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  1. #1
    Marksman sbu sailor's Avatar

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    A Good Spotting Scope On A Budget? First time buyer’s guide…

    This post is aimed at the novice, the person with little or no experience using spotting scopes… someone who has just started shooting, and wants a decent spotting scope without the $1000 price tag! Let’s face it, we can’t all wait til after we win the lottery and buy a Swarovski!

    My glass experience is centered around celestial navigation, celestial observation, and lookout duties in the Navy and Merchant Marine. I’ve utilized a large and various assortment of spotting scopes, telescopes, and binoculars. (including gyro-stabilized equipment) Do I understand what makes good glass? Yes, but I am not going to spend a lot of time explaining porro vs roof prisms, color focal points, and all the “jargon” salesman will use. I could spend time on the difference between multi-coated and fully multi-coated lenses, but seriously why? This post is to show you what I found, not teach you how to find it.

    I will, now and again, touch on the things that make certain glasses better than others. Let me start by telling you that if someone tries to sell me a $100 scope based on “twilight factor,” I just walk away. The twilight factor they will quote is simple math based on power, focal length, and lens size. To truly calculate it, you need to add in how the glass is ground, the optics coatings, and a host of other details. Is twilight factor real? Yes. If you compare the math, you will see that most low end scopes are only calculated the “short” way. In other words, the number they quote will be the same basic factor as similarly sized scopes. (e.g. 20-60x60)There are a lot of buzz-words used for scope marketing. We ignored them and looked up our own facts about the spotting scopes we compared.

    Two spotting scopes with the same numbers (i.e. 20-60x60), at close price points, can have vastly dissimilar characteristics and produce images as different as night and day. After 3 months of web research, countless trips to sporting goods stores, (Cabela’s, Bass Pro, Gander Mountain, etc) looking through and handling dozens and dozens of scopes, AND numerous conversations with those that make a living using scopes, plus “amateurs” with years of experience… Here is my guide to decent scopes under $500! (Included is my “insight,” into mid and upper level scopes at the end.)

    Grab a coffee and danish (or donut if you are “on the job”), sit back and enjoy… ‘cause, it’s a long one folks!

    If you have a scope you love that I don’t list, great! Perhaps you should do a full blown review/comparison with the scopes I did list, that are in the same price range, and post it as a review! This post isn’t to say anyone owns a “bad” scope, merely to help guide glass newbs through the overwhelming choices out there. Just because I don’t mention your brand, does not mean we did not look at it. Suffice to say we looked at ALL well-known brands with spotters between $5 and $1000. Side-by-side comparisons were done with a resolution chart, and multiple viewers.

    The results were compared and combined to rate each scope represented. Let me assure you that EVERY spotting scope at the three sports outlets listed above (the scopes at $500 or below) were compared, by at least three people each. Then we had an “outing” where people brought their own scopes to the field and over a dozen people compared them. These spotters ranged in price from $200-$4300! Along with the resolution chart, I had a black bulls-eye targets with 223, 308, and 45 ACP holes in them. The chart was at 100 ft, the targets were placed 50, 100, and 200yds distant. (My sister is a photographer, and we enlisted the help of one of her local audubon clubs and some wildlife photographers, along with some “professional” shooting event staff for our “outing” in Wisconsin.)

    There were 292 Spotting Scopes listed on Optics Planet the last time I checked. That’s a lot of comparing! Let me start by saying that the brands with the best recognized names are the ones to check. Under 300 bucks, there are only a few brands worth mentioning. Some will say “I have a Burris “dadada,” and it’s great!” Ok, good for you, really. I’m happy that you like your spotter! Side-by-side comparisons took Burris off of the list for us though. No, they weren’t “bad” necessarily… just not as good as another at the same price. Price also goes hand in hand with what you will use the scope for. If you want to see .223 holes on a black target past 200yds, get the checkbook out and call Dave Ramsey for advice, because you will end up north of 500 clams! You will find that scopes are capable of further distance viewing than I have listed. But unless you are utilizing “shoot and see” type targets, listed are the nominal ranges for resolving smaller caliber bullet holes.

