For most kinds of deer hunting, a 3-9x rifle scope is a good choice. It provides a fairly wide field of view, which makes acquiring the target relatively easy, and a good range of magnification. However, when hunting varmints at long distances, a much more powerful scope is needed. A 6-24x scope with at least a 40mm objective lens is generally considered to be a good varmint scope.
However, this rather limited definition of a varmint scope promptly expanded when we started buying scopes for this test. We found two 20x scopes that outperformed most of the 24x scopes, and a 44mm scope that was smaller than most 40mm scopes. Our final choice of optics for this evaluation included the eight scopes we thought most varmint hunters would prefer.
As the test proceeded, we had to change our mind on several long-held ideas about scopes. Bigger was not necessarily sharper. The quality of the lens and lens coating was more important than the diameter of the lens. The Burris Signature scope’s 40mm objective lens, the smallest in this test, had better resolution than the larger 42, 44, or 50mm scopes. Bigger was not necessarily better in low light conditions, either. Again, the Burris beat out the bigger scopes. It gave us the best and earliest view of the target about a half hour before sunrise. Price was no indication of performance. The Burris was not the most expensive scope in this test, if you shop wisely.
An explanation of how we tested the scopes is included toward the end of this article.
The scopes are listed in descending order of optical quality without regard to price. See the summary tables [PDFCAP(1)]) for more details.
Burris Signature 6-24×40
This scope set the standard for the rest. It had the best optical resolution and the best flare control we’ve ever seen. In fact, the flare control was perfect. Sun shining onto the objective lens had no effect on resolution. A sunshade was provided, but it wasn’t needed.
The Signature was the first scope to resolve the test pattern in our early morning test. The remainder of the scopes were rated on how many minutes later they could resolve the pattern. Here was physical evidence that optical quality was more than a function of lens diameter.
There was an iris in this scope that served to reduce the amount of light entering the scope when the field was too bright. We didn’t find this feature useful at 24x, and the control ring was very hard to turn. (You’ll probably have to take the scope off the rifle to turn it.) We couldn’t turn the ring at all when we took the scope out of the deep freeze. We couldn’t see through it either, because the scope had fogged up internally. When submerged in hot water, it emitted a slow but steady stream of bubbles. (See the How We Tested section of this article for further information on this problem).
We’re going to send the scope to be refilled and resealed. There’s no doubt that it can be repaired, because it’s a fairly standard procedure. This scope has one of the better warranties. There’s no initial fee involved, but Burris will decide who pays. Our Rating: Excellent, Best of Test.
Simmons Gold Medal 6-20×40
This scope’s resolution was as good as the best in normal light, but it didn’t do quite as well with sunlight on the objective lens. A sunshade, which was provided, controlled this problem. The scope became functional five minutes later in the morning. Large, uncovered and easily-turned target knobs were supplied.
The Gold Medal had a two-piece tube, so it may not be as strong as the other one-piece scopes in this test, and was available only with a crosshair reticle. Warranty repair requires a $7 initial fee. Our Rating: Good.
Leupold Vari-X III 6.5-20×40
For those who want to use a scope this powerful for big game hunting, instead of varmint hunting, we felt this one would be by far the best choice. It was the smallest and lightest scope of the test. Further-more, it was dehorned. The adjustment knobs were only 1/2 inch high, which reduced the chance of snagging and inadvertent damage. Yet, the optics were almost as good as the Burris. The scope was functional only a minute later in the morning.
Unlike most of the scopes in this test, the Vari-X III had larger 1/4-minute clicks for adjustment. A coin was needed to make adjustments. The scope didn’t come with any accessories. So, a set of lens covers and a sunshade, if needed, will have to be purchased separately.
The warranty requires only that you send the scope in, since there is no initial fee. Our Rating: Good, or best for big game.
Bausch & Lomb Elite 6-24×40
If you find the knobs or dials hard to operate on most scopes, try this one. It had the easiest-to-use controls of the test. The scope also had an objective lens calibrated in both meters and yards. When using the supplied sunshade, the optics were almost as good as the Burris. The Elite was good for short range shooting, too. The objective focused down to 60 feet.
The warranty has a $10 initial fee and is limited to the original owner, but proof of purchase is not required. Our Rating: Good.
