Best Rifle Scope Under $500: 11 scopes tested head-to-head

I have spent the last 90 hours of my life doing an in-depth test between 11 different rifle scopes priced under $500. Each of the scopes have pros and cons, but in the end, I did find what I could reliably call a “winner.” Let’s dive into the testing.

Overall, the best scope under $500 is the Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-16×44 (check the price on Amazon). The best scope I found under $200 was the Burris Fullfield E1 4.5-14x42mm. If you have a little more budget, my favorite hunting scope of all time is the Leupold VX-3HD 4.5-14×42.

How I Tested the Scopes

I wasn’t about to declare a scope Backfire’s “Best Under $500” without some rigorous testing. I put each of the scopes through 9 different tests and compared them on several different factors.

  • Water intrusion test (I literally threw them in the pool to make sure they’re waterproof)
  • Blind optical quality test (I brought 6 hunters over, covered the brand names, and had them look through each scope to pick which one had the best optical quality)
  • Vertical and horizontal tracking test (testing turret accuracy)
  • Ability to hold zero (Put it on a rifle and make sure it keeps zero after banging around in my truck for a couple days)
  • Reticle comparison (how good is the design of the crosshairs?)
  • Low light test (I woke up several mornings really early to compare each scope’s ability to create a bright image even at first light)
  • Price comparison (obviously, this is a big one!)
  • Zoom range
  • Features (parallax, adjustable turrets, zero stop, MOA and MIL offerings, where it’s made, illumination, etc)

The Vortex Diamondback Tactical Won This Challenge: Here’s why.

Overall, the best scope under $500 in my testing was the Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-16×44. It wasn’t the very best scope in many of the categories, but it was very high ranking in every category. It’s just an all-around reliable scope with impressive features for its price.

This is a first focal plane scope, which means the reticle and zoom are adjusted equally when zooming in. That’s a nice feature for long range shooting that few scopes offer in this price point. Watch my video on first focal plane vs second focal plane for more on this topic.

Another major benefit to the Vortex Diamondback Tactical is its weight of just 22.85 ounces. It’s about 4 ounces lighter than most other exposed-turret scopes with a 30mm tube size.

The Vortex offers a really useful zoom range of 4-16×44. This means that it’s wide enough at the low end of magnification to show the entire animal in your scope as close as 35 yards, but has enough magnification to easily allow the shooter to spot an impact on paper at 100 yards.

The scope isn’t perfect, however. I don’t like that this scope is made in China. In this field of very inexpensive scopes, only Leupold manufactures in the USA. I also wish it offered illumination, though that’s not a feature I’ve ever really needed on my scopes.

To be honest, I doubted the Vortex scope would win this challenge. I expected a smaller company with lower marketing/R&D/repair expenses would likely win the challenge given the low price point of this challenge. I was wrong.

Specs Comparison

ModelFocal PlaneWhere It’s MadeTurretWeight (Oz)Tube SizeIlluminatedPrice Under $500
Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-16×44FirstChinaExposed22.8530mmNo$$
Athlon Talos BTR 4-14×44FirstChinaExposed24.1530mmYes$$
Primary Arms SLx 3-18×50FirstChinaExposed26.230mmYes$$$
Blackhound Genesis 4-14×44FirstChinaExposed24.7530mmYes$$
Arken SH4 4-16×50 Gen2 FirstChinaExposed37.234mmYes$$$
Vortex Crossfire II 4-12×44SecondChinaCapped15.51″No$$
Burris Fullfield E1 4.5-14×42SecondPhilippinesCapped15.51″No$
Leupold VX Freedom 4-12×40SecondUSACapped12.851″No$$
Sig Whiskey3 3-9×40SecondPhilippinesCapped16.251″Yes$
Bushnell Nitro 3-12×44SecondKoreaCapped21.2530mmNo$$$

Runners Up: Athlon and Primary Arms

Although the Vortex Diamondback got the highest scores in the test and won Backfires “Best Scope Under $500,” there are a couple other great scopes to consider.

Here are the runners up in this test:

  • Primary Arms SLx 3-18×50
  • Athlon Talos BTR 4-14×44

Primary Arms

I liked the Primary Arms scope, and it has some features to consider that might make it a better fit for you over the Vortex.  At almost $500 dollars though, it is one of the most expensive scopes we tested. 

The SLx has a massive zoom range of 3x to 18x.  On paper, this sounds great. But for a scope of this price point, it isn’t realistic to expect it to be optically excellent through the whole range.  While good, it fell behind the Vortex Diamondback in both optical quality and size of the eye box. 

The turrets are exposed but have a locking feature as they need to be popped up to be adjusted.  In practice though, there wasn’t nearly enough resistance to pop them up from the down position.  It’s a good idea but poorly implemented. 

Primary Arms offers this scope in two Christmas tree pattern reticles of their exceptional ACSS one as well.  The optic does have illumination, either of the entire reticle or on the ACSS version, just the center dot and horseshoe.

