A tough scope is a good scope because durability is job one.
Bright is nice and a high zoom range can be handy — but not if that scope can’t hold zero.
I learned that the hard way in a freezing rain with a Winchester Super X3 12 gauge in my semi-frozen hands. I’d zeroed it for 100 yards with Winchester’s 3-inch XP3 slugs doing the heavy lifting. The $1,000 scope atop it was bright as sunshine and sharp as a Rhodes scholar, but price didn’t matter. When a 150-class whitetail tiptoed into easy range, I cracked the ice shell over my jacket, laid the reticle on the buck’s chest and missed bigger than the national debt.
Back at the farm we couldn’t get the gun re-zeroed. The erector tube return spring had broken.
You can’t see an erector tube return spring when assessing riflescopes. You can’t see most of the critical, internal moving parts that determine whether it’s a tough scope, tough enough to withstand heavy, repeated recoil. Does $500 get you a durable scope? $1,000? $3,000?
Honest answer: I don’t know. But I don’t think so. Certainly price has a bearing on durability, just as it does on overall quality. But a high price might reflect other attributes like brightness and clarity. This brings us back to the big question: how do you determine functional durability in a riflescope?
Reputation and guarantees. Any scope that’s famous for taking a licking and keeping on aiming is a good bet. And any company that guarantees to replace any scope that breaks must be pretty confident they won’t have to be replacing many — small consolation if your scope loses zero when you’re shooting at a 150-class buck in an ice storm. Yeah, you can send it back for free replacement or repair, but that doesn’t bring the buck back.
So I’m not going to tell you which scope brand or model is most likely to hold perfect zero forever (because I don’t know,) but I will make some pragmatic suggestions and mention one brand that has stood the tests of time and battering for me.
First, keep it small and simple. Basic physics tells us heavier objects exert more force than lighter ones under velocity. When a rifle recoils, a scope with a large, heavy 56mm objective lens suffers more inertial forces than one with a 33mm lens. Heavy, oversized erector tubes and lenses in a 34mm main tube endure more force than smaller ones in a 1-inch (25.4mm) main tube.
Similarly, the more moving parts in a scope, the more moving parts that can stop moving. Zooms are more likely to break than fixed power scopes. I suspect you do need to pay more to get durability in complicated scopes.
Now the brand mention and a quick anecdote to illustrate toughness: Leupold. I’ve hunted around the world with dozens of Leupold scopes. None has ever failed me. I’d long believed that the less expensive scopes in any brand were less rugged than the expensive lines, but David Archerd in Leupold’s Engineering department told me otherwise. “Maybe with some manufacturers, sure, but not us. Our least expensive scope is just as tough as our most expensive.”
“You mean your VX-1 is as strong as your VX-6?”
“Same. I’ve tested them at recoil levels you wouldn’t believe. Way beyond a 458 Lott. Leupold’s Gold Ring Full Lifetime Guarantee applies to every scope we make.”
I’m not guaranteeing every Leupold will never break, never fail to hold zero, but here’s an incident that solidified my trust in the durability of these scopes: Guide Striker Overly and I were stepping off an Alaska glacier with a spectacular Dall’s ram and full backpacks. I slipped and broke my fall by slamming the rear scope ring, power dial ring and stock of my Rifle’s Inc. Strata Stainless 280 AI on another boulder.
Back in camp I could neither see nor hear any broken parts in the Vari-X III 2.5-8x36mm scope, but the rifle was throwing its 150-grain Barnes X bullets about 11 inches left and several inches low. I dialed the corrections and shot a big moose two days later. I’m still shooting that scope on that rifle, unaltered.
That’s tough enough for me.
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