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Best Hunting Scopes

Updated December 2018
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BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
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We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

  • 16 Models Considered
  • 68 Hours Researched
  • 1 Experts Interviewed
  • 138 Consumers Consulted
  • Zero products received from manufacturers.

    We purchase every product we review with our own funds — we never accept anything from product manufacturers.

    Why trust BestReviews?
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers.
    BestReviews spends thousands of hours researching, analyzing, and testing products to recommend the best picks for most consumers. We buy all products with our own funds, and we never accept free products from manufacturers.

    Shopping guide for best hunting scopes

    Last Updated December 2018

    Whether you shoot game, vermin or targets, a good hunting scope will improve your success rate. But there are many scopes on the market today. How do you pick the right one? What are the important things you need to look for? How much should you spend? Finding answers to those questions is the reason BestReviews was created. It's our job to help you make the right buying decision. One that gets you not just the best product, but also top value.

    We do this with extensive testing, in our own facilities and in the field. We also consult experts for their input. Then we evaluate invaluable feedback from hundreds of ordinary people. We build an overall picture of technical competence, and a product's long-term pros and cons. We're completely independent. While it's tempting to accept free samples from manufacturers, we spend our own money instead. That way there's no bias. Our conclusions come solely as a result of our research.

    The five hunting scopes above are those that won our recommendation. They offer excellent performance across a range of budgets. If you'd like to learn more about the parameters we used during our evaluations, please read the hunting scope shopping guide that follows.

    When you first get your hunting scope, you'll need to adjust it to suit your rifle. If you change ammunition, the velocity and trajectory may be different, so you'll need to re-adjust.

    Why buy a hunting scope?

    The answer seems obvious – to magnify your target, and thus increase your chances of hitting it. True, but there's more to it than that.

    • Using a scope is faster than lining up your gun's standard iron sights, so you can react quickly to unexpected opportunities.

    • A scope can be adjusted to compensate for weaknesses in your eyesight, allowing you to shoot safely in conditions where it might not be possible otherwise.

    • Accurate shooting reduces wasted ammunition, so saves you money.

    DID YOU KNOW?

    "Scope eye" is a painful injury caused by rifle recoil. It happens when a shooter has his head too close to the scope when he pulls the trigger.

    How to choose a hunting scope

    While rifle scopes are the most popular product on the market, they are by no means the only type. Scopes are available for handguns, shotguns and muzzleloaders. These follow the same basic design, but vary in size and construction to suit the particular gun type. There are also scopes for bow hunters, although they are quite different.

    While early scopes were quite basic and could be switched from one gun to another, that's not the case today. Modern hunting scopes are a much more tailored solution, and should be chosen to suit your rifle and the type of shooting you do.

    So what separates one scope from another?

    We're going to look at the following:

    • Magnification

    • Lenses

    • Adjustability

    • Other considerations

    Eye relief is the distance from the ocular lens (the one you look through) to your eye, while still allowing a full view.

    Magnification

    OK, so it's pretty obvious: you use a scope is to magnify the thing you're aiming at, so it's easier to hit accurately. However, a common misunderstanding is that you should always go for the most magnification possible. That's not correct.

    All scopes have limits. A 4X scope won't do you much good with an object 1,000 yards away, but it's great at 100 yards. A 40X scope will give you tremendous view over long distances, but can't focus close up.

    In  wide open country, when you shooting at distances of 1,000 yards or more, high magnification is what you want. But in woodland, where you might only have a couple hundred before trees get in the way, the same scope would be almost useless.

    Stability plays a part too. With a target within a few hundred yards you'll be able to maintain a rigid enough standing position to make the shot. At 1,000 yards you'll need some kind of support, because the slightest twitch and you're going to miss the target completely.

    Then there's field of view (FOV) – the width of the image you see through the scope. This decreases with distance. With modest power you can see enough to track an animal's movement. A high powered scope at the same distance might show you the creature's ear hairs, but if it moves you'll find it difficult to re-acquire, because your movements are exaggerated.

    You need the correct magnification, not the maximum magnification. So how do you choose?

