• Choosing The Right Scope For Your Rifle

    One of the most frequently asked questions I see being asked by shooters across the internet is, "What power scope should I get or do I need for my rifle?" Just thirty years ago choosing a new scope for your rifle wasn't nearly as difficult a decision to make as optics were much more simple and the available selection was much, much smaller. Today optics
    are far more complex with a wide array of available reticles and various features such as side-focus, illumination, calibrated turrets, zero stops and so on. There are also a lot more optics manufacturers and model lines to choose from these days. Trying to figure out which one of hundreds - if not thousands of scopes is the right fit for your shooting needs is a daunting task to say the least.

    To help simplify things and narrow down your field of available options I'm going to share a few philosophies I have come to employ when looking to purchase a new rifle scope. These principles or philosophies aren't carved in stone, but they've proven to be a solid starting point for myself and many others over the years.


    The first thing one needs to determine is how much magnification do you really need? Notice I said "need" and not "want" or "think" you need. More and more these days I see people putting scopes with way too much magnification on their rifles for how they intend to use them. Most do this because they're more concerned with being able to shoot tiny groups at the range than they are having the best optic for their needs in the field.

    To determine how much magnification you really need, you first need to nail down 1) how you intend to use the rifle, 2) at what ranges will the rifle be used at, and 3) the size of target you will be shooting at with the rifle. Let's take a little closer look at each of those factors.

    Intended Use

    How you plan to use the rifle is key because you don't want to be over or under scoped for that type of use. A very high magnification scope is not a good choice for a home defense or CQB-type rifle, nor is a low magnification scope a good match for a long-range precision rifle. You need to match the magnification range to the type of use.

    One of the biggest issues I see in this regard is that far too many shooters try to setup a rifle for multiple roles. For example, many want to use the same rifle for deer hunting and long-range target shooting. Get this idea out of your head because it never, ever works out. No optic is going to be optimal for both roles, so you end up having to compromise, and the end result is most always a rifle that does so-so in both roles but isn't great or ideal for either. Determine which of those activities you will predominantly use the rifle for and select the best optic for that type of use.

    Range or Distance

    The range or distance you will be shooting at also plays a key roll in determining how much magnification you need. A 22LR rimfire rifle has a very limited range and thus doesn't need a lot of magnification - unless it's for a dedicated competition rifle. By the same token, a long-range varmint rifle will be best served with higher magnification due to the longer distances and the targets being smaller.

    Target Size

    Target size can range from tiny 1/4" bullseyes in competitive shooting to huge game animals such as water buffalo or brown bears. The smaller the target the more precise the shot placement needs to be, and thus the need for more magnification.

    As you might have summarized by now, all three of the above factors go hand-in-hand and have to be taken into account together when determining the best optic for your rifle.


    Most of us live in the real world and have to live within our limited means, so determining what you can afford is another major factor. If money were no object we would all be running around with rifles topped with Schmidt & Bender scopes on them.

    Fortunately in today's market one can easily find a quality scope in most any price range, though in many cases the old adage of "You get what you pay for" applies. Fifteen years ago $200 would get you a very good 3-9x40 hunting scope in a Bushnell Elite 3200, Leupold VX-2 or Sightron SII. More recently a lot of new brands such as Athlon and Vortex have entered the market, with some lines being darn good and other's just being so-so. With so many new players it's getting harder and harder to know what's quality and what's not - especially when the quality can very so much between different lines from the same brand.

    For all intensive purposes I still hold fast to my $200 minimum limit on price when it comes to rifle scopes. In my experience this is the threshold where the wheat starts separating from the chaff. Yes there are a few rare gems to be found for under the $200 price point, but for the most part it's a crap shoot and I prefer to spend my money more wisely than gambling with it.

    One other note I will make here is that when working within a budget don't fall into the trap of trying to get the most magnification or bells and whistles for your money. Higher magnification and additional features only add to the cost of an optic, so when looking at scopes in a given price range those that are loaded with features typically aren't going to have as good of glass or adjustment mechanisms as a more basic, no-frills scope for the same money.

    Too Much Magnification Can Be A Bad Thing

    There are a couple reasons why you don't want to over scope your rifle. The first is that the more magnification you have, the smaller your field-of-view will be. A large field of view is very important for home defense/CQB-type rifle and for hunting rifles as you need to be able to not only see the target through the scope but also the surroundings to ensure a clean clear shot while hunting or identify secondary targets or threats in a competitive or defensive situation.

    The second reason you don't want to over scope your rifle is that as the magnification increases, so does the degree of movement you see when looking through the scope. This includes movement from your heartbeat, breathing, and an unsteady rest or support hand. This means your crosshair will appear to be moving further on your target with those movements which can affect your concentration and confidence in making an accurate shot.

