Choosing a Deer and Hog Rifle Scope by Randy Rowley


When I first started to hunt deer (back in 1976), hunters considered rifle scopes as optional equipment.  There was even a segment of hunting society that considered scopes as unsporting, unmanly, and/or cheating.  Since that time, scopes have become prominent, and hunters now regard them as standard hunting equipment.

Today just about every deer and hog hunter that I know has a scope on his rifle (except for “brush guns” such as .30-30’s).  Hunters are now putting scopes on muzzleloaders, shotguns, crossbows, and even compound bows.  This plethora of scope use means that there are more choices than ever before, but, consequently, there is a greater need for hunters to learn more about scopes and the options available to them before they part with their money.

For those who need convincing, let’s first examine the advantages of scopes.  The most significant advantage of scopes (over iron or peep sights) is their magnification advantage.  The most common deer and hog hunting scope is a 3-9X40 variable with a 1″ diameter tube.  With this scope, a hunter sees his target magnified anywhere from three to nine times over the naked eye (as adjusted by a dial).  When a hunter looks at a deer or hog that is 100 yards away with a 9X scope it appears to be nine times closer or the equivalent of looking at it at 11 yards with the naked eye!  This allows for much more precise bullet placement and prevents (to a large extent) errors such as shooting a nubbin buck when the hunter thought that it was a doe.  It also makes identification of things like points on a buck’s rack, the age of a deer, and tusks on a hog much easier.

The second most significant advantage of scopes is brightness.  A scope gathers existing light and focuses it down the scope tube.  Thus a hunter can see deer or hogs well in his scope at first light that a rifle sight hunter won’t be able to see in his sights for another 30 minutes.  As the biggest bucks often vanish at first light, this is a huge advantage.  Many hunters also have trouble focusing on iron sights as they age.

The third advantage of scopes is decreased movement.  Movement is not a hunter’s friend.  A man hunting with iron sights has to raise his binoculars to his eyes, find and identify the game, lower his binoculars, raise his rifle, find the game again, and then take the shot.  A man hunting with a scope only has to raise his gun, locate and identify the game, and then take the shot.  There is considerably less movement. We’ll never know for sure, but I believe that excessive movement blows more shots than any other factor.

On the converse side, scopes are not well suited for shooting at running game.  Trying to find a running animal in a scope, keep it there, and actually hit it with a fatal shot are not easy feats.  For this task, iron sights or red dot scopes are your best bet.  However, in reality, most hunters shoot at deer and hogs that are standing still or walking slowly.  For these tasks, a scope is, by far, the best choice.

To put it simply, you will put more venison and pork in your freezer with a rifle scope than you will with just iron sights.  Period.

Rifle scopes are available in many different sizes, configurations, and magnifications.  Some scopes are designed for turkey hunting, hunting with shotgun slugs, varmints, and even night hunting.  As previously mentioned, the most common rifle scope is the 3-9X40 with a 1″ diameter tube.  There are bigger and smaller magnification ranges available.  Some scopes don’t vary in their magnification at all (fixed power).  A few scopes have lighted reticles or “electro dots,” others have Adjustable Objectives (AO), some have rudimentary rangefinders, some have “bullet drop compensators,” and Burris and others now offer laser rangefinder scopes.  However, I’m not going to deal with all of the technical details and options in this article.  Instead, I’ll focus on the features that deer and hog hunting require.

As previously mentioned, the most common deer and hog hunting scope is the 3-9X40 with a 1″ diameter tube.  Other variable power scopes that are popular for big game hunting include the 2-7X33, 2.5-10X40, 3-10X40, 3.5-10X40, 4-12X40, and 3-12X40; although more 3-9X40’s have been sold than all those others combined.  In reality, the 3-9X40 is inferior to the 2.5-10X40 and 3-10X40 and especially the 4-12X40 and 3-12X40.  The latter are newer magnification values that have been available only for a short while, so they have not become widespread yet.  When the 3-9X40 was born, it was the cream of the crop, and many hunters cut their teeth on them.  Therefore, many of these old-timers are reluctant to buy something that isn’t the same as what they grew up with.  The same phenomenon is true of the .280 Remington, which is a superior cartridge to the .270 Winchester, yet the .270 outsells it probably more than 50 to 1.  Many old-timers grew up shooting a .270, and they’re not about to consider anything else.

Actual magnification values vary from scope to scope.  The numbers mean, again using the revered 3-9X40 as our example, that at the lowest setting (3X), the game viewed will appear to be approximately three times the size that it would appear as viewed by the naked eye.  As previously mentioned, the top setting (9X) would appear to be about nine times the size that it would appear as viewed by the unassisted eye.  You can adjust the magnification power anywhere between the lowest and highest settings, although the numbers on the dial (knob) are usually presented as whole numbers.  So if you want 5.5 magnification power, you’ll have to put it halfway between the 5 and the 6.  All variable-powered scopes behave in this manner.

