RIFLE SCOPE RETICLES
by John Barsness
THIS WILL date me some, but when I started hunting the basic choices in scope reticles were plain crosshairs, post and dot. Dot reticles were hung on the intersection of thin crosshairs, and usually post reticles had a horizontal crosshair, but not always. A few other specialized reticles existed, but I never saw any until much later, after starting to write about hunting optics and collecting a few old scopes. As far as I know, no reticles back then were etched on glass, as so many are today. Instead they were actual crosshairs, posts and dots, usually attached to tiny screws on a reticle “cell,” a metal ring mounted inside the scope.
Some purists point out that “crosshairs” aren’t actually hairs, but fine wire, so call them crosswires, a term that’s never caught on with the general public, including most shooters. But very early rifle scopes often did use actual hair for reticles, and in fact back when I was young and poor one of the crosswires in a cheap 4x scope broke. Back then most scopes could still be taken apart by hand, so I managed to get the reticle cell out of the tube and replaced both crosswires with my own hair. This worked pretty well, partly because back then my hair was all black, and the reticle never turned silver or brass when the sun angled over my shoulder when looking through the scope, as crosswires often do.
None of those three reticles worked great for all hunting. If the crosshairs were thin, to aid precise aiming, they tended to disappear in sunless woods, partly because most scopes weren’t very bright optically, so there wasn’t much contrast between woods and reticle. With heavier crosshairs some aiming precision was lost. The same principle also applied to dot reticles or various sizes, the reason most hunters (including gun writers) advised using post reticles for woods hunting big game, and crosshairs for smaller game, whether edible or varmint.
Leupold introduced their Duplex reticle in 1962, a little before I started using scopes, but I didn’t know anybody who used a Leupold, since they were comparatively pricey compared to the Weavers most hunters used, and a lot more expensive than the “off brand” Japanese scopes then flooding the market. The Duplex consisted of four heavier posts surrounding finer crosshairs in the middle, which wasn’t a new idea: European scope manufacturers had provided similar reticles for decades, because many European countries allowed shooting longer before sunrise and after sunset than the semi-standard America half-hour, or even all night.
But apparently most American scope manufacturers either didn’t think such reticles were necessary for daylight hunting, or couldn’t figure out how to make them. Leupold did it by flattening the outer portion of the crosswires. This weakened the wires slightly, and in fact the few Duplex reticles that have broken in my Leupolds snapped right at the juncture of the flat and round sections. But in general they hold up pretty well.
Soon other companies offered the same basic reticle, often with names including “plex,” and by the 1970’s they were more common than plain crosshairs, and far more popular than posts or dots. Some hunters discovered a plex reticle could be used to estimate range by comparing the distance between the tip of the bottom post to the intersection of the crosshairs to the size an animal–and the same tip could be used as a secondary aiming point at longer ranges.
Neither of these principles were totally new. Some previous reticles had included extra horizontal crosshairs, or dots on the vertical crosshair, for range-gauging and aiming at longer distances, and in fact Elmer Keith used a scope equipped with such a reticle hunting antelope, as I recall on a .280 Dubiel, a wildcat based on the .300 H&H. But plex reticles provided a simpler version.
I used a 3-9x Weaver with their plex reticle when guiding pronghorn hunters in the 1980’s, and it proved to be much more accurate at longer ranges than “holding a little high,” partly because it bypassed the common advice of estimating how many football fields stretched between a hunter and a distant animal. I killed several bucks at 450-500 yards, both during my own hunting and when finishing off wounded bucks shot by others, and eventually used the method on other big game.
But antelope were the big teacher, partly because they’re pretty uniform in size, with a mature Montana doe or buck measuring 15-16 inches from the bottom of the chest to the top of the shoulders. This provided a range estimation that can theoretically vary about 7%, but in practice is usually less, sufficient to place shots into the volleyball-sized vitals with a flat-shooting rifle out to 500 yards. But beyond 500 yards just about any bullet started dropping too steeply for the method to always work.
When laser rangefinders started appearing in the late 1990’s, scopes with several aiming points on their reticles started appearing as well, and eventually we could choose among several dozen versions. I found just about any of them were an improvement over a simple plex, especially on long-range varmints, where aiming had to be more precise than on a pronghorn. By then plastic-tipped bullets had increased the potential range of prairie dog rifles, by both increasing ballistic coefficient and expanding violently much further out than softpoints or, especially, hollowpoints.
Before lasers and multi-point reticles, most PD shooters used a mild cartridge for shooting out to 250-300 yards, usually a .222 or .223 Remington, and bigger cartridges like the .22-250, .220 Swift or .243 Winchester for longer ranges. But post-laser, many started using .223’s for almost all their shooting, partly because with a heavy-barreled .223 they could spot their long-range misses through the scope, instead of relying on somebody else to say, “A little high and right.” Which meant just about zip, especially with some so-called spotters.
I started using the .223 as my primary PD cartridge around 2000, but even with all the advancements many shooters clung to larger cartridges for longer ranges, partly because many also clung to plex reticles or even plain crosshairs. I startled one such shooter on a Wyoming prairie dog hunt. He’d been whacking away with his .22-250 at a group of PD’s around 550 yards away, and had already missed half a dozen times. My .223 had a Swarovski scope with their early “Christmas tree” reticle, featuring increasingly long horizontal lines on the vertical crosshair, which helped considerably when compensating not only for range but the near-constant prairie wind. My first shot just missed, but my second didn’t, and he was astonished to find “his” dog had been shot with a .223 instead of some larger cartridge.
