Optics Buying Guide: Do You Get What You Pay For With Scopes?

There are a plethora of scopes on the market. How do you find the right balance of quality, features, and price?

There are a plethora of scopes on the market. How do you find the right balance of quality, features, and price?



There are few products where the adage “you get what you pay for” applies more than with optics.

With many products, like cars, it’s pretty easy to see and feel exactly what you’re paying for. The cornering performance and zero to sixty specs for a 1970 AMC Gremlin are pretty easy to distinguish when you compare them to a Bugatti Veyron. Those two cards are very different in price, but you can make a list a mile long of exactly how the performance differs. I suppose the Gremlin might edge out the Veyron when it comes to gas mileage, the price of an oil change, and ability to blend in at the local landfill. (By the way, it’ll run you about $21,000 for an oil change for the latter, whether you choose synthetic or the cheap stuff.) Other than that, the Veyron is going to claim the checkered flag in every visible category. As a result, whether you believe the Bugatti is worth a cool $2.5 million or not, you can easily understand why it’s a lot more expensive.

When it comes to scopes and even red dot optics, it can be much harder to “see” the differences between models even through their whole raison d’etre is “seeing.” Maybe that’s one of the reasons that we shooters tend to spend big bucks on a gun with little hesitation, but go into full Scrooge McDuck mode when it comes time to drop some coin on the scope. I’m just as guilty as the next guy when it comes to gagging when I see the price tag on a quality optic. Sure, I’ll happily spend $1,000 or more on a good rifle, but $1,000 for a scope? Are you kidding me? At risk of sending you into convulsions, it’s not all that unusual to see high-end optics in the $2,000 to $4,000 range. That doesn’t mean you have to rocket into four-digit territory just to hit what you’re aiming at. I’m just making the point to set you up for the big ask.

Here it is. I want you to seriously consider budgeting as much for your scope as you do for your rifle. There are some common rules of thumb about matching rifle and scope quality, but the 1:1 ratio is close enough. Hey, it’s even OK to drop down to 50% of the rifle price if you need to. The point is this: don’t buy a nice rifle and stick a cheap gun show scope on it. Shooting a quality optic, whether scope or red dot, is kind of like shooting with a high-end trigger. Once you try it, you’ll be ruined for life – anything less will not satisfy you. With a quality optic, you’ll see everything in a whole new light – literally. You’ll never again fight those wandering zero issues. When you adjust it, it’ll stay right where you expect, forever. It won’t fog. You’ll see clearly at high magnification. You’ll be able to see through it and make shots earlier in the morning and later at dusk than the next guy. And so on. More than anything else, you’ll be able to trust your scope. When you pick up your rifle, whether it’s been sitting for a day or a year, it’s going to hit exactly where you expect as long as you do your part.

This Burris Veracity 4-20x50 scope is well matched to the Masterpiece Arms BA PCR. The rifle lists for $1,999 and the scope about $850. The combination is just under the legal price limit for PRS Production Class competition.

This Burris Veracity 4-20x50mm scope is well matched to the Masterpiece Arms BA PCR. The rifle lists for $1,999 and the scope about $850. The combination is just under the legal price limit for PRS Production Class competition.

So how do you tell if a scope is up to snuff? Let’s take a look at some pre-buy and post-buy things you can check to see if your scope is up to snuff.

Try Before You Buy

Unfortunately, you can’t do a full evaluation in the store, but you can get a pretty good idea of a scope’s performance while there.

Before you ask to see one behind the counter, skip any that are priced lower than three digits. Making a quality scope is a technically complex process and there are no shortcuts. If the price is too good to be true, then shortcuts have likely been taken.
Next, compare the clarity of the lenses. Pick out several scopes in your budget range and look through them side by side so you can see a direct comparison of performance. Start while you’re in the store and pay particular attention to the outer areas of the circle of view. Those edges are the first thing to degrade with lower-end scopes. While most retail stores are brightly lit, interior lighting is nothing compared to sunny conditions outdoors, so use this indoors opportunity to get a feel for how clear the image is in lower light. Find different areas of the store that are a little darker and evaluate the brightness of the image.

One thing you can check in the store is the "feel" or turret adjustments.

One thing you can check in the store is the “feel” of turret adjustments.

I also like to crank up the magnification to see how the image looks when magnified. With lower quality glass and high magnification, the picture will start to get lousy pretty quickly as you zoom in. If you’re looking for a higher magnification scope, be sure to read the Optics Buying Guide: Big Scopes article in this series to understand the concept of exit pupil. That will really help you compare features like objective lens size, magnification and glass quality. While the power is cranked up, see how sensitive the scope is to shadowing. If a big dark and hazy ring obstructs your view with the slightest eye movement, try another model – that will drive you nuts in the field.

