Sniper Scopes: Talking in Circles/Shooting in Straight Lines

A Leupold MkIV Precision Riflescope affixed to the author’s personal sniper rifle.

When is comes to shooting a precision rifle or sniper rifle, a great deal of your discussion will be focused (no pun intended) on the sniper scope mounted atop the gun. It should be obvious to most readers that mounting a $100 scope onto a $1000 rifle is sophomoric, a waste of valuable potential and, frankly, the sign of an amateur shooter.

Nonetheless, even experienced riflemen run into some confusion regarding which windage and elevation adjustments are the most beneficial for long range shooting or sniping. For the longest time, precision riflescopes or sniper scopes were adjusted via a method we referred to as Minute of Angle or simply MOA. Then, some smart guy came up with the Milliradian method of scope adjustment. Before, MRAD or Mils, shooters were satisfied to calculate 1/4, 1/2, or 1 MOA adjustments. I suppose we can blame the continental Europeans or the Asians for this situation as MOA is based upon British Imperial measurement and MRAD is better translated to the Metric system (although you can still use inches when calculating Mils if your brain likes solving math problems).

Talking in Circles

Some of the confusion with both MOA and Mils is due to the fact that they are both based upon angles and degrees in a circle. For the layman, 1 MOA = 1 inch at 100 yards, 2 MOA is 2 inches at 200 yards, etc. Many people have wondered how they came up with that? Going back to “Minute” of angle, a “minute” is 1/60th of an “Angle” or 1 degree. There are 360 degrees on a compass or in a circle. From a technical standpoint, 1 MOA is actually 1.047 inches. Has your brain melted yet?

Milliradians are calculated by dividing the circle of which we are dealing into 6283 Mils. There are 10 Mils in 0.5625 of a degree of angle. A single Mil is equal to 1/6400 of a complete circle. Sounds easy, right? One Mil or MRAD is equal to 10 centimeters or 3.6 inches at 100 yards. Unlike standard 1/4 or 1/2 inch “click” adjustments on the sniper scope knob, most of the MRAD scope adjustments are made in 0.1 Mils. Meaning ten “clicks” moves the adjustment 1 full Mil or 10 centimeters/3.6 inches.

Of course, all of this talk is “angular” as is a part of a circle. But, when we shoot a rifle, the bullet path is “linear”. Our brains see the image of bullets, although they spin from the rifling, going in a straight line (linear), not around in circles like the hands on a clock or the dial on a compass. The new or even old school shooter might wonder why were are talking in circles when we are shooting in straight lines.

We have not even discussed the effect of gravity on the bullet or the damnable wind that is constantly trying to blow our projectiles to the left or right. How about the effect of elevation on the flight path of the bullet? The impacts of a shot taken at sea level and a shot taken at 7000 feet will not be the same. Then we have the magnification of error. A bullet that is 1 inch off the mark at 100 yards (or meters if that makes you happy) is not going to be 1 inch off at 300, the error is magnified on an angular scale. Shoot! Here we are talking circles again. When you start trying to do all of these mathematic calculations in your head while sitting or lying behind rifle, even the most seasoned shooter can feel their brain begin to hurt. Oh, in case your eyes haven’t glaze over by now, every cartridge has a different velocity and every different bullet has its own unique Ballistic Coefficient that determines how well or not it flies through the atmosphere. Kind of makes you think that rifle shooting is not for dummies, huh?

Keeping it Simple

When you start to consider all of the variables, figuring out how the make precision, one shot hits, at distances from 100 to 1000 yards or more, seems to be a daunting task. The first step is to keep it simple. The worst thing you can do for your brain is to try and work with numerous different cartridges with varied bullet designs and velocities at the same time. To do so is to set yourself up for a mental breakdown.

Rifles barrels come from the factory with varied rifling. For the .308 Winchester, the most common rifling is a 1/10 twist, but that is not an absolute. Let’s say your have such a rifle. Purchase three loads of .308 ammunition, bench your rifle on sandbags or something similar and slow fire several groups onto a paper target at 100 yards. A hot barrel (several rounds fired rapidly) will group differently than cold barrel. Take your time. If your marksmanship skills are up to par, you should know within an hour which load the rifle prefers. Yes, different rifles will shoot some loads better than others. That is simply the way of the world. (*Editor’s Note: 168 and 175 grain precision ammunition in a .308 Winchester generally produce the most consistent groups, wound channels or tissue damage are a topic for another day)

Now that you have determined which load groups the most consistently from your given rifle it is time to start working on you calculations and scope adjustments. Thanks to the wonder of the internet, ballistic calculation charts for essentially every cartridge or load under the sun are at your finger tips. You can work up rifle “dope” (Data on Personal Equipment or Date of Previous Engagement, you can fight amongst yourselves) out to 2000 yards it you want. However, if you are limited to a 300 or 500 yard range, 1000 yard dope is just mental masturbation.