Athlon

The popularity of the 4-14x44mm scope for entry-level target shooting cannot be dismissed.  This type of scope has been offered over the years by multiple companies.

Like the Primary Arms SLx, I found the Athlon Talos to be an overall good scope but just not as good as the Vortex Diamondback.  The Talos though does have a much lower street price of $279, even lower than the Diamondback. 

For features, it does offer illumination, but only comes in Mil adjustments.  I really wish it was offered in MOA as the shooting public prefers it.  It uses a Christmas tree pattern reticle. Overall it’s a solid optic.

With a weight of 23.6 ounces, it is very similar to both the Vortex Diamondback and the Primary Arms SLx.

Waterproofing Test – The Arken Fails

Unfortunately, the Arken scope failed the waterproofing test. Despite Arken advertising the scope as “waterproof” on the box, it immediately had water intrusion when dropped into the pool.

Obviously, most rifle scopes will never be completely immersed in water, so the test is more extreme than is necessary; however, since all of the other scopes were able to pass this test without issue, it’s a notable failure.

I spoke with the good folks at Arken and they replaced the scope immediately and quickly changed how they implemented gaskets in their turrets to fix this problem going forward. That’s a perfect response from a company whose product exhibited an issue.

Optical Quality Test – The Sig Whiskey3 Failed

Optical quality is a very subjective test. I had my personal favorites, but I wanted to see what the average hunter would think of each scope. I invited over a group of shooters to my house, covered up the brand name on each scope, and had them give me their scores on each scope.

The one scope that stood out in this testing was the Sig Whiskey3. This scope has a heavy shadow–or black ring around the image. It made it feel like we were looking through a piece of PVC pipe rather than a clear image. You can see an example of the scope shadow on the Sig in the image below.

Also, the sharpness felt substandard. It just wasn’t comparable to the other scopes in the test, but frankly that’s to be expected because it’s one of the least expensive scopes in the test. I hoped it would punch above its price point, but it really didn’t.

The Sig looks like you’re looking through PVC pipe with a thick black shadow around the smaller image. The Leupold feels like a much better image without the thick black ring around the image.

Drop Test – The Blackhound Fails

Scope drop test. This was painful to watch.

In order to test the durability of each scope, I dropped them from overhead directly onto grass, and then ran the test again dropping them onto brick. Each scope was dropped to land on the front objective, and then dropped again to land on the top turret.

Unfortunately, the top turret on the Blackhound scope became smashed and badly angled. However, it turns out that this may not have been due to the drop.

I purchased each of the scopes in this test, but the Blackhound scope was not in stock anywhere, so I called the company and asked if they’d send me one so I could include their scope in the review. They were nice enough to do so; however, an employee accidentally shipped me a scope that had been in the return pile instead of a new scope.

It seems that the scope was returned previously, and the messed up turret may have been messed up before the drop test took place, and was just worsened by the test.

Blackhound sent me out a replacement scope without issue. I’ve since tested that scope and had really good results with it. In fact, a brand new shooter used that scope to make a first round impact at 500 yards in one of my Youtube videos.

Price Comparison – The Bushnell Nitro Failed

It isn’t that the Bushnell failed out of this comparison because it’s over $500. It wasn’t even the most expensive scope in the test; however, it’s the price of the Bushnell compared to its features and quality that I just couldn’t justify.

The Bushnell felt like it had a picky eyebox and lost a significant amount of eye relief when zoomed in, the optical quality was only fair, it didn’t have many features like adjustable turrets that many of the other scopes had. I just couldn’t justify the price of the Bushnell compared to the competitive scopes.

Recommended for Target Shooting: Arken 4-16x50mm SH4 Gen II

  • Best Target Scope
  • All Tests Passed: No (failed submersion test)
  • Turrets: Exposed
  • Focal Plane: First
  • Adjustments: MOA and Mil
  • Illuminated: Yes

While the Arken scope has some downsides it’s still a great scope.  In both features and optical quality, it feels like a much more expensive scope.  The eye box is excellent and the massive turrets adjust well.

It comes with the popular Christmas tree reticle and has an illuminating center crosshair. 

With that said, the Arken did fail the submersion test and let water inside while at the bottom of my pool.  It was the only scope to fail.  Looking beyond that, there are still a few things to think about when buying this scope.

This is a heavy scope at 35.6 ounces.  This weight alone should eliminate it for most hunting uses.  If you plan on slinging a rifle, I would highly recommend you look at other scopes. 

The other is the main body of the scope is 34mm.  While not completely uncommon, there will be fewer rings and mounts available when compared to 1” and 30mm bodied scopes.

Recommended as a Lightweight Scope: Burris Fullfield E1 4.5-14x42mm

  • Best Light Weight Scope
  • All Tests Passed: Yes
  • Turrets: Capped
  • Focal Plane: Second
  • Adjustments: MOA
  • Illuminated: No

While a very different scope compared to the ones previously discussed, this scope is aimed at an entirely different market.  For the traditional hunter on a budget, the Burris Fullfield checks a lot of boxes. 

