Optics in the crosshairs

Choosing a quality hunting scope takes a little research
Ross Bielema

A few hunters with keen eyesight or a yearning for the nostalgic will be in the woods this fall with an iron-sighted lever-action rifle or maybe even an old slug shotgun with open sights.

The rest of us will be toting a shooting iron with our favorite scope or red dot sight, because we just don’t see that well anymore or we just got tired of missing so much.

A scope won’t solve all your deer hunting problems, but it will definitely increase your odds of putting a deer down when compared to a notched rear sight and a steel post up front.

There have never been more optics choices than now. A classic metal fixed-power scope is almost a relic today, although there’s nothing wrong with a vintage scope in the 2- to 7-power range. Most hunters now opt for a variable-power scope, giving a choice of magnifications with the twist of a dial.

The new kid in town is the optical sight, typically a red dot display (not to be confused with a laser sight, which is illegal for deer hunting and not a good choice anyway). These ultra-light sights are usually dependent on a battery but are much faster on target and generally have no magnification.

I’ll give you my 2 cents on scope selection, from 50-plus years of scope use, selling scopes five years at a Gander Mountain store and editing a Krause Publications book “Sporting Optics” with Wayne Van Zwoll.

He and I share one thought that can’t be overstated: You will almost never need a scope with more than 9 power, but you are more likely to miss with too much magnification, even when hunting out West.

Benchresting prairie dogs aside, you’ll find a 2-7 or 3-9 power scope more than adequate for Wisconsin deer as far as you can see one. I much prefer a 1-4 or 1.5-4.5 scope any day, as you have a brighter and wider field of view at low power.

If you have a scope cranked to say 9 power and a deer shows up at close range, you will waste precious seconds trying to find him in the scope or cranking it lower. Instead, keep it set at the lowest magnification for fast shots. A scope is merely an aiming point and you will not be any more accurate at 9 power than 3 power. Hunters have a hard time understanding this.

Here’s Van Zwoll on the topic: https://gundigest.com/gun-reviews/wayne-van-zwoll-get-the-right-scope-fo....

Don’t skimp on a scope. The biggest problem with cheap scopes is they look the same on the outside as the good ones, but when it comes to adjustment and holding zero, the $50 scope usually fails. Leupold, Weaver and Eotech are still made in America, and I also like the higher-end Bushnells. Most Burris scopes are now made in the Philippines, but they have a high-end model that uses Japanese components that is assembled in the United States. Wisconsin-based Vortex has one high-end model made here, but most of their scopes are made in China or the Philippines.

You will waste time, ammo, effort and much frustration on a cheap scope, so plan on spending $150 to $500 on a decent one. More money means better light-gathering ability (if you are on a $10,000 elk hunt and need to make a shot on a trophy bull in fading light, you’ll be glad you bought a premium scope).

Why do some scopes cost so much? Most basic scopes are waterproof and nitrogen filled to make them fogproof, but the big money goes into the cost of the glass and coatings. These coatings allow more light transmission, so, in theory, a $1,000 scope will be brighter and clearer than a $100 one. There is a point of diminishing returns; however, and I’ve never spent more than $300 on a scope.

Red dots and other optical sights are the latest sighting tools. Most depend on batteries and in cold Wisconsin weather, you will find they tend to fail when you need them most. Carry spare batteries in a warm pocket. Some red dots combine batteries, fiber optics and tritium crosshairs for a fail-safe combo that won’t leave you hunting blind.

Great brands include Trijicon, Aimpoint, EOTech, Bushnell, Leupold and TruGlo.

Handgun shooters are switching over to optical sights in droves, as these red dots are getting smaller and smaller. Brands like Sig Sauer, Holosun, Vortex and Bushnell who make pistol red dots are turning out some featherweight versions for rifles, too. Plan to spend $100 to $500 on a high-quality dot sight. Those with “shake on” technology (the sight detects movement and turns itself on) help you extend battery life to years. Some versions are designed to stay on for months or longer on a single set of batteries.

I look for a red dot that allows battery replacement without removing the sight from the gun.

Not all do that.

Adjustments are similar to those of a scope, with both windage and elevation clicks.

The military has been using optical sights for decades now and they are proven in battle as the fastest on-target system out there. You can do almost as well with a low-power scope. Some scopes of course use batteries to make the crosshairs glow, which is perfect during early morning and dusk when the deer are moving. Again, bring extra batteries, although a scope will allow you to see the crosshairs even with dead batteries.

Be sure to do some research to determine if the red dot sight you like will stand up to your rifle’s recoil. Contact the manufacturer if you have doubts.

Some hunters love “see through” scope mounts so they can “co-witness” their iron sights with their scope by looking under the scope. Most gunsmiths cringe as they install these beasts. You want to mount your scope or red dot as close to the bore as possible (check bolt clearance with your scope rings before tightening everything down), so see-through mounts are generally a no-no for serious hunters.

You are either going to use a scope or open sights, not both. Some AR-15 rifle sights mount above the scope to co-witness, and that’s a different story.

What scope or red dot does your favorite deer rifle carry? Drop me an e-mail and tell me why you love that choice. Better yet, send me a picture of the deer you shot with it.

Ross Bielema is a freelance writer from New London and owner of Wolf River Concealed Carry LLC. Contact him at Ross@wolfriverccw.com.