How to Choose a Rifle Scope - Basic and Advanced Selection Guide

Choosing the perfect rifle scope should be a need-based process. The following article is all about; How to choose a rifle scope.

The field of quality optics available for competitive shooting or hunting applications is an ever-expanding market. Manufactures continue to pump out models of every size and magnification imaginable.

New players with brilliant innovations and advanced technologies enter the market in droves.

Choosing the right scope and technology for your shooting or hunting application is going to be a daunting task.

Start with the internet.

Scope builders post every model with extensive specs on their website for review. Hundreds of review sites tell how the scope performs under a variety of conditions.

choose a rifle scope for ar15

Rifle Scope on an AR

First things first; define your short and long term needs first: 

Ask yourself the following questions before going to choose a rifle scope.

Do you need a scope for hunting, competitive shooting, or maybe home-defense.

  • Competitive shooting; How far out is the first target? Or last? What is the maximum range of all targets, On average?
  • Home defense; If the owner is protecting a large parcel of land, a rifle scope may be needed. How large is the parcel at the farthest distance? Most home defense applications do not require a scope
  • Hunting is always an ideal reason for having a quality optic. What are you hunting? Are you in a tree stand looking down at a 50-yard whitetail? Or is the hunting, big game at long distance?

Vortex Nation is undoubtedly one of the best shooter oriented podcasts and information networks available. Here is an extensive podcast; Episode 116, Choosing the right rifle scope. 

This episode is well over an hour, so get a cup of coffee and enjoy.

Tips on Purchasing A Rifle Scope

How much magnification do you need?

One of the significant aspects of the current rifle scope market, there are all types of configurations and magnification levels for any application.

What should your magnification level be for the distance you are shooting?

adjusting magnification on a rifle scope

Adjusting Magnification

Brief Refresher Course on Magnification

Numbers to the left of the X in a rifle scope represents how much bigger the target appears than compared to the naked eye. A 4X designation means the target will be 4 times larger in the image of the scope.

Those numbers are only guidelines, but they can get you started shopping.

The following tips will help choose a magnification range:


If you have a carbine, look for a scope in the 3X to 9X range. This magnification is strong enough for most recreational hunters.

Some manufactures have scopes starting a 1X going to 9X. A 1X setting means there is no magnification at all; it is a direct line of sight. Any scope setting below 10X is suitable for off-hand hunting and short distance targeting.


12X to 20X magnifications are for open spaces and shots longer than 600 yards. As a rule of thumb, choose a scope with greater than a 10X range if your firing position is prone or bench targeting.

Do not pay for more magnification than you need. Shooting experts agree; any setting greater than 20X for whitetail and similar animals is a waste.

Purchasing a rifle scope with too much magnification usually results in a badly missed shot. Shots that miss the mark often means inhumane hunting.

Most shooters need less magnification, not more!

Do I need a Fixed or Variable Scope?

On average, most variable rifles scopes cost more than a fixed scope. The main reason for the increased cost is a variable scope is more complex with more powerful technology—the greater the magnification range, the greater the cost.

Find the right scope for your needs, with as little magnification as possible. Take the money you save on magnification and variable or fixed costs, and spend it on better construction.

The question you need to ask yourself; How often will you shoot at your highest chosen magnification setting?

quick detach scope mount reticle view
  • Consider a fixed high-powered scope for long-range hunting and competitive shooting scenarios.
For cost-effectiveness, go with a fixed scope, opt for a variable scope if you have long-range applications.

What basic construction features should I look for?

Rifle scopes from builder to builder share much of the same technologies and construction elements. A few OEM vendors carry out much of the construction from top tier scope companies.

The real nuts and bolts technologies are handled in house by their research and development divisions.

Scope tubes are going to be either argon or nitrogen purged for keeping the insides free of moisture. Most scopes tubes are suitable for mid-range hunting and competitive shooting environments.

If you hunt in extremes like Alaskan Big Game hunts, check the manufactures website for the best configurations.

If you live in extreme weather, another feature to check for is the finish. Make sure it is hard-anodized and has a solid matte or scratch resistant surface.

Give the scope a once over and see how the overall fit and finish meshes with your setup.

Rifle Scope Design

The performance of a rifle scope is impacted by a variety of different features and designs. Another huge consideration to have in mind is the purpose for which the scope was manufactured for. 

Here is a list different types of rifle scopes available in the market:

         Fixed Power Scopes: 

  • These scopes have a fixed magnification level, which means that you cannot adjust the magnification of the scope. These are typically simpler in design, more affordable, and have a better image quality than variable scopes.

