By Carolee Anita Boyles,
Back in the day (not so long ago), when you purchased a riflescope or a pistol scope for target shooting or hunting, you had a choice of simple crosshairs or a red dot. They weren’t hard to understand or to use; what you saw was what you got. Not so today. With the wide range of scopes out there—some of them very expensive—shooters often can’t figure out what all the lines and dots are supposed to mean and do.
Recently, Women & Guns reached out to Tim Tanker, product manager of riflescopes at Bushnell Outdoor Products, to gain a better understanding of what we see when we look through one of today’s scopes. Tanker gave us an overview of the most common reticle types that shooters are seeing these days, and how they work.
Keep in mind that you may see other reticle types when you go shopping for a new scope. You can bet, however, that whatever you see will be similar in form and function to one of the reticles you see here.
“There are many ways to get on target,” Tanker said, “from the simplest crosshair where we started to the complex.”
In the early days of riflescopes, Tanker said, the crosshairs really were just that—crossed hairs.
“They had stretched horsehair to make an aiming point,” he said. “They were quite literally crosshairs.”
Today, Tanker said, there are two basic kinds of reticles: thin metal wire that looks very much like the original crosshairs, and complex reticle shapes that are etched with a laser on glass.
“Then, if they’re going to be illuminated, they’re filled in with some type of luminescent paint,” he said. “When that paint is hit with an LED that’s inside the scope, it’s going to glow and be very easy to see in low light conditions. So we’ve come from crossed hairs to glass that’s etched in a computer-controlled etching machine.”
“It’s called by several different names, including multi-X or duplex,” Tanker said. “This type of reticle has heavy lines that intersect in the middle, with finer aiming lines. The heavier lines allow the eye to find the center of the target easily, and the fine lines give the shooter a precise aiming point. Customers buy more scopes with these reticles than any other type.”
Some duplex reticles, such as the Leupold Dot and Leupold Target Dot, have tiny dots at the point of intersection of the crosshairs to make aiming easier. Simmons calls its version the Truplex Reticle. Duplex reticles work with any caliber and load, on rimfire or centerfire, in riflescopes and pistol scopes, and they’re easy to understand and use.
“On the other hand, their effectiveness for long range is limited, and in low light they get hard to see,” Tanker said. “The rule of thumb is that you set your gun 2 inches high at 100 yards.” From there, you’ll use the ballistics chart printed on the ammunition box or the manufacturer’s website, and your estimate of the distance to the target, to compensate for bullet drop.
Bullet Drop-Compensating Reticles
In recent years, as technology has advanced and shooters have demanded better accuracy over longer distances, optics manufacturers have developed Bullet Drop Compensating (BDC) reticles to help shooters compensate for both bullet drop and windage.
“All of these next generation reticles have one thing in common,” Tanker said. “They give us holdover points to help us compensate for range.”
One such reticle looks like a duplex reticle, but has horizontal bars or dots at increasing distances under the crosshair. Bushnell’s version of this type is the DOA 600 with bars; Redfield’s Revolution reticle uses dots.
“On the DOA 600, each one of the bars represents a 100 yard increment,” Tanker said. “The shooter zeros the gun at 100 yards and then holds over the target on the correct dot to compensate for distance. If the shooters holds on dot number 3 at a 300 yard target, the shot should be successful. This makes for a lot less guessing than the duplex reticle.” Almost every riflescope manufacturer has some version of this, each one a little different.
“Everybody has their own take on what this reticle shape looks like, or what the dots or bars look like,” Tanker said. “But basically, they all give you a calibrated holdover point for a given load at a given range.”
All of that said, there’s a caveat to this. Not every bullet and every load behaves the same way, and these 100-yard increments are more accurate for some loads than for others. For instance, Bushnell says that its DOA 600 is accurate for 11 loads, including .223 Win 55-grain, .243 Win 95-grain, .25-06 Rem 115-grain, .270 WSM 15- grain, and .30-06 Springfield 150-grain.
“In the owner’s manual for a DOA 600, it lists the particular calibers and bullet weights for which the holdover points are accurate,” Tanker said. “This is not ‘one size fits all.’ Shooters need to realize that for this to work, they either need to shoot ammunition that’s in the chart from the manufacturer, or figure out on their own where their point of impact is going to be. That’s one of the limitations of BDC reticles.”
This is where ballistic tables come into play. By comparing the tables of the ammunition you’re shooting to that of loads that the manufacturer knows are accurate for a particular BDC reticle, you can work up your own numbers for what those holdover points should be.
