, they are not directly important. Moreover, the choice of materials is driven by the overall system design and no matter how high the quality of a particular piece is, it has to be used correctly. On top of that, some other part of the optical system may be the limiting factor. For example, there are three separate optical systems inside a typical riflescopes, eyepiece, relay and objective. All three are equally important, but if the eyepiece is badly designed, for example, it makes no difference how phenomenally good the objective lens system may be and vice versa. On top of that, as end users of the product we really do not know enough of the technical details of what goes into a particular scope to be able to make any sense of whether they matter or not. Once in a while, during a candid conversation with a scope maker they mention something that is actually worthwhile, but then they usually ask to keep this information private (and I understand why). Bottom line is that, first and foremost, we should be looking at the overall image quality of the product. Otherwise, we run the risk of “focusing on the trees so much, that we lose sight of the forest”. When it comes right down to it, the only truly relevant question about the optical quality of a riflescope is the following: “will you be able to see your target well enough to comfortably make a shot at all possible lighting and environmental conditions you might encounter?” If the answer is “yes”, do you care about how the scope maker achieved this? Unless you have a lot of money to spend on a scope, the answer is likely to be “no”. Then you just have to look and see which scope within your budget gets you the closest to “yes”. How the scope maker achieves that is still not especially relevant.

On the other hand, looking at this from the standpoint of those trying to sell their products in a very competitive market place, I can see why the advertisement campaigns we see are designed the way they are. After all, if you make a mid-range riflescope that is not very different from a half-dozen of your competitors, how do you make it stand out? You have to zero in on some sort of a differentiating features that touch on both optical and mechanical qualities of the product. Mechanical features are fairly simple: different knob and other control designs are easy to photograph, describe and put into an ad. How do you sell good image quality? Every magazine ad for every scope company for a riflescope talks about how well you can see. You pretty much have to tout something: patented coating recipe, extra low-dispersion glass, “high definition” glass, etc. None of these things by themselves are of any importance and (by my estimate) nearly 100% of what you see in a typical advertisement is, at best, misleading and at worst, pure BS. However, all these tricks are necessary for attracting enough attention to a particular product to at least get you to consider it.

Going forward, I’ll discuss a few things I look at when I evaluate a riflescope’s optical quality. I am not going to spend much time on scientific definitions of those terms. I think it is more pertinent to look at how they effect a scope’s performance.


Resolution and Contrast

First of all, I think it is worthwhile to define these two terms, if briefly, since they sometimes are confused with each other. Both refer to the image quality and are influenced by a number of optical design parameters. However, in order to evaluate resolution and brightness, you do not need to know anything about the scope’s construction. All you have to do is look through it and pay attention.

Resolution is simply the ability of the scope to distinguish small details within the image.

Contrast is the ability of the scope to faithfully transmit the difference between light and dark (and by extension color fidelity and saturation).

I have heard people say that resolution and contrast go hand in hand. That is not, strictly speaking, correct. They are in a perpetual match of “tug of war”. It is impossible to optimize both of them to be as high as possible. If resolution is fully optimized, contrast suffers, and vice versa. In an image with high resolution, but low contrast, there may be a lot of fine detail, but you might have a hard time distinguishing between them, since they do not stand out much.  Conversely, if an image has high contrast, but low resolution, all the large details will be very distinct (a common term is to say that they “pop” out at you), but small details will simply not be present. While ideally you would want to have an image with both high contrast and high resolution, that is not easy to achieve. For every optical system, the designer has to compromise between resolution and contrast in order to achieve a well-balanced image. Moreover, a riflescope’s contrast and resolution are typically not the same in the center of the image as they are near the edges. The term “sweetspot” usually refers to how large of a spot in the center of the image delivers consistent resolution and contrast (and a few other things). Historically, different companies chose to compromise between resolution and contrast in different ways. For example, between the “alpha” makers, historically, Zeiss used to always put a little more emphasis on resolution, Leica on contrast and Swarovski on sweetspot size. In practical terms, they naturally tried to get everything as well optimized as possible, but they simply had slightly different ides of what the “optimal” compromise is. In recent years, as the optical quality keeps on getting better and cheaper, there is some convergence between the compromises made by top end companies anyway. That is one of the reasons why some people prefer image quality of scopes from particular companies: since we all have different eyes, we are sensitive to different things. Some, for example, are so sensitive to contrast, that a very well resolved image might not look all that good to them due to somewhat muted contrast. Personally, I adjust to contrast differences pretty well, but my eyes favor (somewhat) high resolution and wide sweetspot (hence my affection for Zeiss riflescopes and Swarovski binoculars).

Moreover, the relative importance of contrast and resolution sometimes changes as the light gets low. In bright daylight, when the objects you are looking at are naturally very contrasty, even if the scope diminishes that contrast very well, you are still likely to see details pretty well. However, as the light gets low, if contrast is insufficient, fine details start blurring pretty quickly, and even large details become hard to see. They just do not stand out as much. In order for low light performance to be good, both resolution and contrast have to be up to par (and that is one of the reasons you get what you pay for).

Lastly, I’ll briefly mention MTF. MTF stands for “Modulation Transfer Function”. I see this term misused in all sorts of discussions related to sporting optics. MTF is, in essense, a composite measure that describes how well a particular optical instrument maintains contrast at ever increasing resolution and with respect to spatial variation within the image. Just about every optical design goes through some sort of MTF optimization, and a lot of the potential performance of an optic can be gleaned from its MTF curves. In principle. In practice, since the peculiarities of our eyes are not accounted for, there is no replacement for looking through the riflescope in question. Three years of digging through specs and curves will not replace 20 minutes of messing with the actual product.

If you are interested in more technical details on MTF, resolution and contrast, there are all sorts of wonderful online resources available: Wikipedia, Norman Koren’s website, etc. Just do not expect a whole lot of practical and applicable insight from them, since they are primarily focused on the photography applications, where image acquisition is accomplished via a well-characterized imaging sensor, not your eye. Bottom line is that all optical designers pay attention to MTF and optimize it the best their budgets allow.


Coatings and Light Transmission

There is really not all that much directly relevant information that I can say about coatings, but it is useful to know why they are important.

There are all sorts of coatings used in modern optical devices and for a number of different things. However, in the context of riflescopes, when someone says “coatings”, they usually mean anti-reflective coatings, often shortened into ARC or “AR Coatings”. These coatings minimize the reflections at every air-to-glass interface. If you happen to be looking at a riflescope that has both lenses and prisms (like Trijicon’s ACOG, for example), then the lenses have AR coatings on them, while the prisms, depending on which surface you are looking at, will have either Anti-Reflective coatings, or High-Reflection coatings (one of the surfaces of the roof prism). However, for the sake of this discussion, I will stick to AR Coatings.

First of all, there is the natural question of why we need these coatings at all.

The reason is quite simple: every time light passes through an interface between two different materials (like air and glass, for example), some of it gets reflected back. The exact amount of light that passes through vs the light that gets reflected back depends on the specifics of the materials in question, but for air-to-glass and glass-to-air interfaces it works out to be ~4% per surface (if there are no AR coatings involved). A riflescope has quite a few lenses in it and, assuming they are air-spaced, each lens has tow surfaces that reflect a little light. Let’s assume that we are dealing with a scope of fairly simple construction, like some fixed power designs, and it has 5 lenses, i.e. 10 reflective interfaces. If you want to calculate the total amount of light that gets through the scope, you simply trace through each interface sequentially: first surface lets through 96% of incoming light, next surface transmits 96% of that and so on. The effect is multiplicative, not additive. It is more convenient to write that for a scope with 10 surfaces:

[Total light out of the scope]=[Total light entering the scope]*[0.96^10]

Incidentally light transmission is defined as a ratio of light coming out of the scope to the light entering the scope. In this case, from the simple formula above:

Light Transmission=[0.96^10]=0.665 or 66.5%

If you have some sort of a decent quality Anti-Reflective coating on every surface in the scope, reflection at each interface can go down to 0.5% (or conversely light transmission at each interface becomes 99.5%). In that case, for the whole scope:
Light Transmission=[0.995^10]=0.951 or 95.1%

In reality the calculation is not as simple as that since there is some wavelength (color) dependence involved in addition to other considerations, but even if this is a “back of the napkin” approximation, there is still a lot more light getting through when decent coatings are involved, ~30% difference in this case.

Pretty much all modern scopes employ AR coatings of some sort, so when you compare them the difference in total light transmission is likely to be not huge. Perhaps more importantly, your eye is very good for adjusting to these small differences in total amount of light that the scope delivers to it. In modern scopes, total light transmission is not directly important. As a matter of fact, it is a lot more important to know how much light gets reflected than how much gets transmitted.

While your eye does not care too much about light transmission, it cares about image fidelity a great deal. If there are strong reflections somewhere within the scope, you can run into a situation where there all sorts so of reflections bouncing back and forth inside the scope. Some of that secondary reflected light eventually makes it to your eye and your brain finds it more difficult to make sense of the primary image. On the surface, it seems like the strength of that secondary reflected light is a fraction of a percent of the original imaging getting through the scope, but under some conditions, it can have quite an effect on the image. For example, imagine you are trying to take a shot at a shaded target some time around sunset looking toward it. As you look through your scope, you have both the shaded target and the very bright setting sunlight in your field of view. Because the bright sky during sunset is so much brighter than what you are actually aiming at, even a weak reflection can be sufficient to seriously degrade how well your eye resolves the target itself (this is a type of optical flair, which I will touch on in the next section).

Riflescope advertising often proudly touts a high light transmission ratio of a particular scope. Higher light transmission (i.e. fewer reflections) is usually a good thing, but it should be looked at in proper context. Image quality is highly dependent on how sophisticated the optical design of a scope is, and top notch designs often require more optical elements than simpler ones. With so many lenses inside the scope, the overall light transmission might drop a little (remember each extra surface reflects some extra light), but the image quality of that scope is likely to be higher than that of a similar scope with less sophisticated (i.e. fewer lenses) design, if they use the same AR coatings. The best example of that is offered by two, no longer available in US, Kahles scopes that I had a chance to compare side by side: Kahles CL 3-9×42 and Kahles KX 3-9×42. Both are excellent scopes, but the more expensive CL has an extra lens in it. Otherwise, these are very similar designs that use identical coatings (Kahles’ AMV). KX had slightly higher light transmission, while CL has higher overall image quality.

Lastly, there is the matter of objective lens diameter to address. I often hear people say that because scope X has larger objective lens than scope Y, it has higher light transmission. That is not necessarily correct.

A scope with a larger objective lens lets more light into the scope. However, light transmission is a ratio that is normalized with respect to the amount of light entering the scope. Hence, while a scope with a larger objective lens may very well deliver more light to your eye, light transmission ratio is no tin any way effected by it.


Stray Light, Scattering and Flare

Stray light is exactly what it sounds like. It is, quite simply, light that strays into the image from all sorts of different sources and that is not intended to be there. It is the unwanted light.
It can enter the image in a number of different ways:

  • reflected light (this is the light that is technically supposed to be entering the scope, but it follows an unintended path, as mentioned in the previous section),
  • off-axis light from outside the field of view that enters the objective lens at an angle and causes reflections from glass surfaces (veiling flare, for example)
  • scattered light from particles and glass impurities in the optical path
  • scattered and reflected light from mechanical structures inside the scope


Optimizing stray light performance of the scope is, often, one of the more important final touches in the design. If you look into the objective lens of a high quality riflescopes, you will note that all the metal surfaces inside look like they were sandblasted and blackened in some sort of a non-flaking way. If you pay attention you might also see some slight baffles that are strategically positioned to block off some off-axis light. Bottom line is that figuring out how to deal with stray light is mostly a problem for an optical designer; however, there are a few thing a shooter can do as well, to alleviate some of the problems. No matter how much effort goes into suppressing stray light, all scopes are susceptible to it, although to varying degrees.

First and foremost, if your scope came with a sunshade (metallic tube that can get screwed into the objective bell of a scope as an extension of sorts), use it. It might get in the way on a hunting rifle, when out in the field, but on other occasions, I suggest giving it a shot. Other than the scope being slightly longer, there is really no downside: it will either have no effect on the image, or it will make it better. While the name “sunshade” is generally appropriate, often times it is equally useful, when there isn’t much sun visible at all. Anytime there are bright ligth sources outside the field of view, a sunshade is likely to help.

Keep in mind that stray light can enter the scope through both the objective lens and the eyepiece, and putting a sunshade onto the eyepiece of a weaponsight is not feasible for a number of obvious reasons. However, putting rubber eyeshield on the eyepiece can work for rifles with low recoil or simply when a riflescope is used as an observation device (it also helps in filtering out unwanted light entering your eye). Even something as simple as wearing a baseball hat can help block some unwanted illumination.

As far as scattering goes, there isn’t too much you can do about scattering except take care of the lenses: any dirt or scratches will create some light scatter, so if you want optimal performance, maintain your optics properly. Some scattering occurs simply due to imperfections in the glass, such as tiny air bubbles. However, it is not a major problem in scopes by reputable manufacturers.
Lastly, flare deserves a few words. Flare is a type of stray light that is obviously visible. A lot of stray light simply degrades the image quality without creating any distinctly visible artefacts. Flare is usually easy to detect. The most common type is the veiling flare which, true to the name, looks like a bright curtain across all or part of the image. Veiling flare is usually caused by reflections within the objective lens system (and scopes with large objective lenses are especially prone to it). Other types of flair often show up as bright floating objects within the image and, depending on the type of illumination present, can have a color aspect to them. For example, some halogen light sources produce rather characteristic purple flare in many optics that has very little to do with real life performance, since that kind of lighting scheme is never encountered outdoors.


Distortion and Aberration Control
Generally speaking, most issues related to distortion and aberrations in riflescopes are quite overblown, especially in the case of hunting scopes that are not used for extended observation all that much (or at least are not supposed to be used for extended observation). For a riflescope, it is important that whatever is in the center of the field of view is as sharp and clear as possible. The performance at the edges is comparatively less important. Since geometric distortion (itself a type of an aberration) and most other aberration types (with some notable exceptions) are present mostly off-center, they are a secondary concern from a shooter’s perspective.

First of all, what is distortion? Technically, there are quite a few types of distortion in optical instruments, but radial distortion is of most relevance to rifle scopes. Essentially, it describes an instrument’s ability to show you straight lines: if lines that are supposed to be straight, look curved near the edges of the image (and the further from the center, the more curved they appear) you have distortion. There are two types of it: pincushion (lines curve inward) and barrel (lines curve outward). Most types of sporting optics actually build slight amount of pincushion distortion into the image in order to counteract the rolling ball effect when panning. Generally, a lot of variable magnification riflescopes have visible edge distortion at lower magnifications and, by and large, it is not very interesting. We aim with the center portion of the image, so whatever is at the edge is not all that important for as long as it is not strong enough to distract your attention from the point of aim.

As far as optical aberrations go, they can be sub-divided into two types: monochromatic aberrations and color aberrations.

I will not spend a whole lot of time on monochromatic aberrations. They include things like spherical aberration, coma, astigmatism, etc. For the most part these aberrations are a by-product of paraxial approximation in optical design and/or of the fact that most lenses have spherical surfaces. Paraxial approximation simply implies that when the original optical design was done, the designer assumed that the light rays are not going to deviate too much from the optical axis of the scope, and in most cases that holds true. However, some riflescope configurations really push the limits of this approximation, for example compact scopes with large objective lenses.

Spherical lens surfaces have both strengths and weaknesses. Truthfully, they only have one advantage, but it is an important one: they are easy to manufacture very precisely. The main weakness is that the light that goes through the part of the lens that is away from the optical axis is focused at a slightly different spot than the light that is close to the optical axis. Hence, the larger the lens the more apparent this, appropriately named, spherical aberration becomes. Most modern scopes do a very good job of correcting for spherical aberrations, but if you stumble onto a scope with the image near the edges looking a bit out of focus, you are likely looking at some residual uncorrected spherical aberration. A lot of other optical aberrations are also a result of off-axis performance.

By making lens systems a bit more complicated (i.e. by adding appropriately shaped lenses), a lot of the aberrations (including ones I did not mention here) can be corrected, but every extra optical element adds size, weight and cost. It also adds additional surfaces that can cause reflections. Just like everywhere else, there is no free lunch here.

Color aberrations usually stem from the fact that most materials have different indices of refraction at different wavelengths. Refraction is the material property that makes lenses work: when light goes from air into glass, it changes direction a little bit (“bends”, for lack of a better word). How much light changes direction as it enters the glass is determined by the glass’ index of refraction. If we take into consideration primary colors only (blue, green and red), it turns out that for most typical glass, the refractive index for blue light is higher than for green light, which is higher that that for red light. That makes the focal length of the lens slightly shorter for blue light than for green (and red). For similar reasons, the image details of different color can end up reconstructed at different distance from the optical axis. Both of these effects are referred to as Chromatic Aberration (often shortened as CA). The effects of different focal length for different colors are called longitudinal CA, and the color-dependent variations in detail reconstruction around the optical axis are referred to as lateral CA.

In riflescopes, CA is usually an artefact of objective lens system and can be largely corrected with sufficiently sophisticated design. It is also more prominent in higher magnification scopes where the tolerances are generally tighter and various aberrations are more visible. This is where Extra Low Dispersion (ED) glass comes in. When properly used, an addition of an ED glass element can help eliminate any noticeable CA from an optical system. The use of ED glass in riflescopes is not very prominent at the moment, but it is becoming more common. If you happen to need a riflescope with the highest possible magnification, it is worth your while to look at offerings with ED glass in the design.

Both types of chromatic aberration (if visible in your scope) show up as colored fringed at the interface between bright and dark objects within the field of view. The actual color varies depending on the scope design. Red or violet fringes are most common, but I have seen CA of almost every color of the rainbow over the years. Lateral CA, as the name suggests, becomes most pronounced the further you get from the center of the image, while longitudinal CA is visible along the optical axis as well.

