If I were to name the three or four events that had a seminal effect on my shooting career, one would surely be the day I bought a K-10 Weaver scope. It cost nearly 60 bucks back then–even more than Remington’s slick M121 rimfire pump rifle. This was serious money for a teenage boy making about $8 a day forking hay or cutting tobacco for neighboring farmers.
The decision to invest so heavily in a scope that I had never so much as peered through was all the more agonizing because it flew in the face of conventional wisdom regarding optics for centerfire rifles, espoused by the generation of gun writers who had come before.
The nice fellow who owned the local hardware store and sold guns, horse liniment, dynamite and other interesting stuff did his best to talk me out of the 10-power Weaver, even though it would be the most expensive scope he’d ever sold. “It’ll poke your eye out if you put it on a high-powered rifle,” he insisted, “and the field of view is so narrow you’ll never see what you want to shoot at. I won’t even have the thing in my shop, so you’ll have to special order it. Cash in advance–and no refund when you come to your senses.”
After his lecture I felt like I was committing some sort of sin when I unzipped the bib pocket of my overalls and counted out the proceeds of my labors. Temptation was around every corner in those days, and I was yielding to the temptation of a rifle sight that promised to make targets look 10 times bigger.
Recalling that fateful day from the comfort zone of a half century later, it’s safe to say that the “conventional wisdom” of that era was fast becoming obsolete, a leftover from a previous generation of shooting experts who had chiseled in stone that a 2½X scope was the all-around ideal and a 6X pushed the power envelope. By the 1950s, however, a lot of shooters, especially World War II veterans, were seeing things differently, and my innocent craving for more optical horsepower wasn’t all that radical after all.
Scopes having a magnification greater than 10X were not entirely unknown then–Fecker, Lyman, Unertl and a couple of others made scopes in powers ranging above 20X–but these were target scopes with long tubes and suspension mounts that had to be partially or entirely attached to the rifle’s barrel. Now no longer made but highly prized by collectors, these vintage high-power target scopes were bulky and better suited to the gentle environs of target ranges and woodchuck meadows than to the hard-hunting arena. But a revolution in shooting optics was in the making, and it occurred with astonishing swiftness.
BIG GETS BIGGER
Within the brief five-year span from 1950 to 1955, there was a surge in the number of 8X and 10X hunting scopes. Considering the usual pace of innovation in the shooting industry, nothing had happened this fast since the advent of smokeless powder some six decades earlier. Such revolutions are fueled by a combination of forces and factors, and so it was with the rapidly increasing availability of high-magnification hunting scopes.
One reason hunters were increasingly defying outdated conventional wisdom was the newly introduced 3–9X variable-power scope. Whereas earlier variables had scarcely been variable at all (Weaver’s 2¾–5X, for example), variables going up to 9X or 10X let shooters see their targets as they’d never seen them before. Power in optics, like politics, can be addictive, breeding desire for even more power, a fact scope makers were quick to realize.
Another driving force behind the quest for more powerful scopes was Remington’s 1950 introduction of a cute little cartridge called the .222. Unlike previous high-speed .22 centerfires that got a bum rap after being promoted as sudden-death, big-game killers (most notably the .220 Swift), the .222 was a varmint round, pure and simple. Rifles like Remington’s inexpensive M722 were chambered for the mild-mannered .222 Rem. and were a joy to shoot, giving many shooters finer accuracy than they’d ever seen before. Especially when the rifles were topped with scopes like my K-10 Weaver.
As I mentioned earlier, magnification can be addictive. For example, 10X binoculars are now pretty much the norm, whereas just a generation ago, 6X was the “recommended” power and 7½X was tops. As scope makers developed ways to pack more power into hunting scopes, the magnification continued to climb.
By the late 1970s, the old long-target scopes were made obsolete by hunting scopes with equal or even greater magnification and the advantages of a light weight, compact size and solid mounting on a rifle’s action in strong hunting rings and bases.
It would be impossible to overstate the impact high-power scopes have had on rifle shooting. Rather than replace traditional low-power hunting scopes–which they certainly have not done–they have opened up shooting possibilities that simply didn’t exist before. As I discovered when I first sighted a rifle with my K-10 Weaver, the ability to aim precisely is a vital element in rifle accuracy. This is why benchrest shooters routinely use scopes of 36, 40 and 45X and varmint hunters increasingly use variable-power scopes that reach up to 24, 32 and even 42X magnification. Flip through the pages of any current scope catalog and you’ll see the upward trend in magnification in hunting scopes, too.
But there is a price to be paid for high-power optics, and it isn’t just in dollars. Now and then we hear someone criticize the narrow field of view of big-X scopes. This is certainly true when you compare, say, a 24X varmint scope with a 4X big-game scope. But it isn’t a valid criticism, because we don’t buy powerful scopes for running shots at bounding woodchucks or zig-zagging bull’s-eyes. In fact, a wide field of view can even be a distraction when settling the crosshairs on an acorn-sized target.
