Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Scope Selection...The View from Here, A History.

Its no surprise to my readers that I have some very strong opinions on a variety of shooting implements and among those I hold the strongest opinions on are telescopic sights. I genuinely think this is one area of the shooting sports where we, as a group, are regressing rather progressing. Using our fabulous technology to deliver cotton candy rather than something substantial for the field hunter. Endless numbers of variable power scopes abound in the marketplace while the fixed power scope is only offered by a few manufacturers these days, if you discount the cheap junk models from the good stuff the number of good fixed powers gets perilously thin.  Every time I see some hunter with a ponderous looking telescope perched on top of a rifle I can't help but chuckle, given the path I have been on.

I didn't form my opinion about scopes haphazardly, or even briefly; but rather over a lifetime in the shooting sports. When I put my first telescopic sight on a rifle I was in college. I had grown up shooting the often miserable buckhorn sights found on most of the .22s and .30-30s of my youth- really a relic from a much older time of black powder rifles. My field performance was satisfactory in the big woods though and on the target range I had a solid understanding of the fundamentals so I got by. I had shot a friend's target rifle with a good aperture sight and while I shot phenomenally with it, I wouldn't be satisfied until I had a scope sight.

O'Connor had affected my mind while I eagerly read his articles waiting on the barber as a child.

That first scope sight was a used affair purchased from another friend in dire need of beer money for a hot date. In college, I believe we were all in dire need of money for most things and while I typically eschewed beer, my ammo budget was overwhelming my meager wages while also paying for school. I think it cost me something on the order of a precious $20 bill and I want to say it was a Tasco but the exact make escapes me now. What I do know is that it was a fixed 4x with decent optics and while I would turn my (snobbish) nose up at it today; when I mounted it to my autoloading .22 my shooting went from good to unbelievable. Among my peers I immediately overshadowed Davy Crockett and Daniel Boone with my prowess. Certainly we were a bunch of neophytes but as they say- "In the land of the blind- the one eyed man is King!"

And it felt good to be King.

Sometime around my junior year of college I had been working more and making more and, conversely, going to school less and less- I scraped together enough for my first bolt action rifle in .30-06. Feeling somewhat cash flush from a great construction season I decided I must mount it with a telescopic sight and according to the masses, that scope simply had to be a variable. My shots were typically short but I liked the ability to turn that scope up on the range and stack bullet on top of bullet. Never mind that my actual hunting suffered- hampered by a much too large, much too dim, and much too imprecise scope in the dark oak woods. I still felt like the King, but it was short lived. After about 60 rounds that low end variable failed to hold zero and I replaced it with another just like it. I was King but a hard headed one apparently.

Fast forward many years and many scopes later, I was outfitting a new rifle with a scope- a variable of course- and I decided I must have one of the new "BDC" type reticules. Something to make holdover easier on those long distance shots. Never mind that I never shot past 300 yards and my .308 was perfectly capable of shooting point of aim to that distance-  marketing hype is a powerful force in the shooting game. After mounting the scope and reading the reticule instructions I began to realize that this scope was certainly a fiddly thing, requiring much calculating and much adjusting to make the BDC feature work correctly. Little did I know that the following year that scope would cost me two animals.

That following year I was roaming the tundra when I happened on a small band of caribou across a small lake. I dropped to prone after being spotted and began the routine of bracketing my selected animal with the appropriate crosshair and then trying to make the mental calculations to select the correct power ring setting to calibrate the crosshair... needless to say the nervous caribou weren't in the mood to watch my fidgety motions and started to move farther away, forcing me to readjust my aiming solution and scope setting until at last they were far out of range for my .308. Later, after trailing the animals I learned the initial shot was a mere 150 yards. Although it looked farther because of the intervening water it was an easy shot to make with irons, much less a scope sighted rifle. The simple thing would have been to put the crosshair on the vitals and squeeze the trigger.

The following month had me trailing a wolf with the same rifle- trying to get a solution dialed in while he moved away at around 250 yards. Tired of fooling with the scope I turned it up to 10x and started shooting. After the second miss he turned on the afterburner and disappeared over the far ridge in bounding leaps. I think I stopped shooting when the magazine ran dry. Frustration!

That was enough for me.

