Clear talk about optics

by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier

This report covers:

  • Cheap costs money
  • What to buy
  • Mixing ammo when sighting-in is always bad
  • Spotting scope
  • Back to riflescopes
  • One final thing about riflescopes


Tip 1. Don’t buy the cheapest scope.
Tip 2. Don’t listen to the guys that have their own agendas. They’ll spend your money freely.
Tip 3. While a scope may improve your accuracy, a dot sight generally won’t. It is easier to see, though.
Tip 4. Find the best ammunition and stick with it.
Tip 5. Every telescope has a limit of power beyond which it is no longer clear.
Tip 6. Try before you buy — if possible.
Tip 7. Buy scopes from reputable dealers, only.

My brother-in-law, Bob, is a casual shooter who often comes to me for advice. I like working with him because his needs and questions are basic and they help keep me focused on the beginning shooter. But sometimes my answers miss the mark because I have assumed he knows something that he doesn’t. This recently came up in a lengthy discussion about optics.

Cheap costs money

It began last year with his need for a scope to go on his 1976 Colt AR-15. Bob’s eyes have never been good and now that he is 72 he is feeling the pinch of both poor eyesight and age that causes further degradation. But Bob started out scoping his rifle by making the most fundamental optics mistake that can be made — his first scope was the cheapest one he could find!

His rationale was he didn’t shoot the rifle that much, so he didn’t need an expensive scope. Up to that point, I agreed with him. But he shopped until he had located the absolute cheapest scope he could find that would work on his AR-15. That was a mistake!

He didn’t need me to tell him that, either. He could see how bad his cheap scope was all by himself. He had someone at his gun club zero it for him. As he zeroed the scope this fellow also told Bob it was a piece of junk.

Tip 1. Don’t buy the cheapest scope.

The guy who zeroed the scope then recommended a scope that sells for about $1,200. It was ideal for an AR-15, he said. Somehow Bob knew better, and that’s when he started talking to me. I told him the expensive scope was one that an AR fanatic might use, but his old Colt isn’t accurate enough to warrant such an expense.

Tip 2. Don’t listen to the guys that have their own agendas. They’ll spend your money freely.

While all this was happening, Bob bought a laser boresighter — the kind you insert into the muzzle of the rifle and project a laser dot on the target, thinking it would give him the precision needed to sight-in his rifle. I held my tongue, but I didn’t think it was the answer. He got the laser dot and the crosshairs aligned, but the next time he went to the range, his rifle still was not on the paper.

At this point Bob decided that I was right about his AR. It was not that accurate and a dot sight would work just as well as a scope. So that was the next thing he bought. He brought his rifle up when he visited us this past July 4th. We zeroed his dot sight at my rifle range — and get this. He used the peep sights on the rifle to zero the dot sight! To his surprise, his rifle shot just about as well at 50 yards with peep sights as it did with the dot. I didn’t say anything, but I was thinking that many shooters don’t trust non-optical sights as much as they should.

Tip 3. While a scope may improve your accuracy, a dot sight generally won’t. It is easier to see, though.

Bob also has a Remington 700 in 30-06 that he wanted to scope. The scope that came with that rifle was bad, so he asked me what I thought he should get.

What to buy

I told Bob if he wanted a good quality scope for not a lot of money — and don’t we all want that? — he should buy something made by Leapers. That would be a UTG scope. For the money I think they are the best value on the market. Are they the absolute finest scopes that can be found? No, but at their price I don’t think there is anything that can compare.

I recommended a 4-16 variable which is what he bought and now enjoys very much. More on that in a little bit. But for now let’s get back to the subject of optics and how they work.

Bob tried to zero his 30-06 at his local gun club and had the same problems he had with his AR. He wasn’t able to get bullets on the paper. I talked him though boresighting, which means removing the bolt and centering the bullseye in the bore, then adjusting the scope until the crosshairs are also centered. He did that and got on the paper, but was still unable to get decent groups. It was many more weeks before I discovered the reason why.

Mixing ammo when sighting-in is always bad

I learned over the course of time that he was shooting a mix of military surplus and commercially-loaded ammunition in this rifle — thinking that, even if the bullets didn’t all go to the same place, they surely wouldn’t be more than a couple inches apart at 100 yards. Would they?

You know what I am going to say next, but Bob had to learn it the hard way. Bullets (and pellets) travel to widely different places downrange — even when fired from the same gun! When you are sighting in a rifle it is imperative that all rounds be the same — or as close to the same as it is humanly possible to ensure.

Tip 4. Find the best ammunition and stick with it.

Spotting scope

There’s more to this part of the tale, but now we are going to look at yet another optic that plagued Bob at the range. The public range he shoots at provides spotting scopes as part of the range fee. But they are old, tired, cheap scopes that have suffered years of abuse from thousands of users who didn’t care. In short, they are junk. Bob was having a hard time seeing whether his bullets were hitting the black at 100 yards (they usually weren’t) through these scopes, so he bought a spotting scope. Guess what his number one selection criterion was? That’s right — the price. So he bought a Barska spotting scope. What, Bob — Yugo doesn’t make optics? Barska is not a name that is widely revered in the world of shooting optics, any more than Red Star or some other brands.

