A look into the best target scopes for long-range shooting.
By Phil Massaro
I lay prone behind the trigger of one of my favorite target rifles, a Savage Model 116 in 6.5-284 Norma, during day two of the SAAM (Sportsman’s All-Weather All-Terrain Marksmanship) course at the FTW Ranch in Texas. We had just been repeatedly successful on the 1,200-yard steel target and were about to take things out to 1,500 yards. My shooting partner was equipped with a 6.5 Creedmoor, with a lesser muzzle velocity than my chosen cartridge, yet at the 1,500-yard mark, he was hitting the target and I was struggling.
I had reached the end of my scope’s vertical adjustment and was trying to use the lower crosshair for additional elevation. Frustrated, I asked the instructor just what was going wrong with my rig, explaining that I knew my 6.5-284 Norma was a fair amount faster than the Creedmoor. “You’re shooting a one-inch tube scope and he’s got a 30mm tube,” the instructor said. “He’s got more adjustment.”
My scope was a famous European make, with a top end of 18X magnification, an adjustable objective lens, and glass as clear as you could ask for. But the one-inch tube diameter just didn’t have enough room inside to make the needed elevation adjustments. It had become painfully clear why so many serious long-range target shooters use riflescopes with 30mm tubes, if not larger.
It wasn't the idea of a 30mm tube being brighter—it really isn’t—nor the idea of a larger field of view. The latest trend in long-range target scopes is to use a minimum of a 30mm main tube, with many going to the 34mm. Leupold has now embraced the 35mm main tube. And the main reason for the larger tubes is to have the additional windage and elevation adjustment, specifically for long-range target work.
When the distances to the target get long, you’ll have to adjust for the trajectory of the bullet by dialing the elevation turret of your scope a prescribed amount. A ballistics chart will give you good data regarding the amount of adjustment needed for a certain distance. The turrets are usually graduated in one of two systems: either minutes-of-angle (1/60th of a degree), abbreviated as MOA, or in milliradians, commonly called “mils.” I prefer to work in MOA, so let’s use that system for the following comparison.
Looking at the trajectory of the highly popular 6.5 Creedmoor 140-grain ELD Match load from Hornady and using a 100-yard zero, you’ll see that 61¾ MOA of elevation are required to hit the 1,500-yard target. The scope I was using on my 6.5-284 Norma had a maximum elevation adjustment of 58 MOA, and in spite of the increased velocity, I couldn’t make up the gap. Jumping to the far end of the spectrum, the Leupold Mark 5HD 5-25x56mm with its huge, 35mm tube, provides a whopping 120 MOA of vertical adjustment, which is more than you’d need for the 1,500-yard steel and will actually take you out to 2,000 yards with the Creedmoor, though the bullet will have gone through the transonic window by that point. A faster, heavier cartridge like the .300 PRC with its 225-grain ELD Match bullet will surely make the 2,000-yard mark, requiring just 84¼ MOA of elevation.
Long-range target scopes are a hefty investment, so have an honest conversation about what and how far you want to be shooting before shelling out the cash. If you’re shooting inside of 1,000 yards, your scope requirement likely be different than one for one-mile targets. For instance, while the Leupold Mark 5 provides a large amount of adjustment, you can effectively hit targets out to 1,000 yards with less adjustment. Most ammunition companies provide a ballistic chart for their target loads, and from them you can get a feel for how much adjustment you’ll need. There are other means of gaining elevation, such as scope bases that add 20 or even 40 MOA, so there are options besides buying a multitude of expensive scopes.
Magnification is also another point of interest. One would think that seeing and hitting a target at distance out to and sometimes over a mile requires something like 40X magnification, but that’s not always the case. With good glass, the kind premium scope brands provide, a top end of 20X or 25X is more than enough to make shots at those distances, and should there be the least bit of mirage, you’ll find yourself lowering the magnification to combat that. When I was at the Leupold Optics Academy in eastern Oregon, a high-elevation desert region, we had serious mirage, but reducing the magnification to 12X gave us a clear sight picture and we routinely hit the 1,500-yard plate under those conditions.
Reticle choices abound in glass for long-range work. Depending on your level of confidence in using a complex reticle, sometimes less is more. First-focal-plane reticles will change apparent size with changes in magnification, while second-focal-plane reticles maintain a constant size. A very complex reticle in the first focal plane can tend to blur out at lower magnifications, while a second focal plane reticle will keep the same crisp image at any magnification. Should you want to use the graduated measurements of the second-focal-plane reticle, you’ll have to be sure and have the scope set to the proper magnification specified by the manufacturer in order for the measurements to correlate properly.
Both styles are popular, so it will come down to a personal choice. I prefer a simple reticle, with minimal graduations, in a first focal plane configuration. I also like a target scope with boldly labeled turrets (or at least the elevation turret), so my aging eyes can just come up from the rear and quickly and accurately make the proper adjustment. I prefer to use the horizontal reticle for wind-drift adjustments, but there are a good number of shooters who dial for wind adjustments.
You’ll also want a healthy amount of eye relief—I prefer four inches or so, if possible, to prevent any chance of getting “scope eye.”
Do some shopping to find the scope that checks all the boxes for you. Thankfully there are plenty to choose from at any number of price points, and a little homework on your part will have you discovering the one that helps you connect far, far downrange.
Phil Massaro is a freelance author and editor-in-chief of Gun Digest Annual. He is happiest hunting the wildest places left on earth.
About the Author: Phil Massaro is a freelance author and editor-in-chief of Gun Digest Annual. He is happiest hunting the wildest places left on earth.