Over the years, Nightforce scopes have evolved into one of the premier tactical rifle scope makers in the world. They continue to develop their product line to fit the niches of both the tactical shooting world as well as the competition shooters. They have even recently made a move into the general hunting segment with their SHV line of scopes. They have come a long way from their standard NXS line of scopes, which still are very good, and many of their newer models are even made in the USA. We have reviewed several of their scopes and have always come away impressed and we even reviewed an early ATACR scope. But with their many new models hitting the shelves now, we wanted to take a look at one of their newer offerings to see how their upgrades have changed the scope and to also see where they now stand among the leaders in the field. This time around we decided to take a look at their new ATACR 4-16x42mm F1 with a MIL-R reticle. As many of you readers know, we do not like overscoping a rifle, which is very common these days, and we prefer the mid powered scopes on tactical rifles due to their numerous advantages over extremely high magnification scopes. The 4-16x range is a very good zoom range to cover and it affords very effective sniping use out to nearly a mile.
Nightforce scopes have always come packaged extremely well in a large, very protective box. Back in the day the boxes used to be a long triangle box, but now they are a traditional rectangle. Inside the box the scope is joined by an owners manual, several stickers, the little red accessories baggy with cleaning cloth inside, several envelopes with the warning “Do Not Discard” and the Allen wrenches used for slipping the rings. It is actually somewhat interesting to note that typically the more expensive the scope, such as Schmidt & Bender, Hensoldt, the cheaper the scope box is and the skimpier the provided documentation. Not so with the Nightforce scopes. They do a good job providing useful documentation and accessories that are important for their use…and lots of stickers to promote the brand.
The standard NXS scopes have always included a sunshade, but that is not the case with these “higher end” ATACR scopes. Though the ATACR does come with the fancy Nightforce flip up scope caps that rotate, which we will talk about later in this writeup. Additionally, we like seeing the script along the top of the scope “Made in the U.S.A.”. Obviously there are wonderful scope makers outside of the USA, but it is nice to see additional high quality scopes come from factories located here.
If you have ever used a Nightforce NXS scope, then the eyepiece will look very familiar to you. One of the niggles that people, including us, have dinged the NXS scopes for was that the entire eyepiece rotates when the power is changed. This made it a pain to use the typical flip up scope caps that generally all snipers used for protecting the lens of their scopes when not in use. Nightforce always claimed the rotating eyepiece was done for increased durability and ruggedness, of which Nightforce scopes have always been known for. We are not engineers here so we cannot comment with any sort of authority as to whether that is true or not, but we assume that it is just from the logic of the fewer part count. The old Burris XTR scopes were the same way and Burris went away from that design when they redid those scopes a few years ago… but not Nightforce. At least not with the ATACR scopes. Their compact series went to a separate zoom ring, but this ATACR still rotates the entire eyepiece when the zoom power is changed.
Nightforce decided to stick with their desire for the ultimate durability with these scopes and instead designed, or had designed, some flip up scope caps that actually rotate so that when the zoom is changed, it is trivial to just twist the scope cap to what ever orientation you want. This is the case on both the front and rear caps. They are more bulky than the slimmer, and much cheaper, butler creek caps that so many people use, but it allows them to keep their solid eyepiece and for it to shut up people like us and keep us from complaining.
The eyepiece itself is actually quiet large and robust and a lot of that size comes from the diameter of the eyepiece which itself is dictated by the tube size, 34mm in this case. The larger tube diameters that have become popular on the high end scopes such as these, allows the engineers to get even more adjustment range from the scopes as well as some additional strength from the tube. This, of course, plays into Nightforce’s design goals. Toward the front of the eyepiece, and before the zoom power markings, there is a eyepiece locking ring that is used to lock the eyepiece in place when adjusting the dioptre adjustment to focus the reticle to be sharp for your particular eyes. The entire eyepiece rotates when adjusting the reticle focus, much like a Leupold, and it is what is considered a “slow focus eyepiece”, meaning it uses fine threads and takes several rotations of the eyepiece to see any noticeable difference. It may be slow, but it is precise and durable.
