Are Smart Scopes the Hunting Tool of the Future or Shortcuts to Close-Enough Accuracy?
We tested the latest models of digital riflescopes to help you decide
Maybe you’ve heard about a new class of riflescope, optics that use electronics and wireless technology to help with the main job a scope is designed to do: consistently place bullets in a very small area across great distances.
These are variously called “smart scopes,” ”e-scopes,” or “electro-optics,” but what they have in common is their use of technology to derive an aiming solution, generally presented as an illuminated dot on the crosshair or as a digital display inside the scope. Some use built-in laser rangefinders. Others use wireless Bluetooth antennas to receive ballistics information transmitted from a mobile-phone app. And still others communicate wirelessly with “smart” rangefinders.
This species of electronic optic showed up on the market nearly a decade ago, led by Burris’ revolutionary rangefinding Eliminator and the TrackingPoint system developed by partners of Remington Arms that was panned at the time as unethical for hunting because of its reliance on technology. But now the number and variety of digital scopes in the commercial market is accelerating. Advances in integrated circuitry, microprocessing, and wireless technology have prompted more companies to develop smart scopes, and many brands that don’t have e-scopes in their product lines now have plans to release them.
It only makes sense that electronics, which have pervaded so many other aspects of our lives, would eventually show up in our optics and on our rifles.
We evaluated many of the electro-optics currently available, assessing them on their own merits and against each other, but also against representatives of more traditional riflescopes used for both hunting and precision long-distance target shooting. You can check out the whole field of new scopes in our Optics Test 2020.
While the goal of all these riflescopes is the same, the way traditional scopes arrive at an aiming solution compared with how electronic scopes operate is as different as taking a picture with a manual camera versus a digital one. When you use “analog” scopes, aiming decisions are the result of applying reticle references or turret adjustments based on your accumulated knowledge of bullet drift and drop. That’s like manually operating the aperture, shutter speed, and focus on a traditional camera. Electro-optics, like digital cameras, arrive at a shooting solution based on electronic processors, battery-powered sensors, and computational software that applies vectors and algorithms in the blink of an eye.
If you doubt the influence that both electro-optics and precision scopes have had on the sports-optics industry, then take a stroll through your local sporting-goods store or online retailer. Practically speaking, the age of “Kentucky windage” holdover is, well, over. Advertising, social-media influencers, sponsored competitive shooters, and word-of-mouth testimonials have created an expectation that civilians using this new class of optics can legitimately make one-shot hits on small targets at distances up to, and often exceeding, 1,000 yards, and on big-game animals beyond 500 yards.
While established optics brands still sell plenty of scopes with 1-inch tubes, second-plane duplex reticles, and covered turrets, they are selling an increasing number of scopes with 30mm and 34mm tubes containing precision reticles in the first focal plane that are adjusted by tactical-style turrets. And sales of electronic scopes are ticking up as more shooters join the precision revolution and shop for a scope that can maximize the performance of the new generation of hyper-accurate rifles on the market. Taken together, these two types of scopes—electronic and precision—represent a real and important trend in optics, which is why we wanted to test the pros and cons of each platform.
On the Range
If there’s one sound that’s more infuriating than your fishing buddy exclaiming, “Hell, yeah! Caught another one!” while you get skunked, it’s your shooting buddy ringing one distant steel plate after another while you fling bullets without noticeable effect.
That was my aggravation on the first day of our test of digital riflescopes versus the year’s best analog scopes.
I was shooting Steiner’s new smart scope with a computer module, called the Intelligent Firing Solution, the size of a deck of cards, attached to the eyepiece. My neighbor and OL Optics Test veteran Jeron Wesen was shooting Leica’s new and very good PRS scope, whose electronics are limited to reticle illumination. Wesen hosted our test on his 1,500-yard steel-target range in a dryland coulee behind his house, and he was kicking my ass.
My Steiner M7Xi simply couldn’t give me a consistent aiming solution. The scope features a digital display inside the scope’s image that prescribes how many clicks to turn the elevation turret to hit a target at a known distance. But every time I dialed the requisite turns, I missed wildly (my fault, I later learned, because the turret had an extra revolution of elevation dialed). Finally, I turned off the power and used my knowledge of mils to get close, but Wesen and the old-school Leica easily won the first round.
