Tuesday, September 18, 2018

Optics I've Used for Highpower; A Very Incomplete and Personal Journey

Zeroing a NF Comp SR at 600 yards, cartridge caught in the air. Photo Credit: Samantha Bonilla

In the fall of 2014 at the Civilian Marksmanship Program (CMP) Western Games in Phoenix, I attended a dinner with Gary Anderson and the CMP staff where the subject of considering optics for Service Rifle was discussed.  It was noted the the U.S. military had long since transitioned to the common use of optical sights both in the form of non-magnifying 1X optics and magnifying optics such as the Trijicon ACOG.  Furthermore, the National Rifle Association (NRA) had been experimenting with optical-class rifles for across-the-course high-powered rifle competition for a number of years.  Finally it was noted, that there were no currently manufactured optics specifically designed for high-power competition; that the closest optics to this purpose were the 1-4X optics in used for the 3-gun action shooting discipline; but that these were optimized for close in work and may or may not prove workable for full distance across-the-course use.

From that dinner, a number of us began a journey that, though most of 2015, would find us approaching manufacturers and experimenting with configurations including, among other things, what forward cantilever distance and height above Picatinny rail a scope should have. The answer was forward enough and at the same height to have approximately the same head position with respect to the rear aperture of an A2 iron sight rifle.  The consensus height after several people experimented with it was 1.300".  I visited with several manufacturers, some at the SHOT Show, some in person, going over my wish list for features; foremost of which, was CMP's insistence on a maximum 4.5X physical magnification limit for the optic.

The request was not well received.  The industry quickly pointed out that military combat optics were rapidly evolving towards maximum magnifications in the ranges of 6X to 8X power; which I knew, because of the increasing importance of rifle engagement envelopes out to 800m in the mountains of Afghanistan.  The days of CQB emphasis for urban warfare in Iraq were done and 4X optics hit a practical limit at around 500-600 meters for military use.  A similarly dour response was received from the sporting optics industry who were quick to point out that the production economies of scale to bring out a dedicated optic at an affordable price point didn't pencil given the relatively small market represented by high-power competitors. It was pretty much beg for favors across the board at the time adapting existing scopes as best as could be done.  Eventually, the effort began to yield response.  This is the story of that from my perspective.

The Pride-Fowler "Peshmerga" Prototype

Beyond our sport, 2014 also marked the emergence of ISIS in Iraq and the struggle for survival of the Kurds, Yazidis and other non-Sunni Muslims in the face of the Islamic State.  There was a desperate need to defend against waves of invaders of the most cruel nature.  My friend John Pride ask me what I thought of it and I suggested he explore a low cost scope manufactured using a Chinese OEM that could potentially be sold in large numbers under Foreign Military Sales, yeah including jumping through all the ITARS hoops, so the Pesh might have something on their small arms that could take out suicide vest attackers at decent stand off distances.  I said the requirement is sort of similar to what's evolving for highpower so if you can put together something I can test I'd be happy to tinker. And so from mix and match parts came a 1-4.5X 1st focal plane scope with a reticle taken out of a 4-12X scope and 0.5 moa turrets to play with.  This was the very first manufacturer willing to just try something for the heck of it. It had a ballistic compensating reticle that I had to divide 12 by 4.5 to recompute it's optical holdovers but it worked.  It even had red, green and blue reticle illumination.  

At reduced course distances, it was a dream to drive. Turret tracking was consistent but the mismatch of optical powers from mixing pieces made a click worth grow in value per click as elevation grew.  It still worked of holding off, kind of like an ACOG, but the windage dial was too rough to move in unison with a rattle battle team coach calling the wind.  I sadly had to put it aside for full distance shooting.  For a hundred yard reduced course gun or on top of a CMP Modern Miilitary rifle, the thing can hammer.  Well, it was a prototype build from scrounged parts and I will always appreciate that John Pride was willing to innovate a test article to help explore the rule change so early in the process.

The NightForce Comp SR

Arriving just a little too close to the 2016 Natonals to really get to know, I think the Nightforce Comp SR is probably the best across-the-course scope going.  It's a fixed power scope with reduces optical complexity. It's based on a higher magnification design base and that gives it 0.25 moa clicks.  That's a big deal in a low power optic. And it tracks quite linearly across the course as you dial it. The glass has superb clarity.  So much so that you have to remind yourself a lot that looking at the target instead of the reticle is bad mojo.  And the reticle is what makes this scope stand out.  It has a circle-dot center that harkens back to the infamous "donut of death" of the original Steyr AUG optical sights.  It's a circle in a circle in a circle. Match concentric rings and boom, you're days as a kid qualifying for NRA small-bore patches using 513T's with circle sights comes back to you.  The second generation NF Comp SR2 makes the central circle smaller and holds a circle of white even tighter to the bull.  Would love to try one.  I can discern the tighter hold that's possible in the SR2's I've looked through  At the moment, I've still only got the original SR; but I love the thing. This is the scope that sits on my "A" gun.  It'll take a lot to displace it.