    Variable Power Scopes: 
  • These scopes allow you to adjust the magnification level according to your needs. For example, you can zoom in on your target for long-range shots, or zoom out for close-range shots. These scopes are more versatile than fixed power scopes, but can be more complex and expensive.

    Red Dot Scopes: 
  • These scopes project a red dot onto the target, which allows you to quickly and easily aim at your target. They are typically used for short-range shooting and are ideal for fast-moving targets.

    Holographic Scopes: 
  • Similar to red dot scopes, holographic scopes use a hologram to project a reticle onto the target. They offer better accuracy and precision than red dot scopes, making them ideal for close to medium-range shooting.

    Night Vision Scopes: 
  • These scopes are designed to work in low light conditions and are ideal for hunting or shooting in the dark. They use infrared technology to enhance the image, allowing you to see your target clearly in low light conditions.

    Thermal Scopes:
  • These scopes use thermal imaging technology to detect heat signatures, allowing you to see your target even in complete darkness. They are ideal for hunting or shooting at night and are often used by law enforcement or military personnel.

    Long-Range Scopes: 
  • These scopes are designed for long-range shooting and typically have high magnification levels and large objective lenses. They allow you to see your target clearly at long distances and are ideal for precision shooting.

Each type of scope has its own advantages and disadvantages, so it's important to choose the one that best suits your needs and shooting style.

Rifle Scope Construction - What to Look For

Main Tube

A majority of rifle scope tubes built today measure 34mm, 30mm, or 1 inch in diameter. The larger the tube, the more adjustment range a shooter has. Larger tube sizes also increase durability

For cost-effectiveness, go with a fixed scope, opt for a variable scope if you have long-range applications.

Cost is also a factor; larger tubes require costlier bases and rings. If the shooter hunts worldwide, a 1-inch scope tube is an ideal, durable size. If the shooter is an every weekend hunter, try a 30mm tube, which overall, the costs are much less.

Without question, the scope should be argon or nitrogen purged to eliminate internal fogging. Make sure the tube is shock and waterproof.

Vortex Optics Viper

Objective lens on modern rifle scopes come in a variety of sizes, from 20mm to 72mm. If you are hunting in low-light conditions, it may be wise to purchase a larger lens.

The idea here; a larger opening allows more light through the tube, also improving resolution.

It is essential to check the distance between the scope's bell housing and your rifle barrel. 50mm lens or larger housings require mounting higher on the rifle.

The concern; scope to eye alignment and the positioning of a cheek weld. A comfortable firing position is vital to consistent accuracy. AR-style rifles can be problematic.

If your hunting takes you deep into the woods, a larger objective lens can be heavier and bulkier to carry.

As a rule of thumb, an objective lens in the 40mm to 44mm size is adequate for most hunting applications. Do not opt for a larger lens at the sacrifice of quality glass.


Modern rifle scopes contain a variety of lenses, each coated to protect it from the environment. The quality of the glass is related to the amount of money a shooter wants to spend on their scope.

Even the cheapest scopes have good optics.

  • The objective lens is the lens farthest from the shooter. Its essential purpose is to transmit all captured light to the magnification assembly.

The target image is sent through a magnification lens back to the ocular assembly. Some scope builders use multiple magnification lens for a clearer image.

Scope builders take great care with this lens. The objective lens surface has the best overall coating properties.

Brightness is a direct reflection on glass quality, not just its size. Impurities in the glass and how the builder processes the product affects the clarity of the final image that reaches the shooter's eye.

Always search out quality rifle scope glass that improves target image light transmission and prevents glare.

  • The erector assembly houses two lenses that flip the image to its correct orientation. This assembly may also house a magnification lens in a variable power scope. A magnification lens has vital but straightforward functions.

    As magnification is lowered, the lens is pushed back towards the ocular assembly. As magnification increases, the reverse is true. Once the image is flipped properly and magnified correctly, it is sent back through to the ocular lens and its assembly.
  • The ocular lens is vital to the shooter. The ocular lens takes the target image, magnifies, and focuses it for presentation to the shooter. A vital point to consider; the diameter of the ocular lens determines eye relief.

    If you are firing light rounds in a long barrel with no recoil, eye relief can be 3.5 inches and shorter. If the shooter is expecting heavy recoil from magnum shells, the more eye relief, the better.

