Hunting is one of the few activities in which a firearm user has an ethical responsibility to his target. In nearly all other types of shooting sports and training, the participant has a responsibility to those around them and themselves, but not to the target.
A paper target doesn’t care where you hit it. Whether you land a bullseye or barely wing the edge, it makes no difference to the target, and as long as your bullets are landing safely in the backstop, you’ve fulfilled your ethical responsibility to any bystanders.
But hunting is a different beast. As hunters, we have an obligation to the game we harvest to take the most ethical shot possible and to minimize any factors that could detract from that.
Part of that responsibility is, in many cases, using a scope. While not appropriate for every hunt, a magnified optic increases hit probability in a vast number of scenarios. A scope allows you to aim more precisely, adjust for environmental factors more accurately, and range targets more successfully.
Even if you’re a truly excellent shot with iron sights, a scope will only serve to complement those skills and make you even better.
So then the question becomes, which scope? There are hundreds if not thousands of scopes on the market, many of them designed specifically for hunting. How do you know which one is right for you, and will best enable you to take down your target most swiftly and humanely?
Before You Shop
As always, it depends. There is no true one best scope because we’re all different people, hunting different game, with different firearms. The best scope for a hunter with a 12-gauge slug gun is not the same as the best scope for someone with a .300 WinMag.
For this article, we’re going to limit ourselves strictly to hunting deer and similar game. But even then, there’s a lot of variety in how and when hunters are engaging their quarry.
Before you begin your quest for the best deer hunting rifle scope for you, it’s important to consider the specifics of your own hunts.
First and foremost, take stock of what firearm you will be using to hunt with. Physical attributes like weight matter—if you’ve shelled out for an ultralight rifle for long treks through the woods, you don’t want to weigh it down with a three-pound scope—but even more importantly, consider your ballistics.
If you’re using a common cartridge like a .308 Winchester or .30-06 Springfield, you’ll have plenty of options for accurate BDC reticles that make compensating for drop fast and simple. A wildcat cartridge, on the other hand, usually won’t have a BDC available for it, so you’re usually best off choosing a reticle based on MIL or MOA measurements rather than a drop profile.
You’ll also want to take into account how and where you hunt. If you frequent mature forests with dense brush, a high-powered long-range rifle scope won’t be a good option, as it will make it hard to quickly line up a shot at short range. Those types of scopes are best for those who hunt open fields, as the lack of cover will make it difficult to get close, necessitating a longer shot where the extra magnification will be useful.
When you hunt comes into play as well. If you hunt in the early mornings or late afternoons when the daylight is at its dimmest, an illuminated reticle will be valuable.
Factors to Consider When Choosing a Rifle Scope for Deer Hunting
After considering your personal hunting scenario, it’s time to start looking at the individual attributes of various hunting scopes and how they can benefit you.
One of the very first things you’ll want to consider is magnification. The magnification power or power range of your scope will have a huge impact on how you hunt, and how effectively.
As we touched on above, your environment will play a big part in determining the most appropriate power level for you. The average shot on a whitetail deer occurs between 40 and 200 yards. Dense forests are typically conducive to shots on the lower end of that range, while open fields can require shots of 200 yards or more.
For this reason, 3-9x scopes are far and away the most popular for hunting. A 3x minimum power ensures that you’re not stuck searching for your prey at 40 yards when you bring up your scope and 9x is plenty of magnification for a 200-yard shot. it’s an extremely versatile range that lends itself well to a wide variety of hunting environments and scenarios.
However, not everyone is average. In very dense brush, you may stumble upon a deer at 25 or less. For hunters in these sorts of scenarios, a less traditional scope such as a 2-7x or even an LPVO (a scope with a minimum power of 1x, or close to it) may be more practical. A low minimum power, particularly a minimum power of 1x, can make it much faster to acquire your sights and line up a shot.
While LPVOs are an unorthodox choice for a hunting rifle, they are becoming more popular every year. A 1x minimum power makes it possible to land rapid shots at close range, which can be an important quality for those who hunt in areas with large predators and rely on their rifle for self-defense. Versatile magnification ranges like 1-8x or even 1-10x make many LPVOs viable for longer shots, too.
