How To Understand Scope Magnification

So, you’ve just bought your first rifle, and the shop owner is asking if you’d like to buy a scope to go along with your new purchase. He shows you a dizzying array of options, and you have no idea which one would be best for you and, of course, that will fit within your budget.

Then, the old man starts rattling off some numbers for each scope, but what do they even mean? Well, it’s a somewhat complex topic, but fear not! I’m here to break it down for you and get you started on how to understand scope magnification.

how to understand scope magnification


While hunters and marksmen have gotten by for centuries without using a scope on their rifle, nowadays, it’s a tool that you’ll find most firearm enthusiasts using. The simple reason for that is convenience and simplicity.

Lining up your target with a scope is much easier and more accurate than lining up the iron sights on your rifle. Not to mention, in the past couple of decades, fewer firearm manufacturers are even equipping their rifles with iron sights.

A scope will allow you to hunt more effectively in the early morning and late in the day when there is not a lot of ambient light available, and you want to be able to intercept big game at those crucial times when they are moving to and from the areas where they sleep.

Using a scope also improves firearm safety, because not only can you see your target more clearly, but also what may lie behind it.


While it may seem complicated at first glance, understanding scope magnification is quite simple. In general, you’ll see two numbers separated by an “x.” The first number represents the magnification of the scope. This means how many times larger the target appears when viewed through the scope versus the naked eye.

Often, a hyphen separates the magnification scope number. For example, 3-15x. In these scopes, known as variable (or “zoom”) scopes, the first number represents the minimum magnification level, and the second number refers to the maximum magnification level. Therefore, in the above example, you can adjust the magnification from 3x the size to 15x the size compared to the naked eye, depending on the situation.

For example, if you are hunting deer or other large game in close cover, a low-power fixed scope (4x magnification or less) would be ideal. This allows you to acquire your target more quickly and offers you a wider field of view. However, if you prefer target shooting at longer ranges, a scope of 16x to 20x magnification might make more sense.

The second number in the scope specs refers to the objective diameter of the lens of your scope (in millimeters), the one opposite from the side you are looking through. A larger objective lens allows more light to pass through the scope, causing the target image to appear brighter. This is how a telescope or a pair of binoculars works. Therefore, a larger objective lens would be particularly useful in low light conditions, such as at dusk.

Now, check out some of these scopes and see how much you can already understand about the scope magnification just by glancing at the model numbers. Or, check out this brief tutorial about the anatomy of a scope:


The specs of your scope depend on what you plan to do with it, whether big game hunting in a densely-wooded forest or shooting paper targets from a long distance on a firing range. You also need to consider the weight of the scope, which can vary greatly. For example, scopes with a magnification under 10x are typically going to be your lighter scopes, whereas scopes greater than 10x are better suited when firing from a supported position.

Keep in mind, though, that the higher the magnification power, the larger objective lens you will need; otherwise, as the power increases, the light will decrease, and you’ll just be looking at a dark shadow.

As mentioned above, if you are a typical large game hunter whose targets are typically in the 200 to 400-yard range, and you would need to have good lighting and a larger field of view for tracking other potential targets, so a 4x magnification would probably work best. For long-distance shooting, a 9-12x magnification would probably be the best bet.

Remember, there are advantages and disadvantages for each one. If you have too much magnification, your field of view is smaller, so you won’t be able to acquire your target as quickly as with a lower power scope magnification. A general rule of thumb to follow is that the best magnification is the one that gives you the most precise image of the target with the least magnification.

If all of this has you ready to pull out your hair, there are also variable power scopes, which allow you to adjust the power of your scope on the fly, depending on the conditions. A ring on the back of the scope will let you change to the right setting. 

While the variable power scopes do tend to be slightly more expensive than the fixed power scopes, investing in a higher-priced variable power scope might still be the best option, rather than purchasing multiple fixed power scopes. This is especially true if you plan to shoot in different situations, with varying distances and lighting conditions. With that said, you will find plenty of folks who swear by one or the other. You’ll need to see what works best for you.


Hopefully, after all this, you now know how to understand scope magnification a little better. We’ve talked about what each of the values in the scope specs means, namely the scope magnification and diameter of the objective lens.

We’ve also touched on which type of scope might be better for you, depending on what kind of shooting you’d like to do. If it’s within your budget, though, you should probably invest in a decent variable power scope, which will allow you much more flexibility and versatility to enjoy your rifle in a wide variety of conditions and settings!

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