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AR-15 Scope Guide: Options For Long & Close Range Shooting

The modularity and adaptability of today’s AR make it an attractive target for armchair quarterbacks eager to dispense bank account-draining advice on accessories. Quality optics can have a hefty price tag, but financial pain can be minimized by asking yourself a few serious questions before you get down to purchasing. In this AR-15 scope guide, we try to find answers to those questions with the help of some of my range friends.

I’ve participated in a lot of shooting industry events and have been on many hunts. Quite often I found myself behind the trigger of an AR-15 or AR-10. However, that doesn’t make me an expert in selecting the ideal optic for all applications, budgets or shooting styles. There are no easy, one-size-fits-all answers, regardless of what you’ve read. Nearly every engineer behind the modern designs I’ve talked to agrees. A cutting-edge system efficient in one application becomes a compromise in another. The best ones surrender the least in that transition.  

Table of Contents

ar 15 scope

The Tip That Always Works

Ethical disclaimer aside, there’s one point upon which everyone agrees. Spend as much as you can on your mounting system. Avoid the bargain basement and save for bombproof mounts. If you build them right, they will withstand anything life may throw at them and will even firmly affix your great-great grandson’s Gen. 12 night-vision scope. I happened to see $5K long-range optics on $12 bases, with loose rings, and boy, is that spectacle upsetting. If you’re having problems with your current setup, consider trying new mounts. They’re the least expensive component, and even if the malady isn’t remedied, they’ll firmly affix that upgrade in your near future.

The other insight I consider unimpeachable is a tidbit I picked up during a Leupold seminar at Gunsite Academy. Take your time in mounting your Ar-15 scope, do it right, and torque like you would an engine’s intake manifold — from the outside bolts, working in, alternating sides to minimize uneven and unseen pressure that can show up at the worst possible moment.

ar15 scope

The thought of spending five or six times the value of your rifle on an optic might seem a bit foreign one to older shooters. However, times have changed and quality has increased exponentially. Add the number of lifetime warrantees offered today — some of them transferrable — and if you can afford it, a quality piece of glass is a truly worthy investment.

Mission Specific Makes Budget-Friendly

AR-15 owners’ preferences tend to vary when it comes to distance. But, sooner or later, many end up stretching the distance or deciding to deliver faster shots on the bullseye. Luckily for everyone, ARs will get the job done at up-close-and-personal range and ring steel reliably at 1,000 meters in the right chambering. That versatility is what sets owners on an often costly quest for an AR-15 scope.

The fact is, riflescopes ideal for one application aren’t optimal for the other. I fell in love with the Leupold VX-3 HD 6.5-20x50mm I used on Gunsite’s Sniper Ridge, but couple the .308 Win. rifle’s recoil with the high magnification and corresponding loss of field of view – and quick follow-up shots become nothing but a fantasy (for me, at least).

Medium Range Options

Dial into your AR’s primary function and select a corresponding glass. If your gun is chambered in 5.56 NATO, .223 Rem. or .243 Win., an optic with 20-power magnification is probably a waste of money. Unless you’re using quick-detach mounts to slap it on the gun’s bigger brother, but that’s a whole different story. At 800 meters, the bullet’s like a kite in the wind, or at least so unpredictable that the slightest cross breeze downrange will drift it completely off the target.

The name Vortex should be well-known to individuals who have been looking into riflescopes for a bit. The brand doesn’t reach the price tag levels of some of the premium brands, although some models do belong to that group. Budget-minded range regulars would be hard-pressed to do better than the Vortex Crossfire II 2-7x32mm which has a versatile V-Plex reticle, positive 1/4 MOA clicks on the turrets and capped zero reset turrets. Does it qualify for the “ultimate” label? The decision rests with you.

If hunting’s your game, you’ll love the Burris Eliminator III 4-16x50mm. A friend of mine used a first-generation version to take an antelope in Wyoming in atrocious conditions. As he told me, he crawled with .243 Win. chambered AR-15 through the snow and mud for about 150 yards to close the gap, and worried the battery was going to be dead by the time he raised the rifle. It wasn’t, thankfully, and he took the animal at somewhere around 300 yards. I also saw the scope perform flawlessly for another half dozen hunters, with at least one shot longer than that. Program your precise ballistics and you’ll do more hunting and less mathematical gymnastics.

Going Long Distance

There’s no denying the performance of European glass. I used a Zeiss Conquest V4 3-12×56 during a bear hunt where the forest sucked light like a black hole. A bear came in 30 before dusk but was so bright through the scope I could count hairs. Swarovski has made serious inroads in 3-gun and so has Kahles. Unfortunately, I haven’t tested any of them on an AR. Their optical clarity and ability to pull light out of seemingly nowhere are noteworthy, and make them a good choice if you find a deal.

