Like a lot of kids growing up in the American West, I started shooting with an open-sighted .22 rimfire rifle. It is a great way to learn rifle marksmanship. I learned how to shoulder the rifle, hold the grip, break the trigger, following through the shot, control my breathing, etc.
I found shooting was simplified when I could concentrate on a focused front sight, centered in a blurred rear sight, and overlayed on the target. I highly recommend every shooter learn to shoot with iron sights.
However, iron sights just aren’t as precise as long range magnified optics, as fast on-target as non-magnified optical sights, or as useful in low light as optics with an illuminated reticle.
As a rule, the same shooter will shoot better and faster with an optic than with iron sights. That is why rifle optics are so popular in the modern shooting market.
But how do we choose the optic we need for OUR rifle? The array of choices at a local sporting goods store or online scope dealer is dizzying, especially to the novice shooter.
Unfortunately, there is no perfect optic for every rifle and every use. Fortunately though, that wide selection does have an option to cover just about every use.
The trick is to find the perfect optic for your specific shooting needs.
What Do We Need To Know About Rifle Optics?
Before we choose an optic for our rifle, we need to have an understanding of the terms and technology that goes into an aiming optic, so we can evaluate what attributes are important for our uses
A primary benefit of many rifle optics is magnification. This is how much larger (or closer) the optic makes the target appear when viewed through the optic.
Most optics have the magnification denoted by how many TIMES (X’s) closer the target appears. So for example a target at 1000 yards will appear to be about 100 yards away through a 10x magnified optic.
Variable riflescopes have an adjustable eyepiece that can go from a low magnification with a wide field of view to a higher magnification. Fixed magnification optics have only one magnification.
2. Field of View
Field of view (FOV) is the amount of area around the target that is visible through the optic.
FOV generally gets smaller at higher magnifications and larger at lower magnifications. This specification is generally listed as an angular measurement (like 6.5 degrees) or the corresponding linear measurement at a certain distance (like 300 feet at 1000 yards).
So the shooter looking through a 300ft./1000yards optic can see 300 feet from left to right at 1000 yards distance.
3. Eye Relief
Eye Relief is the distance behind the optic where the shooter can see the entire FOV.
This is important to know so the shooter can mount the optic at the proper location on the rifle, and keep their eye a safe distance behind the optic during the recoil of a shot.
The reticle is the lines, shapes, or dots integrated into the optic, which the shooter superimposes over the target used to aim the rifle at the target.
There are a wide variety of reticles available for specific uses from a simple crosshair for fast shooting, to complicated “Christmas tree” style reticles used for extreme long-range precision. Some variation of a duel-thickness crosshair is the most common type in riflescopes.
Parallax in rifle optics can be a confusing concept. Parallax error occurs when the target and reticle are not displayed on the same plane in the optic.
So if the reticle is focused on a plane at 50 yards, it will appear to move on a target 100 yards away if the shooter’s eye moves behind the optic. This provides an error that makes precision at the target harder to accomplish.
Many magnified riflescopes have an adjustment knob to eliminate this parallax error by focusing the reticle at the same distance as the intended target.
Parallax error is more noticeable on higher magnification optics and at longer ranges, so lower magnification optics will often not have this adjustment knob included.
Some non-magnified (1X) optics like red dots and holographic sights are even “parallax-free” so the reticle is always on the same plane as the target regardless of target distance or shooter eye position.
6. First Focal Plane vs. Second Focal Plane
Reticles can be installed either in the First Focal Plane (FFP) or Second Focal Plane (SFP) of a magnified riflescope.
First Focal Plane reticles are the same size relative to the target regardless of what magnification a variable magnification scope is set. Because the reticle is the same relative to the target, however, the reticle itself appears to get smaller and larger to the shooter.
FFP scopes are useful because their subtensions are the same size at any magnification, so they can be used as intended at any magnification. The downside of FFP reticles is they can be hard for the shooter to see at low magnifications, especially in low light.
SFP scopes reverse this effect. As the magnification is adjusted up or down, the reticle appears the same size in the FOV, but covers more or less of the target.
SFP reticles are useful as the reticle is always similarly visible to the shooter at any magnification, but any subtended features are only going to be properly subtended at one magnification (typically the highest magnification).
