Nightforce 5-25x56 ATACR-F1 MIL Scope Review

By Justin Hyer

Walking down the line at a rifle range before a Precision Rifle Series (PRS) style shooting competition will remind grown men what it felt like to be a child on Christmas morning. As I meandered down the shooting line of my first competition I met many fellow shooters who were more than happy to show me their rifle and optic set ups and explain to me the pros and cons of each. As could be expected, custom barrels were the norm and aftermarket stocks and large tactical style scopes were plentiful. The more shooting systems I examined the more I became surprised at the lack of one particular brand of optics atop competitors’ rifles, Nightforce. I asked many of the shooters why they chose their particular optic over such a well-respected name as Nightforce. They almost always came back to the same answer - lack of first focal plane (FFP) offerings.

For those who may not know, FFP scopes allow the reticle to maintain the same relative size in relation to the target throughout all magnifications of the scope. To the end user this makes the reticle appear smaller on low magnifications and larger on high magnifications as opposed to a constant sized reticle like most hunters are used to in their hunting scopes. The advantage of a FFP scope is that the reticle subtensions are accurate at all magnifications and this offers a huge advantage to a shooter if they want to use their reticle to quickly adjust for a change in elevation or wind.

Reticle

at 25x through the F1



Reticle at 12x through the F1



Reticle at 5x through the F1


In PRS style competitions or in some hunting situations, shooters are frequently forced to engage targets at multiple distances in very short amounts of time. Time can be such a constraint that many shooters choose to use the subtensions in their reticles to quickly adjust for elevation and wind as opposed to dialing their turrets for each shot. With a FFP scope the shooter can always trust their reticle to be accurate no matter what magnification they are using. Conversely, if the shooter were to use a reticle with a second focal plane (SFP) scope they could easily forget to set the scope to the proper magnification and all their corresponding holds would no longer be accurate. While the SFP scope can be used just as effectively as a FFP scope, it requires the user to pay special attention to the magnification setting and they cannot simply adjust the power up or down without understanding how it changes the relative size of the subtensions.

While FFP vs. SFP is a topic that is debated weekly on every major internet forum and at every local gun range, there is no denying the benefits that can come from using a FFP scope for those who want to use their reticle to adjust for elevation and wind. With the growing popularity of PRS competitions so has the demand for more consumer offerings with FFP reticles increased.

Seeing the growing market, Nightforce (NF) decided it was time to release a FFP scope under $3k that would offer the features being requested by many shooters; the ATACR F1 was born. I received my sample of the ATACR F1 with the MIL-R reticle on a Friday morning at work and immediately opened it up. Handling the scope for the first time my initial impression was how incredibly solid the scope felt, and I guess it should, considering that it weighs a whopping 2.4 pounds. I passed the scope around to various colleagues at my office and they all had the exact same impression; the scope feels like it could be used as a sledge hammer and easily stand up to the abuse!

That night I went through the box’s contents where I found all the necessary owner’s manuals, power throw lever, covers- both bikini style and Tenebraex, and stickers. I took some pictures of the box contents and then read through the owner's manual to familiarize myself with all the scope’s features as I played with them one by one.


Box contents


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Nightforce 5-25x56 ATACR-F1 MIL Scope Review

Adjusting the reticle focus was very easy to do and the scope seemed to have a much larger sweet spot than most other scopes I have set up. After adjusting the reticle for my eyes, I firmly torqued the lock ring so that the lock ring, eyepiece, and power zoom ring all moved as one unit when rotated. Having all three pieces locked together allows the user to simply grab the back of the eyepiece and twist it to change the power setting or they can grab a hold of the power ring or optional throw lever in a more conventional manner. Changing the power on the scope felt very smooth and the force required was not enough for me to ever want to install the power throw lever for use in my testing.

After getting the reticle focused I began to play with the illumination feature. The illumination controls on the ATACR F1 are different than most scopes I’ve played with that use rotating wheels to turn them on/off and adjust illumination intensity. Instead, this NF uses DigIllum technology where all illumination settings are controlled by one button on the side of the parallax knob. I must confess this feature of the scope was not intuitive to me and I had to reread the manual to understand how to adjust it to my liking. However, once I learned how the DigIllum worked it was very easy to use. A simple push of the button turns the illuminated reticle on to the last user setting before it was shut off. Pushing and releasing the button quickly will adjust the reticle brightness either higher or lower and the reticle will flash three times when the highest or lowest setting is achieved. Pressing and holding the button for 5 seconds will change the color of the reticle to either red or green. When the user is done with the illumination they can simply press and hold the button for 1-3 seconds and the unit will shut off or it will shut off automatically after 1 hour. While I found no real need to test the illumination during my time with the scope I did look through it at various times during the day and night and it is bright enough to be seen in the day but will not wash the scope out at night even when it’s on its brightest setting. This feature does make the reticle easier to see when on lower magnifications (apparently small reticle since it’s a FFP) and if I was still hunting in the woods I would leave it turned on to its brightest setting.

