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Rifle scope mounted on an AR22 Rifle

How to Choose the Right Optics Magnification

When you’re looking for a precision sight or scope for your firearms, understanding optics magnification can help you make sure you’re buying the right tool for your shooting needs. Precision optics can help you acquire targets faster, improve accuracy, and extend your effective range in the field by letting you place tight groups farther out than you can with your weapon’s iron sights and the naked eye. For longer ranges, that means using a scope magnification that brings the action closer to you. Choosing too much or too little magnification, however, can mean thrown shots, wasted money, and even creating dangerous situations for others in the area.

Reach Out and Touch Something

Magnification is an optics term that can refer to both the process of enlarging the image of an object downrange and a measure of that enlargement. The process is accomplished by using a curved lens to alter the image that’s available to the naked eye, enlarging the central part of your sight window. The measurement of scope magnification is usually denoted by a number followed by x to represent the amount by witched this area’s apparent size is multiplied. For example, 3x precision optics will make a target that sits 300 yards downfield seem as large as it would be to look at it with the naked eye 100 yards away.

To compound your base optics magnification, some scopes may have a second curved lens that allows you to zoom in on the target at a set ratio, effectively creating variable scope magnification. This creates a hyphenated magnification number, such as 3-9x. In this example, an object 300 yards away will appear as large as an object 100 yards away, but that image can then be zoomed at a 3:1 ratio to appear only 100 feet away. This allows both a wider field of view for target acquisition and a larger overall scope magnification level for precision shot placement.

The final number you’ll see on most scope descriptions is the diameter of the front lens of your scope in millimeters. Scopes transmit light entering the front, muzzle end of the scope and alter it before projecting it through the eye-piece. In the process, light is lost to some extent by even the best scopes, so this larger front lens in precision optics helps keep the image your eye receives from being too dark or muddied to use effectively. This may look something like 3-9×40, which would signify a scope with a base 3x magnification, a 3:1 variable magnification to zoom in on targets, and a 40mm front objective lens to take in as much light as possible.

The Drawbacks of Magnification

We’ve talked before about how optics with magnification can be incredibly useful for precision shooting or when shooting over long distances, but that magnification comes at a price, literally and figuratively.

  • Complexity – The more lenses, magnification, and features you add to precision optics, the greater the chance something will go wrong. From lenses falling out of alignment to damaged barrels allowing condensation-causing humidity between the lenses, scopes can quickly become delicate accessories that can stray from true, and a slight deviation from true at 100 yards can be wildly catastrophic when stretched out to 600-yards with a high-powered rifle. Care must be taken to learn how to use and protect your optics to avoid stray shots or damage that renders your scope an expensive paperweight.
  • Cost – As magnification and precision increase, the price often joins them. Some of these price increases are unavoidable–higher magnification requires increased precision when grinding optics, and variable-rate scope magnification has more moving parts and materials that require greater engineering and development. Other costs, like paying for a “brand” or buying more scope than you actually need, are completely avoidable.
  • Blind Spots – If the center of the down-range image is enlarged to fill your field of vision through the scope, what happens to the rest of the image? It’s blocked from view. This can be dangerous when other hunters may be in the area, during dynamic tactical situations, or just when shooting on a non-private range with others around. It’s your responsibility to be aware of the blindspots created by your optics magnification and clear them prior to taking a shot. Knowing your target, as well as what’s behind and around it, is a basic tenet of shooting safety.

How Much Scope Magnification Do You Need?

Gideon Optics sight mounted on a firearm

The long answer is that you need as much as required to improve precision for the majority of your gun’s intended use and as little as possible for reliable accuracy. The truth is that precision optics are largely dependent on personal preference, your own accuracy, and the healthy functioning of your eyes. We’ve put together a few broad guidelines to get you started, but you should also consider your individual situation when researching your options.

Short Self-Defense Range 

When operating at this close of range, target acquisition is vital. These sights usually feature a 1x, “what you see is what you get” magnification that gives you a precise aiming point but offers no magnification to minimize the field of vision loss. Reflex optics are a great example of these sights, and even scopes made for hunting with handguns often use no more than a 2x magnification.

Short-to-Mid Tactical Range 

Short to mid-range engagement ranges, like those frequently faced by law enforcement officers, tactical sport shooters, and those needing a “ranch rifle,” work well with magnifications from 3x to 5x. These low-powered scopes still offer a wide field of vision but allow for more precise aiming out to 300 yards with rifles like the AR-15 and carbines chambered in both rifle and pistol calibers.

Mid-Range Hunting 

If you’re heading out to hunt whitetail, wild pigs, and other mid-size game, variable scopes with a 3-9x or 4-12x offer you better baseline magnification and a strong 3:1 zoom that lets you really dial in on your quarry.

Long-Range Shooting 

Longer ranges require more precise lenses for optics magnification and increased variable ratios. It’s not uncommon to see variable scope magnifications starting at 4x or 6x with zoom ratios of 6:1 or more. These high magnification levels are frequently paired with larger objective lenses larger than 40mm to allow in as much light as possible for transmission and refinement.

Special Circumstances

Varmint and Small Game Hunting 

While not usually a long-range sport, the small, sometimes fast-moving targets still requires more magnification for precise shot placement. Optics magnifications start at 4x, with some hunters preferring scopes magnification in the range of 6-18x or 8-24x to help you fill a stew pot or tackle a critter problem.

Failing Eyesight 

As we age, our eyes tend to suffer. This can lead to a need for higher magnification than younger hunters may prefer. Additionally, pupils dilate yes as age advances, making it more difficult to operate with less light or with large disparities between natural light and that transmitted through the scope. This can be mitigated by opting for a larger objective lens that allows more light transmission.

Gideon Optics Omega Red Dot Sight

Secondary Precision Optics

If you have a multi-use weapon, you may not be comfortable with only low-magnification or high-magnification optics. Many weapons allow for the mounting of a 45-degree offset secondary sight, often a reflex sight like the ALPHA or OMEGA, for close-range defensive shooting without compromising your mid-range sighted optics.

Be Ready to Put Rounds on Target

We’re proud to offer precision optics that give you unrivaled performance without breaking the bank. They’re engineered with the features you need, built for the real world, and ready for mounting on your firearms. Don’t forget to sign up for our newsletter to get the latest news and deals in your inbox. Order your sights and scopes from Gideon Optics today.

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