Recently we’ve had an on-going discussion on our YouTube channel about whether or a not a cheap scope can frankly “get the job done” for most shooters. No doubt it can be challenging for a shooter on a budget to spend at least $500 – $1000 on a rifle and then spend several hundred more on a scope to mount on it. Some people prefer to take chances on sub $100 optics, and no doubt they’ve had a reasonable amount of success with them to keep praising that approach. Each user has their own set of needs and demands out of a rifle scope, and we’ll certainly acknowledge that sometimes they can get by with cut-rate optics if their needs aren’t too demanding.
That all said, the reality of the situation is that you’re taking chances mounting a cheap scope to your rifle. Will that cheap scope fail when you need it most? Maybe it will or maybe not this time. Instead of hunting and shooting with that potential failure always over your head, an investment of a hundred to a few hundred dollars more can get you something you can trust and use effectively. To drive the argument home, let’s look at five reasons why you shouldn’t buy an ultra-cheap scope for your rifle.
1. Less Likely To Hold Zero
The ability to hold zero is the most important element to the “spend enough to get a decent scope” philosophy. Most budget rifle scopes (unless they’re flawed or broken) will adjust effectively when you make elevation and windage adjustments. After all, if a rifle scope can’t even do that…well it’s not really a rifle scope and more of a “rifle ornament.” (Note: finer precision windage and elevation adjustments are a different story). So while every rifle can essentially make those adjustments to bring you to zero, keeping you at zero is another matter.
Cheap scopes are notorious for losing zero in the field unexpectedly, and this usually means a missed shot at the game animals you’re after. This loss of zero can be especially painful if you’ve got the trophy of a lifetime in your sights. How zero is lost can sometimes be a mystery, and other times the cause is easy to track down. You accidentally bang the scope when you’re hiking to your stand or blind, or sometimes the zero is already thrown off when the rifle and scope are riding on the way to the field or range. Of course, sometimes zero is simply thrown off by the rifle’s recoil. When you break down the time and ammunition investment needed to bring a finicky scope back to zero time and time again, you’re better off in investing more anyway.
Leupold is one of the most-trusted optics brands, and they have plenty of options in reach for budget shooters like this Leupold VX-1 3-9x40mm Rifle Scope – starts at $259 MSRP.
2. Less Durability In The Field
In addition to the ability to take some shock and keep zero, rifle scopes also need a decent degree of durability to last in the field. You might find that a simple bump to a budget scope might be enough to shatter it into pieces. This durability factor is called “shockproof” by most manufacturers, and they test their optics to ensure that they can take a hit and still stay intact and function as they should. Rubber armor, quality materials and solid one-piece scope tubes help a scope achieve some degree of shockproof resistance, and you shouldn’t expect to find many of those elements in a cut-rate scope.
There are also environmental resistances to worry about. While almost all scopes will be purged to prevent fogging (if they’re not, stay far away from them), it’s also wise to get a scope with waterproof resistance, especially if you hunt. A sudden downpour has inflicted some serious distress on budget scopes that aren’t treated for moisture, and worrying about when it’s going to rain and how much your scope can take isn’t worth the trouble.
Vortex is another popular option for shooters of all levels. Their scope lines start with the Crossfire II series, but there are other entry-level options like this Diamondback 4-12x40mm Rifle Scope – line starts at $239 MSRP.
3. Poor Light Transmission
Seasoned hunters and shooters obsess over “good glass,” and you should too to some degree. Good glass provides a clear picture (which we’ll address next), but it also encourages a good level of light transmission. In a nut shell, some percentage of light is going to be lost when it travels through a scope. Some of the light will reflect off the objective lens, while other fractions of the light will be lost before it reaches the eye piece and your eye. If the level of light is already low, say in the morning or evening, than an even lower level of light will reach your eye, sometimes to the degree that your scope will be unusable if there isn’t enough light.
Quality scope manufacturers fight this loss of light by coating their lenses with special compounds to encourage light transmission and discourage glare, and the term you should always look for is “fully multi-coated.” Budget scopes may be coated, but not always to the same degree, or even on all surfaces, and this frugal use of lens coatings can cost you a shot in lower (but still legal) shooting conditions.
Do you prefer German optics? There are options in reach like this Zeiss TERRA 4-12x50mm Rifle Scope – $399 right now at 1800GunsAndAmmo.
4. Poor Clarity
Inferior scopes can present a fuzzy picture, especially when the power ring is dialed up or the scope magnification is increased. This might not be a problem for a hunter aiming at a deer at close range as they can still make out all they need, but longer, still ethical shots can suffer if you can’t get a clear picture out of your scope. Lower end scopes can also blur at the edges of the sight picture, which means you have even less of a field of view to work with when aiming. Contrast can also be poor in cheaper scopes, and this can make a difference when you’re trying to pick an animal out of a similar colored environment. All in all, a scope isn’t of much use to most shooters if you can’t get a good sight picture out of it.
Nikon has a wealth of quality, affordably priced scopes starting with models like this Nikon ProStaff 3-9×40 BDC Rifle Scope – now $196.95 at 1800GunsAndAmmo.
5. Inferior Warranty
This last reason to not buy a cheap scope is easily overlooked – warranties. Scopes are designed and assembled by humans, and well by now you’ve figured out that humans make plenty of mistakes. A part failure or defect in a cheap scope brand may leave you high and dry, but all the more-established scope manufacturers will repair or replace the scope if there is an issue with its parts or labor. That said, if you break it yourself, don’t expect the warranty to cover your mishandling of your scope. A reliable warranty is worth the extra investment in a brand you can trust.
Redfield, now part of the Leupold family, offers great options on affordable scopes like this Redfield Revolution 3-9x40mm Rifle Scope – now $189.99 at 1800GunsAndAmmo.
To close, let’s make it clear that we’re not advocating that everyone needs $1500 scopes to shoot effectively. That’s simply not true for a lot of the common rifle owners out there. Of course if you’re shooting in competition or want to effectively shoot longer distances, you’re going to need a better scope, plain and simple. Fact is, most of those level of shooters have already figured that out, and it may have taken using an inferior scope when they were beginners. We just want to save you that mistake, and yes it will take a bit more of an investment, say $200 – $500 generally, but it will be worth it.