Review of Mil-Dot Rifle Scopes
Manufacturers Reviewed: BSA and Leupold.
2010 Update: I now recommend the Bushnell ET1040 Elite Tactical rifle scope instead of the BSA. The Bushnell is a fixed 10X, which I said in my 2005 review (below) that I would have preferred to the 4-16X BSA had one been available. 16X has too small of a field of view and variable power scopes are unnecessary and may cause misses if one forgets to dial them up to full power before using the mil-dots to estimate holdover. Also in 2005, I criticized the 0.125-MOA windage dial on the BSA as being too fragile and said that a 0.25-MOA adjustment would have been more durable and required less dialing. The Bushnell corrects this problem with a very durable 0.25-MOA dial. The only problem with the Bushnell is that it is not available at this time with an illuminated reticule, which the BSA does have.
Your scope must have a mil-dot reticule and 0.25 MOA adjustments that can be turned with your fingers. 0.125 MOA adjustments will also work but are not recommended. 0.1 milliradian adjustments will NOT work because my system has you memorize windage information in minutes of angle. In 2005 I did not make an issue of telling people this because only Eastern scopes had 0.1 milliradian adjustments, but now some Western scopes offer this option. Do not take it; get the traditional 0.25 MOA adjustments.
Snipers and benchrest shooters have something in common: They both take their shooting seriously. However, that is the only thing that they have in common. They actually require completely different types of scopes on their rifles. The biggest problem that I see in Japanese scope manufacturers is that that they have divided their customers into hunters and "serious" shooters. Lumping snipers and benchrest shooters together has resulted in some rather frankensteinish scopes that aren't really very good for either activity. First, let us consider the needs of benchrest shooters:
1) From the benchrest shooter's point of view, the higher the magnification the better. They know exactly where their target is and, since they have a heavy rifle on a rest, recoil does not disturb it enough to prevent them from finding the target again in their tiny 3' wide field of view.
2) Since a benchrest shooter is capable of shooting within an eighth of an inch at 100 yards, he needs elevation and windage dials with 1/8 MOA clicks.
3) Because parallax is a problem at short range, benchrest shooters need a parallax adjustment. Parallax is when the image and the reticule are at different distances from one's eye so their relative position changes as one moves one's head from side to side.
4) Because of the high magnification, benchrest shooters have very little range of adjustment and, rather than give up magnification, they buy scopes with 30mm main tubes rather than the standard (in America and Japan) 1.0" tubes.
The features that a benchrest shooter demands are exactly the features that a sniper does not want in his scope.
1) A 20× scope has a 5.5' field of view at 100 yards, which is way too small. In combat, if you cannot find your target, you have only to wait a few seconds and he'll find you. This is especially a problem in nondescript landscapes like grasslands because, every time you look through your scope at 300 yards, you see an identical 16' diameter patch of grass. This is a real problem even in intact cities, and most sniping takes place after a city has been shelled. Rubble all looks the same, especially under the stress of combat.
2) Eighth MOA elevation and windage adjustments are a waste because nobody can shoot that accurately, they cause the sniper to spend precious seconds turning his dial, and they are unreliable. I had to send a BSA scope back because the dial slipped under recoil after firing I would look at the dial and find that it had moved a few clicks. This would not have happened with coarser adjustments because the gear teeth are bigger.
3) If you look at a Leupold adjustable objective, you can see that only an eighth inch separates the 200 and 400 yard marks, but 1½" separate the 25 and 100 yard marks, so this adjustment is really for .22 RF rifles. (I compete in smallbore silhouette matches and use my adjustable objective every time I step up to the firing line.) Since there is, as a practical matter, no difference in the parallax adjustment for sniping ranges (250 to 650 yards), this adjustment is a needless expense on Leupold. Just order a non-adjustable scope set for 300 yards. (BSA does not allow such customization and their non-adjustable scopes are set for 150 yards. This is a compromise, but it is not a big problem if you have a consistent cheek weld.)
4) If you plan to be like Carlos Hathcock, who switched his scope back and forth between a bolt-action .30 cal. rifle and a .50 BMG machine gun, a 30mm main tube is important because you'll need a large range of adjustment to dial in for the mile long shots you'll be making with the .50 BMG. However, the Aguilar System for Medium-Range Sniping requires holding over on the mil-dots, so a 1.0" tube is fine.