My take on Chromatic Aberration in riflescopes, by and large, is the same as that on all aberrations and distortions: I want the center of the image (i.e. the aiming point) to be clear, sharp and as devoid of undesirable artefacts as possible. I am, however, far more forgiving toward edge effects as long as they are not strong enough to be distracting.


Tunnel Vision

Tunnel vision is yet another one of those contentious topics where people tend to disagree. Empirically, it seems that some people are bothered by it vastly more than others. My sensitivity to tunnel effect is directly proportional to riflescope price: I am willing to forgive some of it on lower priced scopes, but if I am shelling out some serious money, I get much pickier.

What is tunnel vision? The effect is easier to witness than to describe. An extreme case of tunnel vision is like looking through a straw: the image appears far away from you and it looks narrow. The actual field of view might not be particularly narrow once you look at it carefully, but it looks narrow. This effect is frequently characterized by a thick black ring around the image, although that description is not necessarily accurate. I have seen some scopes with visible black ring around the image that had minimal tunnel effect. In those designs, the eyepiece was overbuilt and had housing so thick that you simply saw the rim of the eyepiece around the image.

Tunnel effect occurs when one of the optical systems inside the scope has field of view wider than the limiting aperture in front of it. The most common occurrence of tunnel effect is due to the relay system seeing the inside of the metal tube that houses the erector lenses. On variable scopes, it is manifested by tunnel vision appearing at lower magnifications. It is not uncommon for a scope to be completely free of tunnel vision for the upper 70% of its magnification range, only to have the effect become progressively worse in the lower 30%. If you notice the black ring around the image become progressively thicker as you dial magnification down, then the relay system is at fault.

The strength of the tunnel effect is determined by the optical design of the riflescope and by how you perceive it. That is one of the reasons you have to get your hands on the scope and look through it. There is nothing in the specifications or anywhere in the accompanying documentation that will tell whether this model has tunnel vision and, if yes, its severity.


Exit Pupil and Low Light performance

Determining low light performance of a riflescope is not nearly as simple as some make it out to be. On the other hand, it is not rocket science either. However, there is no substitute to field trial. If you want to be certain how good (or not so good) your scope is in low light, you have to try it out with your own eyes.
Most of the problems in predicting how well a a particular scope performs in light starved conditions naturally stem from differences in individual eyesight. We all see things slightly differently in good light and in poor light these differences often become even more pronounced.
The most obvious (and easy to observe) difference is in the size of your eye pupil. In good light, a human eye pupil contracts considerably, since there is plenty of light available. The amount of light that gets into your eye is directly proportional to the area of your eye pupil, so if during the day, your eye pupil has a typical diameter of ~2mm, its area is ~3.14mm2. As the sun starts setting and there is less light available, a few things happen. First of all, your eye adjusts to the decrease in ambient light and your eye pupil dilates in response. If it increases up to 4mm in diameter, its area becomes ~12.56mm2, or four times larger than it was during the day. So far so good, except the speed and magnitude of eye pupil dilation varies from person to person and is also effected by a number of other factors like dietary habits, age, time of day, etc. For a typical healthy human being under the age of 30, maximum eye pupil diameter is ~7mm when it gets really dark, but I have run into people with 4mm and 9mm maximum eye pupil dilation, so it varies greatly. On top of that, simple things, like how much coffee you have had on that day make a difference.
Aside from the eye pupil changes, the way we process visual information also changes depending on how much light is available. There are two types of light sensitive cells in the eye: rods and cones. Generally, depending on the amount of light available, human eye operates on one of three different vision regimes: scotopic (ultra low light where only the rods collect information), mesopic (low light when both rods and cones collect information) and photopic (good light when the visual information is collected primarily by cones). Even in rather low light hunting, human eye seldom gets into the scotopic mode of operation, usually there is enough illumination for mesopic vision. As a general guideline, as the light gets lower, you know when mesopic vision starts when the colors start changing. When color disappears entirely, you are in the scotopic region.
On top of the other complications, rods and cones are not evenly distributed in the retina. There is a region in the retina that is directly behind the iris called fovea. It is approximately 1mm in diameter and is responsible for most information collected by the eye. The problem is that there are a lot of cones in the fovea, but not a lot of rods. Hence, as the light gets lower and cones stop collecting information, you need to rely on light falling outside the fovea, which is greatly helped by larger exit pupil in your riflescope.
The exit pupil is a function of scope magnification and objective lens. To calculate its diameter, divide the objective lens diameter by the magnification. For example, a 6×42 riflescope has a 7mm exit pupil. A variable magnification 3-9×40 riflescope has ~4.4mm exit pupil at 9x and it gets progressively larger as you lower magnification. In practice, with a 3-9×40 riflescope, you end up with the best low light performance at somewhere between 4x and 7x magnification, depending on how large your eye pupil gets and how low the light is. To know for sure, it is worthwhile to experiment.
Aside from the exit pupil diameter, high image quality really helps. Human brain utilizes the images from both eyes to extract detail, but there is no binocular vision in riflescopes. However, keeping the off-eye slightly open helps. Also, images with higher contrast allow you to maintain some elements of color vision longer. That also helps your brain extract detail out of the picture.
There are a few other things to consider as well. For one, in very low light you actually see a little better with the “corner of your eye”, so to speak. It is also easier to see moving details than stationary ones. In that case, it helps to have the exit pupil of the scope a little larger than your eye pupil. That way your eye can move a little without blacking out the image. Another factor is the change in the F/# of your eye as the pupil dilates. That causes the perceived depth of field of your eye to be quite a bit shallower in low light. Hence, eye distance behind the scope’s eyepiece becomes more critical.  Moreover, in daylight, when cones are responsible for light collection, your eye is most sensitive to green-yellow part of the spectrum.  In low light, as the rods in your eye starts to collect the bulk of the information, eye sensitivity shifts into the green-blue.  That implies that some scopes with anti-reflective coatings well optimized for daylight will not perform all that well after sunset.  On the other hand, a scope that looks decent, but not exceptional during the day, might look better than you thought at night.  Once again, there is no substitute for experimentation.
When all is said and done, keep in mind that for truly good low light performance, you need both high image quality and large exit pupil. If in doubt, err on the side of top notch glass. If the scope delivers just a bit extra light and higher image fidelity to your eye, a moderate exit pupil works surprisingly well in failing light.



Reticle Selection

Reticle selection is another contentious topic with shooters from different disciplines firmly convinced that their concept of a perfect reticle is indeed perfect for everyone out there.  Truth be told, choice of a reticle, just like the choice of a rifle or a riflescope fluctuates depending on the usage and personal preferences.  Naturally, there are some designs that are highly suitable for a number of applications, but no reticle out there is perfect for everything. Overall number of available reticles available in the market is quite staggering.  Here is an assortment of reticles listed on Zeiss website.  It is by no means comprehensive, but it is a nice sample of reticle types used in hunting scopes:


Tactical or precision shooting requires a completely different set of reticles as does target shooting.  On top of that the same reticle will perform differently depending whether it is placed in the First Focal Plane (FFP) or Second Focal Plane (SFP) of the scope (more on this later).  Then there is the whole issue of illumination.


Reticle selection deserves a separate, detailed article.  Rather than try to go over the minutia of every reticle available in the market, I will simply describe the steps in my thought process when I pick a reticle (and there are quite otherwise excellent scopes that I have passed on simply because I did not think the reticle fit my needs).  I will also list a few reticles that are my personal favorites.

STEP 1. Think clearly about the intended usage for this setup. Is this reticle going to be only used for aiming, or do you plan to also use it for rangefinding and/or holdover?

This will dictate whether I want SFP or FFP reticle. If I only need the reticle as an aiming point, I want some sort of a simple and visible design, likely in the Second Focal Plane (further developed in STEP 2A below).  If the reticle is intended to be used for rangefinding and holdover in addition to aiming, than I definitely prefer more complicated patterns in an FFP design (STEP 2B below).  When the reticle is placed in the Second Focal Plane, it looks the same regardless of which magnification the scope is set on.  When your turn the zoom ring, the image will either shrink or magnify; however, the reticle will appear to be the same size.  It makes for a consistent aiming point, but reticle dimensions (compared to the image) are different and every magnification setting.  When the reticle is in FFP, it shrinks and magnifies together with the image.  Hence, reticle subtensions cover the same portion of the image regardless of magnification setting (very helpful for ranging).  Also, if there are holdover points in the reticle, they will represent the same holdover values at ALL magnifications.  Holdover reticles (like the Rapid-Z designs above) are very popular these days in SFP scopes.  The way they work is as follows: since relative reticle dimensions change with magnification, you tweak your scope’s zoom ring until the reticle subtensions work for holdover with your cartridge at the ranges you are interested in.  Once that is determined, you are pretty much stuck using that magnification if you need to make a long shot, forcing you to use a variable power scope as a fixed power one.  I am not a big fan of that scenario.  I think that magnification setting should be chosen based on the conditions (like lighting) and holdover points should work at all magnifications. However, opinions differ.

STEP 2.    Determine the general attributes you need in a reticle in order to work for you application.


STEP 2A.  If in step 1 above you decided that you only need the reticle as an aiming point, you need to think a little bit about the type of targets you plan to engage.


  • For a big game hunter, the target is usually fairly large even when looked at from 300 yards (and most people should really try to get a lot closer to the animal than that).  On the other hand, lighting conditions might be absolutely atrocious, so a highly visible reticle is a must.  That implies that the reticle should be fairly thick.  That makes it not ideal for shooting groups, but much easier to pick up in a hurry.  An alternative approach is to have a thin reticle that is illuminated.  However, then you need to remember to turn the illumination on (unless it is a Trijicon, but that is a different story) and you end up relying on batteries.  Make sure you have bold reticle you can see in any light, with or without illumination, is cheap insurance.
  • For a varmint shooter, the target is often pretty small and fairly far away. Having a thick reticle might not be optimal because it can block too much of your target.  On the other hand you might still end up in some reasonably unfavorable lighting conditions, so the reticle can not be too thin either.  You want something in between.  Perhaps, a reticle with very thin lines right at the center, but something a little thicker around it so that you do not lose the sight of it.  For this application, you also may consider some sort of a holdover capability in the reticle to be used occasionally when you are forced to take a comparatively long shot and do not have time to twist the knobs.
  • For a target shooter, target size varies,but is often either quite small or quite far 9or both).  On top of that, aiming precision is critical for shooting tight groups.  Lighting conditions are seldom problematic, so for this situation the thinnest of reticles are often the best ones.

STEP 2B. If in step 1 above you decided that you would like to use the reticle for ranging and/or holdover, once again you need to give some thought to what kind of a target you are likely to be engaging and at what distances.


  • For close- to mid-range applications, where a man-size target is assumed, your best bet is a reticle that combines a very visible primary aiming point (for close range applications) with three or four holdover points that work with your cartridge out to 500 yards or thereabouts (think M4-type carbine with a low range 1-4×24 or 1-6×24 variable scope on it).
  • For mid- to long-range applications, where you are likely to be looking at either man-size targets out to very significant distances or at small targets (practical rifle competitions, for example) at distances from a couple of hundred yards and onward, reticles with rather fine aiming points work well.  If your primary focus is competition shooting, then you should be putting a bit more emphasis on really thin lines, since you are likely to be dealing with very small targets in decent lighting.  If your application is primarily military and law enforcement, then the thinnest reticles might be too dependent on illumination.  For most uses, something in between is the best way to go.

STEP 3.  Now that you’ve zeroed in on your application and overall features you want in a reticle, let’s look at some specific designs that I like (there is a lot of personal preference involved here, so these are just general examples).  For a rough idea on how many of these reticle look, I suggest you pay a visit to Zeiss’ Reticle Selector website:$File/index.html

STEP 3A.  Continuing on from step 2A above:


  • For general use on a big game rifle, various plex type reticles are most common.  These are not my favourites since most of the ones available are too thin.  One of the nicer plex reticles out there is Zeiss’ Z-Plex.  Personally, I am big fan of #4 reticle for allround use:




and  various thick post reticles for the worst lighting conditions.  A good example of that would the German #1 reticle or Trijicon’s triangle reticle:




  • For varminting, either a thin duplex reticle or some sort of med-fine BDC reticle is a good way to go.  Here is a picture of Vortex’ Dead-hold BDC reticle which I find sufficiently uncluttered to work well for this application:




  • For target shooting either a simple thin crosshair or thin crosshair with a small-dot work very well.  A good example is Sightron’s fine crosshair with a dot or Vortex’ Target Dot:

STEP 3B.  Continuing on from step 2B above:

  • For quick target acquisition, I really like circular reticles.  The way a human eye perceives information, makes it very easy for us to pick up circular shapes, like thick horseshoes with open bottom that allows for additional holdover points.  The trend for such aiming points started some time back with a small company called GRSC, whose owner holds a patent on one of the better reticles of this type.  The latest rendition of it is called M4-62 since it is calibrated for 65gr 5.56×45 ammo out of a M4 carbine.  Here is a schematic of it:

I have evaluated several version of GRSC scopes that had different generations of this reticle in them and found it to be the fastest general purpose reticle for an M4 type weapon.  The large horseshoe is very fast up close while when there is more time, you can use the small circles for very adequate ranging and aiming on human-sized targets out to 800 yards.

  • Conversely, for longer range shooting, something as massive as that thick horseshoe above is likely to really get in the way.  The “classic” reticle that really started the trend for ranging and holdover is the Mil-Dot, with small round dots spaced one milliradian apart:

    These days there is a large number of other reticles with regularly spaced dots and/or hashmarks, that are a lot more complicated (or sophisticated) than the original MilDot.  Almost every company that makes high quality tactical scopes utilizes some sort of a proprietary design (or multiple designs) either based on milliradian (mil) or minute-of-angle (MOA) spacing.  I have tested and evaluating at least a dozen of them and while I have my preferences, most are perfectly serviceable.  I have the most mileage with the MP8-A5 that John Boyette of Trace Armory Group designed for one of IOR’s tactical scopes, so that is the one I am most comfortable with:


This reticle has a reasonable combination of thin and thick lines to be useful in any lighting conditions, while the small dot in the center provides for a very fine aiming point.  


Bottom line is that whichever reticle you choose, try to get some hands on time with it in the field.  Something that looks good on paper, might not be optimal in real life, while a design that looks too coarse in theory turns out to work far better than you expected.

How much should you spend on a riflescope? (as of late 2010)

  • Is there a sweetspot in riflescope pricing?

The answer to this question varies depending on who you ask.  I believe that the answer is yes.  However, the sweetspot varies depending on the application, and for some applications the range of prices within the sweetspot is quite large.  Whether you need at the low end or high end of that sweetspot range is very individual.  These days, the market is flooded with competent designs and making a choice all too often is difficult simply because so many competitors are very similar to each other.  I make a lot of scope recommendation and the most frequent question I field is something along the lines of: “is this Brand X $600 scope worth the price premium over that Brand Y $400 scope?”  Depending on the scopes in question and the application, the answer could be yes, no or maybe.  Price alone is not enough information.  To make a better recommendation I always have to get into the specifics.

Before I dig into this further, however, I think it is worthwhile to say a few words about what I mean by sweetspot.  Sweetspot in a given category is where I feel you get the most for your money.  Note that I am not saying that more expensive scopes are not worth the investment.  Nor am I saying that the less expensive scopes are not worth looking at.  In the end, the right choice is very individual.  However, I think that the scopes in the sweetspots of their respective market segments are the best way to go for 90% of the people out there.

  • Should there be a relationship between the price of the scope and the price of a rifle you mount it on?

As the old saying goes, if I had a dollar for every time I got asked that question….

Honestly, I do not think there is a direct causal relationship between the price of the rifle and the price of the riflescope.  Now, some specific applications virtually require rather expensive rifles and riflescopes, but one does not cause the other.  Costs of both are driven by what you wish to use them for.  Truly accurate long range rifles tend to be very expensive, and so are the riflescopes designed for long range shooting.  The technical complexity of this type of shooting drives the prices up.  On the other hand, for some night time hunting at fairly close ranges, the rifle does not necessarily have to be anything very esoteric.  As long as it fits the hunter reasonably well, it does not have to be very pretty or super accurate (although neither hurts).  After all, you do not need all that much accuracy to hit a 200 pound pig at 40 yards.  The scope, on the other hand, may have to be pretty expensive if it is to be used successfully in very low light.  I can come up with some other examples that dictate widely varying relationships between the cost of the rifle and the cost of the scope.  The bottom line is that when you are trying to select a riflescope, focus on picking something that matches the intended use rather than the cost of your other equipment.

  • After all is said and done, how much should you spend on riflescopes?