Our friendly competition had a serious intention. As more of these smart scopes like the Steiner come to the market—many of them at competitive prices—hunters and shooters are reasonably asking, Is this technology worth owning? Are these sophisticated optics worth the investment of time and patience required to download a mobile app, input very precise ballistics data, and then trust the software to make a shot when a big buck is on the line? Is the risk of a battery failure worth the upside, which is the ability to hit distant targets shot after shot without having to learn the language of mils or minutes of angle? That, in a nutshell, was the basis for our shoot-out.
A Test is Born
To evaluate the capabilities of these two types of scopes, we replicated—as closely as possible—the conditions shooters and hunters face in the field. Because we conducted our test in eastern Montana in the spring, we couldn’t hunt deer or antelope, and instead used Wesen’s steel-target range. I drafted a series of five-shot batteries at different targets at various distances, then added a time constraint to create the sense of urgency many shooters and hunters encounter in the field. It’s fair to note that both Wesen and I used available technology. He used a Kestrel to give him wind speed and other environmental data, as well as aiming solutions based on his specific bullet dynamics. We both relied on laser rangefinders to determine precise target distance.
What we discovered won’t surprise anyone with even passing experience in the long-distance shooting game: good inputs equal good outputs. In other words, any shooter, regardless of the type of optic atop their rifle, must develop a dope card that includes precise muzzle velocity for the load they shoot, plus the BC (ballistic coefficient) for their bullet and other variables that affect bullet performance over distance, including temperature, elevation above sea level, their rifle barrel’s twist rate, and wind drift.
Most precision shooters spend hours working up loads and tuning them to their optics. That was Wesen’s advantage in our shoot-out. I was using factory loads and the Steiner scope, which relies on extremely precise inputs in order to deliver precise accuracy. Because of a clunky mobile app interface, I entered only close-enough inputs, not at all adequate when you’re trying to hit a 12-inch plate at 1,200 yards in a stiff prairie wind.
Over the course of several shooting sessions, the analog scopes consistently outshot the electronic scopes, with two exceptions. Once I got SIG Sauer’s smart scope—a 5–30×56 Sierra6 with BDX 2.0 software, tuned to the ballistics of my Savage 6mm Creedmoor—I could pretty much match Wesen and his GAP 6mm. And using a relatively un-smart scope, Leupold’s VX-3 with a custom elevation dial tuned to the ballistics of my 6.5 Creedmoor and 143-grain Hornady ELD-X, I made one-shot hits faster and more consistently than did Wesen, though my Leupold—designed more for hunting than for long-distance target shooting—was limited to a single revolution of the elevation turret, about 600 yards.
While the merits of each of the smart scopes we tested are detailed on the following page, some principles for using them apply across models. They include:
Input Precise Data: Just as you’d spend tedious amounts of time working up a ballistics profile for a precision scope, you need to devote time to inputting very precise data for these smart scopes. Without that, you’ll always be in the neighborhood of accuracy without arriving at an address.
Lower Your Expectations: Many electro-optics can be considered a shortcut to precision. But you still have to put in the work. While many of us simply don’t have the time or interest to learn the complicated math of milling reticles, we want a device that will give us precision-scope accuracy without the background work. These electronic scopes will get you close without a lot of effort. But, like any positive-feedback loop, the more targets you hit, the more frustrated you’ll be with those you miss, and you’ll start to tighten your expectations (and your inputs). These smart scopes will grow with your abilities, to a point. Most of them are limited in some way—by distance, precision, or software. After you get started in the long-distance shooting game, you will probably want to graduate to a traditional precision scope.
Limit Your Range: It’s important to note that most of these smart scopes are designed for hunting, not long-distance target shooting. Steel-target matches often require shooters to stretch their capabilities to well beyond 1,000 yards, and these smart scopes don’t quite have that range. Ethical hunters, on the other hand, generally limit their shots to inside 500 yards, given the amount of movement an animal can make in the time it takes a bullet to arrive at the target. Most of these e-scopes can capably handle aiming solutions out to about 800 yards.
Accept Subpar Glass: In general, the optical clarity of smart scopes isn’t as sharp as that of traditional optics. That’s because e-scopes generally have additional lens elements as well as optical coatings that enhance the visibility of their digital displays. But those additions also reduce light transmission.
Keep Batteries Fresh: Detractors of electro-optics will cite their reliance on batteries, and they’ll observe that batteries will fail. That’s true, but it’s simply one of many details to manage and shouldn’t be counted as a primary reason to dismiss them.
Know Your Speed: A quality chronograph is essential to derive ballistic data for scope inputs. If you don’t know the muzzle velocity of your load in your specific gun, you won’t know much about bullet behavior out past 300 yards. We used MagnetoSpeed’s very good and user-friendly V3 chronograph.
