Mil-Dot Scopes for Less Than $1500: Bushnell, Burris, Trijicon
We had a hard time choosing a winner between three scopes, but the $999 Bushnell Elite may be a bargain compared to Burris’ $1400 XTR and Trijicon’s $1275, AccuPoint.
When shopping for a rifle scope it is common to find a variety divided by purpose. Hunting scopes and tactical scopes are two popular categories. But should they really be listed so far apart? Just as the AR-15 platform continues to evolve as a hunting rifle, why shouldn’t military-style optical scopes do the same? Tactical scopes are bred to provide an advantage over multiple targets at short to moderate distance, or an adversary at long range. For the hunter, this could translate to scenarios such as engaging rabbits in between their start and stop behavior or an elk standing far in the distance. Typically, the difference between tactical scopes is the reticle pattern and degree of magnification, depending on the application they were designed for. In this test we will favor the long-distance shooter and evaluate three Mil-Dot rifle scopes with variable power that tops out at 20X or above. They are the $1400 6-24X50mm Burris Xtreme Tactical Rifle scope No. 201934, the $999 6-21X50mm Bushnell Elite No. 42-6245T, and Trijicon’s $1275 TR23-2G 5-20X50mm AccuPoint scope.
Each scope was built on a 30mm-diameter tube with a 50mm objective lens and a reticle wherein the vertical and horizontal crosshairs were strung with evenly spaced dots (Mil-Dots). All three scopes showed reticles in the first focal plane, and the knobs offered .25-MOA click adjustment. We chose this format because the reticle pattern can actually be used to "range" the target at any level of magnification using the following equation:
Height or width of target in yards multiplied by 1000; divided by the apparent size of the target as measured against the Mil-Dot reticle, equaled distance.
As you can see, you must know the approximate size of the target. When military or police snipers deal with the human torso, the measurement they typically use is 30 inches, or 0.833 yards. Game hunters merely need to insert the average height of the target area according to the animal they wish to engage, say from the bottom of the rib cage to the shoulder. The Mil-Dot reticle comes into play when you look through the scope and determine how tall the target appears when measured against the reticle. For example, if when placing the center of the crosshairs at the bottom of the target area the upper edge of the target sits midway between the second and third Mil-Dots, the lower part of the equation would be 2.5. Once distance is determined, elevation can be adjusted according to published data, such as a range card or "true statements" of elevation adjustment that the shooter has established through actual tests. In addition to its ranging ability, the Mil-Dot reticle offers another advantage over common crosshairs. Holding over for added elevation or holding off to fight wind drift becomes much easier with the additional visual aid of the Mil-Dots. This makes visualizing a hold that changes both windage and elevation much easier. Imagine the necessity to hold low and to the right. The shooter can then line up the shot first shifting the point of aim from the center of the crosshairs to the first Miil-Dot to the right of center. Then the point of aim can be dropped by lowering the rifle directly downward until the new horizontal point of reference is the first mil dot above the center of the crosshairs. If this point of aim proves not to be perfect, at least it will provide a substantial frame of reference for the next shot. Holding off center by say one Mil-Dot can also be effective when engaging a moving target. Indeed, the presence of the dots can also make it easier to visualize holding off by one-half the distance between Mil-Dots, and so on.
Our comparison of the three scopes is accompanied by a chart showing basic information such as size, weight, etc. We’ve also added a line for how many clicks were available from the windage and elevation knobs. This is important to know so that before transferring the same scope from one rifle to another, the scope can be returned to its mechanical center. By mechanical center we mean that if there are 300 clicks available from each knob, 150 clicks from full right or its lowest possible adjustment should put the reticle comfortably centered within the scope. Some calibers demand a lot of upward adjustment for really long range shooting. For example, the 308 Winchester (topped with a 175-grain bullet) typically asks for a 600-yard elevation adjustment of 14.75 MOA, or 59 clicks. But a 1000-yard shot would require approximately 36.75 MOA, or 147 clicks, and it is at the edges of the lens that vision will suffer from parallax, the apparent displacement or the difference in apparent direction of an object as seen from two different points not on a straight line with the object. We used a gentle grip when turning the knobs. Sensitivity to the clicks is a must.
Testing scopes can however be limited in terms of hard facts. No two people see exactly alike, so whatever ratings may apply to the amount of light or quality of light transmitted to the shooter’s eyes could in the end be subjective. One of the visual aids we used was a $15 lifesize Coyote target from Caldwell that featured detailed vitals and replaceable overlays (No. 800345). Set afield at a distance of 100 yards, we peered through each scope and compared how well we could pick out the reticle against the realistic montage of coyote fur. Immediately next to the Coyote target was a typical range target for comparison. All three scopes allowed us to shoot sub-MOA groups at the heart, lung, and base of the neck bone on the Caldwell target. We wrapped up our tests with a hike over private land that allowed us to focus on (but not shoot at) a variety of distances and back drops.
Aside from the subjective viewing, we did the best we could to judge how well each scope performed as they were designed to. For example, the calibration of the Mil-Dots had to be consistent and offer predictability. After zeroing each scope, we held off 2 Mil-Dots to the right and to the left, firing five shot groups for each hold. Were all four groups the same distance from center? We referred to this as our hold-off test. We tried to minimize shooter error and effects of the environment (wind and light), by performing these tests from 50 yards. Our mechanical tests were performed with the scopes at maximum magnification.
We called our next test the crank test because we cranked the windage elevation 4 MOA (16 clicks) right and left and fired 5-shot groups. We repeated this exercise with the elevation knob first down then up. We chose to move downward first because, in our experience, some scope springs have more difficulty recovering from compression than from expansion. Again, we fired five-shot groups. Was each group printed equidistant from our original point of aim? Were they level and on line with the central group? Did returning the adjustment knobs back to center realign the reticle so that hits were centered at our original point of aim?
Each scope was pre-mounted using rings and bases available from Brownells. That way, the scopes could be quickly interchanged from atop the Picatinny rail as a solid unit.
Our test ammunition for the 50-yard shots was the Sellier & Bellot 55-grain FMJ ammunition. For our longer-distance testing, we relied upon a handload featuring 69-grain Sierra bullets over Varget powder, proven to deliver sub-MOA groups from our test rifle. In terms of durability from shock or recoil, we realize that firing 223 Remington was not a harsh challenge. But we weren’t about to use the scopes as hammers, either. Each scope was backed by a lifetime warranty, and in our view only the longest period of testing will determine the durability of these products.