Good glass for under $500


Did you know you that some rifle scopes these days retail for $7,000? That is not a typo. Seven thousand. There are many in the $2,000 to $4,000 range. But you can get a perfectly functional one for well under $500, probably even under $200.

In tough economic times, it’s a challenge for many hunters to justify any scope for their rifles or slug guns, particularly if their shots usually come at 100 yards or closer. But a scope sight is still a good idea.

No, it’s a great idea, and these days it’s more affordable than ever.

Reasons to sight any hunting firearm with a scope are several, but they all come down to the main point – more hits. We all recognize the benefit of the larger target image as seen through a scope. Less obvious is the single sight plane (crosshair and target are both in instant focus). Then there’s the phenomenon of apparent brightness. Seen at 4X to 8X, distant deer in low light appear brighter. This isn’t because the scope “gathers light,” but because it makes the deer appear 4X to 8X closer. Walk four times closer to anything in low light and it will look brighter.

Then there’s the advantage of no sights obstructing the target. A reticle over an enlarged target doesn’t obscure much of it and clearly shows the area around the central aiming point so it’s easier to see how high, low, left, or right you are from your precise sticking place. Open-sight front posts cover up much of the target. They also can reflect light in weird ways, further obscuring the target. Rear and front open sights can be hard to line up quickly. Scope reticles are always “lined up” because there’s just one, not two.

Finally, a scope often reveals limbs, twigs, and branches between you and the target so you can avoid them. And more than a few hunters have discovered that the doe they were about to shoot was a small forkhorn once it appeared in the scope.

OK, plenty of reasons to get a scope. But how do you get a decent one without breaking the bank?

Think simple and durable. This used to mean a straight-up 4X or 6X, but fixed-power scopes are becoming so rare that they often cost more than good variables. The problem with variable power (zoom) scopes is that they have more moving parts. That means more stuff to go wrong or break. So here’s how to minimize that risk.

First, resist huge sizes and elaborate bells and whistles. A plain Jane 3-9X is more than adequate to reach as far as most rifles, and 99.9 percent of shooters can reliably park a bullet in a deer. I’ve shot 9X successfully on 12-inch steel circles out to 700 yards. I don’t recommend anyone shoot deer at that range, but the scope can perform to that range.

Second, avoid giant objective lenses. Yes, a 50mm or 56mm front lens will let more light in, but you don’t truly need it to see a standard reticle against a deer or even a black bear in legal shooting light at 6X or less in most cases, and often 9X. I can’t guarantee it every time, but certainly the vast majority of time. More important for scope brightness are the anti-reflection lens coatings. Put your money there instead of into huge objectives.

Third, buy anti-reflection coatings. These cut light loss from reflection. A single layer anti-reflection coating cuts reflection loss in half. Each additional layer does that again. The trick is understanding how many layers you’re buying. If a scope is advertised as having “coated optics,” it may only have one layer on one lens. If it claims “fully coated,” it should have single layers on all lenses. If it claims multi-coated optics, it may have only two layers on one lens, but probably has that plus single layers on additional lenses. If it claims fully multi-coated, it should have multiple layers on all lenses. But how many layers? That’s usually guarded information.

No big deal. The more coatings the better, but even just single layers on all lenses will give you a darn bright, functional scope, and there are lots of those on the market for $200 or less. Heck, you can find plenty of fully multi-coated scopes for under $200.

The fourth thing to shop for is precision construction. Spotting this is a challenge, but look and feel for it by turning all moving parts and noting how they look and feel. Are they smooth and consistent or rough? Shine a flashlight into both ends of the scope and look for internal marring, strips of glue, stripped screw heads and similar signs of sloppy construction. Turn the turrets. Do they click and snap into place or are they loose and mushy?

Precision manufacturing determines accuracy in turret adjustment. This is mandatory if you plan to dial corrections for long-range shooting, but no big deal if you’re just going to zero and leaving it there. Instead of adjusting 1/4 minute of angle (MOA) with each click of the dial, a scope might do twice that. Inconvenient when zeroing, but not impossible. Once you get the scope zeroed, leave it alone and you’re fine.

Zooming can introduce wandering. As internal parts move to zoom up in power, they can shift the zero. At 3X an imprecisely built scope might shoot 2 inches right and an inch low. At 6X it might be dead on, and at 9X it might be an inch high and an inch left. If you discover your new scope does this, you can learn to live with it by leaving the scope on one power, say 4X, for stand hunting for whitetails. If you opt to hunt coyotes at 200 yards and 9X, just re-zero at 9X and leave it there – not convenient, but workable.

Your fifth, but hardly least important, consideration should be reputation and guarantees. Does the manufacturer guarantee the scope against parts malfunction for a year or two or forever? The better the guarantee, the more likely the scope is well-made and durable. If the guarantee says the company will replace a defective scope, that’s great except if the scope fails just as you shoot at the 30-point buck.

It wouldn’t be fair for me to pick sides and list the “best buy” because I don’t know that. I haven’t tested every scope on the market. I don’t mind telling you Leupold scopes have been extremely durable and dependable for me. And Bushnell has a new, no-fault lifetime guarantee. Or that Alpen scopes are inexpensive, well-built, and highly regarded. And that Vortex, Nikon, and Burris make some great, low-priced scopes.

There are many more good brands, some of them just getting started. The good news is this: Scope competition is so fierce that quality is up and prices are down. You can find dozens of scopes for under $500 and plenty of darned effective ones for less than $200.

One final warning: Don’t mount a $150 scope on a 300 Lapua Magnum and expect it to hang together for 1,000 rounds. A few companies, like Leupold, guarantee their least expensive scopes will stand up to such brutal recoil, but don’t expect them all to do so. Heavy recoil really tests scope quality. On the bright side, I have a friend who’s been shooting one of Bushnell’s least-expensive scopes on two different rifles for more than 30 years and it’s still holding zero.

Categories: Buyers Guide, Feature, Featured, Hunting, Hunting News

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