Gun Scopes 101 - How To Use & Find The Best Scope

Gun Scopes 101 - How To Use & Find The Best Scope

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If you've ever considered getting a gun scope but you're not sure where to start, whether you are a beginner or simply need more info on gun scopes, this crash course into gun scopes is designed for you. The decision to own a gun is a serious decision, one that is very important to educate yourself about. And whatever your decision is to own a firearm, whether for protection, home defense, recreational, or even hunting, we are going to explore and learn about gun scopes and how they can potentially aid your gun and skills in shooting in all these areas and more! If you still need to learn more about guns in general, Carrie has provided a great resource for you on where to start. Regarding gun scopes, we will be going over several topics to help educate you so you know how gun scopes work and how you can find the best gun scope for you and your situation. We will learn:

  • What a gun scope is
  • What a gun scope can do for you
  • Gun scope anatomy and terms you'll need to know
  • How to read a scope and what the numbers mean
  • How to zero in a scope
  • How to find the best scope for you
  • What you can expect to pay for a gun scope

To help sort through the hype and confusion that can surround buying a gun scope, this guide examines both the basic and advanced features of gun optics and hopefully help you to select the ideal scope for your needs. Ok, now that you've seen the general outline of what you'll learn, let's get into our beginner's crash course into gun scopes!

Gun Scopes 101 - What Is A Gun Scope?

what is a gun scope?Photo from Guns.com

 For those who aren't even sure what a gun scope is, let's start there. A gun scope is nothing more than a tube with lenses for magnification to see at longer distances than the natural eye can normally see. Gun scopes use a reticle (or cross hairs) to help you aim through the scope to hit your target. Gun scopes have been around for a while, since before the Civil War, but after World War II manufacturers started making improvements to scopes initially for rifles to help shooters and hunters have reliable equipment for long distance shooting. Nowadays, scopes aren't just made for rifles, but for almost every firearm or shooting weapon you can think of including hunting bows and even handguns. It's pretty common to see rifle's made without their iron sites anymore. That goes to show how common, reliable, and effective rifles scopes have become. I can confidently say that the modern gun scope is an excellent addition to almost any firearm, whether it is a dedicated target shooter, a seasonal hunting tool, a military weapon, or for home defense.

What Can A Scope Do For You?

home-defense-weapons-woman Photo from Truthnation.org 

Gun scopes allow a shooter to see targets more clearly and to aim more precisely. That's a huge reason why scopes are so widely used on rifles today since rifles can shoot at such long distances and it's hard to see that far with the naked eye. Even if you primarily use a handgun, using a handgun scope will only aid the gun and help you shoot more accurately and even give you faster target acquisition. One of the main uses of a gun scope is to magnify your target. Not only does this allow you to shoot more accurately at long distances, but it also increases safety since you can also see the target and what is behind it. For home defense, it can help with accuracy and precision. For hunters, it can mean the difference between a humane kill or no food on the table. For target shooter, it could be the difference between a 1 inch grouping on paper, or a 6 inch grouping. Gun scopes can also increase the available light and make it possible for you to accurately shoot in low light conditions, like at dusk or dawn. They also come equipped with different types of reticles depending on your use, which again makes it easier to shoot your target more efficiently and accurately. Another thing that gun scopes do is help you become a better shooter! No, they don't replace skill and you still need to practice shooting your firearm of choice to get better, but with the aid of gun scopes, they make beginners and professionals that much better, shooting more precise shots than before thought possible. Just point the reticle at the target and shoot. Unfortunately, there are a lot of things to consider to find the right gun scope and with so many different options available it’s easy to become overwhelmed by all the different features and the jargon associated with them.

Gun Scope Anatomy & Terms You Will Need To Know

From looking and researching gun scopes and reading gun scope reviews to figure out which is the best for your firearm, you may have come across some terminology that is new to you.