    Be careful which internet guru you trust. When you read reviews on lower priced scopes Amazon, Overstock, or Optics Planet for instance, you may be seeing the reaction of a first time buyer who never previously looked through a spotting scope! To that person, a kid’s toy might look great! You need to seek out opinions of professionals, who are not connected with any certain brand, and therefore unbiased. That is exactly what we did.

    Four things go together with scope buying decisions, activity, budget, eye relief, and warranty! You want to buy the best glass you can afford, with the best warranty, for your eyesight, and your intended use. I’m going to shy away from bird watchers and digi-scopers, because I researched scopes specifically for the shooting range. That means, anything less than the eye relief needed for shooting/safety glasses knocks the scope off the list. All the prices are approximate. YMMV.

    Under $100? You are the person that mainly fires handguns up to 25yds, who’s eyes are just not what they used to be. Let’s face it, cheap is cheap! There are only two scopes in this price range that don’t feel like toys, and/or won’t come apart in the range bag when you drop it. Remember that a decent pair of hunting binoculars will work for 25 yds most of the time.

    $80 ~ The Alpen 20x50 = If you just want a little hand-held magnifier and quick pointer, that you can lay on the bench, and bump around… this little guy is for you. That is, provided you shoot pistols at 25 yds. It has a sunshade, and comes with a tripod. (Let me point out that you will, in all probability, quickly replace the tripods that come with lower priced scopes.) I had one of these little Alpens, it was great at indoor ranges. I used it without the tripod. (Lost custody and visitation rights to the little guy, if ya know what I mean.) Alpen has a lifetime warranty.

    $90 ~ Celestron 12-36x60 Landscout = The only other scope, under a c-note, that I can recommend. For up to 50 yds, this scope will give you enough clarity to resolve hits on black targets. Any further than that, you have to go to higher quality scopes. It comes with a tripod, and a lifetime warranty.

    When The budget climbs to a hundred bucks, your best bet is to save some more before you buy. If you just can't spend more than a "hunnert," get the land scout. As we will see with higher priced scopes, after you hit a certain level, you have to double the price to get a 30% better image, usually. That is the issue here. To get a clearly better image than the celestron landscout (at 50 yards) you have to nearly double the price. There are a few scopes between $90 and $170 that will afford a 20-30% better image than the landscout, but not good enough to be worth mentioning, because the eye relief isn’t there. The $170 model is well worth the price increase. Add into that, stretching out to 170 also gets you looking at the 100yd range! If you are staying at 50 yds, use the land scout, if you wanna see 100, go up to $170.

    $100-$200? You are the bench shooter that wants to plink at 50-100 yds. You need a scope that will work for 25-50, but will feel at home on that rim-fire rifle range… and see 22 caliber holes! There are again, only two contenders in this range.

    $170 ~ Celestron Ultima 80, 20-06x80 = This scope will do what you require, and a little more. It comes with a tripod and lifetime warranty.

    $200 ~ Redfield Rampage 20-60X60 = This is a surprise contender. I have to mention at this point, that the last number (60) refers to the size of the objective lens. (That’s the big end.) Some people think that a large objective lens increases the magnification. That is not the case. The larger the objective lens, normally means more light is let into the scope, and the better image you will have. Now, the Ultima has an 80mm lens, that means more light than the 60mm Redfield, right? Well, no. Other things come into play such as lens coating, how the glass is ground, the type of glass… let’s just say that the Rampage gives a much better image for 30 more dollars! Redfield is owned by Leupold, and has slipped some higher quality tricks into this scope. They took the Leupold requirements, and had them built overseas to reduce costs. It comes with a tripod that really isn’t horrible. Its waterproof, fog proof, and shockproof. It has BaK4 Prisms (that’s the best there is folks) and fully multi-coated lenses. (again, the best there is) There is a lifetime warranty as well. If you have 30 extra bucks, I suggest this one over the Celestron.

