Buying a scope for a hunting rifle is pretty straightforward: determine the terrain you will be hunting in, and the distance that you typically take your shot at, and buy a scope of suitable magnification.
Hunting prairie dogs across an uncluttered plain calls out for very high magnification. Hunting whitetail in the Northeast probably means dense forest among the hills, and the shots that present themselves to a hunter will be much closer; less magnification is better for that. Variable magnification scopes give hunters extra versatility, but even with modern technology there are real and practical limits to what a scope can do. Shooting in low light (when hunting coyotes, for instance) calls out for an illuminated reticle, which is a more common feature in the last 10 years.
A scope for combat has different requirements, because there are so many different kinds of combat.
The 24/7 nature of combat calls for an illuminated reticle or a red-dot reticle; compatibility with night-vision equipment is a feature that civilian scopes don’t need. A sniper needs pretty high magnification, but a sniper rifle is generally employed at long range only and there are plenty of scopes which can meet that need. Door-to-door urban combat requires maximum situational awareness and speed, which usually means a non-magnifying scope to prevent tunnel-vision. But most combat takes place in between those two extremes, and a modest amount of magnification can be very advantageous.
The challenge is to provide soldiers with a scope that will meet the needs of as many combat situations as possible, to maximize their lethality and their survivability. A scope that can offer a range of magnifications from 1x to 5x/6x would allow for maximum flexibility.
Up until very recently, a true 1x (zero-magnification) variable scope was not possible. The short end was never a true 1x. While useful, it still confused the shooters eyes when shooting with both eyes open. Modern technology now makes it possible to build a variable scope with a true 1x at the low end of the magnification range.
Alas, such capability is not cheap.
On the low end, we have traditional scopes like Hi-Lux’s Leatherwood CMR:
You get 1-4x variable magnification, and an illuminated reticle, for about $350. I have one of these and it’s bright & clear; its pretty close to 1x at the short end. The only drawback is that (like with every other scope on the market) you need to change the magnification by hand.
From there the prices jump. Leupold makes a VX-R 1.25x-4x variable for about $600. While not a true 1x, it is very high quality. And they have 2 other models which deliver even more performance:
The Mark 4 CQ/T is a 1-3x variable with built-in rails and numerous ergonomic refinements to make it fast to use. About $1100. And then there is the king of versatility:
The Mark 6 is a compact 1-6x variable with illuminated reticle. It offers true 1x/zero-magnification at the low end, and very handy 6x on the high end if maximum precision is needed. This will set you back about $2200.
Trijicon has a similar scope, their 1-6x VCOG:
Tough as nails, and with a pricetag to match: about $2400.
What all of those scopes have in common is the need to turn a dial on the eyepiece to change magnification. In combat, that brief delay might make a person miss an opportunity or distract them (with potentially deadly consequences).
ELCAN (Ernst Leitz, CANada) offers a different design:
The SpecterDR offers 1x and 4x magnification, but nothing in between. All the user has to do is throw the switch on the side to change power; the eye relief stays the same. The illuminated reticle is selectable between crosshairs and a dot. And there’s a backup iron sight built into the top of the unit. It will cost you about $2200, but the speed of changing magnification on the SpecterDR is much faster than turning a dial. Yet it still requires you to take your hand off the gun to make the change.
Someday that may be unnecessary. Sandia National Laboratory has built a prototype scope called the RAZAR that lets users change the scope magnification electronically, while keeping their hands on the gun. The prototype is built around a Leupold HAMR scope.
Instead of moving optical elements back and forth to change magnification like a traditional scope, the RAZAR uses flexible liquid-filled lenses with motors attached to them that can change the lens’ curvature to affect the magnification. A set of 2 AA batteries can make 10,000 focus changes, and if the batteries die the scope is still useable, just fixed at one magnification. The best part is that, as you can see in the picture, the user’s thumb activates the changes in magnification without having to take a hand off the gun.
Liquid lenses are getting more attention from optics manufacturers, and with benefits like this, it is easy to understand why.
This is new technology. There are still questions about reliability and longevity. But as those questions are answered, shooters can expect to see even more capable scopes than they have today.
In the meantime, save your pennies, and buy the best gear that you can afford.
Here is an article with some more affordable options: