Identifying a Functional Hunting Scope for Less Money

Identifying a Functional Hunting Scope for Less Money

Photo credit: Steve Maslowski, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

“Three thousand dollars? Just for a rifle scope?” Alfredo was incredulous and disillusioned by the price tag on the big, complicated scope he was holding. Like many young men and women interested in the idea of hunting for organic, free-range venison, he was hoping to become a deer hunter, but not at those prices.

“Well, that’s kind of a Rolls Royce version,” I reassured him, as he set the 4-24X50mm “tactical” scope back on the shelf. “You can find perfectly suitable hunting scopes for less than $200.” I handed him a 3-9x40 on sale for $189.

“Whew! That’s more like it. A good match for my $400 rifle.”

Like many American hunters, Alfredo and his wife, Sarah, work hard to raise two kids while investing sweat equity into remodeling their house. They haven’t money for high-end hunting gear or the time to figure out today’s super-sized, super-effective but super-complicated scopes.

The thing to remember about riflescopes is that they are just glorified sights. Their No. 1 job is the same as the old notched leaf and front post atop Great Grandpa’s lever-action .30-30: to direct the bullet where you want it to land. Consistently.

If you don’t relish the complications of multi-stadia reticles, dialing turrets, parallax adjustment knobs, illuminated reticles, 34mm main tubes, 56mm objective lenses and HD glass, then just buy a 3-9x40mm scope and go hunting. If you want more details, keep reading.

"Rifle Scope Basics - Glass Class"
Keith Warren of "The High Road with Keith Warren" is at the FTW Ranch in Texas laying out the basics of rifle scope power and objective lenses in this easy-to-understand video.


The trick in scope buying is matching the scope to your rifle/cartridge and style of hunting. For still-hunting woodland whitetails at distances out to 150 yards with a 30-30 Winchester, you don’t need 10X (10 power) magnification or higher. At 10X, a deer 200 yards away will look as large as it would at 20 yards with your naked eye.

But what if you’re hunting pronghorns with a .270 Win. and you are capable of precise bullet placement out to 400 yards? Good news: A scope that tops out at 10X is still more than adequate. That 400-yard pronghorn will look as if it’s just 40 yards away to your unaided eye.

This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t buy a variable scope that zooms as high as 14X or even 24X. Such magnificent magnification can help when target shooting at extreme range or when engaging tiny rodents across wide farm fields. Because some of today’s variable scopes zoom as much as six times, you can buy extreme versatility with one that starts at 3X and dials up to 18X. Or a 4X that cranks up to 24X. Such an instrument at the low-power setting provides plenty of field-of-view for close brush-hunting, yet has the reach you might need for extreme range targeting. So why not get one of those? Well … maybe because of complicating factors including added weight, bulk, price and declining brightness at higher powers.

An oversized scope can make a rifle top-heavy, a drudge to carry and slower to whip into action. A big scope must often be mounted so high that you’re forced to lift your head off the stock to see through it. Furthermore, as power increases, light “through-put” decreases due to a smaller exit pupil, which is the little circle of light you can see in a scope’s eyepiece when held at arm’s length.

If the exit pupil equals or is larger than your pupil, you get all the light you can take in and need. You can measure exit pupil diameter by dividing the objective lens’ diameter by the power. A 40mm-objective scope at 10X creates a 4mm wide exit pupil—more than enough light at midday when your pupil may have shrunk to 2.5mm. But at dusk, with your pupil dilated to 5mm, you won’t get as much light through the scope as you can possibly take in. No problem. Dial down the power to 8X and the exit pupil enlarges to 5mm, matching your own pupil.

Scope brightness is also enhanced considerably by anti-reflection coatings on the lenses. Multiple layers of these weightless, invisible coatings can increase light transmission as much as 50 percent. Shop for a scope with fully multi-coated lenses for maximum brightness.

Don’t get fooled by sales pitches hawking 30mm and 32mm main tubes, either. These have certain advantages over smaller 1-inch diameter main tubes, but useable brightness is not one of them. An adequate exit pupil and anti-reflection coatings make for a bright scope.

A “simple” 4X20, 3-9x40, 2.5-8x36 or 4-12x44 scope could be a perfect match for your rifle, your style of hunting and the distances at which you will shoot. So, before you go scope shopping, be honest with yourself. When was the last time you shot any game beyond 300 yards? Are you really going to train sufficiently to be an effective long-range shooter? Do you really need all the bells and whistles of an extreme-range scope on your do-it-all big game rifle? The basic 3-9x40mm has been serving hunters well for about half a century. With today’s best multi-layer anti-reflection coatings and precision construction, they’re brighter, more precise and more durable than ever. Be sure to point these things out to any new hunters you mentor so they, too, can get in the game and start creating memories in the field.

About the author:
Award-winning outdoor writer and contributor Ron Spomer says hunting is everyone's way of connecting with true freedom—the freedom to interact with Earth as naturally as does a wolf, falcon or chickadee. During more than 50 seasons afield, Spomer has decades of hunting experience and writes regularly for multiple outdoor publications, including NRA Publications, sharing his vast knowledge on guns, ammo, optics and gear. For more information, including his top hunting tips and tactics, visit his website, Ron Spomer Outdoors.

Follow NRA Hunters' Leadership Forum on Twitter @HuntersLead.