    I can hear it now… Barska? Where are the Barskas? Ok, settle down and looky here… between the limited eye relief, chromatic aberration, and eye fatigue, the Barska’s did not measure up to the scopes listed. Sorry. It wasn’t just me, ok? Simmons, and Tasco? They weren’t “also rans,” they were “didn’t show ups.” If you have these and you like them, awesome! They just couldn’t hang in our side-by-sides. We are suggesting only the TOP options in a given price range.

    200-300? Well folks, we are now in the range of decent spotting scopes for the resolving of bullet holes at the 200 yard range. I will enter this section with an admission… I called or emailed several scope manufacturer representatives or dealers with this requirement: I want a spotting scope that will see .223 bullet holes at 100 yds, and will probably not be used to score any targets past 200 yds. I did not tell them what my experience was, or what I knew about optics. I did, however list some brands I was considering. Those were; Oculus, Levenhuk, and Celestron. With only one exception, they told me:

    $230 ~ Konuspot80 20-60x80 = It just works. It has a small tripod that isn’t horrible. Between here and $400 there isn’t a lot to write home about. It only has a one year warranty… that’s my hesitation. If you are going to be careful with it, and not drop it on the concrete at 366 days, this is the price point choice. I really liked the one we tested, I just hated the thought of a one year warranty.

    The "exception” I spoke of was the $322 Konuspot100 20-60x100. The difference just wasn’t enough to justify another hundred bucks for any of the 5 people that compared these two side-by-side.

    There two other scopes worth mentioning here:

    $219 ~ Levenhuk 30-90x90 = Don’t let that 30-90 fool you. This scope has a good image, comparable to the Konus to 60 mag. Upwards of that power the image begins to mildly suffer. (often the case with higher magnification eyepieces) Even with that, it has a longer range than the Konus. The Levenuk has a metal tripod that surprised me, it held the heavy spotter more securely than the average “freebie table-top” tripod. This scope has a lifetime warranty. Now, this is a Russian spotter. There is an “office” in Florida, but it’s still Russian. Levenhuk hasn’t been around as long as Konus, so people shy away. I personally would buy this over the Konus80 because of the warranty, but that’s me. I would recommend the Konus over this to anyone else ‘cause, Russia.

    $260 ~ Redfield Rampage 20-60x80 = It has a comparable image to the Konus, not quite as good at lower light… and a lifetime warranty. This is the first of the lower priced scopes to come with a full size tripod. (It isn’t a fabulous tripod, but it will get you started and last a while if treated gingerly.) If you want a full size tripod in your starter kit, this is your option, though the Konus scored slightly better. I also like this scope over the Konus for the warranty.

    This also begs the offering: If you are going to spend $170-200, why not save another month and get the Konus for $230, or the Rampage for $260?

    Up to now, I have been talking about bullet holes. I do want you to know that all the scopes previously listed will “see” much farther than they will resolve .223 bullet holes. You can see splatter or .308 holes at greater distances with the $170 model. You can see a steel ram fall over at 500 yds with the last three spotters. You can spot animals for hunting or photography at MUCH greater distances. What we have been looking for, is a scope an individual can use to reduce “walking to check” targets, at the specified yardages. Of the scopes tested from $300-400 there is only one that comes in exceptionally better than the Konus.

    $399 ~ Vortex Diamondback 20-60x60 = Past $300 equals past 200 yds. We have to be realistic here, over 200 yds you should try reactionary targets with almost any scope. .223 holes appear microscopic at 300 yds on white paper, and usually disappear on black. Atmospheric conditions can make the best scope seem worthless at middle ranges, let alone 500+ yds! The closer you are to the ground, the more “mirage” (or heat waves) will interfere. I’m not a sniper. I won’t be laying on the ground spotting tangos at a thousand meters. I’m not going to bother learning how to “read” mirage. After $300, the best scope makers stop playing the “tripod giveaway game” for the most part. Yes, that means the Diamondback does not come with a tripod, unless you get lucky enough to find a “package” deal from some site or rep.

