How to Pick a Rifle Scope
Travis: Welcome everybody to this week's podcast episode by Sport Optics Northwest. I'm Travis and I'm joined with JD, as always, and this week we'll be talking through how to pick a rifle scope. But before we do that, we want to quickly address a question from last week's episode where we talked pros and cons about straight and angled spotting scopes.
The primary question that we got, well not the primary, but one of the ones that we could address quickly this week was whether or not a first-time hunter would really be able to tell the difference between the two options. So JD, what do you think? First-time hunters, are they gonna be able to notice anything different between the two?
JD: It's really tough for first timers, or anybody new to the optics world. They're likely gonna prefer a straight just because of the ease of use. Most people that are new to it don't understand a lot of the differences we discussed last week, and it's tough to tell because you really need to spend some time with it in the field on the differences between an angled or a straight eyepiece, and what works best for you, so really gonna be tough. You just really have to weigh in the things, how you're gonna be using it, the terrain, style of hunting, and all that kind of stuff. Because in the store to make that decision is kind of tough if you haven't experienced it in the field.
Travis: Yeah, and I'm just kinda curious, how many folks do you feel like come back, first-time hunters, buy a spotting scope, either way, straight versus angled, how many of them are coming back and buying the other within the next year or two?
JD: It's become really popular with the modular systems now, because you're not getting rid of your old one, you still have the ability, so I use both, an angled and a straight because I can just click it in to my objective, so it really depends on what style of hunt I'm doing. It has definitely gotten more popular for people to have both options, and in the past, it wasn't because people didn't wanna buy an entirely new set up if they had a straight or an angled, they didn't wanna get the other and have to get rid of their old one. But now because of the modular ones, a lot of folks are saying, "You know what, it would be nice, if I'm gonna spend a lot of time glassing off my window mount out of my truck, to have the straight. But I still wanna be able to keep the angled for my mountain hunts and the stuff where I'm looking up or downhill."
Travis: And that definitely makes a lot of sense. Well, I think that's the time we'll allocate to spotting scopes for today. We can definitely record a whole other session down the road to talk about it some more. So for today, for this episode, we are talking about rifle scope selection. And the reason we're doing that is that JD is actually leaving tomorrow, he's currently packing for an Eastern Oregon bear hunt. And we thought this would be a great opportunity for him to talk us through how he selects his gear for a specific hunt while he's actually packing for it.
So you're headed to Eastern Oregon, I won't ask exactly where.
JD: [inaudible 00:03:16]
Travis: Are you ... I haven't actually asked, is this your tag, or are you guiding this trip?
JD: I have a tag as well as my buddy Cody, who I do the majority of my hunts with, so won't be guiding. I'm trying to do as little guiding as possible just to be around the fam.
Travis: Nice, and how long are you guys gonna be out for?
JD: About a week, it'll be six days of hunting. It's quite a long drive, so right now we're planning on the six days of hunting.
Travis: Yeah, Oregon's one of those states where you get East of the Cascades and it's a surprisingly big state. Cool, so when you are packing, getting ready for this trip, what are the main criteria that you're running through your mind while you're selecting your gear.
JD: Terrain is a big one, I'm gonna look at what style of country we're gonna be in, the style of hunting we're gonna be doing in that terrain, and then the animal I'm hunting, so this is obviously a bear hunt, so my gear ... I do a lot of archery hunting, and this is one that I'm not even bringing a bow, so I'll just be having the rifle and my set up for glassing and bear specific stuff.
Travis: And, just to get your perspective on it, how does the animal that you're hunting, how does that changing, how does that affect what optic you would wanna use?