Lastly I played with the turrets. The elevation turret is much larger in diameter than a standard NXS or ATACR turret. This allows for good spacing between clicks while still allowing 12 Mils per revolution of the turrets. The clicks are mechanically and audibly solid with no noticeable backlash or change in force required to turn them either up or down throughout their range of motions. The windage turret is capped but the cap can be removed and a thread protector can be installed if the user prefers to run exposed turrets all the time. Having the option to cap a windage turret is one feature many users will enjoy since it eliminates the possibility of the turret getting knocked off while being slid in and out of a backpack, scabbard, or while being dragged through various obstacles. The windage turret allows for 6 Mils of adjustment in both the left and right directions but this sample would only allow me to go to 5.7. Total elevation in the vertical turret was exactly as advertised at 35 Mils.


ATACR-F1 (left) vs Original ATACR (right). Note the larger diameter elevation turret.



The F1 (bottom) is longer than its standard ATACR brother (top).


The next day I mounted the scope in some medium NF Ultralite rings on top of my 6.5 Creedmoor and headed to the range to get it sighted in. Within 4 shots I had established a zero at 100 yards and shot a few 5 shot groups to confirm it. Throughout my limited time in that first range session the mirage was very heavy. Despite the thick, boiling mirage the image through the scope appeared to provide good contrast, true color rendition, and excellent resolution. I returned home that evening and set the zero stop and rezeroed the turret to be ready for my next shooting outing.

The following weekend I found myself at my favorite local shooting spot with a few good friends to ring some long range steel. This would be the perfect test to stretch the scope’s legs out as well as give it exposure to various shooters and gather their opinions about the new optic. After entering all the necessary environmental data into Shooter I acquired my shooting solution for the 702 yard plate and dialed it into the elevation turret. Settling behind the rifle, I lightly preloaded the bipod, slowed my breathing, acquired the perfect sight picture, and applied the last few ounces to the trigger. Boom! As the bullet raced forward through the cool mountain air I waited for the familiar ring of a 140 grain Berger hammering steel. Instead, I was given an elevation correction to come up 1.25-1.5 minutes. Doing some rough math in my head I dialed up an extra 0.4 Mils and chambered another round. I once again went through my pre-shot routine and finished the squeeze when the sight picture was solid. This time the elevation looked good but the wind had picked up and required just a little bit more to make a solid hit. I measured the correction needed in the reticle and let another round down range. Boom- ting. Finally!


F1 on its maiden voyage for long range steel



I’d love to say that my first shots at long range with the new scope had been perfect but clearly I had done something wrong based off the additional 0.4 Mils of elevation I needed to make the shot. I ran through my cartridge profile again and verified that all my load information was correct and reentered the environmental conditions and got the same solution I did the first time. At this point I assumed either I had grabbed the wrong loads or somehow my zero had been knocked off. I moved to the next steel plate at 886 yards and dialed up my turret to where Shooter told me to be. Assuming I had a bad zero, I dialed in an extra 0.4 Mils into the turret and let one fly. My elevation on the target was spot on and confirmed my suspicion that somehow I had knocked my zero off. I must confess 5 or 6 shots at this plate yielded no hits as I struggled mightily with the wind. To say I was frustrated with myself and my rifle at this point would be an understatement. Apparently my rifle had forgotten that during review time it’s supposed to be a solid ¼ MOA shooter and never allow me to miss!

Figuring I might as well try my luck with another target I dialed in for 1175 yards, gave it the additional 0.4 Mils for my incorrect zero, and proceeded to hit the target 4 times. Why I struggled so mightily at 886 and seemed to have my way with the 1175 plate is a mystery to me but I was glad to have redeemed myself from my poor performance just moments earlier. I should also note that my incorrect zero is most likely due to user error when setting up the zero stop because I played around with the clutch assembly before loosening its set screws and I probably didn’t dial back the necessary number of clicks to return to zero.


F1 on 6.5 Creedmoor

Nightforce 5-25x56 ATACR-F1 MIL Scope Review

During the morning several shooters got to look through the optic and fire some rounds down range. One shooter in particular found it annoyingly difficult to get comfortable behind the optic until the rear Tenebraex cover was removed. Once he had that out of the way he proceeded to plaster the 702 yard plate with 5 consecutive hits. Another good shooting buddy got behind the rifle and dealt with a tricky wind and wasn’t rewarded with quite so many hits but seemed to enjoy the scope, other than it was Mil based instead of MOA. Overall, those that got behind the scope seemed to approve of its ergonomics and features and felt it provided good image quality. A note on image quality: That morning we were shooting in fairly high glare conditions and none of us felt particularly blown away by the NF for the price point compared to the sub $1k Sightron SIII we were also using.