Again using the 3-9X40 with a 1″ tube as our example, for hunting deer and hogs from stands 3X is considered very low.  It excels for stalking and drives, where close running shots are common.  The higher magnification you go, the narrower your field of view.  9X is the best magnification to use for stand hunting, but it is a poor choice for stalking and drives. That’s the beauty of a variable powered scope – you can zoom it up when in the stand and then zoom it down when you get out of your stand to stalk.  The point of impact will not change.  The problem with fixed-power scopes is you do not have these options.  What you see is what you get.  You can compromise and get a 6X, for example, but that might be too much magnification for close running shots and not enough magnification for stand hunting at the typical range (100 yards from the feeder).  The advantages of fixed-power scopes are they are cheaper than variable-power scopes and the hunter doesn’t have to worry about the point of impact changing and having to change the eye relief (like some hunters with cheap scopes do when they change the magnification on their variable-power scopes).

Many deer and hog hunters make the mistake of buying too much magnification.  If you can hit a deer or hog at 35 yards with iron sights, then you can hit one at 300 yards with an 8.5X scope (300 yards is 8.5 times longer than 35 yards and an 8.5X scope is 8.5 times more magnification than the naked eye).  Therefore, a magnification value higher than 12X is not needed unless you hunt in an area, such as West Texas, where you will frequently encounter shot situations beyond 300 yards.

For such cases, a 3.5-14X or a 4.5-14X is the better choice.  Anything above 14X should be avoided for deer and hog hunting.  The higher magnification scopes are heavier (which results in fatigue and misses) and higher magnifications make it harder to hold your reticles on your target.  One’s breathing and jerking become more pronounced the higher the magnification.  The 20 power scopes, such as the 6.5-20X, are best for long-range varmint hunting, where using a bench rest is common.  To be blunt, if you have to use a 20X scope to see a deer or hog, you probably won’t hit it anyway.

A commonly held belief among hunters is your scope should equal the investment that you have in your rifle.  Thus if you have a $700 rifle, you should put a $700 scope on it. I’m not convinced that this is necessary. It’s like saying that your 20K truck should only tow a 20K travel trailer.  However, too many hunters err on the cheap where scopes are concerned.  Many of the scopes that are available for under $150 are questionable in their clarity, ruggedness, reliability, and ability to hold zero.  With cheap scopes, a hunter can go to the range in February, sight in his rifle, and then put it in his gun cabinet.  Eight months later, he takes his rifle back to the range (to ensure that it is still sighted in for deer season) and finds that it’s shooting six inches off to the left.  His cheap scope wasn’t able to hold its zero.  With scopes, just as with everything else, you get what you pay for.

As I was young, uneducated, and broke when I started deer hunting, I figured that my Redfield Widefield 4X scope was among the best for hunting optics (the salesman at Service Merchandise said so).  It didn’t take me long to learn that this scope was significantly limited.  Next to rifles and ammo, scopes are the most essential piece of hunting equipment that you can buy (you can hunt without a scope, but you can’t hunt without a rifle and ammo).  You can buy a cheap rifle and make it shoot good with a great scope, but you can’t make a great rifle shoot good with a cheap scope. It’s kind of like putting street tires on a 4X4 truck – they’ll probably work out in the field, but not nearly as well as all-terrain tires.

When comparing scopes, the things to look for are brightness, ruggedness, point of impact, and eye relief.

A scopes brightness is determined by how much light it allows in.  Many manufactures divulge the brightness of their scopes.  The Nikon Monarch and Burris Fullfield II, for example, have 95% light transmission.  The more popular Leupold VX-II only has 87%.  Light transmission translates to brightness.  A brighter scope will see more deer and hogs.

One of the most debated features of a scope is the size of the objective (forward) lens.  Scopes with 40mm objectives are the industry standard, but manufacturers also sell 42, 44, 50, and 56mm objective lens scopes.  The larger objective lenses gather more light, making for a brighter view (a 50mm objective lens scope gathers approximately 55% more light than a 40mm objective lens scopes), but the 50mm (and 56mm) objective lens scopes have significantly larger bells to hold their bigger lenses so they have to be mounted higher than a 40mm scope so they won’t rest on the barrel.  That means that the hunter has to raise his cheek higher to see down the scope.  A higher cheek mount translates to lower accuracy.  The 50mm and 56mm objective lens scopes are also heavier than their 40mm cousins.  The 40mm objective lens scopes are also less expensive, have less parallax, and have greater depth of field than 50mm and 56mm objective lens scopes.

