We may earn revenue from the products available on this page and participate in affiliate programs. Learn more ›
I admit it. I enjoy turning the knurled knob of a top-end target scope. And it looks cool, too. Hollywood snipers, competitive long-range shooters, and the carefully styled models in tactical-optics ads are all spinning, clicking, and ringing gongs farther than the camera can capture. Naturally you want to do it, too, right? Well, if you’re a hunter and your maximum field range is 600 yards or less—which should account for about 99 percent of you—forget it. Instead, buy a quality scope with a simple ballistic reticle, and leave those dials alone.
Why are so many rifle gurus dialing in? Because snipers do it, and because the sniper fantasy, which historically ebbs and flows, is flowing like the leading edge of a tsunami at the moment. Since the 1960s Marine snipers have been trained to dial in for range compensation: to adjust their scope’s elevation dial until the reticle is zeroed to the exact range of their target. (One reason for this was because many of the early scopes had only one crosshair.) It’s a supremely precise system, but it must be practiced over and over with the same equipment until it becomes second nature. With long-range shooting all the rage, the method is now frequently taught by ex-military instructors to civilian hunters.
That does not mean it’s the best method for hunters inside 600 yards. In fact, it isn’t. Here are three reasons why.
1. Not All Scopes Are the Same
Most modern scopes are made to adjust the crosshair by 1⁄4 inch at 100 yards per click, but many, in fact, do not. Others are not exactly consistent from click to click. At 100 yards these disparities don’t matter, but at long ranges, you could be dialing in disaster.
2. Dialing in Means Math
To do it correctly, you must first determine the exact range, then apply a mathematical formula to find out how many “come-ups” (in MOAs, inches, or mils) are required. And you’re still not done. Finally, you must translate that number to your scope’s click system. Even if you’re a mathlete, or if you create a cheat sheet with the number of clicks needed for various ranges, you can still dial in the wrong number of clicks or turn the dial in the wrong direction. These are errors that you can’t introduce if you use a ballistic reticle instead.
3. Hunting Situations Are Chaotic Enough
If a rutting buck pops into a field at 400 yards, for example, he may chase a doe 85 yards farther before you can range him, make the correct calculations, dial in your scope, and prepare for the shot. Then, just before you squeeze the trigger, the buck moves again, and while you give the dial another whirl he trots in another direction—maybe out of the field for good.
Keep It Simple
For normal hunting ranges, I advocate buying a quality scope with a ballistic reticle and using the holdover method. This way it doesn’t matter what the scope’s adjustments actually measure; it doesn’t matter if they aren’t consistent, if you’re wearing gloves, or if the animal moves—because once everything is zeroed, you’ll never make adjustments in the field. Just range your target, choose the correct reticle, and shoot. Tape a cheat sheet to your stock if it helps you remember the correct holds for various ranges.
The beauty of this system is that it’s simple. But remember, it’s only easy after you do your homework. Never trust the reticle maker’s yardage recommendations or the ammo manufacturer’s ballistic table without verifying them for yourself. They’re rarely dead on. You must actually shoot your rifle, scope, and load combination out to 600 yards in 50-yard increments while carefully notating your crosshairs’ values (called subtensions) for each range. Also be aware that environmental factors like barometric pressure and especially altitude can affect point of impact, so it’s always best to practice in conditions similar to those in which you anticipate hunting. In the end, you may not look as cool when shooting. But don’t be too disappointed. More trophies on the wall look pretty cool, too.
TIP OF THE MONTH: Power Rangers
In second-focal-plane, variable-power scopes, you can adjust the power ring to get holdover values that are easier to remember. Let’s say that when your primary crosshair is zeroed at 200 yards, the bottom crosshair subtends to 565 yards at 12X. Now suppose you find odd numbers tough to remember. You can manipulate the power ring to find out what power will make the last crosshair subtend to 600 yards instead—maybe it’s 10.5X. If you’re lucky, all the crosshairs will align near a round number at that power—a trick I call crosshair optimization. Keep in mind that the center crosshair will always be on, no matter the power chosen.—J.J.