You should spend as much on a riflescope as you can comfortably afford.  Ultimately you get what you pay for.  However, here is where I think the sweetspots are for different applications (same table as I used for the section on applications, with a sweetspot price added in an additional column):

Application Typical usage Riflescope configuration suggestions Sweetspot Pricing
(as of late 2010) and a typical scope model
Allround big game hunting rifle shooting at deer-size game at close to moderate ranges (50 to 300 yards) 3-9×40
6×36 or 6×42
$300 to $400
Sightron S2 Big Sky Zeiss Conquest
Minox ZA-3
Leupold FX-3
High altitude hunting/light rifle applications same as above except you are more winded when you take the shot 2-7×32
6×36 or 4×32
$300 to $500
Leupold VX-3 2.5-8×36
Minox ZA-5 1.5-8×32
Brush Hunting mostly close range shots in wooded areas 1.75-5×32
4×32 or 2.5×20
Aimpoint Red Dot Sight
Leupold VX-3 and FX-2
IOR Hunting
Aimpoint 9000
DGR (Dangerous Game Rifle) you are after the largest and most dangerous game that might try to go after you 1.25-4×24
$400 – $800
Trijicon Accupoint
Burris Euro Diamond
Open Plains Hunting sometimes you just can’t get any closer, so you may have to take a 400 yard shot, while anything less than 100 yards is not likely 3-12×42
$400 – $700
Hawke SW 30 Tac
Sightron S2 Big Sky
Zeiss Conquest
Ultra-low Light Hunting Most of your shots will not be particularly long, but visibility is likely to be atrocious
7×56 or 8×56
$600 – $1000
Meopta Meostar
Trijicon Accupoint
Tactical Carbine/SHTF (typically AR-15 with 16″ barrel) Anything from clearing buildings to mid-range engagement 1-4×24
Trijicon ACOG
Red Dot Sight w/magnifier
$600 – $1000
Trijicon Accupoint
Walking Varminter/predator hunting You plan to mount this scope onto a rifle that you need to be able to carry with you.  You mostly plan to shoot at coyote-size targets that might be pretty far away 4-16×40
$400 – $600
Sightron S2 Big Sky
Zeiss Conquest
Minox ZA-5
Bushnell Elite 6500
Long-range Varminter This scope is likely to be mounted on a heavy-barrel rifle to shoot at prairie dogs or similarly small targets 6.5-20×50
$500 – $1000
Vortex Viper
Sightron S3
Target Shooting You are trying to print the smallest possible groups out on the range with a dedicated heavy barrel rifle 6-24×50
20×42 or 24×42 or 36×42
$800 – $1200
Sightron S2 Big Sky  Sightron S3
Leupold Competition
Mid to Long Range Tactical You plan to shoot WAAAAAY out there at human-sized targets and you might do it in some very adverse lighting conditions 3-15×50
$1000 – $2000
Vortex Razor HD
Nightforce NXS
IOR Tactical
Super Sniper 10x42HD

If you look at my recommendations above you will notice that I am not listing such well known brands as S&B, Swarovski, Zeiss Victory, etc.  It is not because they are not worth the money.  I think they are.  However, they are very expensive and I believe that oftentimes you can get 95% of their performance for 50% of the cost.  On the other hand, for 15% of the cost you might be getting 5% of the performance if the stars align just right.  I am exaggerating a little to make my point, but that is the whole idea of a sweetspot.  Most of the scopes I recommend a midrange designs that are priced mostly within reach while performing just a step below the truly high end products.  In the end, it frequently comes down to managing expectations:
  • if your application requires a very feature-rich scope, expect to pay some serious money.
  • if you want to get the most for your money, focus on the fundamentals and forgo too many extra features.  You’ll get more for your hard-earned buck.

Before I wrap up, it is worthwhile to note that the price there are some very well-made scopes available at prices lower than what I designated as the sweetspot of each category.  They are very serviceable and perfectly adequate for most uses.  Usually, these are designs that enjoy the economies of scale (i.e. common configurations) and have been made for some time, so the manufacturing yields are likely very high and construction is not very complicated.

 Posted by at 12:03 am

High End Tactical Scopes: East vs West


written by ILya Koshkin, 2010

High End Tactical scopes: “East vs West”

The idea of doing this comparison started during the first day of the 2010 SHOT Show when I stumbled into Kelbly’s booth and peered through an array of March scopes.


Now, I had heard of March and the company behind it (Deon Optical) before, but always thought of them as strictly a maker of high magnification benchrest scopes.  When I decided to read up on March scopes some time before the show, to my considerable surprise, it turned out that March was diversifying its offerings with some models aimed at the tactical market.  Hence, Kelbly’s (March’s exclusive distributor in the US) was one of my first stops during the show.  Peering through a high end scope inside a convention center is not a good way to determine its quality, but I liked what I saw.  The price tag indicated that these are designed to compete against high end German scopes, and I decided to try to arrange exactly that.  The particular March scope that I found most interesting was the 2.5-25×42.  Of all the scopes Kelbly’s had on display this one seemed to offer the most versatility for my needs.  Unfortunately, when you are dealing with a 10x magnification range, it is hard to put together a true apples-to-apples comparison, so I gave up on that pretty early on.  A friend of mine has a Premier Heritage 3-15×50 scope, so I figured I’ll just borrow it from him, throw in my (much cheaper and not designed to compete in this price range, but very familiar to me) 3-18x42FFP IOR and work with that.  After rummaging through my safe a bit, I added one more scope to the mix: SWFA SS 10x42HD.  It is a very different sight (fixed magnification and all), but it is a very well optimized design that, like with the IOR, I have enough mileage with to know exactly how it compares to the rest of the market.  Right around then I finally got my hands on Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50 for a thorough test and, by chance, the new IOR 6-24x56FFP was released just in time for me to spend a few days with it.


I ended up with a bunch of very dissimilar scopes, so the format of this write-up will be a little different than that of my usual comparison-style articles.  There is no best or worst scope here.

Configurations are dissimilar and prices range from $800 to $2750.  These are all good scopes and I will largely address them individually except for the the Razor HD and IOR 6-24×56.  These two are, in my opinion, directly competing against each other, so I’ll look at them in tandem.

However, I also asked several people not very well familiar with different sporting optics brands to look through the scopes and give me their impressions.  I made sure that the magnifications they used minimized the exit pupil differences, and  I did not tell them what these scopes cost until after they looked at them.  All I wanted from them was to look through the scopes side by side and tell me which looked better to them and why.

The rest of this write-up will stick with the following outline:
1) Specs overview and Field of View discussion
2) “Guys at the range” impressions
3) My impressions of each scope

Here is the spec table:


March Tactical 2.5-25×42

IOR Valdada 3-18×42

Premier Heritage 3-15×50

Vortex Razor HD




IOR Valdada 6-24×56

Length, in







Weight, oz







Main Tube Diameter







Eye Relief, in







FOV, ft@100yards

42.16 – 4.19


31 – 7.5


37.2 – 7.8


21 – 5.2



16 – 6


Click Value

0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad

0.1 mrad

Adjustment range

28 mrad

22 mrad

34 mrad

36 mrad

38 mrad

16 mrad

Adjustment per turn

10 mrad

10 mrad

22 mrad

5 mrad

5 mrad

10 mrad

Reticle Position







$2750 ill






Country of Origin



Germany/ US




Here is what we can glean from the table above:

  • There is a clear difference in sizes: Razor HD and IOR 6-24×56 are appreciably larger than than the rest of the scopes, although the more compact Premier is just as heavy.
  • March, despite the crazy magnification range, is very svelte (essentially the same size as the S.S. 10x42HD (both have 30mm tubes vs the 34 and 35mm ones on the rest of the scopes here)
  • There is a distinct difference in the Fields of View of Japanese and European scopes.  At the same magnification Japanese scopes have narrower FOV values (more on this shortly).
  • The 3-18x42FFP IOR has the shortest eye relief at 3.35” with the rest of the scopes being between 3.5” and 3.9”.
  • Both IOR scopes have less adjustment range than the rest of the designs here, most notably, the 6-24x56FFP only has 16 mrads of adjustment.  For long range shooting I prefer to have a little more (the upcoming IOR 3.5-18x50FFP should have a little more adjustment).  The 3-18×42 with 22mrad has proven to be perfectly sufficient for my needs and more adjustment adds a little extra flexibility.
  • Also note: the field of view of the 6-24×56 IOR at 10x is essentially the same as that of the 3-18×42 IOR despite the former having appreciably more eye relief.  IOR’s new eyepiece on the 6-24×56 scope is pretty impressive.
  • SWFA S.S. and Razor HD only have 5 mrads of adjustment per turn of the knob.  That is enough for most needs, but I prefer the 10 mrads on the other scopes here.  Premier’s 22 mrads are even better, but not very common.  10 mrads is enough to get out to 1000yards with some 308Win loads and with flatter shooting cartridges.  That seems like a good criterion for me.
  • March is the only SFP scope here, but a FFP version will be available next year.

After compiling the spec table above, I decide to dig into the FOV differences between Japanese and European scopes in a little more detail, so I put together the angular and linear Fields of View for a number of modern scopes in the 2.5x to 25x  magnification range (determined by the March scope I was playing with).  I had to calculate some of the numbers, so I may be slightly off occasionally, but I do not think there are any gross errors there.  I also did not list ALL of the magnification values in the range I was looking at, but included Low and High settings for every scope in the table below.


Every scope listed, aside from the IOR 3-18x42FFP, has between 3.5” and 4” of eyerelief, so the FOV differences do not correlate with eye relief differences.  Perhaps it is coincidental, but all of the Japanese scopes here seem to have effectively the same field of view (Nightforce is slightly wider than others) that is narrower than that of the Euro scopes.  I am not sure what I can attribute this geographical difference to.  Perhaps, there is some design commonality to all the Japanese scopes listed here since they are all from Light Optics Works (top end Japanese OEM) or its former employees.

Either way, perhaps FOV is the one aspect where the Euro makers still hold an edge, because I have got to admit that high end Japanese scopes are really getting better every year and the highest end scopes (March) seem to be able to hang with just about anyone.

“Guys at the range” impressions

This was done in broad daylight with scopes set-up side-by-side with four different people looking through them, most not very familiar with scope brands.  I did not have the IOR 6-24x56FFP with me yet, so it was not part of the side-by-side.  From left to right: SWFA S.S. 10x42HD, March 2.5-25×42, Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50, IOR 3-18x42FFP, Premier Heritage 3-15×50:



Most of this comparison was done at 5x and 10x, so I doubt that exit pupil size was a major factor.  However, I did also ask them to look at the scopes at 15x later on.  I did not provide any background to the prices of these scopes, where they are made or my opinions on their quality.  I also asked the guys looking at the scopes to not discuss their impressions with each other until they tell me what they think.  I also did not tell them what to look for.  The instructions were very simple: “look through the scopes side by side and tell me which one you like the most (or least) and why”.

Please note that this was done before I got my hands onto the 6-24×56 IOR, so the only IOR they looked at was the 3-18x42FFP.

All four of the people looking through the scopes thought that, on balance, Premier was the best one optically.  Two thought that March was right there with the Premier, partially because they liked the smaller size of it and (for one guy) because of the fine reticle.  He is a target shooter and for him the ultra fine aiming point was a big deal.

Overall Conclusions from the four testers at 5x and 10x:
Tester A: Premier > Vortex Razor > March > IOR (this guy did not look at the S.S. HD)
Tester B: Premier > March > Vortex Razor > S.S. HD > IOR
Tester C: Premier = March > Vortex Razor > IOR > S.S. HD
Tester D: Premier >= March > Vortex Razor >= IOR >= S.S. HD

Overall Conclusions from the four testers at 15x were the same except for Tester A:
Tester A: Premier > March > Vortex Razor > IOR

Tester A did not like the 3-18×42 IOR at all.  He said he just could not get comfortable with it and thought that eyerelief was too short.  Also, after some discussion, it turned out that he was not familiar with the side focus knob operation, so he never adjusted it.  I suspect that makes his impressions not particularly relevant, except upon further questioning he admitted that he was mostly looking at objects at the 300yard line, which is where I was looking at before and the side-focus knobs were adjusted for that range.  While I still do not trust his impressions too much, I figured I’ll list them anyway.  Generally, the way he was looking through the scopes really put scopes with shallow depth of field at a disadvantage (which likely explains the discrepancy in his impressions of the March with everyone else’s).

After all was said and done, I told them how much all these scopes cost.  With that information available, the 10×42 S.S. HD comfortably moved to the front of the line if spending your own money was involved.

With that out of the way, here are my observations on each scope.

March Tactical 2.5-25×42

Mechanically, this is probably the most polished and well-executed design I have seen yet.  All controls are butter smooth and work perfectly.  Adjustments are not too heavy and not too light.

Knobs track accurately and zero-stop is the easiest to use of all I have seen so far.  Putting detents on the zoom ring at 5x, 10x and 20x magnifications is a nice touch.  It makes ranging with a SFP reticle easier.  In this picture you have a good look at the knobs and you can see the magnification settings with detents (they are in red):



In the middle of the elevation knob, there is a slotted disk marked “0-SET”.  In the picture above the Zero-Stop is not set.  In order to set it, all you have to do is, once you are properly sighted in, rotate it clockwise (using a coin or a screwdriver) until it stops.  That is it.  And it works perfectly.  Here is a picture where the ZeroStop is set (it looks recessed here):

The Windage and Elevation knobs are of comparatively large diameter, but fairly low profile.  That is the type I prefer, since they are easy to adjust, but do not stick out so much that they catch on everything.  0.1mrad clicks have superb feel, and the adjustments are as accurate as on any scope I have ever seen.  Both the 1-10×24 and 2.5-25×42 have these knobs, while the higher magnification models are equipped with somewhat taller (but still not huge) knobs and a different ZeroStop mechanism.

Side focus adjustment knob was perfectly smooth and did not exhibit any hysteresis no matter how carefully I looked for it.  The scope can focus down to 10 yards, which is pretty impressive considering the magnification.

Reticle illumination is controlled via a rubberized push button integrated into the Side Focus knob:


When you order the scope you get to choose one of two types of illumination control: low intensity and high intensity.  The scope I tested had the high intensity option, which cycles through four illumination levels that I found suitable for conditions from dusk to daylight.  The low intensity option, which also offers four illumination levels, is supposed to be quite a bit dimmer, so I suspect it will work perfectly in low light.  Even the illumination levels that I played with, while brighter than I like for really low light, did not exhibit any bleeding or undue reflections.

The reticle itself, called MML by March,  is mil-based and accurate at 10x (this is a SFP design).  There is a detent at 10x, so you can set the magnification without looking at the magnification ring. There are also detents at 5x and 20x, so that you can range with the reticle subtensions at either 2mrads or 0.5mrads.  Here is what the reticle looks like:

The thin lines are very precise but occasionally hard to see, so reticle illumination comes in quite handy.  At 10x, this reticle provides 20mils of subtensions for ranging or holdover.  I could range rather precisely with the reticle, but I generally prefer somewhat thicker designs.  Still, as far as SFP reticles go, this is one of the better ones.  However, I am looking forward to checking out the upcoming FFP version.

The eyepiece focus is of a traditional variety where you rotate the whole eyepiece and then use the lock ring to fix it in its place.  However, the threads are sufficiently coarse to make the whole procedure fairly quick.

March comes with a 3 inch sunshade and in the following pictures it is mounted on the objective bell.

The scope survived my 338LM with ease and then spent some time on an AR-15.  Here is a snapshot of it on DTA SRS:

And here is the March on top of my AR-15 (YHM upper).  DTA SRS with Vortex Razor HD is right next to it (that mount was too high, so I ended up yanking out the riser later).

I tortured the knobs with the scopes on both rifles, but more so on the AR-15 (if you wonder why, compare the cost of 338Lapua ammo and 223Rem).  Adjustments were perfect.  I test adjustments on a 2ft by 4ft target at 100yards, so those are the limits of how much I can adjust.  The range goes out to 700yards, so I got to twist the knobs a bit when trying to hit plates out to that distance.  I encountered exactly zero problems.  While I was at it, I also checked reticle calibration and it was spot on.


The only assembly-related quirk I was able to find is that it looks like some epoxy managed to leak ever so slightly into the optical path and the edge of it is visible at 2.5x in the 11o’clock position.  At 3x, it is already not visible, so I do not think it is a big deal at all.  

It is a very minor thing, but the build quality of this March scope is so flawless otherwise that I have nothing else to whine and complain about.  

Optically, there really isn’t much I can complain about either.  The scope is superb.  The resolution is absolutely spectacular.  Contrast is not quite as good, but still very decent, even for this exalted price range.  The color balance is very natural and the contrast is not at all bad by any means.  As far as “seeing things” goes, the image does not “pop” as much as it does on the (higher contrast) Premier, for example, but you can see very minute details once you pay attention to them.  In terms of actually resolving details March was just as good as the Premier when at the same magnification, despite the smaller objective lens.  Couple that with the fact that you can dial the March up to a considerably higher magnification and you’ll understand why I am so impressed.


The field of view story is similar: Premier has wider FOV at 3x than March, but you can dial March down to 2.5x if you are so inclined.  It does not completely negate the FOV advantage that the Premier has at each magnification, but it does help.

Aberrations and various edge effects are well controlled (i.e. I had a hard time finding any).  CA is minimal.  March must be putting that ED glass to good use.  Eye relief is sufficiently flexible for my purposes (eye relief flexibility was similar to Premier Heritage) and does not change with magnification.  It is also long enough for almost any reasonable use I can think of.  At no time did I come even close to getting hit by the scope.  



There is no perceptible tunnel effect at low magnifications.  As you dial the magnification down, the field of view gets wider.  The barely noticeable black ring around the field of view does not get any thicker.

In terms of optical/imaging performance, in my opinion, this scope has a couple of (comparative) weaknesses, which might be some of the compromises of that crazy 10x magnification ratio, so it may simply be a choice of what is important to you:

1) Field of view is not very wide.  It is not narrow either and, as discussed above, is typical for top end Japanese scopes.  High end euro scopes tend to have wider fields of view.  However, considering the huge magnification range, if you want more FOV, just dial it down a touch.
2) Depth of field is fairly shallow.  For tactical usage greater depth of field us usually a good thing.  Looking at the scope, I suspect that the focal length of the objective lens system is quite short, making it a low F/# design.  Perhaps, that makes the DOF shallower.

Interestingly, because of the shallow depth of field, it is very easy to focus the image with the side-focus knob.  You know exactly when you have achieved perfect focus.  I suspect that helps with truly eliminating parallax at a given distance.  Speaking of parallax: I did not run into any parallax problems with the March; side focus knob worked perfectly.  Operating the scope was absolutely trouble free: focus on the target, dial in elevation, hold for wind (I tend to use the reticle for wind compensation, except for rather extreme conditions), pull the trigger.

I am not sure whether this is related to shallow depth of field, but March was also very good in seeing through mirage.  I spent a fair amount of time at the range on hot days here in Southern California where heat coming off the ground is a serious problem.  March was very good for that.

Low light performance was quite exceptional, especially considering the moderate objective lens size.  Despite the apparently complicated optical construction, flare, ghost images and other artefacts were very well controlled.  Comparatively narrow field of view and moderate contrast tend to effect low light performance a little, but the otherwise superb optical system of the March really helped there.  I thought that March would perform worse in low light than it did.

