No matter what type of shooting you do and how good you are, you’re limited by your own eyesight. Even if you have excellent vision, some targets are too small or distant for you to hit with your eye alone.
Even with iron sights or a red dot or holo sight, there are limits.
In these situations, you need magnification. That’s where scopes come in. However, magnification isn’t just handy in that it extends your range.
It also helps you get a closer look at targets you can already see pretty well, allowing for greater accuracy and precision.
But there are tons of rifle scopes on the market at all different price ranges. Many of them are designed for one particular purpose or another.
So how do you know which scopes are good and which are a waste of money?
Well, that’s where we come in.
We’ve put together this handy guide to help you out. First, we’ll give you the basics on scopes to help you make an informed decision.
Then we’ll give you our top five riflescope recommendations to help you get started on your search.
Now let’s dive right in.
What Are Rifle Scopes?
A scope, or telescopic sight, is a type of optical device. It sends light through a series of lenses to create a magnified image. This makes whatever the scope is focused on appear closer and gives the user a better look.
Scopes also have a reticle. This is a particular pattern across the eyepiece of the scope that helps the shooter aim accurately.
There are many different reticle patterns out there. The most familiar to most people is probably the simple and traditional crosshair.
Scopes can have either fixed or variable magnification.
Fixed magnification means that the scope only has one level of magnification. Fixed magnification scopes, therefore, are generally intended for specific purposes.
Variable magnification scopes allow the user to adjust the level of magnification within a particular range. This makes variable magnification scopes more versatile than fixed scopes.
Variable magnification scopes with low magnification ranges are often referred to as low power variable optics (LPVOs).
Some scopes have technology that allows for night vision or thermal imaging.
This makes these scopes well suited for night shooting, but they also can be quite costly. They also generally don’t have great bright light performance. None of the scopes in this guide offer night vision or thermal imaging.
In this guide, we’re also specifically focusing on rifle scopes. However, there are scopes for shotguns and handguns as well. Both types are less common than rifle scopes.
What Are The Different Types of Rifle Scopes?
Aside from fixed and variable magnification, scopes can primarily be categorized by purpose. There are three main types of scopes:
Hunting scopes, whether for hunting varmints, big game, or something in between, tend to have a few of the same features.
They usually have lower magnification than other scope types. They tend to have simple, clean reticles to avoid obstructing the target. Reticles tend to be in the second focal plane. (We’ll talk about exactly what that means in a moment).
They also tend to have capped low-profile turrets. This means the turrets are harder to manipulate but are difficult to accidentally bump out of place. That’s important because hunting scopes are generally zeroed and then left alone.
This is because you typically only use your hunting rifle once per target. There’s little to no opportunity to adjust your scope based on previous shots.
Target scopes are intended for precision shooting. When using target scopes, you generally know the size and distance of your target.
Your goal is generally to get the tightest possible groupings and you generally have a few shots to allow you to make adjustments.
Turrets tend to be uncapped for easy adjustment and offer fine clicks for precise adjustment.
Reticles can be plain or have marks to help the shooter make windage and elevation corrections. They’re usually in the second focal plane.
Target scopes tend to have very high magnification, up to around 55x. This is especially true for scopes intended for long-distance target shooting.
Civilians primarily use tactical scopes for tactical shooting competitions. That said, the scopes are still similar to those used by military or law enforcement.
Tactical scopes tend to have greater magnification that hunting scopes but less than target scopes.
The minimum magnification strength is usually around 5x. The maximum is usually around 25x.
They tend to have illuminated reticles with patterns that help you estimate your target’s distance without a rangefinder.
Tactical scope reticles tend to be in the first focal plane.
They tend to have uncapped turrets with marks that match the turret clicks. That means that ten clicks shift the point of impact the same as the distance between two marks on the reticle.
How Does a Rifle Scope Work?
Now let’s dive a little deeper into exactly how rifle scopes work.
First, the light is gathered through the objective lens. Generally, the larger the objective lens, the more light is gathered.
However, other things also play a role, like the light transmission of the lens itself. In addition, many objective lenses actually filter out certain wavelengths of light.
This prevents glare and helps improve the sight picture, especially at dawn and dusk.
From the objective bell, the light travels into the erector system, housed in the scope’s main tube. The erector system contains the reticle and magnification lenses.
In a fixed magnification scope, the magnification lenses are stationary. In a variable magnification scope, however, they move back and forth to adjust the magnification strength.
The lenses move forward to increase magnification and backward to decrease it.
The reticle can be either in front of the magnification lenses or behind them.
If it’s in front, the reticle is referred to as a front or first focal plane (FFP) reticle. Everything in front of the magnifications lenses is magnified. This causes the reticle to appear larger or smaller in proportion to the target at magnification is adjusted.
If the reticle is behind the magnification lenses, it’s a rear or second focal plane (SFP) reticle. Since it’s not magnified, the reticle always appears the same size regardless of magnification.
Once through the erector system, the light travels into the eyepiece. There, it travels through the optical lens where it’s brought into focus and appears as your sight picture.
What Do You Look For In The Best Rifle Scope?
Now that the basics are out of the way, let’s talk about what to look for when choosing a high-quality scope.
Like the magnification range, the right reticle depends on your purpose.
