The Best Scopes of 2017
First-plane riflescopes are dominating the optics scene
Remember the old days, when a riflescope was an accessory to a rifle, an aiming device that was interchangeable between guns? You can still buy those basic scopes with duplex reticles in the second optical plane. But if submissions to this year’s riflescope test are any indication, those simple optics are being displaced by task-specific scopes that have sophisticated—and sometimes caliber-specific—reticles optimized for defined shooting challenges and dedicated rifles.
This trend toward specialization has been building for some time. But we’ve never seen more scopes with first-plane reticles and aiming systems (which we define as the interplay of turrets and reticle) designed for long-range shooting as we saw in this year’s Outdoor Life Optics Test. These are serious precision instruments, and they’re often seriously big hunks of glass and metal. Four scopes in this year’s test are built on 34mm tubes, and their average weight of 2 ½ pounds makes them a poor choice for a walkabout rifle.
Luckily, there’s a riflescope for every shooter in this year’s test—high-priced precision scopes alongside inexpensive 1-inch riflescopes. You’ll find a few with attributes to appeal to long-range shooters, but with the versatility to be useful in a wide range of shooting situations.
Nightforce Atacr 7-35X56
With this gargantuan scope, Nightforce has built the ultimate long-range precision optic. Get a load of these specs: 35X top magnification, 100 MOA of elevation adjustment inside the 34mm tube, 2 ½ pounds. It is a supremely precise and extremely durable scope built for…a very narrow niche. This iteration of the ATACR is designed for shooters who are reaching out a mile or more and need powerful magnification and tons of elevation adjustment. For the rest of us, Nightforce’s 5–25×56 ATACR is more versatile. But if you have $3,600 lying around for the most powerful precision optic on the market, this 7–35X is a great choice.
Price: $3,600 Nathaniel Welch
Sig Sauer Whiskey5 3-15X52
Let’s start with the sweetness of this scope in a configuration that can pull double duty on AR platforms as well as hunting rifles. The optics are stunning—the Whiskey5 tied for best resolution score. The second-plane Triplex reticle is sharp and aids in fast aiming, and the illuminated cant indictor is useful. Now for the sourness: The reticle is primitive for a precision scope—the lack of holdover references requires shooters to ‘get on the knobs’ to dial in their dope. It’s easy to get lost in the windage dial. I’d swap out the production elevation turret—which features a smart revolution indicator—for a custom ballistic turret.
Price: $1,650 Nathaniel Welch
Bushnell Elite Tactical DMRII-I 3.5-21X50
Kahles 624I 6-24X56
Kahles 624I 6-24X56
Then there’s the reticle. The illuminated first-plane milling SKMR3 reticle (affectionately called the “Skimmer3” by fans of its clear design and useful subtensions) offers plenty of holdover and holdoff references without being overly busy. The big, tactile turrets move in .1 milliradian adjustments, and a red indicator pin pops up after a single revolution, so shooters won’t get lost in their elevation adjustments. All of these thoughtful details would be window dressing without great optics, and the Kahles delivers a stunning picture. The 624i finished near the top of our low-light test, and also turned in a good resolution score, as you’d expect from its European glass and optical design. The Kahles is a pricey scope, but its useful features, first-rate controls, and sharp optics make this excellent precision-aiming instrument a smart investment.
Price: $3,000 Nathaniel Welch
Cabela’s Covenant FFP 6-24X50
A first-plane reticle in a short-range scope? We scratched our collective heads at first, wondering about its utility. Then we shot with this fun and versatile optic, and slapped our foreheads in a ‘duh!’ moment. At 1X to 4X, the Speed Ring, made up of two illuminated circles—a small center circle and a larger outer circle—provides very fast aiming. But at 5X and 6X, the center circle expands to become a holdover reticle, with clear and fast references for holds out to 600 yards. The sweet little 1–6X would be at home on a 3-Gun competition carbine, a home-defense gun, a dark-timber elk rig, or even on a dangerous-game rifle.
Price: $1,300 Nathaniel Welch
Leica Magnus 2.4-16X56I
Optically, this german-made Leica is the cream of this year’s crop of riflescopes. The astonishingly wide and bright image produced by the plasma-coated lenses inside the lustrous 30mm tube is first rate. The dual-intensity illumination system is smart and practical, and the Magnus’ 6.7-times magnification covers a wide range of shooting situations. But the aiming system of this scope, which has been available in Europe but is just coming to America now, is disappointing. We could get only one revolution out of the elevation turret, and we wanted more references than the second-plane duplex reticle provides.
Price: $3,000 Nathaniel Welch
This feature-packed Leupold is suited to a variety of shooting situations. The illuminated MOA reticle in the second plane has a blizzard of holdover and holdoff references, and the 6-times magnification range and low-slung 44mm objective bell on a 30mm tube make it a capable addition to any rifle. The ¼ MOA turrets have locking buttons that do double duty as revolution indicators; a custom elevation turret is free with purchase. But this latest iteration of the VX-6 is trying to do too much. The cluttered reticle gets lost against a busy background. But for a do-it-all scope, this lightweight Leupold is a winner.
