All You Need to Know About Rifle Scopes: A Beginner’s Guide

It is exciting. You have purchased your first hunting rifle in anticipation of deer season. Or your buddies who routinely varmint hunt for coyotes and feral hogs have convinced you to join their ranks. In any case, you have your rifle, but now it is time for a riflescope. How do you find the best riflescope for your new rifle?

A scope uses lenses to magnify the image of your target. A pair of screws called turrets adjust the windage, the side to side placement of the reticle, and elevation, the up and down position of the reticle. The dependability and durability of a rifle’s scope are one of the most important factors to consider when purchasing your first new scope.

Many kinds of optical devices often get lumped together under the term riflescope. This generic term often includes devices such as:

This wide array of different styles and types of scopes is much too broad to cover in a beginner’s guide. For this article, we will assume you are shopping for a traditional optical rifle scope.

Understanding The Rifle Scope

Traditional optical rifles scopes are, at their heart, basic. A single magnification fixed riflescope has a few parts with which to familiarize yourself. The basic parts of a fixed magnification scope include:

  • The scope tube or housing – Riflescopes have a very distinct shape the most people recognize. The long thin metal tube at the center of the scope is usually 30mm or one inch in diameter. The tube size is standardized to make mounting your scope to your rifle easier.
  • The bell or objective lens – One end of your scope is usually much larger in diameter than the rest of your scope. This end of your scope houses the objective lens. The objective lens gathers the light where you are looking.   
  • The eyepiece – On the opposite end of the scope is the eyepiece. The eyepiece holds the final lens and is where the image that you see. This lens may have an adjustment to allow you to finetune the focus of the lends.
  • The turrets – near the middle of the scope are mounted two knobs or screws. These knobs the turrets and adjust the windage and elevation of your scope. Before you take your rifle and scope to the field, you must zero the scope and rifle by adjusting the windage and elevation to make the bullet impact where the riflescope is aiming.
  • The reticle – When you look through your riflescope, you see the reticle. Many people still call this the crosshairs. Long ago, the reticle was two strands of a spider’s web. Today, synthetic materials create the reticle, or, in the case of better scopes, the reticle is etched directly on one of the lenses in the scope.

Scopes can, of course, have many other features and options to increase the scope’s functionality. Parallax adjustments, diopter adjustments, illuminated reticles, and adjustable magnification are some of the more popular feature’s manufacturers add to scopes.

Know your Rifle Before You Shop

Before you even step into the gun store to buy that first scope, you should have a thorough understanding of your rifle and how you intend to use it. I call this fitting the scope to the rifle. Putting the wrong scope on your rifle can often be worse than no scope at all.

For example, if your new rifle is a .22 LR, scopes are made just for this caliber. The light recoil and smaller frames of most .22 rifles allow manufacturers to build rimfire scopes differently to save weight. In addition, most .22 LR rimfire shooters don’t shoot much past 200 yards. There is no need to mount a riflescope meant to withstand the recoil of a large caliber rifle on a .22 LR. 

You may have chosen a leverage action rifle chambered for the popular 30-30 cartridge. The venerable 30-30 is still one of the most popular hunting rifles in the United States. The 30-30 cartridge is dependable and has all the characteristics most hunters need for deer and other game animals.

However, hunters using the 30-30 cartridge know that the range of their rifle is limited. Two hundred yards is a long shot with a 30-30 leverage action rifle. Why put a scope capable of ranging out to one thousand yards on this style of rifle?  You would be wasting money.

Understanding your rifle’s capabilities and the type of hunting you do is a key element in choosing the right scope for your rifle. Your scope should fit your rifle and your shooting expectations.

Buy Quality Before You Buy Features

Scope manufacturers are great marketers. Every scope manufacturer has a take on the extra features, bells, and whistles that they think will entice you to buy their products. Once you have decided which style of scope you need for your rifle, you can focus on features.

All in all, the single feature that should take priority is quality. Quality in a rifle scope is judged in many ways. Some of the more important to me are:

  • Design and construction – The quality of the design and the attention to the manufacturing detail of the scope are two things that must be at the top of your list. It is often difficult to judge the quality of scope by looking. I tend to rely on the manufacturer’s reputation to judge quality. By and large, choosing a well-known and respected company is the best way to ensure that your scope is well-designed and well-made.
  • Optical Glass – Glass quality in your riflescope determines the quality of the images you see in the scope. Cheap glass produces blurry images that often prevent proper focus. Rainbow effects in your scope or dark spots called artifacts can infect your scope if the glass is not high quality. Good manufacturers use quality glass. Quality glass is expensive. You get what you pay for in most cases.
  • Ruggedness and durability – Riflescopes tend to suffer a lot of abuse. As careful as you may be, your rifle scope is going to get dinged, dropped, exposed to rain, and snow, and suffer through some harsh temperature environments. Properly built scopes will endure these tribulations without complaining. 

In the end, finding the riflescope that meets the quality challenges can be difficult. Talk with your local riflescope dealer. Engage your friends who shoot about their experiences with riflescopes. The internet offers the means to read what other users of the scope you are considering about its performance and features.

