Big Game Hunting

Big game animals in North America are naturally camouflaged and their fur has low reflectivity. Their eyes have a large field of view to help them detect predators, and so they have an aversion to direct sunlight. This makes them generally difficult to see. Deer, in particular, are crepuscular, browsing mainly at dawn and dusk. They move about during the middle of day far less frequently, mainly to eat or find better shade. Of course, the rut will drive males to take risks and expose themselves during the day more frequently.

Spot and Stalk

This type of hunting is often done during the morning hours just after dawn, the afternoon hours just before dusk, under overcast skies, and in cooler temperatures of fall and winter. These animals are often found in hilly terrain, higher than the ground between the target and hunter (i.e., on a hillside). These are conditions when atmospheric turbulence is low. Image resolution and contrast are likely to be determined by the scope, rather than the atmosphere.

Veiling glare is a key discriminator in optical performance. Veiling glare from sunlit terrain, sky and/or cloud illumination degrades image contrast. In big game environments the animal often moves from shade to shade. When the illumination is marginal, glare can degrade image contrast to the point that details are washed out.

For the typical hunter carrying a rifle and binocular into the field, his or her rifle scope often offers the highest magnification view of the animal. While the game is often spotted with the binocular, details of animal size, antler points, fur condition, etc., may require a higher magnification. A spotting scope on a tripod is a great tool, but it’s bulky to carry long distances and takes time to set up.

For these reasons, rifle scope optical performance is more important for big game hunting than for most other shooting activities. Top of the line optics are preferred, but may not be affordable. If a compromise needs to be made to reduce cost, we recommend giving up a few features before compromising optical performance.

Scopes with a low to medium zoom range of 3-9X to 4-12X are recommended. Even the spot and stalk hunter can jump an animal and need to make a quick short-range shot. Hiking with the scope set to a low magnification setting helps with fast target acquisition. A simple plex crosshair reticle, zeroed at 200 yds, has a point blank range out to about 300 yds with a flat-shooting cartridge like .270, 7 mm RM, .308, etc. A thick outer crosshair greatly improves reticle contrast at dawn and dusk.

At ranges of up to about 500 yds, ballistic drop compensated (BDC) reticles can be accurate if calibrated and zeroed properly for that altitude. They require correction for incline, however. This usually means using a rangefinder that provides a corrected range value. BDC reticles with windage hold-off marks or dots are effective, but introduce more clutter into the sight picture. We recommend BDC reticles in the SFP location, because then the zoom ring can be used to calibrate the scope to the ballistic drop profile of your caliber. For information on longer range scopes, including BDC turrets and mildot-type reticles, see the section on Long Range Hunting.

An eye relief of 3”-3.5” is adequate for lower recoiling calibers up to 30-06. Heavier recoil calibers may require longer eye relief. Training yourself to hold the rifle firmly against your shoulder is advised.

With few exceptions, scopes with good optical performance are likely to cost $400+ MAP. Durability has higher priority than accuracy. First consider scopes with good glare performance and good correction of off-axis aberrations over a wide field of view. Then select reticle, turrets and other features from this group. Higher priced scopes benefit from the latest turret and reticle designs, are more durable, have more accurate reticle adjustments and less glare.

Woods

Hunting in thick woods or from a tree stand has different scope requirements, compared to spot and stalk hunting. Hunters tend to use heavier bullets that are less prone to deflection from a twig or branch. Target ranges tend to be shorter. When in a tree stand, the hunter is usually shooting at an incline, which further reduces bullet drop. Even still, bullet drop can be significant for infrequent long range shots.

Low zoom ranges of 1.5-6X to 3-9X are recommended for this application. Hiking with the scope set to the lowest magnification will help you acquire the target quickly when something suddenly appears in front of you. A relatively large objective is useful because it reduces the depth of field, enabling you to detect game animals otherwise hidden in foliage. A short depth of field  blurs leaves and branches between you and the animal, thereby allowing you to “see through” the forest.

A simple plex crosshair reticle, zeroed at 100 yds, has a point blank range out to 200-225 yds with a medium caliber like 30-06, 300 WM, .338 and .35, etc. A thick outer crosshair greatly improves reticle contrast at night. Accuracy of reticle subtension and tracking is usually not a concern for such short ranges. Ballistic drop compensated (BDC) reticles provide ample accuracy over a wide range of conditions up to about 350 yds. They require correction for incline, however. This usually means using a rangefinder that provides a corrected range value.

Good correction of off-axis aberrations over a wide field of view is valuable to the woods hunter. Glare performance is less of a concern than overall ruggedness, however. A sturdy scope with small turret knobs protected by caps will be less susceptible to POA shifts when stumbling over fallen trees and branches, and bumping the scope while climbing up to the tree stand or back down again. Standard eye relief of 3”-3.5” is fine for lower recoiling calibers up to 30-06. Heavier recoil calibers may require longer eye relief. Training yourself to hold the rifle firmly against your shoulder is advised.

In this magnification range there is a lot of competition. Scopes with an acceptable mechanical design can be had for as little as $200 MAP. However, risk of scope failure is higher at the low end of this range. Budgeting for $300+ reduces that risk. A wider field of view, more durability and more accurate reticle adjustments will tend to drive the price up. In this arena, you tend to get what you pay for.

Dangerous Game

 This is a really special case of woods hunting, and all of the comments above apply here. Hunting dangerous game like wild pig, bear and moose, in particular, dictate the use of even lower magnification ranges, such as 1-4X. A thick plex reticle with a narrow crosshair region or circle works well. A large (1-3 MOA) dot also works. A zero at 100 yds gives a point blank range out to 200+ yds. A wide field of view, large eyebox, and clean, uncluttered sight picture have a high priority over most other features. Expect to pay $300+ for a scope with these characteristics. Some vendors charge a premium apparently because they cater to the exotic animal hunter.