Choosing a Long Range Scope – A Step by Step Guide

There is a specific joy in shooting with hard sights, but sometimes, you want to reach out and touch something that's very far away. And no matter how good your eyesight, a set of iron sights isn't going to let you do it. There are scopes for pretty much every type of shooting, and for general shooting up to 100 yards, you can find a dozen scopes that will suit the bill. However, for long-range shooting, especially out past 400 yards, you're going to want to look for some specific features to help make those difficult shots.

The Parts of a Long Range Scope

Before you can pick out the long-range scope that's best for you, you should know what the various parts are and how they affect the distance shooter. You can't exactly get the best long-range scope if you don't know what each part does.

rifle scope basic
  • Tube – This is the body of the scope. While most scopes have 1-inch tubes, for long-distance shooting, you should get a 30-mm tube. That slightly wider tube means more light will be transmitted through the scope.
  • Objective Lens – This is the lens that is farthest from the shooter. It’s held by a flared housing called the objective bell, but what’s important is the diameter of the lens. In general, the larger the lens, the higher the magnification of the scope. The objective lens also plays a key part in determining how much light goes through the scope.
  • Ocular Lens – This is the lens that is closest to the shooter. It is held by the eyepiece. In general, this lens and the eyepiece don’t get as large as the objective lens. This is because the bolt action of the rifle must freely operate, and you don't want the scope mounted too high above the rifle. Additionally, a larger ocular lens does not affect the quality of the view through the scope.
  • Elevation and Windage Knobs – These are also called turrets, and they can come with covers and without. Some scopes have turrets that are not finger adjustable and instead require special tools. For the long-range shooter in the field, this isn’t desirable. Choose turrets that have protective covers and that have a tactile and/or audible feedback that seems right for you.
  • Reticle – These are the crosshairs that you see when you look through the scope. There will be an entire section dedicated to talking about the various types of reticles and their impact on long-range shooting.
  • Parallax Adjustment Knob – Also called a Side Focus (SF) knob, this adjustment is used to correct parallax in your scope at range.

Terminology for Long Range Scopes

It’s not only important to know the parts of a scope, but you should also know the common terminology associated with scopes.

  • Eye Relief – This is how far the eyepiece of the scope is from you. In general, a 4 to 5-inch eye relief is desirable. This is enough distance so that the recoil from shooting will not cause the scope to bounce back and give you a black eye or scope cut.
  • Exit Pupil – This is a measurement for how much light is going through a scope and also gives you an idea of how well the scope will perform in low light. This number is found by dividing the objective lens diameter by the magnification of the scope. As you can tell, the higher the scope’s zoom, the lower the exit pupil will be.
  • Parallax – This is a thing that happens when the reticle and the object being aimed at are not on the same focal plane. Essentially, as your eye moves, the reticle will appear to dance or swim around the target. This is an obvious problem because if the reticle moves independently of the target, your shots are not going to hit consistently.

Now that you know the terminology and the parts of the scope, it's time to talk turkey about what you want in the best long-range scope.

Glass Quality

When it comes to long-range shooting, if the lenses in your scope aren’t crystal clear, then you’ve already lost half the battle. The lenses in your scope should be clear at every magnification and every range.

Another reason you want the best glass possible is because when you’re shooting at ranges that are 500 yards out or even farther, the wind conditions there can be completely different. This is called “reading the wind” and can mean the difference between hitting and whiffing. You won’t always have blatant indicators of wind speed like trees; sometimes all you’ll have to tell you which way the wind blows is the grass near your target.

The best way to ensure you get good glass in your scopes is to look through them. But most stores only carry a few models, and it's difficult to get a good read when the selection is limited. If you can't look through a scope, then trusting word-of-mouth is the next best thing.

Here are three of the highest-rated companies when it comes to scopes with great glass:

  • Leupold – This company makes the scopes for the United States Marine Scout Snipers. That's pretty much the most solid recommendation a scope manufacturer can have.
  • Swarovski – This Austrian manufacturer is possibly best known for making crystals and jewelry, and that focus on crystal has served them well. Their sub-company Swarovski Optik makes some of the best high-powered optics on the market.
  • Schmidt and Bender – When it comes to long-range scopes, Schmidt and Bender are one of the best known and highly rated names in the game.

There are other companies with their own devout followings when it comes to glass. But in the end, you’re the one who’s going to be using the scope, so you need to find the one that’s best for you.

Tube Construction

Any scope used for long-distance shooting is going to be on a high powered rifle. It takes a lot of oomph to sling lead out past 400 yards, and that means a lot of recoil. That means your scope needs to be able to take the recoil and come out the other side.

