by Joe Arterburn


Before we can decide which power of riflescope to buy, let’s make sure we’re on the same page about what “power” means when talking scopes.

The “power” of a riflescope (or binocular, for that matter) refers to its magnification ability, according to Matt Rice, Marketing Manager at Bushnell.. For instance, taking a riflescope listed as 3-9x40, a popular hunting configuration, the first number indicates the scope has a minimum of 3 power, or 3x, magnification, meaning the image you see appears three times closer than how it appears to your eyes, Rice said. The “9” is the highest power, indicating you will see the image nine times closer than with the naked eye. Our example is 3-9, which indicates a variable power scope, meaning you can also adjust to any magnification level between 4x, 5x, 6x, 7x, and 8x. The final number, 40, designates the diameter in millimeters of the objective lens, the larger, forward lens of the scope.

Magnification will have an impact on the size and weight of the scope, Rice said, as well as how high it must be mounted on your rifle. For instance, a 3-9x40 scope will be smaller than a 5-20x44 scope. “This is important as you don’t want to over-glass a rifle by adding a scope that won’t fit, or by adding a scope that doesn’t allow you to see the distance needed at closer or farther ranges,” Rice said.

For someone hunting from a stand 25 yards from a feeder, a 3-9x40 will be a better option than a higher power optic, he said. “Not only will it allow you to see the area around the deer on a lower power, but it will also keep the deer in better focus and provide better tracking as the animal moves,” he said.


But what about farther distances?

“Say you are hunting over a food plot, where deer might enter the area anywhere from 75 to 300 yards away,” Rice said. “Some hunters might feel limited with a lower power scope. Instead, they will pick a scope with a higher magnification so that not only will they be able to make out the details on the deer more easily, but they will also feel more comfortable with how the deer looks when the crosshairs come over it.”

Another question for Rice: should the caliber of my rifle affect the choice of riflescope? Yes, he said.

“It is important to consider the caliber of the rifle you will be using,” he said. For a rifle that has limited range, say a .22LR, a lighter scope with less magnification might be ideal versus a rifle chambered in a longer-range caliber, like the 6.5 Creedmoor.

Another point to consider is whether it’s a first- or second-focal plane scope. Among other differences, in a first-focal plane scope, the reticle, the crosshairs, enlarge as you turn up the scope’s magnification, which could possibly block what you see in the scope, Rice said. In second-focal plane scopes, the reticle size does not change.

The alternative to variable-power scopes are fixed-power scopes, which are just that, set at a single fixed power. These scopes, though without the versatility of adjusting magnification, have their advantages.

For one, fixed-power scopes are generally priced lower, Rice said. “This is mainly because there are less moving parts and less engineering and materials.”

With fewer parts, they are also generally lighter and make for easy use, he said. “You will commonly see these on straight-wall cartridge rifles or rifles used to stalk dangerous game, when shots might come fast,” Rice said. “You don’t want to be caught messing with a scope’s magnification when it matters most.”

Fixed-power scopes generally come in lower magnification, so for those who intend to shoot a known distance, it can be simpler to use and provide a larger field of view around the target, he said.