Many hunters like SFP reticles because they will have their scope on the highest magnification for any shot where they would use the reticle subtensions, but the reticle is still bold and visible at low magnification, where they would be only using the center crosshair for a closer shot.
7. Turrets, Zero Adjustment, and Zero Stop
Each optic has a system for moving the reticle internally so that it corresponds with a spot on a target where the bullet will land. In most riflescopes, this task is handled by two turrets controlling elevation and windage.
The Elevation turret adjusts where the turret moves on the vertical axis, while the windage turret adjusts the horizontal axis.
Some optics have a third turret that is used to correct the parallax error. Some optics like holographic sights just use elevation and windage screws, but don’t have external turrets.
Long-range optics often have a feature where once the zero is set for the distance the shooter chooses, the elevation turret can be adjusted so that the turret won’t “dial back” past that zero setting.
This is incredibly useful when making elevation adjustments in the field, so the shooter can just turn the dial back until it won’t turn further, and the shooter knows they are at their designated zero.
8. Minute of Angle vs. Milliradian
Many rifle optic reticles and optic adjustments are subtended in precise angular measurements. This is useful for shooters because that angle can be used to compensate for the trajectory and wind deflection of a bullet as well as measuring a target to calculate the range of that target.
There are two main units of measurement that reticles and internal adjustments are calibrated in: Minute of Angle and Milliradian.
Minute of Angle (MOA)
A minute of angle is 1/60th of a degree. So 60 MOA add up to a 1 degree angle and 360 1 degree angles add up to a full circle. The convenient part of MOA is that 1 MOA approximates 1 inch at 100 yards, 2 inches at 200 yards, 5 inches at 500 yards, 10 inches at 1000 yards, etc. What I mean about approximates is that 1 MOA is actually 1.047 inches at 100 yards. Most MOA calibrated scopes adjust at 1/4 MOA per turret click, although some scopes have a finer 1/8 MOA click or coarser 1/2 MOA click for specific uses.
I find it easiest to think of Milliradians (abbreviated as MIL or MRAD) as the angular measurement of the metric system. This isn’t exactly true, but it works out that way for mental calculations. One MIL is equivalent to 1 meter at 1000 meters or 10 centimeters at 100 meters. Because of its large size for rifle optic adjustment, most optics are calibrated for 0.1 MIL adjustment clicks. This works out to 1 centimeter at 100 meters, or 0.36 inches at 100 yards.
The standard 1/4 MOA adjustment value is a little finer than the 0.1 MIL adjustment value, so the 1/4 MOA click scope can be a little more precise, while a similar scope with coarser 0.1 MIL adjustments can give faster adjustments with less clicks. Either way, the shooter just needs to know which system their scope is calibrated in, so they can make the proper adjustment. I personally have scopes in both systems, and it really doesn’t matter to me, as I can get a good zero and make adjustments with either.
9. Riflescope Nomenclature:
Riflescopes are generally identified by their magnification and the diameter of the objective lens.
The objective lens is the lens at the front of the scope that first lets light into the optic. Larger objectives let more light into the scope, but also require the scope to be mounted higher over the bore.
So, a scope that has 6x magnification and a 40mm diameter objective will be listed as a 6×40 riflescope.
If the riflescope has a zoom magnification range it will be listed in the first part of the designation.
So, a scope that has a low magnification of 3x, a high magnification of 9x, and an objective lens 50mm in diameter will be listed as a 3-9×50.
10. Glass Quality and Coatings:
Not all optical glass is of the same quality. Similarly, glass coating technology varies wildly among manufacturers and models of optics.
The type of glass is important because certain types of glass are better suited to correct for optical aberrations, and can provide a better image to the shooter.
Coatings can also provide performance differences. Better anti-reflection coatings can increase the amount of light transmitted through the optic and provide a brighter view to the shooter. Other coatings increase durability and weather resistance.
Two Steps to Choosing a Rifle Optic: Shooting Application and Range
Now that we know the terms and technology that go into a rifle optic, we can get down to the business of choosing the right optic for you and your rifle. This is usually a two-step process:
- What am I using this rifle for?
