Aiming and riflescope reticles

A  reticle’s primary function is to help you aim and there’s many to choose from, but a simple reticle is better for the hunter than a complex one that clutters your field and impairs aiming.

A good friend of mine was in Mongolia a few years ago on a hunt for Mongolian wapiti and ibex. After he arrived at the base  camp and stored his gear in a yurt, he uncased his rifle to check that its point of impact had not changed. To his dismay he discovered that at some point in the trip from Ulan Bator to the hunting area over some of the roughest roads in the world, the reticle in his scope (a Duplex) had broken.

Luckily  all was not lost because he’d brought along a second scope pre-zeroed in Leupold Q/R rings. In a matter of minutes he  had removed the faulty scope and installed the spare. He and his guide went out the next morning and he shot a large 12-point  wapiti; four days later he bagged a fine ibex.

Another  time  a  mate  and I were  hunting  red  deer.  We’d  completed a stalk on a roaring stag, a royal 12-pointer. The  magnificent animal stood in a little clearing about 200 metres  away across a gully frantically thrashing a small bush with his  antlers. My mate who was sitting about 15 metres from me,  couldn’t see him, but I had a clear broadside shot.  As I tried  to line him up in the scope I was amazed to see the crosswires in  the 4x scope on my .270 tilted to the right at a 45 degree angle.  As I tried to adjust my aim the crosswires tilted over farther.  Alas, this story does not have a happy ending. I was afraid to  shoot in case I wounded the animal, and my mate couldn’t see the  stag because of the trees. Before I could signal my mate to move  closer, the stag walked away into thick bush. The cell which  contained the reticle in my scope had come adrift.

Once while hunting pronghorn antelope in Wyoming, I started  missing high. I tried to resight a .25-06 equipped  with an old  Weaver scope, but I found that every time I fired a shot each  bullet landed higher than the one before. The fault was I  discovered later, the mechanism that controlled the elevation had  become worn. Luckily I was able to borrow a rifle from the outfitter and got my pronghorn with that.

I hope that my telling you about these mishaps doesn’t give  you the idea that such happenings are commonplace, but to show  that the best scope in the world is not much good unless the  reticle stays put. Nor is the reticle any use if it cannot be  seen quickly and clearly. The lens system of the scope enlarges  the target and transmits available light so that it is seen clearly, but without the reticle to aim with, no one could shoot  quickly and accurately. 

Ever  since  telescopic  sights  have been  used  on  hunting  rifles, a variety of different reticles have been designed to aim  with. Some are simple, some complicated. Some are quick to use  and easy to see even in the poorest light; some are confusing,  and some satisfactory only under ideal conditions.

When I began shooting   over 60 years ago, virtually the only  scope reticles available to hunters were a crosshair, a flat-  topped, tapered post and crosshair or a pointed picket post.  Today, a fine crosshair is limited to target shooting and you  couldn’t give away a scope with a post reticle to any hunter.

Having  begun my shooting career with iron sights, naturally my first scope was equipped with a flat-top tapered post reticle,  because it looked just like a front sight seen through a large  peep. It didn’t take me long to realize its shortcomings. Trying  to use holdover on a distant shot, the thick post blotted out the  target. This made me to change to a scope with a medium crosshair  reticle which I found was by far the best for use on running game  because the horizontal wire helps control elevation. I’d swing  the rifle along with a running animal, letting the horizontal  wire slide along the target and then touch Old Betsy off when the vertical wire looked the right distance ahead. The first day I used the crosswire reticle my tally on running game increased by  at least 50 percent. Since that day, I’ve always favoured a  reticle with centre crosshairs

The  term “crosshairs” originally came into use because  the  reticles were actually made of human hair.  Reticles have also  been made of spider web. Early  “dot” reticles were tiny globs of  plastic on almost invisible “crosshairs,” made of web spun by  black widow spiders because other materials couldn’t be made  strong enough. The supply of spider web couldn’t keep up with  demand, however, so dot reticles were suspended from fibreglass  crosshairs, but in the late 1970s this was replaced with tungsten  wire. It had the advantage that it could be drawn down to .0001,  or about a thirtieth the diameter of a human hair!

Fine  crosshairs  subtending from .02 to .03 minutes of  angle  are generally used for varmint/target shooting in a scope of high  power. A medium crosshair in a 4x scope subtends from 1/2 to 3/4  minutes. It works very well in bright light conditions, but on  dark days has a tendency to fade against dark targets. It is also  not very conspicuous where there is strong light and dark shadows  as in wooded or rocky country on a bright day. I’ve found that  many crosshair reticles are too fine to be practical for all  around hunting and are better used for target shooting. Another  poor reticle is the dot which fades out in poor light. But modern  electronically illuminated reticles have largely solved these  problems.

