Best Scope Magnification: How Much is Too Much?

What's the Best Scope Magnification?i

In general, the least magnification that gives you a clear target image is the best scope magnification.

Too much magnification handicaps you in several ways. It shrinks the field of view, so you won’t find the target as quickly as with less. On a hunt, you may not see the huge buck in the shadows to the side of the most obvious animal.

High power reduces exit pupil diameter, so, in dim light, the target image won’t be as bright. The magnification that makes that target bigger also bumps up the amplitude of reticle movements due to muscle tremors and heartbeat.

Reticle quivers you might not even notice at 2½x become violent dips and hops at 10x. At 20x, you’ll see so much chaos in the tighter field, the target may bounce in and out of view as you try to tame that reticle. A scope helps you when it shows movement you can control.

Too much magnification can be a liability. For big game, 8x may be all you need—ever!

Too much magnification can be a liability. For big game, 6x may be all you need—ever!

It’s a liability as it amplifies movement you can’t completely control. Instead of applying gradual pressure to the trigger, you wear yourself out fighting the jitterbug image in your sight. As eyes and muscles tire, an accurate shot becomes impossible.

Magnification also shows you mirage, a good thing on days when mirage is light and the target is in reasonable range. But, on hot days, when you’re aiming over great distance, the target may appear as a dim, shapeless object stuck below the surface of a raging river.

In general, the least magnification that gives you a clear target image is the best magnification. I use 4x rifle scopes for most big-game hunting and think it adequate to 300 yards. A 6x works fine for me at 400.

Of course, you’ll want more magnification for small animals like prairie dogs. Deliberate shooting at paper bull’s-eyes and steel gongs brings out powerful glass.

I’ve used 16x, even 20x, scopes to advantage in good light, when there’s time for a solid position and precision trumps all else. In smallbore matches, a 20x Redfield served me well.

I needed that much power to hold on a .22 bullet hole at 50 meters, or shade to the bottom-right quadrant of an X-ring the size of a bottle cap at 100. I’ve used 25x to good effect on bull’s-eyes, but am inclined to think 20x would have served, too. Higher power is very hard to use.

These days, variable scopes offer wide four-, five-, and now six-times power ranges; that is, the highest magnification is four, five, or six times that of the lowest.

So, instead of the 3-9x that once awed sportsmen with its versatility, you can get a 3-12x, a 3-15x, or a 3-18x. Or bump up to 4x on the bottom to get 20x or 24x on the top. Such scopes feature 30mm tubes.

These may or may not have a bigger erector assembly (the tube with lenses and magnification cams held inside the main tube). Those with erector assemblies of standard size for one-inch scopes give you more windage and elevation adjustment. That’s an advantage at long range, though a scope performs best with its optical axis close to its mechanical axis.

Mastering the Art of Long-Range ShootingThis article is an excerpt from the new book Mastering the Art of Long-Range Shooting, by Wayne van Zwoll.

One thought on “Best Scope Magnification: How Much is Too Much?

  1. bhp0

    “Quote:I’ve used 16x, even 20x, scopes to advantage in good light, when there’s time for a solid position and precision trumps all else. In smallbore matches, a 20x Redfield served me well.
    I needed that much power to hold on a .22 bullet hole at 50 meters, or shade to the bottom-right quadrant of an X-ring the size of a bottle cap at 100. I’ve used 25x to good effect on bull’s-eyes, but am inclined to think 20x would have served, too. Higher power is very hard to use. Quote.”

    Experienced small bore shooters whether they are bench rest or 3 position shooters know that they cannot get enough magnification. Generally most serious competitors use a minimum of 36x while many use 40 and 45x in a very high quality and very expensive scope. An el-cheapo bottom line scope starts at over $1,0000 dollars, I am not joking, with many competitors these days using scopes that go over $2,000 dollars for competition. The high 40x range scopes also let you see instantly at 50 yards or 50 feet (in indoor ranges) where your bullets are impacting due to mirage or wind (outside) so you can make corrections on the next shot without wasting time fooling with a spotting scope.

    Even in 3 position shooting you can control muscle tremors even when shooting off hand with a 45x scope. What helps is as old as civilization and that is meditation. The serious competitor uses it before a match and those who do not, use a form of meditation while competing in the match. In other words the mind must go blank and concentrate only on the shot, which includes breath control and muscle control and controlling ones heart beat. All can be done and must be learned to be a successful competitor.

    Another point not mentioned is that switching the power by cranking it up and down will often change point of impact even on expensive scopes. When in competition you are better off with a fixed power scope as to eliminate the temptation to fool with a power ring and when hunting big game the change of point of impact is not as critical as in competition.

    One thing you forgot to mention is reticles. Fine cross hairs even with a dot reticle often become useless when shooting at an all black bulls-eye. Even young 20/20 eyes will tire during a match and the fine cross hairs will simply disappear. With older eyes the fine target crosshair cannot be seen at all against a black bulls-eye.

    Another point is that when hunting game 90 per cent of the time they see you before you see them. As a consequence the average once a year hunter is way better off with a scope set at 1x giving him a very wide field of view for game that is running like hell. The hunter is also better off with duplex extra thick cross hairs that will stand out and not get lost in brush and the terrain. The Leupold shot-gun scope 1-4 x 20 mm can also be used on rifles. For long shots the scope is simply turned up to 4x which is plenty of magnification for reasonable hunting ranges on big game.

    Lastly avoid the “gimmick scope” Christmas tree lights, multi-reticles for estimating range all tend to be more of a hindrance than a help for once a year hunters. Electronic lights go bad and add weight to the scope, batteries fail, multi-reticles clog up the field of view and result in many hunters actually using the wrong reticle aiming point when making quick shots. With a flat shooting cartridge like a .270 Winchester sighting in 3 inches high at 100 yards enables a dead on hold out to 300 yards without having to fool with range finders or multiple cross hairs or turning on red and green Christmas tree lights. For the once a year hunter 300 yards is usually way to far anyway for him to make a successful shot under field conditions of poor light, bad weather and an unsteady rest for his gun.

    The old axiom “KISS” (keep it simple stupid) is as true today as it was in the past. The “latest and greatest” wiz-bang expensive gizmo scope may dazzle the ladies and amaze your friends but chances are it will actually hinder your ability to bring home the bacon.

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