- What range am I intending to shoot?
Sure, these two criteria overlap, but that is the whole point. There is no one optic that is going to excel at every shooting application at every range.
The shooter needs to narrow the choices down to choose the appropriate optic to handle the intended task.
So let’s answer the questions in order:
How to Choose a Rifle Optic by Shooting Application?
Target Shooting at a Shooting Range
This is by far the most popular type of rifle shooting, and for good reason. Shooting is fun!
Target rifle shooters generally need a magnified rifle scope that brings the view of the target closer for greater precision.
Many target shooters prefer a clean standard crosshair reticle or “duplex” style crosshair with thinner crosshairs at the center. Adjustments are generally pretty fine, to provide the most precise zero.
These scopes often have high magnifications and weight is not a critical factor, as the only real portability concern is from the vehicle to the bench.
“Plinking” is the term commonly used for a roaming style of target shooting where the shooter shoots at impromptu targets away from a traditional range like rocks, bottles, cans, or small portable reactive targets, often with a rimfire rifle.
The “plinking” name refers to the sound of a bullet striking a metallic target like a can. This is a more mobile style of target shooting and is usually at closer distances.
A lower magnification riflescope is the usual optic chosen for this task, but a non-magnified red dot or prism optic could be a good choice, especially for instructing a new shooter.
3-Gun Competition: “3-Gun” competitions are a specific discipline of competitive shooting where the shooter uses three types of weapons (pistol, shotgun, and rifle) to move through a timed course of varying distances.
Due to the varying ranges encountered in 3-gun competition, versatility is required, and many competitors even combine two types of optics to meet the different needs of a 3-gun course.
Long Range Competition
Long-range field competitions like the Precision Rifle Series (PRS), Precision Rifle Competition (PRC), and National Rifle League (NRL) have exploded in popularity in recent years.
These are rifle-only events that have targets at varying ranges from 100-1000 yards and beyond.
Magnified riflescopes are the choice here with specialized reticles for quick adjustments as well as dependable turrets to compensate for trajectory and wind.
The military and law enforcement have demands for their rifles that go beyond the casual shooter.
Lives are literally on the line, so things like dependability and durability take on priority. These applications are also highly variable, from point-blank confrontations during building clearing to long-range precision shooting applications.
There is a wide variety of optics that meet these needs, and the operator needs to evaluate their specific application. Optics for these uses range from red dots to tactical long-range scopes.
Protecting one’s castle from violent intrusion is a pretty tight criteria for an optic.
Non-magnified red dots and holographic sights dominate this category, where speed and use in varying light conditions are paramount.
Hunting is an absolute obsession for me.
Hunting takes place in the outdoors, so weather resistance and durability are top priorities.
The best times to see game are first and last light, so optical performance at those low light times of day take on added importance.
Size and weight can also be a priority for some hunters as miles in the backcountry tend to add up quickly, and so do the ounces in the backpack.
Most hunting applications are best served by a magnified riflescope.
How to Choose a Rifle Optic by Range?
Now that the shooter knows the intended application for their rifle and the most common types of suitable optics, they can further narrow it down by selecting an optic for the ranges they intend to shoot.
How close is close range?
For selecting a rifle optic, I like to think of close range as anywhere from 0 to around 50 yards. Here are some good close-range options for specific shooting applications:
Speed is the name of the game for military and law enforcement rifle users at close range. The weapons are typically tactical carbine rifles chambered in 5.56/2.23 or common pistol calibers like 9mm or 40 S&W. True 1x optics that are parallax-free are required.
My personal carbine wears a red dot sight. The dot is fast to pick up and put over the threat. Holographic sights like an Eotech perform similarly. Two good options:
Parallax-free red dots and holographic sights are ideal for rifle 3-gun use as well. Many competitors mount one over an LPVO for engaging quick, close-range targets while still being able to transition to the LPVO for short and medium-range targets.
A good LPVO that has a red-dot-like reticle at the lowest power will work, too, but is not as fast as the red dot. Vortex Optics makes some popular models of LPVO including this 1-6.
Hard to beat a red dot for plinking at close range too. A simple .22 rimfire with a red dot is a great setup for getting kids and new shooters familiar with hitting targets at close range.
