Words like “best” and “long range” are fairly subjective, but there are enough commonly agreed upon elements when figuring out the best long range scope to choose from a wide selection. It has a reach out and touch something ability of at least 500 yards, and ideally much further than that, and that it should be some sort of combination of rugged, reliable, and hopefully somewhat affordable.
Naturally the best long range scope for you, may not be the best long range scope for somebody else, and even among professional military and police marksmen and snipers, you are unlikely to find a universal consensus for a single best long range scope.
Rather, you will start seeing common themes as to what goes into a top notch long range scope. And here again we enter into the territory of the subjective.
What to Look for When Searching the Best Long Range Scope
We are going to focus on several key elements of a scope first, and then roll them all into one glorious package. From there, we’ll offer several choices, because let’s face it. Not all of us can afford to drop several thousand bucks on an optic.
The objective lens is the forward lens on the scope, and the one that your image passes through. A small objective lens means a small sight picture, and less light coming through the scope tube. Taken to an extreme, think about little cheap 3/4” rimfire scopes.
Pretty crappy huh? Usable, but barely so and only on nice days or in good lighting. What we want on a long range scope are big objective lenses with quality glass and high grade coatings on the lens. However, this is where we start straying into the realm of the highly subjective again.
I would say at a minimum a 30mm objective lens is all but required for a proper 500+ yard scope, but I have seen smaller, although that is pushing it.
Commonly you will find objective lenses top out around 50-50mm in diameter, although larger ones do exist. Beyond that point you really start needed custom rings and mounts and don’t gain much except bragging rights and a slightly emptier wallet.
The next part of the equation on an objective lens is the optical coating. Manufacturers go out of their way to convince you of the scientific sorcery behind the optical coatings on their lenses, and the science is certainly far beyond the scope of this article, or the interests of most lay persons.
Suffice it to say, that when lenses are coated with various metals or other substances, the amount and type of light transmitted can be enhanced, reflection reduced, and the optical qualities of the lens improved. It is all a fairly well known science, and any reputable scope manufacturer will have quality lens coatings.
It is a great area for marketing hype though. Realistically, once you start playing with top tier scopes, you can ignore the hype and just start looking to see which one is best for your needs.
Tube Size, Illuminated Reticles, and Other Nice Things
The standard diameter for scope tube bodies is one inch, although a great many high end and European scopes are 30mm diameter tubes. Just like objective lenses, the wider the body is, the more light gets passed through, and the clearer the picture is.
Ideally the best long range scope will have a 30mm tube, but it is not a requirement. Too, you may want an illuminated reticle.
These are nice, because they let you place visibly lit crosshairs over a target, instead of the sometimes awkward black reticle over a dark colored target.
You may also want a scope with a rangefinding reticle that uses calibrated marks on known sizes to help you estimate range.
Many long range scopes can also be had with reticles pre calibrated for different popular rifle cartridges and bullet weights, which take into account the known ballistic trajectory of a particular round.
Here is another sticky one folks. What magnification is needed for a long range scope? For some shooters, a 3-9 might do the job. Others want a scope with enough magnification to shoot at dead satellites and other debris orbiting the Earth.
The problem is, the greater the magnification, the greater the distortion. While you may be fine and seem stable at 10x, bumping it up to 15x suddenly gives you a wobbly, and increasingly distorted field of vision. Personally I draw the line around 20x.
Anything much more than that generally becomes a waste of optical power unless you are shooting from a machine rest or have the physical stability of the Rock of Gibraltar. Stick to a modest level of magnification and you’ll be fine.
First Focal Plane?
A relatively new feature on high end scopes, and one that is often expected without being understood, a front or first focal plane scope is meant for shooters who may be engaging multiple targets at different and often unknown ranges in rapid succession.
In other words if you are a highly competitive sport shooter or a tactical shooter, you may find value in a scope where the reticle changes in size consistent with the magnification of the scope, which keeps the mil scale on the scope consistent, eliminating the need to recalculate the scale each time magnification is changed.
A simpler reality is, these are new and popular scopes, but came from a shooting world most of us will never take part in. Is it nice? Sure. Is it a must have for the best long range scope?
Unless your job involves shooting at people trying to kill you or somebody else, probably not. But they are really cool and if you want the absolute best and cutting edge gear, then a first focal plane scope is well worth considering.
