If you are new to shooting sports you might be left feeling slightly bewildered by the sheer number of sighting options available to you. In this article I will aim to cover them all briefly in order to give new shooters a better idea of what they might require and and explain some of the complex terminology used by manufacturers.
Iron sights or “irons” as many call them are the most basic form of sight. Basic does not = bad. Iron sights are reliable, easy to understand and use, rugged and cheap compared to the alternatives. The term “iron” is an old one and not exactly relevant anymore as many sights of this type are made from polymers and other durable, lightweight materials. In the most basic terms iron sights have a rear piece (usually a notch or circle) and a front piece (usually a blade). Generally the rear sight is adjustable for windage (left/right) and elevation (up/down). On some set ups the front sight is adjustable and on others no adjustment at all – you just have to aim off.
Iron sights are generally very cheap. They often come on the gun by default. They are light and do not take up much space. They are easy to understand and use. They are very durable and can take a knock or two. They give an excellent field of view if you are engaging multiple targets. They can be used for targets which would be to close for most optics.
If you have bad eyesight (like me) then they do not help when shooting at something a long way off. Saying that even with my bad eyesight I have made a couple of 1000yd shots with irons. Regular contributor Turkish Raf has made many long distance shots using irons and he thinks they are awesome. As mentioned some irons lack adjustment and then it comes down to Kentucky windage (aiming off) which is greatly dependant on the skill of the shooter.
Telescopic sights are not new, in fact they were documented in use as far back as the early 1800s. The idea was to mount a telescope like device onto a gun. A reticle or dot was added as the aiming point. Although many innovations have occurred since then the key concept remains the same – the shooter is able to see a greater distance and thus shoot accurately at greater distance.
Telescopic sights have now become a very complex industry with every company competing with one another and introducing new ideas and features. Below I have listed a few of the terms that are commonly used in conjuction with Telescopic sights.
Allow you to see long distance targets “close up” and thus place more accurate shots. Offer a variety of features listed below which may be beneficial for your style of shooting. Ideal for those with bad eyesight.
Expensive. Heavier than iron sights. Can be complex to set up and take a little getting used to. Did I mention expensive!?
The magnification is fixed. You might see it marked as 6x or 10x ect. This means that the scope will magnify the image by that number. When buying fixed power scopes you should be aware that you choose the correct magnification for your shooting discipline. If you are using a .22LR at close range then a 10x is likely going to be to much (it may not even focus at close ranges). Equally buying a 2x for a .338Lapua that you plan to shoot out to 1600yds is not going to help much either. The good things about fixed power scopes is that they tend to be cheaper, lighter and more durable due to less moving parts.
Just like the zoom feature on your digital camera the variable power scope can be set to the magnification you choose dependant on the situation. The numbers are often listed like this 3-9x.. In short that means it has a range of magnification from the smallest number through to the largest. This gives the shooter more options (zoom in for longer shots and right out for close range or engaging multiple targets quickly (better field of view). The downsides to variable power.. They tend to be more expensive, they are usually heavier and they have more chance of going wrong (more moving parts).
The end that points forward (usually the largest end) is called the objective. To a degree the bigger it is the more light it can let in. Light is very important with magnified images as they need a lot of it in order to give a clear view of the target. You may think “bigger is better”.. Of course that drastically increases weight and make it difficult to mount the scope anywhere near the barrel.. As with most things a balance must be established. If you want an ultra light rifle for run ‘n gun then you may want the lightest scope you can get away with. Equally static shooters may want a bigger scope/more light as weight is not such an issue for them.
Parralax is an error which becomes noticable when shooting at longer ranges. I won’t go into the science here but basically the reticle will appear to move if your head/eye does. The manufacturers account for this problem by including Parralax adjustment. I get comfortable and then dial the adjustment knob in until the target looks sharp. I then move my head about a little and watch to see if the reticle appears to move. If it does I just fine tune the adjustment until the reticle appears static.
A lot of new shooters tend to get excited about illuminated reticles. It looks kind of cool and “tactical”. Ask yourself if you really need it. If you hunt at dawn or dusk it will be a great benefit – the reticle will stand out against a dark background. If you shoot during daylight (most people do) then I cannot imagine ever needing it. Just remember that if it is really dark an illuminated reticle will not help – you will only see the reticle, the target will be in darkness!