A red dot for plinking close range doesn’t need to be really durable, so even low-end models will get new shooters hitting cans. This option comes with a mount at under $100.
Short-range shooting overlaps close range from about 10 yards to 100 yards.
There are many rifle ranges where 100 yards is as far as they go. There are a wide variety of rifles suitable for short-range shooting, including rimfire rifles for plinking, semi-automatic rifles for tactical/home defense, and centerfire bolt-action rifles for hunting. These are common hunting ranges in the Eastern US and other densely forested areas.
Optics appropriate for these ranges by shooting application include:
Again red dots and holographic sights are very useful at short range, although having an add-on magnifier will get the shooter noticeably greater precision at 100 yards.
Low-power tactical scopes like a 3x Trijicon ACOG are good for this range, with enough magnification for decent precision at 100 yards, but still wide enough for up-close work.
Similarly, an LPVO in the 1x-4x or 1x-6x is very versatile at these distances. Here is a magnifier to use with that Trijicon MOR from the Close Range section.
The options for Close range carry over here, although the options with magnification available help at 100 yards.
With 100 yards on the table, I give the edge to standard variable riflescopes like a 2-7X32 or 3-9X40.
The low end gets the shooter punching holes up close, but the high end gives ample magnification for printing a tight 100-yard group.
Something like this Leupold would be a good match.
Medium Range shooting with a centerfire rifle is usually in that 100-400 yard area.
These distances are the most common distances for big game hunting in open areas. 400-yard shooting ranges are also common in the Western US for target shooters. Magnified riflescopes are the rule here.
Complicated reticles and externally adjustable turrets aren’t necessary to get hits at medium ranges, although some trajectory compensation can be useful at the far end of medium range.
There are many rifles available for shooting at these ranges, and the specified shooting application will help the shooter in selecting both a rifle and optic.
General paper punching and ringing steel targets can be handled at these ranges with normal variable riflescopes like a 3-9X40 or 4-12X50. Higher magnification scopes are fine as well.
For a really nice 3-9X40, it is hard to beat the Trijicon AccuPoint with battery-free illumination and great build quality.
Medium Range Benchrest competition shooters have a special set of needs. They fire very heavy, low-recoil, extremely accurate rifles, where the winner prints the smallest group in the bullseye.
For these uses, they need very high magnifications, parallax adjustability, and fine adjustment to maximize precision.
A riflescope like the Nightforce BR 12-42X56 riflescope with its .125 MOA fine adjustments is perfect.
A wide variety of standard hunting riflescopes will work for these ranges.
Parallax isn’t too big of an issue at these ranges, so having adjustable parallax isn’t necessary. Some form of trajectory compensation is helpful at out past 200 yards though, so a basic ballistic compensation reticle is a plus.
The Swarovski BRH is a useful reticle out to 400 yards, and the 3-10X42 is well suited to those ranges. It is also a very good low-light optic, allowing the hunter to take aim at the game at first and last light.
I like to think of long-range as the distance where the shooter needs to carefully compensate for the trajectory and wind deflection of the bullet to get a hit on target.
Sure, a basic reticle system as discussed above will get the shooter to 400 yards, but beyond those ranges, the margin for error is progressively smaller.
With a centerfire rifle, long-range is often considered 400 to 1500 yards, although long-range shooters will debate endlessly on the topic.
Bolt-action rifles are the standard in long-range circles, although semi-automatics and single shots are seen occasionally. Moderate to high magnification tactical and field competition riflescopes dominate long-range rifle use. They tend to have excellent optics to resolve targets at long ranges, ample internal adjustment available for trajectory and wind corrections, and useful reticles with hashmarks for making adjustments on the fly.
Rifle optics for long-range rifle use include:
Military Tactical riflescopes in configurations like 4-16X50 and 5-25X56 are common for these ranges. These scopes will have optical performance that can clearly resolve the intended target.
Reticles typically have MOA or MRAD hashes that can be used to estimate range or compensate trajectory and wind. The Nightforce NXS has long been the standard-bearer for tactical scopes:
Long Range Hunting scopes borrow a lot from their tactical counterparts. Many LR hunters use tactical scopes for their hunting purposes because the optical performance, mechanical reliability, and durability translate well to the hunting fields.
