Weigh up all your options, choose carefully
by Matt Dubber
If you purchase a rifle, you are more than likely going to need a scope - and while there are many fantastic makes and models available all over the world, it’s certainly not as straightforward as finding a well-rated product on Amazon and hitting the “buy now” button. There are MANY different things to weigh up and consider, and hopefully this post will help bring some of those considerations to light as you prepare to make the big decision.
1) Cheap Scopes on Expensive Rifles… BIG Mistake!
The reason this is first on my list is that I have made the mistake myself… and suffered the consequences. Money doesn’t come easy for most of us, and we have to work within an overall budget when deciding on a setup. But don’t be fooled into thinking you can get away with spending 90% of your budget on a rifle and scrape up the change for a scope. Nope, Nope, NOPE! Remember, your shooting setup is only as good as its weakest point, and if your riflescope isn’t able to keep up to the capabilities of your rifle, you will never get the full potential out of it. Let me explain…
Most factory bolt-action rifles are capable of very decent precision right out the box. A Remington 700, Savage 12 or Tikka T3 will likely all print sub MOA groups all day if the correct load & bullet is used, and sub MOA is all you need for a reliable 800yd hunting rifle. In fact, most shooters are not physically capable of matching the precision of their rifles. We make incorrect wind calls, manage recoil badly, mis-range the target and end up wishing we had a “better rifle”. So you get the point - You don’t necessarily need a super expensive rifle to obtain decent results. A poor riflescope, on the other hand, can render your sub MOA rifle completely useless if it fails to hold zero, make accurate adjustments… or if the reticle simply wasn’t calibrated at the correct magnification (yep, happened to me)
I’ve been down this road before, and it wasn’t pretty. I bought an Air Arms S510 as my first PCP air rifle. For me, at the time, that was right on the edge of my budget. So I had very little left over for a scope purchase, and ended up buying a $250 optic. Aside from constant zero shifts due to small bumps, the reticle also wasn’t correctly calibrated. Instead of being a true Mil reticle at 10x as advertised, I later found out that the reticle was actually true at 11.5x! After more than a year of confusion, doubt in my own calculations and doubt in my rifle, the culprit was the budget optic that I had thrown on without much thought. Thankfully, I have learned a lot since then, and now purchase reliable optics before even deciding on the rifle I want. The rest of this article will explain the differences you’ll likely find between various price tiers.
2) A Purpose-Built Setup
Just as you would pick a barrel contour, cartridge & stock based on the style of shooting/hunting you wish to partake in, you also need to pick a riflescope accordingly. You wouldn’t take a short, lightweight .223 to a long-range gong shoot would you?
Look at European hunting setups in comparison to plains game or mountain hunting setups. You’ll notice immediately that European hunting setups normally involve lightweight rifles and compact, simple optics with very good glass. This is because of typical European hunting environments in which shots are often taken quickly from high seats or close-quarters positions in thicker vegetation. Because very few tracking adjustments ever have to be made, turrets are never scrutinised for tracking precision and are often in the form of low-profile knobs under threaded caps. The emphasis is more on glass quality and weatherproofing, and that’s why companies like Zeiss and Swarovski have evolved into highly reputable manufacturers for this style of hunting, with the best glass on the market. Of course, there are exceptions, such as Schmidt & Bender which produces the Police Marksman II (possibly the best riflescope ever made) which is more suited to long-range applications, with a heavy build and chunky, tactical turrets. But again, this design is suited to the military and law enforcement applications in which it is used.
The question you need to ask yourself is this: What do you plan to use your rifle for? Is it competition shooting, plinking, hunting or varminting? What distances do you expect to shoot? Do you need to be able to dial for long-range shots or will you be holding over? Do you need to see fine lines on a target with extreme clarity? The answers to these questions should help you narrow down your choice.
Different guns will likely require different optics
in order to be used to their full potential.
Hunting in open or mountainous
terrain might require some long shots.
3) The Ideal Magnification Range
This is generally one of the first things people consider when browsing for a new riflescope. Again, the decision is largely determined by the style of shooting you plan to do. Driven boar hunting may require as little as 1x magnification, while benchrest & field target may require as high as 50x. Most people tend to stick between 5x and 20x, and a good scope in this magnification range should be suitable for 95% of shooting applications.
