Rifle Scope Magnification vs Distance: A Deep Dive

| Last Updated: March 14, 2021

Rifle Scope magnification, a feature that brings distant targets inside your accurate range.

If it was not for magnification scopes, rifles would’ve been sitting in a ‘lucky-hit’ situation when shooting beyond 100 or even 200 yards. 

This article will try to explain the relationship between magnification and distance. Further making you aware of how to choose the right magnification scope for your needs. 

Magnification & Distance Terminology and Common Concepts

Get familiar with some common technical and non-technical terms used when talking about scopes, magnification, distance, and other relative items. 

Magnification

Generally denoted with a suffix ‘x’. Magnification refers to how big an object can be made to look when looking through an optical setup. Which in this case is a rifle scope. In layman’s terms, magnification is often called zoom or power of a scope. Written as 1x, 2x, 3x, 4x, etc. 

Let’s say a rifle scope offers fixed 4x magnification when looking at an object through it. This means that the object will appear to be four times closer than its current position. The benefit is that you can view it more clearly and in detail from a distance. 

Riflescopes can have fixed magnification or variable magnification. Scopes with variable zoom can switch among a range of magnifications. Hence being suitable for different ranges. For example, a 3-9x or 4-12x or 12-36x zoom. 

Zoom Ratio / Erector Ratio

This value describes the multiples in which a variable magnification scope switches its magnification. For example, a 3-9x scope has a 3:1 zoom ratio, a 4-12x scope has a 4:1 zoom ratio and a 5-25x scope has a 5:1 zoom ratio.

In simpler terms, a 3-9x scope has 3x magnification at 100 yards and 6x magnification at 200 yards. 

Objective Lens

The lens mounted near the forend of the scope that allows light to enter through. The higher the magnification of scope, the larger the objective lens it uses to let more light come in. Hence creating brighter images. 

Reticle

Also known as crosshairs. The reticle is the part inside the scope that allows you to aim by referencing through it. A reticle can be etched on a glass inside the scope (for more complex designs) or it can be a combination of two wires (simpler designs). 

Eye Relief

The amount of distance between your eye and the eyepiece of the scope where you can comfortably view the target image. It can be fixed or vary with changing magnification on a scope. 

Eyebox or Exit Pupil

Eyebox is a colloquial term of the exit pupil. It is the width of the light beam leaving the eyepiece. In simpler terms, it is the three-dimensional area near your eyepiece where you can see the target image even with your head moving. 

Field of View

The area you can see behind your target when looking at it through the scope. It is generally measured in feet and varies at different magnification levels. 

Focal Planes: FFP or SFP

FFP stands for First Focal Plane and SFP stands for Second Focal Plane. Focal plane can be a complex topic when dug in detail. So, keeping it simple:

  • On an FFP scope the size of the reticle changes with the magnification settings
  • On an SFP scope, the reticle size stays the same

Hence with an FFP scope, the adjustments stay true regardless of the magnification. 

What is Too Much Magnification vs Too Little?

Many buyers, especially beginners seem perplexed when deciding what scope to choose. The most common confusion is what magnification to choose. Some people think that more is better, whereas others have a contrary approach. 

But the unwavering truth is that magnification has more to do with your intended application than anything else. So let’s conduct a simple comparison between high and low magnification relevant to some common uses of a scope. 

Target Shooting: Too Little vs. Too Much Magnification

Probably the most common application you’ll be subjecting your scope to. Target shooting is spending time on the range trying to improve your accuracy. 

As far as target shooting is concerned, you are mostly talking about stationary targets kept at a distance ranging anywhere from 100 to 1000 yards or meters. So the most imperative factor is distance.

There will be days you’ll find yourself shooting at 100, 200, or 300 yards. Whereas some other day, you’d want to extend more. Hence a scope with variable magnification will work best for you. 

Now comes the question of magnifying power. A good pick will be a 4-12x or 3-18x  or even a 6-24x scope. Since that’ll cover close and long ranges very well.

Another aspect to consider is the focal plane of your scope. Since you’ll mostly be engaging stationary targets and quick changes in magnification won’t be necessary. An SFP scope will work (and save you money).

