With a noticeable German accent, he announced to all present “Zees ist the Ultimate Disappointing Rifle!” Pretty bold statement. “Well, what is the problem with it?” he was asked. “Eet shoots terrible groups.”
The rifle was a beautiful CZ bolt action with an equally pretty German scope sitting on top. The gentleman had come to Safari Shooting School for a tune-up before a safari, and the CZ was to be his plains game rifle – but it wasn’t performing. He was in a quandary. We cleaned the bore, checked the screws for tightness, and tried different loads, all with no improvement. “Let’s swap out your scope.” Guess what? Beautiful groups.
He had a very popular make and model of a well known German scope on that rifle and if you show up at Safari Shooting School with one like it on your rifle, we will recommend you change it out before your safari – we have seen that many of them fail. I’m sure their failure rate is in the single digits, but it’s still the highest we’ve seen. Now, this is a fluke. Virtually all the European glass is top quality, but this one model has presented more problems than any scope we’ve seen (bear in mind we haven’t seen one Bushnell Banner, BSA or similarly priced scope come through the gates). Please don’t misunderstand me, without a doubt, most of the German optics are the safest bet for a failsafe riflescope – even from this manufacturer, but not this model.
Any scope can fail, but by far, the vast majority do just fine. This brings up what should be the PRIME CONSIDERATION in selecting a riflescope – dependability. The brightest, clearest scope with the latest in bullet drop compensation and an illuminated reticle is useless if it doesn’t place the bullet where indicated – every time. So how do you get “dependable”? Here’s a 3-step plan that is the best guarantee I know to ensure a dependable scope.
Spend the Money. Recall last month my Second Law of Optics – You Get What You Pay For. If you’re going on a $40,000 safari, $8,000 elk hunt or even a $3,000 management buck hunt in South Texas, don’t bet the hunt on a $100 scope. Good scopes usually start around $300 (the good ole Leupold 3x9) and go up from there. If you’re going on the $40,000 safari, you may want to start higher than $300. The more you spend, the more you’ll get, not only in dependability, but also in image quality and features like reticles, materials, and lens coatings.
Ask Around. Talk with experienced shooters that have used several brands of scopes. There are many members of DSC that fit this category, and even if they have only used a few brands, they probably have years of experience with those brands and can give you a good opinion. Guides and PH’s are another good source – they have seen what works and what doesn’t. Whatever you do, be very wary of the counter man at the local sporting goods store or the big box stores. How many safaris, or guided hunts for that matter, has he been on? They’re pushing what they’ve been told to push or has an extra commission built in. We’re looking for good sources of information here.
While you’re at it, you also have to make some decisions about magnification, field of view, objective lens and reticles. We’re looking for the right tool for the job. Is this a specialty rifle for prairie dogs or buffalo? Is the scope going on your general purpose gun such as a .270 or .300 mag? This is the time to keep my First Law of Optics in mind – There Is No Free Lunch. Too much magnification costs you field of view, brightness and versatility. Too large of an objective lens costs you in gun fit and weight. Not enough magnification and your reticle will totally cover up a prairie dog at 400 yards. When asking around about scopes, be sure to also ask about these items, too. Who better than a sheep hunter to tell you about a scope for sheep hunting? Avoid extremes. Do you really need 16x for deer hunting (maybe you need a spotting scope instead)? “Well, my deer lease has a 10 point minimum.” You do need a spotting scope, and perhaps a good 3-9x or 4-12x scope once you have determined that a buck is worth taking.
Prove It. Ok, you made the purchase and have your new gem mounted on your rifle. Step 3 is to sight it in, then put 200 rounds through your rifle. This accomplishes several things. If it’s still putting bullets through the same group after 200 rounds, you got a winner. You have also field-proven your gun, gotten some good practice and proven that you mounted your scope properly. With that said, let me expand on this 200 round drill a little bit. First, either mount the scope using the directions that came with the rings and bases (degrease the screws, use loc-tite, etc) or have a gunsmith do it – he’s a craftsman. Don’t let the guy at the sporting goods store do it. Once this guy gets your scope on, he’s got to close out the cash register, fill the Coke machine, sweep up, then go pick up Rachel for a hot date – he ain’t thinking about your scope. Once you’re sighted in, get off the bench and get some real practice. Shoot offhand, shoot with shooting sticks, put your butt on the ground and shoot off your knees. Fill the magazine and run them through while making good shots. Use different loads to find what your gun likes. When you’re through, not only are you a better shooter, but if your gun or scope has a potential problem, you’ll know by then. That’s dependable.
If things aren’t working out, maybe you need to swap out the scope…and re-do the drill.
Now that we have a dependable scope with the right features for the task at hand, what are some of the in’s and out’s of it’s use? Understand that while a scope will help you see the target better, it will not improve accuracy. A gun is only as accurate as the load, shooter and gun itself can be. The biggest, baddest scope around won’t make that old .30-30 lever gun a tack driver.
Whenever you travel, always check zero on your scope. Even a dependable scope can get knocked around in baggage, on a horse or in the truck. If you take a spill and the gun hits the ground, check it out before it costs you a trophy. A one or two dollar cartridge is a cheap insurance policy.
Sight your scope in for the game and terrain you will be hunting. For a general purpose big game rifle it’s hard to beat sighting in for 2 inches high at 100 yards. Figuring an 8-10 inch kill zone on most animals, this sighting allows you to hold dead-on out to about 250 yards and on the top of the back out to 300 yards. Beyond that, get closer, or …
…the bullet drop compensating reticle has become popular in recent years and if you will do your homework, they can be very useful. Your homework is to actually check at what distances those extra crosshairs are accurate for your gun/load. If you’re shooting a 7x57 with 175 grain bullets, that 300 yard crosshair may actually be accurate for 250 yards and you may need to use the 400 yard line for shooting a 320 yard target. Just the opposite may be true for the Ultra Mags and such. Do your homework, then you’ll know. That’s dependable.
A true Mil-Dot reticle can be very accurate, but they are damned hard to understand and literally require you to take a calculator with you. Their strongest feature is their range finding ability. A milliradian, or mil is 3.41 minutes of angle or 3.6 inches at 100 yards at a predetermined scope magnification setting. From there, you can estimate range if there is something of a known size at that range. Now the calculator comes out… Just get a laser rangefinder and use the BDC reticle. You’ll be happier.
What I believe is the slickest solution to long range shooting is that some scope companies are starting to offer custom turrets for their scopes. You provide the exact load information you will be using, the gun, cartridge, bullet weight, barrel length, expected temperature, etc, etc, and they will provide you with turrets that when set to zero at 100 yards, you simply dial in the range and wind drift with the turrets and your scope should be dead on! I believe Leupold is offering this now, and one company whose scopes I carry, Vortex Optics, plans to have it available soon. If you’re going to shoot way out there, this may be the best option for hunters. But if you are going to take long shots, know what you are doing and practice – you owe it to the animal you’re shooting at! You be as dependable as your gun and scope.
Ultimately, a scope has but one critical job – to tell you where your bullet will hit, plus or minus a minute of angle or so, at a predetermined distance. After that, it’s your job to hold the gun steady on that point while you work the trigger. If you can’t do it, don’t blame your scope!