By Tom Beckstrand – Photos by Mark Fingar
“My [cheaper] scope is just as good as … ” That statement can be heard everywhere in the shooting community, from the workplace to the range to Internet forums around the world. Depending on who says it, that phrase can generate sympathy or annoyance.
Everyone has a budget, and spending several thousand dollars on a scope just isn’t in the cards for a lot of people. This article is dedicated to the serious sniper who doesn’t have a ton of money. The good news is that a viable solution exists. The bad news is that you have to work for it.
WHY SCOPES ARE SO EXPENSIVE
The flagship offerings from the major scope manufacturers all cost more than $2,000 and can go as high as $7,000. That’s a lot of cheddar. However, think of a scope as a list of optional features with each component adding to the overall price. Low dispersion glass? It gives great image quality but costs money. Locking turrets? That costs extra. Repeatable turrets? That costs money, too. Wide power zoom range? You get the idea. The trick for the sniper on a budget is to buy only what they need and take advantage of warranties to replace optics that get worn-out.
As soon as optics come up, people ask about image quality. Seeing incredible detail is nice but not always necessary. Fact is, it doesn’t take great glass to see large objects (1 MOA or greater) in daylight out to even 1,000 yards. Cheap glass will do just fine in this scenario. As long as we aren’t required to observe through the scope for hours at a time, a sniper can save money on glass without paying a penalty.
Low dispersion glass is expensive and heavy (due to its lead content) and allows manufacturers to achieve the highest level of performance. This type of glass puts a sharp edge on objects in our field of view, allowing the sniper to observe for hours without getting a headache from eyestrain. Objects with sharp and clearly defined edges allow the eye to relax and not continually try to focus. This capability costs money, and there is no way around it. You will not find a scope for less than $2,000 that is good for hours of observation.
Low dispersion glass also helps the sniper discern objects hidden in shadow. Unless the scope has the right glass and coatings, dark objects on a darker background are hard to resolve. This capability is valuable to hunters and some snipers, and if you need or want it, you have to pay up.
A sniper can either save or spend a ton of money on turrets. The design and manufacturing effort to make an elevation turret that can be dialed and locked in place adds to the cost. If the turret isn’t locked, that’s one more thing the sniper has to check before firing. A lockable elevation turret is one of those things that’s nice to have but not mandatory.
HOW AND WHERE TO SAVE
There are two perspectives to consider when scope shopping. One is the sniper’s perspective on acceptable levels of performance. The other is the manufacturer’s perspective and how they try to give the customer what they want at the lowest possible price. The components of the scope where these two perspectives wage war are the turrets, erector springs and the gimbal. All are located inside the scope.
A sniper needs a scope that tracks consistently when manipulating the elevation turret. This is non-negotiable. If a scope’s crosshairs won’t adjust to the exact point dialed on the turret, the scope is worthless. Nothing can atone for this optical sin.
Manufacturers know how important this is. The problem is that the materials needed to do it and the precision machine and finish work required drive the scope’s price up. In an effort to give consumers what they want, manufacturers developed a couple of temporary low-cost fixes.
The quickest and easiest manufacturing fix is to leave a matte finish on the turret mechanicals prior to assembly. This method leaves the parts slightly oversized so that they almost have an interference- or press-fit once the scope is assembled. There will be no slop in the adjustments, so the scope will track
beautifully. Should the new owner pull the scope out of the box and run a tracking test, a scope with turrets like these will usually pass. Everyone wins. The manufacturer kept costs down, and the sniper feels great about the performance of the relatively cheap scope.
The problem is that once those turrets wear in and the matte finish begins to burnish or polish, the turret mechanicals will have some slop. The turrets won’t feel different when we dial them, but the scope will begin to have inaccurate adjustments. Once the turrets wear and get sloppy, there is no predicting what happens when we dial.
Some might be inclined to get angry with the manufacturer and think that they’re being dishonest. I think the manufacturer is just doing what the market demands. If customers demand scopes that track but are unwilling to pay for the required finish work, a good manufacturer will find a way to provide a product that works for as long as possible. Some manufacturers have even left a loophole open so that those on a budget can have a scope that always tracks. The way they did this was through the warranty.
