Some Thoughts on Riflescopes

South-Dakota-mdeerThe optical sight—commonly referred to as a scope—has been with us for quite a while. Experimenters began trying to utilize a magnifying optical sight as far back as the 17th century. The first practical riflescope came about in the mid-1800s. Scopes were utilized during the War Between the States by early snipers. Nonetheless, they were considered not too practical by hunters or soldiers except for such highly specialized tasks like sniping.

Bill Weaver brought out the first practical hunting scope—the Model 330—in 1930. Initially he made each scope—a 3X on a ¾-inch tube—by hand and sold them to hunters. When World War II broke out Weaver supplied the 330 to the government to be mounted on 1903 A-4 Springfield rifles for snipers. For decades the riflescope was of fixed magnification and a simple crosshair reticle. Although some higher magnification scopes were made—primarily for target and varmint shooters—most gun and hunting writers of the day espoused a lower-power scope for hunting.

Weaver's 330 scope was used on 1903 Springfield sniper rifles during World War II.

Weaver’s 330 scope was used on 1903 Springfield sniper rifles during World War II.

When I began fooling around with rifles and hunting, I marched in lockstep with the dogma of the day—a fixed 4X scope. I bought my first scope—a Leupold M8 4X with a tapered crosshair (I had to be something of a rebel)—from the old SA Wentling company out Palmyra, Pennsylvania, in about 1973. If memory serves, I paid $57 for it brand new. I still have it, along with its twin on my first ’06 and .270 Winchester. Those rifles have accounted for more deer, elk, pronghorn, caribou and wild pigs than I care to try and enumerate. I have made shots as close as 25 yards and as far as 480 yards with those rifles and their simple 4X scopes. There has never been a time when I felt I was “under-scoped” with these riflescopes.

Even when I bought my first varmint rifle, I stayed with fixed-power scopes—in this case a 12X for a Ruger No. 1 in .22-250 Remington. I did try a variable—a 2-7X Leupold on my Ruger No. 3 in .22 K-Hornet—but I never found the variable feature all that necessary and felt the relative fragility of the variable wasn’t desirable.

Varmint shooting is where the fancy scopes and their technological gadgets have a place in Dave's mind. For big game hunting, though, the simpler the better.

Varmint shooting is where the fancy scopes and their technological gadgets have a place in Dave’s mind. For big game hunting, though, the simpler the better.

Then I got into this business, and fixed-power scopes would just not do. I had to get with the program and put variables on all of my serious hunting rifles. To be fair, my prejudices about variables being fragile were unfounded. I have not found them any less reliable than a fixed-power scope. When I do hunt with a variable, though, I regularly check to ensure the scope is set on the lower end of its magnification envelope. My logic is that there is almost always plenty of time to crank up the magnification if I think I’ll need it for a long shot, but when a buck jumps up like quail I won’t have time to turn it down and take a shot on the fly.

Technology marches on—whether we like it or not—and has no patience or respect for that or those that brought us to where we are. Today’s scopes are a marvel of engineering and technology with objective lenses that adjust to minimize parallax and reticles that literally require a computer—or a smartphone app—to place one’s bullet precisely from as far away as a mile and a half. I confess that I have not kept up with the program and have not fooled with these new optical wonders a whole lot.

IMG_0465My gut tells me that these newer scopes are fine for sniping and even for smacking pasture poodles from a long distance. I’m sure that the tekkie geeks will dismiss me as irrelevant now—they’re probably right—but I have no desire to bump off an elk from a half mile. Shooting long range is interesting, and there has been and always will be a fascination and desire to lengthen one’s effective shooting range. I’ve made my share of long shots—and missed a lot more. Too, I have spent more than a few hours shooting paper at long range to see how far away I can reliably make a hit. If you really want to shoot long range and learn something, shoot paper. It doesn’t lie or move, and it provides a permanent record of the shot. Steel is more entertaining, I’ll give you that. But steel rings just as nicely with a peripheral hit as it does with a center hit. I know what I can do with my rifles at ranges out to 1,000 yards, and I know where my hit probability falls to an unacceptable level.

There are some guys out here that are bumping off game animals at ¾ mile or further. Some even have made television shows out of their exploits, the idea being that if you buy their products you can do the same. Because I have done enough shooting at paper at those distances and know what can happen to a bullet during the seconds it takes to make that kind of trip, I cannot help but wonder how many animals they have wounded and lost. They never show that on TV.

What I am about to say will not endear me to my manufacturing friends that depend on you guys going out every year and purchasing the newest and greatest new gizmo to make up for the fact that you are a human being with jittery muscles, non-perfect eyesight and excitable emotions in the presence of wild critters. But a straight, fixed-power scope with a duplex reticle can take care of 99-plus percent of your shooting chores admirably. Spend the difference on ammo, and shoot it to make up for that fraction of a percent. If you still miss or can’t make a killing shot after that, you probably should not attempt that kind of shot in the field, and a wonder scope will not fix that problem.

Dave Campbell
Dave Campbell began his hunting career with a spear off the southern California coast in the late 1960s. It did not take long for him to graduate to the gun on land. Campbell is the founding editor in chief of the NRA’s tremendously successful Shooting Illustrated magazine. In 2006 he also edited the iconic book of terminal ballistics, Rifle Bullets for the Hunter—A Definitive Study. He returned to his beloved Wyoming in 2007 as a freelance writer, though he usually refers to himself now as a “recovering editor.”
  1. Chris V. Reply

    Good work Dave.

  2. Brad Reply

    Excellent words of wisdom, Dave. Thank you again for doing historical research, we have a great heritage.

  3. Brien Reply

    Great words. Couldn’t agree more. Maybe too much common sense and experience at play for the internet commandos to dig. But for me. Since the ’70s if I am not hunting or shooting, I’m thinking about it –and you are dead right. Learn to shoot and keep it simple and enjoy the skill not the fads…!!

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