In a nutshell, I thought the scope kicks ass and the magnification range is astounding.  The fact that the optical compromises are fairly minor is even more impressive.

I was blown away by how trim it is despite the versatility and by how good low light performance was despite the obvious complexity of the optical system.

On various internet forums, one of the most common discussion topics is something along these lines:  “if you could only have one rifle, what would that be?”  For me it would be a boltgun of some sort, but I am not sure which exact one.  However, if I could only have one rifle, I would have a March 2.5-25×42 scope sitting on it (likely the upcoming FFP version).  It is the best “do everything” scope I have seen yet.

One last thing I have to add is the warranty information.  The warranty is for five years only and it looks like it is going to stay that way for the foreseeable future.  Having played with the scope and having talked to Kelbly’s about how many of these ever came back, I am not sure I care.   I liked the design too much and five years is enough to reveal any manufacturing defects a scope may have.  However, this obviously comes down to personal preference.

Premier Heritage 3-15×50

I do not think I am going to disclose any new information about this scope, that is not out there already.  Since the Premier came from a friend of mine who has been running it on his rifle for a while, I did not bother to check the adjustment accuracy.  He already did it and I do not recall him complaining (and if there was a problem, he would be).  I mostly wanted to look at the Premier Heritage as a top end Euro scope to compare with the March.  In all fairness, I could have chosen to look at Premier’s competitors as well.  However, I was looking for the highest erector ratio scope available and, at the time when all of this was happening, both S&B and Hensoldt only had 4x erectors, while the Premier had a 5x magnification range.  

Here is another look at the scopes side-by-side.  Premier 3-15×50 is on the right (IOR 3-18x42FFP is just to he left of it):


Mechanically, the Premier 3-15×50 and March 2.5-25×42 are both absolutely superb, but could not be more different from each other.  Where March is smooth and svelte, the Premier reeks of “heavy duty”.  It is built like a tank: while only about an inch longer than the March, it is ~70% heavier.  The controls are smooth but quite stiff.  Turning just about anything requires a lot more effort with the Premier than with the March.  On the other hand, you can be quite certain than no adjustment will ever be turned accidentally on the Premier.  Then there is that single-turn knob that I thought was a step above the rest as far as long range shooting goes.  It is nice to never have to worry which turn you are on.  Don’t get me wrong, 10mrads of the March is plenty for most needs, but 22mrads of the Premier gives you a bit extra margin.  It is sufficient to take my 338LM just beyond its supersonic range, so I can safely assume it is appropriate for just abut any long range cartridge out there.

Here is a closer look at the PH’s turrets:




Optically,  Premier is, yet again, absolutely superb, but very different from March.  One of the more remarkable things about it is how huge the depth of field is.  The view through the scope is very three-dimensional and requires very little use of the side-focus knob for observation.  Resolution is excellent, as is contrast.  The image really “pops” for lack of a better word and has a lot of texture to it.  Color balance is quite accurate, but colors almost look more saturated than they do with my naked eye.  I suspect this perception is a by-product of the enhanced contrast.   Similarly to the March, there is no tunnel vision whatsoever.  This scope is so easy to look through that for a while there I set it up on a tripod and used it simply for observation like a spotting scope.  Most remarkably, I developed very little eye fatigue while doing it.

Low light performance is spectacular.  At low magnifications where exit pupil did not play a role it was fairly similar to March and maybe marginally better owing to its wider field of view.  At higher magnifications, Premier’s 50mm objective lens started to make a difference at about 8-9x or so.

Similarly to the March, I could not get the scope to produce any sort of meaningfully unpleasant low light artefacts.  Flare was well controlled as was stray light.  Even my “Ventura Pier” test with all the various bright light sources left the Premier (and the March) totally un-phased (this image is artificially brightened in post-processing so that you can see something other than those lights, and it was a 2sec exposure anyway):


I think my fairly high end camera lens is showing more flare than either March or Premier did.

Bottom line is that the Premier Heritage is a purpose-built tactical scope.  There is a fair amount of versatility that goes with its 3-15×50 configuration, but still the scope is big and heavy.  Both optical and mechanical quality are superb, but it is a tactical scope and there is no pretense of it being something else.

In terms of pure image quality, at the same magnification I liked Premier a touch more than March owing to better contrast and FOV.  However, this is not a strictly apples-to-apples comparison since the objective lenses are of different diameter.  To muddy things up further, the March is lighter and has a more versatile magnification range.  As always, the choice between the two would come down to personal preference.

IOR Valdada 6-24×56 and Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50

As much as I liked both March and Premier, my chance of being able to afford either one is fairly slim.  The next two scopes I will talk about are still expensive, but measurably more affordable.

These two scopes are similarly sized and similarly configured so they make for a good comparison.  Here they are side-by-side:

The angle from which the picture is taken makes the IOR look a bit bigger than the Razor HD, but in reality they are very close in size.

Both are large scopes and they seem to be fairly well built.  While I did not try to destroy the IOR (I only had it for a fairly short time), I had a longer stint with the Razor.  Vortex suggested that there is no need to be kind to it and I wasn’t.  The only damage it suffered was a dead battery.

If I had to pick a scope to bludgeon someone to death with, one of these two would easily do the trick (although I have to admit that the eyepiece of the IOR makes a better handle: Razor’s eyepiece-mounted illumination control knob gets in the way).

Both of these scopes are built on beefy 35mm tubes, have large exposed windage and elevation knobs with 0.1mrad clicks and side-focus parallax adjustments.  Both have ZeroStop adjustments built into the elevation knob.  I think I like Vortex’ implementation a little more, but both work.

IOR also has a “secondary aiming point” built into the elevation knob.  It is a little stub (you can see it in the picture above) that rotates around the elevation knob and can be set for a specific bullet drop point that you often use.  For example, you can use the ZeroStop for your regular zero (200 yards for my 338, for example), and the “Secondary Aiming Point” for 600 yards if that is a common shooting distance.  Honestly, I am not sure I like that particular feature too much, since the environmental conditions likely have a considerable effect on where that secondary aiming point is supposed to be.  However, it does not seem to get in the way, so I do not mind it being there either.

The elevation knob on the Razor is probably the tallest I have seen yet:

I generally prefer lower (but still large in diameter) knobs like those on the March.  Both Premier and IOR also have lower knobs.  I suppose one advantage that a taller knob has is that it is easier to see what setting you are on without moving your head too much (I suspect that red fiber optics indicator is helpful in that regard).  The one serious (in my opinion) weakness of this knob design is not the height, however.  The height is mostly a matter of personal preference.  It certainly gives you a lot of grip area, and for along range precision rifle, it is unlikely to get in the way.  While the clicks are widely spaced and easily tactile, the adjustment per complete turn is only 5mrads.  I found the 10mrad per turn adjustment of other scopes here to be considerably easier to use (not to mention the 22mrad Premier).  I hope that future versions of this scope will offer an option of larger adjustment per turn.  On the plus side, the overall adjustment range is very generous at 36mrads, and the adjustment accuracy on this scope has been spot on in my testing (please keep in mind, that I only check the adjustment by shooting so the limiting factor is likely my skills more than anything else).

Vortex Razor has a rather standard reticle illumination knob on the eyepiece.  The knob is fairly low profile, but still easy to grab.  The illumination brightness range is very well sorted out for operation in low light.  While not fancy looking, Razor’s illumination is well calibrated and functional.  I think IOR’s push-buttons are a more elegant execution, but I am not sure which is easier to use.

IOR’s windage and elevation knobs were similarly accurate, and I liked the 10mrad per turn of the elevation knob.  What I did not like was the 16mrads of total adjustment range.  I would like to see more internal adjustment on a scope that is otherwise a very good option for long range shooting.  Even as is, it is quite useable, but I would prefer a little more adjustment for my peace of mind.

I have to admit I did not experiment with how well the IOR’s Zero Stop worked, but it seems like a fairly straight forward design: you loosen the collar arounf the elevation knob, slide it down and fix it in place.  That makes for a hard stop for the knob, so that it can not move beyond a certain point.

Side focus on both scopes operated quite precisely.  Razor HD had a little more travel in the knob and I found it slightly easier to use than the IOR’s faster adjustment, but both worked fine and the difference between them is more a matter of getting used to them.

IOR 6-24x56FFP has the new illumination system that consists of two rubberized push-buttons on the turret box just behind the side focus knob:


The new illumination system is easy to use and it remembers its last setting when you next turn it on (and it has an Auto-OFF feature, so that the battery does not die because you forgot to turn the bloody thing off).  The only part of the reticle that is illuminated is the center dot, which I like.  It is unlikely to effect your night vision and it produces no noticeable bleeding even in very low light.  Some people like to have the whole middle part of the reticle illuminated (like in the Razor HD), while others think only the aiming point should stand out.  I am not wholly decided on which I prefer, but I like IOR’s reticle with only the center dot illuminated.  

Speaking of reticles, the IOR has the modified MP-8 reticle (the A5 version designed on SnipersHide by John Boyette of Trace Armory Group) that I am very fond of:
while the Razor came with the somewhat more complicated EBR-2):

I am not really sure which reticle I like more, to be honest.  I am very used to the MP-8-A5 and I am probably more comfortable with it than with other ranging reticles.  However, for those who prefer to use reticle holdover, the EBR-2 is likely a better choice.  That “Christmas Tree” arrangement of dots allows for rather precise hold that compensates for both wind and bullet drop.  As far as ranging goes, I thought both reticles were pretty similar in that regard.  I suspect that EBR-3 reticle, also available in the Razor, would make for more precise ranging, but I would need to play with it a bit more to be sure.  While this reticle may look complicated, with all those dots, in practice, it was not the case.  Since the reticle is in the front focal plane, you only see those little dots when you crank up the magnification.  For typical usage at lower magnifications, you do not see them and they do not get in the way.

While mechanically, the IOR and Razor HD largely run neck in neck, optically they are very different, and once again the choice comes down to what is important for your specific needs.

In terms of pure image quality, IOR 6-24x56FFP is a better scope than the Razor for magnifications from about 11x on upwards: the field of view is wider, resolution and contrast are a little better, depth of field is about the same.  In terms of pure image quality this is the best IOR scope I have seen yet (and just for the record, I have seen a LOT of IOR scopes over the years).  Between 11x and 15x it is almost as good as the more expensive Premier, and you can only see that Premier is marginally better during the worst of the lighting conditions where the IOR has a touch more flare.  It is that close.

The eyepiece on the IOR 6-24×56 is a new design and I am very impressed with it.  The eyerelief does not change with magnification and it is remarkably flexible.  It takes a lot of eye movement to lose the sight picture.  One interesting side effect of that incredibly flexible eyerelief is that you can induce some longitudinal chromatic aberration by accidentally having your eye too close or too far from the eyepiece.  That chromatic aberration is not noticeable when your eye is exactly in the right spot.  All things considered, however, I’d rather still have the sight picture even with some CA than not have it at all when my eye is not perfectly place behind the scope.

Now for the bad part: while optically the IOR is quite good, it is really a 9.5-24×56.  Below 9.5x, FOV does not get any larger, all you get by dialing magnification further down is additional tunnel effect.  I can tolerate some tunnel vision, but I found this to be quite annoying.  From 9.5x up to about 12x or thereabouts, there is some visible rectilinear distortion near the edges, but I am not especially bothered by it.  I find the tunnel vision a fair bit more disturbing.

The Razor HD is also very good optically, but it suffered a little in this comparison, sitting next to March, Premier and the new IOR.  However, in terms of ability to see detail, it was a bit better than the very well regarded IOR 3-18x42FFP that I also had on hand.  The field of view of the Razor was not as wide as that of the Euro scopes, but on the other hand, there was no tunnel effect whatsoever.  Depth of field was quite good (as expected for such a long scope), as were resolution and contrast.  I think that the overall optical design of the Razor is very good for the money, and it is especially impressive that it was achieved together with a very large adjustment range (36mrad).  Low light performance was, as expected, quite excellent and the ability to dial down the magnification without incurring any tunneling really helped there.


Looking at this IOR and at the Razor HD in low light, was pretty interesting: as you increases magnification IOR lurched ahead, but as you dialed it down the Razor was beginning to look better in comaprison.

Eye relief on the Razor HD is long and constant; however, it is not quite as flexible as on the new IOR (6-24x56FFP).  Still, I did not run into any problems with eye position while shooting the Razor.

Bottom line is that if you are looking for the best tactical scope in this price range, there are not all that many options.  The Premier, S&B, Hensoldt and USO are appreciably more expensive.

Leupold Tactical and a few others are cheaper and generally not as good.  For ~$2k, your options are pretty simple: Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50 and a couple of IOR models like the new 6-24x56FFP I just looked at and the similarly new 3.5-18×50 that I have not seen yet.  Kahles has a couple of K models in this price range, but they have SFP reticle and non-matching knobs (Mil reticle and MOA knobs).  Nightforce’s similarly equipped FFP scope is more expensive, and has a rather different magnification range.

Between the two scopes I just discussed, I would probably take the Razor HD as a better sorted out tactical scope.  Lack of tunnel effect and large adjustment range are important.  As a target scope, I would probably lean more toward the IOR with its superior high magnification image.

Both scopes looked very much at home on my 338LM, and that is probably an application that scopes this big are best suited for anyway.

IOR Valdada 3-18x42FFP “Snipershide Special”

This IOR model has been around for a while and mine is from the 1st generation batch.  I am not going to go into much detail about it, but I figured it is worth saying a few words (besides, I’ve talked about it extensively in other articles).

I mostly included it in the comparison as a “baseline” since I have compared it to so many other designs out there.  Comparing it to March and other scopes in this article gives me an opportunity to figure out how they rank compared to the rest of the field.

It also made me think a little about how this scope stacks up with the competition today.  Honestly, it still stacks are pretty well.  Despite being pretty beat up, mechanically the scope has not given me any trouble (there was a problem with the first batch of this design, but it looks to have been resolved in subsequent generations).

Optically, it was not as good as the newer and more expensive designs I compared it to.  However, it was not all that far behind.  There is a little tunnel vision between 3x and 4x, but for the rest of the magnification range the field of view is nice and wide.  Depth of field is excellent as are resolution and contrast.  I am having trouble thinking of a similarly configured scope for ~$1500 that would be as good.  Colors are slightly warm, but that does not bother me.  Reticle is rather thick, but the open center does not hinder precision shooting and it is very easy to use in low light (there is no reticle illumination on this one).

This is not a light scope, but it is fairly compact and offers very useful magnification range.

Eye relief is a little shorter than I typically like, but then again, it usually sits on my 338Lapua where it has not hit me yet.

In some ways, this the “poor man’s March”.  IOR 3-18×42 and March 2.5-25×42 are similarly sized (IOR is on the right in the picture below), although IOR is a bit beefier.  While March is ultimately a more flexible design, the IOR is also no slouch there and it is almost twice cheaper.  I would love to be able to afford the March when the FFP version comes out, but in the meantime, I am quite happy with the IOR.


This is another one of my “baseline” scopes.

As a matter of clarification, this is not the original Super Sniper 10×42, which is a very good $300 scope, but would not in any way belong in this category.  This the newer HD model made in a different factory (same place that makes the Vortex Razor HD) and sharing nothing with the original scope except for the name.

It is a very “meat and potatoes” design: fixed 10x magnification, MilDot reticle, 0.1mrad knobs.  That’s it, but it works like a charm and the optical quality belies its $800 price tag.  At 10x, the resolution is similar to the IOR 3-18×42, but contrast is a touch better and color balance is perfectly neutral.

Mechanical quality is rock solid (I tried to break it, but it laughed at me).  Adjustments are flawless.  Adjustment range is huge.  Eyerelief is fairly long and quite flexible.  The scope is reasonably compact and neither very light nor heavy.  It is the only scope here that has a rear parallax adjustments.  For me personally, I t does not make much difference, but it is definitely easier for lefties to deal with.

I wish the knobs had more than 5mrad per turn adjustments, but for the  money I am not going to complain too much.  Besides, there are some nicely visible indicators on the turrets that tell me where in the adjustment range I am.  The knobs are very easy to reset.

I have had a chance to look at this scope side by side with the much more expensive Leupold Mark 4 10×40 and the S.S. is a step above.  I can only think of one 10×42 scope that outperforms the 10x42HD S.S. and that it the $1800 Schmidt and Bender PMII.

Final Thoughts

As I warned above, this was not all that much of a comparison since the scopes I looked at were very dissimilar in both design and pricing.  After spending a lot of time with them, I did come out with some conclusions though:

  1. If you want the best, you have to be willing to pay for it.  Scopes like the new IOR 6-24x56FFP and Vortex Razor HD (which are not exactly cheap to start with) are snapping at the hills of the likes of Premier Heritage and March, but are not quite as good yet.
  2. However, the differences are fairly small and if you are willing to make some compromises you can save a fair amount of money without losing all that much performance.
  3. New IOR gets you close in high magnification image quality, while the Razor HD is a superb allround design.
  4. If you are really opposed to spending more than $1k on a scope, with S.S. 10x42HD you can still get  mechanical and optical quality that is right up there with the really expensive stuff, but be prepared to give up some features.  Still, as far as the basics go, the S.S. HD can hang in there with some very expensive stuff.


Here is where the scopes used in this article came from:

  • March 2.5-25×42 was provided by Kelbly’s
  • Premier Heritage 3-15×50 was loaned to me by my friend Jeff
  • IOR 6-24x56FFP was provided by Liberty Optics
  • Vortex Razor HD 5-20×50 was provided by Vortex Optics
  • IOR 3-18x42FFP and SWFA S.S. 10x42HD were provided by ….. well, me.  These are my two favourite scopes of all the ones I own.


