How much magnification do you need on a riflescope? This is a long-debated topic by those who shoot for fun, food or for survival. Many gun writers with more experience at doing all those things than me have expressed opinions on riflescope magnification, and while I agree with some of what many of the greats have said, I found through my own experience there is no one perfect answer, regardless of the shooting task before you.
My gun writing mentor, John Barsness, has offered that a fixed, six-power riflescope will do everything most any hunter could ask for, even allowing you to make shots on running game. To a large extent, I think John is right; however, John is a Western hunter and quite often the country is open where he hunts. Try to shoot a running whitetail, at 30 yards, through a dense hardwood forest, with a 6X riflescope and you’ll struggle even seeing the buck.
For woods hunting, I’ve found you need a riflescope that offers a field of view at least four times the length of the animal in order to successfully track the moving animal through the thickness. If you might need to shoot 30 yards at a deer, which is 5 feet long, you’ll need a field of view that’s at least 20 feet wide. This means with most riflescopes the magnification can’t be more than 2X.
I tried deer hunting in West Virginia with a fixed, 2.5X riflescope for several years. While doing so, I made a few great shots on running bucks. However, I also learned that in some instances 2X is just not enough magnification to pick a deer out of the tangle. Once, while sitting near the edge of a thicket, I noticed a small tree swaying back and forth. Looking through my 6X binocular I could clearly see a young buck rubbing his antlers on the tree. Problem was, the buck was invisible through the 2.5X riflescope.
More recently, during a moose hunt in Newfoundland, I had a shot at a bull only 60 yards away. Using a 4X scope and shooting from the prone position, I centered the reticle on his chest and squeezed the trigger. Another hunter had to kill my moose 4 days later because my bullet hit a small twig, which I couldn’t see through the 4X optic, and it veered wide.
When ranges get long, hunters seem to think they’ll need lot of magnification to get their hits. That’s not entirely true. Military snipers often shoot out to 1,000 yards or more—and get hits—with nothing more than a 10X riflescope. But keep in mind that the goal of the hunter is different than that of the soldier. Hunters are looking for quick, clean kills; soldiers are looking for a hit.
Of course, some soldiers shoot at very close ranges. The new war on terrorism has unfolded a new need for close-quarters fighting gear and house-to-house combat isn’t unusual. Low-magnification, red-dot-style optics are becoming the rule as opposed to the exception on military small arms because they offer fast, heads-up, both-eyes-open shooting at combatants who are often very close and moving.
Hunters rarely encounter this type engagement, with the possible exception of wild hog hunting or maybe when defending a charge by a dangerous game animal. I had just that experience in Mozambique when I became engaged in a gun battle with a wounded buffalo. The PH and I walked into about 20 feet and that’s when the hulk of demonic blackness decided to get up and try to turn us into a blood puddle. I’d turned down the magnification on my custom Leupold Scout riflescope to 1X and I was able to put multiple rounds in the buff while keeping both eyes open to maximize my ability to see everything that was happening.
Col. Jeff Copper was a believer that you don’t need a lot of magnification to get hits at long range … and he was right. The thing is, getting hits is not the only consideration. You need to be able to see intervening brush, and you also need to be able to make final confirmation that the animal in your sights is indeed the one you want to shoot. Conversely, soldiers and cops typically only need to confirm their target is indeed a bad guy.
While hunting zebras in South Africa, my guide and I had worked to within about 270 yards of a herd. They were spooky and moving, and while the terrain was open, it was also interspersed with small trees and brush. I was using a 3-9X Trijicon Accupoint and as usual, during a stalk, the magnification was on 3X. I picked out a zebra, but when I looked through the scope I could vaguely detect something between us. I quickly increased the magnification to 9X, identified a small bush, and waited for the zebra to take a step before I shot.
So, what’s the answer? I have come to the conclusion that, as a hunter, you need at least 2X magnification for every 100 yards you intend to shoot. For shooting from 1-100 yards, 2X will work. If you plan to shoot out to 200 yards, then you need at least 4X at your disposal. At 500 yards, you should have the option of 10X. The objective with magnification is to try to keep the visual image the same as would be seen at 50 yards with no magnification. I’m not saying this is where the magnification needs to be set for each shot, just that you need that much magnification available.
If all you’re doing is shooting at targets, bad guys or zombies … well, you can probably make do with half the magnification needed as a hunter. This is because the goals of hunters differ greatly from that of competition shooters, soldiers and zombie killers.
My lessons afield as a soldier, cop, competitor and hunter have also taught me that the variable-power riflescope is by far the superior optic. Yes, you need to stay cognizant of what power your scope is set on as it relates to your situation; you don’t want to pull up on a charging leopard at 30 feet with your scope set on 9X! With a variable-power riflescope, you have at your disposal the ability to adjust the magnification to the situation at hand. And, if you use the 2X magnification rule mentioned above, you’ll never have to shoot at anything that appears to be more than 50 yards distant.
Hey, if you can’t hit a target at 50 yards every time, you’ve got bigger problems than what riflescope to choose.