These days hunters demand far more of our telescopic sights than we used to, thanks largely to the laser rangefinder. Before practical (and safe) laser rangefinders became available to civilian shooters, beginning in the 1990s, most hunters compensated for longer ranges by using flatter-shooting cartridges and rather crude range estimation. Mostly this meant guessing, though a few used the reticle of their scopes to provide a much closer estimation than looking across a canyon or prairie dog town and saying, "That looks like about 450 yards." The laser rangefinder changed all that, by proving that a guesstimated 450 yards was often 372 or 539.
The three scopes, top to bottom: Holland ART/Leupold Mark 4 6.5-20x50; Bushnell 6500 Elite 4.5-30x50; Hawke Frontier SF 4-16x42.
This resulted in four major changes to the common hunting scope. First, shooters wanted more precise ways of aiming at longer ranges, now that we could measure those ranges precisely. This is why almost every scope manufacturer offers some form of multi-point reticle these days, plus some form of so-called ďtacticalĒ adjustment turrets, so we can precisely click-in for longer ranges.
The third major change was the trend toward precise parallax adjustment. Now that we could shoot at longer ranges, we also needed to be able to see at longer ranges, so we started buying higher-magnification scopes. Any scope over 10x requires some sort of method to eliminate parallax, the shift of the target in relationship to the reticle that occurs when we place our eye anywhere but dead-center behind the scopeís field of view.
The old-fashioned method of parallax correction was an adjustable objective lens, but today many if not most higher-magnification scopes feature a side-adjustment for parallax, normally placed on the left side of the scope opposite the horizontal turret adjustment. This isnít very handy for left-hand shooters, but then lefties have been discriminated against throughout history. This isnít fair, but life rarely is.
The fourth change in todayís riflescopes is more subtle, though definite: optical quality. As we started shooting at longer distances, we wanted to be able to see that we were aiming at a prairie dog instead of defoliated sagebrush. This trend has become so strong that many shooters rate a riflescope by optical quality, rather than by its ability to hold zero. In fact, often we really donít care if a scope will hold zero anymore, because we really want it to return to zero after twirling the adjustment knobs here, there, and everywhere.
In the meantime some other factors have become far less important. I started writing what may have been the first optics column for a major hunting magazine, Petersenís Hunting, back in 1991. Back then, believe it or not, many hunting scopes werenít totally sealed against the possibility of atmospheric moisture getting inside the scope. In particular some European scopes were waterproof only with the adjustment caps on.
This is no longer the case, one reason my standard test procedure for scopes has changed somewhat. I used to do some pretty rigorous testing for waterproofing, but usually donít bother anymore, especially with higher-grade scopes, because itís a waste of time. In fact, interior fogging (caused by moist air inside scopes reaching the dew point or even freezing) is so rare that most shooters under 40 arenít even aware that it can happen. Instead, when I get a question about a scope fogging itís about moisture on the outside of the scope, something that today is often mitigated by hydrophobic coatings on the lenses themselves.
Accordingly, my testing procedures have changed in recent years. As an example, none of the scopes in this report were dunked in a sink full of warm water to find possible leaks. And gee, none of the three scopes tested fogged inside, even though they often traveled from a warm house to a cold range. Things have really changed in the past few decades!
Letís look at the three scopes alphabetically:
Bushnell 6500 Elite 4.5-30x50.
This scope is a more "tacticool" version of the popular Elite 4200 series ó and the Elite series itself is an extension of the Japanese-made Bausch & Lomb Bal-series scopes that were one of the top scopes of the 1980s and 1990s.
The 6500 has a quick-focus eyepiece.
Back then the B&Lís had features that many other supposed high-quality scopes didnít, such as high-quality multi-coated optics, but most would have failed an adjustment-tracking test. They would stay zeroed once they got zeroed, but often it took a few shots (or some serious tapping of the adjustment turrets) to get them to settle in after twisting one of the dials.
That started to change with the licensing loss of the B&L name, when the scopes became known as the Bushnell Elites. They still had the excellent optics of the B&Lís, and were still tough scopes, but the adjustments got noticeably better. This is particularly important in the 6500, because the big change in it is not optics but the tube diameter. The 4200s have 1-inch tubes, but the 6500s have the 30mm tube that most long-range shooters demand, because it allows for more elevation adjustment.
(When 30mm tubes first appeared in the U.S., one European companyís advertising campaign claimed that such scopes were brighter, because the bigger tube allowed more light through to our eye. This wasnít true ó the amount of light is controlled by the lens system, not the outside tube ó but many shooters fell for it. Today, perhaps because of much more information about optics in both the sporting press and on the Internet, most shooters realize that while 30mm tubes do have advantages, optical brightness isnít one of them.)