Another of the most debated features of a scope is the diameter of the tube.  1″ (25.4mm) diameter tubes are standard and are adequate for most hunting situations. They’re lighter than 34mm (1.34″) and 30mm (1.18″) diameter tubes, scope rings for them are easier to find due to their popularity, and they cause the scope to sit slightly lower than 34mm and 30mm diameter tubes, which means that they’re more accurate.  However, 34mm and 30mm diameter tubes are stronger and gather more light than 1″ diameter tubes.

Scopes for hog hunting at night are the exception to the 40mm objective lens and 1″ diameter scope tube rules.  A 56mm or 50mm lens and a 34mm or 30mm diameter tube will gather a lot more light and could make the difference between seeing a hog in your scope and not seeing one.  Vortex now makes a version of their Crossfire II called the “Hog Hunter” that comes in 3-12X56mm with a 30mm diameter tube.  It has an adjustable objective lens, second focal plane, and a V-Brite Illuminated Reticle.  It sells for $300.

Another critical factor is the ruggedness of the scope.  You can have the brightest scope in the world, but if it can’t handle bumps and recoil, it’s worthless.  For example, many years ago, I owned a Redfield Widefield 4-12X40.  Those scopes sold new for about $250, but I got mine used for about $150.  It was accurate enough and accounted for a lot of venison.  But on the FCS 3/7/03 – 3/9/03 Semi-guided Hog and Sheep Hunt it proved to have an Achilles heel.

Early in the day, when I was exiting the bed of the guide’s truck, I bumped the eyepiece of my scope on his tailgate.  It wasn’t a severe blow, so I thought nothing of it.  Later, I had an easy shot at a Catilina Goat that was about 40 yards away.  The first shot, aimed at the goat’s chest and using the roof of the truck as a rest, resulted in a miss (the goat was facing to the right).  The second shot, aimed at the goat’s chest, hit his back gut (he was facing to the left).  The third shot missed (facing to the right).  The fourth shot was a repeat of the second shot.  The fifth shot, aimed at the goat’s neck, hit his heart (facing to the left).  The last shot, a neck shot, was from two feet away. I’ve bumped my scopes before but never had one get out of alignment as a result.  The next day I shot a target from a bench at 20 yards and hit six inches off to the right.  That means that my first (40-yard) shot was a foot off!  It probably would have been 2 1/2 feet off at 100 yards!  I soon no longer owned that Redfield.

Where light transmission can be gauged, scope ruggedness is much harder to do so.  Your best sources of information are reviews in hunting and shooting magazines and the opinions of experts and experienced fellow hunters.  Try to get information from more than one source and get a consensus.  The general rule is, the cheaper the scope, the less rugged it will be.  Look for the term “shockproof” in the scope description.

Another factor is the point of impact (where the bullet hits the target).  For some variable-powered scopes, the point of impact can change as the hunter changes the magnification.  Thus, a scope that is dead on when sighted in at 9X might be four inches off on 5X.  This problem is almost always due to the hunter choosing a cheap scope.

Another factor is eye relief, which is the best possible distance between the scopes eyepiece and your eye to see the target.  With cheaper variable-power scopes, eye relief changes as the magnification is changed.  That means that the hunter will have to change where his cheek is positioned on the stock as he moves the magnification dial, which could affect accuracy.

A hunting scope must be waterproof, fogproof, and have multi-coated lenses.  If the scope description doesn’t list all three, then forget it.  If it only says “water-resistant,” then forget it.  A hunting scope should also have a lifetime warranty, as they get abused.  Vortex, Burris, Nikon, Leupold, and others offer them.

Avoid tactical scopes for hunting.  A lot of people like them because they are more accurate from the bench and the windage and elevation can be precisely adjusted.  But they’re more expensive than hunting scopes and not needed for deer and hog hunting.  Also, side focus is an unnecessary feature.

Regarding reticles, I prefer a regular to heavy duplex.  I’m not a big fan of Mil-Dots, Ballistic Plex, Varmit Hunters, Boone and Crockett, BDC, etc. that are commonly found on tactical scopes.  A lot of people prefer these more precise reticles because they are more accurate from the bench.  However, with a deer or hog in the crosshairs, the less optical clutter (the simpler), the better.  Also, you don’t need parallax adjustment or adjustable objective lenses in a hunting scope.

Avoid rifle “package deals,” such as the Remington Model 783 (which can come with an “unbranded” 3-9X40mm scope).  That rifle is Remington’s cheapest, so it’s appropriate that they put a cheapo scope on it.  If you’ve just got to buy a Model 783 (they’re inferior to the Model 700), it would behoove you to choose a Model 783 without a scope and then put a decent scope on it like the Vortex Diamondback or Crossfire II, Burris Fullfield E1, Weaver Classic V-Series, Nikon ProStaff P5 or P3, or Leupold VX-Freedom or Rifleman.

