How to Buy the Right Budget Riflescope

What's new in riflescopes? Better quality at lower prices, but of course not all budget scopes measure up. Here's how to find a true gem.

by HuntStand


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There isn’t much new in riflescopes except better quality at lower prices. Understand what you’re “looking at,” and you could get a bright, sharp, rugged, reliable scope with enough money left over to buy a box of cartridges—if you can find them.

Here’s the great thing about riflescopes: everyone and his neighbor’s cat is making them. New brands pop up monthly, it seems. And many are pretty impressive, some spectacular. Or so it appears at first blush.

All this competition means prices are kept low and quality high. But that doesn’t mean you won’t find a few flies in the soup.

Burris 3-9x40 Riflescope In Field

The “old fashioned” 3-9x40 remains what it’s always been—an effective, versatile, compact, light, do-all sight for hunting anywhere, anytime, with minimal fuss.

Will Startups Last?

The problem with great scopes from startup companies is the chance those companies won’t keep up. Starting is one thing, staying is another. Of course even the oldest, most famous brands were once startups, but so was Nikon. And it stopped making riflescopes. So there is some value to long-established brands like Burris, especially when you consider their promise to honor warranties and repair any broken scopes.

In addition to selecting a brand you can trust, you need to understand the parts and pieces that make a scope great. It’s not more bells and whistles. Dialing turrets and Christmas Tree ballistic reticles are useful and sometimes needed, but the essentials are resolution, light transmission, repeatability, and durability. Let’s investigate these.

Riflescope View Showing High Resolution

High resolution means a scope transmits an image that looks crisply defined, its edges sharp and distinct.


Resolution is sharpness. Images that are sharp as a tack, as if cut from glass, seemingly etched onto the background. Hard, crisp edges. Resolution results from lenses with few or no internal imperfections (inclusions and air bubbles), consistent and precise curvature, perfect polishing, and precise mounting within the entire instrument. Perfect glass, if you will. But that’s just a start. Something called contrast can improve or degrade resolution.


Image Showing High Riflescope Contrast

Even with sunlight shining on the objective lens, the anti-reflection lens coatings of a high-quality scope will minimize flare and glare to project a high-contrast image like this.

Riflescope image showing low contrast

Poor contrast is easily seen when sunlight is shining on the scope’s objective lens. You’ll notice a yellow or orange haze or glare and your subject won't stand out crisply and cleanly from the background.


Contrast is the visually discernible difference in brightness and color tones between objects and backgrounds. High contrast reveals the blackest blacks and the brightest whites, but it also separates subtle color differences like mahogany antlers from brown tree limbs. You can see poor contrast in a riflescope more easily than great contrast. Just point a scope toward a shadowed area with the sun near the horizon and shining on the objective lens. If you see a lot or orange flare and haze, you’re seeing low contrast.

Bull Elk at last light

Scope brightness is wonderful, but not the most important feature of an effective hunting scope. High resolution and high contrast can compensate for several percentage points of lost light.


Brightness is important but overplayed in scope marketing. A more accurate term is light transmission or throughput. Most hunters know a larger objective lens lets more light in. Fewer know higher magnification lets less light out. And most of us wrongly assume that a 30mm or 34mm main tube passes more light then a 1-inch tube. So here’s the real deal: Objective lens


diameter divided by power or magnification determines Exit Pupil (EP), the bright little circle you can see in the eyepiece of a scope held at arm’s length. The larger this circle, the more light that comes out. A 50mm objective at 10X makes a 5mm EP. The same 50mm at 20X makes a smaller 2.5mm EP, and at 5X a huge 10mm EP. The bigger the EP, the brighter the view except …

riflescope exit pupil large

The Exit Pupil (circle of light) seen in the eyepiece of this Burris Droptime 3-9x40mm scope is a generous 13.33mm. That’s almost twice the diameter of the 7mm your pupil can open. This means that extra rim of light just bounced off your iris, wasted.

riflescope exit pupil small

When you crank that 40mm objective scope to 9X the exit pupil shrinks to 4.44mm, a bit less than your pupil’s diameter at maximum dilation (nearly dark.) For maximum brightness at last light, a larger objective might be justified.

Exit Pupil Limitations

The pupil in your own eye puts a limit on this. The human pupil can dilate from roughly 2.5mm at the smallest (bright sunlight), to 7mm at the largest (full dark). If a scope EP is smaller than your pupil’s dilation, you aren’t getting all the light you could take in. But if the EP is larger than your pupil, the extra rim of light just bounces off your iris, wasted. It can’t get into your eye to hit your retina and stimulate your optic nerve. Changing main tube diameter doesn’t change the “objective divided by power” formula at all, unless the main tube is smaller than all the internal lenses.

