Optic Reticle Options

Mil-dots and hashmarks and tree-styles, oh my! Reticles have gotten advanced.<
Optic Reticle Options

Whether you call them crosshairs or reticles, they are one and the same. Simply put, reticles are the lines or dots inside a scope that are used to align the bullet’s point of impact with a magnified optic’s sight path. The most common, especially in optics designed for hunting, is a duplex that consists of two heavy lines that taper to thinner lines in the center and essentially create a rotated “X” that marks the spot. While duplex is a standard crosshair in today’s modern era, it is only one in a very long list of available reticles. For instance, did you know that Leupold offers more than 75 different reticle choices, either through the custom shop or standard offerings? With so many reticles to choose from, how should a buyer approach select the right reticles for their application? 

Reticle Basics 

The duplex reticle offers fast target acquisition and is easy to use, but it offers no ability to accurately compensate for distance, unless the scope is equipped with a dial system. For those looking for a little more sophistication, derivations of the duplex reticle including calibrated lines, called Bullet Drop compensation (BDC), are becoming more common. These scopes provide a holdover mark for different shooting distances, using the rifle’s velocity and other variables to calculate where the trajectory of the bullet and the secondary crosshair(s) intersect. Unfortunately, these lines rarely match exactly a round number like 300 yards, and instead, have values like 328, 412, etc., requiring some quick thinking in the field in the heat of the moment. 

For tactical users, the mil-dot has long been a standard reticle. Mil, contrary to intuitive belief, does not stand for military. Instead, it refers to milliradian, sometimes abbreviated MRAD. We won’t get too far down into the technical weeds, but simply, a milliradian is an angular measurement, or .001 radians. A radian is a portion of a distance traveled around a circle referring to a measurement of the arc created when two radius lines start at the center and end at the circumference of a circle. In a circle, regardless of the size, there are 6 radians, or ~6000 milliradians. The length of the radian itself is equal to the length of the radius, therefore, it will always be the same size, no matter how long the radius. This is what allows a mil to remain a mil at any distance. You can think of a radian like the unit of measure commonly used for circles, degrees, but on a much finer level. 

For scopes that employ a mil-dot reticle, this means that the distance between dots is 1 mil, and at 100 yards, this equates to 3.6 inches. At 200 yards this distance is 7.2 inches, at 300 10.8 inches, and so on. A calibrated mil-dot reticle essentially does two things: it allows users to accurately compensate for bullet drops at known distances and it can be used to estimate distance based on the known size of a target, such as the size of a steel plate. To use the reticle for bullet drop compensation (BDC), users must first understand the bullet’s trajectory by inputting factors like ballistic coefficient, velocity, etc. into a calculator. These calculators are available online from many different sources. 

In addition to standard mil-dot reticles, there are many variations that are similar, yet different. For example, Zeiss offers a ZMOA ballistic reticle that uses tick marks to compensate for bullet drop and wind. They even offer an app to determine the change in subtension and drop compensation value for any caliber/ammunition choice. Leupold also offers a Boone and Crockett reticle that allows users to compensate for distance and wind. Both scopes use minute of angle (MOA) instead of mil, which is a similar, yet different, unit of measure, and it is important not to confuse them. Additionally, and it will become clearer after reading the section below about focal plane, it is very important to understand the limitations of a scope’s ability to range/compensate at all magnification levels based on its focal plane. 

In addition to this style of reticle, mostly used for shooting at distances greater than 50 yards, for tactical applications that occur in tight, sub 50-yard applications, simple dot-style reticles make the most sense and are generally available in no- or low-magnification-power scopes. 

First or Second Focal Plane Reticles

If you were to ask someone if their rifle scope was first or second focal plane, many would look at you like you were growing a third arm out of your forehead. While the terminology may be foreign, first and second focal plane reticles are very important considerations. The reticle in a first focal plane (FFP) scope will appear to change size with increasing magnification. A second focal plane (SFP) scope reticle will appear the same size regardless of magnification. For mil-dot and many other hash-mark-style reticles to work without extra math involved, scopes must be FFP or only used at the calibrated magnification, or all benefits related to rangefinding and drop compensation using the calibrated hash/dot spacing talked about previously get considerably more complicated. That is why many precision and long-range shooters prefer FFP, as SFP scopes BDC hash marks will represent their stated measurements at the highest magnification. 