A 2-7X33mm or 32mm is ideal for a .22, which is primarily a small game and short-range gun. Don’t go bigger than a 3-9X40mm.  Most shots with .22’s are less than 50 yards.  Greater than 9X magnification is not needed, and an objective lens larger than 40mm would be wasted on a .22, as there is no need for the extra light gathering advantage (unless you’re hog hunting at night).  If you buy a “.22 scope” (designed for a .22), realize that they are intended for the recoil of a .22.  If you later mount it on a high powered rifle, its recoil will probably destroy the scope.  Mounting a rifle scope on a .22 is a much wiser choice as most .22 scopes are junk and you can move a rifle scope later to a high powered rifle.

Just as with everything else, there is a wide range of scope quality and cost.  The following recommendations are for manufacturers’ 3-9X40mm scopes with 1″ diameter tubes, or as close to them as they offer.  I did not include ultra-expensive scopes, as they are out of the vast majority of FCS members’ leagues.  Germany and Austria have long been the leaders in rifle scope glass.  Unfortunately, a lot of German and Austria-made scopes are costly.

Excellent scopes above $600 include:

  • Burris Veracity;
  • Leupold VX-3i LRP and VX-3i;
  • Nikon Black FX1000;
  • Sightron SIII Long Range;
  • Vortex Razor and Viper series’;
  • Weaver Grand Slam with Multistop Turrent and Super Slam; and
  • Zeiss Conquest V4.

Great scopes in the $400 – $600 range include:

  • Burris Signature HD;
  • Leupold VX-IIIi;
  • Nikon Black 1000, Black X1000, and Monarch M5; and
  • Weaver Grand Slam.

Very good scopes in the $300 – $400 range that are bright, rugged, and reliable include:

  • Leupold VX-Freedom;
  • Nikon P5;
  • Vortex Diamondback; and
  • Weaver Classic V-Series.

Good scopes in the $150 – $300 range include:

  • Burris Fullfield IV and Fullfield II;
  • Bushnell Engage, Nitro, and Prime;
  • Leupold Rifleman;
  • Nikon Buckmasters and ProStaff P3;
  • Vortex Crossfire II, Sonora, and Copperhead; and
  • Weaver 40/44.

I would not consider putting scopes cheaper than these on a deer/hog rifle.

Specific scopes to avoid include Bushnell Legend and Banner, Simmons, Tasco, Winchester, Barska, and BSA.

I presently use the following scopes:

  • My Remington Model 700 BDL .25-06 is topped with a Vortex Crossfire II 3-9X50mm with a duplex reticle with an illuminated V-Brite dot.  It sells new for around $209 online.
  • My Marlin Model 60 .22 is topped with a Burris Fullfield II 3-9X40mm with a duplex reticle.  It sells new for around $200 online.

I’ve owned and liked the following scopes:

  • Nikon Monarch 3-9X40mm.  They have been discontinued and sell for around $350 (used) online.
  • Leupold Vari-X II (the predecessor of the VX II) 2-7X33mm.  They have been discontinued and sell for around $250 (used) online.
  • Burris Signature 3-9X40mm with an Electro dot and Posi-Loc (it locks the reticles into place with a key).  They have been discontinued and sell for around $275 (used) online.
  • Sightron SII 3-9X42mm.  They have been discontinued and sell for around $240 (used) online.

I’ve owned and not liked the following scopes:

  • Redfield Widefield 4-12X40mm.
  • Redfield Widefield 4X40mm.
  • Bushnell Banner 3-9X40mm.

As with most things, there are deals to be had in scopes.  For certain scopes (Leupold, Browning, etc.), you pay a lot just for their name/logo.  Case in point – Bushnell used to make scopes for Browning that were copies of the Bushnell Elite 3200.  Browning put their logo on it and sold it for $80 more than Bushnell sold its Elite 3200. Customers paid $80 more for the Browning name and Buckmark logo.  They did not get a better scope.

The experts at McBride’s claim that the Burris Fullfield II and the Weaver Super Slam are as good as, if not better than, the Leupold VX-III, while costing hundreds less.  The Fullfield II (with 95% light transmission) is almost as bright as the Leupold VX-III (with 97% light transmission).  Weaver does not state what the light transmissions are for their scopes.

I require at least good scopes on the rifles that I own.  Although I can be a tightwad, I’ve learned the hard way that cheap scopes do more harm than good. Many hunters have indeed killed lots of deer and hogs with cheap scopes that they’re quick to brag about, but they also have more misses with cheap scopes (when compared to good scopes) that they’re not willing to discuss.

Choosing a rifle scope is a complex and challenging decision.  The potential buyer would do well to talk to men who own or have owned the scope that he is considering.  I will be happy to further discuss your particular scenario with you.

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