You might also want to beg the sales clerk to let you take a couple outside of the store so you can see how they look in natural outdoor light. Leave your license at the counter or do what you have to do to try it outdoors before you buy.

I also like to test the mechanics. Operate the zoom, reticle focus and parallax adjustment to see how easy or hard they are to move and whether they’re likely to stay in place when shooting. I bought one rimfire scope mail order, and the magnification wheel is so hard to turn that the scope now sits in a drawer. I also like to check the feel of the windage and elevation adjustment turrets. Does each click feel positive and consistent or mushy? You won’t know how accurate those adjustments are until you shoot, but you can pass right on by a scope with ambiguous clicks. I want to be able to make adjustments without looking – by feel and sound only.

Try After You Buy

This may sound a little weird, but there are some things you really can’t evaluate until you mount a scope and shoot it. As long as you buy from a retailer with a fair return policy, and take extra care during mounting, you should be able to return the scope if it doesn’t check out with some basic shooting tests.

The first thing I like to test is the precision and repeatability of windage and elevation adjustments. Once a scope is zeroed, you should be able to make large (if necessary) adjustments to windage and elevation. When you return the dials to the zero point, the bullet should impact exactly where it did before. That’s repeatability of settings. You’ll also want to know that if you adjust windage for a long shot that the predicted adjustment matches the actual adjustment. A fun way to test this is by “shooting the box.”

Here's a fancy version of "shooting the box." I started in the middle, then used scope adjustments to define the four corners. The last shot was back to zero settings. As you can see, this scope came back to it's original zero pretty well.

Here’s a fancy version of “shooting the box.” In this case, I started in the middle, then used scope adjustments to define the four corners. The last shot was back to zero settings. As you can see, this scope came back to it’s original zero pretty well.

Here’s how “shooting the box” works. Place a large square target at least 100 yards down range. For this example, we’ll assume we’re shooting at 100 yards. Assuming your scope is zeroed, choose an aiming point in the lower left of the target. You’re going to use this same aim point for all shots in this scenario.

Now, using a stable rest, shoot at least one shot. I like to shoot three shot groups at each position, but you can do what you want.

Next, make a windage adjustment that will make your bullet hit 10 inches to the right of your first shot. You’ll move the windage dial 10 minutes of angle (MOA) to the right. With most scopes, each click is ¼ MOA so that’s 40 clicks. Now aim at the original aim point in the lower left and shoot. Your shots should hit 10 inches right of where you aimed.

Now were going to change elevation to make the next shot(s) hit 10 inches above the last one(s). Adjust the elevation dial 10 MOA up and shoot, again using the original lower left aim point. Now you should have a hole in the lower left, another 10 inches to the right, and another 10 inches above that.

Now move windage 10 MOA to the left and shoot again using the original lower left aim point.

Last, dial elevation down 10 MOA and shoot.

You should have put bullet holes at each corner of a 10-inch square. Measure it, but don’t worry if it’s a little more or less than 10 inches. There’s going to be a little error in the math since a minute of angle is 1.04 inches, and no scope is absolutely perfect with adjustments. If you have a square, and not some random geometric shape, then your scope makes proper anticipated adjustments. You should also see that the last shot(s) impacted at the same point as the first ones. That shows that the settings are repeatable – the scope returned to the original zero after all that adjusting.

Obviously, you need to be very careful with your shooting. Use sandbags and really focus on executing perfect shots. You’re evaluating fine adjustments on the scope; you want to eliminate all other variables.

The other thing I like to verify is that the point of impact stays the same regardless of magnification level. Put a target 100 yards down range and carefully shoot at the lowest magnification. Now repeat this shot at different magnification levels. You might take three or more shots at different levels from lowest to highest. What you’re looking for is for all shots to hit in the same place. You don’t want to see a shot at 9x hitting at a different spot than one taken at 3x. It happens with lower-quality optics.

The bottom line is this: Don’t skimp. I’ve seen all kinds of wonkiness from lesser scopes. One day, I couldn’t zero a rifle to save my life. It turns out the internals had shaken loose under repeated recoil. If the crosshairs move with every shot, you’re never going to hit where you expect, right? You don’t necessarily have to spend four figures on a scope, but I would recommend looking through some in that price range so you can see the difference. That’ll help you find a great one in the hundreds range that’ll do the job for you.

About the author: Tom McHale Literary assault dude writing guns & shooting books and articles. Personal accountability rocks!

