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To Scope or not to Scope

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Published on: Aug. 2, 2008

Last revision: Dec. 8, 2010

Some hunters let circumstances decide for them what kind of sights to use on their deer rifles. If their rifle came with iron sights, that’s the way they shoot it. Others follow conventional wisdom. If all their friends use telescopic sights, they slap a scope on the rifle and never look back. Circumstances forced me to think about the choice.

I always had scopes on my .22 squirrel rifles. Then I bought the deer gun of my dreams—a European-style Savage .30–06 with a beautiful, hand-checkered, oiled walnut stock. It was not available with a factory-mounted scope, and I hated to ruin its classic lines with a bulky optical contraption.

Weight was a consideration, too. I hope to take the gun elk hunting in Montana one day, and a scope with mounting hardware would add more than a pound to the load I would have to carry up hogbacks in thin mountain air.

On the one hand, I thought a scope might be a great asset when trying to make shots at the distances often involved in elk hunting. The magnification would prove useful for long shots at home, too. If you have a firearm capable of taking game at 400 yards, why wouldn’t you want a sight capable of such shots?

On the other hand, most of the shots I get at Missouri whitetails are well inside 100 yards. Furthermore, I worried that a scope might be more hindrance than help on close shots or moving deer.

Then there was the question of my vision. My uncorrected vision is nearly 20–20, but I wear bifocals for close-up vision. I wondered how this might change the best choice of sights.

I bought my rifle in June, so I had plenty of time to spend at the shooting range sorting out all these considerations. Here is what my time at the range revealed.

Ironing Out Shooting Problems

For the past 15 years, I have hunted deer exclusively with traditional muzzle-loading rifles. The discipline of shooting weapons that Daniel Boone would have recognized has made me a much better rifleman. My outdoor journal revealed that all but one deer taken with muzzleloaders have been lung or heart shots. So I was not worried about my ability to take deer at short range with an iron-sighted .30–06.

My journal also records, however, that I never shot at a deer beyond 60 yards. I needed to learn how accurately I could shoot with iron sights at longer distances. The answer turned out to be, “pretty well.”

My first step was to invest in some inexpensive ammunition for familiarization shooting and some high-quality cartridges for serious target work. The accuracy of even the best rifles is only as good as the ammunition you feed it and how comfortable you are with it.

After carefully zeroing the rifle’s iron sights at 25 yards, I shot targets at 100 to 200 yards from a shooting vise. I wanted to see what kind of accuracy the rifle was capable of with iron sights and the 150-grain, boat-tailed soft-point bullets I settled on.

The average three-shot group at 100 yards had a 3.5-inch spread. That’s excellent for me and iron sights. However, I don’t shoot deer from a shooting vise. My next project was to discover how well I shot from normal hunting positions.

Most of my shots are taken from a sitting position. Occasionally I have to shoot standing. Not surprisingly, I did best on the sitting shots at the shooting range. My groups were mostly 6 to 8 inches in diameter at 100 yards.

Standing shots were a different matter. I did well to hold a 10-inch group in that position, and a distressing number of shots landed randomly outside that diameter. The techniques that worked for me at 25 yards were not adequate at 100 to 200 yards. It was time to try another approach.

I got a 6-foot shooting staff and fired several groups—sitting and standing—gripping the staff with my left hand and resting the front stock of the rifle on my fist. This brought virtually all my shots inside an 8-inch circle.

Because the shooting staff provided excellent vertical stability, misses were almost all left or right of the bull’s-eye. That is good, since a deer’s body is much wider than it is tall. At this point, I felt confident in my ability to take deer at 100 yards and beyond with iron sights.

Optical Conclusion

Then it was time to try a scope. I bought a 3- to 9-power model with a 42mm objective lens. I was ready to pay $50 more for one with a 50mm objective until I talked with Tony Proper, president of Alpen Optics.

He informed me that a 42mm objective lens gathers all the light that a rifle scope with a 1-inch tube can transmit. He said buying more glass is a waste of money and adds unnecessary weight. His company sells the larger scopes only because some customers demand them.

My performance shooting a scoped rifle from a shooting vise was awesome—1.25-inch groups at 100 yards. Groups shot from a sitting position expanded to around 4 inches. I still had fliers out to 6 inches, but these consistently landed to the right of the bull’s-eye, indicating I had pulled them off-target by jerking the trigger. Regular practice over the next few weeks, with close attention to shooting technique, reduced both the frequency and severity of such wild shots.

The primary advantage of telescopic sights is the ability to see your precise aiming point. However, being able to see the aiming point is a separate thing from being able to squeeze off a shot when the crosshairs are on that point. Holding steady enough for an accurate shot at 200 yards is the same challenge, regardless of what type of sights you use. For me, being able to see the aiming point more clearly resulted in better shooting.

Real World Revelations

This past hunting season, I had a couple of experiences that revealed unforeseen advantages to a scope.

The first occurred when I had a buck standing broadside to me at 80 yards. Looking through my scope at 9X, I was able to determine that it was a 7-pointer, with a fourth, 1.5-inch point on one side. Without a scope, I never could have seen the brow tine that made the deer legal. I would have had to pass up the shot.

The second revelation laid to rest my concern about tracking moving targets with a scope. A doe came toward my tree stand at a canter, passing right in front of me. I was sure she would stop and offer a standing shot, but after passing my tree stand she turned 180 degrees and trotted back the way she had come. Seeing back straps and loins rapidly disappearing into the woods, I shouldered my rifle, and with the scope on 3X, I had no trouble snapping off a shot as the cross hairs intersected her flank. The lung shot brought her down within 100 yards. I am not sure I could have done that with iron sights.

So I have decided to keep the scope on my rifle. It isn’t a perfect arrangement, but it is the best for my hunting situation, my vision limitations and my shooting ability. If my Montana trip never materializes, I may sell the scope and go back to the pure simplicity of iron sights. Either way, I know that making a good shot depends more on practice than on paraphernalia.

Get Off the Bench

The accuracy that is possible with a quality scoped rifle fired from a firm rest is truly amazing. Ironically, this can lead to missed opportunities.

Shooters who grow accustomed to the perfect stability of bench shooting get a rude surprise when drawing down on deer without a rest. The cross hairs of a 9-power scope weave disconcertingly back and forth across the animal’s flank. The hunter hesitates, and the deer leaves before he or she can squeeze off a shot.

In the same situation, shooters with iron sights are not even aware of the small drift of their aiming point. Shooting practice gives them confidence in their ability to hit a target the size of a deer’s heart-lung area, so they pull the trigger and fill their tag.

Practice shooting in different unsupported positions that simulate hunting conditions. That way you will be prepared when the moment of truth arrives.

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