However, if you hunt on large, open plains, you may find yourself in the opposite circumstance, with a standard 3-9x lacking the power desired for a 300-400 yard shot. This type of hunting is uncommon for whitetail deer, and should only be practiced by hunters with excellent soft skills and considerable experience, but is not altogether unheard of. Other types of deer and similar animals such as caribou or elk, may necessitate a longer shot.
4-12x scopes are common and popular for hunters who find themselves on the high end of the aforementioned 40-200 yard standard range, and beyond. The slight increase in minimum magnification power gives up little in terms of medium-range target acquisition times but offers considerably more power for long-range shots. However, 4-12 scopes are often larger or more expensive than their 3-9x counterparts.
Objective Lens Size
Objective lens size is one of the primary determinants of image brightness and low-light performance, so it’s an attribute to pay attention to.
All else being equal, a larger objective lens will offer a brighter image than a smaller one. It’s simple physics; a bigger area for light to enter means more light coming in, which translates to more light coming out through the ocular lens, which you’ll be looking through.
In broad daylight, this isn’t always crucial. Even the small 24mm objective lenses commonly found in LPVOs are often plenty bright in an open field at high noon. During the twilight hours, though, or in the mottled light under a dense forest canopy, a bigger objective lens will make a significant difference.
A brighter image directly translates to an increased ability to see detail in low-light situations. This means game will be easier to spot and its surroundings will be clearer, allowing you to line up a safer, more precise shot.
The primary downside to a larger objective is weight and size. A bigger lens means more material, both in the lens itself and in the maintube to hold it. That’s going to mean more weight and a larger profile. If a light, sleek rifle is important to you, then you’ll have to make some hard decisions about objective lens size.
If, on the other hand, the extra weight won’t be a hindrance, there’s little reason not to choose the largest objective lens available for a deer hunting scope.
Glass quality is largely self-explanatory; higher quality is always better.
Top-tier Extra-Low Dispersion lenses will offer brighter, clearer, and more color-correct images. It’s hard to understand just how much of an upgrade good glass is until you’ve looked through high-quality lenses. The increased image clarity is particularly important for hunters who frequent forested environments where deer will have plenty of cover and camouflage.
However, as with nearly everything in life, higher quality comes with a higher cost. Not everyone is looking to spend multiple thousands of dollars on a rifle scope, so top-tier quality isn’t always an option. Ultimately, only you can decide how much image clarity you need or are willing to pay for.
Reticle type is a somewhat divisive topic when it comes to hunting scopes. Some hunters are adamant that a simple duplex reticle is all that is necessary and that anything else is a waste of money. Others, particularly those that may take shots beyond the common 40-200 yard range, swear by ballistic drop compensating (BDC) reticles. Yet another group prefers more complex MOA or MIL-based reticles that offer tools not just for drop compensation, but also for range estimation, windage or moving target holds, and more.
None of these reticles is necessarily a bad choice. The best one for you will depend on several factors, the first of which is your target engagement distance. If you only ever engage targets at 200 yards or less and shoot a common caliber with a relatively flat drop profile, then you can get by with nothing more than a duplex perfectly well.
Many popular calibers can be zeroed to have a deviation of only a few inches across the entire range from 0-200 yards. As such, little or no holds or adjustments are required to achieve the desired impact. Only a single aiming point is required, making a duplex a perfectly serviceable option.
At extended ranges or with rapidly-dropping calibers, a reticle with multiple aiming points is highly recommended. Whether a BDC or a grid-style MOA or MIL reticle, the multiple aiming points allow for infinitely more precise drop estimation as compared to a duplex reticle.
However, accurate drop estimation is still dependent on your training and soft skills, including your ability to range the target.
Hunting is an exclusively outdoor activity. That means that whatever scope you choose, it needs to be able to handle the rigors of being carried around outside in the elements. It may get bumped against a tree or banged up on a rock in the course of pursuing game or making your way to your blind.
