Best Rifle Scope Under $500: 10 scopes tested head-to-head

Here at Backfire, we tested ten different rifle scopes that sell for under $500.  These scopes were selected with a few different use cases in mind and were tested in a variety of ways.  With the testing now complete, we are ready to assign each scope the grade of recommended or not recommended.

We purchased 11 scopes and spent 80 hours testing them. Overall, the best scope under $500 is the Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-16×44 (link to check price on Amazon). The best scope we 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.

Because different people expect modern scopes to fulfill different roles, a sample can be recommended for more than one reason.  However, not every scope we tested received this badge of honor.

The Testing Procedures

I evaluated these scopes in both technical and practical ways.  The ultimate goal was to determine if they are good for their price range.  It’s important to keep this in mind, as we aren’t looking at $2000+ optics. 

For basic function, I tested turret tracking and water resistance.  Each turret was mounted to a solid platform and run through a “box test” where it was pointed at a piece of paper with measured hash marks drawn on it.  The turrets were adjusted to determine if they tracked accurately with the markings.

Each scope also took a trip down to the bottom of my swimming pool, to test the weather sealing.

For several mornings I woke up before dawn so I could observe the performance of the scopes in low light conditions.  Also, I was able to invite several fans of the channel to my house in St. George, UT to look through the scopes and judge their optical quality.  Some people were able to see the brands, some were not.

To test durability, I conducted a drop test for each scope, having it land on the objective bell and the top turret. 

The Findings

What I found is all but one of the scopes passed the standardized tests.  The notable failure was the Arken optic allowing water into the body during the submersion test.  With those results, differentiating these scopes “by the numbers” would be a difficult process, so I am going to take the practical approach. 

Some scopes I liked, and some scopes I didn’t like, so my recommendations will be based on that.  The reasoning behind these decisions will be provided as well.

Recommended: Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-16x44mm

  • Awarded the Best Overall Scope
  • All Tests Passed: Yes
  • Turrets: Exposed
  • Focal Plane: First
  • Adjustments: MOA or Mil
  • Illuminated: No

The Vortex offering wasn’t the most expensive scope competing in the test, but it was the best all-around.  The Diamondback Tactical gets it right where it counts, in optical quality and a good eye box.  This isn’t a hard scope to get behind and see the full field of view.

At 23.1 ounces, it isn’t lightweight, but neither is it the heaviest out there.  It’s probably not something you would want to pair with a feather-weight rifle, but it is usable for most target shooting and some hunting situations. 

I also liked that the scope is offered in both MOA and Mil options.  Both systems work, but MOA is just easier for us here in the US to learn because of how close one MOA is to an inch at 100 yards.  The Vortex EBR reticle is sophisticated and takes time to learn to use effectively.

Recommended: Primary Arms SLx 3-18x50mm

  • Runner up for Best Overall
  • All Tests Passed: Yes
  • Turrets: Exposed
  • Focal Plane: First
  • Adjustments: Mil
  • Illuminated: Yes

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.

It weighs 25.4 ounces and carries the same weight caveats as the Vortex.

Recommended: Athlon Talos BTR 4-14x44mm

  • Runner up for Best Overall
  • All Tests Passed: Yes
  • Turrets: Exposed
  • Focal Plane: First
  • Adjustments: Mil
  • Illuminated: Yes

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 Diamonback and the Primary Arms SLx.

Recommended: 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: 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.

Scopes That Didn’t Get Recommended

All of these scopes did pass the standard battery of tests but failed to get recommended for one reason or another.

Sig Sauer Whiskey 3 3-9x40mm: The Whiskey 3 is one of the cheapest scopes tested, and I did keep that in mind when grading it.  Optically it’s not very good.  When looking through the scope, the tube gives it a tunnel-vision effect. 

Blackhound Genesis 4-14x44mm: I like Blackhound as a company, but this scope didn’t pass muster.  The first scope I received had significant issues with the top turret. The company replaced the scope and the second scope functions perfectly. I even made a first round impact at 500 yards in a video, so I know it tracks accurately. However, the turrets still feel mushy, the reticle is quite thick, and the view of the image is surrounded by a thick band (similar to the photo above of the Sig Whiskey 3 compared to a Leupold). It feels like you’re looking through a PVC pipe. Blackhound seems to be a great company, but this scope didn’t quite do it for me.

Bushnell Nitro 3-12x44mm: For the price of $399, this scope didn’t perform the way it should have.  Optically it was just okay, and the eye relief changed enough to notice when fully zoomed in.  Nothing about this scope lines up with the asking price.

Vortex Crossfire II 4-12x44mm: The Crossfire is the most budget-friendly line of scopes offered by Vortex, but I didn’t like mine nearly as much as I did the Diamondback Tactical.  Glass quality just wasn’t there.  It also lacked a parallax adjustment knob. 

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3 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