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Sniper Central Letter: Too much scope?

Too Much Scope?
Is it really possible to have too much scope? That is not only a good question but one that should be asked more often than it is. It is this topic that we plan to discuss in this issue of the Sniper Central Letter (SCL). But we do not want to just answer that one simple question, rather, we will discuss the finer points of scope power selection and the pluses and minuses of the different options that are available today on tactical scopes. So grab a bag of dehydrated veggies, your favorite scope manufacturers catalog, and read on!

Some Background
Since the early days of rifled barrels that made it possible to extend the range of the rifleman beyond the limited range of the smooth bore musket, there has been a discussion about how a shooter might more easily sight in the rifle onto a target that is further away. This was a desired trait in both hunting and military operations.

The earliest attempts at attaching a literal star gazing telescope to the top of the rifle had limited effectiveness. The technology of not only the optical glass but the manufacturing techniques of the tubes and the scope mounting systems prevented the full advantage of the idea from being realized. This did not prevent some early adopters from devising ways to make it work with long brass tubed scopes being permanently attached to the top of rifles. These early scopes were typically soldered on and unable to be moved. These types of arrangements were used as early as the Civil War with some accounts even earlier than that.

Back then the magnification power was very limited with 1.5x and 2.0x scope magnifications being all that was available, and the field of view was simply atrocious. Improving the small pin-hole size field of view was one of the major innovations and improvements that happened over those early years of rifle scope development. By the time World War 1 rolled around, which is considered by us as the start of the modern era of sniping, optical technology was still somewhat limited as compared to today's standards, but it had progressed leaps and bounds over the previous 50 years. At this point the scopes were more compact, measuring under 12 inches versus the 24 inch or longer scopes from the Civil war. The magnifications were still typically limited to under 6x and most were 4x or less. Of course, there were still target scopes out there being used in competitive shooting with high magnifications, but they were long and somewhat more fragile.

During this period, fragility was a continuous concern and in some regards it still is today, but nothing like the early 20th century. When World Ward 2 came around, the magnification of the scopes was still limited when Sniping once again came to the forefront. The illustrious British No.4 Mk1 (T) sniper rifle only had a 3x scope mounted on top and the American 1903A4 only had a 2.5x mounted as standard. There were some exceptions such as the 1903A1/Unertl used by the USMC with an 8x scope and some of the German 98 sniper rifles also had higher power scopes, but a vast majority of the sniper rifles still used scopes with magnification below 4x.


Why was this? At this point there were still technological issues, but there were more powerful scopes available on the civilian market. During these years, there were accuracy limitations to the firearms and ammunition themselves. The concept of Match Grade ammo being used for snipers was still not utilized and the ranges at which engagements were typically conducted were still limited, rarely extending beyond 400 yards. With ranges short, accuracy limited, and durability of higher power scopes in question, the magnification of the scopes continued to be purposely limited. The larger field of view did play a role in scope selection at this point since combatants began to be aware of the dangers of a reduced field of view when trying to acquire targets.

By the time the limited scale conflicts of the 1950s, 60s and 70s rolled around, scope technology had improved to where there was now higher powered scopes available on the commercial market that could be suitable for sniping use. The various militaries continued to evaluate what was available and typically opted for a 3-9x scope, at least on the US side. The Redfield scope being a common choice with a 40mm objective. The early experience with commercial variable scopes did further lead to a discovery that the moving parts tended to fail when given to a grunt. This should not have come as any surprise, infantrymen are notoriously hard on any equipment! The delicate nature of the variable power scopes lead to the various forces going back to using fixed power scopes in the 1980s and 1990s, with 10x or 6x being the power of choice. It should be mentioned that the simplicity of operation of a fixed power scope also played into the decision of using a fixed power scope as well. The issue of fragility of variable power scopes was addressed by the major scope makers in the 1990s and up to today. Now the likes of the USMC use a variable power scope as well as the SEALs and other elite units. If a scope can survive use by the Devil Dogs, then they can survive just about anything!

But even today with variable power scopes, the magnification range is typically limited. The primary day sight on the USMC M40 is 3-12x, the US Army M24 uses a fixed 10x, the M110 SASS uses a 3.5-10x. But yet the illustrious Navy SEALs use a variety of scopes usually of higher magnification such as 8-32x Nightforce scopes. The UK used a fixed 10x on their L96A1 but a 5-25x on their L115A3. That leads us into our next section of discussion.