A good hunting scope should be water and dust resistant and designed to endure moderate impacts. In most cases, the ultra-durability of military-oriented optics isn’t required, but it can offer some peace of mind if your particular hunting scenario is highly demanding.
As with glass quality, all else being equal, higher levels of durability will command higher prices. This leads us to our next consideration.
Cost matters. Between firearms, premium ammunition, camouflage, and possibly purchasing or leasing land, hunting can be an expensive endeavor. With so many factors straining your budget, a high-dollar rifle scope can be difficult to justify.
Luckily, there are good deer hunting scopes available for nearly any budget. While the adage that you get what you pay for generally holds true for optics, even a basic hunting scope can improve your accuracy and precision over iron sights drastically.
Moreover, there are a few brands and models that offer performance far beyond their price point. We’ll cover a few of those later.
Popular Rifle Scopes for Deer Hunting
With all that in mind, let’s take a look at a few popular scope choices for deer hunting.
Trijicon 3-9x40mm Credo
Trijicon is an old and respected name in firearm optics. They built their reputation with their ACOG series of sights, which have been fielded by military and police units for decades. Their more traditional scopes are built with that same quality and dedication to ruggedness.
The 3-9x Credo is an excellent choice for a hunting optic. The standard 3-9x magnification range is versatile enough for a wide range of engagements, and the 40mm objective offers a good level of brightness without being overly large or heavy.
Like all of Trijicon’s optics, the glass is extremely clear. The scope is available with several different reticle types, including both duplex and MIL/MOA-based options. All reticles have built-in illumination, making it a good option for those who hunt in the early morning or late evening.
The Credo also features a few nice conveniences, like the repositionable fin on the magnification adjustment ring for faster changes between power levels.
At a hair over 17 ounces, it’s not the lightest scope on our list, but neither will it bog down a rifle.
Primary Arms SLx® HUNTER™ 4-12×50 SFP Rifle Scope
An excellent option for those looking for a bit more magnification or image brightness, the SLx Hunter 4-12x offers high-clarity glass and our exceptional lifetime warranty. Despite the affordable price, you can have utter confidence that it will handle as many hunts as you can.
The 50mm objective lens is the largest on our list, offering phenomenal low-light performance. Despite the large objective lens, it weighs in it only 18.5 ounces, making it the second heaviest scope on our list.
The 4-12x50mm SLx Hunter is available with a duplex reticle.
Leupold VX-Freedom 3-9x40mm Rifle Scope – Hunt-Plex Reticle
Leupold is one of the oldest names in American riflescopes, long respected for their remarkably clear glass and lightweight, rugged construction.
For those looking for a lightweight option, the Leupold VX-Freedom 3-9x40mm is certainly a standout. At only 12.2oz, it’s the lightest scope on our list but still manages to sport a 40mm objective.
The VX-Freedom 3-9x40mm is offered with a whopping 6 different reticle choices, including options for both muzzleloaders and rimfire rifles.
Primary Arms GLx® 2.5-10×44 FFP Rifle Scope
Last, but far from least, our GLx 2.5-10x44mm is a less-orthodox option that packs a ton of capability into a compact, affordable package.
Although not specifically designed for hunting applications, the 2.5-10x magnification range offers both a lower minimum power and high max power than traditional 3-9x scopes and does it while delivering an extremely bright image, thanks to the 44mm objective.
Two different ACSS reticles are available, both packed with features, including auto-ranging tools, drop, windage, and moving target holds, and more. Both reticles are illuminated and adjustable for parallax, making this scope a perfect choice for hunters that engage targets at a wide variety of ranges
The GLx 2.5-10 also includes return-to-zero turrets and a removable fin on the magnification lever, which can be swapped for a collapsible lever if desired. However, it does weigh 22.2 ounces, making it the heaviest optic on our list.
Adding a scope to your rifle is one of the fastest and simplest ways to increase your capability as a hunter, but it is important to pick the right scope.
After considering how, where, and when you harvest game, carefully consider the attributes of the scopes available to you, and you’re sure to take home a winner (and a deer).