I am always surprised at how often I am confronted with the question of whether or not to have a scope sight on a hunting rifle. I’m surprised because going hunting with an iron-sighted rifle is a lot like driving a big V-8 engine with two spark plug wires unhooked. Using a rifle without a scope is a decided handicap under about 95 percent of all hunting conditions, equal to the scope under another four percent, and better than an optical sight under maybe one percent of the situations you could encounter around the hunting world. We have to qualify that statement by saying that you must have the right scope, mounted on the rifle properly, to make it true. We will work through the broad selection of scopes to help you choose the style most suited to your hunting conditions. We’ll then take a critical look at how to mount the scope on your rifle so that it will perform at its best.
I am very serious when I say that there is a tiny percentage of field situations where a scope isn’t better than iron sights. The easiest way to clarify that is to say that the only kind of shot better suited to open sights is one against dangerous game, previously wounded, in the heaviest possible cover. These are the situations where you might face a charge and the cover is so bad that the shot will be measured in feet, if not inches. Here the time is so short that the rifle may not reach your shoulder, and your sight picture, if any, will be only a flash. Believe me, this isn’t going to happen to many of us very often. This year, in a four-month season in Africa, I took the scope off of my .416 three times, twice against wounded buffalo and once against a lion, all of the grass that would have made Paul Bunyan’s yard look like a baseball diamond.
You may also have hunts where driving rain, sleet or wet snow will cover the lenses on your scope. When it’s like this, the choice is almost a toss-up, but you are more likely to be able to see your iron sights … if you can scrape the snowflakes off of your eyeballs.
Iron Sights are a Lot Less Fragile than Optics
The last argument in favor of iron over glass is that iron sights are a lot less fragile than optics. On the other hand, fixed sights are less fragile than adjustable ones, and a slingshot with a pocket full of rocks is a lot less fragile than a fine hunting rifle. How much credence you give the “fragility factor” depends on how much you are in favor of performance over durability.
Given its limited drawbacks, the optical sight has almost everything else going in its favor. If there is an almost valid argument against the scope, it is that it is too slow under “brush hunting” conditions. A lot of whitetail hunting in the woods country fits this description. The general belief that a buckhorn-sighted, lever-action “brush gun” is a better tool than even the same rifle with a good low power scope has let a lot of big, old whitetail bucks grow bigger and older. It is just plain easier to hit with the scope. If your deer is standing in thick brush, you will have to find a hole in the brush to slip your bullet through. Contrary to popular belief, you won’t shoot through very much wood, even with a .458, and do any damage to the game.
The clear view with the scope is a great help in finding that one half-inch twig that is waiting for you and your buck’s shoulder to deflect the bullet. If the shot is a running one and the range is very close and in thick brush, it becomes a toss-up between the scope and iron sights. If the range is over 50 yards, the single focal point of the scope, when compared to the complex job of aligning front sight, rear sight, and running deer, makes the precise lead necessary to make the hit a lot easier with a scope. Think about what is involved in both cases.
With the iron sights, the front sight has to be centered for windage in the rear notch or your lead will be wrong. Also, the front sight has to be perfect for elevation within the rear or your bullet will go high or low. Now, while your eye has been looking at the front sight making sure it is in the right relationship to the rear, it has also had to follow the running deer some 80 yards away and watch out for trees at the same time. How much easier it would be to swing on the deer with a crisp crosshair, apparently right there in front of the deer, align the crosshair under his chin, and squeeze off the shot when the buck crosses a space in the timber. The scope not only increases your visibility, it also completely removes the sight alignment problems.
Hitting at Reasonable Ranges becomes a Minimal Problem
It’s not that I don’t like or know how to use iron sights, I just want every possible chance for success. My hand running career has taught me about iron sights, their advantages, and their limitations. In fact, if you put a scope on a handgun, it no longer fits the pure definition of a handgun, especially where hunting is concerned. The scope makes hitting with a handgun so much easier that it begins to defeat the purpose of handgun hunting–increased difficulty. Handgunning without a scope is very, very difficult. With a scope, you still have the lack of power to contend with, but hitting at reasonable ranges becomes a minimal problem.
Speed is usually where people think scopes will let them down. I will concede that at the ultimate speed levels with a handgun or shotgun iron sights hold the edge. But at a normal “fast” speed the scope will stay right there with the iron sights. The only time I was able to clean the falling plate stage in the Bianchi tournament was when I shot a Colt .45 topped with a 1X Burris scope. The quickest run was six shots in six seconds, starting from the holster. That’s pretty fast by hunting standards, and the help the score gave me, by eliminating the sight alignment errors, made the clean score possible.
