How Much Rifle Scope Zoom You Need (With pictures)

It’s tough when buying a scope to know what the perfect magnification range will be. Fortunately, I’ve done all the research for you and will show in this post what the perfect magnification range for a scope will be for your needs.

In general, most avid hunters prefer a scope with a magnification of approximately 3-15x or 4-16x. This allows for viewing the entire animal at as close as 35 yards, and also the ability to make long-range shots. The most common scopes for PRS shooters is 5-25x, but benchrest competitors prefer 40x fixed power scopes.

After testing dozens of scopes, these are my favorite hunting scopes of all time (including some budget options).

Selecting the Perfect Scope Magnification for Hunting

Hunters are generally more concerned with the widest magnification end of the scope, and are less concerned with how high they can zoom in. When hunting from a blind, treestand, or even in the backcountry when an animal suddenly appears up close, it can be difficult to aim if you can’t see enough of the animal in the scope.

Every hunter’s nightmare is hiking in 10 miles only to spook a deer of a lifetime just 30 yards in front of you, but when you pull up your scope, you can only see fur and can’t tell where on the animal you’re aiming.

This is what 5x scope magnification looks like at an animal that is 33 yards away.

As you can see from the picture above, 5x magnification at 33 yards actually works okay for being able to find an animal in the scope. However, what if you were in a blind or tree stand and got to 25 yards? It would be very difficult to see where on the animal you were aiming. It would just be a close-up view of fur.

Also, consider a follow-up shot. Suppose you shoot a bear from a ground blind. Even if you pull off the first shot, finding the moving animal in a 5x zoom as it runs away would be difficult. The follow-up shot would likely be missed.

Next, let’s look at the same distance (33 yards), but with a 3.6x zoom instead of 5x.

This is what 3.6x scope magnification looks like at an animal that is 33 yards away.

In my opinion, 4x magnification on a hunting scope should be the most acceptable zoom for the wide end of the scope. Then, even with a close animal at 30 yards, a clear view of the animal and its surroundings can be seen in the scope, and a follow-up shot would be easy.

This is what an animal looks like with 5x zoom at 55 yards.

If you are certain you would never take a shot inside 50 yards, a 5x zoom scope would work fine. This may be the case for a sheep hunt or when on a spot-and-stalk antelope hunt in open areas. However, even at 50 yards, finding the animal in the scope for a follow-up shot would be difficult at 55 yards.

This is what 10x scope magnification looks like at 500 yards. Notice the animal under the crosshairs. It wouldn’t be ideal to make a 500-yard shot on an animal with a 10x scope, but it would be doable.
This is what 16x scope magnification looks like at 500 yards. In my opinion, this would be almost perfect scope magnification to make this shot on a big game animal. It’s zoomed in enough to easily see what you’re aiming at (and it’s more clear than this cell phone pic of my scope in real life), and yet it’s not too zoomed in that it’d be difficult to find the animal for a follow-up shot, or to see the result of your shot.
This is what 27x scope magnification looks like at 500 yards. Newer hunters may think this is a perfect amount of zoom, but more experienced hunters would suggest zooming out. If a shot is taken while zoomed in this far, you won’t see your impact to know if you hit or missed the animal. You also will struggle to find the running animal if a follow-up shot is necessary.

While a 3-15x or a 4-16x is most common for hunting, there are some hunting situations where a completely different scope is used. For example, when hunting dangerous game such as leopards or cape buffalo, African hunters prefer a 1-5x or 2-8x scope. Shots on leopards are almost always within 100 yards, and the primary concern of those hunters is the ability to make a follow-up shot on a charging animal.

Best Zoom Range for Competition or Target Shooting

This is 16x scope magnification at 100 yards. It’s hard to tell in this picture, but when looking with my eye through the scope, it’s very easy to spot the bullet impacts in the paper at this distance. Even zooming out to 13x, I was still able to see bullet impacts in paper at 100 yards.

The most popular shooting competition today is the PRS (Precision Rifle Shooting). PRS competitions can involve shots between 200 yards and 1,000 yards, but the average shot is approximately 400 yards.

The most common rifle scope magnification for PRS shooting competitions is 5-25x or 7-35x. PRS uses clearly visible steel targets, so spotting a precise impact in paper is not needed, and shooters may not see their impacts if zoomed in too far because the recoil would push their view off the aiming point.

The most common scopes for an NRL22 rifle competition have a 5-25x magnification. Most competitors in NRL22 keep their magnification at approximately 16x when shooting a stage of steel targets at varying distances up to 400 yards, so any scope that includes approximately 16x in the middle of its zoom range would suit the discipline well. Generally, competitors wouldn’t ever zoom past 20x in an NRL22 competition.

Benchrest competitors generally shoot fixed power (non-zooming) scopes of 40x, 50x, or even 60x magnification. They utilize fixed-power scopes to avoid any scope error that can be introduced by zooming the barrel of a scope.

ELR shots are usually taken with a scope zoomed to approximately 25-35x. 7-35x scopes, 5-25x scopes, and some specialty fixed focal length scopes are common.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a 3-9×40 scope used for? 3-9×40 scopes are good for hunting or shooting close-range targets out to 60 yards. 3-9x scopes have a short magnification range of 3x the widest view, and thus are inexpensive to produce and are the most common cheap scope included in bundles with a rifle.

What does 3-9×40 mean on a scope? A 3-9×40 scope means it has 3x more zoom than a naked eye, and 9x when zoomed in all the way. The number 40 means it has a 40mm objective, which is the diameter of the front glass of the scope. The larger the objective, the more light that is let into the scope.

What does 4-16×50 mean on a scope? A 4-16×50 scope has 4x the magnification of a naked eye when zoomed all the way out, and 16x when zoomed in. The number 50 means it has a 50mm diameter objective (front) lens. The larger the front lens is, the more light that is let into the scope.

What scope magnification (zoom) do snipers use? Military snipers most commonly use a 5-25x scope, meaning it can zoom from 5x more than the naked eye, to 25x. Police officer “snipers” or designated marksmen usually use lower power scopes such as a 4-16x or even an LVPO like a 1-10x as they rarely shoot past 100 yards in real situations.