Some hunters, though, prefer saving some weight over the tactical versions, and some optics companies offer lighter versions of their tactical scopes for hunters. Trijicon’s Credo and Tenmile lines are good tactical-inspired hunting scopes for the long-range hunter.
Those specific target/benchrest scopes mentioned in the medium range section handle these ranges well also and can save the shooter some money over a tactical scope when the durability is not as essential at the range. Yet those tactical riflescopes excel in this arena as well.
Zeiss designed their S3 line to meet these shooters’ needs.
Extreme Long Range (ELR)
ELR shooting is also growing in popularity. ELR target shooters are pushing long range to distances where they have to take into account the rotation of the Earth.
ELR distances start around 1500 yards and go to 3,000, 4,000, or even beyond 5,000 yards. A group of shooters even got a good hit at over 7,000 yards recently.
Obviously, this kind of target shooting takes some pretty specialized equipment. Heavy rifles specifically designed to fire heavy bullets with high ballistic coefficients at high velocities are required.
Some ELR shooting is done with magnum 30 and 338 Calibers like 300 Norma Magnum and 338 Lapua Magnum, but the outer limits of shooting are being reached with big boomers like the 375 CheyTac and 416 Barrett.
Optics for these uses require a LOT of adjustment and high-quality optics to resolve the targets at extreme ranges. A high magnification scope certainly brings those distant targets closer but with a catch.
Mirage is a frequent problem for ELR shooters with the amount of atmosphere between the shooter and the target. Too much magnification will just magnify the mirage, and hinder shot placement.
An FFP reticle can help with this, so the shooter can dial down the magnification when needed and still use the properly subtended reticle. Some of these scopes have over 120 MOA of internal adjustment, but that won’t give the shooter the kind of adjustment they need to get to the furthest ranges.
There are specialized accessories like Wacom HQ’s Delta TARAC periscope device that doubles the amount of elevation travel the scope has available to adjust for the point of impact way out there. The Delta TARAC even looks around the barrel, which is in the line of sight due to the incline angle necessary to make a shot at those extreme distances.
Nightforce once again is the brand of choice for ELR shooters, and the ATACR 7-35X56 is a good choice.
The ATACR can be combined with a Delta TARAC.
How I Select an Optic for My Rifle?
I always find it beneficial to write down a list when considering an optic for a new rifle and include the shooting applications and ranges discussed above. These are the questions I answer:
- What is the rifle and caliber?
- What is the intended shooting application?
- What are my intended ranges?
- What is my budget?
- What are my priorities for my shooting application from greatest to least?
For instance, for 2023 I am putting together a bolt-action rifle for mountain hunting. I wrote down the answers to the above questions:
- Tikka T3X in 6.5 PRC
- Mountain big game hunting
- Approximately 100-600 yards
- Durability, zero retention/stop, mechanical reliability, optical performance, lightweight.
From these answers, I knew that my ranges could stretch into the long-range category for hunting, so a tactical-style scope with an exposed elevation turret and zero return would be needed for trajectory and wind compensation.
The ranges and hunting use calls for a variable riflescope with a high magnification anywhere from 15x to 25x. A scope topping out at around 15x would save some weight over a higher-magnification scope, so I started looking there.
My priority list points to a manufacturer that prioritizes durability and reliability, so I narrowed down the brand search to Nightforce, Trijicon, and SWFA SS. I have personal experience with each of these brands that is backed up by experiences of hunters and tactical operators I trust that leads me to these brands when durability is the top concern.
Next, I took a look at options from each manufacturer. Nightforce has the 4-16X50 ATACR, which is a good fit, and a scope I already have familiarity with. Unfortunately, it is well in excess of my budget at $2500.
Also available is Nightforce’s SHV 4-15X56. This scope ticks all of the boxes and was currently on sale for less than $1000. I wasn’t too keen on mounting the 56mm objective over my rifle, however.
I moved on to Trijicon and found the Credo 2.5-15X42 on sale for under $900. This scope met all of my criteria and went to the top of the list. I still checked SWFA and found the 3.5-15X42 SS a bargain at under $700, but my priority list included a zero stop on a scope I would be dialing for long-range shots.
