2018 Updated by Eric - As an Amazon Associate we earn from qualifying purchases, meaning, at no additional cost to you, I will earn a commission if you click through & make a purchase. Please read my disclosure for more info.
Very few types of shooting capture the imagination and intrigue of long range shooting. Something about really getting out there and hitting a target at hundreds of yards is intensely satisfying.
This has only been made more popular by movies like American Sniper and Enemy at the Gates.
If you are ready to take that step in your shooting career, this guide will give you everything you need to know to get started.
What Types Of Rifle Scopes?
To better understand the potential uses of rifle scopes, it is best to break them down into categories. Though there are likely more specific categories than will be listed here, we are not looking for high level detail. We want just enough for you to be able to determine the best scope for your intended purpose.
Long Range Scopes
The first classification we should understand are those scopes that are designed to shoot longer ranges for a variety of purposes. These can be further broken down into subcategories based on those purposes. While there is significant crossover and scopes from one subcategory can be used in the other, there are generalizations that can be made of both. Let’s look at long range scopes for both tactical and hunting applications.
Both scopes will have roughly the same magnification, for a generalization, anything from 10 power on up would likely fall into the long range category with the extreme scopes having more than 40x magnification. Most are variable power but that is not a requirement. With this higher magnification, brightness of the scope becomes an issue a larger objective lens and lens coatings are important considerations.
For what I would consider a tactical long range scope, there are a few criteria that are mandatory. The first is some form of ranging reticle that has markings designated for different ranges to make quick adjustments easy. The second are target turrets that can be set for different range, and wind conditions on the fly.
Hunting scopes, on the other hand, will likely have a plain reticle but may have some markings to help with bullet drop. They will also have normal sight in windage and elevation adjustments but are intended to set and forget rather than constantly adjust to your conditions.
This is by no means a comprehensive list of features but just enough to make a loose category for our better understanding of scopes.
Though this is really a classification used in for tactical or military consideration, there are a lot of advantages to these types of scopes to the hunter or casual marksman. When in dense woodlands a scout scope will often be a better choice than a long range scope due to a larger field of view and easier target identification.
The defining characteristic of a scout scope will be the magnification which is usually between 3x and 9x but may be as low as 2x. Just enough to extend the range of the rifle for everyday uses. Scopes with a max 7x magnification are quite popular with scots scopes.
They may have adjustable turrets and a ranging reticle or not, depending on their intended purpose but will usually be fairly simple. These are among the most popular scopes for those people who care little about extending their range but want to develop their accuracy. For most deer hunters, these are the preferred choice.
Red Dot Scopes
Since scope is really a shortened term for telescopic sight, it is somewhat controversial as to whether a red dot is truly a scope or not since they have little to no magnification. I would argue that they are scopes since their use and purpose are the same as longer range optics. These are the most popular and often considered the best scopes for AR series rifles and are the most popular by far.
Normally, a red dot scope will have no magnification, instead they simply provide an illuminated reticle that makes engaging a target faster and more accurate. There are a few red dot scopes that magnify as much as 3x but those are rare and often more expensive.
So, the defining traits of red dot scopes are low to no magnification and powered reticle that is often not appropriate for shooting longer ranges. The aiming reticle in a red dot is usually quite large and can obscure small targets at a distance. These are best reserved for close to medium range shots.
Most Popular Scope Brands
There are a multitude of companies that produce rifle optics, not all of them are good but there are dozens of choices that are worthy of a place on your rifle. I won’t attempt to cover all of the possible brands here but I would like to highlight some that are worth noting because of quality and availability.
Leupold & Stevens
If you are looking for quality, Leupold is some of the highest out there. Their scopes are costly but worth every penny when it comes to proven ruggedness in the field and some of the best glass you can get. They started producing rifle scopes just after World War II when founder Markus Leupold missed a deer with an inferior scope and swore that he could make a better one.
We don’t know what scope he was using at the time but I am sure it doesn’t compare to the quality of Leupold. Now his scopes are some of the preferred and possibly even the best scope for 308 and larger caliber sport shooting.
Though Vortex has only been producing optics for about 15 years, they have taken over the budget optic market due to their exceptional quality at very fair prices. This American company is doing everything right and very little wrong with a wide range of optical devices. Nine times out of ten if you are looking for the best scope for the money, it’s a Vortex.
Their rifle scopes are known to be astoundingly rugged and made with the best components that Vortex can get. If you are interested in a Vortex scope, now is the time to get one. Their prices have been creeping up over the last few years as they increase the functionality of their products.
Having been in business since 1992, I am constantly amazed that Nightforce has not garnered more fame for their products considering they are the hands down toughest optics on the planet. They are also one of the highest quality with outstanding glass quality and attention to detail.
