June 2004

Wringing Out Three 36X Target Scopes: We pick Weaver’s T36

Over the past few years we’ve used a trio of powerful scopes on our test rifles. In our view, Weaver’s relatively inexpensive model is a better buy than similar glass from Leupold and B&L.

Eye relief of our Leupold was 3.4 inches, with a 3.2-foot field of view at 100 yards. The Leupold came with a lifetime guarantee, something to consider. In our experience, Leupold is fast and fair about making its scopes right, in the event something goes wrong with one of them.

When we’re testing supposedly accurate rifles (like the varmint rifles reviewed elsewhere in this issue), we like to use powerful optics for several reasons. First, it’s easy to see bullets without the need for the spotting scope. Second, one’s heartbeat is easily seen, so the powerful scope can give you information that you can’t get with less power. Once you realize your heartbeat is affecting your aim, you can do something about it before taking the shot. We use a machine rest, but if the body bears too hard against the rifle, there can be tremors that will affect bullet placement. These high-magnification scopes are commonly used for serious bench-rest and target shooting, and sometimes for silhouette, though if you really want to see what you’re doing on the target, i.e., how well you’re holding and/or how precisely your rifle will really shoot, you’ll need a powerful scope.

Once again we emphasize that you — nor we — don’t need this hefty magnification to achieve sub-one-inch groups, if your rifle and you are capable of them. We’ve shot tiny groups with low-powered scopes — as low as 2.5X — time and again. Our secret is to use a machine rest, which permits steady and repeatable holding. However, if your rifle is capable of sub-half-inch groups, the powerful scopes come into their own and become necessary.

There is an upper limit on the sort of rifle on which you can use a 36X scope. We would probably not use it on a .375 H&H Magnum, because the eye relief of these 36X scopes is generally around 3 inches, and we like more room than that with powerful rifles. In a recent test we mounted our Leupold 36X on a .308 Sako Finnlight, and that’s about the most rifle with the least weight we’d care to use one of these scopes on. We have no doubts the scopes will take whatever recoil we can give them. We just don’t want to get hit.

Our three test scopes were the Leupold BR-36X-D (about $1000 MSRP), Bausch & Lomb 4200 Elite ($713 MSRP), and Weaver’s excellent T36 ($794 MSRP). All had one-inch tubes, and covered adjustment knobs that were easily turned with the fingers. They all had larger adjustment knobs supplied that could replace the standard knobs, but we prefer the covered knobs for our test conditions. All three scopes had thin crosshairs, but those of the Leupold and Weaver were almost invisible because they also had small 1/8 MOA central dots. A dot reticle works well with some types of aiming points, but not so well with others. A small piece of tape, for instance, is more easily centered with the dot than with plain crosshairs. The latter, however, make it easy to hold on the edge of a small mark on the target. We’ve obtained excellent test results with both types of reticle. In the course of our testing over the past year or so, we have no favorites between the dot and plain crosshairs. All three had provisions to set the adjustment knobs to zero, and the Leupold and B&L came with the correct Allen wrench to replace or re-zero their adjustment knobs. The Weaver system didn’t need a wrench.

All three came with screw-in lens shades, which we found to be vital for any conditions where the sun was in front of the shooter, and they all had screw-in lens caps. The scopes each had parallax adjustments via threaded objectives. These latter had clearly marked target distances. However, only the Leupold and Weaver had locks on the objective’s parallax adjustment.

Perhaps the biggest surprise to those who use one of these powerful scopes for the first time is that they’re very dark. On a heavily overcast day you may find your costly 36X scope is nearly useless, all advertising hype to the contrary. The second thing you’ll notice is you have to have your eye in just the right position or you won’t see anything at all. Here’s a closer look at each.