One benefit an excessively large EP provides is a full view without edge shadow or blackout. Edge shadow appears when the scope’s EP is smaller than your eye’s pupil, or if you aren’t perfectly aligned with the center of the scope. In addition, edge shadow appears when you’re too far forward or too far back (beyond the scope’s built-in eye relief distance). You’ll notice this by sliding back and forward on your rifle’s comb, and side-to-side. A larger EP allows you more of this shift without shadow showing. The downside to this is that you induce parallax. The farther your eye is from the centerline of the scope, the more parallax you’ll get if the scope isn’t perfectly focused. (There are always trade-offs!)



Burris Riflescope Showing Coatings

The purple/magenta reflection seen in the objective lens of this Burris 3-12x42mm Fullfield IV scope indicates multiple layers of anti-reflection coatings have been applied.

Internal Lenses

There are as many as seven lenses in some scopes. Erector lenses, magnifying lenses, reticle lenses (reticles are no longer spider webs or wires, but etched glass). Each of these lenses decreases light transmission by reflecting some of the light that hits them. Roughly 4 percent of light bounces off raw glass. With seven lenses to pass through, a scope could lose 28 percent of the light. But there’s a cure: anti-reflection coatings.

A microscopic layer of certain rare-earth minerals can cut reflection loss in half. Additional layers can cut it in half again. This is how scope makers can advertise 90-percent or higher light transmission. Multiple layers of anti-reflection coatings on all lenses in the scope yields maximum transmission.


Repeatability means if you dial a turret 10 MOA, it moves 10 MOA, not 9 or 11. And when you dial back, the reticle returns to its precise starting point. This isn’t critical if you aren’t dialing for drop or windage compensation, but it can make initial zero adjustment a bit frustrating. Once there, however, you can set it and forget it so long as your scope is …


Durable means tough, rugged, able to take a beating and maintain zero. No matter how bright, sharp, and high contrast any scope, it’s worthless if it doesn’t retain zero. And I’m talking about hunt after hunt, shot after shot.

Big Buck In Low Light

A big buck at last light shows up surprisingly well despite the low light, IF your scope is both sharp and contrasty.

Look For These (In This Order)

So now we have our shopping list. Look for and test the following things more or less in this order of importance, when shopping for an affordable scope:

Durability. You largely depend on brand reputation and warranty for this. Lifetime warranty against any and all defects suggests they think it will last. One year warranty for parts and workmanship? Questionable. Burris stands behinds its optics with the industry-leading Forever Warranty. You can get a rough idea of durability by the scope’s look, function, and feel. Does it look clean and precise? Do all the moving parts move smoothly and consistently without backlash, rough spots or grinding?

Bull Moose at Last Light

Dark animals at last light are a good excuse for a larger diameter objective lens. But don’t assume a 56mm objective or even a 50mm is essential. Proper application of anti-reflection coatings can help 44mm and 40mm scopes project a reticle clearly against surprisingly dark animals.

Resolution. You can get by with a slightly out-of-focus image under bright light, but as the lights dim, a crisp, sharp view is better.

Contrast. Though subtle, high contrast really helps game stand out from its background, good contrast can compensate for poor resolution to a degree.

Brightness. Though ballyhooed, this is least important within reason. Most of us can’t detect a 5 percent or even 10 percent difference in light transmission between scopes. And most scopes in each price category come within 5 percent brightness levels. Note that a bright scope in any given power/objective lens diameter will be that way, because of anti-reflection lens coatings. Shopping for fully multi-coated scopes (all lenses have multiple layers of anti-reflection coating) addresses a lot of your needs.

Burris FullField Scope Atop Predator Rifle

For most deer/elk hunting rifles a scope of “average” size (like this Burris Fullfield IV 3-12x42mm atop a Mossberg Patriot Predator in 6.5 PRC) is amazingly effective—a good balance of length, weight, power, and brightness.

Repeatability. I rank this last because precise adjustments of the reticle truly aren’t required, unless you plan to dial for precision shot placement. This is essential for target shooting, especially beyond 300 yards, so you’ll need a mechanism that truly does adjust 7 MOA when you dial 7 MOA, then returns to zero. If this is what you need, move Repeatability toward the top of your “needs list.”

But for big game hunting out to about 300 yards, where your goal is to hit a 10- to 16-inch vital zone (heart, lungs—what the old timers called the “boiler room”), setting your zero for Maximum Point Blank Range eliminates the need for dialing. Zero 2.5 to 3 inches high at 100 yards with most .243 Win. to .300 Win. Mag. cartridges, and your peak trajectory shouldn’t be more than 4 inches at around 150 to 180 yards. Then zero 3 to 6 inches low at 300 yards. Hold dead center and you hit that boiler room. But only if your scope is durable enough to maintain its zero shot after shot, hunt after hunt.

Now get out there and hunt up the scope you need.




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