The $500 Riflescope Showdown

Long after that smart TV, laptop, cell phone and tablet have become dismally outdated, collecting dust in a closet somewhere, the best products you take afield continue operating as designed. Optics are the most elegant illustration.

The $500 Riflescope Showdown

Vortex Strike Eagle.

The quality of modern firearms and hunting gear stand in stark contrast to today’s suffocating sea of sub-performing and short-lived consumer products. Brand new rifles shoot sub-MOA with budget ammo, out-of-spec accessories from reputable companies are mermaid rare and the equipment’s longevity speaks volumes about the industry’s unyielding dedication to quality control.

Buy a professional-grade camera lens and you might get a 12-month guarantee on workmanship and parts. It’s different with hunting glass, though. Leupold and Vortex Optics back their riflescopes with a no-questions-asked lifetime warrantee, despite the fact the high-quality glass and coatings their models wear routinely endure ice, sleet, snow, mud, scorching heat and punishing recoil instead of leisurely afternoons in a climate-controlled studio. Neither company requires a receipt, there are no nagging questions — other than whether you violated the terms by deliberately breaking it — and they don’t even care if you’re the original purchaser. 

That coverage applies to the Vortex Strike Eagle 1-8x24mm AR BDC and Leupold VX-3HD 3.5-10x40mm CDS-ZL, even at the modest $499.99 MSRP they share. The scopes excel in very different styles of predator hunting, although both are built to take a beating that would make most photographic lenses break, leak or surrender to wear. Here’s a look at the quality built into this pair of riflescopes.   

The Vortex Strike Eagle’s main body diameter is 30mm and is constructed from a solid block of aircraft-grade aluminum. Its matte-black anodized finish is corrosion and wear resistant, and the scope has a waterproof rating of IPX7. Nitrogen gas purging minimizes the chances of fogging. 

Leupold’s VX-3HD has a 1-inch tube. That size is more traditional for hunting, but make no mistake about it, it’s also built from a rugged aircraft-aluminum blank to give it the strength to last a lifetime — likely generations. It’s also waterproof, fogproof, shockproof and lenses are scratch resistant.

Leupold VX-3HD
Leupold VX-3HD

Optical Performance

The Vortex 1-8X zoom range is popular for action shooting sports and whenever hunting can get fast and up close. The field of view at 1X of 109 feet lets you find the target fast. Make no mistake about it, though, when things get a little distant that 8X setting provides plenty of magnification to deliver ethical shots. 

In testing, the scope’s ability to collect light in its relatively small 24mm objective lens was a pleasant surprise. It’s not night-vision performance in dark corners of a forest just before dawn, but plenty workable. There is no glaring chromatic aberration, although with study you can detect a trace next to bright objects at 8X. Most people will never notice, except those of us who waste too much money replacing camera lenses. Colors were true and contrast was good, side to side and top to bottom. Its performance matches the high-speed looks well. The 30mm tube is a popular one today, particularly on long-range rifles and ARs. This scope is really designed for modern sporting rifles chambered in 5.56 NATO. More on that later. 

The 40mm objective on Leupold’s VX-3HD did an exceptional job minutes before sunrise, allowing identification of objects in thick brush with confidence. Contrast and color remained true the entire day, and the optic didn’t exhibit distortion or loss of performance toward the edges of the image. It’s amazing how distorted and fuzzy things can get near the circumference with inferior optics, but neither of these scopes displayed any of that problem.

 

Reticle

The Strike Eagle 1-8x24mm harnesses the power of the company’s glass-etched and illuminated AR BDC 3 reticle for fast target acquisition up close, yet a precise aiming point at distance. It is located in the second focal plane and features an illuminated, broken outline of a 16.625 MOA semi-circle — open end down. It glows red, is not overpowering and its lines subtend modestly enough that items downrange are not obscured. Its output can be adjusted to 11 different brightness settings by turning a dial on the left side of the scope. The CR2032 power source hides there and the knob is firm enough to avoid inadvertent activation and unanticipated dead battery. 

Black stadia lines on the reticle provide holdovers for 5.56 NATO chambered AR-15s out to 650 yards. Unlike some of the overly bright and bleeding crimson reticles today, this one is crisp and doesn’t unduly muddy the field of view. If there’s one complaint it’s that the lighted reticle on setting No. 1 is hard to detect, even in early morning. 

Leupold introduced its second focal plane Duplex reticle in 1962. It’s currently the world’s most popular version and there’s beauty in its clean lines and simplicity. Thin lines at the crosshairs don’t obscure the target, yet thicker lines at the sides provide almost intuitive target acquisition. This is the stereotypical reticle nearly every hunter learned on and likely laments abandoning — if they ever did.

 

Adjustment

The reticle isn’t the only feature that makes the Vortex scope more applicable for fast-paced predator hunting up close — where AR-15s shine. Its low-capped elevation and windage adjustment turrets move point of aim at a rate of ½-MOA per click. The Leupold, on the other hand, shifts things at ¼-MOA, a decided advantage at distance.

Range sessions confirmed those measurements in both scopes. Each click moved point of aim as prescribed in an accurate and repeatable fashion across targets at 100 yards. The optics came neatly back to zero after the tests without fail. It sounds minor but having confidence that each click is a precise measurement speeds sighting-in and adjustment should things get long on opening day. 

Vortex’s reticle provides holdovers when stretching the distance, but Leupold’s CDL-ZL takes a different approach. Its Custom Dial System (CDS) allows owners to customize their elevation adjustment dial to their exterior ballistics and environmental conditions. Once installed, simply range the target, turn the CDS to that setting and put the predator in the Duplex crosshair. A bar on the CDS turret must be depressed for movement, however. It’s at the back of the turret, easy to work from the shooting position and prevents unwanted movement. Total elevation adjustment per complete rotation is 15 MOA. The windage figure is identical, although that turret is protected under a low-profile cap on the right side of the scope’s body. Each full rotation of the Vortex knobs results in point of aim moving 44 MOA.

Feedback from both optics during adjustment was palpable, although not always audible. The CDS, the only dial of the quartet designed for expedient field use, provided the most positive feedback. That’s not unexpected since the others are rarely used when hunting. 

To test the ability to hold point of aim, both scopes were mounted on 6.5 Creedmoor-chambered rifles. In multiple range sessions point of aim and point of impact never wandered.

 

Added Features

Both riflescopes ship with a speed lever for the magnification dial. Leupold’s is attached at the factory, while Vortex packages its version in the box. It’s a great advantage for those times when you need to zoom out to find a target fast or zoom in at distance when wearing gloves. Slip-on lens covers come standard with each as well. The Vortex versions flip up, the Leupold’s do not.

 

Different Missions

These riflescopes may share the same MSRP and virtually identical lifetime warrantees, but their mission is vastly different. If the reticle and magnification differences don’t make that obvious, consider the fields of view. Dialed down to 1X with the Vortex, you can see a width of 109 feet when glassing at 100 yards. At Leupold’s lowest power, 3.5X, the figure drops to only 29 feet — a significant disadvantage if your prey is on the move and up close. 

Conversely, that 10X magnification is a better choice when stretching the distance. Add that customized CDS dial to aid long-distance connections, and it’s a hard to beat combination. The choice depends on where and how you hunt, along with your choice of firearm and target species. You can’t go wrong selecting with either one and, unlike most of today’s consumer products, it’s a long-term investment, bound to pay dividends for years to come, because programmed obsolescence isn’t part of the design.

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