Fierce competition among scope makers is improving quality and driving down prices.
When it comes to inexpensive riflescopes, there’s good news and bad. The bad news is there's worthless junk out there, scopes that will cost you a shot. Scopes that will fog, leak, break or transmit such a blurred image as to be worse than open sights.
The good news is there are some really good inexpensive scopes, too! The trick is figuring out which is which.
One trick to finding a durable, functional, inexpensive scope is simplification. The more basic the scope, the less there is to leak, break or fail. It’s pretty hard to spring a leak in the power-changing dial of a fixed power 6x scope, for instance, because there is no power-changing dial! This means no seals to dry out and leak, and no cams to wear out. Just a few slabs of glass, an erector tube and two adjustment screws for sighting in. My uncle zeroed an old 4x fixed-power Weaver on his .30-06 in 1955 and never touched it again over 30 seasons. It never failed him, either.
So in your notes, write down: 1) Simplify.
Trick No. 2: Understand what ingredients and features contribute the most toward bright, sharp scopes. It’s not just huge objective lenses. In fact, many El Cheapo scopes are built with big objectives to fool you. Inside, the manufacturer often slips a “field stop,” a metal plate with a hole in the center like a common washer. This field stop cuts the effective size of that big objective considerably, like from 50mm to 42mm. Why? Forcing the image/light through a smaller hole (in cameras, it’s called an f-stop) sharpens any lens by eliminating the light from the fuzzy edges of the cheap but big glass. You don’t get the light of the 50mm, so why haul around the glass? Or pay for it? Look inside the objective lens of any cheap scope, and if you see a ring of plastic or metal with a much smaller hole, beware.
Effective brightness is better achieved through excellent resolution (sharp image) and contrast. But if the objective lens that forms the initial image isn’t perfectly ground, nothing in the scope is going to improve things.
In my experience, a scope doesn’t have to be critically sharp and clear to its outer rim. Virtually none are. But the best ones come close, while the cheapies seem to give you an in-focus image in about 20 percent of the center. You might be able to live with half to two-thirds of the image sharp. That’s usually sufficient to see crosshairs clearly against game.
The third leg of brightness/image quality is anti-reflection lens coatings. These are micro-thin layers of magnesium salts applied in a vacuum that decrease the natural reflection of glass. Raw glass bounces back 4 to 5 percent of light that hits it, and another 5 percent exits. With seven lenses in a scope, you lose 65 to 70 percent of the light!
Adding insult to injury, that lost light bounces around inside the scope from lens to lens, creating a haze or glare that becomes worse as light (sun) shines directly on the objective lens. Here’s the good news: A single-layer anti-reflection coating will cut this loss in half. Now you’re transmitting about 70 percent of the light instead of losing it. But for this to happen, every lens must be coated.
One of the major differences in quality and price between top-line scopes and cheapies is the quality of those coatings. If multiple layers are applied, reflection loss per surface can be reduced to .2 percent or perhaps even lower. Each company guards its recipe for this, but also charges much more for scopes with their best coatings, so rest assured a bargain-basement scope isn’t going to have them. Nevertheless, you should pay attention to the coating levels on any scope. At the least, all lenses should be single-layer coated. One of the better buys in the optical-sighting business is a scope with a multicoated objective lens and single-coated internal lenses. The more lenses that are multi-coated, the higher the scope’s price.
So in your notes, write down: 2) Anti-reflection coatings, the more the better.
Trick No. 3: Know your needs. If you’re buying a scope for hunting ground squirrels, woodchucks, crows, pronghorns, mountain goats or mountain sheep, you don’t need incredible brightness. These are diurnal animals, active in broad daylight. You don’t need to see them a half-hour after sunset. A single-layer-coated lens system will more than suffice.
One of the best inexpensive scopes I’ve ever owned is a Simmons 6.5-20x 42mm varmint scope with multicoated objective and single-coated interior lenses. It exhibits more than sufficient contrast and brightness for daylight shooting. A long twist-on lens hood or shade keeps sunlight off the objective when needed, and it’s rarely needed.
If the state in which you hunt whitetails ends legal shooting hours at sunset, you don’t need the world’s brightest scope. Again, single-coated lenses should suffice. Your only sacrifice will come at sunrise and sunset when aiming toward the sun will introduce maximum glare or flare into the scope, that orange haze that obscures the target.
Trick No. 4: Know your gun’s horsepower and how much you shoot it. Cheap scopes aren’t necessarily built with the toughest ingredients. The aluminum is often of a softer grade and lenses are sometimes glued rather than screwed or mechanically affixed within. Under heavy recoil, things can go “sproing!”