{ 16 comments… add one }
  • DrBill May 13, 2017, 3:26 pm

    These days, when many brands are featuring 2-3,000$ scopes, it pays to sit down and do a side by side comparison before spending too much on a scope. My Leupolds are as clear and bright as my Zeiss scopes are, and several Bushnell scopes I have on light recoiling rifles are remarkably close in practical optic usefulness. The “better” budget scopes are so much better optically than many older top-end scopes, that the rules are changing. TRY BEFORE YOU BUY. One can spend good money elsewhere, especially on a fine firearm!

  • Dusty December 14, 2016, 5:14 pm

    Well, I will stay with all my ‘substandard, defective, worthless’ Leupolds thank you. I own Vortex, Burris, Weaver, Bushnell, and a few others. I don’t mount them on any rifle with more recoil than a .25-06- I don’t need any more smilies on my eyebrows- (sometimes shooting positions are improvised and not ideal.)
    Day in and day out I will go with a LIGHT, reasonably bright scope with lots of eye relief- i.e. more than 3.5″ . I hunt on my feet, don’t have a gun-bearer, and I’m not packing around a top heavy rifle with a 2# scope aboard. I’m not going to shoot much past 400 yards on an unwounded living creature and have found that most of the time 6x is all I need.
    ANY scope brand can break, but that said, I try not to allow other folk’s reported anomalies to rule my purchases or my opinion of brands and products when my own experience differs.
    (And FYI re: Warranties… You will have to go some to beat Leupold’s.)

  • william Trexler December 12, 2016, 3:21 pm

    The scope quality analogy to cars is appropriate. If you are hunting dangerous game in Africa or where ever invest in the most rugged and reliable scope you can afford. I have shaken apart the internals on the most expensive name brands firing thousands of rounds of .375 H&H Magnum and .458 Win Mag in an eight pound rifles prepping for and hunting in Africa. I saw a West German Z brand scope steel tube that was cracked open behind the power ring by a luggage hauler driving over the aluminum rifle case that still printed 1 inch groups but just an inch higher when the zero was checked to see if it was ruined before a South Dakota pronghorn antelope hunt. I have broken beyond repair three of those $1,000 scopes so I try to buy scopes with a generous replacement policy. Its nice to get a new scope for free usually an upgrade with better glass when they cannot fix your old one. I think the quality is generally better on all the optics now in all the price ranges. Once you drive the really high performance model’s its hard to go back.
    If you do not like the heavy stuff and are not militarymost all of theare firing .556 or .308

  • joebob December 12, 2016, 11:16 am

    I think this article would have been more spot-on 10+ years ago. Historically, you got what you pay for, but these days the quality of budget scopes has increased to the point that I believe you need to have quite a skill set to appreciate the difference.

  • Frances December 12, 2016, 9:10 am

    30mm -36mm tubes with a high number of clicks ! Some of these high dollar scopes are not as good as a center point scope from wallmart ! Nik is a night & day brighter than Leo ,early morning and evening ,if you can’t see it you can’t shoot it !
    CHECK THE WARRANTY ! High dollar Leo on 308 G3 shook apart inside after a few hours of rock& roll shooting ! (inside lens rotated )

  • Frances December 12, 2016, 8:57 am

    Vortex Front Focal Plain with EBR-7 Reticle (MOA) on top of a heavy barrel 6.5 creedmoor or 300usm
    Everyone should own or at least try a FFP scope !

  • JohnR December 12, 2016, 6:37 am

    I have five Leupold VX 3’s 6-18×40 with various reticle’s that have served me well for almost 20 years. I’ve also had good luck with various scopes from Nikon’s Buckmaster, Prostaff, and Monarch lines.
    Most recently I purchased a Vortex Spitfire (3x) for my Sig 516 that I’m more than pleased with.
    At the same time I have a $30.00 Barska on my .17 HMR that in ten years had never lost its zero and will print .25 inch groups at 100 yards all day long. I’ll as admit that even thorough magnification is 6-22, it’s pretty much worthless after 16x but it does quite well for the price paid.

  • Campbell A King October 31, 2016, 5:34 pm

    Had nothing but trouble with 2 Leupolds in Africa.. They said they fixed but I sold then Bought 2 Burris FF2 ($220)n both worked perfect with much better adj…Then along comes a sale for Zeiss Conquest at $380 with shipping so I upgraded..Got back from Africa n scopes print same as before the trip..Wish I had bought Conquest way back !

  • BJG October 11, 2016, 8:21 pm

    How do you test fire a scope and if it doesn’t work out, return it? I know of no place that will let you test a scope If its no good your out the money.