Features and Options

Once you start shopping seriously for a riflescope, you will find yourself overwhelmed with all the features and options that scope manufacturers offer to grab your attention. Some of these features and options are innovative, while others are simply annoying, in my opinion. A few of the more popular features that scope builders add to entice scope buyers include:

  • Zero stop or return to zero features – I must admit that return to zero or zero stop features is great under certain circumstances. However, I am not sure that most beginning shooters need this advanced function. Return to zero allows you to bring the scope back to the zero point you set at the range after making windage and elevation adjustments in the field. Bringing your scope back to zero can be important to long-range shooters who engage targets are exceptional distances or under extreme conditions.
  • Diopter adjustment – At longer ranges or in scopes with remarkably high magnification, being able to tweak that last bit of focus on the image can be important. As I age and my eyesight slowly becomes less sharp and adaptable, diopter adjustments are nice to have. For most younger hunters and shooters, having diopter adjustments are not critical and may only add to the cost of the riflescope.
  • Parallax adjustments – If you opt for a high power adjustable magnification scope, a parallax adjustment feature may be something for you to consider. Parallax adjustments allow you to keep the reticle in your scope in the same focal plane as the image of your target. Having both in the same focal plane keeps the images crisp and clear in relation to each other and makes accurate shooting easier.
  • Reticle focal plane – As you shop for your new riflescope, you will constantly Abe bombarded with arguments about whether a first focal plane scope or a second focal plane scope is better. My opinion is that it depends. A first focal plane reticle appears to change size as your increase magnification. A second focal plane reticle stays the same size no matter what magnification you are using. Personal preference is the key to this choice.
  • Reticle Style – Every manufacturer has its proprietary take on the different reticles. In general, your choices will be an MOA or Mil-Dot reticle. MOA and il-Dot are measures of distance. Reticles, with a few exceptions, have hash marks on the crosshairs that correspond to the measurement. An MOA scope will have a hashmark on the reticle every MOA. An MOA represents approximately 1.04 inches at 100 yards. Again, personal preference is the guiding factor in this decision.
  • Illuminated reticles – To be honest, I used to chuckle at illuminated reticles. I viewed them as a gimmick to entice customers. As I age, an illuminated reticle begins to make more sense. An illuminated reticle can mean the difference between making a shot or passing up a shot in low-light situations because you can’t see the reticle on the target. Illuminated reticles add weight and complication to the scope because of the battery and mechanics of the illumination system.

Consider Your Budget – The Dollar Factor

Anyone you ask will have a rule about buying a riflescope. Some of the more interesting I have heard include:

  • You should spend the same amount on the scope that you spent on your rifle.
  • Expect to spend more on your scope than you spend on your rifle if you want to get a quality scope.
  • You can’t get a quality scope for less than (insert an amount because the advice you get will vary.)

I typically view this type of advice as uninformed and rather simplified. You can’t judge a scope based on what you paid for a rifle. I know shooters who have invested several thousands of dollars in a single rifle. Their choices of scopes tend to cost much less than the rifle. Can you imagine a rifle that costs $5000 and then expect to spend twice that on a scope?  That assumption is absurd.

Decide on the Features and your Budget then Shop

The best advice I can give is to decide on what features you want in a riflescope, set your budget so you know what you can spend, and shop for the highest quality scope with the features you want that fit into that budget.

There are scope manufacturers in the market who deliver exceptionally fine scopes without budget-breaking prices. The basic takeaway from the budget discussion is to buy the best you can afford. 

Don’t Forget the Accessories

When considering your budget, don’t forget some of the necessary additional parts and accessories you need to buy. You must include these items in your budget as part of your scope purchase.

  • Rings and mounts – Part of the price of your new scope must include the rings and mounts for your scope. Don’t be tempted to skimp on the rings and mounts. You can have the best scope globally, and if the rings won’t hold the scope true, the scope is virtually worthless. 
  • Covers and Lens Protection – Part of keeping a scope operating at peak performance protects the lenses and other parts of the scope. Lens covers are a must. Dust is the number one enemy of the lenses on your scope. Moisture is the second, and a good scope sock or glove will help prevent moisture from destroying your scope.
  • Lens brushes and cloth – I have seen hunters use their jacket sleeves to wipe the lenses of their scopes. I wonder if they don’t realize the damage they are doing. A good lens brush is essential for removing dust and debris from your riflescope lenses without scratching the surface. A lens cloth dedicated to that one purpose is the best way to remove smudges or fingerprints on your scope that a lens brush won’t handle.

Having the proper tools and accessories to protect and maintain your scope should be part of your budget when you purchase the scope. Why risk damaging your expensive optic using tools and accessories that are sub-par.

These are the Basic but by No Means the End

The items I have covered represent the basics of what a first-time buyer needs to know and understand. Experience with your riflescope will teach you more about the intricacies and options you may want to consider in your next scope purchase.  Good luck and good shooting.


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