Monday, November 05, 2012

Firearms Basics - Part 2: Cheap Optics?

This is the first full post in my new series "Firearms Basics", which I introduced here.

So, I got a question on a non-gun forum today, that I think is pretty common... and I haven't really seen what I consider to be a good and comprehensive answer around the gun blogs and gun forums (and I've seen a lot of bad advice, and a lot of derision and mockery about this sort of question).

 I'll paraphrase it here:
"I just bought a used 10/22, and I want to put an optic on it, but I don't want to spend too much money. 
It seems silly to spend more than $200 on a scope for a rifle that cost less than $200. 
I'm just going to be plinking at 25 or 50 yards anyway, I think I should probably just get a cheap red dot... It seems like they're a lot less expensive than scopes, and I don't really need magnification. 
I'd really like to spend less than $100 if I can get something good, but I suppose I can spend up to $200 if I need to."
Fair enough...

Though I disagree about it being silly to spend more for a scope than for the rifle you put it on... In fact I generally recommend you spend MORE for your scope than you did for your rifle (unless it's a high end custom rifle).

... for one thing, good optics are a lot more expensive than good guns.

But, if it's just a bone stock 10/22, you don't actually NEED "good" optics, you can get away with just "acceptable" if you have to (though you'd be surprised how little you have to spend to go from "acceptable" to "good").

And budgets are budgets...

Sometimes, you've only got $100 or $200, and you need an optic. When that's the case, it's not useful just to say "oh they're all garbage" or "don't be so cheap" (which unfortunately you'll hear a lot on firearms boards).

Conversely, it's also not good advice when people say "Oh, I love my NCStar, it works just fine, you all are idiots for spending more money" (which unfortunately you'll ALSO hear a lot of on gun forums and blogs); when in fact, NCStar "optics" are generally utter garbage that no-one should ever waste their money on.
Note: Yes, that's harsh on NCStar I know... but I stand by it. Buying junk is not even being cheap, it's just throwing away your money. If you got a "golden sample" that wasn't garbage, great for you... you're the exception.

That's the problem with quality control (and the overall field of quality management): There's no such thing as getting everything perfect all the time; there is only managing tolerances, defects, and deviations from standards. The more rigorous your standards are, and the closer to meeting that standard you have to be to pass your QC testing (and the more QC testing you do); the more expensive your manufacturing process is going to be.
A brand with good quality control will maintain very tight manufacturing tolerances, and strict standards; and they will require a minimum degree of deviation from the standard to pass their extensive quality control testing. This makes the product much more expensive, but you can count on it meeting spec, and being reliable (at least in theory...)
No-one sets out to make a crappy product that doesn't meet specs, even a junk brand like NCStar. An NCStar scope may actually meet standards, and be manufactured exactly as designed; but to keep costs minimal, they don't have much in the way of quality control... So a scope that isn't anywhere close to meeting standards will get shipped, just the same as one that is perfect and reliable and will last forever.... And you have no idea which one you'll get. If you got lucky and got a good one, great, if not, you're out of luck. Worse, you may not be able to tell you got a bad one, until you're actually depending on the product... and it fails...  
So, to business...

As always, my first recommendation is to buy for VALUE, not for price.

Sometimes cheap is good, just low cost. Sometimes cheap is just cheap. In general, you get better value paying a bit more, to get better quality and reliability.

My second recommendation, specific to a little .22 plinker; is rather than a red dot, to get a relatively low power, mid quality, variable magnification scope, with a medium sized objective; from a decent manufacturer, with a good warranty.

I just think that for most uses of a 10/22, you're going to get more use, and more enjoyment; out of a scope, than out of a red dot.

Yes, an acceptable quality scope is generally going to be more expensive than an acceptable quality red dot; but you can generally get into something reasonable for well under $200 pretty easily; and certainly under $250.

Nikon, Pentax, Redfield, Burris, and Vortex all have really quite good scopes available between $120 and $250, which will do just about anything you would want to do with a 10/22 or similar rifle... And still be useful for a longer range center fire rifle if you want to re-purpose it later.

There's no need to go down to wal-mart blister pack priced Bushnell and Simmons scopes; when you can get a Redfield or Vortex 2-7x32 with a lifetime warranty for $120, or a Nikon or Burris 3-9x40 for $140 (lifetime warranty on the Burris too).

As it happens, I use a Nikon ProStaff 3-9x40 on my 10/22, that I picked up for around $100 on special sale at Cabelas a few years ago (well under even online price actually. I think list on it is $240, and online prices are $140-$170).

It's a decent enough scope, with acceptable light gathering, acceptably smooth zoom operation, and repeatable adjustments that hold zero (that last bit is really important. Lower cost scopes are often somewhat imprecisely made internally; and their adjustment mechanisms don't produce repeatable precision, or hold zero under recoil or being banged about).

Also important, it's quick to acquire a sight picture at low magnification (the primary advantage of a red dot), but still has sufficient magnification for any distance I'd want to shoot my 10/22 at (I usually shoot it off my deck, with my suppressor. It's about 70 yards to the water; but I sometimes go over 100 yards at the range, or out in the woods, just for grins).

The secret to quick sight picture with a scope, is using relatively low power, with a relatively large objective lens, of sufficient quality to be bright, sharp, and clear, at all magnifications and in all lighting conditions you choose to shoot.

With proper scope selection, you can shoot just as quickly and simply with a scope as you can with a red dot sight.

Realistically, a 2-5x or 2-7x is perfectly adequate for most peoples .22 shooting; and a 3-9x is about the most you'll need for anything short of a benchrest competition (and most rimfire competitions don't allow optics anyway). There's really no need to go to 10x or higher; doing so will just add cost and weight, without giving you any real advantage (again, unless you're doing competitive long range rimfire shooting).