    Realistically, you are looking at $100+ for a decent full-sized tripod. (My sister swears by her Bushnell $100 tripod) Hey, I said full-sized! There are a few table top tripods under a c-note that aren’t bad, and one compact model I can think of. There isn’t anything under $150 (tripod that is) that I personally would look twice at. I saw a quote, “It’s better to have an $850 scope on a $250 tripod than a $2000 scope on a $100 tripod.” I agree with that. What I mean to say is, once you reach $400 for a spotting scope, unless you already have a tripod, you are really looking at $550. Here’s where people say, "I can get a Kowa for $440!" Yes, you can… but does that include an eye-piece? Not only that, the entry level Kowa eye-piece and bodies are ok, but not awesome until you hit the “combo” price around $1400.

    At this price point, we are going to change gears. I will list the four we tested together, and then the results.

    $460 ~ Bushnell Legend 20-60x80 HD
    $499 ~ Vortex Diamondback 20-60x80
    $470 ~ Celestron Regal M265 ED 20-60x65
    $480 ~ Alpen 20-60x80 with micro-adjust table top tripod

    We were all amazed that the Alpen took top honors! Wait, the Alpen? Yep! The Vortex came in a close second in image quality. Not only that, but the little tripod was not too bad. It’s about $50 bucks separately. If you plan to spot from a table, bench, or prone… you can start using this fella right out of the box! The “micro-adjust” had to knobs for small corrections, kind of “set and forget” for a single focal point… not much good for panning, but great for spotting a single target. The Bushnell legend scored 20% lower than the Vortex. The Celestron, well, I’m too embarrassed for the spotter to say where it scored. Really though, the Vortex and Alpen were SO good, they made the Regal look like less than it is. I can’t tell you how surprised we were by that end score. Combine that with the tripod, and for less than $500… the Alpen IS the scope! The Bushnell has the “bullet proof guarantee” for purchase, and a lifetime warranty. Suffice to say, Vortex has one of the best warranties in the business. Of the scopes listed, Vortex has the only FULLY TRANSFERABLE warranty available. That alone is worth mentioning, because… you can buy a USED Vortex in full confidence! Which means? You might be able to get a used vortex with tripod for less than the Alpen!

    For those of you thinking, “I can get along with that $200 spotter, and walk part way up the lane to see my score.” Look at it this way; For a $600 spotter, if you use it once a month at the range, for ten years, that’s 5 bucks a session, or $60 a year… is it worth it now? I want to spend the MOST I can AFFORD, on the BEST in that price range. You will not be sorry if you follow suit!

    It’s important to get your hands on, and compare, the different spotters you are considering. Also, I suggest make your purchase locally if at all possible, it’s so much easier to deal face-to-face on a warranty issue, than emailing China!

    Three brands I have to mention here are Acuter, Theron, and Zhumell. There was one of each at the field party. The Acuter was a very nice spotter from England, with no American outlet I could find. Watch for it, they will be contenders if they can infiltrate our market! The Zhumell 20-60x80, the owner said it was $210 new. It was VERY close to the Konus80 in image clarity. Same goes for the Theron Saker ED 15-45x60. I would say it had better image quality with not quite the range of the Konus. I just couldn’t find out the details about lens coatings, warranty, availability, and the customer service that I wanted, to recommend the Zhumell. There is a website for the Theron, which then will link you to a site for sales. The phone number is the same for both sites. Pat, the guy we talked to from Predator Optics, was very genuine and seemed to honestly care what I was looking for, even if it meant not buying a Saker. The area code is Wisconsin, we neglected to ask where he was located. The fault I found with the Saker was a 1 year warranty. But, if the Konus is the other option, well, that math is the same.

