A couple of weeks ago I was at the range and I felt really silly. I was shooting a Marlin lever-action “guide gun”—very tricked up, but still a .45-70, and I had a big variable scope on it, 30mm tube with large objective. Before you judge, I had a reason for doing this: the rifle seemed to be accurate, so I put a powerful variable on it and turned it all the way up so I could see how well it grouped. I would never hunt with that much glass on such a rifle. Range work done, I took the big scope off, mounted an Aimpoint red-dot sight, and took it pig hunting.
Origin of the Extra-Large Objective Lens Trend
Some years back, extra-large objective lenses were all the rage in rifle scopes, ostensibly for gathering more light. But how much light do you really need? The impetus for this came from Europe, where 56mm objective lenses are fairly common. Yes, with top-quality glass and at least a 30mm tube, larger objective lenses do gather more light. In Europe, “legal shooting hours” are almost unheard of, but artificial lights are rarely used—many European deer and boar hunters rely on bright optics and moonlight.
In the US, however, legal shooting hours are the norm, so how much light do we really need? Also, although 30mm tubes aren’t unusual, one-inch tubes remain the American standard. No matter how big the objective, there’s a limit to how much light you can cram down a one-inch tube.
This trend hasn’t altogether gone away, but these days “normal” objectives of 36mm up to perhaps 44mm are more prevalent. To me that’s good for two reasons:
- There’s no sense in paying for (and carrying) extra glass that does you little good.
- Ultra-large objectives make it difficult to get a good cheek-weld against the rifle. With most rifles, extremely high mounts are required so that the objective lens clears the barrel. Unless the rifle is stocked for a high-mounted scope you have to lift your head to see through the darn thing. The Marlin I shot at the range was stocked perfectly for its supplied ghost-ring aperture. It was fine with the Aimpoint mounted very low, and would have been okay with a “dangerous game” sort of scope with straight objective, but in order to shoot comfortably with that big scope I had to use a strap-on cheekpiece to raise the height of comb.
Bucking the European Trends
The more current trend is toward variables with very high magnification. Mind you, I am all for magnification! About 1.5 generations ago, Jack O’Connor maintained that there was simply no need for a big-game scope with magnification above 4X, and in my youth the fixed 4X was the standard hunting scope. Professor O’Connor made his share of long shots with his “small” scopes, as did I; modern gurus didn’t invent long-range shooting! Back then there was a reason: Variable-power scopes weren’t perfected until the 1970s.
In O’Connor’s day, variables were distrusted; significant shifts in point of impact were common as magnification was adjusted. Even today I have colleagues who insist that 4X is all you need. Technically they are correct, but my first 3-9X scope, acquired in the mid-70s, was an eye-opener. If you can see better you can shoot better, and there’s a confidence factor to a larger image to shoot at. I like magnification—but how much do you really need? (See No. 1 above!)
While it’s nice to have a magnified target at long range, the close-range shot must never be ruled out. That’s why scopes of “about” 3-9X (meaning somewhere between 2-7X and 3.5-10X) have been so popular for so long. At 3X you can’t get into too much trouble even at point-blank range, and on big-game animals at any sane range, isn’t 9X or 10X plenty? Yes, it is, but for many years “three times zoom” was the practical limit of technology. Today, four, five, and six-times zoom is common, yielding greater versatility. For years I was a great fan of the 4.5-14X scope on open-country rifles. Today I’m more likely to mount a 2-12X or larger on a mountain rifle.
Why Use an Optical Sight?
So let’s review quickly exactly why we use optical sights, which include, at this point, red-dot sights:
- They allow the eye to operate in just one focal plane. Superimpose the reticle or lighted dot on the target and squeeze the trigger. Trust me, this is increasingly important as you grow older and your eyesight becomes less sharp!
- They gather light. Quality of glass and coatings are critical, so you can’t compare inexpensive scopes to premium quality, but all things being equal, 30mm tubes gather more light than one-inch tubes, and larger objectives help (but quality helps even more).
- A magnified image is easier to hit. (This excludes the non-magnifying red-dot or reflex sight, of course.)
Numbers 1 and 2, above, should be pretty much accepted, so let’s spend the rest of our time on Number 3. If you can somehow get past any fixation on a huge objective lens, this is really the crux of the matter. I don’t always succeed, but I try hard to match the size and power of the scope—thus its weight, bulk, and cost—to the capabilities of the rifle.
