It’s quite possible that “sniper” is one of the most misused (and therefore misunderstood) words in the dictionary of military jargon. The most common mistake people make with the word “sniper” is using it to describe equipment.
The simple reason that this is a mistake is that snipers are people, not objects. That sounds like a political statement, but it’s true. A sniper is a professionally instructed shooter who specializes in long range shooting, not a rifle.
For some context, in the Marine Corps scout sniper course, a sniper candidate is called a P.I.G.: Professionally Instructed Gunman. Graduates of the scout sniper course earn the title of H.O.G.: Hunter of Gunmen.
So, since snipers are people, any rifle that a sniper uses would technically be a “sniper rifle,” regardless of what type of rifle it is. If you want to use the semantically correct term, and impress your military buddies, the rifles that snipers use for long range shooting are “precision rifles.”
Since the scope is attached to the rifle, a “sniper scope” is actually a “precision optic.” This may seem like splitting hairs, but if you’re looking for military-style hardware, it’s wise to use the right terms to find it, otherwise there’s a good chance you just get charged extra money for the words “mil-spec” on the package.
This article will continue to use the term “sniper scope,” simply because people searching for “precision optic” don’t need any help from me. But now you know what I really mean when I say it.
Mil-Spec Make Up
So, here’s what makes a precision optic “mil-spec”:
- Military optics use milrad adjustments. This isn’t necessarily because milrad is more capable than MOA (some argue that it is, but it’s a debatable topic). It has more to do with the metric system. The military uses a lot of metric measurements, and milrad is one of them.
- Military sniper scopes use a mildot-style reticle with hash marks for windage and elevation. There are also usually other markings that assist with estimations and calculations.
- Mil-spec optics are purchased based on cost effectiveness. The Department of Defense doesn’t buy the most expensive or highest quality piece of equipment available. They buy the least expensive piece of equipment that will do what they need. So, it’s entirely possible to get hardware that’s higher quality that what the military uses.
Hunting. Many hunters hunt for things that are a rence than a requirement. Some shooters use mil-spec optics because they were trained in the military and like the familiarity. Some people view the military as the benchmark for shooting standards and capabilities, and want the equipment that matches that benchmark. Whatever the case, there are civilian shooting contexts that military optics are well suited for: at least the size of a human, so the precision offered by military style optics is more than enough to get lethal hits.
- Shooting .308 ammunition. Eventually, the military will widely adopt a new long range round. But right now, most sniper scopes are optimized for shooting .308, though they can be zeroed and used with other rounds just fine.
- Shooting Remington 300 rifles. Again, this will change eventually, but right now most military precision rifles are built on a Remington 300 chassis, with a lot of upgrades and customization. So, naturally, military precision optics pair very well with Remington 300 rifles.
The Schmidt and Bender SSDS (Scout Sniper Day Scope) is a great example of a precision optic that’s actually used by military snipers.
So, if you find yourself shooting in these contexts often, a sniper scope might be right for you. With that, these are the top choices for your sniper rifle.
Top Rated Sniper Scopes Today
Something you’ll notice about the military optics: in general, they’re not cheap. While it’s true that the DoD buys based on price point, the government has a pretty hefty budget, so cheap for the government isn’t necessarily cheap for you and me.
With that in mind, we’ll work through these from highest price to lowest price.
Schmidt and Bender PMII 3-12x50
This is the commercially available model of the scope that’s currently used on the M40A5 precision rifle used by the Marine Corps. The stat line isn’t insanely high, but the build quality is excellent. The Schmidt and Bender PMII 3-12x50 is designed for image clarity and functionality, so that shooters who focus on fundamentals can make the best shots possible.
Schmidt and Bender is known for glass quality, and the PMII features exceptionally clear glass and zero image distortion at all magnifications. Additionally, the PMII has a wide, 50mm objective lens and a 34mm body tube for superior light transmission, so the image is crisp in low light conditions.
Hunters looking for excellent performance in low contrast environments will find that the PMII performs admirably.