Copyright ILya Koshkin 2010.  All Rights Reserved

 Posted by at 6:13 am

Riflescopes: Over $2000 / No Price Limitations


Updated in March 2021

Hunting Scopes:

Most really high end hunting scopes I have looked have had SFP reticles. Out of those, overall, Leica Magnus is the best I have seen. Their 1.8-12×50 is my overall choice, but they are all good. S&B’s Exos 3-21×50 has a really clever elevation turret and seems to be a very well worked out design. It is here conditionally until I do a full test.

I have spent a little time with Blaser’s FFP Infinity scopes and I am REALLY impressed. Their 1-7×28 is one of the best LPVOs I have ever seen with very clever reticle illumination technology. A brief look at the 4-20×58 also left me very impressed. Another FFP hunting scope worth a look is Tangent Theta TT315H 3-15×50 Hunter. It is really expensive and really good. It is essentially a variant of my TT315M, but with thicker reticle for low light and turrets with free spinning collars to prevent accidental adjustment.


Tactical scopes:

Personally, I mostly use Tangent Theta scopes and think they are the best overall, but with high end scopes a lot of this is about personal preference.

I have TT315M with Gen 2 XR and TT525P with Gen 3XR reticle.  TT315M will shortly be available with Gen3 XR as well. 

However, Zero Compromise Optics (ZCO) is really going after the Tangent’s crown, S&B is up there and March is making a lot of progress. 

ZCO has really excellent 5-27×56 and 4-20×50 models. I think there is a 4-20×50 with my name on it somewhere out there, unless March’s upcoming 4.5-28×52 is as good as it promises to be. It is still a few months out, so time will tell.

March does have one new Tactical/ELR scope out that deserves to be here and that is the new 5-42×56 with FML-TR1 reticle that I designed for them (FML-3 is also my design).

S&B has gotten a little more active with reticles and I really like a few of their scopes with GR2ID reticle. The original 5-25×56 scope is still relevant and GR2ID and MSR2 reticles really bring it up to date.  Their higher end scopes with 9x erector, while very good, are not my favourite.  However, I really like the PMII versions of their Ultra Bright 3-12×54 and 4-16×56 designs.  They are compact, well built and have spectacular low light performance.  They could use some new reticles though.


Crossover Scopes:

Historically, I have not been separating these into a standalone category, but I think I will now.  Sometimes I call these “general purpose tatical” as well.

These are tactical and precision oriented scopes that are small and light enough to be used on accurate hunting rifles as well as on precision guns.  Tangent Theta TT315M (3-15×50 on a 30mm tube), Vortex AMG 6-24×50 and March 3-24×52 are my choices there. I really like this category so I’ll be revisiting it as I go along.


Low Power Variable Optic:

With tactical scopes, I think S&B PMII 1-8×24 Dual CC is the new king, but Minox ZP8 1-8×24 is still very good and very relevant.

New Vortex Razor Gen3 1-10×24 is right at $2k.  It is technically in a different price category, but it is very competitive here still. 

For hunting use, Blaser 1-7×28 is the best LPVO in terms of optomechanical performance I have seen to date.

If you want compact, March Shorty 1-8×24 is a freakishly small and very competent design.  They have a dual focal plane day bright reticle 1-10×24 with side about to come out.  I have the 1-8×24  with FMC-3 reticle and like it a lot.  The new 1-10×24 is a soid step forward from it (I have tested a production quality prototype).  If you are looking at a LPVO as a general purpose design, March has a lot to offer. I really like them in a DMR role, especially on lightweight guns.

Target Scopes:

This one is easy: any of the March High Master scopes. 10-60×56 is probably the most likely option.

 Posted by at 11:51 pm

Tweener Scopes

Tweener scopes

Tweener scopes are an interesting breed.

They are somewhat unpopular these days: most of the attention goes either to Hubble sized scopes used for low light and long range shooting and to low range variables of 1-4×24 configuration which are both “tacti-cool” and have the aura of being DGR scopes.

The middle of the road (3-9×40 or thereabouts) scopes get some attention from hunters, but that is largely it.

So what is a tweener scope?  Honestly, I am not sure who came up with the term “tweener”.  I have been using it for a few years, but I am pretty sure I saw it somewhere.

Tweener scopes are, loosely, scopes that have objective lenses smaller in diameter than the common 40mm, but are not straight tubed.  Most common magnification range for a tweener scope is something along the lines of 2-8x, and the most common objective diameter is around 32mm.

For the sake of the discussion, I will define “tweener” scopes the following way:

  • Variable magnification
  • Low end magnification of no more than 2.5x
  • High end magnification of 6x or higher
  • Objective lens diameter in the 30 to 36mm range
  • Long enough to mount on a 30-06 length action

I am intentionally not mentioning weight or overall length, since they vary greatly.  I do, however, want to weed out some ultra compact scopes since their usefullness is limited to only certain applications and their design has some limitations imposed by trying to make them extra short (Burris TImberline/Short Mag scopes, for example).  While tweener scopes are fairly compact, the best ones of the breed (IMO) are not overly short allowing their mounting on long actions.

By specifying the magnification range, I am also weeding out a few very capable scopes like Burris Signature Safari 1.75-5×32 and Weaver Grand Slam 1.75-5×32.  While these are excellent and much more versatile than most people give them credit for, I think they are aimed at different audiences and should be considered low range variables instead (another class of scopes I take a lot of interest in).

Why do I like tweener scopes? There are several reasons.  These scopes bridge the gap between low-range/DGR variables and full-size hunting scopes.  They offer enough magnification to shoot quite far out.  They offer sufficiently low magnification and wide field of view for fast shooting if need be.  While not optimal for low light, they have enough exit pupil for good low light performance at 4-5x.

From an optical standpoint, these scopes are usually not too difficult to build, so you can expect nice performance even at a moderate price point.  One caveat is that this “ease of design” can be easily countered by trying to make the scope too short.  One feature that is not talked about much is that the combination of a fairly long optical system and small objective lens yields greater depth of field.  That is one of the reasons why I added a requirement that they should be mountable on long-action scopes.  In practical terms, that implies mounting length of at least 5″ or so.  The overall length usually works out to be something between 11″ and 13″.  If you look up the specs of the scopes I list below, you will see that vast majority of them have overall length between 11″ and 11.5″.  Additionally, “tweener” configuration typically allows for generous and flexible eyerelief.  As far as reticles go, I prefer highly visible reticles that work well in low light (like the #4).  I will go over the reticle selection in available scopes a bit further below, but I am generally disappointed in most of the choices.

Until recently, the best (once again, in my opinion) tweener scope has been Kahles CL 2-7×36.  It is small and light while still having very good low light performance.  Mine has a very visible #4 reticle.  The catch is that Kahles does not currently have a US distributor and I have no idea about what is going to happen to Kahles in North America.  I hope they will partner with a new distributor soon.

Of the currently available tweener scopes, here are the better ones that I can think of that are made by reputable manufacturers:

Bushnell Elite 6500 1.25-8×32
Zeiss Conquest 2.5-8×32
Leupold VX-3 2.5-8×36
Nikon Monarch 2-8×32
Vortex Viper 2-7×32
Sightron S2 2.5-10×32

Here are a few more by the same manufacturers that are a bit cheaper (and lower performing):

Leupold VX-II 2-7×33
Vortex Diamondback 2-7×35
Burris Fulfield II 2-7×35
Bushnell Elite 3200 2-7×32
Weaver Classic 2.5-7×32
Mueller 2-7×32

There are some others I left out either because I have not run into them a whole lot or because I do not consider them to be worth the money.  Additionally, there are a few that are quite a bit more expensive and are targeted at somewhat different markets: for example there are a couple of very nice IOR scopes that are aimed at the tactical market (2-12×32 and 2-12×36), and a well regarded Nightforce 2.5-10×32.

For the time being I will stick to the scopes in the first group and discuss their comparative merits.  To forewarn the inevitable question of “which one is tougher”, I would expect all of these scopes to be equally durable. Either way, I do not have the means to conduct a statistically meaningful study needed to determine a particular design’s durability.

Kahles CL 2-7×36
This scope is/was available with either plex or #4 reticle either with Multizero or with a normal elevation knob.  The one I have has the Multizero know which works well, but is ultimately unnecessary for a scope of this type.  As far as reticles go, the #4 is one of my favourite allround choices and that is how my Kahles is configured.  Optically, Kahles CL is the best 1″ tube scope I have ever seen.  Mechanically, the adjustments are spot on and the scope has not given me any trouble so far.  It sits on one of my favourite rifles: a Tikka chambered for 280Rem.  From the low light performance stand point, this is the best of the tweener scope and by a good margin.  The eyepiece is of fairly large diameter, but it has not given me any trouble.  I think it matches well with the 36mm objective.

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Bushnel Elite 6500 1.25-8×32
I have only seen this scope at the SHOT show, although I hope to get my hands on one some time this year (with the economy being what it is, I am obvously not planning to spend too much money on optics this year, so we’ll see).  Optically, this scope is very good as is the rest of the Elite 4200/6500 line.  Mechanical quality and durability should be very good as well, but this is a new design and time will tell.  For the time being, there is only one reticle available: plex, which is really this scope’s only let down in my opinion.  Still, it s versatilty is unmatched in this group due to a large magnification range. Additionally, eye relief is impressively long at “5-6″ or so.  This scope seems to be designed for rifles with kick: 5″ of eye relief AND 5.9” of mounting length.  This is the only scope here with a 30mm tube, and it is the heaviest of the group.  The overall size is still pretty trim though.  Since I have only seen this scope once, I do not recall the exact dimensions of the reticle and the eyepiece, but I recall that the eyepiece seemed of fairly normal size and the reticle seemed quite thin.

Zeiss Conquest 2.5-8×32
This is one of the heavier and longer tweener scopes, but is still reasonably small.  Optically, it is a touch below the Kahles, but still excellent as is the rest of the Conquest line.  Eye relief is long and generous and doe snot chane with magnification.  All adjustments are smooth and reliable.  Ultimately, I like this scope, but it has two shortcomings.  One is reticle selection.  This scope is currently only available with a fairly thin plex reticle, which is one of my pet peeves.  For a scope of this type, I think a thicker and more visible reticle is a better way to go.  On a good side, Zeiss’s version of the plex reticle is very sharp and well defined.  Still, this is not a target scope that benefits from a thin reticle.  Another complaint (of a sort) I have is the fat eyepiece.  One of the advantages of the 32mm objective is the latitude in mounting height.  With the Conquest, on some rifles, the limiting factor in how low the scope can be mounted is the eypiece.  On rifles with reasonably short bolt lift, it makes no difference.  On balance, this is a wonderful scope that could really benefit from a thicker reticle.

Leupold VX-3
To put it bluntly, I am not a big Leupold fan, but I like the new VX-3 scopes.  As far as configurations go, my favourite Leupold scope for quite some time has been the 2.5-8×36 (actual magnification range is 2.6-7.8x).  If you are looking for a tweener scope that performs as close as possible to “full size” models, this is a good choice.  Mechanically, it is too early to tell how these hold up since VX-3 scopes are pretty new.  However, VX-III line was well regarded and I expect the redesign to not diminish that in any way.  Optically, the new VX-3 is a little better than its predecessor with a more contrasty image.  36mm objective allows for very respectable low light performance.  The two available reticles are pretty thin: duplex and B&C are probably there because they were popular with this scope’s predecessors in the VX-III line.  That makes total sense from a marketing standpoint, but makes little sense to me from performance standpoint.  Perhaps, I am alone on this one.
If you are looking for a scope with a thick and heavy reticle for a DGR rifle or something similar, the 1.75-6×32 is an excellent choice.  I did not list it above since the actual magnification (1.9-5.5x) falls below my self-imposed 6x limit, but it is worth looking at.  Unlike most scopes here it is available with a heavy plex reticle that makes for very fast target acquisition in low light (do keep in mind that the 1.75-6×32 has a touch less eye relief than the 2.5-8×36).
One of the things that I find disappointing with both of these scopes is the variable eyerelief.  I used not care about that too much, but recently I’ve been finding the need to reposition my head for different magnification annoying.

Nikon Monarch 2-8×32
Monarch is another scope line that I am generally not very “hot” on with the exception of the 2-8×32.  Some of the complaints I have about Leupold VX-3 and Zeis Conquest above, equally apply to the Monarch: reticle selection and fat eyepiece (the eyepieces on the Monarch, VX-3 and Conquest are of about the same diameter, but Leupold has a larger objective to make it look a bit better balanced).  Neither is a very big deal to most people.  Image quality is very good and eye relief is nice and long.  Eye relief is also consistent with respect to magnification: no need to readjust where your head is.  The two available reticles are plex and BDC.  I am not a big fan of either, but I will say that the BDC reticle is bolder than most other holdover reticles out there with those little circles making pretty quick aiming marks.

Vortex Viper 2-7×32
For the money, this is probably my favourite scope of the bunch.  Optically, it is quite good.  Easily on par with Leupold and Monarch.  I do not know if it is better (perhaps I will try to arrange a side-by-side), but it is certainly not worse.  Eye relief is long and flexible.  Similarly to the Monarch, it also stays constant with magnification.  Eyepiece on this scope is fairly slim (smallest in diameter here, I think), but it is still of the fast-focus type.  As far as reticle selection goes, I think Vortex has gotten it almost right and has an advantage over most of the competition.  There are three reticles available: plex, BDC and C3.  Pex reticle is quite thin.  BDC is a fair bit thicker (thick lines are about twice thicker than plex),  C3 is a little thicker than BDC and has a circle surrounding the center crosshair.  Predictably, I like the C3 reticle the most out of them all.  It is still not an ideal low light reticle, but the circle is a big help for fast target acquisition.

Sightron S2 2.5-10×32
I was not entirely sure whether this scope belongs in this group, but I figured I’ll add it in.  If you want a scope of the tweener size that give you a bit more magnificaiton, this is not a bad choice.  On the flip side, the eye relief is somewhat critical.  Optically, I think the S2 is a touch worse than other scopes in this group, but quite decent.  This scope is only available with one reticle: simple plex.  It is not as thin as some other plex  reticles I have seen (such as the Vortex V-Plex), but it is by no means a heavy reticle.

Now, which ones do I like?  Quite frankly, I like all of the scopes I listed here, although for different reasons.

If low light performace is of particular importance and your budget allows it, it is worth your while to look for the Kahles CL 2-7×36 with #4 reticle.  I am very happy with mine.

If Kahles is not in your budget, the new VX-3 is a good choice with a 36mm objectiv elens giving you a slight edge over the 32mm offerings.

If you are on a budget, Vortex Viper 2-7×32 is probably your best option.  It has very good performance at a reasonable price.  Monarch 2-8×32 is priced about the same, but I slightly prefer the Vortex due to the reticle selection and thinner eyepiece.

If you want a holdover reticle, it is available in the Leupold, Vortex and Nikon.  Just pick the one you like the most.

As far as mounting goes, I do not remember the specs for all of these scopes, but I am pretty sure the diameter of the ocular goes like this (from low to high):

Vortex Viper < Sightron S2 < Nikon Monarch = Leupold VX-3 = Zeiss Conquest < Kahles CL

I am not exactly sure where the Elite 6500 fits here.

As far as mounting length goes, I do not remember what it is for the Conquest and Monarch, but the other scopes are ranked in the following order (from high to low):

Elite 6500 > Kahles CL > Vortex Viper > Sightron S2 > Leupold VX-3

I think Monarch and Conquest have pretty long mounting lengths similar to Kahles, but I can’t recall the numbers.  Leupold VX-3 1.75-6×32 scope has about the same tube length as the Kahles.

Optical quality (from high to low):

Kahles CL > Conquest >= Elite 6500 ~= VX-3 ~= Vortex Viper >= Monarch > Sightron S2

Essentially, Kahles CL is better than the others, SIghtron S2 is a little worse.  The rest are very comparable.

Ultimately, if you rifle has a high bolt lift and you want your scope mounted as low as possible, Viper is worth a look.

If you are trying to mount one of these scopes on a particularly long action, I suggest you figure out the exact ring spacing you need before ordering one (or order the Elite 6500 which should fit on just about everything and have enough eye relief for just about anything).

If you expect to encounter very challenging lighting conditions, get the Kahles.  In that regard, it is still the king of the hill.

Then again, this is all just my opinion, and I could be wrong.

 Posted by at 5:20 am

Leupold VX-3, Hawke Frontier SF, et al


Hawke Frontier SF 4-16×42, Leupold VX-3 4.5-14×40 & Co

By “& Co”, I mean a bunch of other scopes that I compared with the two explicitly mentioned:

Side by side

From left to right: IOR 3-18x42FFP, Super Sniper 10×42, IOR 6×42, Kahles American Hunter 3-9×42, Sightron S2 Big Sky 6-24×42, Leupold VX-3 4.5-14×40, Hawke Frontier SF 4-16×42, Vortex Viper 4-12×40.  Kahles and the 6×42 IOR are mostly there for a photo-op since I ended up not using them in the comparison a whole lot.  After thinking about it a little, I decided to restrict this to scopes with some sort of focus/parallax compensation.  I was mostly interested in looking at these two scope from the standpoint of low light performance and how the reticles look.

Sightron S2 Big Sky was sent to me for T&E by Sightron.  It is not exactly the right configuration for this comparison, so I will have a separate review concentrating on the Sightron in a little bit.  In the meantime, I have enough overall experience with S2 Big Sky scopes to be fairly certain that the 4-16×42 will behave in a similar manner to 6-24×42 at the same magnifications.  This one is a Silhouette model with a dot reticle and 1/4MOA clicks.
Leupold VX-3 is the “Test Drive” sample provided by SWFA.  It has a thin plex reticle.
Hawke Frontier SF was sent to me for T&E by Hawke.  This sample is outfitted with a MilDot reticle true at 10x.

The rest of the scopes are mine and I use them for comparison purposes a fair bit.  They serve as a reference point of a sort for many tests.