Selecting the Right Reticle

Choosing the right reticle really depends on the application. If your customer is shooting long-distance where supreme accuracy is important, a FFP mil-dot has long been the standard. Newer BDC versions by Leupold, Zeiss, and others offer the same level of confidence but use MOA instead of mils. Both units of measure are equally accurate, so it really comes down to personal preference. MOA is a finer unit of measure, breaking down degrees into minutes, and some believe easier to understand; however, there is no distinct benefit to either that makes them superior. You will have customers who are fans of either/or, so consider stocking both.

Where selecting the right reticle comes into play, specifically for distance shooting, is selecting the derivation of the mil or MOA reticle that best suits the need. Standard, and likely the most familiar, style of mil-dot reticle includes a simple duplex crosshair with mil-dots on the vertical and horizontal crosshair. More complex mil and MOA reticles include what looks like a Christmas tree of dots or hashmarks representing holdovers and wind compensation for different distances and wind dopes. Take for example Leupold’s FFP PR2-MIL. This reticle choice is a reduced-clutter version of other very complex tactical reticles that provides what a shooter needs without over-complication of the sight picture. This style of reticle can be used with any caliber rifle, and the dots can be finely calibrated by utilizing the rifle and ammunitions ballistic variables. 

For tactical applications involving .223 AR-style rifles, there are also different reticles to choose from. For instance, Burris offers a Ballistic 3X illuminated reticle on their RT-3 Prism Site that has a fast acquisition horseshoe in addition to stadia lines to compensate for distance and windage. For longer distance and a more traditional duplex-style scope, Leupold offers a .223-calibrated AR-Ballistic reticle that includes holdover hash marks for quick target engagement. 

Illuminated or Not?

Early illuminated scopes suffered in their ability to control the intensity of the light for the ambient light conditions at the time of engagement, as well as in their battery life. Newer optics that feature illuminated reticles do not suffer from these same detriments. Most illuminated scopes have multiple levels of selectable illumination, and some even self-adjust to the ambient light conditions to avoid overpowering a sight picture. Additionally, battery life on these scopes has increased tremendously, with many scopes featuring auto-off/on functionality based on motion. 

The use of an illuminated reticle is especially popular for low-light scenarios, where fast target acquisition is necessary. Some illuminated reticles illuminate the entire reticle, while other focus only on the center dot of crosshair. Zeiss’s ZF-MRI Reticle 16 combines an illuminated center on a traditional tree-style mil-dot (MRAD) scope. 

Electronic Rangefinding Scopes

Slowly gaining popularity, rangefinding scopes from brands like Burris, Swarovski and others combine a rangefinder with a traditional riflescope. Generally speaking, these scopes have a standard duplex reticle but, using a red dot, adjust and display the correct aiming point based off of your cartridge ballistics, distance, etc. These scopes are very handy for hunting and not completely widespread in the tactical shooting market, but I believe as the technology improves and more tactical style and functionality is built into these scopes, they will see a surge in demand. Not having to search through 10 lines of dots to find the right holdover sure sounds like a faster and potentially more reliably accurate way to shoot at longer distances. However, the windage component lacks and is a very difficult feature to automate.

Dial Systems

For a variety of applications, a dial system equipped with a standard duplex or mil-dot reticle makes a lot of sense. To use, the end-user simply ranges the target, dials the scope’s turrets to adjust their mils or MOA drop based on the  ballistics, and holds dead on the target. Scopes can be equipped with both elevation and windage dials, allowing for wind doping, and come in a variety of magnifications. On the surface, dials seem like a no-brainer. Custom dials can be calibrated for a specific gun/load combination complete with yardage marks etched into the dial, taking out any guesswork. That said, their reputation for reliability has been tarnished by low-quality optics that had inferior adjustment mechanisms. These poor-quality dial systems and scope mechanisms led to inaccurate MOA adjustments, and depending on who you talk to, people simply don’t trust them for fine tuning.

Where poor dial mechanisms have failed is in repeatability. Simply, the dial is only as accurate as the MOA “clicks” on a riflescope, and the rifle is only as accurate as the dial. For instance, if a scope has a .5 MOA clicks, but each click is actually only .493 MOA, it goes without saying that the accuracy and repeatability of the dial are greatly diminished. These days, turrets have improved, and dial systems made by high-quality manufacturers are accurate and dependable, and most serious long-range competition shooters are dialing rather than holding over using the reticle (at least for elevation). Dial systems work, but they must have proven reliability to be trusted.


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