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You can't hit what you can't see!

Ever since scope sights first became popular on hunting rifles, two subjects have precipitated heated arguments among hunters--magnification and reticle design. The debate over which power is best for a given type of hunting has been quieted to some degree by the variable power scope, but arguments over reticle design remain hot as ever.

As a teenager and apprentice hunter, I remember sitting around a campfire in an elk camp in Wyoming's Owl Creek Mountains and listening intently as my tutors, a couple of old hands with many more years in the mountains than I was old, debated the virtues of two popular reticles of the day, the crosshair and the Lee dot. Both hunters had been using scopes since it first became practical to mount them on big-game rifles, and both men had definite opinions about what a reticle should do. Neither would concede even one point to the other and I thought they were going to come to blows. That night I retired to my bedroll completely confused. Both hunters made some very good points for their choice of reticle and I really didn't know how to sort out the fact from the fiction.

Now, over 30 years later, I still find myself wondering if the reticle I'm using is the best for my hunting conditions or if there's a style out there that would be better. Most hunters tend to accept what the major manufacturers claim is the most popular, the inference being that it's also the best. The reticle presently most often sold in the United States is the Plex, Duplex, 4-Plex--or whatever a particular manufacturer wants to call it. By any name it's a reticle with a fine crosshair in the center and each wire thickened considerably out away from the center. The idea behind the Plex system is that you have a fine crosshair for sighting in and hunting conditions where the light is good, yet the thick portions of the wires can be easily seen in poor light and with these as reference you can determine the center of the field and shoot with relative accuracy even if you can't see the fine crosshair clearly.

But does this really work, or are we simply buying what the manufacturer wants us to buy? Maybe there's reticle design available that's actually better for all-around use than the Plex. Then, too, maybe there isn't any such thing as an all-around reticle! Possibly the hunter should select a reticle design that's been for each hunting circumstance and not settle for one designed for utility use.

In an effort to shed some light on the intriguing subject of reticle design for hunting scopes we decided to run a number of tests designed to evaluate several reticle styles in the field under the various conditions encountered by big game hunters. To do this we needed several things--a good selection of reticles, scopes of high optical quality and controls that would remove as much of the human element as possible from the est results.

As luck would have it, Zeiss, a world optics leader, just happens to offen more reticle styles than any other manufacturer--seven in all--so Zeiss 4X scopes were chosen for the test. However, when the scopes arrived I found two reticles missing that are frequently used here in the U.S.--a tapered crosshair and a dot. I felt that these had to be tested even though I'd have to deviate from our established control group. In my collection I had an old Bausch & Lomb Balfor 4X with a tapered crosshair and excellent optics, so I felt it would work well for the evaluation. For a dot. G&A Editor Howard French sent me one of the new Thompson/Center 4X scopes. With this one you have a choice of a standard black dot, or, at the flip of a switch, an illuminated orange dot.

One rifle was also a prerequisite so that we could get a fair comparison of group sizes. For this I selected a popular hunting rifle, the Remington Model 700 BDL in .308 Winchester chambering. We also standardized on ammunition, electing to use Hornady Manufacturing's Frontier brand .308 Winchester loaded with a 165-grain spire point bullet. This is some of the most accurate and consistent factory ammo I've ever used and I felt it would do its part to minimize error in my tests.

There remained one last hurdle--the scope mount. Frequent quick changes of the nine scopes I'd be testing would be essential, so I chose to go with the APEL quick-detachable mount system manufactured in West Germany. Once the two-piece bases are installed on the rifle, rings are fit to each scope and matched 3 ') bases, so that changing from one scope to another is a simple matter of pushing up on the lock level, swingin the scope to the right 90 degrees and lifting the front ring stud out of the recess in the base. Another scope is put in place by simply reversing this sequence. I found the APEL system to be most satisfactory and removing and replacing a scope resulted in no detectable change in zero.

The ten reticles I tested are shown in the accompanying photos. To facilitate fast notations about the reticles as my tests proceeded, I assigned each a number and affixed the number to the scope with a self-sticking label. The following is a description of each reticle:

Reticle #1: Standard crosshair, approximately one MOA subtension.

Reticle #2: American Plex, fine crosshair subtension approximately 1/2 MOA, heavy crosshair subtension approximately three MOA.

Reticle #3: European-style Plex, fine crosshair subtension approximately one MOA, heavy crosshair subtension approximately six MOA.

Reticle #4: Tapered post with horizontal crosshair, top of post subtension approximately three MOA.

Reticle #5: European 3-Plex, fine crosshair subtension approximately one MOA, heavy crosshair subtension approximately eight MOA.

Reticle #6: Heavy triple post, vertical post tapered to point, post subtension approximately seven MOA.

Reticle #7: Heavy triple post, vertical post pointed, with horizontal crosshair. Crosshair subtension approximately 1/2 MOA, post subtension approximately six MOA.

Reticle #8: Tapered crosshair, center crosshair subtension approximately 1/3 MOA.

Reticle #9: Black dot, sobtension approximately three MOA.

Reticle #10: Orange dot, subtension approximately three MOA.

My first test, of course, was sighting in--firing for zero first at 100 yards where I set my shots to hit 2-1/2 inches high, then at 200 yards to see where the shots printed. After sighting in I fired three-shot groups to determine the repeatability of the sight picture with each reticle. I was shooting at a 2-inch black square with a 1-inch white center, a small target that certainly tested reticle usefulness for precision shooting as well as optical clarity.