    The most popular hunting scopes, by a considerable margin, are 3-9X32 or 3-9X40. The “3-9” means it has variable magnification, between 3x normal and 9x normal. The 32 and 40 are the size of the objective lens (more about that in a minute).

    This kind of scope gives you good flexibility within the 50 to 250 yards range, which is what most hunters shoot. If you need greater distance, 6-20X or 8X25 takes things out further.

    While variable scopes provide excellent flexibility, cheaper, fixed magnification models are a better choice for some. Pistol shooters often use a 2X scope. Ditto for muzzleloaders and shotguns. If you target shoot .22, or use small caliber for varmints, a 4X fixed magnification scope will provide an effective, low-cost solution.

    At the other end of the scale, army snipers have also been known to use a fixed scope – but theirs will be 36X or 40X.

    There's another important effect that comes with greater magnification, and that's light transmission, which brings us to a discussion of lenses.

    If you shoot small caliber or air rifle, a fixed 4X scope may be all you need, and will save you money. High magnification scopes, 24X and above, are best suited to static target shooters. A moving target would almost certainly just be a blur.

    Lenses

    The magnification offered by your scope is only of use if the lenses are of high quality. They not only need to be able to bring a distant object into focus, they need to transmit as much light as possible and provide a clear image.

    A good hunting scope should achieve a light transmission of 90% or higher, though few manufacturers quote an actual figure.

    In general, a larger objective lens will capture more light than a small one, though there are limits. We favor 40 mm sizes over 32 mm, but once you get beyond 56 mm, benefit decreases proportionally, because available light decreases as magnification increases. Bigger lenses also add considerable weight, and may require extended bases so as not to foul the barrel.

    At the other end, is the ocular lens (or eyepiece). This is the lens you look through, although you never put your eye right up to it when firing — the recoil can give you a nasty injury. The distance you can have your eye from the ocular lens and still get full field of view is called eye relief.

    The visual quality of a lens depends a lot on the way the glass is formed and ground. Scope manufacturers also improve things by adding coatings. These primarily cut down reflection, or glare from sunlight. They can also enhance image contrast. Hydrophobic and hydrophilic lenses help shed water.

    How coatings are described can be confusing, varying from "coated" to "fully multi-coated". It sounds impressive, but if the underlying lens isn't of sufficient quality, no amount of coating is going to make it better. As a general rule, it's always worth spending a little more to get a scope from a brand that's known for its lens quality.

    The best lenses give you higher target clarity at dawn or dusk, when natural light is usually poor.

    Reticle (or reticule) is a targeting grid or, on most rifle scopes, what people usually call the crosshairs.

    Adjustability

    There are three forms of adjustability: the power of magnification (which we've covered), windage (to compensate for inaccuracy in the horizontal plane, left to right), and elevation (to compensate for inaccuracy in the vertical plane, up and down).

    These are primarily controlled by turrets on the top and side of the scope's main tube. They all perform a similar function, but adjustment method varies.

    Some require you to remove a screw-on cap, then adjust a screw with a screwdriver or coin. It's efficient, saves the adjustment being bumped or altered accidentally, but is time consuming.

    Others have knobs that are easy to adjust with a gloved hand.

    If you're continuously shooting over the same distance, the former has advantages. If you regularly want to alter your shot, the latter is much quicker.

    Allied to these adjustments is the reticle, which can be simple cross hairs, mil-dot or BDC markings.

    • Simple cross hairs are just that, two lines, meeting in the center of the scope at right angles. Duplex cross hairs are thicker at the edges, making them easier to see.

    • Mil-dots have a pattern of small dots inside the scope on the vertical and horizontal axes.  They help you make fast distance calculations to adjust firing.

    • BDC stands for “Bullet Drop Compensation,” a set of horizontal lines below the center to help you compensate for the fact that bullets drop over distance.

    In general, mil-dot and BDC reticles aren't considered much of an advantage below 500 yards.

