Put two scopes side by side on a table. Pick one that costs half what your rifle costs and chose another that costs three times what your rifle cost? What’s the difference? You certainly can’t tell from the outside. In fact, the cheaper scope may have a slicker finish and more buttons and knobs. Why do some scopes cost so much more than others?
Like many other things, what you see is not always what you get. The major differences in scopes, especially why the prices differ so much, are completely out of sight. It is the internal differences that make the difference in scope quality and price. Understanding how scopes are made, how they work, and where manufacturers cut costs is the key to finding real value in a rifle scope.
Purchasing a scope for that new rifle can be confusing, frustrating, and expensive if you don’t understand rifle scopes and how to judge quality. There is a lot more to finding a good value rifle scope than looking through the lens in the sporting goods store and counting the cobwebs on the mounted antelope display.
How Rifle Scopes Work – What You Can’t See
The part of your rifle scope that you can easily see hides the real important parts. What you can see on a typical rifle scope is important. They can give you a few clues about the quality of the internal workings, but you must be sharp to catch the subtle signs. Most scopes have external parts that include:
- The Tube – The external metal tube that houses and supports the lenses, adjustment systems and provides a secure and stable platform for the mounting system is the most obvious part of any rifle scope. Scope tubes come in a variety of diameters.
- Elevation and Windage Adjustments – The turrets, the knobs that you can rotate to adjust the elevation and windage of your scope, are the next most prominent features. Usually mounted one on top and one on the right side of the scope, these turrets may have graduations etched onto them, be hidden under protective caps, or include more sophisticated parts such as zero stop returns.
- Parallax Adjustments – Scopes that allow you to adjust the parallax come in two flavors. Scopes allow you to adjust the objective lens to correct parallax and those that adjust the internal lenses. The scope may have a knob on the left side of the tube lined up with the windage and elevation turrets, or it may have an adjustment at the objective end of the tube.
- Magnification Ring – If your scope has variable magnification, it more than likely has a ring near the scope’s eyepiece. When you turn this ring, the magnification increases or decreases. Most magnification rings have etched marking to indicate the current magnification that is selected.
- Diopter Adjustment – Many scopes have another ring near the eyepiece end of the scope. This ring allows you to fine-tune the focus of the reticle.
Your scope may have other knobs and adjustments. Scopes with illuminated reticles often have a knob to control the brightness and even the style of reticle you see in the scope. The takeaway from this information is the understanding that for every knob and adjustment on the tube of your scope, there is an associated increase in the complexity of the internal mechanisms. Complex mechanisms mean more places for failure and tighter tolerances to achieve acceptable accuracy.
A Simple Fixed Magnification Scope
The simplest of all designs for a rifle scope is the fixed magnification scope. You might think that all you need is a set of lenses fixed in the correct position. What could be more stable and less prone to inaccuracy or failure?
In truth, even fixed magnification scopes have complex internal workings. Inside the outer scope tube is another tube called the erector. This tube holds at least one other lens that turns the target image upright.
The elevation turret and the windage turret attach to screws that move the erector tube, allowing you to correct the scope for windage and elevation. The quality of the mechanism on the windage and elevation adjustments greatly affects the scope’s accuracy. The more precise this mechanism, the better the accuracy of the scope.
Variable Magnification – Getting Close and Even Closer
To add complexity to a complex situation, many shooters opt for a variable magnification scope. The ability to dial in a bigger picture of your target without moving is a huge advantage in some situations. The problem is the ability to vary the magnification requires growing the complexity of the inner workings of your scope grow by many orders of magnitude.
We already know that the inner tube of your scope, the erector tube, is adjustable for windage and elevation. To gain the ability to vary the magnification, that erector tube must move back and forth inside the outer tube.
This additional range of movement adds a new dimension of mechanisms inside the scope tube. Scope makers walk a fine line between weight, ruggedness, and recoil. Build a lightweight scope, and you risk damaging the erector mechanisms from recoil. Build a robust system, and the scope gets so heavy it is almost unusable. You begin to see the problem for scope manufacturers.
Add to the problems building an erector mechanism that is also finely machined to keep the scope’s accuracy within tolerances. The more accurate and robust the erector mechanism, typically, the more expensive the scope.
A Multitude of Other Adjustments
Those are the basics of most rifle scopes. If you want parallax adjustments critical to long-range precision shooting, the mechanisms take another jump in complexity. Add diopter adjustments to the mix, and it is almost unimaginable how the mechanisms inside that 30mm tube operate.
It becomes easy to see that just the mechanics of a high-quality scope can add a level of expense. Scope makers with a reputation for building rugged, reliable, and accurate rifle scopes have spent years developing the expertise to craft the mechanisms that drive their scopes.
The Other Factors of Scope Cost
We haven’t started to discuss the optical components of a good rifle scope or the other mechanical issues such as waterproofing, fog proofing and shock proofing. Let’s look at all the other factors that differentiate a cheap scope from an expensive scope.