    The average eye relief for most scopes is between 3.6 and 4 inches.
ar10 range shooting with scope

Brief Refresher Eye Relief 

  • Eye relief is defined as the distance between the ocular lens and the shooter's eye. As stated above, the average is somewhere around 4 inches depending on the rifle, cartridge, and the shooter's comfort level. Eye relief is set up when the scope is mounted, and all hunting conditions should be accounted for.
  • Another term that needs to be mentioned is the sight picture. When a shooter looks at the ocular lens with the proper eye relief, there should be a clear edge to edge image. Without proper alignment, all the shooter sees is a bright dot or a fuzzy image. Again, this is a fundamental consequence of proper setup when mounting the scope.

Another fundamental feature to look for in rifle scopes is the types of coating for its glass. If you are a competitive shooter firing from the prone position or off a bench rest, heavy coatings may not be needed.

Hunters who hike long distances or shoot from tree stands will find a need for the best protection money can buy. Quality and types of coatings determine the clarity of the image

Focal Plane

Two options exist when choosing where the reticle (cross-hair) is positioned, First Focal Plane or Second Focal Plane:

  • Inside a scope, different assemblies carry out essential functions. One of the most critical is the erector assembly. This vital part houses the reticle and is attached to the turrets.

    When you change the settings by way of the turret, you are moving the erector assembly. A second focal plane scope is the most common configuration. SFP scopes have the reticle positioned behind the magnification lens.

    With a reticle in the second focal plane position, the target image increases and decreases with each change in margination. The reticle stays the same size; therefore, subtensions are continually changing.

If you are using a compensating trajectory reticle, for accurate holdover and ranging, a specific magnification setting should be used. The least expensive design is a scope in the second focal plane.

  • Competitive shooters and long-distance hunters prefer a scope with its reticle in the first focal plane position. With this setup, the reticle is placed in front of the magnification lens. 

    The target image is unchanged through each magnification setting. FFP scopes have very consistent ranging, holdover, and windage corrections.


These small pieces of etched glass are fascinating technologies within a rifle scope. Years ago, a scope's reticle was nothing more than a crosshair etched on glass. Now, there are thousands of designs and materials for every type of shooting application.

Reticles take the guesswork out of ranging, hold-overs, and wind. Another critical option when choosing the right reticle is its illumination. Every hunter encounters low-light situations, not just dusk or dawn.

Cloud cover and inclement weather can cause low-light. An illuminated reticle is an answer.

Most premier scope builders design and produce their range of reticles based on the scope.

Within the last several years, third-party vendors have produced high tech reticles for a variety of builders. Horus is the most well-known of these vendors.

Reticle Designs

  • BDC or bullet drop compensator reticles were made famous and practical by Nikon, Leupold, and Burris. A BDC reticle predicts how much a bullet will drop at a given range.

    The reticle accomplishes this by displaying different aiming points stacked vertically under a centerline.
  • Standard duplex is suitable for most hunting environments and game. The duplex design starts off broader on its edges and thins out closer to the center.

    A duplex design helps the shooter with quicker targeting acquisition. Thick bars at the perimeter allows for quick acquisition, with the thinner lines providing precise targeting.
  • Christmas Tree has a similar look of a Christmas tree. Hash marks increase at every mark on the 6 o'clock cross-hair.

    This design accommodates wind drift because of the effects of velocity when shooting at long-range.
  • Cross-hairs is the classic look of a reticle that has been upgraded through the years. This design is a single vertical and horizontal line intersecting at their centers.

    The cross-hairs offer maximum ease of use with pinpoint precision. It should be noted, unless quality materials are used, cross-hairs are prone to breaking.
CVLIFE 4x32 Tactical Rifle Scope Red & Green &Blue Illuminated Reticle Scope with Fiber Optic Sight - reticle view

Christmas Tree Style Reticle

One last consideration when choosing a reticle design is the type of measurements you want to use.

 In the last couple of years, these measurements have become quite sophisticated and geared toward specific types of shooting—the design you choose is vitally crucial to consistent accuracy.

For outstanding shooting and accuracy, learn either MOA or Mil-Dot.

  • MOA is an angular measurement based on a minute of angle. The angular measurements estimate range and bullet drop. 1 MOA corresponds to 1.05 inches at 100 yards, 2.1 inches, and 200 yards, and so on.
  • Mil-Dot reticle design is based on military specs. This design refers to a pattern of duplex cross-hairs. These reticles have four small .25 diameter dots placed along a vertical and horizontal axis. Distance between centers of any two adjacent dots equals 1 mil, which is about 36 inches at 1000 yards.
  • Either design of reticle, MOA or Mil-Dot, is highly capable. The best choice boils down to personal preference and how that design intersects with your type of shooting or hunting.


Adjustment knobs on the top and sides of your scope are often overlooked for flashier options. However, remember these knobs correct your elevation and windage for accurate shots. Manufactures have greatly improved turret design and feel.