That left the Trijicon Credo the lone survivor meeting my needs … and budget. I placed the order.
6.5 Creedmoor is my favorite cartridge. If you want to know my favorite scopes for 6.5 Creedmoor, read my full hands-on review here.
Common Mistakes When Selecting a Rifle Optic
There are some real pitfalls to avoid when choosing the right optic for your rifle:
Not Investing Enough
By far this is the biggest mistake new rifle owners make. They spend too much on their rifle system, and then too little on the optic.
It doesn’t make much sense to buy a custom rifle that cuts holes at 300 yards, only to top it off with a riflescope that can barely resolve the target at that range.
Similarly, a tactical operator with thier life on the line shouldn’t trust it to a bargain optic that could fail at the worst of times.
The old adage of “you get what you pay for” rings true with rifle optics. Cheap scopes are just that … cheap. It isn’t about “if” a cheap scope will fail, but rather “when” it will fail.
Using Inferior Mounts
The interface between optic and weapon is the weak link in the system. I can’t even count the number of times I found an accuracy or zero problem was actually an issue with the mount.
Don’t skimp here. The optic only works properly if it is mounted correctly in a quality mount. Don’t let the kid at the local sporting goods store mount it either. Learn how to do it properly yourself, or hire a competent gunsmith.
Often, the optic manufacturer can recommend an approved mount. I really like the ultra-durable American Rifle Company M-BRACE rings for riflescopes in most shooting applications.
Going Too Big
This is another common mistake. If 15x is good, 30x is twice as good, right? Not necessarily.
There are some shooting applications where really high magnifications are useful, like benchrest competition. However, they have their drawbacks. They have limited fields of view, reduced brightness, and (as discussed with ELR above) tend to amplify mirage when shooting long distances.
Failing To Learn The System
Whether it is a close-range home defense optic or a long-range competition optic, the shooter needs to be absolutely familiar with how the system works.
For a red dot, that may be understanding close-range impact issues due to sight height over the bore.
For long-range, it would include being completely familiar with your weapon’s trajectory and how the optic’s reticle and adjustments will help you get a precise point of aim.
There is a learning curve, but it is worth the study to make the most out of your rifle and optic.
Failure To Practice
No sight system will do the shooting for the shooter. The only way to properly apply what the shooter has learned about the optic and their shooting application is to burn some powder.
My recommendation is to supplement your research and personal practice time with a quality shooting class with an accredited firearms instructor. These classes can really save a lot of trial and error for beginners and experienced shooters alike.
This is also a good way to re-evaluate your optic choice and make a change if it isn’t working out the way you thought it would.
Many applications require a rifle optic to face from pretty intense use. Sometimes, that means something will go wrong, and the optic will stop functioning as intended.
I have had several rifle optics fail over the years, even from manufacturers with great reputations. In these cases, it is nice to have an optic from a company that backs up their products.
Warranties vary, but many rifle optics are covered by excellent warranties. Some will be limited to a time period, others will be for a lifetime. Some warranties cover the mechanical optics for one period of time, and any included electronics (like illumination) for a shorter period.
Some cover materials and workmanship while still others are “no fault” warranties where the manufacturer will replace or repair the optic regardless of how it was damaged.
Some warranties are limited to the initial purchaser while others are “transferrable” to second-hand purchasers on the used market. Further complicating the matter, not all “lifetime” warranties are the same. Some are for the “lifetime” of the owner, while others are for the “lifetime” of the product, whatever that means. Even with the same manufacturer, the warranty can vary internationally.
I always look at the fine print of the warranty and evaluate where that fits in my priorities for the rifle I am outfitting. I like to know what I’m getting into should something go awry.
Selecting an optic for a rifle is no easy task. The array of options is vast, but the shooter can follow the steps above to methodically narrow down the choices to the perfect fit for their needs.
Once they have found that optic that has the appropriate features for their shooting application and distance, they can properly mount it to their rifle. The next step is mastering the function and features of that optic.
Finally, the shooter needs to put that new knowledge to the test and get plenty of practice rounds downrange in preparation for meeting their shooting needs.