Optics and Glass
The lenses and other glass that go into a scope are critical to how the scope performs. In general, rifle shooters talk in terms of factors such as:
- Clarity – Generally, when shooters talk about the clarity of a scope, they are referring to the sharpness and brightness of the image they see when they look downrange. Several factors influence clarity, not the least of which is the quality of the glass from which the lens is ground and polished.
- Precision – the adjustments that occur when you turn a turret or move a ring determines how well your scope performs. The more precise the movements that these adjustments cause, the better performance you can expect from your scope. Precision is related to the quality of the machining and manufacturing that goes into your scope.
- Optical Performance – Lenses in scopes do several things besides make the image bigger. Good rifle scopes collect light to make the reflected image brighter. Properly ground optical glass is designed to correct the problems that occur in an image when the light bends inside the scope.
Materials and Workmanship
The quality of the materials used to construct the scope and the care taken when crafting the intricate parts matter almost as much as the quality of the glass and the design of the internal workings. These two aspects of the scopes assembly can be hard to ascertain and judge.
We must rely on the manufacturer’s word about the quality of the materials they use. It is almost impossible to tell inferior aluminum alloy from high-quality aluminum alloy outside a laboratory.
Judging the quality of the machining and the tightness of the tolerances inside the scope requires disassembling the scope. Disassembling your $500 scopes isn’t something I recommend for anyone. How then do we judge these factors? There are some tricks to try.
Do Your Due Diligence – Research can be your best tool. The internet has brought a wealth of information to your fingertips. Look at the reviews of the scope. Read the various shooting forums to see what other shooters are saying. The manufacturer’s reputation and other shooters are good indicators of what to expect from a scope.
Tale-Tell Signs of Scope Quality – There are some subtle signs you can check for right in the store that give clues to a scopes internal qualities. Before you even look through a scope check for these indicators that the internal workings are less than optimal
- Mushy or hard-to-feel stops on the turrets – The stops on the turrets should be crisp and exact. You should be able to feel each stop. Some scopes give you an audible click when the detent drops. If the turret feels mushy or imprecise, the internal workings of the erector may not be as good as you want.
- Adjustment rings to lose or too tight – Magnification rings, diopter rings, and parallax adjust rings should turn smoothly if the scope is equipped. If there is any jerkiness in the movement, the interior parts probably don’t fit well together. If the movement is too tight or too loose, the same sorts of problems can exist.
- The overall fit and finish or the scope – Even low-end scope makers know that presentation is everything, and they will go to great lengths to make a cheap scope look like a thousand dollars. However, check those places most people don’t look. Look for machine marks or tool marks in hard to polish areas. Check the quality of the fittings and small parts.
If Possible, take it to the Field – One great way to figure out if a scope is up to the task you set for it is to put it on a rifle and shoot it. Poorly made scopes will reveal themselves quickly. The most obvious sign is a scope that won’t hold zero. Next is a scope that doesn’t perform optically as it runs through its paces. Lastly, the recoil of a large caliber hunting rifle will test the ruggedness and robustness of the internal workings.
Unfortunately, most retailers won’t let a scope go out for a test drive. The only way to get some of the tests is to buy the scope and take it for a spin. If the warranty is good and your dealer is reputable, this probably won’t be a problem. However, beware. You may end up with no cash, a broken scope, and a large dose of frustration.
At The End – Our Recommendations
There are gems among the rocks out there in the scope buying world. New manufacturers are coming online, and occasionally, one of them builds excellent scopes at a reasonable price. Finding that balance of value, features and performance should be your goal. Here are my tips for finding your scope.
Don’t expect to get what you are willing to pay for – Never expect to get the performance of a $3,000 scope from a $300 bargain. It’s just not going to happen
Make good decisions – Know what you want from the scope you buy. Different types of shooting require different scopes. Buying a scope that doesn’t meet your requirements just because it is a good deal doesn’t make sense. You will eventually get frustrated and be disappointed.
Understand how a scope works and what to look for – I get frustrated in some retail stores when I talk to a salesperson who obviously knows nothing about how scope construction or how they work. Don’t rely on retails store staff. They are there to sell products, not give technical advice.
Watch for the rare gem among the trash – Sometimes, you will find that outstanding rifle scope where you least expect it. Reading the shooting forums is a good place to learn about these opportunities.
Buy what you know – Shopping known manufacturers with good reputations and whose scopes get good reviews and remarks is your best insurance against making a bad choice. Remember, the adage you get what you pay for is often quite true.
Good Scopes Cost More – Period
Everything that goes into a scope to make it a quality product has an associated cost. Better material, tighter tolerances, design, and engineering all directly impact the cost of that scope. From a purely financial standpoint, better scopes cost more to make. Therefore, they have a higher price tag.
I hope this article answers your questions about cost and scope quality. If you enjoyed this article, found it helpful, or if you have suggestions or comments, please use the section below. We appreciate your feedback. Your knowledge and experience benefit everyone in our online community. Take care and shoot straight.