Hunting Optics Guide: How to Match Scopes with Rifles

A compact and functional Burris Droptine scope, which will work for almost all deer hunting situations.

Between the development of the modern premium projectile and the undeniable improvements in optics, there is no doubt we hunters are fully able to take advantage of the scientific improvements in the hunting field. I've most certainly noticed an increase in the magnification range of our riflescopes, and with it an undeniable increase in overall size and weight. While we are experiencing more clarity in our riflescopes than ever before, that increase in size and weight comes at a price, and that price can be a loss of balance in the rifle, and the need to mount that scope higher than ever, resulting in chin-weld, instead of cheek-weld.

How much scope do we need to get the job done? And further, does the universal riflescope exist? Let's look at both questions, and hopefully derive some solutions. You may find you already own the scope that works best for what you're trying to achieve, or you may find you need to do a bit of shopping.

Leupold's new VX-5HD 1-5x24 - this scope may become the standard big game scope in the future.

The most common big-game animal in North America is the whitetail deer, and it is hunted in a wide variety of terrains and situations. From the hardwoods and hemlock and birch forests of the northeast, to the thick swamps of the south, to the cut senderos of Texas and the wide open spaces of the Great Plains, each hunting situation may call for a different cartridge, so you can imagine that a different scope would also be warranted. The days of the iron-sighted lever gun have all but faded, but the 3-9x may not be the universal answer anymore either. I personally use many different configurations of riflescopes for deer hunting, including the good ol' 3-9x, but the terrain and the shot distance will usually dictate the choice. Here in New York, where our shots rarely exceed 100 yards, I can use a 1.5-5x, with the top end allowing me to see any branches in the bullet's path. When hunting the more open terrain, I do like a scope with a top end of 9x to 12x, especially when hunting from a blind, where I can get a rest for the rifle. At the same time, I like the modern scopes for the flexibility of the low end of the magnification range, say 2x to 3.5x, so I can quickly acquire the target if it's close in. The deer hunting is excellent during those last 15 minutes of daylight, so I like a blend of low-mounting and larger objective lens. A 30mm main tube will also make a difference in light transmission. I like the Leupold VX-6 2-12x42 and the Swarovski Z6 1.7-10x42 for their versatility; while not cheap, they offer a great value for the deer hunter who wants to cover as many bases as possible. I also like the lighter scopes, like the Leupold VX-3i 2.5-8x36 and 3.5-10x40 – both one-inch tubes – as they are a bit easier on the wallet, yet the quality of glass in the VX-3i series is amazingly clear. I don't like the big 50mm objective lenses, as they usually require a higher mount to clear the barrel, and on a quick shot, the sight picture never feels natural to me. I like my deer scopes nice and low on the bore, or at least as low as possible. A sensible BDC reticle can be used for shots out to sane distances, keeping the turrets under their caps, and reducing weight even further.

This Bushnell Nitro riflescope – a good choice for big game hunting – can be mounted much lower, resulting in a rifle that will be much more comfortable to shoot.

Change the game to varmint shooting, where the target area gets smaller and often the distances get longer, and you'll find a situation where the larger scopes definitely show their value. You'll want and need the adjustable objective - to remove the parallax at longer ranges - and the higher level of magnification will absolutely give you an advantage. I like a top end of between 18x and 24x and those scopes that can accommodate a sun shade. The 30mm tube scopes can give you a bit more elevation adjustment for those who dial for elevation, but I've used a number of one-inch tubes with good effect. The varmint-style scopes are usually paired with a rifle with a comb that is proper for a higher scope. Glass clarity is of utmost importance, especially when the heat waves get ramped up during the heat of the day on a prairie dog town. This is one of those places where you want to invest in a scope that takes adjustment very well, as the miniscule adjustments will make a significant difference at longer ranges.

Dangerous game – whether big bears here in the U.S. or African dangerous game – warrants a different kind of scope. The idea is to have as wide a field of view as possible, in the event that one of these beasts was to charge. I like a scope with a low end of 1x or 1.5x, and with modern scopes you can find a top end of up to 8x and 10x, making for a very versatile riflescope. The Leupold 1.5-5x20mm scope has long been the industry standard, but I think you'll see a shift to 30mm tubes shortly, as the field of view is wider, and allows for more light transmission. However, I like as light a scope as possible on my dangerous game rifles – I'm a huge fan of the Leupold VX-5HD 1-5x24 – in order to maintain the balance of the rifle if a quick shot is needed in the thick stuff. I also like the ability to remove the scope altogether, and usually employ Talley's detachable rings for just that purpose; they return to zero, and give me the flexibility I like.

So, with today's larger scope sizes, I like to think in terms of weight and clarity, rather than the most magnification I can get. For long-range shooting, I feel an entirely different type of scope is certainly warranted, but I like my hunting rifles to have a light, trim scope set as low to the bore as possible. It makes a difference to me in the field.

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