Lighted  reticles show up quickly even in near  darkness,  and  they also help you detect the reticle against a tangle of  branches. On the other hand, a bulbous battery compartment atop  the scope’s eyepiece and a third turret housing a rheostat to  control the brightness adds weight and bulk and detracts from the  scope’s appearance. Two scopes that use different systems to  illuminate the reticle without adding weight and bulk are the  Bushnell Elite Firefly and the Trijicon.

Gradually,  other  forms  of  reticles  were  introduced  with  circles and stadia wires, and a gimmick called a Bullet Drop  Compensator (BDC) which worked on the premise that target animals  come in standard sizes. The BDC was credited with almost mystic  properties for rangefinding. Alas,it was mostly advertising hype.

Then  in 1962,  Leupold & Stevens introduced what has  since  become the overwhelming reticle of choice among hunters. The  Duplex, a crosswire with heavy sidebars and slim crosshairs in  the centre. The thick sidebars catch your eye and direct it to  the centre of the field, where the thin intersection allows  precise aim to be taken. In very poor light, if the game is not  too far distant, you can aim by bracketing it between the  sidebars. Knowing the subtension of the centre wire at a set  magnification and yardage, you can use the Duplex as a  rangefinder, but these days most of us prefer to use a laser  rangefinder.  Many other scopemakers have copied this reticle,  but of course they cannot use the name Duplex. Some  are called  simply Plex, but there’s Z-Plex, Tru Plex, 4-Plex, Dual Plex,  Fine Plex, Multi-X, Peep Plex, Nikoplex etc.

The  versatility of the Duplex is that the thin centre  portion  allows precise aim at small targets to be taken and the thick  side bars are conspicuous and fast to pick up. This reticle is  excellent for a scope for dual-purpose use on varmints and big  game as many use variable powers.

Leupold’s Duplex is a mechanical reticle, meaning that it is  attached to a mount with solder. It’s made of .0012 platinum wire  that’s flattened to .0004 to make the outer sections of the wire  thicker than the middle sections and form the outer bars. Premier  Reticle Company in the U.S.A who has supplied reticles to every  major scopemaker except Zeiss, uses ribbon wire twisted in the  middle to form a plex.

A reticle I like, but one that seldom receives a mention in  print has a tapered crosswire that is medium on the outside and  thin at the aiming point to draw your eye unerringly to the  centre. I believe it was designed by Bausch & Lomb for their  early variable power scopes which were externally adjustable and  also in the internally adjustable Trophy series. It was etched in  glass and has the virtue of no apparent change in size as the  power is varied. As far as I know the only company that still  makes it is Leupold who lists it as the CPC.

Another  method of making a plex reticle is by using a  photo-  etching process on metal foil, in which chemicals strip away all  the material around the etched pattern. The foil is barely  .0007  thick and must be cemented to the mount whereas wire reticles are  soldered. Proper tension of foil reticles is critical. Too  little, and the foil will whip under recoil; too much and it  won’t withstand the expansion and contraction caused by extreme  temperatures.

A curious fact about foil reticles is that they can burn out.  The sun coming through the lenses just right is concentrated by  the lenses as if by a burning glass causing the reticles to be  burned apart. The same thing can also happen with dot reticles.

There are reticles with crosshairs inside a circle and other  smaller circles strung out along the horizontal wire and the  lower wire.

These are of various sizes and supposedly useful for  rangefinding. Like the Dot reticle they enjoy only limited  popularity.

Because  European  hunters  usually do their  hunting  from  a  hochsitz, often at night when game comes out onto forest  clearings to graze. They prefer prominent reticles such as very  heavy posts that stand put boldly and are easy to see in bright  moonlight. Some of the posts used in European reticles are so  large that they blot out a good deal of the target except at very  short range. For our kind of hunting the Duplex is easy to see  and allows more precise aiming at distant targets.

European hunters still prefer reticles which are located  in  the first focal plane of the objective where the apparent size  changes with the size of the image. This means that in a 3-9x  variable power, for example, the crosshairs are thin and fine  when the scope is set at 3x, and heavy and coarse when the power  is at 9x, which makes them easy to aim with. 

The  first  plane  scope is adjusted  by  moving  the  reticle  against the image. A major drawback is that sometimes when the  rifle is sighted-in the aiming point of the reticle is not in the  centre of the field. When it ends up in a top or lower corner it  is both annoying and disconcerting. Even today, when all factory  rifles come with holes drilled and tapped for mounts, receivers  are not always uniform and a base with windage and the correct  height rings  is mandatory if the reticle is to be centred in the  scope.