3-12x magnification may seem a bit low for a scope of this caliber (after all, there are less expensive scopes that go up to 35x or more). But the magnification is designed to work with the dimensions of the scope to maximize image clarity and minimize distortion so shooters can get better shot placement.
To enhance low light performance, the PMII also has an illuminated reticle, which stands out so you can use your reticle for range estimation and windage even in the worst light conditions. In terms of the reticle, Schmidt and Bender offers four different reticle patterns. All of them use milrad hash marks for elevation and windage, and feature a minimalist layout that doesn’t obstruct the field of view.
The PMII is supremely adjustable, with adjustments for parallax compensation and reticle brightness. The eye relief is 3.5 inches, and long enough to be comfortable for extended time behind the scope. This is handy for hunters who scan the field with their scope and competition shooters who need to spend a lot of time dialing in and taking shots.
Overall, the PMII is a solid piece of gear, and fans of the Marine Corps scout sniper program would probably call it the best sniper scope in the world. For civilian shooters, this is probably the best .308 sniper scope you can get your hands on.
Vortex Optics Viper PST 5-25x50
In 2015, Vortex became the most winning scope manufacturer in professional competition shooting. More top ten finishes were had with Vortex scopes than any other manufacturer.
This is pretty impressive, and it’s easy to see why: Vortex Optics produces extremely high quality optics at really affordable prices.
The Vortex Optics Viper PST 5-25x50 comes in at $1000, almost on the dot, but it’s definitely the top choice in the $1000 category.
The Viper features the glass clarity that has made Vortex so popular, so the image is sharp and there’s no distortion, even at the highest magnification. High quality glass also means that the Viper transmits the most light possible, so shooters can pick out targets even in bad light.
Magnification is certainly one of the strong points of the scope. The Viper goes from 5-25x, which is ideal for competition and tactical shooters who need high power to pick out small targets and detail at maximum range.
Vortex offers two MOA reticles and one milrad reticle for the Viper. All three reticles have windage and elevation lines, so you can make better estimations and adjustments, and even approximate target sizes. Additionally, the Viper is a first focal plane scope, so you can use your reticle for estimation at any magnification.
For shooters who need to shoot from slightly less stable shooting positions, the Viper has adjustable parallax so that you know when you’re steady enough to take a shot. Lastly, Vortex provides all the standard durability features—waterproof, shockproof, fogproof, lens multicoating—that you’d expect from a quality optic.
Overall, for hunters and competition shooters alike, this is probably the top value sniper rifle scope. There are fairly significant diminishing returns on your dollar once you go more expensive than this.
Vortex Optics Viper 6.5-20x50 PA
The next step down in the Viper lineup represents another key price point, and delivers a lot of value for those who can’t justify a super high-dollar scope. The Viper 6.5-20x50 PA is light on price, but heavy on performance.
To achieve excellent image clarity at a more affordable price point, Vortex Optics optically indexes and laser aligns the lenses in their scopes, so there’s no distortion at higher magnifications, and no degradation of the image in low light. Hunters and competition shooters will find that they’re able to pick out targets just as well as other shooters with more expensive scopes.
To support their lens technology, Vortex also equipped the Viper with a 50mm objective lens, and a 34mm body tube, so the most possible light is transmitted to the shooter’s eye for superior focus and image sharpness.
Vortex offers two reticle patterns with the Viper: their proprietary Dead Hold BDC reticle, and a classic mildot reticle. Both reticles have hashes for range and windage estimation, and are minimal enough that they don’t obstruct the viewing area.
The Viper is waterproof, shockproof, fogproof, and features Vortex Optics’ proprietary lens multicoating, which is one of the best in the industry.
There are two things that might be a downside for some:
The Viper is only offered in MOA. For shooters who are more familiar with milrad adjustments, there may be a slight learning curve. For those looking for a more authentic mil-spec optic, this might be a turn off. However, MOA is perfectly capable for long range shooting, and this won’t be a handicap once you’ve mastered the system.
The Viper is a second focal plane scope. The reticle doesn’t retain it’s proportions at different magnifications, so you’ll need to compensate for this to use the reticle for range and windage estimations at different power settings.
