Optics Test 2018: Best Hunting Riflescopes, Binoculars, and Spotting Scopes
We put this year's crop of new hunting optics through the wringer
In terms of optical innovation and incorporation of accuracy-enhancing technology, the riflescope category is in hyperdrive, with product introductions this year that will help you shoot better, whether your target is a big-game animal or a distant steel gong. The influence of long-distance shooting has pervaded the optics industry, to the extent that nearly half the scopes in this year’s test are built for way-out-there target work. These precision scopes feature chubby 34mm tubes, computer-drafted first-plane reticles, and turrets with seemingly miles of internal adjustment. They typically weigh about 3 pounds. Their average price is about $2,000. Innovation isn’t limited to riflescopes. This year’s Outdoor Life optics test saw spotting scopes with binocular eyepieces, binoculars with lightning-fast rangefinders, and new brands elbowing into this crowded category of outdoor gear. But there are only so many ways to tweak a binocular or a spotting scope. This year’s field of riflescope submissions indicates there are at least a dozen ways to modify a magnified rifle sight, including adding sophisticated electronics, inserting light-activated reticles, beefing up turrets, and even pairing your riflescope with your phone.
One victim of this innovation is convention. With only a single 1-inch riflescope in the test this year, the venerable 3-to-9 variable-power scope with a duplex reticle and 1/4-inch turret controls has become a quaint throwback, replaced with purpose-built optics that have gee-whiz capability but limited versatility. The other victim is restraint. The capability of these precision scopes is remarkable, but we hope brands put as much emphasis on coaching customers to shoot (and hunt) within their abilities as they do on promoting the bells, whistles, and milliradian reticles of their new products.
Our take-away from this year’s arsenal of bristling-turret submissions is that the industry is betting American hunters and shooters can’t get enough of these specialized optics. And new brands are in on the wager. This year we welcomed the first riflescope from Fujifilm, better known for digital cameras; a scope and binocular from the German gun company Blaser; a very interesting digital riflescope from Wyoming-based Revic; and a serviceable scope from Riton, a veteran-owned company based in Tucson, Arizona’s “Optics Valley.”
We spent weeks testing this year’s class of optics in our resolution and low-light labs, then strapped all the submissions either to our necks, to tripods, or to rifles, and spent another two months assessing their capabilities in the field. Here are our results.
The State of Optics
You could look at the lineup of riflescopes in this year’s test and draw two conclusions. First, there’s little for the average deer hunter who won’t shoot much beyond 100 yards. Second, the optics industry is promoting unethical hunting behavior by peddling scopes—some with electronic brains—that facilitate shooting out to 1,000 yards and beyond.
But here’s another way to look at this year’s crop of new optics: All the technology inside these scopes can make you a better shot and a more ethical hunter at any range, as long as you know and obey the limitations of your gear and recognize when it gives you an unfair advantage over the animals you pursue.
Put another way, it’s the brain behind the scope—not the one inside it—that controls and limits its use.
Consider the breakout riflescope in this year’s test. The promise of the BDX is that it can reliably place shots out to 800 yards. That might be a chip shot for a long-distance precision target shooter, but it’s unjustifiably far for a hunter. Too much can go wrong in an 800-yard shot at an animal, from unreckoned wind drift along the trajectory to the length of time the bullet is in flight, which is long enough that an animal can take a step or two from when the trigger is pulled to when the bullet arrives.
But it’s also worth saying that hunting is a game of variables, and some situations call for hunters to shoot near the limits of their demonstrated range. Many of us decide not to shoot at an animal unless we can guarantee a lethal hit. But how many times have we used “Kentucky windage” to guess at the hold at a distant animal? What the Sig (along with many of the scopes in this year’s test) can do is take the guesswork out of a longish shot. That’s not promoting reckless behavior; it’s using technology to precisely place a bullet and deliver a quick kill.
What about the neglected 100-yard deer hunter? Will he ever need a scope with 800-yard capability? Maybe not. But the other significant trend in optics is the normalization of the all-around riflescope. The wide variety in our versatile riflescope category attests to the value of a single scope to handle all shooting situations—from summertime varmints and treestand deer hunting to off-season target shooting. That approach doesn’t exclude any segment of our community. Instead, you might describe it as the best expression of inclusion.
If there’s an unsustainable trend, it’s price. The average for a scope in our versatile category is $1,100. It’s $1,900 for the precision class. That’s a steep climb, whether you’re a Midwest deer hunter or a target shooter.
How We Test Optics
We rated optics on their ability to serve a hunter or shooter, which meant putting an emphasis on their durability, versatility, and field worthiness. Since optics are designed to help us see, we also scored image sharpness and cleanness on a standard resolution chart, and then tested their low-light visibility in the evenings. But the balance of the test was in the field. We spent weeks with the binoculars, using them the way you do: by strapping them to our chests and hiking all sorts of terrain. We mounted spotting scopes on tripods and used them to spot game and score hits at the rifle range. We mounted all riflescopes on guns and rated their ability to make precise aiming adjustments and return to zero, time after time.
We also assessed their ergonomics, their looks, and whether they’re suitable for the task they’re intended to tackle. The optics that scored the most points won our Editor’s Choice awards. The optics with the highest value scores won our Great Buy awards.
We grouped riflescopes designed for long-range shooting as a single category. The second category of riflescopes, which we call the “versatile” scopes, are primarily intended for hunting but have enough reticle references for a variety of target work.