JD: It's not as much the optic as it is the caliber. So this hunt I'm taking a 300 short mag, where if I was hunting Columbia blacktails I might not take such a big caliber, I might take a 6.5, or a 270 or something a little bit lighter. And I just really prefer 300 calibers for elk and bears. I like having that knockdown power. As far as the optic though, also if I was doing a blacktail hunt, where I'm gonna be in thicker cover and really ... blacktails are pretty nocturnal, so that first few moments of light and the last few moments of light I might be more concerned with a bigger objective and a bigger tube size to gather as much light as possible, and not as concerned with magnification because my shots might be 100 yards or less, where this hunt we're gonna be in a lot of open country, really glassing long distances and that kind of thing, so the magnification's more important on this one.
Travis: Okay. Well with that detail, why don't you go ahead and just walk us through the gear you've got laid out, and what and why you're taking what you are.
JD: Yeah, on this hunt we're gonna be glassing a lot of really big country and long distances. So I'll be bringing a lot of optics for, typically on my hunts, I'm pretty worried about weight, so I'm always trying to cut that down. This one we'll be doing basically day hunts from camp, so it's not like we're gonna be backpacked in for five days and trying to save ounces, we'll be coming back to camp every night, so it's a little different scenario than normal. I'll be using the Swarvoski BTX 95, and a magnification, the ME1.7 for the majority of my glassing. I'll be wearing the Swarvoski 12x50 Els in my chest harness, and I'll carrying a Leica CRF 1600-R.
Typically on my hunts I'm using a rangefinding bino because a lot of the time I'm archery hunting and I really like the all in one combo because if it's one less time to carry, and the ease, if a bull's coming and I'm able to do one movement to check him out and range him, where this one, because it's gonna be bigger country I'm not as concerned with a bear spotting me, lifting up my binos, and then [inaudible 00:07:15].
Travis: Is this the first hunt you'll use the BTX on?
JD: Yeah this is the flirts one, I've only got to play with it because it's been such an overwhelming demand for it. My personal one that I ordered, I actually had to give to a customer that had pre-paid for theirs because there's hadn't arrived and mine did, so I gave them mine. So I'm really excited to get to spend more in the field actual use with it and get familiar.
Travis: Cool, what's Cody gonna be using?
Travis: So, I'm curious, for how ... You said you're using a different caliber for this than some of your other hunts that you [inaudible 00:08:19] bigger caliber, so are you ... Are you selecting ... So your optics are unique to your caliber? So are you pairing ... You pair your optics to your caliber more than anything else at that point.
JD: Yeah, so a good example, I've got a .06, and it's pretty sentimental because it was a gift from my grandpa, and an .06 drops off really quickly at 400 yards, so I'm not really gonna be shooting that gun past 400 yards. So that gun I'm gonna take on something like a blacktail hunt, where not gonna be shooting that far but the light gathering's more important, so on that scope I've got a 4-12x50. Lower magnification, bigger objective, big tube size, so that I can gather as much light as possible. But because I'm not shooting it as far I don't need a long range turret, I don't need an 18 or 24 power for my match magnification, it's more about that light gathering and my field of view.
Where this hunt, because it's big country, I wanna have a setup where if I need to shoot further I can within my effective range so that 18 power is important to me. I really like the scope that I'm gonna have on this one I'm gonna have a Swarvoski X5 3.5-18x50. The 3.5 or if a bear's up close it's not too much magnification, 18, I've shot well beyond 1000 yards with it, and it's plenty of magnification for that. The 50mm objective gathers a ton of light, crystal clear optics, so really happy with the light transmission, it's got an exposed turret on it that has a ton of elevation travel.
The first time I shot the X5, this exact scope, the 3.5-18, shot it to 1500 yards, so really impressed with its long-range capability too.
Travis: Yeah, I'm sure we could go down a whole other rabbit hole just talking calibers for different hunts with this conversation as well. But trying to think about just scope selection, and thinking about for people out there that are selecting a scope for a specific hunt like you're just describing, what are the tips you have? What are the things that you got through in your mind, your mental checklist of, "Yeah, this is the decision I'm gonna make and it's the right decision."
