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What is the Rule for Rifle Scope Magnification vs Distance?

The magnification level of your scope plays a pivotal role when you’re shooting. Having the right level of magnification can make your target clearer, but if the magnification level of your scope is too high or low, you can completely miss your target. We’re here to help you determine the optimal level of rifle scope magnification vs distance.

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What is Magnification?

There’s a generally accepted rule of thumb that suggests that the minimum level of magnification that gives you a clear view of your target is the best level of magnification. However, this rule doesn’t take into account the following factors:

  • Whether you’re short or long-range shooting
  • Whether your target is still or moving

Shooting a Moving Target

You may have been impressed by scopes that boast magnification up to 30X. For the majority of hunting situations, the maximum magnification you are likely to use is 10X. Most hunting usually tops out at distances of around 300 yards. – Find the best hunting scopes.

A higher magnification usually results in a smaller field of view. That makes target acquisition harder or even impossible. There are a number of hunters that use fixed scopes which typically have a wider field of view compared to variable rifle scopes. – Should you pick a fixed or variable scope for hunting?

Apart from considering the level of magnification (what are the magnification power needs for an AR-15?), you also need to take into the lighting and ensure that your field of view is large enough to accommodate a moving target and any other targets present.

This is why the lower the level of magnification, the faster you can lock in on your target. A magnification level of around 4x or a maximum of 6x is ideal.

If you’re long-range shooting with distances up to around a thousand yards (here are the reviews of the best one thousand yard scopes), a magnification level of 10X can be sufficient. That is assuming that the target is not moving (fast) and large enough to get a good image of it.

However, if you’re hunting smaller, faster-moving targets, you will require a higher level of magnification. In this case, even at a distance of around 500 yards or a little more, a magnification level of 10X is usually suitable.

Shooting a Still Target

Unlike hunting, target shooting requires a high magnification level. This is where those scopes with magnification levels up to 18x and 30x come into play.

In this case, you don’t really require a large field of view because your target isn’t on the move and you don’t have the opportunity of spotting a new target through your objective lens. You can use a spotting scope to help aim and then a high magnification on your scope does have its advantages.

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Problems with High Levels of Magnification

Apart from reducing your field of view, high levels of magnification have other drawbacks as well.

Poor Aim

High magnification reduces the level of light transmission through your scope lens. This is where it gets a little technical.

If you’re in a situation where you need to take a shot at a distance of around a thousand yards or more, you have to have a high magnification level. At the same time, you don’t want to compromise on the brightness of your view. In this case, you most likely want to look at a scope with a larger objective lens.

Due to a high level of magnification, the slightest movement of your target will seem huge. This can throw off your aim and you may be likely to miss your shot.

Higher Price

If you’re looking for a scope with a high magnification level and a sharp quality image, it’s likely to be expensive. Before you know it, you might end up spending nearly USD 1,000 if not more on just the scope.

And this is for scopes with a magnification of around 30X. If you aim for something on the top-end, such as 70X or more, you’re not likely to find a good scope for anything less than USD 2,000. For nearly everyone, a maximum magnification of 25x to 30x will be more than sufficient, and going any higher is not necessary.

The Scope is Heavier

The higher the level of magnification, the heavier your scope will be. If you’re in high-pressure situations, it can be difficult to lug around such a heavy scope.

Mirage Distortion May Occur

Since your image is so magnified, the slightest emission of heat from your rifle barrel or the heat of the environment can distort your view or make it look like your target is moving. It can even cause you to see double making it hard for you to distinguish the actual target from the moving one. Even a slight breeze can cause you to completely miss your target.

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High Magnification Doesn’t Mean Good Quality

Just because a scope offers high magnification doesn’t mean it’s a premium scope. You can have scopes with smaller magnification ranges such as 3-9X which offer a clearer, brighter image.

The level of rifle scope magnification doesn’t determine the quality of your optic or whether it’s a good fit for rifle scope magnification vs distance. Different magnification levels are suitable for different types of shooting.

Are Variable Scopes a Better Option?