Look for single-piece bodies that are made of high-grade aircraft aluminum. This will get you the best combination of durability and weight considerations.

Objective Lens – How Big is too Big?

The larger the objective lens, the more light that will be transmitted through the scope tube. So many people start to think that they want the largest objective lens possible. However, as the lens and the bell get larger, the higher you have to mount the scope on the rifle. And the higher you mount the scope, the less precise your scope is going to be.

Additionally, there's a diminishing curve when it comes to objective lens size versus the amount of light transmitted. As you go past about 50mm in diameter, a larger lens doesn't add much. In most cases, shooters will recommend objective lenses that are anywhere from 44mm to 50mm.

Choosing the Zoom

When it comes to magnification, should you choose fixed or variable zoom? The answer depends on what you’re going to be doing. Are you going for exclusively shooting at the range? Do you want to hunt with your new scope?

If you’re going with only using your rifle for target shooting at the range at distances over 400 yards, then a fixed 24x or even 40x zoom might be what you want. But you’re going to be locked into that type of shooting.

If you want versatility, then getting a variable magnification scope is the best option. Keep in mind that when you’re hunting, you can have a deer come wandering out of the brush as close as 30 yards away. At that range, your 40x zoom is going to be more of a handicap than a benefit. Look for an upper range that’s anywhere from 16 to 24 and a lower range that’s about 3 to 5.

Elevation Knobs

In long-range shooting, you're going to get some significant bullet drop. While you can adjust or this by aiming higher, it's nice to have an elevation turret that has enough adjustment range so you don't have to manually adjust for holdover.

Consider that A .308 drops about 50 inches at 500 yards. That’s 40 clicks on a quarter minute turret. Look for a scope with at least a 100 MOA adjustment range. That’s going to give you plenty of room for shooting up to at least 1000 yards.

Choosing the Reticle

Sometimes it seems like there are more types of reticles than there are stars in the sky. Duplex-style, holdover (or Christmas Tree),  MOA, Tremor 3; the options are many. For long-range shooting, you're going to want to ditch the classic duplex and move on to something that gives you the ability to make on the fly adjustments.

The Tremor 3 reticle is currently used by snipers with the United States Special Operations Command (SOCOM). At first glance, it can be fairly overwhelming. But the scope is designed to allow the long-range shooter to make quick adjustments without going back to their windage and elevation knobs.

The primary horizontal line has wind speed markings and the rapid range bars lets you make a snap range estimate for common targets. The holdover crosses extend the wind and elevation points as well. This reticle is also illuminated for low-light conditions.

If this reticle is a little much for you, then consider one with standard holdover markings. This reticle will give you mil or MOA elevation markings, allowing you to adjust for longer ranges without having to resort to your adjustment turrets. Most will also extend the horizontal mil markings, letting you adjust for windage on the fly as well.

These reticles may seem a little cluttered if you're used to a simple mil-dot reticle. But with practice, you'll find that long-range shooting and second-shot adjustments are much easier with the Tremor 3 or a holdover reticle.

FFP Reticles vs. SFP Reticles

No discussion of reticles would be complete without addressing the Front Focal Plane (FFP) vs. Second Focal Plane (SFP) debate. Depending on what type of shooting you're planning on doing, you'll want one over the other. In general, a precision competition shooter wants an FFP reticle, while a hunter should choose the SFP.

Put another way, if you plan on shooting at mostly maximum magnification, you should choose an FFP reticle. That’s because with an FFP reticle, as you increase magnification, the crosshair gets bigger. As you zoom out, the crosshair gets smaller. In some cases, without illumination, the reticle can be so small that it’s difficult to see. This is why this type of reticle is bad for hunters.

Hunters will frequently zoom out so that they can get a larger field of view and see more game. But by doing so, the reticle becomes smaller and finer. That makes it difficult to do a quick snapshot at a target of opportunity.

On the other side of the coin, and SFP reticle stays the same size no matter what the scope's magnification. However, this means that the reticle marks are only precise at one magnification. So for a long-range shooter, this means that second shot adjustments are going to be extremely hard to do on the fly.

Simply put, if you’re looking for a quality long-range scope, go with an FFP reticle. You’re going to be doing most of your shooting at the upper ranges of your magnification and you’ll get the most out of your Tremor 3 as well.

Choosing a scope that fits your needs when you plan on doing long-range shooting can be daunting. Sometimes it seems like choosing the scope is harder than actually making those 800-yard shots. But with a firm grasp on how scopes are made and how the individual parts affect overall performance, you can get an idea of what optic to mount on your rifle.