Hunters benefited from the invention of variable power scopes because it gave them the ability to hunt different game in varied terrain. Deer, for instance, live at the edges of forests and can be hunted either by stalking them in the woods with a 2× to 4× scope or by shooting them across farm fields with an 7× to 10× scope. I am not, however, aware of any type of hunting that requires more than 10×. It is unsportsmanlike to shoot at far away animals. The longest shots taken by hunters are at antelope from about 250 yards away and the closest shots are in defense against bear attacks at point blank range. A 3 - 9× is fine for both applications.
Snipers do not need variable power scopes. A fixed 10× is just fine. If the enemy is too close for 10×, then a bolt-action rifle is of little value anyway. You should put it down and fight with an RPG. If the enemy is too far for 10×, then forego the shot or call for heavier weapons.
Fixed power scopes are less expensive, smaller, lighter and more reliable than variable power scopes. Most importantly, the point of impact changes slightly as one turns the power dial on a variable power scope, making fixed power scopes more accurate. Also, because the mil-dots are only accurate at the highest magnification on a variable power scope, there is a danger that you will forget to dial it up. That happened to me once: I asked my girlfriend to pull targets for me and then, not noticing that my 3 - 9× scope was set at 3×, I proceeded to fire all my shots into the berm. (At 500 yards I was holding two mils over.) If I can make a dumb mistake like that under the stress of trying to impress a girl, imagine how often it happens under the stress of combat!
Thus, the ideal mil-dot scope should have these characteristics: Fixed 10× with 1/4 MOA dials, parallax free at 300 yards and a standard 1.0" main tube. An illuminated reticule is a big plus. Because scopes with 50mm objectives sit too high on a rifle, the ideal scope would have a 40mm objective lens. Also, it should be waterproof and nitrogen filled to prevent fogging. Reliability is important.
Leupold was the first manufacturer to fill their scopes with nitrogen and truly seal them against moisture, which gave them a leg up on their competitors in Japan and Germany whose scopes tended to get foggy. But that was a long time ago (Japan and Germany were still recovering from WWII) and now all scopes are moisture free.
Regarding reliability, I have had problems with both BSA and Leupold. The BSA incident is recounted above (dials slipping under recoil) and is something that BSA could easily fix by using 1/4 MOA adjustments. The problem I had with Leupold is that their finger adjustable dials are held on with three tiny set screws (after zeroing one's rifle, one loosens these screws to set the dial at "0") that are too small to be secure. Once, after practicing all month with my .22 at 50 yards, I went to a smallbore silhouette match, stepped up to the 100 meter line, turned my elevation dial a bit too enthusiastically and was dismayed to find it spinning freely. Imagine how I would have felt if that had happened in combat!
Since this was something I could fix myself, I did not have to invoke Leupold's much heralded lifetime warrantee. But the set screws are so small that, after rezeroing my rifle, I could not tighten them up too much for fear of stripping the threads. So the problem remains.(note 1)
The Leupold problem is more dangerous than the BSA problem because it rendered the rifle inoperable. BSA never slipped more than a half MOA but, on the Leupold, I completely lost my zero. I never liked Leupold's dials ("target turrets" they are called) anyway because they are too big. The windage dial prevents the rifle from fitting in many gun cases and it would be very easy to knock it off by scrapping it against a tree when walking through the woods. Leupold really needs to fix this. In the chart below, I'm going to give them a lower reliability rating than BSA.
There are other mil-dot scopes available, but they have too high a magnification to be good for anything. I refuse to review any scopes with more than 16× magnification, and even that earns BSA low marks in my review. All of the scopes listed below have the 40mm objective and the 1.0" main tube that I recommend. Price and reliability are rated from × (very bad) to ××××× (very good) . Leupold Mark 4 and Long Range scopes have been omitted because they are far too expensive for civilians to buy.
Of the three Leupolds, I would recommend the 3 - 9× on the basis of price. The adjustable objective on the 4.5 - 14× is of little value and the magnification is a bit high. Vari-X III glass is supposedly better than VX-II glass, but I can’t tell the difference. Lack of an illuminated reticule and the reliability problem discussed above is a weakness on all the Leupolds. The greatest drawback is that they are overpriced.