Remember, if you can see the holes your bullets make in the target at 10 yards, a 9x magnification (presuming good light, and a good quality scope), will let you see the holes at 90 yards. Most people rarely fire their .22s at longer than 25 yards (except when they're just goofing around), and very rarely at more than 50 yards, or 100 yards. Even if you can only see the holes you're making at 5 yards, a 9x will let you see them at 45 yards.

My vision isn't perfect, and with my glasses; on a high contrast target I can see individual .22 holes at somewhere between 15 and 25 yards depending on the exact target type, target background, and the lighting. With a shoot-n-c or something similar I can see the hits at well beyond 25 yards. I rarely turn my 3-9x up beyond 6x when shooting my 10/22.

A 32mm or 35mm objective lens is just fine for a 5x or 7x maximum magnification, and acceptable for 9x (unless you're shooting in dim light). A 40mm or 42mm objective is just fine for 9x max magnification; there's really no need to go bigger than 42mm for anything less than 10x (again, unless you're shooting in dim light).
Note: For a given quality level and magnification level; a bigger objective lens is going to give you a better, brighter image (particularly in dimmer light); at the expense of a higher cost, larger size, and higher weight. 
If you're going to be in bright sunlight most of the time, it won't make much difference (your pupils will be narrowed down to protect themselves from sunlight anyway, and can only use so much light); but in dim light, twilight (sunrise or sunset), a dark overcast etc... going with a bigger objective is generally a good choice. 
BUT... when you're deciding how to spend your money, you are probably better off going for a higher quality piece of glass, rather than a larger lens.
My third recommendation is that, in general, I find most optics under $100 to be... A poor value shall we say? Generally not worth the money, even at how little you may pay for them.

..But a budget is a budget; and there are at least some minimally acceptable options under $100, and a fair number well under $200.

Now, we've already talked a bit about lower cost scopes, so from here let's focus on "red dot" sights (unmagnified or low magnification optical sights that feature a lit dot or reticle, generally projected onto the back side of a glass lens, as the aiming point).

For a .22, if you're not shooting it very much, you can get away with a lot lower quality and toughness, particularly in a red dot; if you don't mind that at some point it's just going to die for no reason.

Not probably, definitely; and "some point" is going to probably be sooner than later...

By that standard, you can get at least minimally acceptable red dots under $100.

You can pick up some models of TruGlo red dot on sale for under $50 online; and most models are between $80 and $150. They're acceptable.

Millet has a line of relatively low end red dots, in the $60-$90 range. they're acceptable, and they've got a good warranty.

Simmons, same thing.

Tasco has two product lines for red dots, and the lower product line, same thing.

I group these brands together, because it seems they all use the same Chinese OEMs for their hardware.

That said, it isn't safe to assume that pieces that look the same externally ARE the same under the skin. The Chinese vendors will build several different models that look externally very similar, but may have VERY different quality of components, and overall quality control. Sometimes these different models will be at widely different price points; sometimes they are actually very close in price, but very different in quality.

I think Swift, BSA, Barska, and NCStar also use the same OEM; but as I said above, I have observed significant differences in quality between visually similar models, from what seem to be the same OEM, but sold under different brand names. Specifically, I have found that examples from these vendors are generally of unacceptable quality, and particularly of unacceptable reliability.

On the other hand, I have found the TruGlos to be of slightly higher, and frequently "acceptable" levels of quality. I even have a couple of them around to throw on guns for testing.

Others may have had different experiences of course... and as they say, the plural of anecdote is not data.

From "about the same" to "slightly higher" quality, and around the same pricing ($60 to $160) are Bushnells trophy line of red dots. They're acceptable.... Some of the higher end ones may even edge into "good" territory; and they have a decent warranty, and acceptable customer service.

Tascos higher end red dot line, the "pro points" use the same Chinese OEM as the Bushnell Trophy line. They're priced and specced similarly, and are of similar quality.

For a LOT higher quality and reliability, you can get into a Burris SpeedDot or Fastfire for as little as $180 (online, on sale); or an XTR or AR-Prism sight starting around $240.

I've owned and used several of them, and they're actually quite good. Also, Burris has great customer service and a great warranty (among the best in the business in fact).

At a similar quality level, you can get a Vortex strikefire for as little as $160. I have had several of them and like them very much. I haven't used their customer service myself, but I have heard from others that they have very good customer service (and an excellent warranty).

Now... my personal recommendation, is to skip the cheap stuff, and go straight to the midrange.

I guarantee you, if you actually use the thing, you will go through two or three of the TruGlo/Simmons/Tasco/Bushnell generic Chinese OEM sights; before you even put a ding in a Burris or Vortex...

...And in my experience, the Burris and the Vortex will take most of the punishment that a much more expensive (three to five times the price actually) Trijicon or Aimpoint will. Not all of the punishment necessarily, but most of it; and unless you're defending your life (or the lives of others) with it... I don't think the price difference is worth it. I'll take the Burris or the Vortex for most guns, in most circumstances, most of the time.

You're going to pay $60-$90 for a minimally acceptable red dot that isn't going to have repeatable adjustments, that IS going to lose zero, and that will generally fail, in a year or two at most (less if you shoot it more); that is only usable on your .22...

... or you're going to pay $100 more for a red dot that you probably can't kill (unless you're actually trying to), that WILL retain zero and make repeatable adjustments, and that you can use on anything you've got, now or in the future.

If you HAVE the $100 it's not even a question. If you don't, well then, you just don't have it.

But it still comes down to, buy for value, not for price.