Rifle vs Optic, Which Matters Most? By: Kat Ainsworth

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If you’ve gotten into rifles, you’ve probably found yourself wondering whether more money should be put into the rifle or the optic. This is a topic of some debate among shooters and the answer tends to depend on that particular shooter’s focus. Do they mainly do precision rifle shooting? Are they hunters? Our experiences color our opinions, and the rifle-versus-optic argument is a great example of that.

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So, which is it? Should your rifle cost the most or your optic? 

sig sauer riflescope
Ever wonder if your rifle is good enough for your optic, or vice versa? (Photo credit: SIG Sauer)

How much should you pay for a rifle?

Let’s start with the gun. Rifles range anywhere from $200 to $2,000 and beyond. How do you know which one’s right for you? It depends entirely on your budget and what you intend to do with it. Although they can be fun to shoot, higher-end rifles aren’t exactly a must.

Hunter looking through riflescope on rifle
Hunters want good-quality optics so they can make an ethical shot, but extreme precision isn’t typically their focus. (Photo credit: Optics Planet)

Hunters are likely to spend less on a rifle than precision rifle shooters. This is because hunters take most of their shots at closer distances, so accuracy is important, but hair-splitting precision isn’t as sought after. Conversely, precision rifle shooting competitors want guns built to more exacting tolerances so they can eek out every tiny bit of precision. If your most frequent gun use involves neither of those things, it means the monetary value of your rifle may vary wildly depending on whether it’s for self-defense use, home defense, or range time.

A NightForce optic on a precision rifle made by Ruger.
A NightForce optic on a precision rifle made by Ruger. (Photo credit: Ruger)

It depends.

Unfortunately, this means the answer to how much you should spend on a rifle is “it depends.” Figure out what you want and need the rifle to do, and go from there. If you’re looking for a defensive use rifle and your budget is limited, work within your budget, then upgrade as you’re able. Hunting? Figure out what the rifle needs to do to stand up to the wear and tear of being out in the woods and fields. And for precision work, you might be saving your pennies a bit longer in order to afford the higher-end gun you need.

Rifles are purpose-driven. Although it can be—and is—nice to have one that’s incredibly well-made, it isn’t a must. You can make more budget-friendly rifles work for you. That is, you can unless you buy a true bargain-basement gun that can’t even cycle reliably or last long. Some advice: Don’t buy the cheapest gun you find, because it’s unlikely to do what you require of it.

Swarovksi X5(i) scope designed for long-range shooting
The Swarovksi X5(i) is designed for long-range shooting. (Photo credit: Swarovski)

How much should you spend on an optic?

For the purposes of this topic, let’s assume we’re discussing rifle scopes. Not red dots, not pistol optics—rifle scopes. Rifles tend to be a bit more straightforward in their selection than scopes. Deciding how much you’re going to spend on an optic is also purpose-driven, but in reality, you need a good scope to get much done.

Sightmark Core TX 4x32 AR-223 BDC Reticle scope
The Sightmark Core TX 4×32 AR-223 BDC Reticle scope. Sightmark manufactures quite a few models that are good glass, at a more affordable price point. (Photo credit: Sightmark)

It’s not necessary to pick up the highest-end, fanciest scope on the market. One good thing about advances in technology is that there are now many more moderately-priced scopes with clear glass and decent overall performance. That said, if you intend to do long-range or precision work, the higher-end scopes typically deliver a clearer image with less distortion. When you’re shooting a target 1,000 yards away, it’s nice if you can see the target itself instead of just a smudge on the horizon.

Trijicon Ten Mile riflescope
The Trijicon Ten Mile line of rifle scopes is made specifically for long-range shooters. (Photo credit: Trijicon)

What’s your budget?

The simplest response to the question of how much to spend on an optic is, “How much do you have?”. Obviously, it’s not possible to throw unlimited funds at optics, but it’s a good idea to save up for good glass rather than settling for a subpar model. As with a rifle, figure out what you need the optic to do, and go from there.

A look at the glass on the Leupold Mark 5HD 5-25x56
A look at the glass on the Leupold Mark 5HD 5-25×56 courtesy of Sniper’s Hide. (Photo credit: Sniper’s Hide)

When choosing a rifle scope, consider:

  • First Focal Plane or Second Focal Plane
  • Magnification
  • Clarity
  • Field of view
  • Eye relief
  • MOA or MIL
  • Extra features
  • Batteries, if needed
  • Locking turrets
  • Zero stop
  • Low-light gathering capability
  • Distortion, or potential distortion
  • Tube size and the related ease of finding mounts and rings
Riton Optics 4-32x56 X7 Conquer Riflescope
The Riton Optics 4-32×56 X7 Conquer Riflescope. (Photo credit: Riton Optics)

Another reason to go ahead and put more money into your optic is that poorly-made gear breaks. I can point to a few instances where the reticle and/or glass of an optic has literally come loose. On other occasions, turrets quit working, making it impossible to zero. Those are certainly the exceptions, but it does happen, and all instances have taken place when using lower-end glass.

If you’re going to be hard on your optic at all or if you anticipate serious use, save up to get a higher-end model.

A precision rifle made by Christensen Arms topped with a Leupold rifle scope.
A precision rifle made by Christensen Arms topped with a Leupold rifle scope. (Photo credit: Christensen Arms)

Should you spend more money on the rifle or the optic?

So, what should you invest more money into, the rifle or the optics? The simple answer is that it will serve you best to put your cash into the glass, first. A top-tier rifle will do you no good if you can’t see the targets clearly. If you’re forced to choose, find the best possible optic you can afford.

Does the rifle matter? Of course it does, especially when it comes down to topics like barrel bedding, fitment, and so on. But it won’t do you any good to have a stellar precision rifle with fuzzy glass. Good glass comes first.

Leica scope
Leica manufactures this hunting scope. (Photo credit: Leica)

Something worth mentioning is the value of proper training, including the use of scopes. This specifically applies to precision or long-range work. You’ll be better equipped to understand and utilize all of your scope’s features with a solid class. A good class can help you fine-tune everything from how you support and stabilize the rifle to how to adjust for drift and drop while taking wind into account. After all, if you’re going to have nice glass, wouldn’t it be good to know how to use it?

What’s your favorite optic, and why? Share your experiences in the comments section.