Just in front of the locking ring are the markings for the zoom power which ranges from 4x – 16x (No surprise there). The spacing is nice and wide and the markings are large and very visible and even tilt slightly toward the operator to aide in seeing what the zoom power is set to. Just in front of the numbers is a knurled portion of the zoom ring that can help with gripping the eyepiece. It was common for operators using NXS scopes to just grab the entire eyepiece and rotate it as the resistance is fairly stiff for durability. For the ATACR, Nightforce has incorporated a screw-in thumb lever that can be attached to make this easier. Nightforce calls it their “Power Throw Lever”, or PRL for short. They use this same setup on their compact series of scopes as well, and it is very useful. This thumb lever is contained in one of the envelopes in the box that is labeled “Do Not Discard”.
The ATACR F1 is by no means a compact or small scope when compared to the majority of hunting or traditional tactical scopes out there, but when compared to other “mega” scopes, it then actually begins to appear small. Regardless, there is a good amount of mounting space for rings between the eyepiece and control knobs. It has already been mentioned that the tube is 34mm so the correct rings will need to be located and acquired, but there are more manufacturers making 34mm rings now which helps when trying to locate some.
It seems that one of the most common areas where scope manufacturers are attempting to distinguish themselves from their competitors is with the control knobs, and Nightforce is no different as this ATACR F1 has some unique features not found on other scopes. The elevation knob itself is a large diameter knob, yet a short profile, meaning it is not very tall. For a tactical scope we find this to be a desirable trait and it matches the somewhat smaller size of the scope when compared to others, even Nightforce’s own ATACR 5-25x50mm big brother. The wider diameter size of the elevation knob allows Nightforce to put a full 12 MIL of adjustment per revolution. That is a lot of adjustment in a single rotation which means that each click is pretty tight on the knob. That 12 MILs is enough elevation in a single rotation to allow the normal 308 Win 175gr Sierra Matchking ammunition that is launched at 2600 fps to go from 100 to over 1000 yards in standard atmospheric conditions (Sea Level, 59 degrees, 78% humidity). With the classic A191 300 Win Mag 190gr ammo, the scope will allow shooting from 100-1200+ yards in a single rotation. Because there is so many adjustments in a single rotation, there is not as much of a need to have to put a second level of markings to make the knob taller. The scope seems to be intended for the mid range sniper rifle.
If you find that you are shooting further and you did need to go a 2nd rotation, there are horizontal hash marks under the elevation knob to help you keep track of what rotation the scope is on. If you still get confused and lost, yes, the scope has a zero stop feature. Here is where Nightforce has one of those unique features found on this, and some other scopes. Nightforce calls it a “Zero Lock”, which is a bit different than their traditional zero stop feature. Once the zero lock is set (don’t throw away the owners manual as it is has the detailed instructions on how to do that) and then the elevation knob hits the zero lock, it literally locks the knob on zero. It will not move up or down. At that point, in order to dial in adjustments, the operator must press in the knob that is directly above the zero at the top of the knob. (See photos). This will then allow the knob to once again be adjusted freely, until it is brought back to zero again, where it will then lock. It only locks on the zero that the operator sets, so when you pass through a full rotation heading up, it will not lock on that second zero, only back on the initial zero, which means it acts as a zero stop as well. If you are lost as to what rotation you are on, just dial it down until it locks, and you are back at your initial zero.
The zero lock feature also allows for 2 MIL, or 5 MOA if it is an MOA model, to be dialed “down” from your zero as well for those cases when you need a bit of down elevation below your zero. This has always been a limitation of zero stop scopes and Nightforce has made a clever means of allowing for these conditions. (Slope Dope shooting is one case this comes up a lot in). The actual clicks themselves are positive and well defined with a slight muted audible click and a very tactile feel to them and with zero slop. Nightforce indicates that the scopes have a total elevation adjustment range of 26 MIL and with our test scope mounted and zeroed on our 308 Test rifle with a 20 MOA canted base, it still had 20.5 MIL of up elevation available. Because of the zero lock and the involved process of adjusting it, we elected not to fiddle with it to get an exact total adjustment range for our test scope, but 26 MIL seems about right given the canted base and the amount of up remaining once zeroed.