Now, for some specs of similarly configured scopes that have 1″ tubes:




Hawke Frontier SF



Leupold VX-3
(4.9-14.2 actual)



Vortex Viper 



Sightron S2 Big Sky
(just for reference)



Sightron S2 Big Sky
(just for reference)



Nikon Monarch 
(just for reference)


Length, in







Weight, oz







Field of view,ft@100yards

24.6 – 6.2

19.9 – 7.4

27.1 – 9.2

24 – 6.1

25.3 – 7.0

25.2 – 6.3

Eye relief, in


4.4 – 3.7

3.4 – 3.1

4.0 – 3.8

3.9 -3.8

4.0 – 3.7

Side Focus or Adjustable Objective?







Click Value, MOA

1/4, 18 per turn


1/4, 12 per turn

1/8, 10 per turn

1/4, 20 per turn


Adjustment Range, MOA


71 (*)





Objective outside diameter, mm







Eyepiece outside diameter, mm









Hawke Frontier SF

Leupold VX-3
(4.9-14.2 actual)

Vortex Viper 

Bushnell Elite 4200
(just for reference)

Weaver Grand Slam 4.5-14x40AO
(just for reference)

Zeiss Conquest 4.5-14×44
(just for reference)

Burris Signature Select 4-16×44
(just for reference)

Length, in








Weight, oz








Field of view,ft@100yards

24.6 – 6.2

19.9 – 7.4

27.1 – 9.2

26 – 7

22.5 – 10.5 (**)

24.9 – 8.4

26 – 8

Eye relief, in


4.4 – 3.7

3.4 – 3.1




4.0 – 3.5

Side Focus or Adjustable Objective?








Click Value, MOA

1/4, 18 per turn


1/4, 12 per turn





Adjustment Range, MOA


71 (*)






Objective outside diameter, mm








Eyepiece outside diameter, mm









(*) – The number from Leupold’s website is 116MOA, but I believe that is a typo, since the Long Range version (30mm tube) is listed with the same adjustment range while the 1″ 4.5-14×40 model without AO is listed with 71MOA of adjustment range, which I believe to the same as the 4.5-14x40AO model that I looked at.

(**) – FOV numbers for the Grand Slam look very strange to me: super wide at 14x and super narrow at 4.5x.  I wonder if there is a typo somewhere there.


Before I go into a discussion of the merits of the actual scopes I looked at, let’s talk about the specs in the table above for a minute.  There is no mystery to numbers and everyone can look at them as well as I can.  Still, I will try to verbalize my thoughts on the subject (there is a reason to my madness, just bear with me).


I intentionally only included scopes with either 3x or 4x erector systems.  There are some newer scopes with 1″ tubes that have 5x erectors, but I have not seen them yet.  I have kept the objective lens diameters in a 40-44mm range and reticles in the Second Focal Plane (SFP).  I was looking for “mid-range” scopes price wise: $400 to $700 street price (except for the Conquest, but I wanted one Euro).  I am sure there are other scopes out there that I am not listing, but I think I’ve got a pretty decent cross-section of what is out there.


First of all, let’s think about the application for scopes of this configuration.  These days, I suppose, for a lot of people, this is a big-game/general purpose configuration.  Personally, I am inclined to think that this configuration is already a good candidate for long range shooting. 12x to 16x top end is enough to shoot out to a 1000 yards if need be (perhaps, I am just old fashioned, but so are the Marines, I suppose, who picked a 3-12×50 scope), while keeping the scope versatile enough for most other uses.  If we are talking about shooting out to 1000 yards, the first thing to look at is W/E adjustment range.  All of these scopes are available with holdover reticles, but to shoot beyond 500 yards, in my opinion, you need to use the knobs.  Assuming 308Win as a standard cartridge, you need ~40MOA of available adjustment to get to 1000 yards. Hawke, Leupold and both Sightrons can do that fairly comfortably with a 20MOA base.  Vortex can also get there without too much difficulty, as well, if carefully set up.  Nikon, Zeiss and Burris are plain unsuitable for this, while Bushnell and Weaver can technically get there, but only in ideal circumstances.


Field of view is largely comparable across the board.  Once you account for magnification differences, it works out that Leupold has a bit less FOV than others and Vortex, Bushnell and Zeiss have a touch more.


Eye relief is very serviceable for all scopes here, with Vortex having a bit less eye-relief than others.  Still, I have not been hit by my Vortex Viper yet.  If you plan to put one of these on a kicker where the scope might bite you, I’d look at Leupold and Sightron first (more on Leupold’s eye relief below).


The choice between AO (Adjustable Objective) and SF (Side Focus) for parallax correction is largely a personal one.  I have come to slightly prefer Side Focus, but I know of quite a few others (all the lefties I know, for example) who prefer AO.  For shooting prone off of a bipod, I prefer SF.  Off the bench, I do not care.  Sitting or shooting with a sling, I actually find rear parallax adjustment like that on a Super Sniper more comfortable.  I suspect that is different for different people.  Generally, on a lot of scopes it is easier to make fine adjustments with the Adjustable Objective than with the Side Focus since most makers tend to make SF too fast.


As far as size and weight goes, there is little to differentiate these scopes.  I do not think anyone is going to put one of these on a 5lb mountain gun, and on a normal size rifle a couple of ounces here and there really do not make much difference. All of these scope have enough mounting length for most applications.  Vortex, despite having the lowest maximum magnification is the longest scope here (Vortex does have excellent depth of field, partly due to that extra length).  What does make a difference to a lot of people is mounting height.  That depends on both objective and eyepiece diameters.  There, we see side-focus scopes have an advantage: objective housings are smaller.  Overall, Vortex Viper can be mounted lower than others, while Burris is the most massive.  The rest of the scopes fit somewhere in the middle.


I am not going to go into reticle selection a whole lot.  If you are reading this wordy mess, that means you can go onto the website of the SWFA website and see which reticles are available.  Most of these can be had with either MilDot or some sort of a holdover reticle.  You just have to pick the one that rocks your boat.  Personally, I prefer Mil-based reticles.  If you are going to use this scope for long range shooting or any tactical application you will want tall knobs that cover quite a bit of adjustment in one turn and a Mil-Dot reticle or something similar.  For those purposes, Hawke Frontier SF and Sightron S2 Big Sky 4.5-14×44 are best suited out of this group.


I will also add that none of these scopes are routinely available with reticles optimized for low light performance.  I make it a point to complain about that every chance I get on an off chance that someone is listening.


All right, enough theoretical discussion and let’s talk specifics.

Leupold VX-3 4.5-14x40AO with duplex reticle


The first question I always get about the VX-3 is how this scope compares to its predecessor, VX-III.  Aside from the fact that Leupold seems to have spent all of its naming ingenuity on catchy terms like Xtended Twilight Lens, Index Matched Lens System and other word-smithing rubbish instead of coming up with a new name for the whole scope line, the redesign is a worthy one.  My distaste for Leupold’s marketing literature aside (no, I do not expect to ever be in Leupold’s good graces, as tragic as that is), VX-3 is actually a very nice scope and a solid upgrade to the VX-III.  The overall VX-3 package is about the same size as its predecessor.  The adjustments are accurate and have a more solid feel to them.  The glass is visibly better.  If you are looking at resolution charts in good light, you may not see much difference.  Once the light starts getting a bit lower, the improvement becomes more apparent.  Resolution has stayed at about the same level, but the contrast has improved.  I am an optics guy, so this is a change I like to see: instead of going off and loading the scope with all sorts of electronic and mechanical gadgetry, Leupold went back to the basics and improved the glass while keeping the price about the same.  I absolutely applaud that and I hope Leupolds stays with the theme of getting the fundamentals right.  Speaking of fundamentals, there is one thing that I wish Leupold had changed/fixed in a fundamental way: variable eye relief.  On this scope the eye relief varied between low and high magnification by a touch more than an inch.  Pretty much all scopes change eye relief with magnification, but this one had enough variation for me to have to readjust my head position if I was to change the magnification.  I hope that Leupold will see fit to modify the design for more consistent eye relief in the future.  Aside from that, I can’t say anything negative about the scope.  I thought I saw some POI change with magnification, but the next person to look at that scope did not see any, and he is a better shot than I.  Perhaps, I had a poor shooting day.


Here is the Leupold on my Tikka M695 in 280Rem (in the back is my 308 Mauser with 6-24×42 Sightron S2 Big Sky on it):


Here is the Leupold next to the Hawke Frontier SF:


And a couple of shots of the eyepieces, knobs and objectives:


Hawke Frontier SF 4-16×42 with Mil-Dot reticle


This scope is fairly compact, but pretty heavy.  Everything on it feels quite solid.  The knobs are nicely knurled (a la Nightforce), but also have the screw-on covers.  To a lot of people, this is the best of both worlds: if you are worried about the knobs getting knocked out of adjustment, put the covers on.  If you take the covers off you have nice tall target knobs.  They adjust 18MOA per turn, so you can just about get to 1000 yards with two turns.  Adjustments are accurate and repeatable (I am not going to get into the whole discussion of why anyone in his right mind would insist on putting 1/4 MOA knobs onto scopes with MilDot reticles).  The glass is equally solid, on balance, neither better nor worse than the competition.  Eye relief is consistent and reasonably flexible.  Tunnel vision is barely noticeable until you get down to the lowest magnification.  The scope has a large sweet spot and edge softness is well controlled.  Depth of field is a touch shallow, but not objectionably so (not uncommon with scopes that combine high magnification with short overall length).


Here is another snapshot of the Frontier SF, this time on my 308Win Mauser:


And one more with knob covers off:




Now, for just a brief moment, let’s look at that spec sheet table above one more time.  The reason I put it together is mostly to prove my initial impressions wrong.  When I first received the Frontier SF scope, it seemed like a very well made piece.  Once I spent some time with it, I confirmed that it is indeed a well made, quality scope, but it left me puzzled.  Perhaps, that is a side effect of my dual education: technically, I am an optical physicist, but I did pick up an MBA somewhere along the way.  Hence, I tried to see if I can make a good business case for this scope.  Street price on the Frontier SF looks to be in the $550-$600 range.  If it gets picked up by a few large retailers, price will probably drop a little, but still this scope is smack in the middle of one of the most competitive segments of the market populated by a host of very competent scopes with instant name recognition.  Hawke may be a big name on the other side of the pond, but it is not very well known here.  The $400 to $800 price range is full of excellent scopes that can satisfy all, but the most discerning, shooter.  For today, this is the sweet spot of price to performance ratio (to me).  Most of the more expensive scopes hit a pretty serious case of diminishing returns, while cheaper scopes are simply not as good.  As I surveyed this market segment a bit more carefully, I slowly warmed up to the Frontier SF a bit more.  On the surface, Nikon Monarch 4-16×42 is configured very similarly until you look at the adjustment range.  40MOA is not enough (to me) for shooting further out.  I am sure it is a very nice hunting scope, but unless you shoot pretty far out, why go all the way up to 16x?  The closest competitor to the Frontier SF is Sightron S2 Big Sky 4.5-14×44 with Side Focus.  They are priced about the same, have similar adjustment ranges and MOA per turn and have nice repeatable knobs.  The Frontier SF, perhaps, has a slight edge due to a 4x erector system, but the field of veiw differences are minimal.  As far as similarly configured scopes go, this is pretty much it.  I could not find any other reputable scopes with similar configuration: 1″ tube, 4-16x or similar, tall knobs, ~80MOA of adjustment range and MilDot reticle.  There are a few scopes with 30mm tube that are vying for the same customer (Leupold 4.5-14x40LR and Bushnell Elite 6500 2.5-16×42, for example, but these are appreciably more expensive), but, to my considerable surprise, I found that a lot of people prefer to stay with 1″ tube if they can.  In a nutshell, I think I can make a business case for the Frontier SF, especially if the price comes down a notch.  Now, I will take my MBA hat off, put my “optics nerd” hat back on and descend into the nitty gritty details.


How does the glass compare?


Looking through the scopes in the first picture of this comparison, most perform similarly to each other.  The lone euro brand there, IOR, definitely stands out (as it should considering the price), but that is largely it.  Interestingly, the 10×42 Super Sniper can, mostly, hang with the variables if they are set to 10x.


In all fairness, I could take almost any one of these scopes and comfortably do 95% of any shooting I may ever need to do with one of them.  However, there are some subtle differences between them that were and are of interest to me.


In order to look for ghost images and a lot of other undesirable artifacts, I drove up to a parking lot on the beach and set up a wooden fixture that can hold several scopes side by side on the roof of my car.  First, I spent some time looking out into the sunset and at various targets as the sun was setting down; then, I reoriented myself to look at the distant pier with scattered bright lights on it.  Those point-like sources, when positioned at the edge or just outside the field of view, can produce interesting effects.  I could also move the scopes around to see if they were sensitive to light sources in a particular location.  By pointing toward non-illuminated part of the scenery I could look at a pure low light performance of the scopes.  As the sun was descending further beyond the horizon, I could look into the shadows and test “pure” low light performance of the scope.


Something funny happened as I was peering through the scopes in the dark, a cop stopped by to ask me what the hell I was doing there.  I did my best to explain that I am not planning anything particularly sinister, but I am not sure he bought it.  I think there was something about a big guy with a beard and an accent surveying a public landmark that seemed suspicious to him.  He politely stuck around until I got the heck out of there.  I suppose now there is at least one police officer out there who thinks I am either a terrorist or totally insane (or both; my wife definitely agrees with the “insane” part).


In addition to that, I spent a fair amount of time staring at various resolution charts at the range.  Then I dragged the scopes to work and set-up an extended Macbeth chart with a uniform 3200K white light source.  Color accuracy may not be very critical for rifle scopes, but I like to see how well the scope differentiates different subtle color shades.  Call it intellectual curiosity, for lack of a better word.


Throughout this whole exercise, I made it a point to set the magnification on all the scopes to as close to the same value as I could.


Hawke Frontier SF 4-16×42 was not the best in any one parameter that I looked at, but not the worst either.  Ultimately, it is a very well rounded choice.  I did not see any whiteout or milkyness even at higher magnification.  Flare was well controlled and ghost image formation was minimal.  Tunnel vision was minimal and restricted to lower magnifications.  Eye relief was as advertised: justa bit under four inches and fairly consistent as you zoom through the magnification range.  Color representation was accurate.  There was a touch of chromatic aberration as you got close to 16x, but nothing particularly offensive.  Still, it had a little more chromatic aberration than the other scopes here.


Leupold VX-3 4.5-14×40 had a really nice contrasty view.  In many ways, the image quality of the Leupold was similar to Vortex Viper, another scope with good contrast.  One more similarity to the Viper is the tunnel vision.  It is the biggest weakness of the Viper and while it is less pronounced on the VX-3, it is there, especially at lower magnifications.  Aside from that there is little to fault the Leupold optically on.  The field of view is a bit narrow, but perhaps that is the price of long eye relief.  In low light, that enhanced contrast of the VX-3 really set it apart from its predecessor, VX-III.  Looking at the color chart, primary colors are really popping on the VX-3, but some finer shades are harder to see.


Sightron S2 Big Sky 6-24×42 has glass that feels closer to the Hawke than to the Viper and VX-3.  Now, mind you, this is not a directly compatible configuration, but that is the scope I had on hand: the Silhouette model with Dot reticle and 1/4″ clicks.  I have seen enough S2 Big Sky scopes to comfortably say that the 4-16×42 performs in a very similar manner, but this is still not a perfect comparison.  In terms of pure resolution, it outresolved all the other Pacific Rim scopes here (but still did not touch the 3-18×42 IOR).  The view was a bit less contrasty than Viper and VX-3, but Sightron looks exceptionally clear.  I suspect that one of the reasons it looks so clear is that the tunnel effect is totally engineered out.  In that regard, this was the best scope here: there was no trace of tunnel vision to be seen.  In low light, the scope also performed well, but it was curiously susceptible to bright light sources just outside of the field of view at about two o’clock position.  I am not sure whether that holds for all of these scopes or if that is something specific to the scope I have.  Color is exceptionally neutral and you can see every shade of it.  None of the colors really stand out to my eye like the primaries do on the VX-3, but they are all there.  The image through the Leupold and Vortex looks more saturated, to borrow a camera term, but the image through the Sightron and Hawke looks more natural.  Does that make any practical difference? no, but since I am splitting hairs here anyway, I thought I’d mention it.


Vortex Viper 4-12×40 I have already talked about in the past a fair bit, so I will not go into too much detail.  I liked this scope enough to buy it, but if Vortex manages to update the optical system to get rid of the tunnel vision it will remove my primary complaint with it and make an unequivocal choice for anyone on a budget.


One more note on clarity: most of these scopes are like looking through a freshly washed window.  The view is bright and clear, but you know you are looking through a window.  Looking through the IOR 3-18×42 afterwards is like looking through the same window, except after someone stole the glass pane.  Does it make a difference for making a shot? probably not, but if you wonder what you are paying those extra dollars for, that is a part of it.


As far as mechanical quality goes, once again, there is really not much to differentiate between the four scopes above.  None of them gave me any sign of trouble: they held zero and adjusted accurately.  Low light performance, in the end, comes down to the reticle choice, although the more contrasty Leupold and Vortex will have a slight edge for people whose eyes are more sensitive to contrast.  All of these scopes will let you see your target well after the legal light and as long as you can see the reticle you can make the shot.  Interestingly, none of these comes equipped with what I would call a good low light reticle.  If hunting in low light is a primary concern, perhaps Leupold with a custom shop installed thicker reticle is the way to go.


4x erector assemblies of Hawke and of the AO Sightrons offer a bit more versatility than 3x erectors of Leupold, SF Sightron and Vortex.  Personally, that is not something I care about a whole lot, but with scopes matched this closely, you pretty much have to pick based on features and on price.  For an overview of the features, the table above should be helpful.






With this group, making a recommendation is not straightforward, since there isn’t a bad scope here.