Hope fully this company sticks around, their products are getting harder to find so I assume business is good. I think a good Nightforce scope should be on everyone’s wish list for the day that cost and availability come together.
If you are a .22 competition shooter, the Nightforce NXS is perhaps the best scope for .22lr benchrest competitions ever made. Of course, this is also about the best scope for AR-10 rifles if you really want to reach out to 800+ yards. In my opinion, its really about the best scope for .308 or larger calibers of any make.
Nikon started rolling out scopes over 90 years ago and have probably had more scopes on more rifles than any other company on this list. With the Monarch, Prostaff, and Buckmaster series all being immensely popular options, there are thousands and thousands of their optics still being shot today. Even their higher grade Black series scopes sell very well and for hunters who like a little range on a budget, these are about the best scope for 30-06 and other common hunting calibers.
Being of top notch quality and ultra-clear glass, Nikon has earned its reputation as a maker of amazing optics. When you match that with reasonable pricing, you have a winning combination.
While not the oldest optics company around, Bushnell just passed their 70th anniversary. During that time, they have developed quite a following with their budget priced optics that may not be the greatest but are a far cry from being bad. Their Trophy series is one of the longest running and most successful but new series like the Forged and Prime are making strong headway into the tactical optics market.
It wouldn’t be an exaggeration to say that Bushnell have been on the rifles that have killed thousands of deer. They are dead on accurate and of sufficient quality to make them very usable. The price point is pretty much perfect for what you get.
Starting production in the 1970s, Burris is far from the new kid on the block. Especially when you consider that Don Burris was making optics for years before he started his own company. This has led to some great quality scopes if perhaps not the best on the market. There are a few companies that offer better glass or more rugged designs but those are more expensive.
With the perfect blend of exceptional quality and modest price, Burris has always held its own in the market. The companies that have often done better was mostly due to military or government contracts though some police forces have used Burris scopes over the past 50 years.
Primary Arms started producing optics around 2006 and have been fairly popular. Their scopes are a little bit of an anomaly, having features that usually cost far more but ignoring some of what people consider the basics. You may get a scope with a high dollar front focal plane but it may not be fully waterproof.
This has given them a special niche in which their scopes sale very well. The type of person who likes to get out to the range in fair weather would benefit greatly from a Primary Arms scope whereas the hunter who may be out in foul weather may prefer another. Primary Arms does have weather protection, just not the most robust.
Being best known for their ACOG red dot sight, Trijicon produces a range of optics in varying levels of magnification to suit different needs. They cater mostly to the military and tactical enthusiast where they are considered the benchmark against which all optics should be measured. For those of a tactical persuasion, Trijicon makes about the best scope for AR 15 platform rifles on the planet as long as you don’t plan on shooting long distances.
Though they haven’t been the most popular, their low magnification optics are among the best scope for M1-A rifles in you want a good scout setup that works at the range of when hunting.
If you are in the market for a red dot and don’t care to spend the money, Trijicon is almost unbeatable. Their more traditional optics with more magnification haven’t gained the same level of support. Not that there is anything at all wrong with them, just that they are overshadowed by other brands.
Aimpoint is the producer of some of the finest red dot optics on the planet but that is all they offer. Some have low levels of magnification, no more than 6x and make fine scout scopes. Their general market has always been law enforcement and lovers of the best tactical gear. While mainly designed for AR platforms these are among the best scopes for Ruger 10/22 rifles if you want a fun little plinking gun.
If you are in the market for a red dot, this is where you start. If they cost more than you are willing to spend, you can start scaling back then. The CompM series and Patrol Rifle Optic are favorites with a great reputation for longevity and durability.
The Rifle Scope Shopping Guide
Magnification is the primary consideration for most people when looking for a rifle scope. While it is an important consideration, don’t make the mistake that most new shooters do and simply go for the optic with the highest power. You can quickly exceed what is reasonable for your use and magnification is far from the only consideration that determines how accurate a scope can be.
When picking a scope, consider your intended use. If you are a target shooter, a higher powered scope may make sense but most hunters will do better with a more moderately powered scope with a larger field of view. Remember that most military scopes are only 10 power and they are used regularly out to 800 yards or more. Learn to shoot well and that will be all you need for most situations.
Occasionally, you will see someone with a .22 that has a very high power. These are often used in competitions where the targets are very, very small. These optics may be 30x or more and do well for their intended purpose. For one of these on a larger caliber rifle, you would need to be shooting exceedingly far or at miniscule targets.
Most scopes today have a variable power and will be written as 5-15x42mm. The power on the scopes is variable anywhere between 5 and 15 times magnification. This can be a useful feature but most scopes will only be accurate at the power they were sighted in at. Lower or higher powers may be off by a foot or more depending on the scope.