Perhaps the most unique thing about the windage knob is the fact that it has a dust cover which could be useful when placing the weapon system in storage or when moving to a position to prevent the knob from inadvertently being moved. Nightforce also recognizes that many sniper teams will likely remove the dust cover and just keep the knob exposed, so they have provided a protective screw on ring that will protect the threads from being damaged… Nightforce calls it a beauty ring and it is contained in the second envelope labeled with “Do Not Discard”. The knob itself is not as large in diameter as the elevation knob, nor as tall. The dial has the same 12 MIL of adjustment per rotation and with the smaller diameter dial it means the marks are even tighter than on the elevation knob. The number markings are also considerably smaller, but still fairly easy to read from behind the scope and they are nicely marked up in both directions with an additional L or R to indicate whether Left or Right adjustments are dialed in. With the 12 MIL of adjustments in a single rotation, it means the knob would normally overlap at 6 MIL, but there is a hard stop that prevents the knob from being rotated past 5.8 MIL in either direction to prevent any confusion that might arise from the overlap. So the question is whether 5.8 is enough? For the 308 Win 175gr load, it would be enough windage to dial in compensation in a direct 20 MPH crosswind at 1000 yards. There may be instances at extreme ranges where it may not be enough, but those are some extreme conditions.
On the opposite side of the scope from the windage knob is the parallax, or focus, knob. It is about the same diameter as the windage knob dust cap, making it slightly larger than the windage knob itself. The focus knob is marked from below 50 up to 900 meters (yes meters, not yards) and then infinity. This range covers about 300 degrees of revolution on the knob, and as is normal, the markings get closer together the higher up in the range it goes. The markings themselves are not important as the shooter will dial the knob until the sight picture is focused and sharp, no matter what the markings say on the knob. The knob rotates very smooth, though with a bit less resistance than expected. There is the same knurling at the top of the focus knob as there is on the two other knobs.
The illuminated reticle is controlled by a push button on the top of the focus knob and it is the same digillum system that is found on other Nightforce scopes. There are three main functions with the digillum controls. On/Off, Brightness Control, Reticle Color. To turn the reticle on, just press the button once, to turn it off, hold the button for 1-3 seconds and then release. Once the reticle is on, just keep pressing the button to brighten the reticle. Once to the maximum brightiness is reached, it will flash three times and then each time you press the button from there it’ll decrease in intensity until the lowest setting is reached and then flash three times again. Once the brightness is set where the operator wants it, it’ll remember it for the next time the illumination is turned on. To change the color from red to green, just hold the button for 5-7 seconds and it’ll change. Do it again to change it back. Nightforce has had a long track record of having the reticles way too bright, but it seems like they may have figured it out here, with the reticle on its dimest setting, it seems about right. To prevent drowning out the target with a bright reticle, you want the illuminated reticle just barely visible when turned on… just enough to make the reticle visible on the dark target.
In front of the scope controls the tube extends forward as normal and then opens up to the bell that houses the 42mm objective lens. With a wide 34mm diameter tube, it does make the proportions of the 42mm objective lens look a bit small, whereas in reality, it is a very good size. The scope itself has a solid and hefty feel to it, which comes from the larger dimensions of the main tube and thick tube walls. The overall weight of the scope is just under two pounds (30 ounces). There is a high quality matte black finish to the entire scope which appears as if it should hold up well through hard use. The scope is only 12.6″ long which isn’t bad at all, though we would certainly not consider the scope “compact”. Overall it is a good looking scope that appears to be finely made using high quality components.