Weaver V24 6-24×42
The V24 was the second-cheapest scope in this test, which may account for the lack of accessories. It will need a pair of covers. A sunshade would be helpful, too, but Weaver doesn’t sell one. If the objective lens was kept out of direct sunlight, the optics were almost as sharp as the Burris. This was the only scope tested that could be used for indoor gallery shooting. It focused down to 50 feet. The field of view was a little smaller than the other scopes.
The warranty has a $7 initial fee, and it’s limited to the original owner. Proof of ownership is required. Our Rating: Good, even without the sunshade.
Nikon Monarch 6.5-20×44
The optics were not quite as good on this scope as on the preceding scopes. It had a little less resolution and a little more problem with flare. However, this scope did have all the accessories and features that we felt it needed for varmint hunting, including target knobs.
Our Monarch also had a problem—it leaked. It didn’t fog up internally at 40 degrees, but it did at 0 degrees. In the hot water test, it produced a steady stream of bubbles between the eyepiece and its locking ring. The Nikon repair department said they could repair it and invited us to send it to them.
Warranty service doesn’t require an initial fee, but it does require a sales slip and the warranty card supplied with the scope. Lose either and you’re on your own. Our Rating: conditionally Fair.
Redfield Varmint 6-24×50
This was a big, long, heavy and expensive scope, but the optics were only fair. Again, here was physical proof that bigger optics aren’t necessarily better. Direct sunlight on the objective lens produced a total white out. No sunshade was furnished, which the scope needed, but Butler Creek covers were supplied with this scope.
Both of the knobs on our Varmint were unsatisfactory. They turned hard for part of a revolution, when warm or cold, and then turned too easily. We couldn’t feel the clicks in the easy portion. We needed to be able to feel them to adjust this scope because the graduations on the knob were too coarse to use for that purpose. If the knobs can’t be repaired or replaced under warranty, we would rate this scope as unsatisfactory. (See page 2 of this issue for new information on Redfield warranty service.)
The warranty is limited to the original owner and requires a $26 fee. Our Rating: conditionally Fair.
Tasco World Class 6-24×44
Our system of rating only on the optics may not have treated this comparatively inexpensive scope fairly. Flare control was bad, as direct sunlight on the objective lens completely blanked out the image. However, the scope came with two sunshades. Either one could control the problem. When both were used, there was no way the sun could reach the front lens. Viewed side by side with the Burris, it was easy to see that the Tasco lacked resolution in the fringe area. When compared a day apart, the distinction would probably be missed. The crosshairs were very fine, but had a dot at the junction. No duplex reticle was available.
This company has the finest warranty in the business. There is a $10 initial fee, but beyond that it’s unlimited. It doesn’t make any difference if the problem is your fault, their fault or nobody’s fault. Furthermore, they don’t care if or when you bought, stole, or traded for it. Just send them ten bucks and they’ll fix it. Tasco must have a lot of confidence in their product. Our Rating: Fair, a good budget scope.
Go for the best and buy the Burris Signature 6-24x scope. It was clearly superior to the other varmint scopes tested. However, if money is a big consideration, try the Tasco. It was more or less in the same class with the rest of these scopes and at a cost of less than half of the others.
How We Tested
To make it easy to compare the optical quality of these eight scopes to each other, we built a concrete pedestal to mount them on. A small shelf was positioned behind the pedestal for the observer to rest his chin on. It sped the movement from one scope to the next and allowed us to scan all eight scopes every 20 seconds. This was important during our fading-light test.
All of the scopes were aligned on the test pattern and were focused to suit the observer before we started testing. The pedestal held the scopes so rigid that we could turn the knobs and watch the reticle move on the target. This enabled us to judge the response of the reticle movement to the control knobs.
Our first test of optical quality measured the maximum resolution of each scope. Some scopes did this better than others. Resolution was measured in lines per inch, the number of black and white lines in an inch that could be resolved or identified. We used a target designed to test hunting scopes at 50 yards for this purpose, and set it up at 100 yards. It was still too big, so we reduced a copy to half-size and mounted it along side the original. Between the two targets, they were just right for evaluating these scopes.
We started this testing with the target in direct sunlight, but it was too bright; reflections from the white part of the target interfered with the test. It worked better with the target backlighted, or illum-inated with just skylight. We found that resolution depended not only on the scope, but also on the eye- sight of the observer. For uniformity, the same tester read all the resolution tests. From a practical standpoint, there was not a lot of difference between these scopes. If they weren’t lined up side-by-side and aimed at a resolution test target, it would be hard to tell the difference.