JD: After going through a lot of the training, going to some shooting schools, my thinking on scope sizes and magnification has changed a lot. The majority of my life, every rifle I had, whether it was a 22, or a 300, or whatever caliber it had a 3-9 scope on it. And that's the majority of folks, that's what they're gonna have on their guns just because that's what grandpa or dad did. And now that long-range shooting has become so popular I prefer at least a 4-12. 12 power I've shot to 1000 yards and had no problem if you have a good optic 12's plenty of magnification. My favorite is something like a 3.5-18 though because on 3 power you can hunt on the coast in real thick cover, 18 power you can go well beyond 1000 no problem, and it just as a lot of versatility.
A lot of customers, I get this a lot, where they think the higher the power the better, and that can be misleading, especially depending on the type of hunting you do, if you're hunting on the coast or anywhere where there's thick cover, 6 can be a lot of magnification for up close shots. And also on the high end, a higher magnification like a 24 or more can make it really tough to get back on target, so if you shoot and miss and you're trying to get back on that buck or whatever you were shooting at and you're on 24 power that can be really difficult to find your target again. So sometimes those lower magnifications with better light gathering and clarity are gonna be a better option because of those reasons, they're just more versatile. You can use it in the thick stuff, you can still sue it at longer distances and being able to acquire your target.
Travis: Is that the size that you're recommending the most these days just because it's the most versatile? Or is it a trend you're seeing?
JD: Yeah, and a 3.5-18 or 4-16, some of those that are ... They fit everybody's needs. There's a lot of different trains of thought on it, but I just really like having a scope that, for whatever reason if I needed to put it on another gun I could, and the 3.5-18, if I've got a 243, I can put that on there, if I've got a 338 Lapua, I can put that on there. So just the versatility of the low-end magnification and the high end I really like.
The other thing to consider though is not just the magnification but your tube size and your objective diameter. So a 1-inch tube is smaller, 25.4mm than 30mm, so a lot of people also think that you need to have a 30mm as opposed to a 1 inch, well a higher quality optic that's a 1-inch tube is still gonna gather better light than a low-quality optic that's a 30mm tube. The same thing goes for your objective, you can have a higher quality objective or glass with a 44mm, and then a lower entry-level optic with a 50mm objective, so it's a lot to take in, and the numbers people get confused a lot.
On the rifle scopes, your first two numbers are your magnification range, your last number is the objective diameter. So it's a little bit easier if you think of those two, first two your magnification, that's your range, and then that objective is the size. So really depends on the style of hunting you're doing and how you're wanting to use that scope.
Travis: So now I'm just curious, I've got an 06, I've got a 2.5x8 with a 36, so is that the right scope for a 06.
JD: Not to say that it's the wrong scope, but mine, because I have that 4-12, I've been so happy that I took off the 3-9 that was on it, just because of that versatility. I've got a higher magnification for those longer shots if I'm shooting 350 or 400 yards, just practicing, that kinda stuff, I've got that really big objective, and it just makes it easier for that higher magnification. The 2 is pretty low on your magnification range, so stuff that's up close, but 8 is not a lot as far as your further shots. And did you say it's a 36mm?
JD: So again, that's a small objective, so you're not gonna gather the light that even a 44mm is going to. So that's something to consider for ... Just like me, I had ... I think I know exactly what scope you're talking about. And I had that one and it's nothing wrong with it, and I don't want anybody to take it as though I'm saying whatever they've got on their gun is wrong, I just really prefer magnifications and sizes that are versatile, so no matter what scope you put it on, or what gun you put that scope on it's gonna fit your needs. And I think a lot of people are just used to whatever that gun came with that's what they use, and aren't aware of some of the other options that might fit with their gun a little better.
Travis: Yeah. And that's definitely the case for me, it was what was on there, it was a good deal, it was basically bought the whole set up for what the cost of the scope would have been on its own. It's like, "Sweet." But I've never really gone back and evaluated whether the scope is optimal.