Optics have very specific terms that are important to understand. Let's get started on some of the most common terms:

Eye Relief - The distance necessary from your scope to have a complete field of view. It's how far away your eye is from the eye piece. You don't want to put your eye directly on the scope cause when you fire the gun, it will hurt. Different scopes have different eye relief distances. ​Objective Lens - The diameter of the objective lens, usually in millimeters. A 50 designation means that the outer lens is 50mm in diameter. A larger number means a larger lens. The larger the lens, the more light is able to enter the scope creating a larger field of view and a more clear and bright sight picture. The drawback is that a larger lens is much more bulky and creates a larger objective bell, and usually needs to be mounted higher on your firearm. Field of View (FOV) - The area you can see through your scope measured from left to right. For example, a field of view of 100 yards means that you can see 100 yards from left to right through your scope. Tube Diameter - The majority of the scopes on the market come with the main tube having a one-inch diameter. Contrary to popular belief, the larger tube does not allow more light to reach your eye. The exit pupil controls this. A larger tube diameter gives added strength and rigidity. Length and Weight - When carrying your gun for a long time, every extra ounce can weigh you down. While larger objectives and variable power have their benefits, the extra ounces quickly add up for all these features. If you are looking to minimize the weight of a gun that you will be carrying a lot, consider a compact, fixed power scope with a medium sized objective. It will provide a large exit pupil with a bright image and weigh a lot less than a variable power scope. Parallax - This is how the reticle appears on the target at different ranges. You can see a parallax when you move your eye to the right or to the left of the scope. Some scopes have parallax adjustments. Turrets - These are the circular objects that are mounted on the top and the side of a rifle scope. You can adjust these for both wind and elevation. You can use turrets to make adjustments and to also zero the gun scope. Windage is the horizontal adjustment and elevation is the vertical adjustment on a gun scope. Zero - To zero refers to your gun and gun scope being sighted in together. You zero your firearm at a particular range and this can refer to a particular distance. For example, you can have 200 yard zero if your gun is sighted in at 200 yards. Power (x) - Power is the level of magnification that a gun scope has. For example, a 9 power scope (9x) has a magnification factor that can reach 9 times farther than the naked eye. Fixed Power Scope - This is when the magnification is fixed at a specific power. If the scope numbers are 1x25, this means that the magnification power is 1x and the 25mm is the objective lens size. Variable Power Scope - Variable power scopes are perfect if you intend to shoot at different distances. For example, a 3-9x40mm means that the scope magnification power can be as low as 3x up to 9x. These are just a few details of a gun scope. To understand other details, consider visiting GoShootGuns.com to see a glossary of terms and other factors in gun scope anatomy and gun scope usage.

How to Read Scopes - The Numbers and What They Mean

If you've ever seen the numbers advertised on different scope models, it could be confusing and overwhelming, but don't worry, once you understand them, it makes choosing the right scope for your needs that much easier. Let's dissect this specific gun scope specs: 3-9x40mm There are two parts in the numbers:

  • Magnification Power
  • Objective Lens Size

The magnification number represents how many times larger an image becomes when viewed through the scope. Two numbers for the magnification with a dash between them means that the level of magnification is adjustable over that particular range from the lower number to the higher one. The higher number has a greater magnification. In the example, the 3-9x40mm means the scope will be able to adjust from 3x magnification all the way to 9x magnification and everywhere in-between. The second number in a scope’s description is the diameter of the objective lens. In this case, at 40, the objective lens is 40mm.

