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Different Types of Scopes & How to Choose

Alice Jones Webb | Updated February 26, 2024 | Why You Should Trust Us | How We Earn Money
Different types of scopes cover photo showing a scope mounted on a rifle with a field in the background

Fixed, variable, thermal, long range, short range, LPVO… there are A TON of different types of scopes out there.

And in my decades of hunting and competitive shooting, I’ve tried them all.

But don’t worry, we’re going to simply things by explaining them in layman’s terms.

Rest assured, you’re in the right place.

And after reading this for more specific scope recommendations see our article on the best scope for Marlin 336.

Magnification

One of the important things you look at when choosing a rifle scope is magnification.

This is the degree to which your scope will make your target appear. Therefore, a 4x magnification scope will magnify the target four times.

You have to pick the right scope depending on where you’re shooting. Too little magnification and you won’t be able to identify your target clearly, while too much magnification prevents you from seeing things around your target.

Generally, 1 to 4x magnification is great for short distances, such as home defense or when hunting small game. 5 to 8x magnification is great for up to 200 yards. If you’re hunting in an enclosed space, such magnification will be useful. 

Any magnification beyond 9x is good for long distances.

Now, we have fixed and variable magnification scopes. Let’s take a look at each.

Fixed Magnification Scopes

Fixed scopes have been common for a long time, although people are now embracing variable magnification scopes.

They are cheap and can’t be adjusted. If a fixed scope has 3x magnification, it magnifies the target only three times and not more or less than that.

Scope view of a Christmas tree reticle and buildings

With these scopes, you can aim and shoot quickly because you don’t have to fiddle with the adjustments. But on the other hand, they’re limiting because you can only use them in a particular range.

Variable Magnification Scopes

A variable scope allows you to adjust the magnification. Such scopes come with a series of numbers attached to show the magnification range.

For example, you might get a number like 5-20×56. The first two sets of numbers represent magnification. It simply means the scope can magnify from 5x to 20x. The last set, which is 56, represents the size of the objective lens, and it’s in millimeters.

While variable scopes are often costly, they’re also better because they can be used at varying distances. (Reference: Different types of scopes)

Lens Diameter  

Wait, what’s the lense diameter again?

Lens diameter is another important feature we look at when buying a scope.

Is a bigger diameter always better?

Is a larger lens more useful in low-light conditions? 

These are some of the questions people ask when determining the diameter to get. But yes, a bigger diameter allows more light to pass through the scope, giving you a clearer and brighter image.

With that said, a bigger diameter isn’t always better. A larger objective lens means the scope is bigger, making your weapon heavier. Unless you’re hunting at extreme distances or in low light conditions, a small objective lens will do.

Reticles

Another important factor to consider when choosing scopes is the type of reticle. A reticle refers to the aiming point or crosshairs you see through a scope.

It’s best to try out the different reticles and see which one works better. Here are the most common types.

  • Duplex: This reticle is simple and uncluttered. It draws your eye to the center because it only has four crosshairs.
  • Mil-Dot: This reticle estimates the distance to the target. It’s often used by law enforcement and the military, but you can also use it for hunting.
  • Ballistic Drop Compensating (BDC): This type of reticle uses dots or lines to highlight the bullet’s expected drop in specific ranges.

For a deeper dive into scope reticles, check out this video:

Night Vision vs Thermal

If you hunt at night, you’ll want a scope to help you identify your target despite the low light conditions. This is where thermal and night vision scopes come in. So, which one is better for night hunting?

Night vision scopes are designed for shooting at night or in low-light conditions. They have an infrared illuminator that improves visibility at night. These scopes are bigger and heavier.

On the other hand, thermal scopes use infrared radiation to identify objects in the dark. It picks up heat signatures notifying you where your target is.

The decision to pick between either will depend on your needs. If you want to see a detailed image at night, a night vision scope will do, but when you want to detect a target quickly in concealed conditions, go with a thermal scope.

For more on scopes, see our guide on how far back to mount scope.

References

  1. Magnifying Patrol Rifle Scopes Assessment Report, Department of Homeland Security, Retrieved from: https://www.dhs.gov/sites/default/files/publications/Mag-Patrol-Scopes-AR_0114-508_0.pdf

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