The Konus XTC-30

Between 2016 and 2017, the quest to come up with an affordable 4X'ish optic with turrets that tracked under heavy dialing use finally began to become important.  Dennis DeMille, who was part of the discussions in 2014, specified, tested and sent back numerous times until the turrets were as close to bulletproof as possible, what would become the Konus XTC-30. In scopes, pricing is determined by manufacturing lot size more than anything else.  Place a large enough order with the OEM factory and dollars shave off the suggested retail per item.  That's how a combination of a Creedmoor Sports and CMP order brought the price on these down.  I came to possess one of these at the end of 2017 Nationals along with an admonition from one Dennis to another Dennis to test and mistreat the thing.  I have endeavored to do so.

The XTC-30 has fewer frills.  It does have illumination but I confess I've never turned it on. The reticle reminds one of a Vortex PST, quite vanilla, but also purposefully workmanlike at the same time. It takes in a lot of light and on the brightest days in the deserts of the west. It helps to put one of those caps on the front that cuts down on incoming light. It's not a problem where it's green. The turrets dial in 1/2 munute clicks.  But they do track.  I box tested this scope in a 10 moa box from cornet to corner twirling knobs mercilessly between each shot.  Firing from a sling, this is high-power not bench rest people, it performed.  So far, it continues to.  This is the scope that sits on my "B" gun with the older barrel.  I'm confident enough in it that I'd tackle XTC and rattle battle with it.

We are beginning to see more scopes in this genre appearing from other manufacturers.  This is a very good thing for the sport.

The Weaver K-4

Born in El Paso when competing in high-power meant using an M1903 Springfield, M-1 Garand, or Winchester Model 70, the fixed power 4X Weaver K is not to be trifled with.  It is in my opinion, the epitome model for NRA/CMP reduced course and 200-yard Modern Military Rifle competition.  Take the fixed power simplicity concept of the NF Comp SR to its very basics and you have a Weaver K-4.  If Modern Military Rifle is your game, in my opinion, every dollar you spend past a K-4 is decorative.  You're allowed to.  But performance wise, there's no gain I can see.

Really! Straight up. I'd still stick a Weaver K-4 on a gun and hunt for Games Match achievement medals with it. They drive really well. But then again, would you expect less from a scope meant to perform sitting on top of hunting rifles that kick like elephants? And you can get used ones for about fifty bucks on eBay.  The same observation goes for any number of other new and vintage 1" diameter scopes when it comes to 100-yard and 200-yard matches. Keep it simple.

Note:  Here is where I actually had a bit of a bone to pick with the rules committee at the CMP.  In 2016, a company named Iron Sight Inc. (ISI) offered a custom-shop modification to the Weaver K's to install Micro-Trac turrets in them essentially creating a Weaver T-4 across-the-course optic.  In practice the parts is parts assembly dialed around 1/3 moa per click but it had Micro-Tracs with all the turret repeatability and double springs Weaver T-series optics are reknown for.  Alas, someone at the CMP declared them illegal.  I thought then and still do believe it was a wrong decision. Refusing to let the custom-shop ISI's stand alongside other custom-shop scopes such as the variations on Leupold tubes that adorn the firing line at Camp Perry seemed rather unfair to me. ISI is a commercial business with a proper IRS EIN number no different than any other enterprise that does work in the optics market; in their case, doing custom and repair work on a number of well respected brands. I thought what they were doing was exactly the kind of industry response we hoped to encourage in the meetings of 2014. I believe the CMP's decision in this case served more to stifle innovation by many brands and delayed the arrival of options from other manufacturers who could have answered the need for affordable optics sooner. A most unfortunate episode. The story does have a happy ending.  The modified Weavers eventually became a catalog product called the IST4 offered by ISI and are now certified for use in CMP/NRA XTC matches on Service Rifles.

The Vortex PST 1-4x24

This is a a tale of a scope that was dropped by its manufacturer just as a new market segment was beginning to activate for it.  I made a special point of stopping by Vortex booth at the 2016 SHOT Show to discuss parallax distance pre-sets for scopes like this PST.  It was clear from group experiments in 2015 that a "highpower competition" version of the Viper 1-4X PST with an objective lens parallax pre-set to 200 yards or 300 yards would be a workable piece of kit.  It became clear though that Vortex was planning to discontinue the model in favor a more expensive HD line replacement aimed at upscale 3-gun, hunter and military purchasers.

It's too bad.  The little PST was a decently priced optic with good overall performance.  You don't need perfect glass to shoot at bullseyes.  You do need an easy to navigate reticle as well as decent feeling and repeatable turrets. The Vortex had these. With it's parallax focused for closer targets found in plinking and 3-gun, it was a scope that you had to be extra careful getting behind ever time particulary at longer distances.  A model with the right parallax distance pre-set would have solved it and, in my opinion, Vortex missed a change to take an early lead in the service rifle optics arena.

By creating the product void, Vortex opened the door for scopes like the Leupold Mark AR and the Konus XTC-30 to address emerging demand unfettered.  Their HD line is too expensive and it's just better to go with the cheaper models.

Update: The Vortex Viper 1-4X PST is apparently back on the market for the time being as the Vortex Ranger.