    • OFBG October 15, 2016, 8:52 pm

      It depends upon where you bought the scope. Buying online has never been an issue for me. In my experience, so long as the scope is returned in “as new” condition you should get either an exchange, refund, or credit towards another scope.
      I am lucky that in my town most of the local stores will also let you try out a scope – or even a firearm – and if within a reasonable period of time you return the item they will accommodate you. They are not, like some retailers such as REI (Rental Equipment Inc.) who take anything and everything, in any condition, back at full price, but if it seems clear that you mounted a scope, took it to a range and were not satisfied, they will do their best to fix you up.

  • Chris Baker October 11, 2016, 7:42 pm

    I guess I’m a luddite. I like my 4X32 scopes. I don’t need multiple powers. I zero them and then never adjust them again. If I can’t hit it with 4X then I’m not shooting at it. I use one on my 10/22 and I use one on my centerfire rifle. I’d like to get a new centerfire someday when I have lots of money. Probably a bolt actin in 223 because of it’s wide availability. I’ve even thought about putting one on my Mossberg 500 12 gauge and maybe a 1.5X on my redhawk. I’ve never had the kind of money some folks spend on things. I can no more see spending $1000 on a scope than I can see having a Bugatti Veyron even if I had the money to afford one.

    • OFBG October 15, 2016, 9:02 pm

      Guess I’m a Luddite, too. Most of my rifles shoot better than I can. My primary centerfire rifle is a Win 670 in .30-’06. It came with a Weaver 4x scope that had problems. I bought a Leupold 4x, mounted and sighted it in with Federal 180s in 1985 and have never needed to change things. I sent the Weaver to their (now closed) location in El Paso and got back a much-improved scope which did yeoman’s work on several other rifles, from .22 through .308 until a shooting buddy dropped it on a concrete pad at the range.

  • Lee October 10, 2016, 10:26 am

    I got spoiled by the quality of Nightforce. However for many years, especially in my early 20’s I didn’t have money for quality. I’ve been thru many brands of cheap scopes, now I just don’t touch them. I’ve also won a few scopes off prize tables at various competitions, and one or two have really kind of stood out.

    Vortex… amazing quality for the money. And they run the spectrum from the highest possible quality scopes to the most affordable. Their bottom end cheap scopes are still better than anything else in their price range.. they actually work. Their midline scopes are better than most brand name competitors on the market. And their Razor HDII line I’d put side by side with any high end scope to date… Not to mention the best custom service in the industry.

    Leupold really stepped up their game, if you can afford them. Their new tactical mark 6 and mark 8 lines are pretty awesome, but overpriced compared to other scopes on the market.

    Nightforce still top dog IMHO. They just came out with some really awesome new front focal plane ATACR’s and an SHV. As soon as they put out a 2.5-10 in an FFP, I’ll be buying one for my AR-10.

    Burris has really stepped up. Their XTR2 line is awesome. Their warranty is great. They still have some cheap garbage in their lineup, but their better quality stuff won’t disappoint. I started running their 1.5-8x scopes on my 3-gun AR’s with their dual focal plane reticles, and haven’t looked back. I even have a couple of their cheaper old Tac-30 1-4x on some plinking guns. After picking one up off a prize table, I bought another.

    Bosch and Lamb, I mean Bushnell is kinda hit or miss. They have some damn good clear glass on their higher end scopes. But they do have some mfg quality issues, and they don’t have the customer service that you get from Vortex or Burris on all their scopes. Pay attention when you buy, as not all their products at this time have their lifetime warranty. I had a pretty bad experience with one of their fast fire red dot’s on a 22… I found JP’s Jpoint is a hell of a lot better product.

  • Kenneth Thomas October 10, 2016, 3:55 am

    I have two UTG Scopes, and a Vortex all three do a good job of getting me on target, and I have had successful hunts from varmints to mule deer and black bears with them mounted on my various rifles. All three are not elite scopes yet they more than get the job done. Someone reading this may think that I am the dumbest guy around. Well my Leatherwood Hi-Lux 6-24x44mm scope that I have on layaway is not the most expensive; however, it is no slouch and will keep up with anyone’s $2000. scope. I was inspired by two 600 yard + shooters in my area who use the Hi-Lux Leatherwood very successfully.

    • John Hanna October 10, 2016, 11:42 am

      I have a Hi-Lux CMR4 on my RRA .308 Elite Op and it shoots lights out. Love that Hi-Lux line.

  • John October 7, 2016, 10:02 am

    “I want you to seriously consider budgeting as much for your scope as you do for your rifle. ” That’s all well and fine, but the trend by major manufacrurers is that they are offering quality, feature packed scopes in a value line, and they are all following suit it seems. The thing is they are very good quality scopes. I have one, it was a $500.00 scope, I caught it on sale and had a coupon too, managed to get it for half price.

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