Secondhand Views

A lot of things work just as well the second time around. Rifle scopes and binoculars, for instance. Learn how to set your sights on a real deal.

Field & Stream Online Editors

Some things you'll want to buy new: a toothbrush, a handkerchief, reading glasses. But a lot of things work just as well the second time around. Rifle scopes and binoculars, for instance.

Shopping for used optics may not net you the latest model. But you probably don?t need it. Buy a proven, popular design, and you?ll likely get useful glass. Buy secondhand, and you?ll save money?sometimes a lot of money.

How can you be sure the instrument has no defects? You can?t. But the defects that matter usually show up on close inspection. The only thing that won?t is mechanical integrity. You must shoot with a scope to determine how the internal parts tolerate recoil and how precisely the adjustments work. Odds are, everything will pass muster.

A scope or binocular isn?t like an automobile engine. There?s nothing heating up at high speed. There?s no lubricant to break down or electronic device to wear out. A high-quality scope or binocular has the useful life of a tire iron. As long as it hasn?t been abused, you can expect it to work like new. Lifetime warranties on the best optics should be your clue that secondhand bargains abound.

Another reason that sporting optics outlast most owners is that the industry has become very competitive. When I was growing up, many deer hunters were still using iron sights. Few owned binoculars. By the 1960s, fogproof variable scopes with fixed-centered reticles and bright, coated glass were meeting a rocketing demand. Computer-guided mills and grinders turned out scopes and binoculars like cookies. Imports from Europe and the Far East challenged the U.S. companies of Lyman, Leupold, Redfield, and Bausch & Lomb. Within three decades, scopes and binoculars became standard kit for big-game hunters. Prices climbed, but so did quality. Hunters were willing to pay handsomely for good optics as they came to expect top performance.

I bought my first scope, a Bushnell, for $30. It was brand new. I couldn?t afford a Leupold 4X, then retailing at $59.50. Alas, that Bushnell 2.5X is no longer made. You can still buy the Leupold 4X new. But if you?d rather not buy new at the current list price (several times the original), pick one up secondhand. You?ll get essentially the same scope.

For years I hunted with a 7x35 Bausch & Lomb binocular that I acquired, used, for $75. I thought that a princely sum, as I?d recently sold my ?65 Mustang for $275, and you could then buy surplus military binoculars for $20. But that B&L; Zephyr has shown me lots of big game, and I?ve since bought two more. A couple of years ago, I got an 8x42 Swarovski binocular, used, for $100. Great bargain. I?d guess that over the past 30 years I?ve bought more secondhand rifle scopes than I have new ones. I?ve never had one fail.

What to Look For
Here are a few things to keep in mind when you shop for used optics:

  • Remember that new scopes and binoculars are often heavily discounted. Before you shop in earnest, get a feel for list prices from catalogs and retail stores. Used optics in carriage-class gun shops may cost as much as new glass from discount houses. Best bets for bargains: classified ads and the periodicals, Shotgun News (800-345-6923) and Gun List (800-258-0929). And don?t overlook pawnshops and gun shows.

  • Stay with the top brands. First, you?re apt to get a brighter image and a more durable instrument. Second, you?ll get service in the unlikely event you need it. Third, the scope or binocular will retain some resale value. In fact, if you buy intelligently, you may not see any depreciation for as long as you own the glass.

  • Consider models and features that aren?t in vogue. A lot of Leupold Vari-X II 3X?9X scopes are in circulation, but strong demand for this model keeps secondhand prices high. If you?ll settle for a fixed-power scope, or one with crosshairs or a post instead of a ?plex? reticle, yyou could get a bargain. Scopes with traditional glossy tubes often undersell those with the newer, popular matte finish. Discontinued scopes and binoculars commonly cost less on the used market, though a few coveted models sell at a premium.

  • Study specifications carefully so you know what you?re getting. Unless agreed upon in the deal, you probably won?t have return privileges. For instance, be aware of mounting limitations on your rifle. Some variable scopes are very short between the turret and front and rear bells, so you may have to buy extension rings. Scopes with 50mm front lenses need medium or high rings. You?d be smart to price 30mm rings before you buy a scope with a 30mm tube. These rings can be hard to find and are heavier and more expensive than 1-inch rings. Mind the weight of binoculars. To me, any binocular over 26 ounces is a burden unless it?s on a harness.

  • Give the scope or binocular a thorough inspection. If you wear eyeglasses, make sure the folding or sliding eyecups on a binocular give you the correct eye relief. The hinge should pivot without perceptible play. Focus the binocular; the dials must turn smoothly, with just enough drag to resist movement if you brush them accidentally. Ditto for the power ring and ocular housing on a scope. Scope adjustments should click crisply. (Older Leupold and some other scopes lack the click detents.)

  • Scratches from scope rings or field use reduce the value of a scope. Dents in a scope or binocular are more serious. Hard impacts can affect lens mountings, so it?s best to avoid dented optics. Also, reject any that show scratches on the glass. You may not see them looking through the scope or binocular, but they?ll show up if you look at the lens. Vigorous rubbing can wear through some lens coatings; you?ll see it as thinning color or very fine scratches. Take your money and run.

Part of the fun of buying secondhand is driving a hard bargain. There?s usually room to negotiate when you buy used, and if the seller is local, you might ask for a day?s trial. But don?t roll your eyes when he tells you that a scope or binocular is just like new. It probably is.