What Rifle Scope Magnification Should I Get?

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If we were having the conversation about what power scope do you need 30 years ago, my responses would be far more limited because, back then, there just were not that many power ranges available on the market.

The traditional 3×9 was pretty much the default to everything, and there were a few brands that also offered a slightly more powerful 4×12 or 4×16 configuration.

Now, back then, there were some higher-powered scope models available, but they were really considered a “specialty” rifle scope and commanded a high price.

For example, back then I use to know a few guys who shot a .22 based match with smaller metallic targets at ranges of 50 yards out to 100 yards for a score based on hits and time. I can’t recall the match or league name, but those were the first shooters I encountered that were using a fixed 20 power scope.

BSA Sweet 22 Power range

Keep in mind, a 20-power scope was rare 30 years ago, and, I know from conversations with some of those shooters, most of those scopes were European models costing nearly $500 back then.

Fast forward to today, and a prospective shooter has probably around 50 different rifle scope power configurations to choose from. These days, those configurations go as low as either fixed 4X (which are still around) all the way up to a powerful 10x50x60 model.

How Will the Scope be Used?

The first question I always ask when folks are scope shopping is this: What caliber is the rifle and what kind of type of shooting are you going to be doing?

The idea behind that question is two-fold:

  1. I want/need to learn the specific caliber as that might play a role in the decision
  2. The customer has to kind of stop and ask him or herself what type of shooting are they going to be doing

Those questions will usually trigger other questions about the shooting distances, the type of game being hunted, the terrain, etc.

While some people are extremely specific about the rifle and the type of shooting, the majority are using the rifle for some type of combo use or uses.

For example, they may be deer hunting in the Eastern US, but also want to use the same rifle/scope set-up for some long-distance target shooting. Or, they are hunting Pronghorn in New Mexico, and then later want to use the same rifle/glass combo to hunt Prairie Dogs in North Dakota.

My advice about starting the process of choosing a rifle scope power is to ask yourself those two questions, then honestly answer them. And the key there is, to be honest about the plans and realize that, the more specific the planned use, the more it will play a significant role in the scope choice.

If you’re an occasional weekend deer hunter who uses a lever action 30-30, and hunts in an area where the average shot is 75 yards or less, then a 3×9 or 4×12 will probably work just fine for you.

If you have a 6.5 Creedmoor and are shooting at targets in the 800 yards to 1000+ yard range, then a 3×9 or 4×12 just won’t be enough magnification, and you’ll need or want a scope in the higher power ranges.

BSA scope adjustable power

If you really only use 1 rifle and it’s your go-to model for everything you do (hunt, target, plinking, etc.) then I’d think about going in the higher side of power ranges as it’s easy to dial a higher-powered scope down in power to shoot versus not having a high enough power to make shots.

On top of the specific use questions, there may be other factors to take into consideration. For example, if you read through this site enough, you’ll see that I’m an avid squirrel hunter who prefers to take only headshots. Well, a squirrel’s head is about the size of a tangerine and that’s a challenge to hit with a .22 at the 40, 50, or 60-yard range.

If you read through this site, you’ll also find that I come from a long line of optically challenged people who require vision corrections in order to do important things like drive, read, shoot, and see in general.

On top of that, my vision is significantly worse in my right eye, and I happen to be right eye dominant. Even though I have corrected 20/20 vision thanks to coke-bottom like contact lens, my right eye is still pretty weak when I close my left eye.

So, when I look through a scope and close my left eye (what I’ll call my “better eye”), my corrected vision in my right eye is not very good. To compensate, I generally hunt with glass on my 22 rifles that are somewhere in the 4-20 or up power range.

Now without having that background information, most people would think a 4-20 or higher magnification is overkill on a 22 squirrel rifle, but it works perfectly well for me.

Now, do I end up shooting most squirrels with the scope set on the higher end of the power range? Not really, I typically take most shots in the 30 to 50-yard range with the scope powered somewhere in the 8-10 range (again, given my poor vision in my right eye).

However, it’s always a nice option to be able to power up to 20X or higher for shots on a squirrel’s head at 60 or 80 yards.

My final piece of advice is this: don’t rely on some employee at a gun store or sporting goods store to determine what your “optimal” rifle scope magnification should be. While most of those folks are knowledgeable, most are going to try to sell you something in their inventory so you may not really get unbiased information.

Give it some thought, research things, and make a decision based on what works best for you and your specific situation.

And finally, given a choice, I’d suggest going higher on magnification versus lower as the additional magnification is always there if you need it.