Of course, it didn’t take long post-laser for some hunters to start twisting the elevation dial for more precise aiming at longer ranges. This also wasn’t a new idea, even in hunting scopes. For quite a while I owned a 2-1/2x Noske scope, made in the 1940’s, with an elevation dial marked out to 800 yards for the 150-grain .270 Winchester load. It actually worked pretty well when I tried it on rocks, but the reticle was a thick post, not the best for long-range aiming.
In the late 1970’s Bushnell introduced what I recall was called the BDC dial. Like many such systems, they provided several turrets marked in yards for various trajectories, with a list which loads worked with each turret. It worked, sort of. The big problem, again, was accurate ranging.
Bushnell suggested pairing the BDC scopes with their mirror rangefinder, which worked on the convergent principle featured in artillery rangefinders. You looked through a viewfinder on one end of the scope, finding two images of the target, due to an angled mirror at the other end. You turned a dial until the two images merged, and read the range on a dial.
But the rangefinder was maybe 18 inches long, which wasn’t enough for accurate readings beyond about 200 yards–where the system might actually be useful. Plus, the exposed elevation turret didn’t have firm clicks, so tended the “reset” itself in the field, as I learned during my first hunt with the scope. I had the dial set on 250 yards, just about the range to the pronghorn buck I stalked in the Missouri Breaks.
I lay prone and shot, whereupon the buck looked around, obviously untouched. I shot again, and he started trotting away, then slowed and stopped. After the third miss he started running, and at somewhere around 300 yards I held about 5-6 in front of his chest whereupon the bullet broke his spine behind the shoulders. This was because the scope’s dial had somehow twirled to 325 yards, not 250.
Today’s dialing scopes usually have much firmer clicks, and scopes specifically designed for hunting often have capped turrets. This makes sense, as just about any modern bolt-action big game round shoots flat enough to aim in the middle of a pronghorn’s chest out to 250 yards, when the scope’s sighted-in two inches high at 100. At longer ranges there’s usually time to unscrew the elevation cap and make an adjustment.
Field-adjustable turrets would seem to bypass the need for multi-point reticles, yet most dialing scopes have some sort of fairly fancy reticle, for a couple of reasons. First, very few long-range hunters dial for windage, partly because wind often varies somewhat over several seconds, and a dialed-in compensation may not remain correct. Instead most scopes have windage hashmarks on the horizontal crosshair, so the shooter can instantly choose the correct hashmark for that moment’s wind.
Some long-range shooters also use range hashmarks on the vertical crosshair to correct for misses, and in fact some hunters take what are essentially “ranging” shots at distant animals. Or rather, at some object several yards from an animal, to see where the bullet actually lands. At really long range this usually doesn’t disturb the animal much, if at all, and as a result subsequent shots can be adjusted for error.
I haven’t done this with big game, and have quite a bit with prairie dogs, though usually I aim right at the dog for the first shot. I’ve found the best reticles for this work have LOTS of aiming points in some sort of grid pattern. In relatively steady winds, consistent hits can be made at pretty long ranges even on PD’s. The Ramshot powder people once offered a varmint scope with such a reticle, and it’s still on Eileen’s primary varmint centerfire, a heavy-barreled .223. It makes consistently hitting dogs (meaning more get hit than missed) possible out to 600 yards in modest breezes.
Of course, these fancier reticles can’t be produced with wire, the reason most multi-point reticles are etched on plain glass. This is a pretty good system, though despite what some shooters believe, etched reticles can still glare like wire reticles when aiming away from the sun.
They can also break, though not often. One scope manufacturer used to make steel-tube scopes, because they were theoretically stronger. One of their guys confessed to me years ago that they discontinued steel-tubes scopes because etched reticles broke more often, apparently because steel transmitted more force to the reticle than aluminum tubes, both during firing and if the rifle got dropped.
One other minor disadvantage of etched reticles is they slightly reduce the amount of light transmitted through the scope, by introducing two more glass surfaces. This doesn’t amount to much, and in modern, multicoated scopes, a little extra brightness isn’t as valuable as many hunters think. Instead, the ability to see the reticle is more important, and our grandfathers discovered with post reticles.
All of which is one reason more scopes have illuminated reticles these days. As reticles have grown more complex, they’ve also gotten finer, often just as fine as very thin crosshairs. The common solution is to install a tiny light-source inside the scope, which went turned on lights up the etched reticle, usually in red. It helps to be able to adjust the amount of light, because a too-bright reticle can overwhelm the image of the target.
Today’s batteries are so good they’ll often last for years when operating illuminated reticles, but another solution is to have the reticle itself glow. More than one company has produced such scopes, but probably the best-known is Trijicon, which offers several models with aiming points made of a combination of tritium and fiber optics. Brightness is either self-adjusting to available light, or manually adjusted with a sliding, waterproof window on the side of the scope next to the reticle. They work very well–I’ve used Trijicon AccuPoints from Alaska to Africa–but usually offer only a single illuminated aiming point.
Yet another interesting variation is Burris’s Eliminator scopes, which have an interior laser rangefinder that lights up one of 96 tiny dots along the vertical crosshair, which dot according to the range. The scope is easily programmed for the velocity and ballistic coefficient of your bullet, and is remarkably accurate, since each dot is only 1/3 MOA from the next. The dot’s illumination isn’t adjustable, but they’re so small they don’t overwhelm the target in dim light.
Personally, after using a bunch of different reticles over the decades, these days I’m pretty well satisfied with plex-type reticle, perhaps with an illuminated dot in the middle or, in a dialing scope, windage hashmarks on the horizontal crosshair. You might want something else, and luckily today there are far more choices than crosshairs, post or dot.