Hunting: Too Little vs. Too Much Magnification

The next most common use most rifles (and scopes) will be put up to is hunting. Hunting doesn’t require scopes with too much magnification. For some very good reasons. 

The first decisive factor is the distance. The most common hunting ranges with a rifle range between 75 to 300 yards. Some pro hunters will step up to unconventional ranges as long as 400 yards or even 500 yards in extreme and very rare cases. Like when a unique quarry has been spotted or an injured critter is trying to escape further misery. 

As a general rule of thumb, the most useful and common scope magnification for hunting is 3-9x. Some situations like mountain hunting can also employ 4-12x or 3-18x scopes.

Additionally, there’s also a classic breed of hunters that chooses to go with 1-4x or 1-8x scopes. 

Fixed magnification scopes like the 3x and 4x are also preferred by many hunters. Especially those who use scouting rifles and like better situational awareness when hunting.

Field of view is essential to track moving game, which is one reason why low magnification scopes are preferred for hunting. 

SFP or FFP is not much of a debate here since you’ll be dealing with one and probably stationary target at a time. 

Competitions: Too Little vs. Too Much Magnification

Competitions are a versatile term - they vary from close range 3-gun competitions to 1,200-yard F-Class and 1,600-yard T-Class competitions. Each shooting competition is designed to test a specific shooting discipline. 

For the sake of discussion, let’s avoid the close range competitions as they have already been covered in the target shooting and hunting sections above. 

So now we’re looking at 500 yards and more. So low magnification scopes fly out the window. The least magnification that is of relevance for such applications is 5x. Additionally, the most suitable magnification for a target sitting at 1,000 yards is between 25x and 27x. 

A 5-25x scope is great for competitions. But if you are looking at a further range and more magnification, you should also consider factors like a mirage, the field of view, caliber (ballistics), eye relief, and eye box. 

FFP scopes are more suitable for competitions because you are working at high magnifications and making turret adjustments every now and then can be frustrating. 

Your choice of scope will depend upon the level of precision required and also your shooting skills. So in reality, a 12x magnification can work if you are hitting a deer-sized target at 1000 yards (when the point of impact is not necessary). But higher magnification is for more precision. 

Combat: Too Little vs. Too Much Magnification

This is the least possible scenario most rifle scope users will find themselves in. Combat is a generalized term for many situations. It can be close-quarter battles while clearing buildings, or a sniper situation where a shot has to be taken at about a mile. 

Again, the situation will decide what magnification to choose. However, one thing that can certainly be ruled out is the use of a fixed magnification scope if you are demanding versatility. While a 4x scope is great for CQB and mid-range combat. A scope with 4x-12x or even 16x settings can handle multiple situations.

A 2-7x or 3-9x magnification is quite versatile and to-the-point for most ranged combat applications. Allowing you to cover distances up to 400 yards with good accuracy. 

Also, remember that combat involves stress and also requires absolute situational awareness. Hence low magnification scopes are great, except for snipers. Field of view and long eye relief along with a generous eye box is desirable and sometimes decisive factors.

A 1-4x or 1-6x or 1-8x scope is the best magnification combination for non-sniper uses. Delivering significant range, accuracy, FOV, and eye relief.

Pros of High Magnification

Let's take a look at some important benefits of using high magnification scopes. The pros may seem few, but they are very useful for some situations. 

Easy and Clear View at Long Range

It is impossible to imagine hitting a target sitting at 400 yards or more without having a scope on your rifle. And accuracy in such a situation hasn’t even entered the chat!

Magnification allows you to bring the image of a distant target close to your eyes and look at its details. With a high magnification scope, this distance increases to a very high value. Some scopes will allow you to shoot targets accurately at distances of more than a mile. 

In fact, the longest sniper kill world record of 3,871 yards was made possible because the shooter could properly view and confirm the target and aim accurately at it. One can’t even imagine hitting a target that far without a high magnification scope. 

A clear view of the target also helps the shooter differentiate between what and what not to shoot. This can be very useful if the backdrop of the target has something that shouldn’t receive a hit. 

