Traditional wisdom tells us that the rule of choosing a good riflescope is to buy the most expensive one that you can afford. But not everyone can shell out a grand for something that they'll use two weeks out of the year. What about the bargain scopes?
We set out to objectively evaluate some of the most common budget-priced riflescopes on the market. We chose five categories by which to evaluate these scopes: optical quality, mechanical quality, durability, eye relief, and ergonomics.
Optics testing is difficult as results can be greatly dependent on the user's perception rather than measurable metrics. Our testing took place under the most realistic conditions we could devise, using some methods developed specifically for this evaluation.
We spent hours looking through these scopes in various lighting conditions and subjected them to rigorous tests of durability and accuracy. We played no favorites and kept it as objective as possible.
Our results are a hell of a lot more valuable than staring through the scope at the counter of a well-lit retail store.
Zeiss Terra 3-9x42
As you might expect from the brand — and the price — the Zeiss was the all-around best-performing scope in our test. The optics were clear and bright and allowed us to use every minute of legal shooting hours.
The simple duplex reticle isn't fancy, but it showed up better than the competition in our low-light testing — where I hunt that can make the difference between a dead buck and a lonely walk to the truck.
The eye relief was the shortest of our test, which is something to think about on heavy-recoiling rifles.
Ergonomics were good — my only complaint is that the ¼-inch click adjustments were difficult to discern while wearing gloves. It's worth noting that while the Terra was the best-performing scope in our testing, it is among the most compact, which makes it a great choice for a big-game rifle.
The Terra is clearly our Editor's Choice, but it just barely beat out the runners-up.
Weight: 14.8 oz.
Length: 12.4 in.
Mounting Length: 4.9 in.
MSRP Price: $445
Leupold VX-1 3-9x40
The VX-1 is a light and compact optic with generous eye relief — all qualities that Leupold is well known for. The Leupold's glass was very crisp and clean during daylight hours and finished just behind the Zeiss and Weaver scopes at dusk.
The basic ergonomics were strong, but the adjustment clicks could have been more positive. The VX-1 did show some tracking issues on the range that prevented a full 5-point score in the mechanical quality category.
At $250 retail with a street price just under $200, this scope is a solid value for most hunting applications. Leupold's warranty and reputation for customer service are second to none and are an important consideration as hunting optics do break.
Weight: 11.2 oz.
Length: 12.6 in.
Mounting Length: 4.5 in.
MSRP Price: $250
Weaver Kaspa 3-12 x50
The Weaver is, without a doubt, the best value of all of the scopes evaluated. This scope nearly tied the Zeiss in total points and did it at less than half the price. The Kaspa's image was bright and clear and performed well in low light.
This scope offers the most magnification of all of our test optics and still has the most generous eye relief. My only complaint about the Weaver is that the size and configuration of the objective made mounting the scope where it wouldn't touch the Sendero profile barrel nearly impossible in the Leupold medium rings we had on hand.
The good news was that even with the scope pushed far enough forward to allow the scope to clear the barrel, there was adequate eye relief for testing.
Weight: 14.5 oz.
Length: 12.5 in.
Mounting Length: 4.5 in.
MSRP Price: $185
Bushnell Elite 3500 3-9 x50
This is the the most expensive optic in our test by a wide margin, but far from the best performing. This is the largest and heaviest scope of the five and is a full three inches longer than the Zeiss.
In this case, the size of the package wasn't a great indicator of performance. The optics were solid during daylight use, but the DOA reticle all but disappeared in low light, making it unusable seven minutes before legal shooting hours ended.
The Bushnell's clicks were very positive, and it received top marks for overall ergonomics, but its performance on the test range indicated some inconsistency in the tracking of the adjustments — a key component in a scope that is marketed for long-range use.
This is probably a better scope than the score suggests, but the test parameters are fair and equitable across the board.
Weight: 19.3 oz.
Length: 15.5 in.
Mounting Length: 6.1 in.
MSRP Price: $636
Burris Droptine 3-9 x50
This riflescope is a bit heavier than the pack, surely due to its larger 50mm objective lens.
The optics were excellent during daylight but appeared out of focus (despite attempts to adjust to a better image) at dusk, which affected its score.
The scope performed perfectly when it came to the precision of its adjustments, though the clicks could be missed unless I really concentrated on the dials.
Eye relief was better than the Bushnell and Zeiss but fell short of the four-inch mark, which cost it a point.
Weight: 17 oz.
Length: 13.1 in.
Mounting Length: 5 in.
MSRP Price: $311
In each category, a score of 0-5 was given with 5 points being the highest. No scope scored perfectly and the difference from worst to first was a mere 3.5 points.
Optical quality was evaluated by mounting all of the scopes side-by-side in a special jig built for me by custom gunmaker D'Arcy Echols. The tripod-mounted jig allows me to focus all of the scopes on a single object simultaneously, and, with minimal movement, I can move my eye back and forth between the respective scopes to make the score as objective as possible.
General optical quality was evaluated by studying optical test charts through the scopes as well as by using the scopes in open country under realistic hunting conditions.
Low-light performance, which falls under the optical quality category, was examined by watching a 3-D deer target at dusk through each of the scopes at 6X — the later that the deer was "shootable" through a given scope, the higher the score.
The deer was 70 yards away and in the shade of several oak trees, which accurately replicated real-world hunting conditions.
The Zeiss Terra with its bright glass and healthy duplex reticle won this race hands-down, but the difference between first and last place was a mere six minutes. That said, six minutes can be an eternity on the last evening of a hunt.
Scopes were mounted to a rifle of known accuracy: a Remington Model 700 VLS loaded with match ammo. Scopes were examined through a collimator while moving through the power range to determine whether the reticle was prone to wandering.
The scopes were then zeroed at 100 yards before "shooting the box" by adjusting the point-of-impact by four inches in each direction to determine whether the adjustments tracked with consistency and precision.
A point was lost for any shots that deviated from the one-inch blocks on the target. The Weaver and Burris scopes were mechanically perfect, but all of the others faltered in one way or another.
The Zeiss tracked with consistency, but the ¼-inch clicks didn't correspond exactly to that standard downrange. The remainder of the scopes showed slight deviations in windage and/or elevation as they tracked around the target.
Each scope was immersed in hot water with the dial covers removed, placed in the freezer, and mounted on the rifle with a minimum of 10 rounds fired. This was a pass/fail category for which all of the scopes received full points.
If you think this is an easy test, you'd be surprised to know how many scopes I break during the normal course of testing and evaluation (two so far this year).
Letting my kids chew on them and bounce them on the driveway would have made it more interesting, but we decided that it wasn't very objective.
This is a purely subjective category based on the scope's max eye relief — anyone with a scar on their forehead knows how important this quality is on a riflescope.
European scopes usually lack in this department, and that held true with the Zeiss, even though this model is made in Japan.
The Weaver and Leupold scopes had the greatest eye relief in our testing and would be my choice for anything over a .30-06 on the recoil spectrum.
No hunting scope is useful if it can't be operated under stress and in the crappy conditions we often encounter in the field.
Things like the ease of turning the power ring, the ability to make point-of-impact adjustments wearing gloves, and the overall user-friendliness of the scope were evaluated with points awarded appropriately.
Lack of tactile clicks on the adjustment knobs was the most common gripe — the fact is, all of the scopes were more or less idiot-proof.
As each reader's budget, needs, and preferences vary tremendously, we did not assign points for value — we merely listed the retail price.
For stand hunting whitetails in the South, three additional minutes of shooting light may be worth $200 while a guy who shoots from canyon to canyon may put more value on a scope's mechanical precision.
We let you decide which scope's attributes best match your wallet.