How To Use A Rifle Scope

how to shoot through a scope

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Buying your first scope is a beautiful thing. If you’re like me, then you got really hung up on buying the best scope you possibly can, but since it’s your first scope you didn’t really know much about what that meant. You can take comfort knowing that as long as you bought a scope with good reviews, you’re probably in decent shape and it’ll basically do what you need a scope to do.

Sure, you may want to adjust the scope in advanced ways that aren’t possible with the scope you bought, but chances are you think you need more than you actually do. After all, the entire purpose of a scope is to help you hit a target at a longer distance or distances than you could without it. 

A shooter that knows their reticle well and has practiced for accuracy will outperform shooters who have a scope with every bell and whistle on the planet.

Explaining Different Rifle Scopes

shooting with a scope

You can divide modern rifle scopes into a few different categories, but probably the most common is the magnification power of the scope. First, you have variable power scope options and fixed power rifle scopes. A scope with a variable power lens allows you to change the magnification from the minimum to the maximum and everything in between.

A fixed power scope is set at a certain magnification and does not change. Red dots, which do not offer any magnification, fall into this category of rifle scope. Scopes with fixed power generally don’t go higher than about 6x magnification.

Within variable magnification scopes, you have rifle scopes that are designed for long distance shooting. Shooting at longer distances requires higher zoom, so if you want to get out to the maximum distance that your round is effective, especially for high recoil calibers, then you’ll need a rifle scope with a longer zoom.

The Case For a Red Dot

using a rifle scope

Full disclosure, I do not have a red dot on any of my rifles. The reason is that I found an LPVO to be a more versatile solution that does everything I wanted it to do. That said, a red dot has a strong use case depending on what kind of gun you have and what you’re doing with it. Anytime you’re shooting at 50 yards or less, a red dot is hard to beat.

Red dots give you unlimited eye relief, which means you can be as close or as far from it as you want and still get the whole sight picture. Pretty awesome. I wanted to be able to take my AR out to 200 yards with confidence, so an LPVO served me better, but if and when I prep a rifle for CQB, you better believe I’ll be throwing a red dot on it.

The Case for Fixed Magnification

Same basic argument as a red dot, but with longer ranges. If you know all the shooting you’ll be doing will be within a certain range (like 100-200 yards, for example), then why not get a fixed magnification prism scope and enjoy the amazingly clear image and reticle choices?

The Case for Variable Scopes

The real value in variable scopes is their versatility. A 1-4x LPVO, for example, can be used in CQB all the way up to 200 yards, while your standard 3-9x scope can be used at close range and all the way out to 300-400 yards. 

Of course, with variable scopes come a lot of potential issues and decisions that have to be made, but making the right choices rewards you with unmatched versatility.

How to Choose the Right Rifle Scope

When you’re choosing a rifle scope, there are a lot of features that can make a difference in how good the scope is for your purpose, but there are things that are always important. First, you want to make sure the scope has proper eye relief for the gun that you’re putting it on. Eye relief is the focal point of the scope, which means it’s the point your eye needs to be to get the full picture.

If your eye is not within the eye relief of the rifle scope, then you won’t be able to see a clear and good sight picture. Proper eye relief for a standard rifle scope is usually between 3.5 and 4 inches. However, on a scout rifle, eye relief is usually between 7 and 9 inches, while on a handgun scope eye relief can be as long as 15 inches.

If you want to be able to use a rifle scope properly, there are other features you should be aware of.

Objective Lens

The objective lens is the end of the rifle scope that you see out of (as opposed to “in to”). Most rifle scope manufacturers make objective lenses between 24mm and 50mm in diameter. The larger the objective lens is, the more light the scope lets in and the brighter your image. Most rifle scopes are right around 32-40mm.

Mounting Hardware

A lot of scopes come with scope rings to mount the scope onto a rail that is already on the rifle. If your rifle does not have a picatinny or weaver rail on it, you’ll need to get that put on there first. A rifle scope requires some form of mounting hardware, so if it doesn’t come with mounting rings or something similar, you’ll need to purchase them separately.

Scope Adjustments

looking through scope

Just about every scope will come with your standard windage and elevation knobs, as well as an optical focus on the eyepiece of the scope (also called an ocular lens). The elevation knob will move the reticle up and down and while it can be used for elevation settings, it’s more common to use it for bullet drop compensation over distance.

There are other adjustments that can help your rifles shoot more accurately at the target (or targets) that you’re shooting at. One is reticle illumination. Your scope might have a partially or full illuminated reticle for shooting accurately in low light conditions. Some illumination is even good for seeing the windage and elevation changes you’re making in daylight.

BDC Reticle

When you take aim at a target that’s a long distance out, you have to adjust where you’re pointing to ensure accuracy. A scope designed for distance and range will  usually have a bullet drop compensator as part of the reticle that is etched onto the lens. 

This helps a lot when you aim, because it gives you an easily repeatable reference point for where to put the reticle to hit a target at a certain distance.

These come in a lot of flavors from everything from the very simple:

looking through a rifle scope

But their purpose is the same: to help you adjust your aim point on the fly to accommodate for distance, wind, elevation changes, or even how fast a target is moving. A moving target can be a real challenge to hit, especially when the target is moving quickly.

how to use a scope for long range shooting

The reticle is one of the few things on a scope that you cannot adjust, and that’s important to be aware of when you purchase one - if the reticle is so busy that a shooter can’t see their target, and you can’t adjust it to let you focus properly on what you’re seeing through the lens, then you may simply be out of luck.