Price: $1,500 Nathaniel Welch
GPO Passion 3X 4-12X40
What a delight—in a field of riflescopes each pushing to cram in more features, magnification, and reticle adjustment than the next—to find this reinvented classic. This is the first entry from newcomer GPO, which stands for German Precision Optics. The name seems odd given that the Passion 3X is made in Japan, but the principals of GPO are alums of Zeiss, which has created a market sourcing optics from Asia. The Passion has a simple second-plane duplex reticle inside a 1-inch tube. The glass is very good, the controls are sprightly, the mounting dimensions are excellent, and the price is eye-catching.
Price: $350 Nathaniel Welch
Nikon Black X1000 6-24X50
If you are searching for a scope that can pull duty on a precision rifle or a hunting rig, give this new Nikon a hard look. Features designed for longer-range shooting include an illuminated milling reticle in the second plane, and very precise .1 MRAD adjustments with the exposed turrets. Hunters will appreciate the uncluttered reticle that is tuned to 18X, or they can optimize aiming points for any magnification by using Nikon’s Spot On ballistic program. The 30mm tube will balance on most rifles. The long mounting dimensions of the scope make it easy to ring up on standard- and even magnum-length rifle actions.
Price: $650 Nathaniel Welch
Tract Tekoa 3-12X50
Buy It Now!
Athlon Cronus 4.5-29X56
This entry from a relative newcomer to the optics trade is a feature-rich tactical scope built around a useful, if derivative, first-plane milling reticle. The Cronus has everything a precision shooter demands: precise and positive dials, subtle illumination, a zero stop on the elevation turret, and a whopping 110 MOA of elevation adjustment inside the 34mm tube. We wanted more visible reticle references at lower magnifications and more pronounced index numbers on the turrets, but the Cronus’ optics and tight controls are so good that we expect to see Athlons in more shooting competitions.
Price: $1,800 Nathaniel Welch
Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-12X40
You can fiddle with $2,000 scopes and not find better elevation and windage controls than you’ll find on this $400 Vortex. The exposed turrets move with the crispness and precision of machined gears. The rest of the scope is pretty average. Inside the 1-inch tube is a non-illuminated holdover reticle in the second plane that features MOA references. Vortex hopes this scope appeals to entry-level tactical shooters who also intend to hunt with the optic, and the Diamondback Tactical should serve both purposes. The scope might also spoil shooters, who will come to expect this high quality of a turret on other optics in this price class.
Price: $400 Nathaniel Welch
Meopta ZD 6-24X56
The ZD departs from Meopta‘s stylish aesthetic with controls that appear to have been designed by committee. The turrets are strangely protrudent; the left-side focus wheel is larger than a silver dollar. But those awkward-looking features have real performance virtues. The overlarge focus wheel turns easily with a fingertip. The knobs are easy to grab and turn, to adjust the reticle through an impressive 83 MOA of travel inside the 30mm tube. These features befit the ZD’s purpose: to be a sniper’s optic tuned to NATO rounds. The heart of the scope is the ranging mil-dot reticle in the second plane. It’s a sharp optic built with a narrow mission.
Price: $1,900 Nathaniel Welch
Hawke Frontier 30 SF 2.5-15X50
This is a basic versatile hunting scope with a duplex holdover reticle in the second optical plane built on a 30mm tube. The holdover references—two hashes below the illuminated center dot—are designed to conform to the ballistics of a standard centerfire cartridge when the scope is set at 8X. So far, so good. But the capped MOA-based turrets are mushy, the mounting dimensions are a little stingy, and the optics are middling, though the Hawke did perform well in our low-light test. If you’re looking for an all-around scope with a simple holdover reticle, this isn’t a bad choice.
Price: $720 Nathaniel Welch
Vanguard Endeavor RS IV 1.5-6X42
There are some fine touches on this low-mag scope from a brand better known for its tripods and binoculars. The German 4 reticle’s center-dot illumination is subtle and precise—the controls smartly turn the light off between each intensity setting—and the mounting dimensions of the 30mm tube are generous. The crisp crosshair is suited to driven game or longer precision aiming. But the controls are spongy, and a scope of this magnification range is better served with a 24mm objective. Still, for an affordable dangerous-game scope or an optic for a shotgun or AR, there’s a ton of value here.
Price: $430 Nathaniel Welch
Oculus Phaze 6-24X50
|Riflescopes||Kahles 6241||Nightforce Atacr||Sig Sauer Whiskey5||Swarovski Z8||Bushnell Elite Tactical DMRII-I||EOTech Vudu|
|Riflescopes||Lecia Magnus||Leupold VX-6HD||GPO Passion 3X||Nikon Black X1000||Tract Tekoa||Cabela’s Covenant FFP|
|Riflescopes||Athlon Cronus||Vortex DiamondBack Tactical||Meopta ZD||Hawke Frontier 30||Vanguard Endeavor RS IV||Oculus Phaze|