    Be Mindful Of Your Minimum Magnification

    Another big mistake I see shooters make is that they only focus on the maximum magnification when looking to buy a scope. This is a mistake because in many roles (hunting, CQB, etc) the minimum magnification level is far more important. This is again due to the field-of-view that will be available, the distances being shot, and the size of the target. The last thing you want is to miss or not be able to take a shot because the target is close in and you can't get a clear picture of it through your scope because even at it's lowest setting it's still to much magnification.

    Scopes For Hunting

    Below is a chart that I came across several years ago pertaining to magnification for hunting optics, and I find it to be quite accurate. This chart takes into consideration 1) magnification power, 2) size of game, and 3) distance of shots being taken based on a 1x factor per X number of feet in distance. The larger the game, the more feet per 1x of magnification due to the increased target size requiring less magnification.

    Starting at the top of the chart with small game (anything smaller than a coyote), we know that all rimfire cartridges pretty much run out of gas and killing power somewhere between 150 and 200 yards. The chart tells us that for 200 yards 8x magnification is sufficient - thus a good 1-8x, 2-7x, 3-9x optic are sufficient for any rimfire hunting rifle. Some centerfire cartridges such as the 22 Hornet and .222 Remington also fall into this area.

    Sticking with small game but switching to a centerfire rifle we know that shot distances can easily stretch to 500+ yards, even beyond a thousand yards with the right equipment. It's been my personal experience that 24x is more than adequate for shooting prairie dogs out to 800 - 1,000 yards, but as the chart indicates something in a 36x to 40x might make those shots a little easier - especially if you want to push the distance even further. Just remember that the higher the magnification the worse the mirage will be and the more your movement will be magnified on target while looking through the scope.

    Moving on to medium sized game we have a wider breadth of magnification range to deal with - mostly due to the wide range of game size and distances you might encounter. Smaller game at larger distances, such as coyotes, will dictate using the 1x per 100 feet line, while larger game such as mule deer or elk at shorter distances would want to use the 1x per 150 feet line. As you can see though, a basic 3-9x or 2.5-10x optic is really all that's needed for hunting most any medium sized game animal at responsible shot distances. At the very most you might want to setup up to a scope with 14x on the high end.

    For large/dangerous game, we know that most shots on such animals usually fall well within 200 yards and given the size of the target very little magnification is actually needed. This is why most big and dangerous game hunters prefer to stick with iron sights, but those who opt for optics stick with very low magnification glass such as a 1-4x variable or a fixed 2x. This ensures you will have the widest field of view possible so you can better keep tabs on their surroundings. Low magnification also ensures a long eye relief which is greatly appreciated on big game rifles due to their significant amount of recoil.

    Scopes for Competitive Shooting

    Selecting a scope for a competition rifle can be just as difficult as choosing one for a hunting rifle due to the wide array of competition formats. Some disipline's have specific rules defining what type or size of optics can and can't be used. The distances being shot and the speed at which you have to shoot will also play a role in determining your scope options.

    The best advice I have for selecting a scope for competition use is to attend a few matches and see what the better shooters are using. Take the time to talk to them and ask questions as most every shooter I have ever met is more than happy to talk shop and help others get into the game.

    For most short range (under 100 yards) competition where the scoring is based on hits and time rather than group size or score a fixed 1x or non-magnified optic is usually ideal. Most of these tend to be red-dot or prism type optics. As the distance increases the magnification will increase, but in most events you will still want a true 1x magnification on the bottom end - such as a 1-4x, 1-6x or 1-8x.

    In the centerfire benchrest world where tiny groups are the objective the more magnification the better. For short-range benchrest, 200 yards or less, 24x and 36x magnification on the high end is the trend. As the distance stretches out to 600 and 1,000 yards 40x and even 60x are becoming more and more common. Rimfire benchrest at 50 yards can get by with less magnification, but many still run a fixed or variable with 24x on the high end.

    Optics for PRS and tactical type competition tend to fall somewhere in the middle. The current optic trend for these games is a variable power scope with a 5 or 6x magnifier lens that offers a wider range of magnification to be more suitable for both long range and shorter range targets. Maximum magnification typically falls somewhere within the 20x to 30x range, while the low-end magnification will be in the 3x to 5x range. Based on comments from many PRS shooters, most seem to typically shoot with their scope set to 14x to 16x magnification and only go higher when trying to locate smaller targets at greater distances. That said, there are some who still prefer and use a fixed 10x to 20x optic for these types of competition as well.

    Comments 4 Comments
    1. yobuck's Avatar
      yobuck -
      Good information, and well written.
    1. Robinhood's Avatar
      Robinhood -
      Thanks for the great article Jim.
    1. Bill2905's Avatar
      Bill2905 -
      Nicely written. Thank you for the info.