The Pride-Fowler 1-6X RR 7.62/5.56

So about that original protype Pride-Fowler from 2015?  It's also evolved.  As originally predicted was the trend for martial purpose optics, this turned out to be a 1-6X magnification, first-focal plane, solid click turrets optic in the vein of a scope you dial combined with an etched ballistic compensation reticle set-up for 7.62x51mm 175 gr. and 5.56x45mm 77 gr. ammunition with distance to target estimation hacks in keeping with military ACOG and RCO fastest-to-engage practices.

It also works well as a highpower scope. The reticle is busier than ideal for bullseye shooting but not unworkable.  The turrets and knobs are robust and have solid clicks, something I found out from the Chinese OEM factory are features out of a catalog menu added to the turret.  The travel per rotation of a scope is really a function of the thread pitch of the erector and traverse screws.  It likes my 77gr Sierra Match King load, which it should seeing as it approximates the military Mk262 Mod 0/1 round used in designated marksman rifles. It likes M118-LR out of a 20" AR-10/LR-308 too.

Of course, it's entirely non-compliant with the CMP's maximum magnification rule and I'm not presently holding my breath that the CMP will extend the same courtesy it does to optics users in Rimfire Sporter matches of setting the scope to the rule book maximum magnification and taping an inspection sticker on the scope to lock it in for the duration.  We'll see how that goes as more of these 6X to 8X optics become standard issue mil-spec optics with National Stocks Numbers (NSN's).  For now, I'm perfectly happy to shoot it as a match rifle at club matches to keep gathering data on how this branch of optics innovation evolves.  The way I look at it, in the end, I'm a curious student of the gun, not the rulebook.

Scopes I haven't tried.

The Leupolds.  There are several of these ranging from low priced to high end.  The main reason I haven't explored them is because so many of my friends have them on their guns. The reports on them are numerous and, at this point, consistent.  A Leupold in the hands of a skilled competitor can win any match. People have offered to lend me one to run tests on.  One of these days I will.

The March. This is the optic that has adjustable parallax which makes head/eye position less critical to align.  On the pricey side, I've never been able to justify the cost to curiosity equation enough to give it a go. The thing is, match winners always tend to seem to be driving NightForce or Leupold glass so I'm hard pressed to jump on the wagon.  Don't get me wrong, having shot plenty of any/any, PRS and small-bore matches, I'm keenly aware of how advantageous it is to have adjustable parallax in high magnification optics.  At 4.5X, not that sold.

Vortex HD's. I think I'm just happy with that cheaper 1-4x Viper PST that I haven't chased one of their Big Kahuna models down to compare it.  Also, I don't own any 34mm mounts or rings although I do admit to having drooled over Spuhr rings forever.  Hakan has some of the most interesting nuance innovations built into them.

Hi-Lux XTC 14x34. I have a curiosity about this emerging in 2018 scope mostly because it has objective parallax adjustment. I've been a fan of this type of parallax feature vs. the turret knob type all the way back to the behemoth Unertl Varmints sitting on POSA bases on top of a Winchester Model 70.  The fact that it's an under $500 suggested retail scope is even better.

The SHOT Show plethora of scopes.  These include offerings from Nikon, Sig, etc that one finds walking the floor every January.  Some of them look pretty interesting because of cost or features.  Many are clearly only going to be good for reduced course or Games match use, which is fine, there's a need for that. I'm a huge proponent of encouraging beginners with a 16" AR to try high-power at 100 or 200 yards with minimal equipment, including optics. It's about fun and learning. I do scour the SHOT Show and am most keen to test any scope models that have potential to work across the course at full distance, including their potential for mid-range, long range and rattle battle use. These models, outside of the mainstays named above for high-power, tend to be few and far between on the showroom floor.

The Bottom Line

Here's the learning from tinkering with all these gizmos over the past three years.  Basically, the same rule applies to all these pre-set parallax scopes. It's all about the three fundamentals.

1. Sight alignment means putting your head and eye in the same spot behind the optic consistently. It may not be the same spot for each position, but it needs to be consistently the same spot for each position.

2. Focus means the discipline of hyper concentrating on the reticle.  If the last thing you see is the reticle, it's in.  If the last thing you see is the target, it'll pocket shot.  It's that simple and that rule applies to every optic.

3. Trigger control. It only works if the gun's not moving when it goes off. On the plus side, you can see the wobble that's always been there clear as day at 4X.  Some people are bothered by this initially, it'll pass.

There is no magic. Fundamentals. It's still about the monkey getting it right.


John Burres said...

Nice article Dennis. Comments seem to hit fair and square as I see

Unknown said...

Agree very nice article. Just an FYI, Vortex has rebranded the PST 1-4X as the ranger (Vortex Optics #: RGR-1401) They appear to be a special run apparently only for midwayusa. I have the new ranger and the original PST, they are identical in all respects that I can see.

montanabob said...

Very nice article. I liked most the last part in the article. Cheek weld is important. Consistency, consistency, consistency. The 4x magnified wobble will become invisible after a time. Well done sir.