Hunting scopes: simple is simply better

It’s natural for manufacturers to enhance and update the products they offer in an effort to improve performance and increase sales. For example, the vehicles we drive today frequently include cruise control, built-in GPS and Wi-Fi, cameras intended to prevent accidents and even DVD players in the back to keep kids entertained. We now have computers capable of more than ever before, remote controlled appliances and mobile phones that have, in some instances, made filing cabinets almost obsolete.

Equally so, over the past few decades the scopes we choose to mount on our rifles have also seen significant improvements. They generally come with clearer optics and better resolution, enhanced colour transmission, augmented light-gathering abilities, higher level of durability and are more dependable than ever. But while these traits are worthwhile, other changes which have taken place in recent years could actually be hindering our chances of hunting success.

Each year it seems the size of scopes increases as does their weight. Main-tube diameters continue to grow as do the ocular and objective lenses. Manufacturers have in many cases reached new heights when it comes to magnification levels and have added all sorts of bells and whistles that may be eye-catching and interesting on the surface, but may not be the best choice when it comes to a hunting optic.

Variable versus fixed powered

I have a few hunting mates who strongly prefer fixed powered scopes over variable models. Some of that preference has its roots within the somewhat chequered past of the first multi-powered riflescopes, which sometimes failed to maintain the same impact point when the magnification was changed. But that problem has long since been resolved. Others shooters may simply prefer the consistency of the sighting picture through a fixed powered scope.

But whatever the reason behind their preference, I believe the use of a fixed powered scope results in unnecessarily handicapping a hunter’s abilities. The capability to quickly and easily turn the magnification level of a riflescope up or down to suit whatever situation you’re facing comes with significant advantage.

It allows the shooter to effortlessly select a low setting when shots are expected to be close and natural light is at a premium, yet when facing the challenges of longer range the power can be quickly turned upward, giving an enhanced level of target identification and more accurate shot placement.

Variable power in moderation

I view 3-9x40mm scopes as my ‘go-to’, suitable for the widest range of hunting applications. When turned down to 3x they serve the hunter well at close quarters and setting to 9x usually provides an adequate degree of magnification for shots out to 400m and sometimes beyond.

Another option if you like a bit more magnification would be a 4-12x model. In recent years these have become popular with hunters and usually aren’t too much bigger in size or heavier than the 3-9x models.

On the rare occasion I believe shots wouldn’t exceed 100m I’ve used a lower power variable, usually in the range of 1-3/4-5x, but a variable in this magnification range produce little advantage over that of a fixed 4x model.

The vast majority of the 3-9x and 4-12x variables come with a 1^ main-tube diameter though there are a few 30mm models. While the 30mm tube scopes are typically promoted as being capable of drawing in more light, any benefit is offset by the disadvantages. Most 30mm scopes will carry a higher initial cost, mounting rings will frequently be harder to find and also more costly, and 30mm scopes will typically be heavier and bulkier than their 1^ cousins. Staying small and mounting the scope as close to the body of the rifle as possible helps limit potential scope damage in the field.

Reticle and turret choices

A shooter today has more reticle choices to select from than ever before, but when it comes to a hunting scope I use the ‘keep it simple’ theory. A standard cross-hair, or what is commonly referred to as a duplex reticle, serves me well. This model is similar to the standard cross-hair but the legs of the reticle are more pronounced and heavier around the outside parameter. It’s believed this style allows the shooter to centre their target quicker.

Whichever reticle I choose I prefer them not be too thick or heavy or too fine. The heavier styles unnecessarily block out too much of the sighting picture and the finer reticles are too difficult to see when the background is dark or non-contrasting. I also prefer avoiding the concept of hash marks or stadia marks. These designs are intended to allow the shooter to more easily compensate for trajectory drop or wind drift, but a much better way to accomplish that goal for me is to know the trajectory of the bullet and hold over the target to compensate.

Most experienced hunters understand roughly the dimensions and size of the game they’re pursuing and using that knowledge allows them to accurately compensate for the drop of the bullet. If you find it hard to remember your bullet trajectory you could tape a small chart to the buttstock of your rifle as a reference, showing the bullet drop in 100m increments.

Another method of trajectory drop compensation in vogue today is the idea of being able to dial-in your reticles to match the distance to the target. While on the surface this may seem the perfect answer when longer shots are called for, I don’t buy into that theory. In more than half a century of shooting and adjusting thousands of reticles, I’ve seldom found they move in the precise manner intended.

Sometimes the mechanism sticks and other times I’m at a loss to explain why the bullet impact changes in the manner it does. And those problems aren’t limited to just lower quality scopes as I’ve frequently found the same issues on scopes costing thousands of dollars. That’s why I try to avoid this concept completely and instead know the trajectory of my bullet and simply hold over to compensate for bullet drop.

Easy-to-adjust reticle designs have also become common. In some cases all you need do is turn the turret dial, or raise it slightly then turn it to adjust the bullet impact point. But while these designs might be great for benchrest shooting, I feel they have no place in most hunting scenarios. Simply put, they’re all too easy to become changed unintentionally in the field. For that reason, having to physically remove a cap in order to gain access to the reticle adjustments makes better sense for a hunting scope.

Many scopes now come with illuminate reticles and while I have a few of these mounted on various hunting rifles, I seldom turn the illumination on. The intended advantage of these designs is to provide better contrast in order to place shots more precisely. While there’s a certain amount of validity to that claim, you’ll have to decide for yourself whether it’s worth the usual higher costs of these scopes. In most cases that illumination is provided by CR-style batteries which aren’t all that long-lasting and are fairly expensive.

Parallax adjustments

Most lower to moderately powered variable-magnification scopes come with the parallax adjustment permanently set at the factory. Those scopes designed for centrefire use are typically set to be parallax-free at 150m. However, there are some scopes that come with a manual parallax adjustment located either on the front bell of the scope or along the side of the main tube. If you choose one of these a side-mounted adjustment is most often preferred for hunting as it allows the shooter to keep their eye on the target while adjusting the focus.

The way I see it

Not everyone will agree with the opinions expressed here. Ask five shooters their views on any shooting-related topic and you’ll likely receive at least six opinions, but the overall concept of ‘keeping it simple’ is not something hunters should quickly disregard. Things can happen quickly in the outback and for that reason, if you can keep your fidgeting and decisions to a minimum, you stand a better chance of success.

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