Leupold BR-36X-D, about $1000 MSRP
The Leupold had a matte-black finish that complemented the scope very well. As noted, the reticle was crosshairs (very thin) and a dot, but a plain crosshair is optional. The objective was adjustable by a wide serrated ring, in front of which was the gold band which listed the scope’s name and model. Distances were given as 50 feet, presumably for indoor use, and also in discrete yardages out to infinity. The markings around the objective and on the barrel of the scope were somewhat confusing at first. While they were linear on the barrel, they were mixed up on the turning portion. The manual that came with the scope explained how to set the parallax adjustment, and it worked perfectly once understood. A second serrated ring, forward of the gold decorative band, locked the parallax adjustment, and also was the receptacle into which the sun shade screwed.

The adjustment knobs (all three scopes) were clearly marked as to which direction to turn them to get the impact up or down, right or left. They could also be reset to give a zero reading with your rifle centered. The Leupold required the use of a small Allen wrench (supplied) to zero the knob. The markings ran from 0 to 12 around each adjustment knob, and the numbers roughly corresponded to inches at 100 yards. One click gave one mark on the dial, and each click moved the impact 1/4 MOA. There was plenty of adjustment room on all three scopes, another reason we like them for some of our testing. There was no slop in the movements. Whatever you dialed, no matter in which direction, gave a corresponding movement of the bullet’s impact on the target. This was true for all three scopes.

To make our point, we “shot the square” with each. This involved firing one shot, moving the scope 4 inches left and shooting another shot with the same aiming point as for the first shot, then adjusting the scope to print 4 inches low and firing another round. Then we moved it back to the right and up to where we started, firing one more round at each corner. With all three scopes the final (fifth) bullet printed (within the capabilities of the rifle/ammo combination) exactly where the first shot landed. It was as if we had not moved the scope’s adjustments at all. The corner holes were as well defined as the rifle’s accuracy permitted. In our experience, it takes a very good scope to do that. Commonly, you’d see one of the corners too short, then the next might be too wide as the recoil jarred the mechanism to “settle” it within the limits of its internal constraints. You’d be lucky, we think, to get that fifth shot within a country mile of the first one with many otherwise excellent scopes on the market. This is one reason hunting scopes are best sighted in and then left strictly alone, so you don’t have fits with their backlash. Once you’ve used a scope like one of these 36X’s, you may be spoiled. The backlash common to many hunting scopes will seem to be outlandish. That’s one more reason we like to test rifles with these fine target scopes.

Our Leupold is the old style, which we’ve been told is still available from some distributors, but you may have a hard time finding one. (You can get one of the new ones for around $900 street price.) Ours had a 1-inch tube, and had its parallax adjustment on the objective. Newer versions of the Leupold have a 30mm tube, and the parallax adjustment is on the side of the tube in the form of a third knob opposite the windage knob. For our specific uses the 30mm tube would be inconvenient, and the side-mounted parallax adjustment would be an unneeded luxury. Some shooters may prefer the newer version.

Weaver T36, 36x40 AO, $794 MSRP
Perhaps the most business-like look was that of the Weaver T36. It had a matte-black finish with no unneeded decorations. A matte-silver finish is an option with the T36. Our scope had a dot reticle, but plain crosshairs are optional. The range markings on the objective were unambiguous and straightforward, a pleasant change from the Leupold’s slight confusion. A ring permitted locking the parallax setting once you’re happy with it.

The adjustments on the Weaver were clearly marked, and it was easy to dial in whatever inches we needed to get the bullet to strike where we wanted it. If you tend to bump things, the Weaver’s tight adjustment knobs might be preferable to those of the Leupold. By comparison, the adjustments of the B&L felt too soft for us.

Adjustments gave you 1/8 MOA per click, twice as fine as Leupold’s. Weaver’s “Micro-Trac” system, featuring ball-bearing internal pressure points, is supposed to offer shooters more precise adjustments than on other scopes, and is supposed to give more independent movement between windage and elevation than with other scope makes. In our limited experience, all three of our test scopes have been way more than adequate in this respect. We noted the Weaver’s knobs were the hardest to turn, which could be a good thing. It was not as easy to get just one click with the Weaver as it was with the Leupold, which we thought had the most precise-feeling clicks to its knobs.