Leupold and their dyed in the wool customers are living in the past. It is not the 1950’s anymore when they could scoff at leaky Japanese scopes that fogged up every time it rained. Now everybody, even the Chinese, are making perfectly good waterproof scopes. Companies like Leupold (and General Motors, while I’m kicking people) need to spend less time waving the flag in our faces and more time working to make a quality product at a reasonable price.
BSA gets the nod! The magnification is too high and the 1/8 MOA adjustments are too fine, but these are relatively minor problems and ones that will be easy for BSA to fix in the future. (Assuming, of course, that they read this review.) The illuminated reticule is a big plus in a mil-dot scope and is a feature that can only be obtained from Leupold for ten times the price of a BSA.
I would like to see BSA make a fixed 10X scope, but I realize that people have come to expect variable power scopes, so I would be satisfied if BSA made a 3 - 9X scope that is parallax free at 300 yards and has an illuminated mil-dot reticule and 1/4 MOA adjustments. In the meantime, the 4 - 16X BSA with the illuminated mil-dot reticule is the best scope on the market.
It should go without saying that I have not received any payments or gifts from BSA or Leupold. (I bought the scopes that I reviewed.) I have no affiliation with any of these companies or with any of their stockholders or employees. – Victor Aguilar
2008 Update: This review was written in 2004 and is now out-of-date, as there are several good (or so I am told) mil-dot scopes made by other manufactures. However, the fundamentals of what to look for in a mil-dot scope remain the same:
What to look for:
- A 30 mm tube is an unnecessary expense that is only useful to long-range shooters of magnum-calibers.
- A 50 mm objective lens causes the scope to sit too high on one’s rifle. Leupold’s VX-7 and VX-L scopes with cut-out bells are a good idea, though a bit expensive.
- A variable objective (AO) is only useful to .22RF competitors. A scope that is parallax-free at 300 yards would be better than one that is parallax-free at 150 yards, but this is not a big issue.
- A variable power scope is only useful to hunters, as they can use different power settings for different game. For snipers, a fixed 10X is best, though a 3-9X will also work. 12X is the upper limit"one should choose 3-9X over 4-12X if both are available.
- Fine 1/8 MOA adjustments are only useful to benchrest shooters. Snipers waste time turning the dials so much and the small gear teeth are prone to slippage.
What to beware of:
- A mil-dot reticule is absolutely necessary to use the Aguilar System for Medium-Range Sniping.
- Finger-adjustable dials are also necessary to use the Aguilar System for Medium-Range Sniping.
- An illuminated reticule is very useful to snipers and worth paying extra for.
- All modern scopes are durable and resist fogging. It’s not the 1950s anymore, when Asian scopes were fragile and fogged up every time it rained. Don’t pay premium Leupold prices just because their scopes are nitrogen-filled"so are everybody else’s.
- German scopes have the reticule etched on a lens rather than actual wires, as American and Asian scopes use. This means that the mil-dots are accurate at every power rather than just the highest power. However, they get thicker at higher powers and block one’s view. For this reason, I would only buy a German scope if it were fixed power. At this time, Zeiss and Mueller only make variables, while Schmidt & Bender and Swarovski make fixed-power scopes. All German scopes have a reputation for quality, though I do not own any and cannot comment on that.
- Eastern-bloc scopes (made in Russia and former satellites such as Romania) share the German problem of reticules that get thicker at higher powers. Also, the Aguilar System for Medium-Range Sniping requires dials calibrated in MOA and some eastern-bloc scopes have tenth-milliradian dials.
- I have found a reliability problem in both BSA and Leupold scopes: their finger-adjustable dials can slip if turned too enthusiastically. This is catastrophic in combat, as a sniper rifle whose elevation or windage dial is spinning freely is of no use. Finger-adjustable dials are necessary, but inspect them for too-small screws and other signs of flimsiness. Also, Leupold’s ’target turrets’ stick out like a sore thumb. Unless you are an ogre, you don’t need two-inch dials"you should be able to get your fingers around a half-inch dial just fine and it is less prone to breaking off.