How To Zero In A Scope (5 Simple Steps)

Photo from Gunsandammo.com

Ok, let's get into how to zero in your gun scope. Sighting in a gun scope is primarily for a rifle at long distances. Hand guns don't usually need to be sighte in. After you've correctly mounted your gun scope following the scope manufacturers guide, you will need to follow these 5 steps:

  1. Bore Sight (optional) - Get a bore sight to get the gun scope roughed in. I recommend bore sighting at a shooting range rather than at your home, but both will work.
    • Use the correct tip that comes with the bore sight for the appropriate bore size (. 308, .22lr, 30-06, etc.).
    • Drop the bore sight into the front of the rifle barrel carefully and turn it on.
    • Make sure to hold the rifle perfectly still while adjusting the scope. Some guys prefer shooting bags or a proper gun rest whereas others prefer to use a bipod or some combination.
    • Set up a target that is 25 yards away. Make sure your scope adjustments are at the factory setting.
    • Set the rifle back up. When the bore sight is turned on, look through your scope and you should be able to see the red dot on the target.
    • If you don't see it, re-position the rifle itself using your bipod or gun mount so that when you are looking down the scope, you can see the red dot. The red dot is where the bullet from your rifle "should" hit.
    • With the bore sight laser, point it at the bullseye of the target without making any scope adjustments, just move the rifle itself. Look down the scope and you will see where the laser is pointing. That is your guideline for how much adjustment on the actual scope using the windage and elevation adjustment turrets that your scope requires. Remember that you are only at 25 yards, and your rifle scope will have its own MOA, usually 1/4 turn for 1" but make sure to check this out in the owner manual.
    • If at 100 yards, and the scope has a 1/4 MOA, than at 25 yards, you will need to click the elevation or windage adjustment 4 clicks to move the scope 1". Don't get too carried away here as this is the first step and just a rough one at that.
  2. Head to the Range - If not there already, go the range. Take out the bore sight.
    • Load 3 bullets into the magazine. If you don't have a magazine, then drop one bullet into the chamber.
    • If you skipped the boresight step, Put the target at 25 yards. Make sure you are comfortable using your gun rest or bipod and remember to breath to limit the amount of pull that will happen naturally when squeezing the trigger.
    • Look through your scope and aim for the bullseye.
    • When comfortable, fire your first shot. I like to shoot in groups of three when first sighting in my gun scope as to eliminate any poor or missed shots.
    • Fire the next two shots using the same technique.
  3. Measure & Adjust - Now properly store your rifle and make sure the range is clear.
    • Head out to your 25 yard target and take a look at how close you are to the bullseye.
    • Observe and measure your shots. Let's say for example that the average of your three shots was about 1" too low, and 1" too far to the left.
    • It is time to make the adjustments on your scope. At 25 yards, in order to move the scope 1" higher, you need to turn the elevation adjustment 4 clicks to elevate the scope.
    • Don't forget that you also need to adjust the windage for the same amount.
  4. Repeat - Once you are comfortable with the initial adjustment, it is time to shoot 3-5 more shots using the same techniques.
    • By this point, your gun scope should be very close and if not, keep fine-tuning it to get it right for you.
    • I don't like others fine tuning my gun scope because every shooter is different and will have their natural tendencies.
    • A scope sighted in for one person may or may not be sighted in for you.
  5. Adjust Distance - Now that you are comfortable shooting accurately at 25 yards, it is time to move the target out to 100 yards.
    • Use the same process as discussed above.
    • I like to have each one of my optics sighted in for the average shot of that specific firearm.
    • For instance, my .22 LR is sighted in for 100 yards and my .17hmr is sighted in for 150 yards. My .308 and .30-06 rifles are sighted in at 250 yards.

How To Find the Best Scope For You

As you can probably already tell, there are a lot of things to consider when choosing a gun scope. Now let's get into how to choose the best scope for your situation. Not only does it depend on the type of firearm you will be using but how you plan on shooting. There are a few things to consider after you've decided on what you plan on using your firearm for:

  1. The first thing to consider is the magnification power. How much power do you really need?
  2. Once you have determined how much magnification you need you’ll then have to settle on an objective lens size.
  3. Then you'll need to determine your reticle style and shape.

To make it easier, I'll go into different uses for a handgun and a rifle and then filter out which gun scope settings are preferred for the use and situation.