Fixed power scopes are easy to use because you don’t have to adjust the magnification yourself. But they’re restricting because the level of magnification they provide is only suitable for specific uses such as only short-range or only long-range shooting.

Some people require a more multi-purpose scope. If you’re in a situation where you’re using a high-powered scope and suddenly need to reduce the magnification, you won’t suddenly sit down and start switching scopes.

Especially when you’re out on the hunt or in other high-pressure situations, you don’t have the luxury of time to make the switch and replace your scope on your hunting rifle. In such cases, variable scopes are more useful.

With variable power scopes, you can adjust the level of magnification almost immediately based on your requirements so that you never miss your target.

Why Variable Scopes Aren’t Always Preferred

Even though variable power optics sound like the ideal optic because of how versatile they are, there are a number of reasons why they aren’t as popular as fixed power optics.

Compromised Image Quality

The image quality and sharpness are not as good in variable power scopes as it is in fixed ones. There are usually more lenses involved to get a variable magnification which negatively impacts the image quality.

Higher Price

The high range of magnification that the variable scope offers comes at a price. Variable scopes are generally more expensive than fixed scopes.

Complicated to Use and Maintain

Variable scopes tend to be a bit more fragile and difficult to use. Especially for novices, it can be complicated how to figure out the right level of magnification on their own.

They do contain a lot more mechanics and optics within the scope which can get misaligned or break over time. A fixed optic doesn’t require many of these components.

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Does Eyesight Impact the Level of Magnification?

Your preference for low or high magnification is not just dependant on your shooting range. People who are young and have good eyesight might be alright with lower magnification. As you age and your eye sight gets weaker, a higher magnification level will give you a better aim.

Choosing Your Scope

When it’s finally time to purchase your scope, there will be a number of factors that you will need to take into consideration:

  • The type of shooting– whether it’s short-range in an open space, or hunting in tough conditions (like forests with thick trees). Low power optics such as 4X and 6X ones allow for quicker targeting and shooting. High power scopes such as 18X ones offer a clearer image, but they can be quite bulky and difficult to use, especially in situations where you can’t set up a support stand.
    Generally, for short-range shooting, a maximum magnification level of 10X is ideal. If you’re using a scope with a magnification greater than 10X you will most likely need some sort of support like a bipod.
  • Lens SizeScope lenses with a bigger diameter are likely to support higher levels of magnification. Large lenses also provide a sharper image with better light transmission. However, because of its size, it is also heavier and can throw your rifle off balance. In the worst-case scenario, this can tip your rifle over and potentially damage your scope lens.

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Are Iron Sights a Good Replacement?

For short-range shooting, some shooters prefer to use iron sights (What Are Iron Sights? How to Use Iron Sights and Shoot with them?) instead of a scope. These sights tend to be cheaper and lighter and also help you in locking your target. They’re also extremely durable which is why a lot of shooters combine their red dot sight in a co-witness set up with an iron sight. However, they can’t be treated as an alternative to rifle scopes because they lack some important features.

They don’t have any light transmission and in situations with poor lighting, you won’t be able to aim properly. Iron sights also do not offer magnification and therefore are pointless for long-range shooting. They are preferable for distances up to around 200 yards and at most if you’re willing to compromise then around 300 yards. – Here are the best scopes for 200 yards!

Shooters may keep iron sights for short-distance shooting because they are easy to carry and generally do not cost more than around USD 200. However, they will still also have a scope as their main tool for targeting.

The Final Decision on Rifle Scope Magnification vs Distance

Whatever type of shooting you’re involved in, the minimum magnification your scope will offer (whether fixed or variable) is 1x. From here, it just goes higher based on your personal preference.

Many long-range shooters also prefer lower magnification scopes such as 3-9x ones because they provide a bigger field of view. Going with a higher scope magnification typically will raise the cost of the scope while oftentimes also negatively impacting the image quality.

Whether you decide to opt for a 4-12x optic or scopes with a magnification of 40x and more make sure to do your research so that the scope you end up with is comfortable to use when you’re shooting.

Aaron Bennett