Tying it Together
Honestly, one could write a literal book about choosing the best long range scope. I got told to do it in several thousand words, including reviews, so we are sticking to the highlights here. What follows are several of the best long range scopes based on certain criteria.
Objective lens of at least 30mm and no more than 55mm.
Magnification of at least 3x and no greater than about 20x.
30mm tube if possible.
Illuminated reticles are nice but not required.
Famous names. There are some great scopes out there made by people few have heard of, but that puts them squarely into the highly specialized category.
Reasonable prices. We’ll look at a sub $500 scope, a $1000+ scope and a roughly $2000 scope.
A highly refined long range scope that remains affordable, Leupold is a well known name that has been serving American soldiers and sportsmen for several generations now. The VX-3i meets enough criteria for one of the best long range scopes to make it a more than rational choice for your needs.
Featuring a massive light gathering 50mm objective lens with state of the art optical coatings, a nice and reasonable 3.5-10x magnification and a standard 1” tube which ensures a wide array of fine rings to choose from when mounting to your rifle.
Really this is a great long range scope for a bolt action or semi auto rifle, and will go great on most any precision rifle build. Aside from the very reasonable price, I like the fact this is a Leupold and backed by their famous warranty and customer service.
Really, the VX-3i epitomizes what a long range scope in this price range should be. I’d stick this on a heavy barrel AR-15 or .308 AR or get a nice semi custom bolt rifle in 6.5 Creedmoor for it. However, no matter what you stick it on, this is a scope that will not let you down.
Here is about the perfect long range scope. Available either as a first or second focal plane model, featuring a 50mm objective lens, illuminated reticle, 6-24x magnification, 30mm tube, and built like a tank, the Vortex Viper all but defines the best long range scope.
The argon gas purged body ensures that it will never fog up during rapid temperature change, while the precision ground and coated lenses are built to be reliable under the most adverse of conditions. Vortex has been building high grade optics for some time now, and made quite the name for themselves.
The Viper was designed to have extreme elevation ability, ensuring that you can squeeze every possible yard out of your long range shots. Capable of withstanding the punishing recoil from the harshest magnum cartridges, you’ll find the Viper as much at home on top of a .223 AR as a .338 Lapua sniper rifle.
I hate to use tactical terminology as it is so grossly overused in the gun parts world, but the Viper is a true sniper scope, and well suited for the needs of a professional shooter, but equally perfect for the demanding long range target shooter or hunter who wants to take the most difficult shots that those with lesser scopes have to pass up.
Bottom line, this is one heck of a scope, and has the reach out and touch something you need.
NightForce scopes are among the all time best long range scopes. Built, as their name suggests to be useable under low light conditions, NightForce combines the latest cutting edge technology with proven design features to bring an absolutely amazing scope to market.
A 5.5-20 power magnification range ensures that you will not have to deal with the problems of excessive magnification, while the ideally sized 50mm objective lens and 30mm body give excellent light transmission.
Combine this with the phenomenal multicoated optics NightForce is known for, bundle it with an illuminated reticle, and one could all but define the ultimate long range scope by holding up an NXS.
Sure, it is a bit over two thousand bucks, but it is the sort of heirloom quality scope you buy once and pass on down to your children and grandchildren, or if you are a professional shooter, but and rest assured knowing that the pinnacle of long range optical technology is sitting on top of your rifle. Basically if you need the absolute best long range scope full stop, no other questions asked, here it is.
In reality there are many more high quality long range scopes to pick from, but that is just half the battle. The truth is most any highly rated name brand scope can do the job, once you account for features you may need for your particular end use.
The physics and science are well known, and what is left is skill and dedication in manufacturing and a willingness to create a top quality product. However, once we accept the concept of the best long range scope, we now must turn our attention to deploying such a fine optic.
One often overlooked aspect of mounting a long range scope is the critical alignment between the scope and rings.
A good ring alignment kit such as this one from Wheeler:
It gives you everything you need to properly align and mount your scope. Rings need to be carefully lapped and hand polished to ensure maximum gripping surface that will hold the scope true, and better secure it against harsh recoil.
While for most common shooting, fine alignment and lapping isn’t required, it is a well known fact that by properly lapping and aligning the scope, long range windage errors are all but eliminated.
The Wheeler Alignment kit allows you to properly align your crosshairs with your bore, and will enable you to wring maximum long range accuracy from your scope.