Defining the Mission
The single biggest determining factor with scope selection is determining what the primary mission for the sniper weapon system (SWS) as a whole is going to be. The advent of the variable power scope has been a great boon to the flexibility of a given rifle scope and rifle system, affording the operator/shooter the ability to dial down the magnification for closer range shots and then to be able to zoom in for longer range shots. Even with this added flexibility, there are still compromises that need to be considered when pairing a scope to a given rifle. Some of these considerations might include the following:

  • What will be the typical expected engagement ranges?
  • Will it be mounted to a bolt action or Semi-Automatic?
  • What is the selected cartridge for the rifle?
  • Will it be day use only or is night vision capability required?
  • Is the total weight of the sniper system a concern? If so, whats the weight?

Yes, even when just considering the magnification range of a scope, each of those factors, and many others, are important. It does no good to have a 32x scope mounted on a suppressed 300AAC rifle that is intended for clandestine sentry elimination at close range only. Rather a lower power optic that would be compatible with front mounted night vision and have enough field of view and elevation adjustments for the slow moving subsonic rounds commonly used with the AAC would be a more wise choice.

Sometimes when evaluating the intended mission of a sniper weapon system (SWS) you may be tempted to try and make a SWS that can do everything. While a good all-around rifle system is very doable, having a single perfect rifle that will fit every scenario is just not going to happen. Normally when this is attempted compromises have to take place and the system becomes decent at many things, but great at none. Be honest when defining the role of the rifle and you should be able to come up with a good set of mission requirements for the weapon system and that list will thereby help determine the optics for the rifle.

Once the list is completed that defines the intended mission of the SWS, you may have a set of requirements such as this:

  1. A light weight rifle weighing less than 11 pounds and shorter than 44"
  2. Capable of engaging precision targets out to 1000 yards
  3. Primarily used during dawn to dusk operational hours
  4. Capable of extended length patrols with moderate barrier penetration.

This process of defining the mission of a SWS and then planning a build will be a topic for another SCL in the future. When this mission has been defined, it becomes much easier to rule out unsuitable scopes quickly.

Over Scoping
This is one topic we really wanted to cover in this edition of the SCL because it is a common problem that happens today. What does it mean to over scope a rifle? In our minds, this is when the scope itself has too much magnification, to large a size, or contains more features than what the defined role of the rifle is. Though I suspect that some of you out there right now are rolling your eyes at the monitor and saying something like "Magnification is like horsepower... you can never have too much!". Well, that is what I am here to help with.

This is where the exercise of defining the mission and role of the weapon system really comes into play, but we need to first outline what the downsides are to "over scoping" a rifle. The biggest problem we see with over scoping is when there is just too much magnification. How is too much magnification a problem? As the magnification goes up there are several negative side effects that happen. The biggest one is that the higher the magnification, the less the field of view. If you are always shooting a stationary target at a fixed shooting point, such as a paper target at the range, then this is not that big of an issue. But when the magnification gets very high, the shooter may only be able to see a few feet left or right at 100 yards, and if a sudden moving target pops up at close range, it becomes very difficult to locate and engage the target because that field of view is so small. This is obviously why a lower magnification optic is used on battle rifles and with Close Quarters Battle(CQB), etc. Remember, you must be able to find the target before you can effectively engage it.

Another negative side effect of too much magnification is that it magnifies all of the imperfections in the glass lenses. If you take two scopes with the same quality of glass on them, but one has twice the magnification as the other, the optical quality itself will be noticeably worse in that higher power scope. This is where the cheaper scopes really fall on their face. With a lower power scope the glass looks pretty good, but when the magnification goes up, the scope picture looks worse and worse. Yes, very high quality scopes get around this by having very high quality lenses and coatings, but of course, that all costs money.

The third and final significant negative to over magnification is that as the magnification goes up, the light gathering capability goes down. When shooting in low light conditions, if the magnification is too high, the target can get lost in the lack of light and resolution. Typically in these scenarios with a variable power scope, the operator can back the zoom down until a happy medium is found between zoom and light gathering ability and targets can continue to be engaged. Forward mounted night vision capability is also effected by magnification as most of the night vision sights that mount in front of your day optic sight are only able to be effectively used with optics of 10x or less.

Another minor side effect of too much magnification is that typically the higher the magnification, the larger the scope needs to be. So with the higher power scopes comes higher weight and larger size. This seems to be the trend with tactical scopes anyway, so we have categorized this as a minor issue.