I devoured everything I could read on scopes, I had flubbed two relatively easy shots with a top shelf variable scope on a rifle of known MOA accuracy. I was a good shot and I knew it- a lifetime of hunting and dead critters coupled with targets littered with tight clusters of .308 diameter holes gave proof to that. My wildly successful hunting with my .22 (also topped with a variable) gave me pause. Except for the time spent on the target range, that scope never left 2.5x. I also noticed that despite my scope's impeccable pedigree- the point of impact moved as I changed power settings. I was head shooting piles of rabbits and grouse at the time and noticed that the more I dialed up the power, the more I missed. At 2.5x at 50 yards the rabbit was as good as in the pot. At 8x there was a very good chance he'd bound off with nothing more severe than a haircut and a bad case of fright.

The following year I was outfitting another rifle with a scope- this one a .300 Magnum, flat shooting and powerful. Remembering the fiascoes of the previous season's fiddling with that BDC scope I resisted temptation to put that rather expensive scope on my new tack driving .300. I went and did something that my shooting companions outright scoffed at- I put a simple fixed 4x of good quality on that rifle. I admit that I chose the 4x based on other merits, mainly weight, as I wanted the lightest and most compact scope on my new "sheep gun" I could get. Testing my options, the heavier scope ruined the balance of such a light rifle and a foray through 5000 vertical feet has anyone wanting to drop any ounce they reasonably could. The recoil on that rifle was also something fierce and I found I could mount the 4x (without the attendant power ring) much farther forward and eliminate the chance of (another) crescent shape scar over my right eyebrow. The habit of crawling the stock is something I've never been able to break despite being hit by several eyepieces and I find that I must mount to the scope as far forward as possible in order to get away from it. A couple of rifles I simply couldn't get away from and I sold the whole works as soon as I was able.

I also noticed afterward that my field shooting improved. My rifle went from "manual focus" to "point and click". I zeroed the rifle for a 200 yard zero and at any distance out to 300 yards I simply assumed whatever position I wanted to shoot from and without appreciable delay, hit the target. Not only was I shooting great groups from the bench (a practice I was soon to abandon), my field shooting was superb- quick and accurate hits from field positions to beyond the distance I would even think of shooting game. I hunted with that 4x for three years until a nasty spill on a rock face ruptured the gas seal mid-season; hopelessly fogged it was sent back for repair. A quick visit to "Wilderness Hook and Bullet" resulted in a single fixed power on the shelf- a 6x. It was quickly mounted on the rifle and accounted for two animals later that season.

After those incidences my variable power scopes have all but disappeared from my safe, particularly on field rifles- replaced with fixed powers in appropriate magnifications for the rifle and tasks it needs to perform. My hunting .22 now wears a 2.5x- trim and light and perfectly deadly on small game to the limits of the .22LR and beyond. My .308 wears the 4x- now good as new and perfectly suited to the range and game afforded by the mild Winchester cartridge. My .300 still wears that 6x- an outstanding combination for mountain and tundra hunting. My 30-30 still wears open sights as I can't bring myself to ruin the lines of a lever gun with an abomination of a scope in its days of semi retirement.

So there is the tale- 25 plus years in the making, coming full circle back to where I started.

And happy about it.


Unknown said...

Great read and you make some very good points. It is definitly something to look at! Thanks

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

Interesting post
My own far more limited experience echos your conclusions. My next scope will be fixed and red dot for the darkness of the squirrel woods.

A question of cost?
A friend who I'm taking my Deer Management ticket with suggests a ratio of '£50 rifle £750 scope' your thoughts?


hodgeman said...

SBW- a rifle, scope and mounts must be looked at as a single system and it is only as good as the weakest link. Mounts are often overlooked, BTW.

I'd rather have a cheap rifle and a great scope than vice versa.

I do think you can really overspend on a scope these days though- particularly with European glass. I don't hunt after dark like they do on the Continent so I don't really need the huge objective lenses that Europeans seem to favor.

With optics I'd spend the bulk of my money on binoculars (which I use constantly) and buy a serviceable, good quality fixed power scope (which I'll use for 15 seconds on a properly conducted hunt).

The rule of thumb I use is about 1/2 the cost of the rifle goes into the scope and mounts and that seems to get me to the right ratio of quality to serviceability between the two.

That's here in the U.S. though- I imagine the U.K. pricing structure is different so your mileage may vary.

hodgeman said...

@SBW again... I genuinely like the Leupold line of fixed power scopes that are available here for $300-$400 US.

The Schmidt and Bender 4x looks awesome but it is $1000+ US and I'm not sure its really that much better than the Leupold in the field. I've also used Nikon, Burris, and Zeiss in their fixed power offerings with good result.

The Suburban Bushwacker said...

A very good point about the ratio of use between hand glass and gun glass.

off to have a look down the back of the sofa for the £1500 and change! LOL

Ian Nance said...

One of the best pieces I've read on scopes in a long while.