Redfield  was the first to solve the problem by  relocating  a  reticle cell in the eyepiece, placing it in the second focal  plane. Thescope is adjusted by moving the field against the  reticle – that is by moving the erector tube assembly. With the  reticle so placed it is always the same size, and it has the  added advantage that the aiming point remains in the centre of  the field.

Rangefinding  scopes  are all the rage,  and the  best  known range-finding  reticle is the mil-dot designed by the U.S  Marine  Corps for sniper use. The mil-dot uses a series of dots extending  from the centre on fine crosswires. In some, the wirethickens  toward the outside so the shooter can use it like a standard plex  in poor light. A mil-dot (like other complex reticles) may be  etched on glass instead of suspended. Premier Reticles supplies  the suspended or mechanical mil-dot reticles for Leupold. The 16  dots are installed by hand.

The  mil-dot  enables  you to estimate holdover  over  long  distances. A millradian is part of a circle, which comprises 360  degrees of 2pi radians. A circle has 6.28 radians, and  one  radian is 57.32 degrees. A minute-of-angle is a 60th of a degree;  thus there are 3,439 MoA in one radian, 3.44 MoA in a millradian.

Dividing 3.44 into 60 (the number of minutes per degree) gives us  17.44. So a millradian is about 1/17th of a degree. The  spacers or interstices between the dots each subtend one  millradian or mil – a span of about 3.6 inches at 100 yards or 3  feet at 1000 yards.
To  find the range using a mil-dot reticle,  you   divide the  targets height in mils by  the number of interstices subtending  the target to get the range in hundreds of yards. In variable  scopes, mil-dot reticles are generally calibrated at the top  magnification or 10x. On a practical note: when using a mil-dot  as your aiming point, cranking the power down can precisely  resight the scope at longer ranges because with less  magnification there’s more subtension between the crosshairs and  the post. As long as you can still see the target, this often  works well.

An  alternative  to  the mil-dot is a  reticle  available  in  Schmidt & Bender scopes which has a  crosswire with mil hash  marks, plus 13 horizontal wires half a mil apart below the main  horizontal wire. Each of these has hash marks too; in addition  there are dots between the hash marks. The upper left quadrant  gives you a  rangefinding scale, also marked in mils. It not only  helps you estimate range and maintain holdover, but the hash-  marked horizonal lines allow you to correct for windage.     

Another  type  of  rangefinding   scope  is  equipped  with a  reticle, calibrated to a specific load at a specific velocity.  Although this system works well for a good many shooters, not  many want to tie themselves to one bullet weight and load.

This  of  course applies to all range-compensating  reticles;  change the load and all the values generally change and must be  relearned. In all honesty, there isn’t much point in buying a  scope with such a reticle unless you are content to stay with one  load.
These days there are a number of scopes with fancy  circles  and mil-dots  and other graduated reticles for help in  rnagefinding and windage in long-range shooting. But most of  these scopes are big and heavy, their reticles are extremely  complex, and from what I’ve heard about them, they aren’t all  that rugged.

Call  me  old-fashioned if you like,  but I don’t  care  for  complex reticles that fill the field with lines, dots, circles,  bars, posts and numbers. For big game out to the longest range at  which I care to shoot at game (366 metres), I find such  complicated reticles impair aiming by being too cluttered; on a  flat-shooting rifle the standard Leupold Duplex  and its  counterparts work just fine for me. Since I got a Leica Laser  Rangefinder, I no longer worry about  using a reticle to measure  the range. If the animal is standing or grazing and far enough  away to need accurate range estimation, it isn’t aware of the  hunter’s presence. So he’ll have plenty of time to measure the  distance, achieve a solid rest and use the correct amount of  holdover.

Many  unsophisticated hunters are being dazzled  into  buying  “tactical” scopes that they have no real need for. The vast  majority of shots at game are taken inside the 200 metre mark,  where a simple duplex reticle will prove entirely adequate.

This article was first published in Sporting Shooter, February 2012




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Nick Harvey

The late Nick Harvey (1931-2024) was one of the world's most experienced and knowledgeable gun writers, a true legend of the business. He wrote about firearms and hunting for about 70 years, published many books and uncounted articles, and travelled the world to hunt and shoot. His reloading manuals are highly sought after, and his knowledge of the subject was unmatched. He was Sporting Shooter's Technical Editor for almost 50 years. His work lives on here as part of his legacy to us all.