Over magnification is not the only way to over scope a rifle. We also include having too many, or the wrong, features and wiz-bang do-dads as a means of over scoping a rifle. Is a zero stop feature really required on a rifle system that will not engage over 600 yards with less than 1 full rotation of the knob? Is a 56mm objective necessary on a 3-9x magnification scope? Is an adjustable objective required on a 6x scope? Is a 34mm main tube necessary on a 3-12x44mm scope that only needs 80 MOA of total adjustment?

Many times the operator or armorer that is providing the specifications for a rifle package is only looking at the latest cool feature he or she read about and therefore thinks it must be a required necessity. I am here to tell you to define the role of the sniper weapon system first, and then properly create the specifications list for the rifle and scope combo. Why pay extra and carry the extra weight for a 34mm tube when its not needed? Then again, maybe there is a requirement for 140 MOA of adjustment and that 34mm tube is in fact needed. This goes for many of the latest features being marketed. As I mentioned already, this is where defining the role of the rifle and scope really can pay dividends.

Finding The Happy Medium
So the trick is to find the happy medium, the best quality and capability that will fit the given mission of the rifle system and budget. To do that, the detailed requirements need to be laid out and then a list of acceptable scopes that fit those requirements needs to be compiled. Of course, the budget restrictions are going to be a part of that requirement list and it will play a big part in the scope selection process, so be honest with how much of the SWS budget you are willing to spend on the scope. If money is no object, then the decision making process becomes much easier as typically you will buy the most expensive optic that made your list of scopes that meet the defined parameters of the required scope.

SC Scope Buying Rule #1: With rifle scopes, you generally get what you pay for.

If there is a restricted budget that must be met, then things start to get a bit more complicated. At that point, when looking at your list of acceptable scopes, it becomes time to whittle that list down. The obvious first step there is to simply look up the selling price for each model of scope on your list and any that do not fit your budget, cross them off. Once you have the new modified list of scopes that meet the criteria and the budget, then you can start looking at the additional features on each scope. Keep in mind, features sell, so many scope makers will add as many of the buzz-word features to a scope that they can so they can charge more and also so they look good when compared to their competition. Remember our previous exercise of defining the exact role of the scope and rifle combination, this will then allow you to compare the core required features against one another, ignoring the marketed bullet point features. If the 1" tube scope you are looking at has enough elevation adjustments to fit your mission, then it will work just as good as the other model scope with the 30mm tube.

To us, the quality of the scope is far more important than the features of the scope. Which brings us to our next scope buying rule:

SC Scope Buying Rule #2: Pay for the quality, not the features.

This is a big reason why we go through the exercise of defining the exact requirements of the scope. It is far more advantageous to go with a 1" scope tube with higher quality lenses, than it is to go with the 30mm tube with lower quality glass. A common area where you can exchange quality for features, is with an illuminated reticle. If you do not need the illuminated reticle, do not get one. Instead, take the money you saved and buy a higher quality scope.

Obviously, if two equal quality scopes are within your budget and one has an illuminated reticle, or other nice feature that is not required but that which might be nice to have, then by all means, opt for that scope. But do not sacrifice quality for features, you will more than likely regret it.

But what about magnification? How much is enough? That is a very good question and it is mission and role dependent, but we do have a rule of thumb that we like to go by here at SC. If you are looking for a scope for field use and not just a range queen, then you can use the following rule:

SC Scope Buying Rule #3: For every 100 yards you plan to engage at, use 1x of magnification

So if your defined mission is to engage targets out to 800 yards, than a scope with a max magnification of 8x will work for you. Of course, a 9x or 10x is not too far out of the bounds of our rule of thumb and would work nicely. This 1x per 100 rule provides a good mix of magnification, field of view, light gathering and usually elevation adjustments, though this depends upon other factors as well. This rule of thumb works for fixed power scopes as well and do not be afraid to look hard at a fixed power scope. Typically they are less money, more durable due to fewer moving parts, and simpler to use in high stress environments.

Be sure to evaluate all of your requirements and then find that happy medium that provides everything you need and then buy the best quality you can afford.

We have covered a lot of material and I know that scope buying can be a VERY daunting task with so many options available on the market today. But if you take the time to honestly outline the role of the rifle package you are putting together and then evaluate the options using some of the ideas we have talked about here, it can help make the decision a bit easier. I will not claim that it will be 'easy', just 'easier'.

Good luck and remember that unfortunately, everything is a compromise.

Sniper Central