By Simon Cuthbert, Target Tamers
It may be hard to tell the difference between rifle scopes and what makes them so expensive.
Looking at a picture of two rifle scopes sitting side by side, there may be no telling difference between either, other than the cost.
So, what is it about scopes that justifies a price jump between models and manufacturers?
What part of the rifle scope costs the most to produce?
We have all your questions answered here as we explore the justifications of scope costs and their components that may break the bank.
Rifle Scope Anatomy
Essentially, all rifle scopes will generally look the same: a black tube, one end bigger than the other, and some knobs on the side and top of the scope.
The internals and mechanics of scope parts will even be the same amongst various rifle scopes. Here’s some quick anatomy to prove our point.
Most rifle scopes will have:
- Objective lens – large, circular glass at the front of the scope that allows light to enter the tube.
- Objective bell – large front end of the scope that houses the objective lens assembly.
- Tube – main body and length of the scope; rings encompass tube to be mounted to rifle.
- Turrets – knob on top of the scope is the elevation turret; knob on the right side is the windage turret.
- Eyepiece/Ocular – smaller, circular glass at the back of the scope that you look through to see an image.
- Power/Magnification ring – rotating ring that controls magnification changes.
- Diopter adjustment/Focus control – stiff ring that allows focusing of the reticle.
- Focus assembly – contains fixed or adjustable lenses to focus the scope and correct for parallax.
- Image erector assembly – prisms are used to produce an upright image.
- Erector tube – works with springs to allow adjustments between the turrets to coincide with the reticle; larger tubes may allow for more adjustment travel to make longer range shots.
- Magnification lenses – this assembly moves in relation with the power ring to provide a zoomed in/out image.
- Reticle – the crosshairs used to aim at a target; placement within the scope depends on if it’s in the first focal plane (FFP) or second focal plane (SFP).
As you can see, a simple optic like a rifle scope has a lot to do. There are moving components, and the potential to improve just one part in the scope can make a world of difference to a shooter and his or her success.
What Components Make a Scope Expensive?
It’s just like thinking about a car. A 4-door Honda Civic seats the same amount of people as does a Cadillac CTS-V, but it’s the internals and mechanics that separates the two from each other.
Furthermore, they have the same foundational internals such as an engine, transmission, and wheels, but one is finer-tuned than the other, faster, and of course, more expensive. Rifle scopes are not immune to this same principle. Here’s where we get into the real differences.
All scopes have glass, but not all glass is equal. Not only are you considering the manufacturer and glass source, but you should also consider the grinding and polishing processes used to make the lenses. More expensive scopes will have glass that have been produced with the finest engineering and craftsmanship.
On top of this:
- Additional glass elements can be added such as fluorite to produce HD image quality and reduce aberrations.
- Anti-reflection coatings are added to lenses to reduce as much light loss as possible.
Most of the bulk of the expense of purchasing a rifle scope will be based on its glass quality. But, it doesn’t always mean the most expensive scope is always the better one – regardless of image quality.
Do you drive a Lamborghini to get the kids to school? It just may be overkill.
The best scope is the one that is appropriate for your needs within its limitations.
Construction and build quality come in second because a scope is useless if it doesn’t hold together and keep your zero. You can buy scopes, both cheap and outrageously expensive, and you might find inaccuracy and trouble tracking with every shot.
- If it can’t hold its zero during recoil, and if it can’t track consistently, you can’t sight-in your scope.
You’ll also have to decide between the different materials used to construct the scope.
Will it rust?
Does it make the scope unbearably heavy?
Will it be strong enough to endure harsh abuse from hunting?
Aircraft-grade aluminum is one of the most common materials since it’s light-weight and durable.
Along with build quality, a scope’s ability to perform in horrendous weather is also questioned. Is it waterproof and fogproof? If not, your scope will fog up on the inside rendering your sight picture useless. It may also introduce microbes that can cause fungi to grow that can cause irreparable damage to glass and internal components.
- Weather-proof scopes are purged with either nitrogen or argon gas. Nitrogen is the standard, and argon will raise the cost of a scope.