Element Optics, being new on the scene, has decided to offer our first 3 models in this “versatile’ magnification range, with the Nexus 5-20x50, Helix 6-24x50 and Titan 5-25x56 all falling into this category. Of course, variants of these models in different magnification ranges for specific disciplines will join the family later, but we have to start somewhere!
One thing to keep in mind that not all glass is created equal, and poor glass will be far more noticeable at higher magnifications, especially with a variable power scope. If you plan to shoot benchrest or field target, and need that 30-50x magnification, you should budget for more, keeping in mind that with cheaper glass you will be zooming in on optical imperfections. And if you are on a limited budget, do consider a fixed-magnification scope, as these will feature fewer lenses and fewer moving parts, which should result in better optical quality. It’s like buying a prime lens for your camera instead of a zoom lens: It isn’t as versatile, but you get better optical quality for a given price.
Also, keep in mind that budget scopes will tend to struggle at the higher end of their magnification range. Budget scopes with 6x zoom (for example a 2.5-15x or a 5-30x) will likely have noticeably poor optical quality at the highest magnification. This is one of the reasons we decided to go with 6-24x on the Helix (4x zoom) and 5-25x on the Titan (5x zoom). The Helix is not overextending itself, and will therefore provide adequate optical clarity at all magnifications, while the Titan’s ED glass allows for a greater magnification range while providing superb clarity!
4) Body Tube and Objective Lens Diameter
Aside from the obvious size and weight disadvantages, large body tubes can provide other drawbacks and incentives. Most importantly when speaking about larger body tubes, there is more space for the erector tube assembly, which is the part that moves to shift the reticle when you dial the turrets. This means that a 34mm body tube should allow for a greater elevation and windage adjustment range. A well-built 34mm scope can feature elevation travel as high as 160 MOA, while some 30mm scopes are limited to as little as 40 MOA. If you are planning to shoot at extended ranges, you may want to consider a larger body tube. That being said, a well-engineered 30mm scope can really give the larger 34mm a run for its money! Look at the Element Nexus, for Example - It beats the Helix hands down despite having the same body tube diameter, and even matches up to the 34mm Titan.
When it comes to larger objective lenses, there are both advantages and disadvantages. A larger objective lens brings in more light, but also has to bend the light more in order to direct it through the erector tube. More bending = less clarity, more chromatic aberration, more fringing… which are all bad things. So there can be a trade-off. There are ways to combat this, however, such as the ED glass we’ve featured on the Titan. Looking through the Titan, you will see both good light transmission and excellent optical clarity - both signs of good optical engineering.
The Helix, with a smaller 50mm objective lens, is not at the same level as the Titan when it comes to optical clarity, as it is missing that thick ED glass - Hence the price difference between the two. But the Nexus, with the same 50mm objective lens and 30mm tube beats even the Titan, purely because of the brilliant optical engineering (which maintains a very tight collective tolerance between lenses), lens polishing techniques and advanced coatings. It may be difficult to justify the hefty price tag on a scope like the Nexus, or any other high-end German or Japanese scope for that matter, but when you look through it, you’ll understand!
ED Glass provides noticeably better optical clarity due to the thickness of the lens.
5) Turret Styles
Turrets come in all shapes and sizes, but can be divided into 2 main categories: Tactical and Compact. Compact turrets are more often seen on European-style hunting scopes, and are often capped to weather-proof and to prevent accidental adjustments. Tactical turrets, on the other hand, are designed to be cranked all the time, and are large and easy to adjust, often with many clicks per revolution and innovative features like zero-stops.
Compact, Low-Profile turrets aren’t necessarily any less precise than tactical turrets, but it all comes down to personal preference. We’ve decided to go with tactical turrets, as the Element Optics range is more aimed towards precision competition & hunting applications in which constant turret adjustments are needed. That being said, we have tried to keep the turret size fairly compact, limiting the diameter to that of the body tube for each model to prevent any unnecessary weight. The zero-stop and tool-free resetting are features we’ve added to help you get the most out of your setup.
All Element riflescopes (currently) feature tactical-style turrets that are reasonably sized for use in a variety of situations.