JD: Yeah. And that brings up a really good point, I get this a lot where custom guns, they're really popular thing that has gained popularity in the last few years, and I get this all the time where somebody spends $6000 or more on a gun, and then they've only got a couple of hundred bucks left over for the optic, and I can promise you from experience that is a huge mistake. Nothing against custom guns, especially the accuracy that some of these companies and custom builders are able to get these days, but don't sell yourself short on the optic.
I've shot guns that were $350 all the way up to $12,000 with the exact same scopes on them, and some of the lower priced rifles outperformed the higher priced rifles with the same scope on them, so just make sure that you're ... There's not a number to put on it. I hear a lot of guys say spend at least as much on the optic as you did on the gun, that's variable depending on how much you spent on the gun, but just don't sell yourself short on how much money you're leaving yourself for the optic, because I have and have had guns that I didn't think the gun performed all that well, but it wasn't the gun it was the optic, so once I put a superior optic on it, now that gun is shooting a lot better.
And stuff to consider, too, an optic that's gonna hold at 0. Some big calibers an optic might not be able to handle, so if you have an entry-level optic on a big caliber gun and you keep losing your 0, well that's the optic's fault, not the gun.
Travis: Interesting. So I guess the last question that I have on the topic for you is, it sort of seems like what we're speaking to is having multiple scopes to either be able to switch out for hunts and then having more than one option basically.
JD: Yeah, it's become more popular for folks to put a rail on their gun so that they can swap scopes between guns, and I don't like doing that just because I prefer to have my set up ready to go, I basically have an antelope set up, a deer set up, an elk and bear set up. I wanna just be able to grab that gun out of the safe and go hunting, I don't wanna have to re-site in, or do any of that stuff. Again, so once I've done it once, I want it to be ready to go. And it's really just about finding the right scope for your specific caliber, the type of hunting you're doing, and the terrain that you're gonna be in so that you can make sure that whatever hunt your going on you're ready to go, and that's where I really like those versatile sizes because say something happened with the gun, if you have a versatile scope option on there, you can move it between guns and you're still gonna be ready to go where you're not having to get a whole new gun for that.
Travis: Right. And that makes sense. More versatile the better. Okay, so kind of final tips on how to select ... I mean this is obviously very specific conversation we're having about bear hunting and the terrain that you're gonna be out there, but just general rifle scope selection tips?
JD: Yeah, and it goes back to the same thing with all optics, is it's really tough to get a good feel in the store. The other part in a store that's tough is unless they're mounted on a faux stock, it can be really difficult to get a feel for what that scope's gonna feel like on your gun. So obviously like we talked about before, taking it outside is great if possible. But having it mounted on some type of scope or some type of stock where you're gonna get a better feel of what it's like to shoulder that and look through that optic than you would if you're trying to hand hold it with both hands and adjust the magnification and the zoom, and all that, it can make it really difficult to see what that optic's really gonna look like.
So, when making those selections just make sure it's specific to ... If you're just looking for one scope to cover everything. If you're gonna have one rifle and you're gonna hunt all species with it, that's a different deal than the guy who's looking for a coyote set up, or just an antelope, or deer, elk, or somebody who's hunting deer on the coast versus somebody who's hunting them in the desert. Or if somebody who's never gonna shoot past a couple of hundred yards versus somebody who's gonna shoot 1500 yards, so there's just a lot that goes into selecting the right magnification, right tube size, and the right objective for specifically what you're doing.
Travis: Cool, learned a lot of information to unpack from this week's conversation, that's for sure. So at this point, definitely want to wrap up for today. Everybody listening please tune in to our next episode, probably won't be next week, because JD's gonna be out hunting, but we will, when he gets back, will chat about how the bear hunt went and we'll find out if you made the right decisions in terms of his optics and calibers. So until then, please post any questions, comments that you guys have on rifle scope selection. You can do that on the Sport Optics Northwest Facebook Page, Instagram account, or you can send emails directly to JD if you want. And then we'll cover those at the beginning of the next episode.
Until then, thanks for listening.