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Preview – Jack of All Trade – Low Power Variable Scopes

Photography by Henry Z. De Kuyper and Jorge Nuñez

Spotting Some of the Best Low-Power Variable Scopes

When it comes to optics, can you really have your cake and eat it too? In recent years, low-power variable scopes have really come of age. These jack-of-all-trades optics are traditional riflescopes that start at 1x (no magnification) and zoom up to 4x, 6x, or more. At zero magnification, with a suitable reticle and/or good illumination, they can perform nearly as well as red-dot optics to engage close- and medium-range targets. With the twist of a wrist, you can dial them up to properly identify targets, make precise shots, or engage targets at distance.

We’ve assembled a collection of impressive optics that are pushing the boundaries, ranging from 1x to 6x, 8x, and even 10x. There’s a wealth of information offered by scope manufacturers, but which bits of it do you really need? We’ve compiled a handy guide in the following pages to give all the data required to make an informed decision if you’re in the market for a workhorse piece of glass.

Reticle 101
A few considerations before you slap down your plastic: The reticle in a low-power variable scope is very important; you need to find a good match between the reticle design and your applications. A reticle is essentially a design (crosshairs, posts, lines, dots, etc.) viewed through the scope that is superimposed over the target. The shooter can utilize the visual references as aiming points for certain conditions (i.e. for targets at 200, 300, or 400 yards, to compensate for 10-mph crosswinds, etc.) or to estimate distance and size.

There are two types of reticles in scopes with variable magnification — first and second focal plane. First focal plane (FFP) reticles appear to increase or decrease in size as you zoom up or down, staying the same relative to the target. As a result, the references they provide through the glass will remain constant, so if there is an aiming point in the reticle for a 400-yard target, you can use it regardless of whether you’re at 3x, 4x, or 6x. Second focal plane (SFP) reticles appear to remain the same size regardless of the zoom setting. Therefore, it actually changes relative to the target as you adjust magnification. We’ve seen shooters at matches burn half a magazine on a long-range target only to realize that they were missing because they hadn’t dialed all the way up, where their SFP reticle was calibrated. On the other hand, since FFP reticles appear to shrink and enlarge, at 1x the elements in the reticle can appear miniscule and difficult to employ — it’s a real challenge to balance all these concerns in reticle design.

So you need to think carefully about your needs. Chances are, you’ll be running this glass on top of an AR-15 or similar rifle. Due to the ballistic limitations of the .223 cartridge, most of us probably aren’t going to be ranging targets in the reticle and then dialing up to take that 1,000-yard shot — let’s be realistic here, 600 yards is about as far as we’re likely to push it. In that case, the decision between first and second focal plane becomes much more nuanced. Whereas on a precision rifle, we’re almost always going to pick FFP, there’s usually a tradeoff at lower magnification, which at CQB distances could mean losing sight of the reticle unless it’s big, bold, and preferably illuminated.

Make & Model: Bushnell SMRS 1-8.5 ET
Magnification: 1-8.5x
Illuminated Reticle: Y
Brightness on Highest Setting: 9.5
Focal Plane: FFP (BTR-2 reticle)
FOV on lowest power: 105 feet
Tube Diameter: 34mm
Length: 10.47 inches
Weight: 25.9 ounces
MSRP: $2,149

Pros: Extremely solid feeling scope with great quality glass. The 34mm tube gives plenty of adjustment if you want to dial up to engage far targets. Locking exposed turrets. Convenient illumination dial that alternates between each brightness level and an off setting, so it is easy to turn off and on to your desired setting. Has day and night settings.

Cons: FFP reticle is hard to pick up at 1x and not quite big or bright enough to use for hosing. Illumination dial prone to getting bumped on and running down battery. Some found the eye box to be rather unforgiving.

Make & Model: GRSC CRS-16
Magnification: 1-6x
Illuminated Reticle: Y
Brightness on Highest Setting: 9
Focal Plane: FFP
FOV on lowest power: 95 feet
Tube Diameter: 30mm
Length: 10.16 inches
Weight: 18.8 ounces
MSRP: $1,025

Pros: One of the less expensive scopes in this guide, it offers decent value for the money. Capped turrets, convenient alternating on/off illumination dial. Reticle design is calibrated for 5.56mm and intended specifically for combat applications, featuring holdovers, holdoffs, and references to quickly range based on head size or shoulder width.

Cons: FFP reticle is awfully small for use at 1x without daylight-visible illumination. Thick horseshoe is meant to mitigate this, but also obscures a lot of target area at higher magnification.

Make & Model: Trijicon VCOG 1-6
Magnification: 1-6x
Illuminated Reticle: Y
Brightness on Highest Setting: 10
Focal Plane: FFP (Circle/Mil-Scale reticle)
FOV on lowest power: 95 feet
Tube Diameter: 30mm
Length: 10.2 inches
Weight: 28.1 ounces (including mount)
MSRP: $2,270

Pros: Looking like the love child of the SWFA 1-6 and an ACOG, Trijicon’s newest scope seems to have all the durability of their mil-spec fixed power units. Glass is excellent and reticle works well for a FFP, with the heavy center circle moving to the perimeter of the target area on high power. Reticle is calibrated for 5.56mm with holdovers to 600 meters. Capped turrets. Unlike the other scopes featured that use a coin cell to power their illuminated reticles, the VCOG uses a AA battery, which should last considerably longer.

Cons: Note — this was the very first press sample to be released, so any problems may have been addressed in production units. Scope changed focus between high and low power settings. Diopter ring easily bumped while zooming, illumination not quite bright enough.

Make & Model: Vortex Razor Gen II 1-6
Magnification: 1-6x
Illuminated Reticle: Y
Brightness on Highest Setting: 10
Focal Plane: SFP
FOV on lowest power: 115 feet
Tube Diameter: 30mm
Length: 10.1 inches
Weight: 25.2 ounces
MSRP: $1,900

Pros: Terrific glass for the money, capped turrets, convenient alternating on/off illumination dial. Useful, uncluttered reticle with illuminated center dot and holdovers calibrated for 5.56mm. The legendary Jerry Miculek assisted in its design. ’Nuff said.

Cons: It’s a freakin’ tank — almost 10 ounces heavier than the Swarovski. Would like illumination to be a little brighter.

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