Some of the most common are crosshairs, duplex reticles, BDC reticles, and mil-dot reticles. The first two are clean reticles, while the latter two feature markings that help the shooter with corrections and calculations. Many scopes are available in multiple reticle patterns.
There’s no correct answer for what magnification range to choose. It simply depends on what your purpose is. Generally, the smaller and farther away your target and the more precise you need to shoot, the higher the magnification you need.
Beware choosing to powerful magnification, though, because it limits your field of view. A good scope, however, should have a large field of view even at higher magnification strengths.
A good, common general-purpose magnification range is 3-9x. Again, though, it depends on exactly what you’re doing with your optic.
The difference between the highest and lowest magnification strength is sometimes referred to as the zoom ratio. For example, a 3-9x magnification scope has a 3x zoom ratio.
That’s because 9 is three times larger than 3. A larger zoom ratio makes the scope more versatile.
Pretty much all scopes allow you to adjust for windage and elevation via turrets. Windage allows you to account for the effect of, you guessed it, the wind on the bullet’s horizontal trajectory.
Elevation allows you to account for vertical forces, most commonly bullet drop. The correction made for bullet drop is frequently referred to as holdover.
Turrets adjust in intervals called clicks. Clicks are measured in MOA or mils, which are units of angular measurement. Finer clicks allow for more precise adjustments.
However, finer clicks also make it so that it takes longer to make larger adjustments.
Of course, nothing else matters if you don’t have a clear image. Quality optics should have clear, flawless glass lenses.
Those lenses should have lens coatings, which create a clearer, higher definition image. Generally, the more coatings, the better the image.
Optics should also allow for good light transmission for a brighter image. Anti-glare coatings are also useful.
Eye relief refers to the distance between the optical lens and your eye at which you can see the full sight picture. Long eye relief is important because it allows for more comfortable shooting.
Longer eye relief also allows you to mount your scope further forward on your rifle.
It also ensures that the scope won’t hit you in the face due to recoil. The more powerful the round, the longer the eye relief necessary.
Industry-standard for fixed magnification scopes and the lowest power of a variable magnification scope is 3.5 inches. At the highest power of a variable magnification is generally around 2.5 inches.
Many scopes don’t fit these standards though, certainly not exactly. Be sure to check eye relief to ensure that you’ll be safe and comfortable using the scope.
Finally, scopes can be pricey but they can also go through some serious abuse. It’s a good idea to get a durable one to protect your investment and get the most out of your money.
Look for a scope that’s waterproof, fog-proof, and shockproof. Scratch-resistant lens coatings are also a huge benefit.
Best Rifle Scopes Reviewed
Now we’ve got all the background covered and you know what to look for in a good scope. Let’s move onto the actual recommendations!
Trijicon ACOG Riflescopes (Our Top Pick)
Our overall favorite riflescope is the Trijicon ACOG Riflescope.
ACOG scopes are battle-tested and a favorite among militaries. That includes the US military, which has been using ACOG scopes for over 20 years.
ACOG scopes are waterproof and shock-resistant with a rugged design. They have unique tritium/fiber optic illuminated reticles without the need for batteries.
Most models have a bullet drop compensating and target-ranging reticle that allows you to calculate a target’s range without a rangefinder.
ACOG scopes come in tons of different models with different magnification strengths and reticle styles.
Vortex Optics Crossfire II Riflescopes (Best Budget)
If you have a limited price range, you should definitely take a look at Vortex Optics Crossfire II Riflescopes.
It’s available in several different magnification ranges. There are also models available with an adjustable objective for parallax adjustment. There are even scout scope and rimfire versions available.
Each model has the same great features. These include a fast-focus eyepiece, an aircraft-grade aluminum body, and a matte hard-anodized finish. The scope is o-ring sealed and nitrogen purged so it’s waterproof and fog proof. It’s also shockproof.
Capped reset windage and elevation turrets
Fully multi-coated optics
Only available in SFP
Can be blurry at the higher end of its magnification range
At the opposite price point is the Nightforce NXS Riflescope, an incredible high-end scope.
It’s available in five different combinations of magnification range and object lens size. That includes a little compact version that delivers killer performance in a small, lightweight package.
Nightforce NXS scopes are primarily designed for medium to long-range shooting and are a favorite among shooting professionals.
They’re incredibly durable, offer great low light performance, and have some of the largest zoom ratios available.
Long eye relief
Vortex Optics Viper PST Gen II Riflescopes
Next up is another option from one of our favorite scope brands, the Vortex Viper PST Riflescope.
Most Viper PST scopes are SFP scopes, but a couple of magnification strengths are also available in the first focal plane. Most Viper PST models are more long-range scopes, but there are a couple that are suitable for shorter ranges.
The Vortex Viper PST has many of the same perks as the Crossfire II. However, it also has added benefits like XD lens elements, an illuminated glass-etched reticle, and precision erector and spring systems.
Rapid Zero Return Zero Stop tactical-style turrets Comes with a sunshade
Last up is the Leupold VX-Freedom Riflescope. Like the others on this list, it’s available in a punch of different magnification strengths and reticle patterns.
Common outstanding features include the side focus parallax adjustment, easy-to-grip power selector, and Custom Dial System elevation dials. The latter allows you to adjust your elevation dial to match the ballistic data of your particular round.
They’re also all waterproof, fog proof, and punisher tested, yet very lightweight.
Twilight Light Management System delivers strong performance in low light conditions Adjustable parallax