6) Turret & Reticle Units
First things first: No more of this funny “Mil reticle and MOA turrets” rubbish, for Pete’s sake! Okay, with that short rant over, let’s chat about what Mil (also called MRAD) and MOA really are. Both are angular units of measurement, used in turret mechanisms and reticles. A useful overview can be found in the manuals of all our riflescopes, downloadable from the product pages, but in short, MRAD (or Milliradians) are well suited to the metric system, with 1 MRAD equalling exactly 10cm at 100 Meters. Because most MRAD turrets divide each MRAD into 10, 1 clicks equates to 1cm at 100m. With the MOA (or Minute of Angle) system, each MOA measures 1.047 Inches at 100 Yards, making this system very useful for American shooting ranges which are usually in Yard increments. Most MOA turrets, including ours, divide each MOA into 4, with each click equating to 1/4 MOA. Some manufacturers use SMOA, which is a unit that spans exactly 1” at 100yds instead of 1.047”, but we’ll talk about that another time!
Reticles SHOULD be in the same units as the turrets, for a number of reasons. If they aren’t, don’t even entertain the idea of buying that scope - you’ll regret it later on. All Element Riflescopes are available in both MRAD and MOA, with reticles matching the turrets. With this system, you can measure POI offsets using the reticle, and make corrections on the turrets without the need for any guesswork.
7) Dialling or Holding?
Riflescopes are not just lenses with a reticle. Internal components critical to the movement of lenses and the erector tube have to be machined to incredibly tight tolerances in order to function accurately. For the most part, reticles are calibrated to be true to a specific unit (Mil or MOA) at a specific magnification, or at all magnifications if configured with the reticle in the First Focal Plane. This is not too difficult to achieve if the assembly is done correctly, and so most riflescopes nowadays can be relied on when used for hold-off and hold-over shooting. With that being said, there are exceptions. I could tell you horror stories of riflescopes I’ve tested which have had such poor quality control that the reticles were way off the required magnification calibration! And most people do not have the equipment to test this unfortunately, so it’s important for the manufacturer to implement strict quality control procedures. Element Optics has decided to give you peace of mind by implementing these tests during and after production, and signing off on the included Quality Guarantee Tag, which you’ll receive in the box with your scope.
For many people though, holding over is not ideal and instead the turret is dialled to a specific value for each shot, matching the reticle centre with the trajectory of the bullet. This is a far more precise method of compensating for bullet drop…IF the scope can handle it. Here is where things fall apart on cheaper scopes. Turret tracking works like this: As you dial your turrets, the threaded turret assembly moves and presses against the erector tube assembly on the horizontal and vertical axis (windage and elevation). This shifts the position of the reticle. However, these parts are incredibly small, and there is no room for error: If the thread pitch its slightly incorrect, or the springs which maintain pressure on the erector tube start to fatigue, the turret will fail to shift the reticle the correct amount, or may not return to zero reliably.
The precision engineering & materials required to ensure reliable tracking is incredibly expensive and requires many expert employees for manufacture, assembly and testing of these critical parts. For this reason, it is incredibly rare to find a ‘budget’ or even mid-range scope that is capable of 100% reliable tracking. We have done our best to ensure the best possible reliability for the cost of each of our products, and have therefore placed much of our attention on the critical areas - All Element Optics riflescopes have to meet specific tracking, return to zero and recoil/impact tests before they are signed off.
Even with these tests, high-end scopes like the Nexus will inevitably offer tighter tracking tolerances than the mid-range Helix and Titan. Although the difference is minor, the Helix and Titan are allowed 1% more error than their more expensive brother, the Nexus.
Our advice: We believe our products provide enough precision for both hold-off and dialling, but if you are looking for a budget scopes and don’t have full trust in the brand, rather use the reticle for hold-over instead of the turret. On a budget scope, the reticle is more likely to be accurately assembled than the turrets themselves, and you don’t run the risk of a return-to-zero failure.
Long-range shooting requires incredibly precise adjustments of the internal components of the riflescope in order for reliable tracking to be obtained.
8) Reticle Choice
There are many, many reticles available nowadays. Many really good reticles. And the truth is, there is no perfect reticle! A topic like “the perfect line thickness” is so subjective that there will always be disagreement, but once again it comes down to the personal preference of the shooter and the purpose for which the scope will be used.
