Rifle Scope 101 – choosing your first scope

Yet again, I had a client in that had been sold the wrong setup.


Define its use – what do you need the rifle scope to do?

The more you can define what you want to use the scope for, before heading into a store – the better set you will be when you get there, and the less you are likely to be distracted by the shiny things.

It’s easy to think that the more expensive, the better – but it’s also important to remember that scopes have become more and more specialised in their nature. Just like the diverse nature of what shooters use their firearms for, so has the features available to them.

Is this scope for hunting? For close in varmints or long-range goat hunting? Is it going on a 22LR, or a 338 Lapua? Do you plan on shooting into the twilight hours, or is it likely to never be shoot away from the bench at the range? And of course – the all-important question – what is your budget?

Buy once, cry once

I would suggest you plan to spend more on the optics than you do on your rifle.

Really you say? But the bullet comes out of the rifle? I just need something to see my target with!

Yeah. It does. But how do you know where to the rifle needs to point? If you can’t see your target, it’s hard to shoot it. Conversely, the clearer you can see it, the easier it is to hone in on the very spot you want to place the projectile.

Interesting, I have seen cases where better glass allows you to see ‘further’ than more zoom. More zoom can sometimes just mean more of something hard to see!

Consider it an investment in your shooting. Scopes, on the whole, don’t wear out. As you upgrade your rifles, replace your rifles, buy additional rifles – you can keep/move and use the scope on all of them. In fact, I am of the opinion that I would rather have one good scope that I could move from rifle to rifle, compared to multiple cheap rifles that I never need to ‘move’ but never give me the resolution and image quality that one good one would.

Features – rifle scopes – buy what you need

This article is really only intended to be an overview of the many features and options you will find in modern scope design. Drill down into the linked articles to get more information. Have a question that isn’t answered yet? Well then – just get in touch!

Fixed or Variable Zoom?

It used to be the case that a variable zoom was expensive, heavy and hard to find. Well… that was a long ago now. In fact, you would likely be hard-pressed these days to find a fixed zoom1 scope. Modern production methods (and demand) has meant that the variable zoom has become the norm.

Generally (and this article is going to have to be full of generalities) the wider the zoom range, the more the scope – alternatively, a cheap, wide zoom scope is likely going to be of dubious quality.

Field of View

Field of view is a figure that represents how far you can see from side to side while looking through the scope. This is normally represented as a measurement given in feet or meters at 100 yards (or meters). The wider the field of view, the more you can see of the surrounding environment while looking through the scope.

Because of the laws of optical physics, when you increase the eye-relief distance, you shrink the field of view.

Parallax (focus)

Shooting a 22? Then you need parallax (really basically meaning, where the target focus is) to be closer than most centerfire rifle scopes will let you.

The lower end of rifle scopes, generally have a fixed parallax of 100 yards – this is, generally fine for hunting, but of course, with a 22, most of your shooting will be much closer than that.

Higher end, target style rifle scopes may introduce a variable/adjustable parallax, but again, you need to check how close it can get.

Again, depending on your use, you might not need this level of refinement. Most animals out to 200 meters won’t care, but small target sizes, or distance, decrease the margin of error parallax can induce.

Light Gathering (objective and tube size)

Hunting? The light gathering should be really high on your priorities. Why? Well – a lot of NZ hunting is done during twilight, and, especially if bush hunting, a lot is done under the tree canopy, where you simply get less light in.

A rifle scope that lets more light in, that is, doesn’t seem and darker looking through the rifle scope than not is of great benefit here.

MILS or MOA in your rifle scopes?

It’s overly simplistic to say – but I tend to suggest people decide if they think more in decimal or fractional. Essentially, MIL turrets work in .1 clicks and MOA in .25 – what makes more sense to you?

https://goodblokes.nz/moa-minute-angle-milrad/ – a more in-depth overview of the systems

https://goodblokes.nz/hang-on-how-do-i-dial-3-72-moa/ – why, I personally, prefer MIL

Capped or Dialable Turrets

Again – define your use.

If you are planning on mainly hunting with your rifle – at distances, say, under 200 meters, and likely to head through bush and scrub – ‘set and forget’ capped dials, that won’t get bumped are your best bet.

If you are looking to stretch things out further, and want to be able to quickly dial in an exact ballistic solution, target or ‘dialable’ turrets are going to work better for you. Though, then we get into a lot more options like zero stop, lockable turrets and more. Don’t worry about them if you don’t need them.

Again, if you don’t need them, save money on features and put it all into the better glass. I have both types of rifle scopes – depending what the rifles primary purpose is.

Reticle Choice

Again, much like turrets – take the time to define what exactly you are using the rifle for. For the most common hunting done in NZ, for newer shooters, I would suggest a clean, simple PLEX (crosshairs) style reticle is the best option.

If you are target shooting, or in situations where that second shot is going to be important, the additional information in a ‘busier’ reticle could be of use for making faster follow up shots. The design of this reticle, I have found, actually can be quite a personal decision, as some people like simpler or more complex designs, thicker or thinner posts, a floating dot, crosshair or maybe nothing at all. Reticle designs vary a lot, so it pays to read up on a few, and, if the thinking seems to mesh with yours, then that’s the way to go. If you find yourself looking through a reticle and your brain is struggling to make sense of it all, then go simpler.

First Focal Plane or Second Focal Plane?

Again, to make things simple, if its a PLEX (crosshair) then it makes sense to keep it SFP if you have a reticle you plan on using to measure things with, then FFP.

In a nutshell, a Second Focal Plane Scope means the reticle inside won’t change size as you zoom in or out. If you have a First Focal Plane, then as you zoom in and out, the reticle changes and stays in the correct scale throughout. On an FFP rifle scope, 1 mil in the reticle is the same a 5x or 25x, not so with an SFP.

Again, hunting in the bush? An SFP will work fine for you. Stretching the legs, in particular with shooting comps where you are likely to be taking more than one shot? Consider an FFP.

Buy the right scope for its use

Ultimately, you need to seriously consider the primary use for the rifle, scope, the setup, and build the system accordingly. Be aware of getting sucked in by fancy features that you might never use.

Ultimately, the scope/glass/optics are what you will be making most of your shooting decisions through. It pays to have the best you can on the rifle!

  1. apart from reflex and red dots