The second number in a scopes power designation is the size of the objective lens. The 5-15x42mm scope above would have a 42mm objective lens. This is the lens that is farthest from the eye and is important for two reasons. The first is how much light is allowed into the scope and the second is what your field of view will be.
A brighter scope with a larger objective lens is preferable in almost every case. Companies usually don’t have objective lenses that are so large that they cause issues with mounting the scope but in some cases, you may have to have taller rings and mount the scope higher if you have an extremely large objective lens. This can make sighting in an issue but will be a rare situation.
The field of view is simply how much area you can see at a certain range, usually at 100 or 1000 yards when written. The larger the area, the easier it will be to spot your target and get it in your crosshairs. This is very valuable as a trait of an optic but you will sacrifice some magnification to get it.
The most important factor of the objective lens is to allow light into the scope. All things being equal, a large objective will be better and brighter but it is not the only factor that determines how clear images will be through you scope. We will cover some of the others below.
The most important quality a scope can have for image quality is lens coatings which are chemical treatments that help to correct issues like glare and mirage while controlling the light that enters the scope. A good coating will make the scope appear brighter and crisper with fewer issues affecting accuracy.
There are four levels of lens coating you will see on an optic:
Coated lenses have a single chemical coating on the objective lens
Fully Coated lenses have all outside optical surfaces coated with a single chemical
Multi-Coated lenses have a cocktail of chemicals or multiple layers of chemicals applied to the objective lens.
Fully multi-coated lenses have the layers of chemicals applied to all of the glass in the scope.
As you step up this list the cost will go up but so will the quality of the image through the scope. Opting for the best coating you can get is preferable but not all companies use equivalent coatings. A scope by Leupold may be brighter than a scope by Bushnell even if they are both fully-multicoated.
The best bet is to use this as a guide but not as a set in stone rule. Use the overall quality and image of the scope as the final determining factor but in general, go for the multicoated glass when you can afford to. You will be much happier with your purchase overall.
You may encounter an optic that uses multi-coat of full multi-coat as a sales gimmick to cover up for otherwise poor quality optics. If the glass is bad, no coating is going to make it any better. Be careful of optics that claim multi-coating but are cheaper than most other non-coated scopes or you may feel cheated.
There are a lot of different standardized reticles available in rifle scopes and some that are proprietary to the company that designed them. Picking what reticle would be most useful to you when there are dozens of options can be a challenge. Each has their own uses and advantages as well as sometimes being caliber specific.
These may range from plain crosshairs that you would find on a hunting rifle up to scopes that help you judge bullet drop specific to .308 or whatever caliber it was designed for. You could break these down into three classes for ease of understanding:
Standard crosshairs are a simple cross in the scope that you align with your target. They are often very easy to use and uncluttered with additional lines, numbers, or strange shapes.
Target Crosshairs differ very little from standard by the application of a dot or circle in the center rather than a simple cross. You will usually find these on low powered scopes and red dots that are intended for close range or low light environments. They can be problematic at long range where the dot can completely cover the target.
Measuring crosshairs have some sort of measured markings on the reticle to help in determining distance or bullet drop. Learning to use these correctly can take time but is very rewarding. For new long range shooters, these can be far too distracting and take away from the new shooters ability to learn.
How far you can hold your eye away from the scope and still see a full, clear image is the eye relief. This could range anywhere from 3” to nearly a foot. For high-powered or magnum rifles, a long eye relief is a mist to prevent injury. This is especially true if you wear glasses.
Longer eye relief can make seeing through the scope harder but has been proven to be safer. If you are worried about the scope hitting you from the force of the recoil, go with a longer eye relief. For the most powerful scopes, a moderate to low eye relief is probably best to allow you to see clearly through the scope. Just be sure to match it to your rifle.
There are two types of protection to concern yourself with. The first is shock and recoil protection which should be handled well with most modern scopes as long as you stay away from the cheapest scopes on the market. Some more powerful firearms can actually displace the lenses if the scope is not made to deal with that stress.
The second type of protection is weather protection which includes condensation and fog inside the scope. Most scopes have some form of hard, anodized finished that will help protect them as well as keeping them free from corrosion or rust.
Most of the best scopes will be sealed with O-rings and purged with either nitrogen or argon gas to ensure there are no possible leaks and to keep all water and fog out. This is always the best choice but most expensive overall.
While it is a complicated art to shoot long distance, the right tools are simple and can be quite affordable. No matter if you just want to tighten up your groups at 100 yards or you are looking to shoot out to 1000 yards or more, there are scopes that can make that possible. Just don’t get it in your head that a scope will make that happen for you.
Like any sight, you still have to do your part and at longer ranges, those basic skills of the marksman become even more important. A small error can equal a big miss. The best thing you can do is get a quality scope on a quality rifle and practice! The 1000 yard shot is a milestone that few shooters get to, maybe you will be one of them.