There’s an argument here for erring on the side of simple. Plenty of hunters get along just fine with a bare bones duplex, and even a lot of incredibly expensive and high-end scopes do not add anything to the simple crosshairs. If you haven’t purchased your scope yet, and you aren’t sure what to do here, my recommendation would be to go simple before you go complex.

Parallax

using a scope

A scope designed to hit a target from far away will often let you adjust parallax. Parallax is one of those things that sounds essential when you first hear about it, but in practice isn’t nearly as ubiquitous. It takes time to adjust parallax, so if you have time to do so then great, but no amount of parallax adjustment is going to replace having consistent shooting form.

Allow me to explain: when you look through your scope and you see that the center of the reticle is covering the center of your target, you would expect that your bullet would hit the center of the target, yes? Well, without the ability to adjust parallax, if the target is a different distance than what the parallax is set at, then that may not be the case depending on where your eye is positioned.

If a shooter positions their eye at the exact same point every time, then parallax does not matter, but if you put your eye slightly higher, lower, or to either side, then the reticle will shift slightly in relation to the target area, which means that the center of the reticle is no longer lined up with where you zeroed it. This can be highly irritating if you’re not expecting it.

Last, once you get your rifle scope you’ll need to sight it in so that you can hit what you’re aiming at.

How to Zero In a Rifle Scope

use rifle scope

Most experienced shooters will start the zeroing process by bore sighting. You can get a bore sight online at Amazon or OpticsPlanet and use it to sight in your rifle scope. It either goes in the chamber of your rifle or at the end of the rifle barrel and shoots a laser at the target so you can match up the rifle scope reticle to where the laser is hitting.

Bore sighting is really only good enough to get your shot placement “on paper”, so you’ll still have to adjust if you want to match the aiming point on the reticle and impact points of the bullets. Even if your intended target is going to be big game for hunting, you want to get your rifle scope zeroed in as tightly as you can.

Making adjustments is done by using the windage and elevation knobs to shift the reticle left-right and up-down. Your goal in adjusting these is to get the center of the cross hairs to line up with where the bullet hits. You want the impact point to be dead center on the cross hairs.

Most of the time you’ll want to zero at 100 yards unless you have a specific reason not to. I would also recommend getting a rifle stand or at least a shooting bench to make sure the rifle is steady each time you shoot at your zero range. A shooting bench to give you a static position and a good sight picture are essential when you’re sighting in a scope. 

How to use Rifle Scope Adjustment Knobs

scope adjustments

The elevation and windage knob will be either Mil or MOA, and each click will represent a fraction of one of those, usually either 1/10 Mil or ¼ MOA. A rifle scope with low magnification (like 1-6x, for example), may be ½ MOA clicks, while a rifle scope with high magnification (like up to 24x), may have ⅛ MOA adjustments.

Some of these are finger pressure knobs, so adjusting is just a matter of turning them with your fingers, but some you have to adjust using a specific tool. 

When you are zeroing in your scope, some rifle scopes will have resettable knobs that allow you to position the numbers on the side back to zero without moving the cross haris. This allows you to more easily adjust for individual shots while hunting or shooting at long distances.

How to Maintain a Rifle Scope

For the most part, once the rifle scope is mounted and properly aligned on the gun, there isn’t a whole lot of maintenance that goes into keeping it nice. You can use a lens cloth and lens brush to clean all the air to glass surfaces, and keep all of the non-glass surfaces free of dust as well.

As a general rule, you want to keep the entire scope safe from bumps and jostles. Many scopes offer a certain amount of waterproofing and shockproofing, but if the rifle scope was cheap then it probably won’t last long under rough conditions, and if the rifle scope was expensive then the stakes are a lot higher if you are careless with it.

How to Aim a Rifle Scope

how to shoot a rifle with a scope

Aiming a rifle scope is fairly easy. If you have used iron sights before, then it’s even easier. Bullets do not travel in a perfectly straight line. A bullet’s trajectory is an arc thanks to gravity. If you want to hit your intended target at a different distance than what you zeroed at, you need to compensate for bullet drop at that range.

A lot of accuracy is knowing how much higher or lower than the center of the cross hairs you should aim. Many a rifle scope, especially a good rifle scope, will have some little hashmarks or other markings on the crosshairs to help give you points of reference for this aiming process.

This process is the same no matter what targets you’re looking at through the lens. Once you mount and zero your scope, most people don’t adjust windage using the knob, they simply aim to the left or to the right to compensate.

Final Thoughts 

Learning to use a rifle scope is an exciting part of shooting. Most scopes are more alike than different; you shoot with them from a normal firing position, and can use them to shoot at a shooting range with a paper target or out hunting with a live target. The purpose of a scope is to let you hit a target with higher accuracy from further away. 

If you’re shooting at a target at longer distances, then the bullet’s trajectory will need to be compensated for more. Depending on what distance the target is at, it may take a shooter a long time to learn their reticle well enough and adjust what needs adjusting in order to hit the target each time they’re shooting.

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