After successful hits on long range steel I decided to conduct a tall turret test and see how the scope would track throughout 10 Mils of elevation change and 2.5 Mils of windage change. For this test I swapped the scope over to my heavy barrel 204 Ruger. This rifle had proven itself very accurate and the low recoil makes shooting very pleasant. The day I had available to shoot the tall turret test was blustery to say the least; targets were being ripped off their backers and one of the shooters actually had his whole target stand blown over. Due to the high winds I moved my test to 50 yards and verified that I could get the scope parallax free at this range before I started shooting. After confirming the scope was indeed parallax free I set up my tall turret target and verified it was vertical using a 3 foot carpenter’s level. I had pre-marked lines at 2.5, 5, and 10 Mils and once back to the shooting bench I confirmed that the subtensions in the scope lined up with my marks, which they did.

I started with a three shot group which landed perfectly on the elevation mark for 0 and was just slightly off center to the left of the vertical line I had drawn. I then dialed up 2.5 Mils and shot a three shot group followed by three shot groups at 10 and 5 Mils. All of these groups lined up perfectly next to their corresponding vertical lines and were just slightly left of the vertical line proving the scope was tracking perfectly throughout the 10 Mils I tested. To finish the test I fired two three shot groups by dialing from 0 up to 5 Mils and left 2.5 Mils and returning to zero in both windage and elevation between each shot and then repeated for the right side. Both of these last groups were at exactly 5 Mils in elevation and 2.5 Mils off center in their respective directions.

One anomaly I observed during my tall turret test was the need to adjust the parallax again about halfway through the test. The parallax knob had not moved but parallax was apparent on target and required an adjustment to eliminate it. Further confusion ensued when I took the scope back over to the 100 yard range to compare it to a Steiner T5Xi and noticed the focus knob had now become difficult to operate; it seemed to move smoothly for ¼ turn before having a noticeable increase in the force required to move the knob.

I called NF customer service and explained to them that the scope had been fine for weeks and all of a sudden had this problem pop up. They said it sounded like my rings might be pinching down on the internals of the scope and causing the resistance I was feeling. While it didn’t make sense that the problem wasn’t there from the moment I had mounted the scope, they recommended I remount it with the front ring further away from the turret housing. Following their advice I moved the front ring further forward and the parallax knob once again functioned properly.

After thinking on this problem for a few days I’ve wondered if the problem only became noticeable once I had adjusted the parallax knob to around 50 yards which may have moved the internals to a point where the rings finally caused some binding. Regardless of why the problem with the binding parallax knob occurred, it was a simple fix with no need to send the scope in for warranty work.

While my initial feelings towards the scope were that it was good but not excellent, after spending a few more weekends behind this scope I can confidently say I’m in love. After my first two shooting sessions I wasn’t sure if it was optically as good as I had hoped but once I took out the heavy mirage (1st day at range) and the terrible glare (1st shots at long range steel) this scope just continued to impress. In low light settings the light it gathers and the colors it portrays are truly excellent. While I didn’t have an opportunity to compare it against the likes of a Schmidt and Bender or a Premier it was noticeably better than my Sightrons and ran circles around the Steiner T5Xi. I also compared it to my Meopta S2 Spotting scope and felt the image it produced wasn’t lacking compared to the spotter. Considering the excellent reviews the S2 spotter receives the optics on the F1 are definitely nice!


View from the shooter


While I was initially worried about the reticle being too small to use while hunting on low magnifications I no longer have this fear. The wide, thick portions of the reticle that are barely visible on high powers converge into the center on low powers and would allow me to shoot a big game animal with ease. If you turn the illumination on, the fine portion of the reticle can now be easily seen on its brightest setting and would provide a more precise aiming point for those who might struggle with centering up the target between the three thick posts. I actually grew to love this reticle during the course of the review and especially liked the fine 0.1 Mil grid offered in the lower right quadrant of the scope. I should also note that many people who oppose FFP complain the reticle is too thick at max magnification but I found this one to be very useable and never felt it obstructed my view. However, if I felt I was going to do the majority of my shooting under 10x magnification I would consider another optic, but if it will only be used at low magnifications from time to time I would not feel handicapped at all by having this scope with me in the field.

After reviewing this scope I think a quote from Ferris Bueller best describes my feelings towards this optic. “Plus, and I must be honest here, I love driving it, it is so choice, if you have the means I highly recommend picking one up.” While designed more with the tactical crowd in mind, this scope would be equally at home on a long range hunting gun and if you have the available funds I would say you owe it to yourself to check one out.