Follow Up and Correction

High magnification scopes allow you to sight distant targets with ease. Hence you don’t have to stroll down the range to check the target for impact points. Such scopes have ample magnification to help you analyze the impact point in detail and make appropriate corrections. 

Good Brightness and Cleaner Images

Scopes with high magnifications tend to have large objective lenses to gather more light. This results in brighter images. Especially if you are not using the scope at max magnification and some lower setting. This also gives you an edge in low light situations where bagging a trophy can be a matter of minutes before nightfall.  

Cons of High Magnification

As you move through this section. It may seem like the cons outweigh the pros. But that’s certainly not the case. High magnification is imperative and unique for some situations. 

Stability and FOV Issues

A slight tickle on the scope set at high magnification will cause the picture to flicker and maybe move yards away from the target. Stability is of the essence when holding at high power. Additionally, the field of view is also very limited.

Mirage and Small Eyebox

Mirage refers to the optical illusion that occurs due to hot air above a hot surface. This is mostly experienced on hot sunny days and may cause the target to appear blurry at high magnification. You’ll need skill and practice to tackle that. 

Another drawback of high magnification is the eye relief and eyebox collapses to minimal values. Hence making positioning behind the scope a bit more difficult. 

High Cost

Good quality high magnification scopes are not cheap. Yes, there are cheaper alternatives out there. But there’s no point in spending twice and regretting twice for a cheap scope. 

Cost may or may not be a deciding factor for your purchase depending upon your intended applications.

Types of Optics That Make It Easy

There are a few optics available out there that can settle this debate and give you a better answer to the high or low magnification question. 

Spotting Scopes

Spotting scopes are always found with military snipers. They work in a sniper-spotter team where the spotting scope takes the long range magnification responsibilities and gives the shooter an audible overview of what’s happening downrange. 

Spotting scopes offer exceptionally high magnification and can see and analyze the farthest targets on the field. 

Investing in such a scope helps with your field of view problems at high magnifications. 

Rangefinders

A rangefinder is a device that helps you calculate the distance of a target from your position. This device is very helpful in situations where you do not know the exact range of the target and want to get an accurate value. 

Rangefinders are very useful for long range shots and help you dial the right values even on high magnifications. 

Monoculars and Binoculars

These optical devices are used extensively to view targets at long distances. Having a good monocular or binocular can also help with your long range shots by providing you a quick sweep of the backdrop. Without having to fiddle with your scope already set at high magnification. 

Conclusion 

Whether you choose a low or high magnification scope depends entirely upon the range you’ll be shooting at. High magnification scopes are usually great for long range shooting and allow you to hit targets with extreme precision. Since you can see the target and decide where exactly the bullet should land. 

Low power scopes are usually good for hunting, close-quarter battles, and short to medium range target shooting. You also have the option to choose between a fixed or variable magnification scope. But fixed zoom variants don’t offer high power settings. 

People Also Ask

Tweeze some useful information for yourself from this short FAQ section covering some important aspects related to scope magnification. 

What Distance is A 10X Scope Good For?

A 10x scope is adequate for distances up to 1,000 yards, with a minimum range of 250 yards. However, you cannot expect pinpoint competition-level accuracy with a 10x scope at such range. 

Does Scope Magnification Affect Accuracy?

Yes. Scope magnification helps you decide the point of impact and set turret values accordingly. Hence it is an important factor in accuracy. In simpler terms, if you can’t see a target clearly, how can you hit it accurately?

What Distance Should I Sight My Rifle?

The most common sighting distance for most short and medium-range applications with centerfire rifles is 100 yards. If you are looking to shoot further (600 yards or more) you can sight your rifle at 200 yards for maximum reticle utilization. Bullet caliber & ballistics also play an important part here.

Ankit has been a writer for almost a decade now and has developed a diverse portfolio. His love for writing led him to turn down his lavish and lucrative career as a software engineer, twisting the reins of his life towards being a full-time writer. He only does what he loves. His hobbies include gardening, reading, shooting, and most of all - learning new things in every context (hence why he chose to be a writer). His whimsical nature and love for writing fosters creativity in all of his work