February 24, 2023
It’s not every day that a writing assignment starts out from an argument. Editor-in-Chief Eric Poole and I were chatting on the phone when he pulled up an email he received from a reader about an article I wrote. I had just reviewed an expensive optic and the reader mentioned that it seemed like a great scope but that it was beyond his budget. Another optic that cost far less was recommended, which was the scope that he used the most.
Poole asked, “Why don’t you write an article about that one? It’s a less-expensive option!”
“I don’t like that scope,” I grumbled in reply. “For the money, there are far better scopes out there.”
The gauntlet was thrown down. “You only like the expensive stuff,” Poole said.
“Oh, cut it out. In that price range the best choice is Leupold’s Mark 3HD.”
So, this article is my defense of that statement.
When shopping for riflescopes that sell in the $200 to $700 range, most choices are sourced from China and the Philippines, with a dash of Japanese production thrown in. Leupold is the only true American-made scope manufacturer that competes in this segment. Politics aside, it’s important to assess these scopes on a level playing field if our desire is to identify “best in class.”
Image quality is the first category that comes to mind. Leupold beats all comers in this price range. There are a handful of scopes from the Philippines that have good image quality, and Japan is certainly capable if the price is right. Leupold is the only manufacturer of the bunch that employs more than 100 engineers. The team that works on Leupold’s most expensive scopes also worked on the Mark 3HD. All of the tribal knowledge has been accumulating there for decades. Experience gets rolled into every single product, guaranteeing Leupold’s best effort at any price. No one else has as much unified engineering power on their bench.
All of that engineering horsepower means good ideas aren’t reserved for just the expensive models. Most scope companies don’t manufacture much of their own product. The truth is that manufacturing is often outsourced to large Asian companies that put the name of whatever company ordered the scopes on the box. These large overseas companies reserve the best ideas for their most expensive products because profit margins matter. Leupold doesn’t have that same motivation to try and upsell customers to more expensive glass because it’s the same team and same factory that make all their scopes. Each scope line is seen as an optimization problem of trying to pack the most performance possible into the product.
Combining Leupold’s huge engineering staff with its sizeable manufacturing footprint means that there is nothing off the table. If they can think it up, they can build it. Leupold has all the manufacturing they need to produce scope maintubes, erector assemblies and turret components. Each one of those components requires a high degree of precision to manufacture, a level of precision not usually found on scopes in this price range.
A good example of the difference precision manufacturing makes in riflescopes would be to compare turret components made in China versus turret components made by Leupold. Chinese scope manufacturers will only guarantee a +/- 5-percent error in a scope turret. These assemblies require a lot of precision because adjusting the elevation turret a tenth of a mil means the erector assembly has to move, for example, .002-inch for every single .1-mil adjustment. If the erector assembly occasionally moves .0021 or .0019 inch, the scope won’t track correctly. This is the main reason why Chinese-produced scopes should never be shot past 500 yards or so. There isn’t enough precision in the turret assemblies to true the rifle with a ballistic calculator. There is no way to know if it was a scope tracking error or the bullet’s velocity and ballistic coefficient (BC) that determined its trajectory.
In my experience, turret component manufacturing improves in the Philippines, but it still won’t match what Leupold offers. Japanese manufacturing can and will, but not at the Mark 3HD price points. Japanese plants can have $200 scopes being made on one bench and $2,000 scopes assembled on the next bench over. There is a huge difference in fit and finish between the two scopes because there are two different company names on the boxes and two entirely different levels of effort applied.
When Leupold built the Mark 3HD, the usual high level of attention to detail and quality control was maintained. They managed to still keep these scopes inexpensive by leveraging time-tested mechanical components that are simple for its workflow to manufacture. The 3X erector assembly that determines the magnification range is short, uncomplicated and easy for Leupold to manufacture well. It’s also been around for years, so any issues were worked out a long time ago. The same can be said for the exposed elevation turret. It is precise, easy to set and even includes a zero stop. The elevation turret is limited to one rotation (5.6 mils) of travel because multi-revolution capable turrets are more complex, and complexity drives up cost. Having 5.6 mils of elevation travel gets my 6.5 Creedmoor out to about 800 yards at near sea level. The reticles are also familiar to anyone who has shot with a Leupold scope in the last decade. With the Mark 3HD, all reticles fall into the second focal plane (SFP).
What’s new are parts of the optical package. Some components, such as the erector assembly, have been in other Leupold product lines. However, the objective lens group was updated with more advanced elements and coatings. These updates mean the scope fights above its weight class in low light and with glare management. No foreign manufacturer can make incremental updates like this because there is no motivation to do so.
While the Mark 3HD line consists of inexpensive scope models — the 1.5-4x20 and 3-9x40 start at $500 — each of these optics pass the same quality control checks as the more expensive models. This is another distinguishing feature between the Mark 3HD and its Philippine and Chinese competitors. In an effort to reduce cost, most scopes see little durability testing. Meanwhile, Leupold puts the Mark 3HD through recoil simulators that, when replicated in real life — imagine a 6-pound dangerous game rifle with no muzzlebrake — destroy fiberglass stocks in as few as five rounds. The Mark 3HD scopes have to survive this phase of impact testing.
The Mark 3HD lineup are inexpensive SFP scopes that offer limited features — hence the low price — but flawless execution. Each are built around a 30mm maintube, and there are models available with either side-focus or illumination adjustments. Where these scopes will perform the best is self-defense (the 1.5-4X model) target shooting out to about 800 yards and hunting. The way Leupold has structured its company, and how it operates, ensures that no other scope in this price range will match the optical and mechanical performance of the Mark 3HD.
Leupold Mark 3HD
- Power: 1.5-4X, 4-12X, 6-18X, 8-24X
- Objective: 20mm, 40mm, 50mm
- Tube Diameter: 30mm
- Elevation Adjustment: .1 mil per click
- Windage: .1 mil per click
- Reticle: Illuminated Firedot, TMR
- Length: 12.6 in., 14.6 in., 14.6 in.
- Weight: 16.2 oz., 20.5 oz., 21 oz.
- Eye Relief: 3.7 in. to 5.4 in.
- MSRP: $499 to $699
- Manufacturer: Leupold, 800-538-7653, leupold.com
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