Traditionally reticles were just a cross or a dot. Both of those options are absolutely fine for shots at fixed distances where you have plenty of time to dial in your elevation and windage. If you are LEO/Military or a competitive practical shooter you do not have the luxury of time. You might need to make multiple rapid shots engaging targets at variable distances. This is where a reticle with MOA or MIL markings is a huge benefit. The marks allow adjustments to be made by aiming off by a measured ammount instead of just guessing (kentucky windage!). MOA (minutes of angle) and MIL (Milliradian) are both measurements of angle. In essence when we make sight adjustments we are just altering the angle of the rifle slightly and thus changing the trajectory. MILs are a coarser measurement which are very popular with military and practical rifle shooters. The coarse meaurements allow a greater range of elevation and windage but may not be suitable for precise disciplines such as F class. MOA gives a finer measurement allowing target shooters to keep their shots within a tight radius which suits fixed distance shooting. Both reticles can also be used along with fairly simple math to judge target distance which again is great for military/LEO and practical disciplines when they do not have a laser rangefinder to hand (or it runs out of batteries..)
If you have a reticle marked in MIL or MOA then it is sensible to match the turrets as well. When you zero your rifle you can take a shot, watch where it impacts and use the reticle to give you your required info. If the impact occurs 2 MILs right and 1 MIL high you would just dial 2 MILs left and 1 MIL down and the next shot should be bang on the money..
You may see these terms listed with optics. They refer to second focal plane and first focal plane. In second focal plane models the reticle remains the same size as you increase or decrease magnification. This is useful as the reticle is nicely visible at all times. However it does have a negative aspect – the reticle markings will only be true at one magnification (usually the maximum). You will not be able to use the marking for zeroing/corrections/ranging at any other magnification.
First focal plane models are becoming increasingly popular. The reticle changes size as you zoom in or out. It is always true and can be used to correct zero or range targets at any magnification. The negative to that is that the reticle becomes quite small or large at lowest and highest magnification settings. I would suggest trying both types out and seeing which suits your style or discipline. The FFP models tend to be popular with military/practical and the SFP models for static/fixed range.
Zero stops are great when shooting at multiple distances..
A very useful feature. When you shoot at different distances you may want to dial the turrets in for that distance (often referred to as dialling in your dope). If you forget what distance you were last shooting at it is nice to be able to quickly dial back down to your zero (I zero my rifles at 100yds). Then you can dial in your dope from there. Without a zero stop it is very easy to dial past your zero and end up confused trying to see where your bullets are ending up. Very bad if you are depending on your firearm in a martial situation or in the middle of a competition. I have been there and done it so I much prefer a scope with a zero stop.
Red dot sights.
The red dot is projected onto the sight. They are generally low or no magnification. Red dots have become very popular with disciplines requiring fast target aquisition at close range. They are also widely used by military and LEOs for CQB situations. They generally have an intensity setting. The dot size is given in MOA or MIL and is usually between 1-4. 1 MOA dot at 100yds will be around an inch at the target. The farther out your target is the bigger the dot will get in comparison. That is the main reason they are best suited to close range engagement.
Fast and easy to use for most people. Relatively cheap compared to optics (although some can be £££s), fairly light, easy to mount and not to complex.
Useless for long range, require a stable and consistent head position, dependant on batteries.
Lasers and Infrared sights look very cool. We have all seen them in movies and you might think wow! However very few people use them for civillian shooting sports. They have limited range, can be hard to see dependant on weather and require batteries. If you are military or LEO then consider the most basic flaw.. They not only point to the enemy.. They point back to you.. Not something I would call a tactical advantage. They do have use for LEOs who may wish to intimidate the target into cooperation by placing the lasers on his body where he can see them. Other than that I struggle to suggest a use for them outside of marking targets for air support which again also marks you out to the enemy..
A bit of a niche this one.. Useful for hunters, military and LEOs operating at night. Useless for the standard civvy shooter. They are expensive and cumbersome so you have to really “need” night vision capability to warrant buying one. Of course they are superb for those who do require such capability.
I hope that has shed a little light on this subject for you. Options are never ending and manufacturers are constantly innovating and bringing new ideas and features but this should at least cover the basic concepts..
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