As you'd expect, the reticles with a crosshair proved best for sighting in. With all of them I had no trouble getting perfect alignment on the 100-yard target. The various post reticles gave passable results of 100 yards, but the three-minute dot was very difficult to use on the 2-inch square, allowing far too much room for sighting error. At 200 yards the crosshair reticles still worked fine, the various post styles were okay, but the dot was nearly useless.

Now it was time to leave the sight-in targets and work with near life-size game silhouettes. These I made by cutting out life-size targets from pieces of heavy cardboard. In an effort to duplicate field conditions as close as possible, no aiming points or kill areas were marked on the silhouettes. I had to select the area to place the bullet just as I would on a live animal. The criteria by which each reticle was judged during field shooting tests at the cardboard silhouette targets are as follows:

1. Ease with which the reticle could be seen.

2. How quickly I could get on the target and fire a well-aimed shot.

3. How much of the target was obscured by the reticle.

4. How successful I was in each test at keeping three shots in the shoulder/lung kill area of the target. This was given the least importance in the evaluation because it's a variable involving shooting skill, position steadiness and other factors having so bearing on reticle deisgn.

Under conditions of good daylight I set a silhouette target at 100, 200 and 300 yards, shooting three shots at each target using each scope reticle. Shooting was done from field positions, not from a bench, but a rest over a boulder was utilized. It should be noted that at 100 yards all of the reticles were satisfactory. Even though I rated some above the others, I don't believe a hunter would have trouble placing his shots accurately at 100 yards with any of the ten reticles. Even at 200 yards they were all acceptable. But at 300 yards I much preferred the crosshair reticles because they covered a minimum amount of the target.

Next I evaluated each reticle at long range--400 yards--under early morning, mid-day and late evening light conditions. Only those reticles incorporating a crosshair proved to be entirely satisfactory for long range work. The various post styles and the dot were all too coarse for precise aiming and shot placement. Remember, at long range, good shot placement is critical to clean kills owing to decreased velocity and resulting substandard bullet performance. You just can't place the bullet accurately when you're covering 12 inches of the target with a dot or spanning the entire vital kill area with a post.

Heavy timber where light is subdued even at mid-day is a condition familiar to western elk and moose hunters. In such timber you can rarely see more than 100 yards, yet seldom does thick brush obscure the target. The trunks of pines often present an obstacle, but the biggest problem is high contrast--patches of brilliant sunlight and deep, black shadows. Similar conditions are often encountered in mule deer country covered with juniper trees.

It was under these conditions, with my target set 100 yards away, that the tapered crosshair became almost useless. Try as I might I couldn't see it when the target was in a shadow. The standard crosshair, Reticle #1, was only fair. Reticles #2, #3 and #5, variations of the Plex design, all worked well because even when I couldn't see the fine crosshair well, the thick portions guided my eye to the optical center of the scope. The dot, particularly when illumination orange, proved very good in this test--probably the fastest of all to get into action.

As eastern whitetail hunters know all too well, shooting conditions where the brush grows thick and high are tough at best, making it difficult to see game and even more difficult to deliver a bullet on target. If a buck happens to be moving, getting off a shot can be almost impossible. To these problems add the poor light of the best hunting hours--early morning and late evening--and you have the very worst of shooting conditions. The only saving grace is that in heavy brush your shots most often come at close range--50 to 100 yards.

It was almost impossible for me to duplicate such conditions here in Wyoming, but I managed to come close in a growth of young aspen tree choked with a variety of berry bushes in several stages of maturity. With my target set at 70 yards. I shot all of the scopes in early morning, mid-day and late evening, sometimes so late it was almost dark. Here the orange dot was the best reticle, the black dot second best and the various posts grouped in third. I didn't do badly with Reticle #3, the European Plex, either.

Having completed these tests, I again asked myself, is there really an all-around reticle? Yes, I think there is. It's Reticle #3, the European-style Plex. Granted, the dot, both black and orange, and the tapered post, were better under the most adverse light and thick brush conditions, but there was never a time when I couldn't shoot well with the European Plex. Those big, heavy crosshairs coming in from all four directions--actually they're more like thick posts than heavy crosshairs--seem to automatically direct the eye to the optical center of the scope field. However, because the center of the crosshair is fine, subtending about one minute of angle at 100 yards, this reticle works well for sighting in, extreme long range shooting and all light conditions. There are better reticles for specific conditions, but for all around use, in my opinion, this is the best presently available.

The Plex as we know it in American scopes gets my vote as the runner-up for the all-around reticle. It's second only because under the worst light conditions the heavy sections of the crosshair aren't as easy to see as those of the European style.

In conclusion, let me say that while I was able to select an all-around reticle from among the 10 styles I tested, I can't in good conscience say that all others are bad. In fact, the only reticles that I found totally useless under certain circumstances were two that have always been fairly popular with American hunters--the standard crosshair and the tapered crosshair. In very poor light neigther of these can be seen and there is no way to make them more visible unless it would be to illuminate them--turn them orange as is done with the dot in the Thompson/Center scope. All other reticles have certain shortcomings, but can be used under any conditions with some degree of success.

In closing I'll list the reticles in order of usefulness as I determined from my tests. Think about the many factors involved, then make your own choice.
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Title Annotation:rifle scope reticle design
Author:Milek, Bob
Publication:Guns & Ammo
Date:Dec 1, 1984
Words:2287
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