Scope Reticles and Focal Planes Explained

Scope Reticles and Focal Planes Explained
Where the shooter lives on the magnification ring determines which focal plane will be most useful. The rest of the reticle selection process relies on the shooter’s preference.

The first question any of us must answer when choosing a reticle is which end of the scope's magnification range we expect to use the most.

There are so many reticle choices these days that it can be difficult navigating through all the options. Not only must a shooter contend with choosing between first-focal-plane (FFP) reticles and second-focal-plane (SFP) reticles, they also have to choose between traditional crosshair and so-called “Christmas tree” or “holdover” models.

The first question any of us must ask ourselves when choosing a reticle is which end of the scope’s magnification range we expect to use the most. This is by far the most overlooked aspect of reticle selection, yet it drives the choice between FFP­ or SFP reticles.

The best guidelines when selecting a reticle are to identify what magnification range you want and where you’ll expect to spend most of your time in it. Most competitive precision rifle and recreational shooters fall into the maximum-magnification category and are best served by a FFP reticle. Hunters should first look to SFP reticles.

So often new scope customers that can afford it choose FFP reticles because they’re the popular ones to use today. But they’re not always the right choice. However, if the scope you’re considering has a maximum magnification of more than 10X and you plan on living in the top half of the magnification range, FFP reticles are the way to go.


At magnifications greater than 10X, humidity and high temperatures can make it necessary to dial down magnification in order to see more clearly. It’s nice to be able to dial away from maximum magnification and still have a reticle that subtends correctly. Also, dialing down magnification increases field-of-view, so a FFP reticle remains useful when a little-less-than-maximum magnification is desired for more field-of-view.


Choosing a Reticle
A first-focal-plane (FFP), duplex-style reticle appears to get bigger as magnification increases.

FFP reticles have the greatest visibility at maximum magnification and get steadily smaller as magnification decreases, but they remain most usable in the top half of their magnification range. By the time magnification gets well below half of the total range, the reticle is frequently so small that it’s difficult to see. This is why FFP reticles are not the best choice for most hunters and law enforcement (LE) snipers.


Choosing a Reticle
A second-focal-plane (SFP), duplex-style reticle stays the same size even as magnification increases or decreases.

SFP reticles stay full-­sized no matter where the scope’s magnification sits. This means they only subtend correctly at one power. (Frequently at the maximum.) Any scope with a 10X maximum magnification or less is ideal for SFP use because they aren’t commonly applied to measure with the reticle, and if they are, will likely be at maximum power anyway.

Choosing a Reticle
A SFP reticle will only have accurate subtension at one magnification, usually at max.

Hunters and LE snipers frequently sit at the low end of the magnification range because of the wide field-­of-­view. Both shooting demographics need to be able to clearly see the reticle at minimum power because that’s where their shooting needs to happen the fastest. There’s always time to turn magnification up when the target is far away, but never time to turn it down if the target is right in front of you.

As an example, a hunter has to be ready for their quarry to appear at 50 yards, so he’ll likely have magnification turned all the way down. This low magnification makes it very difficult to see the reticle in a hurry if he is using a FFP reticle. LE snipers shoot average 50 yards when deployed, yet they spend hours looking through their scope. The large, easy-­to-­see SFP reticle ensures LE snipers can be at minimum magnification while still remaining ready to shoot.


Choosing a Reticle
Almost all holdover reticles are FFP. The subtension marks are much easier to see and use at higher magnification than at lower magnification.

Once a scope consumer wades through the FFP versus SFP argument, the next issue to resolve is whether a crosshair recticle or holdover reticle is in order. The best-­known crosshair reticle is the duplex, which has wide lines that transition to fine crosshairs near the middle of the reticle. It is the simplest to use, but only offers one prominent aiming point.

Choosing a Reticle
As magnification increases on a FFP duplexstyle reticle, it gets easier to be more precise due to the thinner center section.

The most recent and popular crosshair reticles subtend in either millliradian (mil) or minute of angle (MOA) and have either .2-­mil or 1-­MOA increments. This allows the shooter to dial for distance and have very precise hold-­off points for windage. A small floating dot in the center of the reticle is also a newer and note-worthy feature because it gives the shooter a precise aiming point on even the smallest targets. The old duplex reticle will completely cover a 1 MOA target, so the newer thin crosshair reticles are well worth any shooter’s attention and consideration if precision riflery is on the menu.

Choosing a Reticle
At the low end of magnification, a FFP duplex reticle is still usable because the eye only has to find the center of the reticle.

Holdover reticles are faster to use than traditional crosshair reticles, but also require a transition period. My first exposure to holdover reticles came during a U.S. Marine Corps Scout Sniper Advanced Course in 2006. I observed a Horus reticle (horusvision.com), and while I understood the concept, I wasn’t a big fan. I was used to looking at the uncluttered mil-­dot reticle and didn’t like having so much reticle to look through to see my field-­of-­view. My opinion was pretty typical for a first-time holdover-reticle experience.


Choosing a Reticle
A holdover reticle is useful at high magnification where all subtension marks are easily visible.

Today, my favorite reticle for most of my shooting is Leupold’s Tremor 3, also in use by U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) snipers. It has a lot of sensible features, but can also be overwhelming. I like it because it allows me to transition quickly from one target to the next without having to twist the elevation turret or disturb my shooting position. It also has “wind dots” that allow for rapid and accurate wind estimation from any distance.

Choosing a Reticle
The Tremor 3 reticle is issued to U.S. Special Operations Snipers and is very useful for multiple target and multiple distanceengagements.