A benchers shooter, for example, will likely prefer very fine, simple crosshairs in second focal plane. A PRS or NRL shooter, on the other hand, will almost certainly want more hold points as he needs to make quick holds at different distances in different wind conditions, and will likely prefer first focal plane. And then of course, we have different units too.
At Element Optics, we’ve tried to cover as many bases as possible from the start. Our “C” reticles are de-cluttered and more suited to shooters who have time to dial the turrets between shots. The “D” reticles feature more hold points and are designed specifically for PRS, NRL, Varminting and other shooting disciplines that require quick thinking. And then we have the “APR” and “EHR” reticles, which feature different units entirely and are designed by different people with different philosophies. Oh… And they are available in first and second plane as well. Let me tell you, designing a FFP reticle is not easy! For one, FFP reticles have to have the PERFECT line thickness. They can often be too think at max magnification, or too thin at min magnification.
We put a ton of thought into our reticles, and think they came out really well! The magnification ranges were intentionally limited on our FFP scopes to prevent the thickness dilemma, and are proud to offer so much variety right from the start. Of course, as the company grows, we will be releasing more purpose-built scopes with reticles specific to different disciplines that aren’t covered yet… But you’ll have to wait for those!
More info about our reticle options can be found under the “reticles” tab on our website, and under the product pages of each scope.
9) First or Second Focal Plane?
This is a never-ending debate, isn’t it? And again, I believe there is no right or wrong answer. But let’s define the two first: FFP or first focal plane scopes have the reticle situated in the (you guessed it) first focal plane, while SFP scopes have the reticle in the second focal plane. Because of this, FFP reticles zoom with the sight picture, while SFP reticles do not. The advantage of SFP reticles is that the line thickness remains constant. This gives the reticle designer freedom to make the line thickness perfect for a specific discipline without worrying about how it will look if it grows or shrinks. The downside is that the units of the reticle are only true at one specific magnification, when the sight picture is matched up perfectly in size with the reticle subtensions. This makes holdover shooting quite risky, because if the magnification is just slightly off, there will be error. FFP scopes on the other hand have reticles that zoom with the sight picture, meaning they are useable at all magnifications. This is great for shooters that change magnification a lot, such as PRS and NRL shooters - there is no math involved! However, reticle thickness can become an issue at extreme ends of the magnification range, and that is not ideal for many other disciplines.
We offer the Titan and Nexus in FFP, and the Helix in SFP, but will likely add more models in the future to include both options across the board. If you don’t like our reticles, we’d love to hear from you! We are always open to suggestions, and would welcome feedback via email, or face-to-face at trade shows & competitions.
It’s everyone’s nightmare: Spending hard-earned savings on a riflescope and having it fail just a few months down the line. The truth is, it can happen to anybody, at any time! Although highly unlikely with some of the high-end, military spec optics we have today, good warranties have become synonymous with quality optics manufacturers, and so you really shouldn’t settle for anything less. Aside from the disappointment of being let down by a manufacturer, I believe it is important for an optics company to back its own products, as it shows pride in the brand, and in the end it’s that pride that keeps the quality standard where it should be. Element Optics does offer a Platinum Lifetime Warranty on all optics - learn more on our warranty page.
11) Support & Service
After sale service should not be overlooked when choosing a riflescope. Many riflescope manufacturers only sell direct to the end user in an effort to cut out the middleman and save costs. This is great in ones sense, but can also create problems if the end user lives far away and cannot receive support on a local level. I’ve experienced this personally, having needed to do a warranty claim on a scope I bought in the US, but not being able to receive a replacement unit due to import regulations between the US and South Africa on military-spec equipment. And even if you do have local dealers, you may find that there are other issues, such as the dealer being unwilling to stock spares, or feeding you false information to make a quick sale.
Most high-end optics companies will have good network of dealers worldwide, but it’s important to ensure that you will receive the necessary support in the unlikely case that something goes wrong.
If you are considering one of our Element scopes, check out our dealer page first. We believe we have partnered with reliable and reputable dealers, and are confident they’ll be able to help you out!
When deciding on a riflescope for your new rifle, don’t make the same mistakes many of us have! Weigh up all your options, choose carefully, and you’ll be happy for many years to come!