Minor errors that translate into big misses will be eliminated, ensuring tight, accurate groups, and superior, sniper like accuracy from your scope and rifle combo.
This kit lets you align and lap 1” and 30mm scope tubes, making it a highly versatile tool set, and at only just under $100, there is no reason not to buy one.
You’ll want a good set of rings or mounts as well. Some scopes will ship with a correct set of factory rings, but many do not.
You’ll need a high profile set of rights for anything with large objective lenses, and if you are mounting on an AR style rifle, you’ll probably want specially shaped rings to work better with the unique geometry of the flat top upper.
Mounts like this fantastic NightForce basework great for scopes with 30mm tubes, and ideal for any long range scope.
While these gems from Nikon are built with AR style rifles in mind.
Of course there are a great many other rings and mounts available, and it may be best to work with your gunsmith to make sure you have selected the best set of rings to go with your long range scope.
Along those lines it is important to choose the right scope to go with your rifle.
Long range rifles can vary wildly from single shot break action rifles, to complex precision built semi auto rifles.
I’m not especially fond of mounting giant scopes on top of AR-15 carbines, but have selected more modest scopes to go on them that allow me to wring the most performance out of the little 5.56mm cartridge, while a heavy barrel AR built strictly for match and long range shooting all but demands a big scope that would just be awkward on other rifles.
The practical consideration of what you actually need from a long range scope also comes to mind. I love a big giant scope as much as the next person, but my hunting rifle packs a modest 30mm objective lens 3-9 which I have shot out to long range distances.
You must consider the final application for your scope when choosing it. A hunting scope is not the same as a tactical scope which is not the same as a long range target scope, although there may be areas where those applications overlap.
A hunter needs a scope that is both powerful and not overly large and ungainly, unless they plan to setup in a blind or other static position. A tactical shooter may need a scope with a front focal plane that can quickly acquire targets, and allow the shooter to rapidly choose their next shot while quickly switching magnification.
A sniper needs a scope that gives them a wide, clear field of view, with sufficient magnification to see their target, and an ability to take highly precise shots, which in turn is much like the needs of a long range target shooter.
Toss in the possible need or desire for built in range finding reticles and pre calibrated scopes built around a particular cartridge and bullet weight, and the benefits of an illuminated reticle, and you start seeing how complex choosing the best long range scope can really be.
To that end, mating the right scope and rings to the rifle can be a difficult task, or an absurdly easy one. Once you’ve identified what you are going to use the scope for and worked around any physical design features of the rifle, all that is left for you is to pick a set of rings you like, calibrate them to the scope, and go to town.
Well not quite. You still need to work up the load you are shooting, right? Some scopes have a return to zero setting that let you dial in a zero for a particular round and distance, and then return to that point after playing around with other ranges and settings. Once you’ve got your rifle scoped, you need to start dialing it in for the round and distance(s) you are shooting.
Most people stick to just a couple of bullet weights and pet loads, and develop a round that works best for their rifle.
However, once you have zeroed your scope for your load at a given range, adjusting up and down using the reticle is a simple matter, but you will need to get your scope properly dialed in, which can be just a matter of a few shots and some careful calculation, or you may need to spend some time with different loads to work out what works best for you.
In the end, choosing the best long range scope is as much of an art as a science. All the high priced technology in the world won’t help you if you are a not a good shot, or have a poorly mounted scope, or a bad barrel, or any of the other host of problems that can affect accuracy.
If you’ve committed to a high quality scope, you need to make sure the entire shooting platform you are mounting it on is properly assembled and in peak working order. You need to master your technique, choose the right loads, and bring it all together in a near zen-like sort of way.
The best long range scope will make your shooting more pleasant, more enjoyable and help you achieve better groups and achieve the most potential from your rifle. While often expensive, a quality scope is an investment into the future of your hobby or a critical piece of lifesaving equipment for your job.
But no matter what your intended purpose, better understanding what goes into choosing a high quality long range scope will clear up many of the mysteries around this process. Picking a scope doesn’t have to be hard, and sticking to established principles and features makes it easier.
Match features to your needs, pick a high quality brand or three that you like, compare the similar offerings and go from there. Once you’ve done that, get your rings, align, mount and zero your scope and you are good to go!
Nothing beats the pride of ownership of a fine optic, and right now, there is no better time to invest in one.