A real problem with powerful scopes, however, is short depth of focus. All else being equal, the greater the magnification, the more critical the focus depth. With the 4X scope on your big-game rifle, almost everything you look at appears sharp. But with, say, a 20X scope focused at 100 yards, objects closer or farther away get blurrier as their distance from the 100-yard focus point increases.
Anyone who has experience with high-magnification scopes (10X and greater) is aware of this problem and knows that the scopes can be focused at a specific distance simply by adjusting the AO (adjustable objective) lens. A range scale on the AO lets you focus at (or very near) the desired distance. (Hint: These scales are not always precise and some scopes are made sharper and parallax-free by visual focusing.)
Even though range-focusing objective lenses make high-power rifle sights practical, they present a problem when you’re taking shots at targets at differing ranges. There’s no better example of this than a hot prairie dog shoot. Within the space of a few minutes, you might make several shots alternating from 50 to 400 yards or more. Refocusing the AO for each shot slows down the action when you’re trying to burn to a rifle’s barrel, so many shooters focus at an all purpose distance and leave it there.
For many years my practice was to set the AO at 200 yards, a varmint-shooting range that provides a reasonably sharp sight picture at longer distances with negligible parallax. At closer ranges, however, the aiming situation gets hairy–or rather, fuzzy–and the tiny targets can get so blurry as to be unrecognizable.
As a rule, varmints at close quarters don’t wait around to see what will happen next, so there’s no time to fiddle with refocusing. That’s why the guys I shoot with simply aim at the blurry target. Hits are cheered as “fuzzying ’em off,” because of the fuzzy, out-of-focus sight picture. We cheer all the more if only the prairie dog’s head was peeking out of a hole.
THE SIDE-FOCUS REVOLUTION
The cheering came to an end a few years back, however, when I showed up at our annual hunt with a prototype of Leupold’s 16X Mark 4 scope. Rather than the usual AO focusing of high-X scopes, the Mark 4 has a focusing knob conveniently located on the left side of the tube. A quick, fractional turn brings the sight picture into sharp focus.
On that first adventure with a side-focusing scope, one of my shooting pals commented that it “dialed” it in on prairie dogs, and the phrase “dial-a-dog” was born. It became our nickname for side-focusing scopes.
Leupold’s high-magnification Competition series scope, which quickly came to dominate benchrest competition, has side focusing. The awesome Nightforce 12–42X, a favorite in 1,000-yard shooting competitions, has it as well. Most scope makers now offer at least one model with the side-focus feature, and some offer several models. There will be a lot more as shooters and hunters learn how fast and convenient they are to use.
BIG BELL SOLUTION A new way to mount scopes lower
One continuing trend in riflescopes has been ever larger objective lenses. In simple terms, the more light going in, the brighter the viewed image.
But there are problems along with the advantages. Chief among these is the need for the large-objective scopes to be mounted higher than you would an ordinary scope so the oversize lens bell can clear the barrel. This means the shooter must hold his head higher, even possibly losing cheek contact with the rifle’s comb altogether, and that can cause accuracy problems.
Leupold’s solution to this dilemma is its newly announced VX-L 4.5–14X scope, in which the 50mm front lens and bell have a curved notch cut in the bottom so the objective straddles the barrel and can be mounted lower. It will be interesting to see not only how well shooters take to this innovation, but also how soon other makers try to copy it. The latter won’t be easy.
SIDE FOCUS A quick way to beat parallax
My favorite varmint rifles have the bolt handle and loading port on the left side, even though I shoot from the right shoulder. This way I can load and operate the bolt at the same time my right hand is moving the rifle to the next target.
The beauty of the parallax focusing knob, like the one on this Zeiss 6–24X Diavari scope, is that with my left hand already close to the port side focusing knob, it takes only a moment to bring the target into sharp focus, even as I’m applying pressure to the trigger. You literally never have to take your face off the stock. It’s incredible how quickly you can acquire targets and get them into crisp focus this way, which means you’re able to burn a whole lot more powder in a day than ever before.
Of course, side-focusing scopes aren’t just for varmint hunting. The quick-focusing feature is now favored for military and police tactical operations, and side-focusing scopes are also widely used by ultraprecise target shooters.
For more shooting information, go to outdoorlife.com/shooting
Wear a Bib
A good day in the prairie-dog field is measured by the amount of brass you have to shovel out of the truck at sundown.
To keep ammo handy, I use an oldstyle carpenter’s bib. Fill it with cartridges instead of nails. Ammo is always at your fingertips for loading and you never have to take your face off the stock.