But that’s not all. When he called to complain about the poor image quality, I heard the brand name of the spotting scope and told him I thought that was his problem. I was sure it was. Then, a week later, he called to tell me he had dialed the magnification back down from the maximum 60X to 40X, and was now he was able to see the target and bullet holes. Well, shut my mouth!

Here I was berating the brand, when it was operational error all along! My apologies to Barska and to all who own their products.

Folks, if your spotting scope goes up to 60 magnifications, do not turn it there and attempt to use it! Unless the name on the outside of the scope is Swarovski and you paid $3,000 for it, your scope will probably not hold up at the maximum magnification setting. The image will be blurry and out of focus, no matter what you do. There are exceptions to this, but in my experience they are very rare.

I have a Burris spotting scope that retails for just under $200. I gave a lot more than that for it in a trade, though, because it is one of the clearest, sharpest spotting scopes I had ever seen. I’ve looked through other spotting scopes that cost far more than mine that aren’t half as sharp. So I made a trade offer the owner could not refuse and he regrets it to this day. And still, as sharp as my scope is, I only run it at 40 X, because above that power the image starts to blur.

I have a Tasco Custom Shop 8-40X riflescope that cost me over $600 back in the mid-1990s. That’s over $800 today. On a sunny day the highest power I can get from that scope with clarity is about 30X. On 30X I can see .22 caliber bullet holes in black paper at 100 yards. At 40X I have a hard time seeing the bullseye as a single image. That’s what too much magnification does when the optics are not perfect.

Hey, guys — it isn’t just me! There is this telescope in earth orbit (the Hubble) that cost over $2 billion and it was blurry from day one. It cost a king’s ransom to put it right again. Fooling around with telescopes set on their maximum power will break your heart and also your bankroll if you don’t follow my advice.

Tip 5. Every telescope has a limit of power beyond which it is no longer clear.

determine the maximum magnification your scope will tolerate and don’t exceed that number. I don’t care if you are only halfway through what’s available — the rest of the magnification is nothing but heartbreak.

Tip 6. Try before you buy — if possible.

If you plan to buy a spotting scope, test it before you buy it if you can. There are formal lab tests for telescopes, but in the field I just put the scope on a target about 100 yards distant and try to see details as small as bullet holes. At the SHOT Show I look at the threads on bolts in the framework of the ceiling over the display floor. The display rooms are several hundreds yards long, so this is not a problem.

Tip 7. Buy scopes from reputable dealers, only.

Of course if you are buying through the mail you can’t always check scopes this way and let’s face it, you can’t do it at the sporting goods store, either! So make sure the dealer you buy the scope from has a liberal return policy. Of course I mean Pyramyd Air when I say this, but there are other reputable dealers, as well. Just don’t get sucked into making a purchase based on the low price, alone, because you may discover how much real service can cost you (or save you, with the right dealer).

Back to riflescopes

I said earlier I was going to finish my discussion of the 4-16 power scope I advised Bob to get. Here is my observation. A good optics maker (UTG, Burris, Bushnell, Hawke etc.) can make a scope that magnifies up to 16 power without difficulty. Beyond that it can get dicey, though most of the better brands will usually hold up well to as much as 32 power. After that, it’s a crap shoot. Some scopes will stay clear at higher powers while others won’t.

Bob found that his 4-16 scope allows him to see .30-caliber bullet holes in a black bull at 100 yards on a bright day on 16X. So his spotting scope isn’t that important for that rifle. For his AR that has the dot sight, though, he needs the spotting scope. Running it at 40 power, he can see .22-caliber bullet holes at 100 yards. That’s all he needs.

I have some modern scopes that aren’t that clear at higher magnification, but at the lower powers they do just fine. This is a redneck solution, but it beats throwing a scope away.

One final thing about riflescopes

Some vintage riflescopes exceed the clarity found in scopes today. I have an old Leupold M8 4X scope that is so sharp I can bisect a one-inch box at 100 yards with the reticle. Most people would prefer to use 12X for such a task, and 16X would even be easier.

The older fixed-power scopes do not have any of the fancy features found in modern scopes. Things like illuminated reticles and mill dot reticles are not found on older scopes. But for sheer clarity, some of these older scopes cannot be surpassed.

When I go to a gun show I look for the older Weaver, Leupold and Redfield scopes and if they are selling for a reasonable price, I’ll buy them just to have them. I would suppose that today’s top scopes like those made by Swarovski are equally bright and clear, but I don’t have the thousands of dollars it takes to find out.

Tales from the range

by Tom Gaylord, a.k.a. B.B. Pelletier

I was at the rifle range yesterday and there were some things that I had to tell you. There’s no order to this — it’s just what I want to say.