    That’s it for spotters not breaking the bank folks. I will give you my peek into the mid to high level scopes next. For those of you only concerned with budget scopes, you can stop reading now, and thanks for coming this far! I will leave you with two “honorable mention compact spotters.”

    At $299 Minox MD 50 15-30x50 If you back pack or camp, and want to spot wildlife… or want something for small for up to 50 yds. This German glass is just what the doctor ordered at this price!

    And $699 Vortex Razor HD 11-33x50 For the same activities as the Minox, if money isn’t a big concern, you cannot beat this companion on a hike!

    At this juncture I want to say to all the INGOers who are shaking their heads going, “You're and idiot sbu, I just talk to Allen, from A&A Optics… INGOer ~ 42769vette!” Well, I did. I hit him with the same question I did the rest of the pack, and got the same answer, Konuspot80. Allen was kind and patient, and answered every question I had in a very genuine manner. Let me also say, A&A doesn’t sell Konus, so he steered me to a scope I would have to buy from a competitor! If and when I find myself again in the market, I will call Allen first. If you must have a Kowa, or you are an extremely long distance shooter, there is a site called that will suit your needs.

    That’s a big spread! The reason for it is; In all honesty, one brand comes out on top at each price point. Vortex. Is Kowa in there? Yes. Pentax? Yes. Also Leupold, Nikon, Alpen, and others. When we found a good one, we discovered the Vortex at the same price point was better. Proprietery coatings, fully multi-coated glass, dialectric coated prisms, and other features make these the best at each price level. You can buy a better 20-60x80 for instance, but not at the price of the same size Vortex. So if you want to spend $500-$1600 for a scope without a tripod, just call Allen and let him walk you through it! You will be happy with any Vortex (especially the Razor HD 20-60x85!) in this price range.

    $2000 There is nothing significantly better than the Vortex until you reach this price, and even then, I’m not sure I would call it significant:

    $2000 ~ Nikon Fieldscope ED 25-75x82 XD - But it really only scored 25% higher than the Razor HD 85. The Razor is at the level where you have to nearly double the price to get a significant increase in quality. It may sound like I represent Vortex, not so. My favorite brand is Minox, and I would steer you toward it if I were being biased.

    So there is the mid-level, and the high? Hmmm… let me say that we were limited to what folks brought to the outing, and the super expensive spotters at some sports gear outlets. We, in no way, looked at every scope over $2000. But, let me also say, when you hit scopes as perfect as the Kowa and Swarovski that I talk about, nothing is going to be significantly better at these two prices, they will almost all be nearly the same quality.

    For just above $3000 The Kowa Prominar TSN-880 series with 25-60 wide angle eyepiece included (optics planet) is the one. I couldn’t believe how good the image was, all the way to the edges, even at max magnification! I just thought it couldn’t be improved! For the money, it stands alone.

    Then, after $3000 you get into a host of names; Zies, Leica, and the dream… a Swarovski!

    Ok, if money were no object, the Swarovski 30-75x95 ATX would be in my kit. Actually, the “Pinnacle Package.” A $4300 spotter and eyepiece, $1000 tripod and head, and a very nice bag to carry it all. I have a hard time believing I will ever look through a better optic! Is it 35% better than the Kowa, justifying the 35% higher price? In image quality, probably 15%, so not really. But the versatility of the modular system added to the slightly better image makes it worth the extra money for me. I’m quite sure I will never own one.

