Reticles: The Critical Interface

Dots, wire, posts — and sheep fence

“Little people, little pleasures,” sighed Alice early in our marriage as she watched men in heavy jackets hug big rifles to perforate dime-size circles. By then my Anschutz had earned a secondhand 20X scope. After an apprenticeship with iron sights, dicing X-rings with its crosswire was a wondrous thing.

Scopes make hitting easier partly because they make the target easier to see and put the aiming device (reticle) in the same apparent plane as the target.

Powerful scopes with range-finding reticles help hit game and steel targets far away.

Dots, Crosswires, Posts

During my youth, reticle options were limited to crosswire, post or dot. I marveled at TK Lee’s 0.008″ dot on spider web! A dot obscures nothing in the field except your point of aim. Properly sized, it’s also quick but even big dots can get lost in poor light and against mottled backgrounds. Long ago a dot in a Lyman Alaskan hid in the shadowed hide of an elk at dusk. Frantic, I searched for it in bleached grass under the bull. Faintly, it winked! I jerked it up onto the elk and fired. Luck and short yardage blessed me.

The best size for a dot depends on magnification. To me, a 2-minute dot seems right for a 6X scope, a 3-minute for a 4X, a 4-minute for a 2-1/2X. Powerful target scopes have dots covering as little as 1/8” at 100 yards. For bulls-eye shooting, however, I think a crosswire works as well. Very fine crosswires, like small dots, can be hard to find, and hard to track when pulse and muscle twitches bounce the sight picture through powerful lenses.

In a hunting scope, a crosswire must be thick enough to acquire quickly in dim light. An intersection covering a saucer-size patch on a distant deer denies you nothing. As with the bead on an old carbine, if it hides the middle of the vitals and your bullet hits what you can’t see, you’ll still kill the beast!

Magnification and reticles allowing you to quarter bullet holes are useful only if you’re shooting at targets the size of bullet holes.

The best reticle? Leupold’s Duplex and “plex” spin-offs afford precise aim with their thin center wire. Posts comprising the wires’ outer sections draw your eye in dim light. Better yet is the similar German No. 4 — without an unnecessary post at 12 o’clock. It excels as a range-finding device, because its three posts are squared off, not tapered. Such reticles have been made in various ways. Leupold has used .0012 platinum wire flattened to .0004. Premier Reticle Ltd. has supplied wire ribbon, twisted. These and more complex reticles can also be photo-etched with .0007 metal foil. Chemicals strip away all but the final form.

Range finding reticles have accelerated the trend to long-range shooting. Most popular is the mil dot. A mil (for milliradian) is an angular measure spanning 3.6″ at 100 yards. A mil dot reticle has a series of dots one mil apart along a crosswire. To find your target distance, divide target height in mils at 100 yards by the number of mils subtended. Result: range in hundreds of yards.

If a moose 6 feet tall (20 mils at 100 yards) appears to stand four dots high (20/4 = 5), the moose is 500 yards away. You can also divide target size in yards by mils subtended, then multiply by 1,000 to get range in yards: 2/4 x 1,000 = 500.

Among my favorite range-finding reticles is the Burris Ballistic Plex. After zeroing, check ranges at which the three bars on the six-o’clock wire give you dead-on hits. Those bars don’t impede quick aim with the otherwise clean plex reticle. A Ballistic Plex helped me kill a fine pronghorn that had me pegged at 393 steps. I’ve less enthusiasm for range-finding reticles cluttering the field of view with something resembling sheep fence.

Even in bright open country, a fine reticle can slow your aim. Deer vitals are big — use a bold reticle!

Front Plane, Rear Plane

Europe’s first- or front-plane reticles have become popular in the U.S., otherwise long wedded to second- or rear-plane reticles. A first-plane reticle stays the same size relative to the target across a scope’s power range. Perversely, it can cover small, distant targets at high magnification; and it shrinks to obscurity at the lower power useful for fast shots in thickets! Rear-plane reticles stay the same apparent size across the magnification range. Its dimensions change in relation to the target.

One-hole groups like this require a good gun along with a high magnification scope and a precision reticle.
Wayne likes the clean Burris Ballistic Plex (below).

Light Up

Illuminated reticles are now legion. In place of batteries, Trijicon AccuPoint scopes use tritium and fiber optic windows. Schmidt & Bender’s Flash-Dot has a beam-splitter to illuminate the center dot.

Zeiss Varipoint scopes had a crosswire in the front focal plane, a lighted dot in the rear. The main reticle stayed in constant relationship to the target; the dot was sharp and small even at high magnification. With any illuminated sight, adjust the brightness dial no higher than necessary. Even a pinpoint of light shows up in a dark forest plus excess brilliance causes a spot of “night blindness” and makes the dot big and fuzzy.

Now Focus!

To sharpen reticle focus, turn the rear of the eyepiece. On traditional scope, a lock ring secures a fine-threaded ocular housing. Fast-focus eyepieces rotate on helical threads inside the housing. Adjust either type this way: Spin the eyepiece all the way in. Point the rifle at the sky, away from the sun. (You don’t want an object in the field, as your eye will automatically try to focus it.)

Now turn the eyepiece out slowly until the reticle looks sharp. Check after resting your eyes for a moment. Adjusted, the reticle will appear crisp at all ranges until age changes your vision.

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