“The other thing that’s important about these reticles is that normally you’re going to have to set your scope to its highest power for it to be accurate to its calibration,” Tanker said. “For example, if you’re shooting a 3-9x 40mm riflescope, you’ll need to set it at 9 power in order for the bullet drop to be accurate. For long range shooting they’re a pretty good option, although sometimes in low light conditions it may be a little hard to see the drop points on a non-illuminated scope. But overall, they’re a good aid to the shooter who wants to shoot at extended ranges. The same technology works for slug guns and for crossbows and arrows. Manufacturers make different models for different applications.”
When you start looking at all this new optics technology, though, the whole thing can get a bit complicated.
“Most scopes that are sold in the United States are what we call ‘second focal plane’ scopes,” Tanker said. “What that means is that when you are looking at the reticle and a target image, as you turn the power from 3 to 9, the reticle is going to stay the same size but the target image that you’re looking at is going to get bigger as you increase the magnification.”
First Focal Plane Reticles
A few mil-based reticles, however, are first focal plane reticles. Although many of these are tactical scopes, that “mil” abbreviation does not mean military. Rather, it’s an abbreviation for “milliradian.”
With these first focal plane reticles, the image behaves differently.
“As you look at that target image, the reticle on 3 power is very small, and as you increase the power, the reticle grows in size with the target image,” Tanker said. “With a first focal plane design, you don’t need to be on a particular power for the reticle to work; it works on whatever power you’re on.” When you purchase a new plane scope, the box should tell you whether it’s first focal plane or second focal plane, or you can look through the scope and turn the magnification ring to see how the image behaves.
“The mil-based first focal plane reticles have a lot going on in them,” Tanker said. “They allow us to compensate in the reticle for shots out to 1000 yards. These reticles were developed for snipers and for long range competition shooters. More shooters have gotten interested in long range shooting events, so they’re finding the value in utilizing reticles like these.”
Although these reticles may look confusing, Tanker said, once you start to understand them they’re not as intimidating as they seem.
“The cool thing about these reticles is that they’re not caliber specific,” he said. “Most of the time we’re going to put them into a first focal plane scope, and since they’re not magnification specific, they’ll work on any magnification. Once you learn how to use them, it’s pretty easy to hit your target on the first shot if you have all your ballistic information correct. That’s what really makes these scopes effective for shooters who are trying to shoot long range.”
Manufacturers have come up with a number of versions of these mil-based reticles, but they all work on the same concept. Some are illuminated for low light conditions, and some of those have little rheostats on them to control the amount of illumination so you can use them when you’re hunting right at dusk. All of them provide shooters with the ability to compensate for both elevation and wind.
Here, again, ballistic information is important. When you understand your load and how it performs, you can use the marks on the reticle to put your bullet exactly where you want it, even at a long distance and with a crosswind.
For example, look at the first image of the mil-based reticle.This image shows Bushnell’s G2 reticle, along with the ballistic chart for Federal’s P3006P 150-grain Ballistic Tip. The distance to the target is 400 yards, and there is no crosswind. Look at the ballistic chart, and see that for a 400 yard target, the elevation is 1.92.
“All you have to do is raise your reticle to the point where it’s 2 mils, because it shows that for this load the correction is 1.92 mils,” Tanker said. “We’re going to hold where the red dot is on the image.”
If there’s a crosswind, you use the same principle. In the second image of Bushnell’s G2 reticle (this page), the shooter has selected a 600 yard target, and there’s a 10 mph breeze from the left.
“Now we have to move the reticle into the wind to compensate,” Tanker said. “We’re still going to hold over, but we also have to hold off because the wind is pulling the bullet off course. In this example, you’re going to hold roughly 4 mils down, and roughly 1.4 mils into the wind.”
One more note about these mil-based reticles: unlike more traditional scopes, the turrets and dials are elevated, and thus, exposed. That means you can adjust the dial instead of holding over and off. If you saw the movie “American Sniper,” you saw actor Bradley Cooper, playing Chris Kyle, adjust his scope in just this way.
“You can use your dials to make the correction, and just hold right in the center of the reticle,” Tanker said. “That’s the option you have with this kind of scope.”
Regardless of what kind of shooting you do, you can find the right scope with the right reticle. With three levels of complexity available, you can choose from simple crosshairs to a sophisticated front focal plane reticle that will be more accurate than you are.