The reticle is the Nightforce MIL-R reticle that utilizes smaller and larger hash marks to indicate the full and half MIL measurements. It is a well designed reticle with 5 MILS above, and to the left and right of the center crosshair and then a full 15 MILs below it. There is also a more finely marked floating inverted “T” that can be used for even more precise measurements and it is conveniently two MILs high, ideally suited for measuring man size targets out past 1000 yards. The reticle is located on the first focal plane, which is one of the features of the F1 version of the ATACR scopes, so it grows and shrinks with the magnification to insure it is always the correct size for range estimation or hold overs. Because of the front focal plane reticle, the full 15 MILs below the crosshairs starts to get blocked off as the scope is adjusted above 12x (See photo above). This reticle is not too busy and does not obscure much on the target, though the floating T is borderline distracting, but easy to get used to.
The optics on Nightforce scopes have always been a bright spot (pun intended) and it is the same on this ATACR F1. The scope does an excellent job of gathering light and more so transmitting it through the lenses of the scope. The image is crisp and the resolution and contrast are very good making the optics suitably impressive for a higher priced scope like this one. As we always mention, it is very difficult to measure the optical performance when comparing scopes of similar price and quality by just looking through them with the naked eye. So we would just say that the optics are more than suitable for use on high end sniper weapon systems.
For our operational tests, we mounted the ATACR F1 onto our Remington 700P test mule rifle using a set of Nightforce medium height 34mm Ultralite tactical rings. The Remmy has a permanently mounted Warne steel 20 MOA canted base that has served us well for years and the mounting process was quick and easy. For a full breakdown on how we perform our testing of rifle scopes, you can read our how we test page. Our primary shooting test day was a nice overcast fall day in western Montana with the temperatures hovering around 48 degrees Fahrenheit. The rain was holding off and the winds were calm. We were at the range early, before the sun was up, to further test low light performance and were impressed.
We were using Federal Gold Medal Match ammo and the rifle was shooting great. The box test passed with flying colors as each of the groups was exactly 1 MIL in spacing and it tracked a perfect box with the final group right back on top of the original. The repeatability of the adjustments were right on, as one would expect of a high end scope. We next needed to perform a practical measurement of the size of the clicks themselves. We fired the first group, and then went to dial in 6 MIL of left, but ran into the windage stop that only allowes 5.8 MIL of adjustment so the windage knob doesn’t overlap. Instead, we only dialed in 5 MIL and then fired the second group. Finally, we dialed the wind back to zero and fired again where the third group was right through the exact holes as the first, making one big ragged hole in the paper. At 100 yards, 5 MILs should measure 18″ and when we measured the distance between the groups it was 17.98″. For this test, 5% error is barely passing, 3% is considered a good passing grade… the amount of error for the ATACR F1 was a measly 0.12%. We consider that fantastic and while the groups were well under .5 MOA, that .12% of error can be thrown out to fudge factor on group sizes. The scope blew through the practical tests with great scores.
Next up was to double check the reticle shift with both the parallax and the zoom controls to insure the reticle did not move when adjusting those two controls. With high end scopes built to very high standards, we seldom see reticle shift on these two tests, and that was the case here. As we used our boresighter scope to watch and try to determine the slightest shift in reticle movement, we were unable to detect any. If there was some, it was too slight to be able to distinguish if it was the reticle or our eye that moved.
So here we are at the end of another detailed scope review where we have to come to our final conclusions and award a score to the scope. There is a lot to like about this scope, the construction is excellent and there are some features that are well thought out and not just gimmicks to try and sell more scopes. The scope is hefty due to its durable design, so perhaps a bit of extra weight is a ding on it, but it is better than many of the other extreme sized moon scopes. The rotating eyepiece with the zoom power continues to be a nag to us, but with the new provided flip up scope caps, we cannot really complain much about that any longer either. It is not over sized or over powered for a field usable tactical scope and as we weighed out our final tally, we could not find any big enough reasons not to give the scope a five star rating. The little things, were not big enough, and if we truly value a properly designed mid powered scope as our ideal, then there are not many better than this one. We seldom give out a 5 star rating, but until we stumble upon a reason to take it away, we’ll give this scope one. Its really that good … and may even be worth the money.
Sniper Central 2016