    Buh-dee, buh-dee, buh-dee, that’s all folks. Except to say, all of this started last year when I had to replace my spotter, and refused to pay more than $300. I don’t need more than a 100 yd “range” spotter. I already had a tripod. (GIOTTOS Carbon YTL with the MH 1312-655SN Head) So, after my Minox was destroyed, I ended up with a Vortex Diamondback 20-60x60 for $249! I could not believe my good fortune in finding a $400 “demo” for more than a hundred bucks off! Again, I know this post makes people think I am a Vortex salesman, no. If I hadn’t found this deal, I would’ve purchased a Minox MD 50 W. The Konus is a bit better than the MD 50 for that price, so also the Rampage… I guess it’s just brand loyalty! We were not compensated in any way for these comparisons. No one received any money, discounts, or gifts from any scope manufacturer, outlet or salesman. Each and every scope mentioned (along with a multitude of others) was physically handled, viewed through, and scored.

    The demo Vortex I bought was in SWFA’s “Sample List” section.

    Happy Shooting Everybody!

    Last edited by sbu sailor; 07-27-2015 at 11:30. Reason: Grammar Nazis

  2. #2
    Grandmaster foszoe's Avatar

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    Wow! Thanks for giving us this info to digest. I have been wanting a good scope to replace my swift.

    Now how about doing night vision and IR?

  3. #3
    Grandmaster Fishersjohn48's Avatar

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    Great info! Thanks and rep inbound.
    “Go tell the Spartans, travelers passing by, that here, obedient to their laws we lie.”

    "Before you say something about the barbecue sauce on somebody else's shirt, take a look at the barbecue sauce on your own shirt" Kid President

  4. #4

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    Picked up a Barska 20-60 power for about $50 at Menard's last fall. Works good enough for the price, though you can tell it is not Leupold lens quality.

  5. #5
    Marksman sbu sailor's Avatar

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    Quote Originally Posted by bulldogs42 View Post
    Picked up a Barska 20-60 power for about $50 at Menard's last fall. Works good enough for the price, though you can tell it is not Leupold lens quality.
    For the group, Barska's eye relief just wasn't up to par. What's the "nominal" range for using your Barska?And, thanks for the comment!

    edit: Ah! Were you racing to 50? I see your count dropped.
    Last edited by sbu sailor; 06-17-2015 at 11:46. Reason: Added question.

  6. #6
    Expert USMC-Johnson's Avatar

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    Great write up. I was torn between a few on your list and i ended up with a razor 20-60x85. Couldnt be happier...of course now i can see that crappy group i'm shooting so maybe the barska would just blur the holes together and make me think i'm shooting better.
    "Curiosity killed the cat... But satisfaction brought it back" ~Unknown

  7. #7
    Grandmaster 42769vette's Avatar

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    Great write up.

    I remember exchanging a few message's with you about this a few weeks ago. Im glad we at least got you pointed in the right direction. Keep in mind, I price match everything.
    "You don't have to spend a fortune to play the game, but you do have to spend your money wisely"

    owner/ operator of

    full line vortex dealer

    contact me at

  8. #8
    Marksman sbu sailor's Avatar

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    Quote Originally Posted by USMC-Johnson View Post
    Great write up. I was torn between a few on your list and i ended up with a razor 20-60x85. Couldnt be happier...of course now i can see that crappy group i'm shooting so maybe the barska would just blur the holes together and make me think i'm shooting better.
    You picked a damn fine glass! (There are times at the range I wish my spotter wasn't so good, for EXACTLY the same reason!)
    Last edited by sbu sailor; 06-18-2015 at 06:41.

  9. #9
    Marksman sbu sailor's Avatar

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    Quote Originally Posted by 42769vette View Post
    I remember exchanging a few message's with you about this a few weeks ago. Im glad we at least got you pointed in the right direction. Keep in mind, I price match everything.
    To be totally honest Alan, I had already purchased the used Diamondback before I messaged you. I wanted to get your opinion added to the "vendor poll" before I posted this info, because INGOers speak so highly of you. If I had not already purchased a scope, I definitely would've gone through you after our interaction. The price matching is great! Yet another reason why I will call you first, if ever again I need a scope. Thanks for the comment!

  10. #10
    x10 is offline
    Master x10's Avatar

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    here's another source for Kowa's

    Tomorrow’s winds will blow tomorrow

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