This scope drops a lot of the features found on the previously recommended scopes.  The exposed turrets and elaborate reticles are gone.  Instead, this scope is meant to be sighted in at the range and uses a basic BDC reticle for accounting for bullet drop in the field.

It also is lightweight at only 15.3 ounces.  This should be a welcome addition for anyone who will walk around while carrying their rifle.  Optically it’s good too, especially considering the low price.

Recommended: Leupold VX-Freedom 4-12x40mm

  • Runner up for Best Light Weight Scope
  • All Tests Passed: Yes
  • Turrets: Capped
  • Focal Plane: Second
  • Adjustments: MOA
  • Illuminated: No

The Leupold VX-Freedom is another scope meant for the hunting market.  It was the lightest scope we tested at only 13.1 ounces.  If you are a hunter who is on a budget and counting every ounce, this scope should be considered. 

Optically, the Leupold did well and this scope had a slightly better eye box than the Burris.  It was, however, more expensive for a very similar feature set.  It also carries the distinction as being the only optic made in the USA, if that is important to you.

Leupold offers this scope in a handful of reticles, based on your needs.

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12 Comments

  1. Jeremy Johnson says:

    Love the channel, keep fighting the good fight for us and the 2nd Amendment… Your analysis of the Arken scope are spot on, I’m new to hunting and bought one to go with my Savage Axis 2 Precision, this was a mistake as this gun is seriously heavy now… I’ll have to get a new gun and will buy the Leupold VX-Freedom

  2. Love your videos and found your page. I was wondering if you have an opinion on sub 500 scope for multiple 300 win mag shots besides the diamondback. I drew a dav tag for idaho and am doing my first elk hunt this year. Being from wv I didn’t have any long range calibers. I got the 300 win mag and got the vortex diamondback but after 2 boxes of rounds thru it reticle went crooked and was way off so I got my money back. I was leaning towards the burris Fairfield II, any opinion?

    1. Jim Harmer says:

      Woah. That’s gotta be extremely rare. Maybe go with the Primary Arms or Athlon also mentioned in the video? If you could spend a little more, my favorite is the Leupold VX-3HD 4.5-14

      1. First time hunter, just ordered a Burris E1 4.5-14, thanks for the information and congrats on a great site.

  3. I have a tikka 6.5 creedmoor set up with the leupold vx-5 HD and love it. Hunter Precision in Mona built it out for me. I have an older 30-06 that I think I may put the vx- 3HD on, but also may consider the vortex diamondback if I am strapped for cash. I’m a native Utahn who has lived a spell in Idaho so I love how I can relate to your content! Keep up the good work.

  4. MICHAEL BATTIN says:

    you talk to fast naming the under four hundred dollar scope your son shot the pig with “night vision”
    can you help out?
    I doing hundred of hours of research looking for a scope for my Fx impact m3 “air gun” .25 cal
    my goal ? winging it I ve never shot air rifles “pcp” only powder burners. 150 yards max varmits, back yard, maybe a coyote. maybe play around with longer shots. Looks like fun.
    budget around $1000. all 30 mil tube
    short list
    vortex viper pst Gen ll 5-25-50 ffpebr- 2c mrad reticle model pst -5258 on slae $ 800.
    night force shv 4 -14-56 ffp moar $1128.
    Athlon Midas tac 5-25-56m ffp moa $800.
    Element titan 5-25-56 34mm tube ffp mrad $800.
    any suggestions?
    thank you for all the hard work you produce helping us…..
    Michael

  5. What is the model number of the VX 3HD 4-14-40 that you recommend. Link goes to the one without side adjustment.

  6. Jim Myers says:

    Appreciate your work in conducting the test, Jim. Attention to detail was great as well. I will incorporate much of what you offered into a blueprint for my thinking as I shop for scopes in the future.

    And yes, made in the US does mean somehting to me. As a past sales rep for the Stevens side of Leupold Stevens, and having been through the factory in Beaverton, I value what Leupold does in developing great quality light weight optics. I own three different models.

    But I did just purchase an Arken.

  7. I loved the review and was going to buy the Vortex but then seen the EBR-2C (MOA) 6-25×50 for a few extra dollars. I like the idea of having that on my .308. Question is does this scope still translate like the 4-16×44 in terms of overall quality.
    Thank you for your time! I am a fan of your reviews.

  8. Meopta Optika5 & don’t look back.

  9. I am new to scopes. Haven’t purchased one yet. Building an AR10 .308 right now and will get a scope. From my research my choice is definetley the Arken. Price and features are fantastic by my comparisons anyway. I would go with the Vortex because of the warranty which is stupid fantastic. Others could learn a lesson from them on this. But from the reviews I have seen comparing the Arken to Vortex, the Arken comes out ahead. Besides I would only be using it on what is going to be a bench gun anyways.