Say a sniper buys a $1,000 scope, and it does everything. The reticle is desirable, the magnification range is right, and the scope tracks perfectly. After six months of training and duty use, he runs another tracking test and the scope is all over the place. As long as it was bought from a manufacturer that has a “no questions asked” return policy, the sniper can trade the scope for a new one or have the manufacturer repair it for free.
This is kind of like asking a car manufacturer to replace the tires on your car after you’ve driven 30,000 miles, but some manufacturers are willing to do it. It’s not fair to the manufacturer, but it’s also unlikely that legions of scopes will be coming back after several months or years of use because they no longer track. Few shooters conduct an effective tracking test and most of those are done when the scope is new. If a sniper is on a budget and is willing to work a little harder, he can buy a $1,000 scope that tracks and then keep returning it on warranty when it fails to do so. This approach requires periodic testing that will be a pain in the ass, but it doesn’t cost any money.
The struggle for manufacturers continues when they try to find a balance between the materials and finishes necessary on a scope’s internals and efforts to keep costs down. One area that is problematic is the erector springs and the finish on the erector assembly.
A scope is a tube inside a tube. The internal tube is the erector assembly and it holds many of the lenses. When we dial them, the turrets push the front end of the erector around inside the scope. The erector springs are attached to the inside of the maintube and push against the erector to provide the resistance needed for the turrets to work effectively. Without firm spring pressure against the erector,
gravity and recoil will pull it away from the turrets and the scope won’t hold a zero or track.
When we dial .1 mil on most 5-25X scopes, the front of the erector tube moves .0008 inch. And that has to be repeatable. It takes precisely made turrets and a lot of spring pressure to keep everything where it needs to be. All that spring pressure sits in one spot on the erector assembly and can scratch the tube if the material is too soft, or stick if the erector isn’t polished correctly. The material, its heat treat and the polished finish required for everything to be correct costs lots of money.
The manufacturer work-around is to put a hard polymer cover over the end of the spring so that polymer, not metal, touches the erector. Plastic won’t scratch metal and it can be very lubricious. The problem is that plastic wears unevenly over time and can’t be counted on to exert even pressure on the erector assembly, so adjustments made to the scope aren’t repeatable. Also, worn plastic can occasionally stick to the erector, causing severe backlash.
If the scope costs less than a couple grand, there’s a high probability that the spring has a polymer tip. This is becoming less of an issue as polymers are improving all the time, and there’s some pretty good stuff out there, but it’s one more reason to run regular tracking tests on mid-grade optics.
The final component of cost cutting that can be more trouble than it’s worth is the gimbal. The gimbal is a U-shaped piece of metal that attaches to the back end of the erector assembly and physically connects it to the maintube. When the rifle fires, recoil aggressively pushes the rifle rearward. The scope is attached to the rifle and the gimbal is the only thing that attaches the erector assembly to the scope, so a gimbal has to be strong.
The gimbal also needs to allow unrestricted movement of the erector assembly when the shooter adjusts the turrets. These are very small movements for a part that also needs to be robust. If the gimbal has any burrs from the manufacturing process or it deforms under recoil from poor heat treat, the scope will have backlash or dead clicks where movement of the turret doesn’t equate to movement of the erector. Gimbals with low dispersion glass (it’s heavier that regular glass) and larger maintubes (the lenses are bigger and heavier) take an aggressive beating.
If money is tight and a less expensive scope is the objective, understand that any optic that sells for less than a couple grand will have to receive a tracking test regularly. More expensive scopes should get a tracking test when new, but if they pass they will likely stay good for a long time.
Optical quality isn’t going to improve or degrade with time, so be prepared to pay for what you need. If those needs include resolution in shadow (like trying to spot a target hidden in a dark room) or tacksharp resolution because the shooter observes through the scope for
hours at a time, no scopes are currently available that can do that for less than $2,000 to $2,500.
When on a budget, first try to find a reticle that you can work with from as many manufacturers as possible. Next, identify what magnification range is necessary. The tighter the range, the easier it is to make and the less expensive it will be.
When shopping for turrets, only pay for the critical features. A locking turret is more expensive than one that doesn’t lock. A zero-stop costs money to build but is almost mandatory.
Finally, read the warranty carefully. Many of the big manufacturers have a “no questions asked” return policy. When purchasing mid-grade or cheaper optics, look at the warranty first (even before reticle shopping). As long as the warranty is good and the manufacturer has a reputation for good customer service, a $1,000 to $1,300 scope can provide 95 percent of what most snipers need.