    The exit pupil is a small disk of light that you'll see on the eyepiece, if you hold your scope in the air at arm’s length. In theory, a larger exit pupil allows more light to reach the eye, improving image clarity. In practice, many experts tell us it only really makes a difference with long-distance shooting.

    Other features

    • Parallax adjustment compensates for a visual effect that occurs when you look through the eyepiece. As you move your head to right and left, the reticle can appear to move, even though it's actually stationery. Many hunting scopes have parallax compensation built in for set distances. A few offer variable adjustment, though it is something of a specialist feature.

    • Scopes vary in length, and can occasionally be too short for a given rifle. Check that it fits the gun you intend to use it on.

    • A hunting scope might mount directly to your rifle, but many use a base and rings. The former is easier, the latter offers more adjustment options and thus higher accuracy. If investing in a base and rings, experts recommend buying the best quality you can. Cheap items will have a negative impact on the accuracy of a good scope.

    • It's imperative that a hunting scope is proof against mist and fog, so that water can't get inside and obscure the lenses. Getting one that's fully waterproof would be our choice.

    DID YOU KNOW?

    Parallax is a visual effect, where moving your head horizontally appears to make the reticle (crosshairs) move, even though the rifle is completely steady and stationary. Some high-end hunting scopes have parallax adjustment, but most do not.

    What does a good scope cost?

    Even a cheap scope can improve your accuracy – for a while. However, they're often not robust enough, they let in moisture, and the lenses are of poor quality. There's little point fixing a metal tub to the top of your rifle if you're going to spend half your time looking around it.

    That said, high quality scopes needn't cost a fortune. Sure, you can spend well over a thousand dollars for specialist sniper scopes, but most hunters and target shooters don't need that kind of equipment. A couple hundred dollars will easily get you one of the better 3-9X scopes, and good entry level models can be found for half that.

    EXPERT TIP

    Multiple coatings can make a better lens – but there's no guarantee. Choose quality over quantity every time.


    Staff  | BestReviews

    Tips

    A quality scope will certainly improve your accuracy, but so will a few other things that are easily overlooked. This advice comes from U.S. army marksmen:

    • Check trigger action. Small amounts of drag or jerk will be greatly exaggerated by the time the bullet leaves the barrel.

    • Make sure your barrel is spotlessly clean. Dirt in there will mess up your shot no matter how good the scope.

    • Don't lift your head too soon. Stay with your rifle until the shot is complete. There will be plenty of time to revel in your skill after.

    Your hunting scope should be completely waterproof, as internal humidity would fog the lenses. Some scopes are filled with nitrogen; this ensures there's zero chance of moisture inside.

    FAQ

    Q: What do a scope's numbers mean?

    A: Some scopes will be specified as 4X32, for example. The 4X is a fixed magnification – 4 times larger than with the naked eye. The 32 is the size of the objective lens (the one at the far end from you) in millimeters. In general, larger objective lenses capture more light, providing a clearer image.

    Many modern scopes have numbers like 3-9X40. These have variable magnification, between 3X normal and 9X normal. As you go up the scale, the field of view (FOV) is reduced. As with fixed magnification scopes, the 40 indicates objective lens size.

    Q: What is field of view?

    A: Field of view (FOV) is how wide a picture you see through the scope. This width is given in feet, at a distance of 100 yards. As you zoom in (increase magnification), your FOV narrows.

    Typically, at 3X magnification your view will be 30 feet wide. At 9X magnification you'll see less than half that.

    Q: What is MOA?

    A: MOA stands for minutes of angle. There are 60 minutes in one degree. On a rifle scope, MOA is used to indicate the adjustment available to correct the scope for windage and elevation.

    1 minute = 1 inch at 100 yards but, because it's an angle of a circle, the width increases with distance. Thus 1 minute = 2 inches at 200 yards.

    Scope adjustment knobs usually work in 1/4 MOA or 1/8 MOA steps. The math isn't complicated, but charts are available if you'd prefer a quicker form of reference.

    The team that worked on this review
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      Web Producer
    • Eliza
      Eliza
      Production Manager
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      Jeff
      Editor
    • Kyle
      Kyle
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      Senior Editor

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