Bausch & Lomb Elite 4200 36X, $713 MSRP
This scope, Model 42-3640A, had a glossy finish, which some prefer to a matte finish. We have had no problems with glare with this shiny exterior finish. Our version came with plain crosshairs. Like the other two scopes, the B&L had bigger adjustment knobs if you want ‘em, with easier-read markings. It also had two sun shades, a normal one and a much longer one, which we installed. The parallax adjustment was clearly marked with different colors for meters and yards, and had a fixed reference point on the main barrel. The adjusting tube turned smoothly and firmly but, as noted, there was no way to lock it into position. We didn’t like that lack of a lock. After using the Leupold and Weaver and snugging down both ends of the scope, we felt like there was something missing with the B&L because the objective was not secure. Clearly, if the objective bell has nothing to snug it against movement there is a possibility for it to wiggle, but we have not experienced any movement or any problems with the B&L. We’ve fired some incredibly small groups with that scope, so maybe it doesn’t really matter that it can’t be locked.

The B&L came with a limited lifetime warranty. It also had a special coating on its glass called Rainguard. This is supposed to help give you a better sight picture in conditions that would cause fogging of the lens. In our informal tests it seemed to work pretty much as claimed.

We noticed a thin, brown-tinged, out-of-focus area at the extreme edges of this scope’s sight picture. In use, this was not a problem at all, because with such a scope as this your concentration is very much centered within the field of view, certainly more so than with a hunting scope. The image gave good color representation, everything looking sharp and the colors perfectly normal. With the scope set to infinity, it gave a clear image of skylined trees at close to half a mile distance, though that fringe was still there. The B&L had a 3.1-foot field of view at 100 yards, par for the course. Its eye relief was 3.2 inches, and each click got you 1/8 MOA.

Gun Tests Recommends
Leupold BR-36X-D, about $1000 MSRP. [Street price $750-$800.] Buy It. In careful comparison tests, the Leupold showed a slightly brighter image than that of the B&L, at least to our eyes. The Leupold’s image was crisp and clear right out to the edges of its visible field. We thought we could see a slightly greater amount of contrast with the Leupold over the Weaver, but thought the resolution of the Weaver might have been slightly better. These observations were largely a function of the viewer, in our limited testing. We have no scientific way of measuring these. The Leupold had 1/4 MOA clicks, and some would prefer finer adjustments.

The newest Leupold has 1/8 MOA clicks. Our Leupold has a feel of great precision that gives us confidence in its use. You can’t go wrong with one of these, assuming you can still find one. As noted, we prefer the 1-inch tube because we have to fit it into a variety of rings, some of which are hard to find in 30mm size. On the other hand, you may have a hard time finding one of the 1-inch tubes like ours, but we think it’ll be worth the look. You should save some money over the cost of the very latest Leupold. We’ve had massive pleasure using this scope over the past few years.

Weaver T36, 36x40 AO, $794 MSRP. Best Buy. With its street price of around $400, we feel the Weaver offers a better deal than the Leupold. We like our Weaver very much. We’ve had just as much joy using the Weaver as we have the Leupold, and their optics seem to be about equal. Neither has a clearcut optical margin over the other, from all we’ve been able to detect in our test sessions. Bear in mind we probably don’t use the scopes as intensely or as critically as dedicated bench-rest or target shooters would.

We don’t much care about the finer adjustments of the Weaver over the Leupold for our uses, but the serious bench rester or silhouette shooter may want them. We’d be entirely happy with just the Weaver on our test rifles, and we think you will, too. It should cost significantly less than the Leupold in street prices, perhaps as low as half as much.

Bausch & Lomb Elite 4200, 36X, $713 MSRP. Buy It. We haven’t used the B&L to the same extent as the other two, but it seems to be a perfectly useful scope, if not quite as refined in its image as the other two. The biggest item for us about the B&L is that its non-locking parallax adjustment is prone to getting turned without our being aware of it.

This was an annoyance, because each time we carried the rifle to our bench we had to tinker with the objective adjustment. We didn’t like the fact that this could not be locked, but it may not be a problem for you. We also liked the fog-repelling lens coating. The two lens hoods were an added benefit. Screwed together, they gave an extremely long tube, which some shooters like.