Price-wise, Vortex is clearly the bargain of the group, but it has its limitations.  Still, for a hunter on a budget, I would recommend the Vortex.  It is substantially cheaper than the other scopes here and comparable both optically and mechnically.  As a long range scope, it is not optimal due to reticle selection and small knobs.  If Vortex ever comes up with a version of this scope that has taller knobs and MilDot reticle, I predict (oracle hat on) commercial success (oracle hat off).


If the scope is for a tactical set up of some sort, either Sightron S2 Big Sky 4.5-14×44 or Hawke Frontier SF 4-16×42 are your best options.  Both have plenty of adjustment range, MilDot reticles and nice knobs.


If you want something very specific, be it a reticle choice or BDC knobs, Leupold comes in a dizzying variety of options and reticles thanks to the Custom Shop, but at a price.  I can honestly say that the Leupold has now caught up with the competition, but I am still having a hard time getting over the variable eye relief.


Lastly, I have to mention the warranty.  That is not a subject I typically spend much time on, but here it is worth noting.  Leupold, Sightron and Vortex have excellent customer service and warranty coverage.  Hawke is new to our shores, so the quality of customer service will be known in due time.  However, the warranty is not quite up to the standards of the other scopes here.  It is indeed a lifetime warranty, but it is not transferable.  If you ever want to re-sell a Hawke scope it leaves your hands without a warranty.


A little addendum on scope rings


In order to pit a bunch of scopes one against the other I have to have a lot of different rings on hand.  Some of them are the rings I never end up using on my own rifles (for example, I have a set of 34mm rings for those rare occasions when I need to look at a scope with a tube in that size).  Generally, I am not very adventurous with the rings and bases I use.  Historically, 90% of the rings I have been using were either made by Warne or TPS.  Now, that I look over my workbench, I see a much greater variety of rings and bases than before so that is worth a few words.  Generally, I have standardized on Weaver/Picatinny-type rings and except for some cases, where the rings attach directly to the receiver, do not use anything else.  Also, please note that I do not use uber-expensive rings like Badger.  I have played with them and they are exceptionally strong and well machined.  However, I can’t afford to have enough of those for all of my needs.  Besides, for two hundred bucks they better be bloody perfect.   Had I been in a situation where my life and work involved shooting a gun, I would use nothing but the best.  As is, I am more interested in affordable gear that works well.


Warne:  I have never had a bad product from Warne.  I have a couple of sets of “grooved receiver” rings for my Tikka as well as half a dozen or so of Maxima rings that fit both Weaver and Picatinny bases.  Most of my Maxima rings are of QD variety, since I like to move scopes around.  More specifically, I do not particularly like Warne’s “Permanent” Maxima rings since you need to take them off the scope in order to remove the scope from the rifle.  I have Warne rings for 1″, 30mm and 34mm tubes.  I like the look of vertically split rings and I have learned to deal with a slightly more involved mounting process.


TPS: I have both 30mm and 35mm TPS rings and have never had any problems with them either.  I have, however, seen a lot of other people have problems with them.  Every one of those cases that I have personally looked into revolved around the fact that people believe all rings to be the same and do not read the instructions.


IOR: I have used quite a few IOR rings with good success.  The older ones had somewhat crude external finish, but they worked well.  I also have a 1-piece IOR base with rings (the one that uses 30mm STANAG rings in it) and I am equally happy with it.


Weaver:  I have accumulated quite a few cheap Top Mount weaver rings over the years and, surprisingly, they work pretty well.  These are not very heavy duty rings and aligning the reticle can be annoying with them, but they work.  Weaver Grand Slam rings have been nothing but trouble, especially the new QD ones. I bought a 1″ and a 30mm model model.  The 1″ rings were all crooked and had to be lapped more than any other rings I have used.  The 30mm ones are so out of spec that I can’t use them at all: one of the rings is ~31mm in diamter and slides freely along the tube no matter how much you tighten it.  Perhaps, I will contact Weaver and see if their customer service is any good.


Millett:  I have never liked Millett’s Angle Lok rings.  They often marr the scope tube and I had a hard time setting them up right.  Generally, I do not quite get the need for ribbed inner surface on Millett rings (other than shewing through the scope tube finish, I suppose).  This time around, I dug out a pair of Grabber rings that Millett suggested I look at a while back.  The construction is a bit funky, but they worked well on the Hawke scope and returned pretty close to zero.  As far as Millet bases go, I have their Picatinny one piece base on my Savage and it seems to be machined to spec.  I do not have any experience with other Millett bases.


Burris:  I am a big fan of Burris Signature Zee rings (the ones with plastic inserts).  They hold zero and helped me solve some challenging mounting problems with different thickness inserts.  I wish Burris made them in a QD configuration.  I also wonder why Burris would not use this technology for wider twin screw rings.  From a mechanical standpoint, this seems like a very durable structure and it can make ring-lapping (which I enjoy about as much as pullng teeth) obsolete.  Burris Xtreme Tactical rings, aside from the name that makes me cringe, are surprisingly good for the money. I have, I think, four sets and I am quite happy with them.  I have used them both on scopes and on red dots (in a single ring configuration): no problems whatsoever and I like the fact that they work with both Picatinny and Weaver bases.  Lastly, Burris Zee Ultra Low rings, while fragile looking worked well for me on a few rifles where I was struggling with cheek weld.  They did require some lapping, but held the scope securely.  Ditto for the new QD Zee rings.


Leupold:  I used a couple of QRW rings and they seemed very well made.


B-Square:  I have a couple of sets of Interlock rings with different riser heights.  Their construction looks entirely too complicated to be durable, but I have not had any problems with them.  Still, I would not use them in a situation wher eyou need maximum durability.


ARMS: I had a couple of sets of #22 rings go out of adjustment on me with use.  I do not use ARMS rings any more.


LaRue:  I have a couple of LaRue risers and have used the one piece bases.  I had a hard time breaking them even when I tried.  Pricy though.


EGW:  I recently acquired a one piece Picatinny base for my Tikka and I am very impressed with it.  I will be buying more EGW products.



Copyright ILya Koshkin 2009


 Posted by at 8:55 pm

SHOT Show 2009


SHOT Show 2009

I originally planned to start at one end of the convention center and work my way over to the other end.  That did not quite pan out since there were a few people I wanted to get together with, so I ended up running back and forth a fair bit.  It is a good idea from an exercise standpoint, I suppose.


Here is a brief rundown of the new stuff:



They have new high magnification 15×56 binoculars called Kaibab.  This may be a beginning of a new line higher up than the Razor, although visually Kaibab looked like a Viper on steroids.  Mechanics were very smooth and glass looked pretty impressive (the best I can tell on a show floor).  Kaibab has some sort of a new-for-Vortex coating that is hydrophobic and scratch resistant.  The same coating is also added to the Razor line of binoculars.

Vortex is also introducing a new high end spotter called Razor HD.  It is a 20-60×85 model  (also available with a 30x eyepiece, I think).  Looking at those halogen lights near the roof, I was able to comfortably resolve the inner detail on the reflectors with no haze or evidence of CA.  Beyond that I would need to test the spotter outdoors.   Mechanically it looked good.  Focus knob is nice and smooth and it looks like it has enough eyerelief for eyeglass wearers.   It should be a strong competitor to similarly sized Nikon and Pentax spotters.  Money-wise it may end up being a bit more expensive than those two, so it may come into competition with some more expensive Kowa and Euro spotters.


Update on upcoming Vortex tactical scopes: Vortex guys asked me to stop by again a couple of days into the show to talk about their upcoming line tactical scopes.  It turned out that they planned to do more than just talk: they had two nearly-fully-done prototypes of the new Razor line of scopes to show me.  The scopes I saw were: 5-20×50 with a 35mm tube and 1-4×24 with 30mm tube.  Both scopes have FFP illuminated reticles and exposed knobs and are made in Japan.  It certainly looked like a lot of thought went into their design, since I had comparatively little to pick on (and I assure you I can usually find something to pick on).  The knobs had very nice feel to them.  The glass looked good to the extent that I could tell.  The reticles had interesting designs, that I think are very functional.  In terms of user friendliness, every scope is an exercise in compromises: on one hand you want a streamlined appearance so that the various protrusions do not catch on stuff.  On the other hand, you need those protrusions to be able to make adjustments easily and without looking if need be.  I think these new Vortex scopes strike the right balance.  Beyond that, there is really not much I can say about performance until I get to put them onto rifles and torture them a little.  When these are ready for production I should be able to get my hands on them.  The prices still need to be set, but it seems like they will undercut their competition by a non-trivial amount.  Performance wise, I think these will go after IOR and Nightforce above all else, and I would not be surprised if they take some sales from the really expensive scopes like Zeiss/Hensoldt, Premier and S&B.  The first version of the 5-20×50 will have MOA reticle and MOA knobs.  Mil/mil version will follow.  Further out, there will be other models in the Razor line to fill other niches.



Hawke Optics:

Hawke is a pretty well established British company that is just now making inroads into the US market.  I have previously acquired a set of their 8×43 Frontier ED binoculars (a review is forthcoming).  I had never seen their scopes before though.  Frontier and Frontier SF scopes are made in Japan by Kenko (same outfit, I think, that makes Super Sniper scopes, some Sightrons and a few others).  The rest of the scopes are made in China.  Several scope lines (Chinese made ones) have an interesting holdover reticle called MAP.  I will not go into detail on that since there is a bunch of information on it on their website.  It is kinda like Zeiss’ Rapid-Z  for people who can not afford Zeiss.  The people in the booth were pretty friendly and I will look to get a couple of their scopes for review.  I will decide which ones later on.  Frontier is a dead ringer for Sightron S1, so I am pretty familiar with that one. Frontier SF looks very nice and 4-16x versions were impressively compact.  I will definitely look at one of those and one of the Chinese made scopes with MAP reticle.




There are now top-end Victory scopes with SFP reticles including Rapid-Z.  I suppose they are trying ot expand their influence in the US hunting market.  They have a BDC knob of some sort called ASV and a couple of new version of the Rapid-Z reicle.   There is also a new pistol scope (a first from a Euro maker) in the Conquest line.  It looked very nice and I wonder if it will work well as a scout scope (which is a bit more up my alley).  There is a new 8×26 rangefinder with trajectory information built in (same as in the 8×45 Victory RF binocular/rangefinder).  It looks like Zeiss is not happy with the fact that Swaro 8×30 is the highest end LRF on the market.  The new Zeiss LRF looks like a worthy competitor for it.

Zeiss also had a prototype of a combination camera spotter, called Photoscope 85 T* FL (15-45×85).  It is an interesting design since the variable magnification is achieved by varying the focal length of the objective not the eyepiece.  I have somewhat mixed feeling on how it is executed.  We’ll see what the production model looks like.




There were some new variants of Z6 scopes on display, which looked as good as other Z6 scopes (which is pretty good).  3-18×50 is a nice configuration that can satisfy a lot of different needs.  Otherwise, there was not much new there.  Top notch (and top price) products.

I got to mess with the Ballistic knob a little and it seemd like a nice thing.  Then again, I also like Kahles’ Multizero.




A couple of new Accupoint scopes: 1-4×24 and 5-20×50, both with SFP reticles.  They seem like nice scopes with nothing exceptional except for Trijicons highly visible reticles.  I am not sure if the ones I saw are production models or prototypes, but the 5-20×50 needs better knobs.  Otherwise, good scopes with Trijicon’s trademark reticle.  As far as the 5-20×50 goes, I kinda have mixed feelings.  It is a nice scope, but Trijicon’s “special” feature is the reticle.  I am not sure how important that is in a high magnification, long range scope.  Now with a 1-4×24, that super visible reticle can really help Trijicon stand out among the competition.  S&B Short Dot made its reputation on having a very bright dot at 1x making it super fast.  Well, here comes Trijicon with a scope that has true 1x with very wide field of view and a super bright dot making it impressively fast.  Oh, and here is the kicker: there are no batteries to worry about.  We’ll see how this scope performs in real life, but this could be an interesting option.

ACOGs and Compact ACOGs got a couple of new reticles.  Circle-Dot in the redesigned (made even smaller)  1.5×16 Compact ACOG and Horseshoe-Dot with holdover marks in the 3×30, 3.5×35 and 4×32 ACOGs.  I will go out on a limb and say that I think these are THE reticles to choose if you want one of these.  Also, for the record, I think 3×30 is the best one in the ACOG family.  It has by far the most flexible and longest eye relief.  Trijicon lists the eyerelief at around 2″ or so and every 3×30 ACOG I have seen has 3-4″ of eye relief.  I think Trijicon does not advertise it a whole lot since it is not the model with the military contract, but if you are in the market for an ACOG and especially if you plan to put it onto something with more kick that 5.56×45, check the 3×30 out.

Reflex site has a new configuration that is bigger and has fiber-based illumination.  It looked pretty good.  There is also a newer version of the “Docter” sight called RSR with a couple of different illumination versions: fiber-based and LED-battery based.  It is a nice little sight.




3×25 scope has a redesigned turret housing, so it is a little slimmer and lighter.  It is also now available with and without the built in mount for additional mounting versatility.

There is a new 2-12×36 scope.  This one has a BDC calibrated for 308Win and does not have a side-focus knob.

Also, IOR is introducing a dual magnification 1x/4x  scope aimed at Elcan Specter DR (very different design though).  1x is quite clear with a very wide field of view.  4x has some distortion in the outer 10% of the field of view, but is pretty good otherwise.  This is an interesting piece.  It is very short, so it may offer some interesting mounting possibilities.  In order to change magnification between 1x and 4x, you have to rotate a ring that is at the same location as the regular magnification ring on normal scopes.  It is not as fast as the lever on Elcan Spectre DR, but it is a pretty positive adjustment.

Also new is a 36×42 benchrest scope with MOA reticle and MOA knobs.  I was surprised with high light it is.  I am not a benchrest shooter, so it is not my cup of tea.  I will let the benchrest guys play with this one.  One thing I found interesting is that it has worm-drive side focus with no stop to it.  Interesting design.

There is now also an eyepiece with a reticle in it available for 80mm Optolyth spotting scope that Valdada sells.  This is a fixed 30x eyepiece.

Apparently, Valdada now imports a few Kaps scopes.  They had 10×56 and 2.5-10×50 on display.  There is also a 8×56 model, but it was not on display.  Interesting designs: very nice looking glass, very slim but well executed eyepieces.  Knobs, I was not impressed with: a bit too much slop.  2.5-10×50 scope has a BDC for 168gr 308.  I am kinda mixed on these scopes: beautiful craftsmanship and the glass appears very good, but the knobs are a bit disappointing.  We’ll see how they fare.




They have a couple of prototype riflescopes there: 2.5-10×42 and 3.5-14×42.  They seem like nice scopes, but one of them had some very uncharacteristic CA in it. I hope it is not present in the production scopes.

Also new for the show are Geovid HD rangefinding binoculars with improved glass, that looked very good, and a new rangefinder model with a bit more reach (1500 meters, I think).  Leica rep spent a few minutes trying to convince me that the 7×26 rangefinder has 4x magnification which makes imminently more suitable for long distance ranging than the competition.  He also did not take my criticism of the new Leica riflescopes too kindly.  Still, he was very civil despite me pointing out that he should check out their catalog for the specs for the rangefinder rather go ahead an invent them.




There is a new spotter available: TSN-82SV.  I think it is a little more compact that the earlier spotter of the same size.  It uses the eyepiece from Kowa’s smaller 60mm spotters.

The big news was the binoculars: Kowas introduced 33mm objective lens versions of their superb Genesis XD binoculars.  I spent a bit more time with the 44mm binoculars and then looked at the 33mm ones in some more detail.  I think I will need to put together a review with these.  Color and contrast are as good as anything I have ever seen.  I am surprised these binoculars are not more popular.  Truthfully, there are a lot of excellent full size binoculars available, but the 33mm Kowas really stood out to my eyes among the mid-size binos (it would be interesting to have Ted pit these against his 8×32 Leica Ultraivd HDs; if I get my hands on a pair, I’ll send them over to him).




Sightron does not have too much stuff that is new for the show, but they told me a couple of new things they are working on.  I was asked to not disclose it yet, but it sounds interesting (and is right up my alley).  There are a few new scope configurations and a few new binoculars.  Still, Sightron has a pretty complete line-up and if you have not seen them yet, I highly recommend you check out Sightron’s S2 Big Sky and S3 scopes.  Of the currently in production stuff, I think these Sightrons are ultimately the best Japanese scopes in terms of optics.  Keep your eyes out for upcoming models.  They sound like they can cause quite a stir in their respective markets.

The binoculars that attracted my attention are the redesigned SIII binoculars, that now have ED glass in them.  They looked good optically and had the now-popular split bridge design.




Meopta displayed 8×32 and 10×32 binoculars which are very good in typical Meopta fashion.

They also have some sort of new spotter eyepiece that allows you to snap photographs and look through the scope at the same time.  I have not spent much time with it since digiscoping is not my thing, but it is a pretty need idea.

In terms of riflescopes, there was not much new except for a 10×42 ZD scope, but it was an early prototype of some sort.

Lastly, Meopta jumped on the mini red-dot bandwagon and produced their own version of what is typically known as the “Docter sight”.  There is a bunch of these on the market now and most look the same to me.  There are minute differences, but I have got to think that in a year or two at least half of these will no longer be in production.  That having been said, perhaps I should a get one of these miniature red-dot sights for myself.   Still, I doubt that I will get the Meopta version: it has the red dot that is nowhere near round. Rather it is some sort of a cross-shaped small plane looking thing.




I did not see anything particularly captivating in the Pentax booth.  Their binoculars are decent, but not longer my top choice in any category: the competition has passed them by.

Spotters are still good though.  Here is the kicker: the scopes they had on display had either XF or SMC Zoom 20-60x eyepiece.  They did not have a single fixed focal length XW eyepiece in the booth (I asked).  SMC zoom eyepiece is absolutely top-notch, of course, but the assortment of XW eyepieces are I think, one of the things that makes Pentax spotters really stand out.  Then again, what do I know?

With riflescopes, there is a new 5x erector scope in their cheap Gameseeker line, which kinda makes no sense to me.