Rifle scope elevation adjustments

Turret Adjustments on a Scope

There are turret designs offered by a few third-party vendors; however, scope builders have vastly improved designs and have the best designs.

Higher-end scopes have precise adjustments based on MOA or a Mil-Dot reticle. Adjustments are usually ¼ MOA or ¼ MIL-Dot.

Cheaper scopes start their adjustments at ½ MOA and so on.

Types of Turrets

Scope turrets are not universal. Scope builders have their own set of design principles on the interface with its erector assembly. Turrets are affected by purpose, price, and manufacture.

  • The most precise set of controls on the market are target turrets. They are the oldest set of turret style in the industry. Target turrets allow the shooter to make small and precise adjustments and are characterized by height. These turrets are most commonly available in MOA adjustments. Hunters may want to search for a better set than target turrets.
  • Ballistic style turrets let the shooter make larger adjustments. Tactical shooters and quick acquisition hunters prefer ballistic turrets. The ballistic style turret is capped, preventing accidental changes. Ballistic turrets are used for distance targeting, measured in yards and meters.
  • Fingertip has been designed to make quick, easy adjustments without special tools. Fingertip style turrets are add-ons for ballistic or targeting turrets.
  • Coin style turrets are the most basic style of adjustment knobs. They get the name from coins that can be used to make adjustments. Coin style turrets have small indentations that can fit most scopes and adjustment tools.

The tactile feel of a turret has improved as well. Knobs have better ridges and precise clicks, telling the shooter the exact change without having to look. Ridges are raised so shooters with gloves can make changes.

adjusting your rifle scope

Another fascinating feature of advanced turret designs is the adjustments available hidden beneath turret knobs. Builders hide back to zero, and hard stops along with other controls.

Bases, Mounts, and Rings

When they first arrive, rifle scopes look great sitting in the box. However, after a few hours or minutes, it is time to put that scope on a rifle.

Hopefully, you ordered a base and rings came with that new scope. If not, here are some suggestions and ideas to help.

Bases and rings, without proper installation, can be the weakest link in an otherwise excellent shooting system.

Once a base or rings have been installed, the shooter should never have to worry about a loose-fitting. The following are the elements of a good shooting setup.

  • A fixed system is precisely that, once installed, the scope cannot be removed. If there is additional equipment that the shooter wants to install later, extensions are available.
  • Detachable systems are the most flexible, and shooters opt for detachable components because of their convenience. Another factor, if there are two or three rifles, the shooter can move the scope quickly.
  • Bases are offered in either a one-piece or two-piece design. A one-piece base resists the forces of recoil better; however, the position of the base may interfere with chamber loading and shell ejection.
best vortex rifle scope on a rifle

Weaver and Picatinny rails accommodate cross-bolts on matching rings. Angled edges provide a way for clamping the rings.

Talley bases are similar, but they are machined to accept the entire foot.

Windage adjustable bases are for the rear only and have opposing screws for centering the rings. Proprietary bases are used on rifles from manufacturers, including Sako and Ruger.

  • Rings are designed to match specific base styles like Picatinny or Weaver. Rings are split horizontally or vertically, and the bottom half is what engages with the base. Rings come in 1 inch, 30mm or 34mm sizes.

Choose a ring style with the lowest height possible while giving the shooter a comfortable firing position. Keep the scope as close to the barrel as possible; this assists with proper eye alignment and cheek weld.

  • Ring height is another consideration for the shooter. Rings come in low, medium, and high styles.

    To select the correct ring height, calculate half of the cope's widest point. (usually the objective bell housing) Select the ring height that is slightly more than half of your scopes widest point.

Make sure the ring clears the barrel when it is mounted. Most shooters want to fit their scope with the least amount of clearance above the barrel.

This preference helps with the line of sight and gives better results when changing distances.


Different types of rifle scopes

There you have it, a guide for finding the right scope for your application.

Above all else, it is essential to know precisely your style of hunting or shooting before making a purchasing decision.

There is no better thrill than seeing a shot land at 1000 or 2000 yards through a 25X scope. In reality, how many times are you going to be hunting at those distances?

As I stated before, most shooters and weekend hunters need less magnification, Not More!

The best scope builders in the world offer a variety of prices and features. There is nothing wrong with dreaming about those long-range shots. When it is time to decide, step back, visit reality, and make the best decision for you.

For other rifle and scope types check:

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George Grey

Being an avid outdoorsman since I can remember, my passion for survival, hunting and the outdoors has grown every year. I love being out in the country and living off it whenever time allows. Huge Rifle Scopes aficionado!

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