Going back to your scope adjustment, be they MOA or MRAD, you will now determine how many adjustments you will need to make to hit your target, dead center, at a given distance. A “click” is simply one adjustment of either your windage or elevation knob. It is not necessary to get all bunged up about terminology. Many years ago when I attended a Sniper School, the lead instructor explained, “For the purpose of clarity, we use the term ‘clicks’. A single adjustment of the knob is a ‘click’ regardless of whether it is MOA or Mils.” Every sniper rifle should have its own dedicated notebook. Yes, Gen Z, I mean a bound stack of paper with a protective cover. We use pencils or pens to inscribed data onto said notebook. (No, I do not care about the newest app on our iPhone.)

In the notebook we keep track of the range location (primarily the elevation of the range), the weather that day, and the critical data such as the load specifics, the zero of the rifle (most will be zeroed at 100 yds) and the number of clicks up for each target at each distance. It is one thing to work the numbers up on a ballistic calculator, it is another to actually do so in the real world. For a point of clarity, windage is set at 100 yards and we do not touch the windage knob again. Snipers do not dope (dial) wind, they use the horizontal reticle and hold over left or right depending on the direction.

To continue, when you are on target at varied distances, you will record the number of clicks. For instance, I have an M40-style rifle in .308. At two hundred yards, I will go up 2 clicks not “half-MOA” or 0.6 Mils, just 2 clicks. At 300 yards my adjustment up is 10, (one, two, three…ten). Yes, I know some of you have spent hours upon hours studying Milliradians and now I burst your bubble. However, the point of this exercise is to keep it simple.

The ability to rapidly apply click adjustments leads us to the ability to “speed dial” our elevation knob in order to put a bullet onto a humanoid target in rapid fashion. Believe it or not, living creatures have the annoying habit of moving around and refusing to stand perfectly still while you calculate exact MOA or Mil corrections in your head. Having book or technical knowledge of Minute of Angle or Milliradian is wonderful. Nonetheless, having a great deal of practical experience behind the rifle while engaging targets are varied distances is even more useful.

Who makes the Best Sniper Scope?

There are a number of questions or assertions that are certain to instigate an argument or at very least a heated debate. “What is the best round for self-defense?” is one of these questions as is the GLOCK versus M1911 discussion. Regarding who makes the best sniper scope, again you are looking for an argument. Currently, the United States Marines Corps is using the Nightforce Optics “Advanced Tactical Scope”. The United States Army, however, is going with the Leupold MkV HD riflescope. Both are excellent choices.

Old school riflemen speak of the Unertl riflescopes with reverence, but that company no longer exists. US Optics is considered by many to be the natural successor to the Unertl reputation for rock solid, crystal clear sniper scopes. Steiner Optics and Trijicon and no slouches either. Also, the precision tactical scopes from EOTech are earning a solid reputation.

From my thirty years of shooting a precision long range rifle in the field, I can say that some of the must have features, regardless of manufacturer, would include external adjustment knobs with a positive click feel. Yes, sometimes you have to make adjustments while wearing gloves. (*Editors Note: I went through an entire Sniper School, to include the graduation qualification while wearing gloves. NO, I did not cut off the trigger finger.) A locking windage knob is a good features as it does not need to be changed after zero is achieved. The parallax focus knob should also provide superior clarity and be simple to adjust. An illuminated reticle, though not an absolute, is a positive addition. Minimum tube body should be 30mm, 34mm tubes are great but not an requirement. Variable power is nice, but once more not critical. I have been on the range with a shooter using a US Army fixed 10x riflescope and watched as he smacked a steel target at 1000 yards. The US Army sniper scope in WWII was a fixed 8x. In Vietnam, the USMC used a fixed 8x Unertl riflescope. Fixed power scopes can get the job done. A scope shade or type of “kill flash” filter affixed to the objective lens should also be on your shopping list.

Notice that I did not say you absolutely have to use MOA or MRAD. MRAD adjustments with Mil-Dot reticles certainly do offer advantages, I will not argue with that. Nonetheless, it is the man who shoots the rifle, not the sniper scope. We cannot replace skill and experience with equipment. Gear enhances skill, not the other way around. The bottomline is to figure out what load in the most consistent in your chosen rifle and spend as much time as you can behind that gun.

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