Recently, there has been a new series of reticles that fall into the holdover category, but have significantly fewer aiming points than the Tremor 3. These reticles are less cluttered, but many who use them fail to realize that unless a portion of your reticle is touching your target, you do not have a repeatable point-of-aim. This makes follow-­up-shot corrections very difficult and much less precise when it comes to any reticle with too few aiming points.

Reducing the number of aiming points on a holdover reticle by eliminating portions of the reticle makes a floating point-of-aim much more likely. I don’t care for reticles that adopt this strategy because they‘re only effective on very large targets, like a full-­sized International Practical Shooting Confederation (IPSC) piece of steel set at 800 yards or less. However, they are growing in popularity by those transitioning from traditional crosshairs to holdover-­type reticles, even with their limited utility.

Crosshair versus holdover reticles is a personal affair and depends entirely on whether the shooter wants to dial for elevation or just holdover. Each type has its merits. I holdover about 75 ­percent of the time, so about 75 ­percent of my scopes have holdover reticles. I believe every rifleman should try to be proficient in both reticle languages.

Regardless of which type of reticle one selects, FFP and SFP are going to be well served by .2-­mil or 1-­MOA subtension along the main horizontal crosshair, and a floating center-dot or ultrafine crosshair in the very center of the reticle. By obscuring the smallest amount of the target, it ensures you can shoot as small of a group as possible when load­ or accuracy testing. It also has precise hold-­off points for wind correction.

Of course, there’s still room in the optics world for the old duplex reticle. If a guy isn’t shooting past 300 yards and sticks to hunting or plinking, all this reticle hoopla doesn’t apply. More critters and cans have fallen to a duplex reticle than any other type, and that’s not likely to change anytime soon.

Recommended for You

Accuracy testing a rifle begins with building a good shooting position. Too often, shooters so focused on shooting and what's happening at the target that they never learn how to create a solid shooting foundation. Without that foundation, we introduce accuracy-degrading variables into our marksmanship. Here are some rifle accuracy testing tips to get you headed in the right direction. How-To

How to Accuracy Test a Rifle, Part One

Tom Beckstrand - July 14, 2016

Accuracy testing a rifle begins with building a good shooting position. Too often, shooters so...

Introduced at the 2014 NRA Show, Blackhawk Folding Back-Up Sights were developed from the

First Look: Blackhawk Folding Back-Up Sights

G&A Online Editors - May 06, 2014

Introduced at the 2014 NRA Show, Blackhawk Folding Back-Up Sights were developed from the

Shopping for Father's Day gifts? A great dad deserves a fantastic present. Take a look at these gift ideas handpicked by our Guns & Ammo editors. Gear

2018 Father's Day Gift Guide

G&A Online Editors - May 15, 2018

Shopping for Father's Day gifts? A great dad deserves a fantastic present. Take a look at...

See More Recommendations

Popular Videos

Hornady 6MM Creedmoor

Hornady 6MM Creedmoor

Tom Beckstrand and Neal Emery of Hornady highlight the 6MM Creedmoor ammo.

Black Hills Evolution of Rifle Cartridge: .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match

Black Hills Evolution of Rifle Cartridge: .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match

David Fortier talks with Jeff Hoffman of Black Hills Ammunition about the evolution of the .308 Win. 175 Gr. Match bullet.

Armscor Semi-Auto Shotguns

Armscor Semi-Auto Shotguns

We look at the new shotguns from Armscor - the VR80 and the brand new bullpup VRBP100.

See more Popular Videos

Trending Stories

Check out these great options for Dad on Father's Day! Accessories

2019 Guns & Ammo Father's Day Gift Guide

G&A Digital Staff - May 07, 2019

Check out these great options for Dad on Father's Day!

The Savage MSR 15 Competition is an out-of-the-box race horse ready to help you win 3-Gun matches. Rifles

Savage Arms MSR 15 Competition Review

James Tarr - May 21, 2019

The Savage MSR 15 Competition is an out-of-the-box race horse ready to help you win 3-Gun...

A guide on how to pair .223 and 5.56 NATO rifle barrel twist rates with bullet weights. Conventional wisdom says slower twist rates wouldn't properly-stabilize a heavy bullet. On the other hand, faster rates could over-stabilize lighter bullets. This is correct in theory, however, modern ballisticians have all but debunked the over-stabilization theory. All things being equal, it is better to have too much twist than not enough. How-To

Pairing Barrel Twist Rates with Bullets for .223 and 5.56 NATO

Keith Wood - November 17, 2018

A guide on how to pair .223 and 5.56 NATO rifle barrel twist rates with bullet weights....

See More Stories

More How-To

Here are five 'modifications' you can practice on your range to be a better shot in the field. How-To

Five Field Shooting Positions You Should Know

Craig Boddington - October 24, 2018

Here are five 'modifications' you can practice on your range to be a better shot in the field.

Remembering the safari of a lifetime should go beyond taking pictures and hunting game. How-To

Essentials For An African Safari

G&A Staff; Photo by Michael Anschuetz - September 10, 2018

Remembering the safari of a lifetime should go beyond taking pictures and hunting game.

Throttle management and dot discipline are what America's finest are doing on remote ranges around this country — and the world. How-To

Throttle Management and Dot Discipline

SGM Kyle Lamb [Ret.] - September 06, 2019

Throttle management and dot discipline are what America's finest are doing on remote ranges...

See More How-To

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Temporary Price Reduction

SUBSCRIBE NOW

Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services

PREVIEW THIS MONTH'S ISSUE

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

×