The most important consideration in favor of scopes is their ability to “see.” In low light conditions, there is absolutely no contest between the scope and iron. The iron sights have disappeared in light levels that still allow perfect, precise shot placement with a scope. The scope also allows you to see details on the game that your eyes alone aren’t capable of defining.
Binoculars are a necessary part of your hunting equipment. I don’t approve of those who use their scope to look for the game. “Glassing” me to see if I’m a buck with your scoped rifle is pretty apt to draw return fire, just to be sure you know the difference! But once your binocs have located the game, you need to do your looking through your scope. In states like Colorado, where your deer has to have three points or more to be legal, you need to make that decision through your scope. The same thing applies to a herd of animals or even an individual where you are trying to locate the big one or just the shootable buck. A good hunter won’t waste time making judgments through binoculars, then switch over to his rifle. The most effective plan is to study the animals with your scope. Then, the moment the decision is made that there is an animal there that you want to shoot, you can begin your trigger squeeze.
The whole idea is–hitting with a scope is easier than without one. If you have never used a scope, they take some practice to get used to. A good air rifle topped with a scope is perfect for learning the tricks of the trade. The air rifle allows you to do a lot of shooting without a sophisticated range. If you’re concerned with speed, snapshots at small targets help. A rolling rubber ball will teach you to hammer running game with ease, I have a Beeman R1 and a Fein-Werk 124 that have fired over 50,000 scoped shots between them. They are a constant part of my practice. Also, hunting miniature varmints like pigeons and rats make for great entertainment as well as being an excellent off-season shooting a teacher.
Now that the decision is clear that we want a scope on our hunting rifles, the critical choice of what type of scope remains, it is easy to handicap yourself with the wrong scope. The most common mistake in choosing a scope is to get one with too much power. The classic example is the hunter who has a fixed, 6X scope on his deer rifle. Now, 6X is fine in a wide open country where there is no chance of jumping a buck out of the timber or a sagebrush gulch, and where you are not going to consider any running shots. But if you might encounter any of these conditions, 6X is just too much magnification. The notion of a rifle topped with a 10X glass for anything but long-range varmints is ridiculous, but I have seen outfits with ten-power scopes trooping through the mountains looking for elk.
The point here is, if you’re going to make a mistake, make your error on the side of too little power. A 2X scope is perfectly adequate for hits at 300 yards, but it does compromise your ability to judge trophies through your scope. The scope companies have cured almost all of the magnification problems we might have by offering a full range of variable-power scopes. If there isn’t a fixed power that does exactly what you want, chances are that one of the variables will. The only thing I have found wrong with variables is that most shooters over 40 don’t like them. In fact, most people who were actively shooting when the first variables were introduced avoid them like the plague. I can only suspect that the first variables were poor attempts that often failed and that these older shooters got burned by them. For myself, I use only variable scopes, with total success. My first variable was a 4X-12X Redfield that I mounted on my old 22/250.
Thousands of shots and heads of the game later, the scope stands in the same mounts, untouched, working perfectly. There is one thing about variables that you should be aware of: some will change point of impact when you change powers. If you test your variable by shooting bench rest groups on the lowest, middle and highest powers, three shots at each setting, you can see if it is holding zero. If the groups move appreciably when you change powers, repeat the test to be sure and then send the targets and scope to the scope’s manufacturer with an explanation of the problem. If you were wise and purchased a high-quality scope, you will get back a scope that functions perfectly.
Before you choose the right scope, you have to set some limits on the situations you want the scope to be able to handle. Generally, you can divide the scopes into three categories: the low powers for brush hunting and dangerous game, the medium-power scopes for general use, and the high-power variables for long-range mountain and stalking rifles.
With a scope selected to fit your requirements, and mounted with my “nailed, screwed and glued” method, you have a system that will probably outlast your rifle barrel. Keep in mind that a scope is a sophisticated mechanical device that can malfunction or be improperly assembled at the factory. When you get your scope mounted, shoot the rifle a lot, really putting the combination through its paces before you go hunting. If you find any problems, the service and warranties offered by our American and the European scope companies are very, very good.
There is really only one reason to have a rifle without a scope and that is to make the challenge of hunting more difficult. I admire those who hunt with open-sighted rifles and handguns–those who love stalking, tracking and getting closer. But in general, hunting conditions are difficult enough and I want the most modern, efficient tool available to ensure results. That is a scoped rifle.