Overall, though, the Viper is the top value sniper scope in this price range, and will be excellent for the majority of shooters.
Leupold VX-R Patrol
This is easily the top Leupold sniper scope for tactical rifles with a focus on flexible deployment, like an AR 15. It’s powerful enough to take advantage of the maximum range of rounds like the 5.56mm/.223 and .300 Blackout, but minimal enough to be used for short range, high mobility shooting. The Leupold VX-R Patrolis the ideal scope for those who fancy themselves designated marksman more than snipers.
At one time, Leupold scopes were used on military precision rifles. This was because Leupold built optics with glass that delivered the image clarity that the military stresses in their optics selection.
The VX-R has excellent glass quality that provides a crisp image that helps spot targets at long range, and take shots on moving targets at shorter ranges.
The VX-R has a versatile magnification range that’s enough to provide enhanced viewing at minimum power, 1.25x, and full on target acquisition assistance at maximum power, 4x.
The VX-R also has a versatile reticle. The reticle is a standard duplex, with an aiming circle for fast short range target acquisition and engagement. The aiming circle is also helpful for target size approximation and range estimation for long rang situations.
Additionally, the reticle is illuminated by fiber optics, so there’s no battery. This means better reliability and low maintenance costs.
For better function on rifles with adjustable stocks, the eye relief adjusts from 3.74 inches to 4.17 inches so you can get a fast sight picture when aiming from the ready, and still be comfortable if you need to spend a lot of time looking through your scope.
Naturally, Leupold made the VX-R waterproof, shockproof, and fogproof. Additionally, the lenses are coated with Leupold’s proprietary Diamond Coating for scratch resistance.
Overall, the VX-R is the best AR 15 sniper scope for those who don’t want to pigeon hole their rifle into a long range role, but still want long range functionality.
Primary Arms 4-16x44
The Primary Arms 4-16x44 represents the best performance in the sub-$200 price range. It has a lot of features that are often found only on higher priced optics, and is an ideal choice for entry level shooters, or hunters who are hard on their gear and want an affordable scope that will hold up.
As the price goes down, usually the first area where quality declines is in the glass. However, Primary Arms has created a scope that retains its image clarity at maximum magnification, with virtually unnoticeable image distortion.
4-16x magnification is perfect for the capabilities of all common rifle rounds, and is enough for shooting at even extreme long ranges.
Hunters will find that the magnification makes it incredibly easy to shoot at reasonable hunting distances. Competition shooters will find that they’re comfortable pushing out to the limits of their local range.
The reticle is a standard mildot reticle, with a fairly minimal design to minimize clutter in the field of view. Additionally, the reticle is illuminated to improve low light performance and sight picture acquisition in low contrast environments. Primary arms couples the illuminated reticle with a wide 44mm objective lens, so you can keep hunting until the very end of legal hunting hours.
Primary Arms has produced an excellent price point scope, however, to save on costs, something had to give. Here are the few downsides to this scope:
The scope is shockproof, but only water and fog resistant. So it may not stand up to a ton of abuse in wet climates.
The scope is a second focal plane scope. So you’ll need to make some calculations if you want to use the reticle for range and windage estimation at all magnifications.
The scope is only offered in MOA adjustments. Those who are committed to milrad adjustments may find this unsatisfactory.
This isn’t the cheapest sniper scope, you can find a less expensive one. However, this is definitely the best low-cost sniper scope. Anything less expensive may suffer from durability or quality control issues.
Schmidt and Bender PMII 3-12x50
In the end, high quality precision optics are high quality precision optics, regardless of whether the military uses them or not. Most civilian shooters will be happy with any well-built scope.
However, those who are familiar with milrad adjustments, and want a more complex reticle to help with shooting calculations should at least consider some mil-spec options.
Vortex Optics Viper PST Gen II 5-25x50
Shooters who want a scope that most closely matches military-grade performance and function without springing for something astronomically expensive should go after the Vortex Optics Viper PST Gen II 5-25x50.
If that’s not quite what you need, check out this rifle scopes reviewfor more options.
Now get your rifle out of the closet and head out to the range!