Swap Scopes and Rifles: Both smart scopes and traditional optics are equally versatile. While the reticle references in precision scopes can be used on platforms as diverse as a .22 Long Rifle and a .300 Win. Mag., the same can be said for smart scopes. You simply need to spend the time inputting ballistics that conform to whatever gun you’re shooting. Electro-scopes in general are faster at generating a shooting solution than are traditional optics, an important consideration for many hunting scenarios.
Learn the Wind: Lastly, the great equalizer of any long-distance shooting is the wind. These smart scopes do a good job of solving for distance and generating a holdover value, but they don’t help much with the vagaries of horizontal drift. If it’s any consolation, neither do traditional optics. The wind is voodoo. Read it right, and you’ll compensate for any deficiencies of your scope. Get it wrong, and you’ll be just another guesser, whether your scope is smart or not.
Smart Scopes, at a Glance
Burris Eliminator IV (4–16×50)
I dismissed the first generation of the Eliminator as a gimmick when it was introduced a decade ago. Its optics were murky, its operation clunky, and its styling more minivan than sports car. But each iteration has improved on its promise, which is to range your target with the built-in rangefinder and give you an illuminated holdover point based on the distance and the ballistics of your load. The new Eliminator IV is faster, its rangefinder more precise, and its ballistics software more comprehensive than earlier generations. Deficiencies include stingy eye relief and a printed drop table that requires the tedious inputting (invest in a mobile app, Burris!) of the ballistics for your specific bullet and load. But once you get all the inputs correct, the potential of the Eliminator, which costs around $1,700, shines through. Range your target, hold the distance-corrected dot on your target, hold off for wind, and shoot.
Swarovski DS (5–25×52)
This is basically a grown-up version of the Eliminator, with much better glass and a more sophisticated software package that utilizes a mobile app to communicate your ballistics information directly to the scope. Build your bullet profile in the app, transmit it via Bluetooth to the scope, and then get to shooting. The rangefinder is fast and precise, and the ballistics interface is simple to use. Depending on your zero and bullet drop, the system is distance-limited to about 800 yards. But for a hunting setup, that’s plenty of range, and the push-button-make-shot utility is hard to beat. The scope, built on a mammoth 40mm tube, needs wind holds and holdover references in case the battery craps out in the field. And, at $5,000, it’s wildly expensive.
Revic PMR 428 (5–25×56)
When this scope jumped on the scene in 2018, it was revolutionary. Input your load attributes into a mobile app, transmit them to the scope via Bluetooth, and the scope basically handles the rest of the aiming solution, including adjusting for temperature, elevation, relative humidity, and even slight deflection owing to the Earth’s rotation. Hitting distant targets is as easy as ranging the distance, dialing the elevation turret until the correct distance appears in the heads-up display inside the scope, holding for wind, and firing. The optics and oversize turrets are among the best in the field. But at $3,200, it’s pricey, plus the input panel is touchy and exposed to the elements, which made us worry about its durability.
Steiner M7Xi IFS (4–28×56)
Although it’s being introduced in the U.S. just this year, the M7Xi has been on the European market since 2017, mainly as a military optic; the consumer version sells for $5,400. The IFS stands for Intelligent Firing Solution, and its guts are built around a reticle that shows an illuminated aiming point that derives from the characteristics of specific bullet drops and velocities. Range your target, dial your turret to the solution your scope gives you, and shoot. While the system works well, and includes a mobile app that allows you to feed different bullets to the scope, the interface is overly complicated, the heads-up display is confusing, and the battery life is disappointing.
Sig Sauer Sierra6BDX (5–30×56)
When SIG’s original Ballistic Data Xchange was introduced two years ago, it was the fullest expression of electro-optics then available in the consumer market. The Bluetooth-enabled scope was capable of receiving ballistics data from a smartphone app, and a laser rangefinder converted distance into a customized aiming solution transmitted to the scope. Criticism came as quickly as the plaudits: What happens when your batteries die? Can I use the scope without the app or tethered rangefinder? SIG’s answer is the $1,300 BDX 2.0, which gives shooters the option of freeing their scope from the accessories or continuing to use the app and BDX-enabled rangefinder. I loaded my 6mm Creedmoor ballistics into the app and transmitted them to the rangefinder. After zeroing the scope at 100 yards, I rang a 500-yard gong. My next shot, at 750 yards, was also right on the money.