Our second optical test measured the degradation of the image due to flare. Sunlight on the objective lens can result in a loss of contrast, which is a function of the quality of the lens coating. To measure this loss of contrast, we used the same target and observer we used to measure the maximum resolution. The difference was we used a mirror to reflect sunlight into the objective lens at about a 45 degree angle. (Shining the light straight in would have burned the observer’s eye.) We found a big difference here. The sunlight had no effect on the Burris scope, but totally blanked out two others.
Our third test determined how well these scopes performed in fading light. We started early in the morning while it was still too dark to see the same target we had been using. The test began when we could resolve four lines per inch at 100 yards. We found that maximum resolution was at maximum power, not what we expected with a 5mm exit pupil. Again, the Burris scope set the standard. It was the first to resolve four lines. As the other scopes resolved the lines, we recorded their time lag behind the Burris. We took a reading every 20 seconds. There wasn’t much difference; a minute later four scopes were functioning, and eight minutes later all the scopes could resolve four lines. These time lags were used to determine the fading light advantage.
We measured the eye relief between the eye ring on the back end of the scope and the observer’s brow ridge. This distance varied with the observer, depending on his skull shape and how much he tilted his head. The minimum distance was where the observer could see the full field of view as he backed his eye away from the scope, while the maximum distance was when he lost the full field. Our measured values did not agree with the published specifications in most cases. The Burris, Bausch & Lomb, Weaver and Nikon scopes had a neoprene eye ring. This is the back part of the scope that hits you on the brow when you get too close. We felt it was a worthwhile feature.
The field of view at 100 yards was simply measured with a six-foot ruler. With some scopes, it also differed from the published specifications. We determined the range of adjustment by moving the reticle across the target, both vertical and horizontal, and measuring the maximum range of motion. Focus ring error was determined by focusing the objective lens to eliminate all parallax at 100 yards and noting how far from 100 yards the focus ring read. Minimum focus distance was read directly from the focus ring. None of these scopes had any distortion that we could detect. All of them had some way to reset the windage and elevation knobs to zero.
We listed two prices for each of the scopes. The lower prices were taken from either Cabela’s (1-800-237-4444) or Graph and Sons (1-800-531-2666) catalogs, and included shipping and handling. The higher prices were the manufacturer’s suggested retail prices. When we called one company for a price, a customer service representative warned us not to pay the price she quoted because they were available for less. That was good advice. Different reticles and finishes were usually available for a higher price, but none of the scopes that we reported with crosshair reticles were available with duplex reticles.
These scopes are filled with dry nitrogen and sealed at the factory so they won’t fog in cold weather. But, if there is a small leak when the scope is warm, the gas pressure will rise and some of the nitrogen will leak out. When the scope cools, a vacuum will develop and some air with moisture will leak in. After time, enough moisture will enter the scope to cause a problem. When the scope is cooled, the moisture condenses on the inside of the tube and optics, fogging the scope.
To test the seal of the scopes, we left them in a refrigerator at 40 degrees for several days and then checked the lenses. None showed any signs of internal fogging. We then submerged them in a tub of hot water at 120 degrees. This increased the internal pressure, and two leaky seals showed as a steady stream of nitrogen bubbles from the Burris and Nikon scopes. Both leaks were at the eyepiece locking ring.
We tested the controls for ease of operation at three different temperatures. First, at room temperature, next at 40 degrees and last at 0 degrees. With decreasing temperatures, the standard controls became harder to operate, but all could be turned with a gloved hand. None were easy to turn at 0 degrees. Only a unique iris control on the Burris scope proved too difficult to turn. Their technician assured us it would loosen with use. We didn’t find a need to use this control during any of our tests. We did find that both the Burris and the Nikon scopes fogged at 0 degrees.
We checked each scope to determine if the point of aim changed as we zoomed in and out on the target. None of them changed. Changing the objective focus had no effect on the point of aim, either.
Seven of these scopes had, more or less, the same kind of warranty. Send them your scope, postpaid, and they will determine if the problem was their fault or yours. They’ll fix the trouble, and charge you for the work only if they think the problem was your fault. Only Tasco had an unlimited warranty. With three out of the eight new scopes tested needing repairs, we felt warranties were an important consideration. We wondered if the customer was expected to make the final inspection in this business.