A construction feature that has more impact on cost versus durability and waterproofness is the tube size.
- 1-inch tubes were the industry standard for a long time and are the cheapest.
- 30 mm tubes came around and are now dominating the market. They may allow for more adjustment travel than a 1-inch tube, but they’re more expensive to purchase.
- 34 mm and larger are now coming out as the new and bigger standard when more elevation travel is needed to make extremely long shots.
Not only is it more expensive to buy a scope with a bigger tube body, additionally it will cost more for the right size rings to mount to your rifle. The bigger it is, the more expensive it will get.
While build quality may not be the major cost factor in the retail price of a rifle scope, it’s definitely one you have to be on the lookout for.
This is a very expensive feature of a rifle scope. Scopes all have reticles, but the styles and added options are many. First off, let’s get into where the reticle is in the scope.
- First Focal Plane – FFP reticles are placed in front of the magnifying lenses in between the erector tube and objective lens. The crosshairs increase and decrease in size as you increase and decrease magnification.
FFP reticle scopes certainly cost more to buy. They’re usually outfitted on premium and high-end scopes as a luxury feature. The relationship between reticle subtension and the target remains constant throughout the entire power range, and therefore it’s considered a convenient feature as your MILS/MOA calculations always remain usable. However, there are FFP disadvantages that includes higher cost.
- Second Focal Plane – SFP reticles are placed behind the magnifying lens assembly. The reticle never changes in size regardless of power changes. SFP reticles are most common on rifle scopes today. However, MILS/MOA calculations can only be used at max power range. But, they’re cheaper to buy versus FFP scopes.
Illuminated reticles with a battery-powered LED are also a cost driver. You have the extra production of a turret/knob that controls brightness settings. Non-illuminated reticle scopes will be cheaper.
Lastly, glass-etched versus wire reticles. Glass-etched articles are significantly more expensive to produce than wire reticles. Consequently, this drives up the overall price of a scope for a buyer. Glass-etched reticles are seen on a lot of tactical-style rifle scopes, although, hunting scopes may sport this feature too.
There are multiple ways to construct a glass-etched reticle, but a common method is to have it laser-etched. It involves a highly-precise, specialized process, but the result is an indestructible reticle for a very high cost.
Scopes with more than 10x magnification may come with a parallax correction feature in the form of an adjustable objective (AO) or a side focus. The extra production step to allow a user to manually correct for parallax is an expensive feature to consider. But, in the following scenarios, a shooter may find it worth the jump up in price to have a side focus or AO.
- Shooters using high magnification for long distances
- Shooters using high magnification for extremely short ranges
In these scenarios, parallax may very well be noticeable or more pronounced. However, many hunters do just fine without the use of a parallax feature. A hunting scope may be fixed to be “parallax-free” at 100-150 yards making for shooting without parallax up to 300-500 yards acceptable. Some scopes can even be found having a fixed “parallax-free” setting at 300 yards making for longer shots more forgiving without a parallax correction feature.
Again, this is a feature that drives up the cost of a rifle scope. It’s up to you to decide if it’s suitable for your shooting and hunting style.
Specialized Ballistic Turrets
Specialized, custom, and tactical-style turrets have always been a rage feature many long range shooters covet. The ability to dial out further, make tighter groupings, and make dead-on shots at incredible distances can be done with specialized turrets.
These turrets are usually large, knurly, and come with large-size tube bodies to allow for more adjustment travel.
They can have:
- Over 80″ at 100 yards in elevation travel room
- Multiple zero stops
- Precise distance markers for instant adjustments
This feature will cost you, and just saying it will be expensive is an understatement.
As you can see, all parts of a scope have an entwined relationship with each other. The best optics are rendered useless on a poorly constructed scope.
No scope available, including the most expensive ones, will do a thing for you out in the field if you don’t know how to use it. It’s impossible for it to be a replacement for practice, knowledge, and experience.
Now its up to you to choose the best one for your needs.
So, get out there and start learning how your rifle, ammo, and scope works together as a team.