New EDG spotting scopes with 65mm and 85mm objective lenses.  These are accompanied by new EDG eyepieces which I actually like.  As  a matter of background I consider currently available Fieldscope eyepieces to be pieces of excrement that ruin otherwise very nice spotters; these new EDG eyepieces are larger in diameter and have a lot more eye relief.  Nice stuff.  Then I looked up how much these are going to cost. They better be bloody amazing for that kinda money.  Time will tell.

Premier LX-L binoculars have been resurrected as a binocular line one step below the EDGs.  The sample they had on hand was not great: noticeable CA, but they assured me it is not a production piece.  One step below the Premier LX-L binoculars there is a new line of Monarch-X binoculars that I found thoroughly underwhelming.

With riflescopes, there are a few new low-range variables labeled “Monarch African”: 1-4×20, 1.1-4×24 and 1.1-4x24IR.  All have #4 reticle and nice wide field of view.  The specs are not available yet, but these look like “me too” products.  Still these are pretty nice “me too” products and if priced well could do quite all right.

I still think that the 2-8×32 is the best Monarch scope in the whole line-up, but that is just me.




Optolyth had a separate booth, but they also show their products along with IOR’s stuff (see the original post).  I stopped by to take a look at their binoculars.  There is nothing especially new there except the Via Nova binocular had an especially crappy focus wheel.  Disappointing, I always thought these were pretty nice.




I did not spend too much time there, but I looked at the new VX-3 scopes.  Clicks are a little crisper and glass is perhaps a touch better.  I will try to get my hands on one for review, but so far I do not see what all the hubbab is about.  I stopped by Leupold one more time to take a look at the new scopes in more detail.  This was supposed to be one of the BIG stories of the optics end of the show, and I wanted to give it a fair shake. I looked over several models in the new VX-3 line-up and I looked at the 4.5-14x one very thoroughly. At low mag there was some odd distortion. At high mag, there was strong chromatic aberration. Knobs did something funky when you reverse direction. Some time in the spring I will try to put together a scope comparison involving 4-14x type scopes. I’ll add the Leupold to the mix. Leupold had a few binoculars with new names. They were not sufficiently memorable to list here. The rangefinders, on the other hand, had some new designs. I especially liked the RX-1000. If has a nice, small and handy, form factor.  It is supposed to be able to range deer out to 700 yards or so, but I can’t confirm that inside the convention center.




Once again, I only had a cursory overview, since I mostly stopped by to look at the new 1.5-8×32 Elite 6500 scope, which looked pretty good, but was very dirty.  Still I like that configuration.  It has gobs of eye relief and should work well on a kicker.  I am not sure what reticles are available for it, but the plex reticle in the scope on the show floor is entirely too thin.  Aside from that I spent some time with the Millet guys, who are now a part of Bushnell.  Nothing new there, but the latest generation of DMS, TRS and LRS scopes looked pretty good.  I made another stop at Bushnell booth to look at their folded path spotter with a reticle.  It actually looked very nice.  Definitely worth looking at in the future and the price looked very attractive.

Now that Bushnell has acquired Millett, I am kinda utilizing a wait and see attitude toward some Millett products that I generally recommend in their respective price ranges.  I would like to see how the integration of the two product lines will continue in the future.

That having been said, one Millett product that I think you should definitely check out if you are in the market for a red dot is Millett ZoomDot.  It is unlike any other red dot on the market and I think it is made very well.




I suppose this the right time to talk about Aimpoint, now that I suggested people look at the Millett ZoomDot.  Aimpoint makes excellent red dot sights.  They are well made and have incredibly efficient illumination circuits.  I am pretty sure that vast majorit of users will not have to change the batteries for at least five years.  Probably longer.

For the SHOT Show this year, Aimpoint really did not have any especially new products.  They did have some new mounting options for the their micro red dot sights: R1, T1 and H1.

I have been very impressed with those miniature sights.  There are a few reasons for that: the battery lasts almost as long as in the full-size model.  The biggest thing for me is that the rather large knob that adjusts dot brightness is, to me, a fair bit easire to oeprate than the knob on full-size Aimpoints.  That is one of the big reasons why I ended up switching from a full size Aimpoint to Millett ZoomDot.  Now with the Micros I think Aimpoint really has something special on their hands.

The model with the N-battery is being phased out.  It is being replaced with a similarly sized model that uses a lithium 123 battery. Also, the magnifier is slightly redesigned: it seems to have a bit less edge distortion than I recall and it has fine adjustment to tweak alignment with the sight itself.

Weaver has just been bought back by ATK which is good news in my opinion.  I do not think they were quite ready for the SHOT Show, but I think there are some good things happening there.  Ultimate Slam scopes are new and feature 5x erectors.  The field of view is a bit narrow, but eye relief is pretty long at 4″.  All scopes with magnification above 10x get side focus.  Optically, the look like decent Japanese scopes along the lines of the Grand Slam.  The Tactical scope line with FFP reticles and 5x erectors was announced but not available yet.  I am hopeful that Weaver is back on a road to recovery.
Nitrex scopes will be essentially identical to Weaver ones, but with a different distribution model.  I do not think Nitrex will get FFP scopes, but TR2 and TR1 are equivalent to Weaver’s Ultimate Slam and Grand Slam respectively. 
Both brands get a new EBX reticle which is another twist on a holdover reticle.

Generally, I have been a little disappointed with Burris lately.  I think the company has been sliding a bit after being purchased by Beretta.  
For the show this year, Burris came out with a bunch of “me too” products, but I think they have their place in the marketplace and some could do well.
First of all, there are two SixX scopes: 2-12×40 and 2-12×50.  Everyone is gong toward more complicated erector tubes, so Burris had to join the mix.  That having been said, the scopes actually looked all right.  They are reasonaby compact and have good eye releif.  They will be available with two reticles: Ballistic Plex and #4.  I certainly applaud that effort since I tend to find the regular thin plex reticle so popular in the US to be moderately useless for anything other than target shooting.  A nice thick #4 reticle is much better in low light.
The FastFire micro red dot sight gets a water proof version, which is a worthwhile improvement in my book.
Burris binoculars I probably should not talk about. If Burris decides to sue me for slander, they can afford more lawyers than I can….
For regular size red dots, Burris is introducing their version of a magnifier: 3x Tripler with fine adjustments for better alignment with the sight itself.
Perhaps more interesting is the AR-332 prismatic 3x sight. It is kinda a mix of Trijicon ACOG and Leupold prismatic: there is magnification, but the reticle is illuminated by the battery, instead of fiber optics.  If your battery dies you still have a pretty thick and useable black reticle.  The reticle is dominated by an outer circle that is 1 mil thick.  Inside it there is a center dot 1 mil in diameter and some holdover marks. The illumination is either red or green depending on which direction you turn the knob in (the green/red thing is kinda cheesy to me, I would prefer red with more settings from low to high).  This is an interesting little sight and should be quite affordable.  I would like to wring it out in low light some time.  It has a built-in carry handle mount a la ACOG which is definitely a minus as far as I am concerned.  That means that there is no way to mount it low in case your rifle is not an AR.

Since I recently had to face a lot of questions about Leatherwood scopes, I spent a fair amount of time looking at them.  If you want details about a particular scope line, I may be able to address it, but in a nutshell, here is what I think:
-Optically, quality is better than it was a couple of years ago when I last looked at them, but still not where I would recommend these scopes.
-Knobs were pretty bad on every scope on display.
-There are sound ideas behind the designs, but execution is not good enough.

Now onto the good part: the guys at the booth (including Corbett Leatherwood) were very receptive of criticism.  I hope that they will feed it back to the factory.  I will perhaps revisit Leatherwood scopes in a few months and see where they are.  For now, I do not think I am going to spend much time on them.  There was a dozen of scopes on display and not a single decent knob.

Wildlife porro 8×30 binoculars are new.  They are a bit better than Military/Marine binos and have an interesting focusing arrangement: there are the individual focusing rings on both oculars AND a center focus.  I have not quite seen that before.

Minox seems to be suffering from an identity crisis of a sort.  In 2009 they will have an updated version of HG binoculars with wider field of vew and fluorite glass lenses.  The specs looked good, we’ll see how good the image is.  Minox now also has a straight eyepiece 50mm spotter that is pretty decent optically and very lightweight.

2.5-10×32 has been around for a couple of months.  It is a nice little scope.
Also, Nightforce FFP scope was on display.  Mechanically, Nightforce scopes have always been superb.  Optically, well, let’s just say that in my opinion a scope that expensive should have appreciably better glass.
Interestingly, Nightforce is the one booth where I got pretty close to getting kicked out.  At just about every booth I would offer some feedback on what I saw in the scope.  It looks like with Nightforce folks you are either a die hard fan or a mortal enemy, nothing in between.  Unless you think their scopes are the best thing since sliced bread, they will not give you the time of day.  Quite frankly, I do not think that attitude is constructive, and I hope Vortex eats their lunch.
Just for the record, I think I am the only person in the world who does think too highly about all those skeleton reticles.  With illumination off, they are difficult to see in anything, but the brightest light.

US Optics
There is a new 1.7-10×37 scope which looks to be well made and is pretty compact.  In typical USO fashion, they will make it with any options you want.  This year it is available with T-Pal in addition to AO.  I have mixed feeling toward some USO scopes due to their size and weight, but I liked this one.

There were two people in the booth: a pretty girl with good English who has never seen a scope before and an older Japanese guy who knew something about the scopes, but spoke comparatively little English (and could not work through my accent any better than I could work through his).  The scopes themselves looked like pretty decent Japanese made scopes.  Not sure what their competitive advantage is: there is a bunch of scopes just like that already.  Basically, the scopes looked OK, but I am adopting a wait and see approach on what they want to do in this market.

I only stopped by Elcan’s booth briefly.  I looked at the Spectre DR 1x/4x and the new Spectre DR 1.5x/6x as well as a 3x Spectre OS.
In principle, I like the Spectre DR sights. The execution, however, I am not as crazy about.  Optically, they are OK.  There is some edge distortion, but I am not too bothered by it.  I am a bit bothered by very thin reticle.  If the illumination is off, it is hard to see with a wide variety of backgrounds.  I am also not big on ARMS mounts that are integrated into the sight.  Perhaps, that is just a personal thing, but I have had enough trouble with ARMS rings to not use them.  Another thing that I do not like is the fact that elevation adjustment is external.  I generally dislike adjustments that can easily get clogged with dirt, mud, etc (yes, I am clearly in the “internal adjustment” ACOG camp).
With that out of the way, the 1.5x/6x sight is new this year.  It is slightly larger than the 1x/4x one, but otherwise is functionally almost the same (aside from the obvious magnification difference).
The Spectre OS sight is a red dot sight with a built in 3x magnifier: if the illuminated dot is off, there is no reticle.  Field of view is quite narrow and you generally feel like you looking through a straw.  On a plus side, it is quite flexible for eye position and a lot more compact than Aimpoint with the separate magnifier.

S&B (non-tactical scopes)
I think the only new scope S&B had for this show was the Summit: 2.5-10×40 with 1″ tube.  I think this is essentially the Zenith shoved into a 1″ tube, which is a good thing.  That probably makes it the best 1″ tube hunting scope in the world.
Aside from that, I do not think there is anything new in the S&B line-up.  I spent some time looking at their line-up fo fixed magnification scopes: 4×36, 6×42, 8×56 and 10×42.  
There are not a whole lot of high quality fixed magnification scopes left out there and I can’t help but lament that.  These fixed magnification scopes by S&B are absolutely superb.  I can think of very little shooting out there that can not be comfortably doen with either a 4×36 or a 6×42 fixed magnification scope by S&B.  Interestingly, Kaps (which is across the street from S&B) also makes similarly configured fixed magnification scopes.  Aside from that, all that remains are the very good IOR line-up and a lone 4×32 Zeiss Conquest.

Now we are getting to the part of the SHOT Show that I really spent a lot of time on.  I was shuttling between Premier, S&B and Hensoldt booths for quite a bit looking at their scopes and trying to make up my mind on these.  In a nutshell, the shooter in me would probably go with Premier while the engineer in me would definitely go with Hensoldt (both the shooter and the engineer would feel some mild curiosity about the future of S&B tactical scopes).

Here is a brief summary of the product offerings, and after that I will offer some thoughts on how these scopes compare, based on an admittedly limited “show floor” evaluation Before I get too much flak for my observations, I have to make a disclaimer: I am not a LEO, and I am not in the military.  I am a self-professed shooting diletante.  However, I have seen just about every decent scope out there and I like to think that my understanding of optics is a touch above average.  

Still, this is just one guy’s opinion, so do not read too much into it.

This year, Hensoldt scopes are finally coming to our shores. For the most part, Hensoldt scopes are Zeiss designs with a Hensoldt twist, so to speak, although a couple of scopes do not necessarily have an analogous Zeiss-branded copy. Hensoldt scopes come in following configurations:

3-12×56 FFP and SFP with 34mm tube
3-12×56 SSG-P, with FFP reticle and built-in mount (30mm tube)
4-16×56 FFP and SFP with 34mm tube
6-24×56 SFP with 30mm tube
6-24×72 SFP with 34mm tube
6-24×72 SFP with 34mm tube and with SAM (SAM is a computing module that measures temperature, humidity, inclination, level, etc)
A folded path 20-60×72 spotting scope with illuminated reticle.  This is quite simply the best scope of its type in the world and, likely, the most expensive one.  It is optically superb and very rugged.  

All Hensoldt products are certified to Mil-standard.

All of the 34mm tube Hensoldts are designed to be as short as possible, and considering that the smallest objective in the line-up is 56mm, they are very short indeed.  30mm tubed models are notably longer than their 34mm tube brethren. They have illuminated reticles, side focus and triple turn knobs with multi-clor markings.  SSG-P scope has an itnegrated mount and magnification indicator within the filed of view (very neat).
6-24×72 scopes, apparently have objective lenses made of fluorite crystal for better CA control.
The SAM module is integrated with the scope (sits under it in the form of a base with rings) and is not very difficult to use.  Still, there is a learning curve.  You need to set it up with some information on the ballistics of your cartridge.  Beyond that, you just need to tell it how far the target is.  The output of the SAM is projected into the image as you look through the scope.  I think for a well trained shooter this can definitely increase the probability of the first shot hitting the target and probably speed up firing that first shot.  Oh, and if you have to ask how much this costs, you probably can not afford one. 

Heritage 3-15×50 scope has been out for a couple of months now.  For the show, Premier has unveiled a 5-25×56 version of the scope.  In terms of image quality, I think this scope is the best I have ever seen, bar none.  We took it outside of the convention center mounted on a tripod and spent a little while looking at distant and not so distant objects.  I was stunned at the depth of field on it.  Premier really did their homework on this one.
Both scopes are big and heavy.  The dual turn elevation knob is spectacular.  All knobs have excellent feel.  
Basically, for an allround tactical scope with no electronics involved, this is as good as it gets.

S&B line-up is fairly well known.  Here I will touch on the three models: 3-12×50, 4-16×50 and 5-25×56.  These three compete directly against the Premier and Hensoldt scopes above.  The 5-25×56 is the most recent design and offers the ebst image quality of the three.  It is almost on par with Premier.  3-12×50 and 4-16×50 are truly sperb, but in all honesty, I think both the 3-15×50 Premier and the similary configured Hensoldt scopes are a bit better.

With that basic summary out of the way, what do I mean when I say “optically better”?  There is not a whole lot of resolution testing you can do during the show.  However, these are the most optically advanced scopes in the world and I suspect that there is little to set the apart resolution-wise.  Distortion is equally well compensated.  All have very sharp images edge-to-edge.  Just about the only thing I can find that differentiates them is color management and, to a certain degree, width and depth of field.  There, Premier scopes were ahead of the pack ever so slightly, but noticeably. Field of view on the Premier scopes is about the same as on the similarly configured Zeiss scopes and wider than on S&B scopes.

What complicates matters is that the design philosophy between these scopes is different.  S&B scopes, historically, utilize somewhat simple optical systems with absolutely top notch components.  Premier scopes do the same things, only a bit better.  I am struggling to think of a situation where I would go for a more expensive S&B scope now that Premier is on the market.

Situation with Hensoldt is different: in their attempt to combine large objectives with short scopes, Hensoldt engineers created a set of new problems on their collective behind.  This engineering feat makes color management much more complicated.  It also makes depth of field shallower.  These are the unavoidable compromises with shortening the focal lengths in a scope.  For me, here is the kicker: what is the purpose of making a scope with a 72mm objective lens 15 inches long, vs 18″ long?  It is not exactly going to be mounted on a light weight mountain rifle.  It will likely be sitting on a 15 pound rifle with an overall length of 40 to 50 inches.  I agree that weight of the scope makes a difference and Hensoldt scopes are lighter than their counterparts from Premier and S&B.  However, adding a couple of inches of aluminum tube would not likely effect the weight a whole lot and I suspect it would simplify the design a bit.  In all fairness, that is mostly conjecture on my part, a guess, really, but a fairly educated guess at that.

As they are, I think that Premier makes the best allround tactical scope I have seen.
However, depending on your needs, Hensoldt also has a lot to offer.  If low light is the higest priority, than the larger objective lenses of Hensoldt scopes will give you an advantage.  Similarly, if this is what you do for a living and you can afford the 6-24×72 with the integrated SAM, this is your best tool for making the first shot hit the target, especially when the light gets low.

For those of you who managed to slog through the 6000+ words of my barely coherent SHOT Show ramblings, I feel for you.  The amount of information I ran into at SHOT is absolutely staggering and in order to make it truly coherent, I would have to double the size of the write-up.  Then I can pretty much guarantee that no one in his right mind would read it.

As is, if I did not mention a particular scope you are interested in, please post a question in the thread.  If I have indeed looked at it, I will dust off my recollections the best I can.



P.S.  Here is the OpticsTalk discussion thread on this:


 Posted by at 8:23 pm