Handgun

mini red dot sight handgun Photo from Outdoorhub.com

Handguns are extremely popular, especially among woman. If you are primarily going to use a handgun, your gun scope will be much different than if you were going to choose a rifle scope. A handgun is meant for close range shooting and the farthest you will likely shoot is 25 yards. With this in mind, you don't need a variable scope for your handgun. You want to look for a fixed gun scope such as a 1x25mm, for example, because you don't need the extra magnification power to reach longer distances. Also, when and how will you be using your handgun? Primarily during the day? Sometimes at night or in other low-light conditions? Target shooting only? Home defense? Concealed carry? If you are going to be using a handgun for home defense, consider getting a mini red dot sight. This will help you for fast target acquisition, as all you'll need to do is put the dot directly on the target. Miniature red dot sights are also perfect at night as the red dot is usually illuminated. Red dot sights are also very small and don't add a lot of bulk to your handgun making it easier to conceal. If you are wanting your handgun to shoot at longer distances, consider getting a variable power scope or a higher fixed power scope such as a 2-7x30 or a 4x32. Shotgun scopes follow the same general guidelines as a handgun due to its close to medium range capabilities.

Rifle

Hunter-Cromie-350x233 Photo from Coastmonthly.com 

There are a lot of different rifle's for a lot of different uses, from long target shooting, to hunting, to home defense and military situations. A rifle is typically meant for medium to long range shooting, but can also be used for close range shooting. If you have a hunting rifle like a Ruger American .308 or a .30-06, and you are planning on shooting big game at long distances consider getting a variable power rifle optic. Recommended settings are a 3-9x40mm. 9x will still allow you to shoot at 500 yards accurately. Most hunting is done between 20 and 300 yards anyways so 9x is plenty. If you have a .22 Long Rifle for varmint shooting, consider getting a rimfire scope with variable power ranges as well. If you are going to use an AR-15 for more tactical purposes at close and medium ranges, there are a lot of different AR-15 scopes to get. Consider getting a fixed scope, around 4x32. 4x or 6x will allow for more intuitive shooting as well as better target tracking. If you want to shoot at distances well beyond 500 yards, consider getting a scope with high magnification power. With this added power, the scope will be heavier and bulkier and will likely need rifle bipods or a stand to shoot on, accompanied with a good spotting scope to keep track of your shots. Also, will you be shooting your rifle in low light? If this is the case you will need to make sure the objective lens is big enough to allow for enough light for a brighter picture. Red dot sights will help with this as well.

What's Your Budget?

By now, you should have a pretty good understanding of guns scopes and what you need to look for. Now you’re going to have to find one that fits your budget. Depending on the gun scope and what you plan on doing, it can cost a lot of money. Luckily there are also cheaper scopes for the money that are high quality. The higher the cost, the more premium features you are getting. You also may be paying for the brand as well. In most cases you pay more for increased adjustment precision and repeatability, as well as optical clarity and overall durability. But all of those features sometimes aren't necessary and there are amazing brands that offer amazing products. So remember that just because you can spend a small fortune on a gun scope doesn’t mean that you have to. Today’s scope market is the largest it has ever been, and manufacturers new and old are competing for their share of it. This means you have lots of options at many different price points. I suggest budgeting at least $200 for your gun scope. You could find a great gun scope under $200 or even a little over. Remember, variable power scopes are more expensive than fixed power scopes, so depending on your use it could be cheaper or more expensive. When in doubt, pay a little more for the name and warranty you can trust.

Final Thoughts

These days guns, especially rifles, are more often than not defined by their optics so it’s important to select a scope that meets your needs. It's possible to find the right gun scope for your needs. Whether you’re planning on plinking, target shooting, hunting big game, or home defense protection, I hope this beginner crash crouse helps you get the most out of your firearm by using a gun scope!

Gary Fretwell

Guest post by Gary Fretwell, rifle optics guru and big game tracker at GoShootGuns.com. He is a 33-year-old die hard hunter from Wyoming. He served in Iraq and is an Asset Protection Officer and a big game tracker who helps hunters like himself find big game.

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