First thing, I get to the range and there’s a young man with 3 very fine rifles. One has been custom made for him, and the other 2 are factory models that each have some add-ons such as aftermarket triggers. He mentioned that he had just gotten rid of a .257 Weatherby Magnum from which he was unable to get good groups.

Each of his rifles had a Leupold Vari X III scope, which is not a cheap sight. There are couple thousand dollars worth of fine firearms and sights laying on his bench. But every 10 minutes or so, he asks if the range can go cold so he can walk down to the 100-yard target holder and look at his targets. That’s right, sports fans, he hasn’t got a spotting scope!

I set up my spotting scope; and when he saw it, he immediately launched into a spiel, “I really need to get one of those!” He told me he was using targets with red bulls because he couldn’t see his .25-caliber holes on black bulls through his rifle scopes at 100 yards. I invited him to look through my spotting scope, and he was amazed that he could clearly see all his holes on the target. How much easier his shooting life would be if he only had a spotting scope!

Spotting scope
My spotting scope allows me to see every shot I make at 100 and 200 yards without leaving the bench. It’s not a thing to appreciate in its own right, but it enriches the time spent on the range.

He asked me to recommend a good spotting scope, but I couldn’t. All I could say is that nearly all telescopes are made in the Orient these days, and you really need to look through them to find a good one. The fancy names mean very little, as I found out with a Celestron spotting scope that had horrible optics. I actually traded a rifle for my current scope because it’s so clear. More rifles I can get. Good spotting scopes are hard to come by.

What bothered me the most about this encounter was that I could see myself 30 years ago in this young man. I did the same thing then that he’s doing now. I spent all my money on guns and had nothing left over for the mundane equipment that matters so much when you want to shoot comfortably.

Tale 2
Same day, same range. Another young man arrives and just wants to blow the dead bees out of his barrel before he drives to work. He has a fine rifle, too. Know what he uses for hearing protection? The filter tips from 2 cigarettes!

Tale 3
Then, I’m down at the 100-yard berm, looking at my targets. The holes made by the bullets are sharp and distinct. They can tell me a lot — especially when untoward things happen — like bullets tumbling. I glance over at my neighbor’s target. It’s a piece of paper torn from a notepad, with a bull inked-in by a black Sharpie. The holes are more like tears than bullet holes.

So, Mr. thousand-dollar rifle with his five-hundred dollar scope is shooting dollar-apiece rounds at a piece of wastepaper he has colored to look like a real target. There’s real economy for you!

target paper target
This real target from National Target shows the pattern of tumbling bullets quite well. Note paper can’t do this!

Tale 4
Remember what I said a couple days ago about a right-handed shooter who pulls the trigger on a handgun instead of squeezing it? He’ll always shoot low and to the left. I was on the pistol range and a fellow was trying out a new (to him) .40 Smith & Wesson that he just traded for. It had a fat double-stack magazine that he loaded to the max, then he walked halfway to the target on the 15-yard range. So, he is now just 7.5 yards from the target. Hey, 90 percent of all defense situations happen at less than 9 feet — right?

Bang! Bang! Bang! Guess what? Nice tight group on the target, but below the bull and to the left. He says he guesses he’ll just have to adjust his sights on this pistol, too. Funny — all his pistols shoot to the same place.

And I have a bloody tongue from biting it so hard.

Tale 5
Another guy on the line is shooting a Blaser single-shot rifle. They cost anywhere from $2,000 to $4,500, by themselves. And, guess what he’s resting it on? A 6-inch by 6-inch wood block with a pillow cushion on top. What — he can’t find an ironing board like everybody else?

I shot for many years using a plastic MTM Case-Gard Predator rifle rest. I found it stable and accurate. Maybe not as fancy as other rests, but for the cost of 2 boxes of rifle ammo, it was pretty good.

M-T-M rifle rest
The MTM Case-Gard Predator rifle rest served me well for many years.

Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest
Today, I use the Caldwell Lead Sled rifle rest.

I upgraded top a Caldwell Lead Sled a while back. It’s even more stable and rigid, plus is allows adding weight to absorb recoil.

What’s my beef?
I don’t really have a complaint, as much as a plea to those guys who are being penny-wise and pound-foolish. Shooting equipment is not sexy, but it can make a huge difference in your level of enjoyment while you’re behind the trigger. This is the stuff you buy begrudgingly today, then celebrate your good decision for the rest of your life. And its more than just the few things mentioned here. It’s also good gun cases, nice holsters, indestructible bullet traps, handy range bags and boxes — in fact anything that helps you enjoy your time afield in any way.

This isn’t the stuff that dreams are made of, but having it does allow you to dream. And here’s how you will recognize it. When you look at your equipment, pick out the things that have been with you the longest. The things that are worn shiny by handling. The things you would miss sorely if they weren’t there. You probably grumbled when you bought them, but today you couldn’t imagine going shooting without them. They aren’t the experience by themselves, but they make the experience possible.