Six Budget-Friendly AR Scopes
Tom McHale 05.26.16
One of my favorite lines from an exceptionally entertaining movie, Kingsmen, is “manners maketh man.” You might also say that “optics maketh rifles” and that’s absolutely true. The best rifle on the planet won’t shoot worth beans without a decent optic up top.
This brings us to the point of this article. What AR-friendly optics are out there that are solid but won’t break the bank? Well, here are six that we like. You’ll probably recognize the brand names as they’re all from established optics manufacturers. Being smart business-people, they’ve created budget-friendly product lines that still have the features you need.
You can find all of these at Cabela’s with the least expensive starting at just $169.99 and the priciest going to $779. While you’re there, check out Cabela’s Shooting Park. It’s a free online resource that’ll help you get and stay up to speed on the latest shooting tips and gear. With that said, let’s go!
It’s hard to wrong with most any Leupold optic. They have a hard-earned reputation for quality backed up by a lifetime warranty. When you can find a new one for a few hundred bucks, that’s a hard-to-beat combination. The Mark AR Mod 1 is actually a family of topics. You can pick one up with your choice of four different magnification options (1.5-4x, 3-9x, 4-12x, and 6-18x) and at least four different reticle styles. As the Mark AR name implies, they’re all aimed at the black rifle platform, but the one that stands out for me is the 1.5-4x model.
This one, on the low end of the magnification scale, is perfect for the .223/5.56mm AR rifle. The 1.5x setting functions much like a red dot and supports both eyes open shooting, so it’s fast with a wide field of view. Cranking the dial to 4x will let you hit reasonably sized targets out to the effective full range of that cartridge.
What’s particularly nifty is the combination of the reticle and ballistic compensated dials. The reticle has an illuminated dot in the center surrounded by a ring for fast aiming. It’s also got milliradians graduations marked on all four crosshairs so you can easily determine the range of a distant target. Once you know the range, dial the turret to the appropriate yardage mark and shoot. It’s geeky but practical.
Depending on which model you choose, you can pick one up at Cabela’s for somewhere between $299.99 and $549.99.
At just $189.99, it’s hard to beat the bang for the buck you get with the Nikon P-223 1.5-4.5x scope. While you can order this model with 3-9x, 4-12x, or even fixed 3x magnification, I like the 1.5-4.5x model for the same reasons outlined for the Leupold Mark AR Mod 1.
The big difference between the Nikon P-223 and the Leupold is the different approach to shooting at distance. The Nikon P-223 with its BDC-600 reticle is calibrated to the standard 55-grain .223 Remington or 5.56x45mm round’s trajectory. You’ll note a series of five small circles below the center crosshairs. These represent holdovers for ranges from 200 to 600 yards in 100-yard increments. Between the circles are small hash marks that provide the 50-yard aim points in between. So with no turret adjustments, you can nail targets at any range from zero to 600 yards with pretty good precision.
If you want to invest a few more bucks for increased visual quality, check out the Leupold VX-R Patrol line. Most of the improvements over the Mark AR Mod 1 line are inside the scope itself. For example, interior lenses are coated differently based on their position and index of refraction. All that means that with each different lens, reflection is minimized so you see more light.
The VX-R Patrol offers two configurations, a 1.25-4x and 3-9x model, both of which are built with larger 30mm tubes. The 1.25-4×20 model comes with the same Firedot SPR reticle that’s used in the Mark AR Mod 1 scope. The 3-9×20 version uses a similar, but more precisely marked Firedot Tactical Milling reticle. With some basic math skills, both are adept at helping you determine the range to target. Both also have an illuminated dot in the center that’s activated by a single push button. The illumination system has a five-minute inactivity timer that shuts off the lighting to save on battery life.
You can pick up either model at Cabela’s for $779.
You can think of Nikon’s M-223 line as the pricier higher-end family of AR scopes. Like the Leupold VR-X Patrol optics, there are noticeable improvements in the M-223 scopes over the P-223. The P-223 line is supposed to be affordable, and while the glass is good, the M-223 clarity is noticeably better.
You’ll also find some interesting feature options in the M-223 line. While you can get a number of models with the same BDC-600 reticle with range markings every 50 yards up to 600, you can also order some models with the Rapid Action Turret. For example, the M-223 2-8×32 with Rapid Action Turret model has a standard Nikoplex reticle with no range graduations. It’s a simple crosshair that uses a combination of thick and thin bars to provide both speed and precision. Since there are no ballistic drop markings on this reticle, the elevation turret itself has the yardage markings. With less than one full revolution of the turret, you can adjust for any distance up to 600 yards.
Magnification options include 1-4x, 2-8x, 3-12x, and 4-16x. The two models at the higher magnification end have side-mounted knobs for parallax adjustment. Prices range from $299.99 to $499.99.
If you’re looking for more magnification for longer distance or just more precise shooting at shorter ranges, check out Bushnell’s AR Optics scopes. Prices start at just $169.99 and go to $229.99 for the 4.5-18x model.
While the AR Optics models have exposed target turrets with a ¼ minute of angle adjustment per click, the reticles make them largely a feature used only for initial zeroing. The Bushnell DropZone 223 Reticle has four dots spaced below the center crosshairs. After zeroing your rifle at a distance of 100 yards, each of the four dots corresponds to distances from 200 to 500 yards. The top of the bottom reticle post maps to 600 yards. Since this is a second focal plane scope, be sure that you are using maximum magnification for the holdovers to be accurate.
Magnification choices include 3-9x, 3-12x, and 4.5-18x, and all three of these models sport a side-mounted parallax focus knob.
At risk of overusing a word that’s been massively overused, the Vortex Strike Eagle is perhaps a more “tactical” optic than some of the others we’ve discussed here. Then again, the name “Strike Eagle” hints at that, no?
This model offers true 1x to 6x magnification and a reticle designed to facilitate both extreme close range and longer range shooting. While there are subtle graduation marks that indicate different ranges for your specific ammo, the crosshairs are surrounded by a thick circle. The purpose is to provide a highly visible sight picture for 1x and close range operation – it looks and acts somewhat like a red dot. For more precision, use the fine lines inside of the aiming circle. The reticle is well designed with plenty of distinct measuring points that will help you not only get on target but quickly estimate range. For example, the inside diameter of the aiming circle represents 15.5 minutes of angle. That roughly corresponds to a torso (not counting arms) at 100 yards. If you want to get geeky, there are plenty of references you can use for range estimation and holdovers. Oh, one more thing: The reticle is illuminated.
You can find the Vortex Strike Eagle at Cabela’s for $329.99.
This story was produced in cooperation with Cabela’s.