Recoil damage is cumulative, too. Just as your truck’s leaf springs lose their bounce after years of pounding on rough roads, so does a scope fatigue and wear out. Eventually, something breaks. Most inexpensive scopes are built to withstand minimal shooting from something in the .30-06 class. I believe the scope engineers think this way: “The average scope buyer mounts it on a rifle in the .243 Winchester to .30-06 class, sights it in with 20 rounds or less, shoots it six times a year at a target and deer, and hunts with it for about 30 years. Total shots endured: 200.” So they choose materials and construction to withstand about 200 shots from a .30-06. To be on the safe side, they may double or even quadruple this. I have no proof, but I’ve heard rumors that the average scope is expected to withstand 1,000 to 1,500 shots from that .30-06. What I do know is that my buddy still shoots one of the cheapest Bushnell scopes ever made. It has never failed him, and it sat atop a .270 Win for about 10 years, then a .22-250 Rem for another 20 years. It’s worn silver in places, bent from falls and still accounts for several whitetails and a couple dozen coyotes every year.
So, don’t expect a cheap scope to hold up to the battering from a 12-gauge slug gun, a .454 Casull handgun, a .300 Wby. Mag or a .470 Nitro Express. But on a .243 Win, it could last a lifetime.
Trick No. 5: Understand impact shift in variables. The problem with early variable-power scopes was changes in impact. The reticles moved with the power. On cheap scopes, they sometimes still do. At 3x, the scope might aim the rifle right on the bull, but at 6x, it might put bullets 2 inches right and 3 inches high. At 9x, it might move them 2 inches left and an inch low. This is because tolerances aren’t tight in the cam and slot that shift internal lenses to increase magnification.
You can live with this if you memorize such shifts and minimize power changes afield. For instance, if you’re going whitetail hunting in the woods, you won’t need 9x, so set your scope for 3x or 4x and sight it in. Leave it there until your deer hunting is over. If you next plan to hunt coyotes, you might sight-in at 6x or 8x. Leave it there until you’re done coyote hunting. If you target woodchucks in spring, crank it up to 9x. Essentially, you have three or four scopes on one rifle that just need to be sighted-in for each hunting style. If you memorize the settings, you don’t even need to waste a sight-in shot. Just crank in the windage/elevation adjustments for each power. Be aware that wearing of internal parts over the years can and probably will change these settings slightly.
Trick No. 6: Know the value of guarantees. Some scopes are guaranteed free of material and workmanship defects for a year, some for life. Some are guaranteed against anything and everything including abduction by extraterrestrial beings. Such guarantees have value. Expect to pay for it. If a company only stands behind a product for a year, you have a pretty good idea how much they trust it. So should you.
Trick No. 7: Offshore manufacturing lowers prices. A lot. It used to be you needed MIT graduates in optical engineering with slide rules and lots of time to design effective scopes. Then you needed highly trained, precision craftsmen to build them. Then computers were invented. These days, computer design programs and assisted machining make it possible for more companies to manufacture better scopes for less money. Many scopes are now specified here and built in eastern Europe or on the Pacific Rim where wages are low. The savings are significant and quality differences often hard to detect. Should you take a chance on new brands that have popped up in recent years? Perhaps. I’ve been more than impressed with scopes from Alpen and Vortex, two American companies that manufacture in California and Wisconsin, respectively. In many cases I can’t see a difference between the images they transmit and the images from scopes costing twice as much. Other “off-brands” I intend to check out soon are Konus, Carson and Barska. Who knows what bar- gains await.
In more established brands like Nikon, Bushnell, Leupold, Pentax, etc., there are inexpensive lines that can, as my buddy with the cheap Bushnell has learned, offer some great buys because they have fewer coatings, less complicated optical engineering (fewer lenses) and the like. Just investigate these mid- and entry-priced lines. Check coatings and other details and give them a hard look, ideally outside near sunset and while comparing the same scene with a more expensive scope. One plus for these established brands is that they’ve been around for decades and should be for decades more to honor their guarantees.
Trick No. 8: A scope is not a binocular. When you realize that you don’t have to search for game through a scope for hours or even minutes, optical quality becomes less critical. You really don’t need to be able to read the Wall Street Journal from 100 yards at midnight. You just need to clearly see crosshairs against your target, even if it’s slightly dark or slightly soft-focus. Obviously better quality is more fun and easier to use, but not essential. Keeping the crosshair on point of aim shot after shot, year after year is the real job. Rugged dependability is more critical than optical quality.
Trick No. 9: You can take more risk where there’s less to lose. If your scope will be called upon to target the new world-record mule deer, you want the best you can afford — possibly the best you and your three best friends combined can afford. But if you’re just shooting another doe for the freezer, a batch of gray squirrels for dinner or a coyote raiding the melon patch, a scope malfunction isn’t the end of the world. You can risk that one lost chance against the possibility a cheap scope will give years of yeoman performance without a glitch.
Trick No. 10: Look for one-piece construction. Structurally, scopes are weakest when both ends of the main tube are screwed into the turret section; weak joints. Stronger scopes are milled or cast in one piece.
Fierce competition from many scope makers has been driving prices down for several years now, making this the best time ever for getting good performance at a low price. Shop carefully and intelligently, and you could clearly see your way to your next whitetail for a lot less money than you think.
This article was published in the September 2008 edition of Buckmasters GunHunter Magazine. Subscribe today to have GunHunter delivered to your home.