I spent a lot of days behind a Leupold Mark 5 3.6-18x44mm atop of .308 Win. chambered Weatherby at Gunsite and cannot say enough about the riflescope. Dust, grime, heat, abuse and a lot of sweat did little to affect it. We dialed for elevation, and I connected at distances I didn’t think were possible at my skill level. Having expert instruction helps, especially when clicks are .1 mil each and the reticle is on the first focal plane. However, the crisp return to zero and bright optics (even when covered in dust) played a more important role. Some at the seminar went on to ring steel at 900 and 1,000 meters, and the last day they brought out a .338 Lapua to test ruggedness. It passed with flying colors as it did when I subsequently mounted it on different ARs.

The Bushnell name hasn’t always been associated with high quality, but seven or eight years ago that started to change when it introduced a tactical lineup. The quality is so good now that one friend of mine — who served as a sniper in the military for years, including the Sand Box — now uses them to test the ARs he manufactures and ammunition. And he does know his optics.

ar scopes

You’d be hard-pressed to go wrong with any Nightforce scope. They’re a staple for long-distance enthusiasts and perform well. And, keep an eye out for Lucid riflescopes. The price is right and the owner is extremely knowledgeable in high-performance optics—he was part of the Brunton team several years ago.

Closing The Distance

It’s not uncommon for AR-15 to do double duty as a home-defense gun, where an optic with no/low magnification is a huge advantage. The ability to keep both eyes open maximizes situational awareness and minimizes the time required to engage a criminal. It’s this arena where things change overnight, and today’s ultimate AR-15 scope will likely be eclipsed by something better tomorrow.

Once upon a time, a riflescope capable of zooming from 1X (no magnification) to any higher power, without some of sort electronic display, was thought to be impossible because it would defy the laws of physics or distort targets until they looked like Pokemon Go figures. Apparently, we can bend those rules now, because we have a lot of good zooming scopes at or near that that unity figure.

ar 15 optics

That’s a good thing for combat troops who might be clearing houses at 5 p.m., and forced to engage a terrorist at 200 meters five minutes later when they leave. It’s also good for civilians because remounting and rezeroing after every range session is a pain, and adjusting to look through co-witnessed holographic sights isn’t required.

Bushnell has three SMRS scopes in its Tactical line that start their zoom range at 1 power. The highest magnification available is 8.5, which is amazing. The 24 mm objective should perform well at 1X, but we’ll see what it does at dusk at the highest setting.

Nightforce ATACR 1-8x24mm can do the trick of 1.0 point, but with a magnification range extending to 8, that bad guy in the living room coming at you won’t tell the difference. And you’ll enjoy that 8X power at the 300-yard line the next time you’re at the range. I haven’t shot it extensively, but in my testing, it’s performed admirably, and at low power that 24 mm front objective collects more than enough light to engage a criminal threat.

The Leupold’s Mark 4 HAMR is every bit as rugged as its name sounds and the 4X optic bears mentioning because it’s combat tough. However, the company’s DeltaPoint reflex sight is mounted on the unit for CBQ work—requiring a slight lift on your cheek weld.

Trijicon’s ACOG has proven itself for years in the global war on terror, and despite the fact it has 4X magnification, its performance in close quarters earns its mention here. It was designed for the shooter to keep both eyes open, an illuminated reticle speeds target acquisition, it’s combat tough, waterproof and comes with reticles that are bullet-drop compensating and range estimating. You can’t go wrong with this thing—ask a vet.

Conclusion

Did you find your “ultimate AR-15 scope” here? Maybe, but probably not, because only you know your rifle’s primary mission, whether you prefer dealing in mils or MOA, if a first focal plane reticle makes you stutter, consider batteries untrustworthy and despise adjusting turrets. Hopefully, you found some good candidates, but as for the urban legend that someone knows exactly what you think is superior, the odds are probably good even your spouse doesn’t know—even if they’re a shooter.

FAQs

What factors should I consider when choosing a scope for my AR-15?

It’s crucial to consider the purpose of your rifle, your budget, and the type of shooting you’ll be doing. This will help you determine the right magnification, reticle, and other features.

What is the significance of scope magnification for an AR-15? 

The magnification of your scope can either enhance or hinder your shooting experience depending on your target’s distance. Understanding magnification numbers is essential for selecting the best scope.

Can I use the same scope for both long-range and close-range shooting? 

Some scopes offer variable magnification which can be adjusted for both long and close range shooting. However, they may not perform as well as scopes specifically designed for one range.

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