Mind you, at nearly 65, my days with open sights are almost over. My eyes can no longer quickly shift back and forth from rear sight to front sight to target. If the gun fits I’m still okay to 50 or 60 yards, but that’s half what it used to be. I’m better with aperture sights, but the red-dot or reflex sight is a sensible option, and I’ve found that the more you use them, the better you get!
My large-caliber doubles still wear open sights—these days I gotta get close—but I have a new Sabatti 9.3x74R that I wanted to be scoped because it has at least 150-yard capability. I can’t do that with express sights, and on smaller game that’s pushing it with a red-dot sight. So it wears a Leupold VX-R 1.25-4X scope in a Contessa detachable mount. On this rifle 4X really is all the magnification I need, and for up close and personal I can drop down to almost no magnification.
Tailor Your Sights To Your Surroundings
My little piece of Kansas is down in the southeast corner. Farther west the country opens up, but our country is oak-covered ridges, so shots beyond 200 yards are unusual. My go-to whitetail rifle is a custom 7×57 by Todd Ramirez. It’s a very nice rifle and it wears a very nice scope, a Schmidt & Bender, but it has a relatively low magnification at 1.5-6X. That’s plenty of scope on my farm, and a good match for the 7×57. That’s a favorite cartridge of mine, but I don’t use it in big, open country; 6X is plenty for the uses I put that cartridge to. Another 7×57, a Dakota single-shot, wears a Leupold VX-R 2-7x33mm variable, much the same capability.
But let’s be clear: I’m not against magnification, I’m just against more than is needed for the rifle, the cartridge, the game, and the country. Another favorite cartridge is the .270 Winchester. A .270 of mine is most likely to wear a 3-9X or 3.5-10X. I’ve done a fair amount of mountain hunting with that level of scope and it’s generally enough, but I’m also a big fan of .30-caliber magnums.
It depends on the mountains, though; those big Asian mountains are often barren, and average distances open up. When I step up to something like a fast .30 I usually take a step up in scope as well. Leupold’s VX3 4.5-14X was a favorite and it’s a great scope, but in the last decade most of my sheep and goat hunting has been done with a Zeiss Victory 4-12X, a Leupold VX6 2-12X, or, more recently, Leupold’s new VX6 3-18X. On a full-size .300 magnum such scopes don’t look ridiculous, and offer all the magnification one could ever want.
Scopes for “Dangerous Game” Rifles
One last note on matching the scope to the rifle: On a “dangerous game rifle” the tendency is to mount a “dangerous game” or short-range scope, like the 1.25-4X I put on my Sabatti. The low-range variable is fine if the rifle and/or cartridge is limited in range—or if you’re really only going to use it for dangerous game. But if you have an accurate .375 (or .416,) you are limiting the rifle (and your options) if you hamper it with a minimal-powered scope. I’ve been down that road! A .375 is perfectly capable of handling 250-yard shots on smaller antelopes, but a 4X scope makes such shots harder than necessary. At the bottom end you need low magnification in case you get in trouble, but an upper end of at least 6X will offer more versatility. These days I might well use an Aimpoint (no magnification) specifically for buffalo, but for general purpose work I’m much more likely to put a 2-7X on a .416, and I might even put a 3-9X on a .375.
As with most things, choosing the right scope for your rifle is an exercise in balance. You may be tempted to follow the trends and add a bunch of extra-large lenses to your collection, but you need to consider whether you need that much magnification and whether the large scopes will work with your rifle mounts. Where you hunt and the game you hunt can help you determine how much magnification will actually benefit your hunt; if you hunt in a lot of diverse places, having a small collection of scopes may be necessary so you can adapt to your changing surroundings. As I mentioned above, I don’t oppose magnification—I just don’t think hunters should use more than is needed for their specific circumstances. Keep the above advice in mind, and you’ll be one step closer to finding the right scope for your next hunt.
Craig Boddington is one of today’s most respected outdoor journalists. He spent the past forty years exploring our natural world as a hunter and sharing his knowledge and experiences in dozens of books and through thousands of published articles and essays. He’s a decorated Marine, an award-winning author, and continues to be a leading voice for conservation and ethical hunting around the world.
For autographed copies of Craig’s books please visit www.craigboddington.com.