Cheap Scopes Don’t Go the Distance

By Mark V. Lonsdale, STTU

After over three decades of running training for law enforcement and military snipers, plus civilian long range precision rifle classes, one of the single most significant roadblocks has been inexpensive scopes and mounts. While poor fundamental marksmanship skills and sub-standard ammo (not match grade) are also issues, hunting-grade, cheap scopes are a recurring problem.

One problem is expecting inexpensive, hunting-grade scopes to do the same job as a quality, high-end sniper or long range scope. Where a hunting scope is designed to be zeroed and then not changed season after season, a long range target scope, and especially one being used for PRS or ELR shooting, is dialed up and down to its full range multiple times a day. This simply requires a more robust, more precise internal mechanism to do that consistently.

Leupold Mark 5HD 5-25×56 on a competition grade .308 Win with a Bartlein barrel and McMillan A5 stocks

Taking a look back, the follow is a list of some of the issues trainees have had with their scopes:

  1. Incorrectly mounted scope
  2. Loose scope bases and/or rings (multiple cases)
  3. Broken wire reticle in the scope
  4. Inability to dial elevation or wind without tools
  5. No target turrets/nobs
  6. Click adjustments that are mushy and not crisp
  7. Inability to zero the turrets to “0” or “1”
  8. Poor quality optics
  9. No provision to focus or correct for parallax
  10. Insufficient internal elevation to reach 1,000 yards
  11. Inability to return to zero

In general, I recommend that aspiring long range shooters look at what the top competitors are using and follow their lead. Most or the top shooters are using either Leupold Mark 5HDs or NightForce ATACRs in 5-25x56mm or 7-35x56mm, either MOA or MILs. The following are some of the requirements for selecting a reliable long range rifle scope:

  1. Major manufacturer with a good reputation and warranty program
  2. Robust construction
  3. External turrets that can be easily dialed by hand
  4. Clearly marked graduations on the turrets
  5. Turrets that can be zeroed to “0” or “1” (for 100 yards)
  6. Adjustments that can be dialed to the upper limits and still return to zero
  7. Sufficient elevation range to reach 1,500+ yards (65 MOA or 20 MILs). More for ELR shooting where the scope should be able to dial to at least 2,500 yards without adding a Charlie TARAC (depending on caliber).
  8. Sufficient magnification to clearly see the target at long range.
  9. A reticle that offers graduations in fractions of an MOA or 2/10th MILs for hold-over and wind
  10. Side focus/parallax adjustment
  11. Sturdy, compatible, precision bases and rings

Keep in mind that a scope that has 80 MOA of elevation, will have only 40 up and 40 down from zero with a flat-top base. That will get you to 1,000 yards with a .308 Win. A 20 MOA base should improve this to 60 MOA up and 20 MOA down. This is the reason most PRS and ELR shooters select scopes with 100+ MOA or 30+ MILs or elevation, and then run 40-70 MOA bases to optimize their long range capability.

Author’s Hill Country .375 CheyTac and Stiller’s .338 Lapua Magnum, both with 40 MOA bases and NightForce ATACR scopes with over 120 MOA / 34 Mils of internal elevation.
Graduated reticle in MOA

One of the problems we often see on the range is shooters with scopes that claim to have all of the above features, but at a fraction of the price of a true long range scope. While these lesser known scopes may look like their big brothers, they simply do not have the precise internal mechanisms or range of adjustment. A $400-$600 scope will simply not do what a $2,000 to $3,000 scope will do.

In a recent class, one of these cheaper scopes topped out at 25 MOA, so was not able to reach even 1,000 yards (requiring 30-40MOA depending on caliber). Another scope dialed up 2 MOA (20.94″ at 1,000 yards) but the bullet impact moved over 5 feet. And a third was not able to hold zero or run a box drill and return to zero.

A useful initial test for a new scope is to run a box drill. This can be done by securing the scope or rifle in a cradle and then watching the reticle move on a calibrated target, or by actually shooting it. To shoot a box drill at 100 yards, simply shoot a group on a 1″ target spot, then dial up 5 MOA (or 2 Mils) and shoot two rounds while still aiming at the target spot. Then dial right 5 MOA and shoot two more rounds; then down 5 MOA; and then left 5 MOA and shoot the final two rounds. If using MOA, this should produce a perfect 5.23″ box and the last two shots should be inside the original group. If using 2 Mils, the box will be 7.2″

Another test is a tall target test on a graduated target to ensure the scope is tracking accurately to its limits of elevation and the scope is mounted correctly.

6.5 Creedmoor PRS rifle with Leupold Mark 5HD in 5-25x56mm. This scope is available in MOA or Mils and as with all Leupold scopes, comes with a lifetime warranty.
NightForce ATACR 7-35x56mm on a Mk13 Mod 7 .300 WinMag sniper rifle
NightForce ATACR on a .375 CheyTac ELR rifle. Note the clearly visible MRAD scales on the target turrets and secure scope rings.
Leupold Mark 8


About Mark V

Dedicated shooter, seeker, traveler, teacher, trainer, educator
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2 Responses to Cheap Scopes Don’t Go the Distance

  1. Mohsin Khan says:

    Awesome! Thank you for explaining long range shooting. What was the barrel length on your ar15? I am tempted to buy a long range scope and give it a try on mine!



    • Mark V says:

      If you plan on using an AR15 for long range shooting, I would recommend a 20″-24″ heavy Bartlein barrel. If using it for PRS Gas Gun matches, take a look at what the top shooters are currently using.


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