The modern riflescope is an amazing piece of technology. It has enhanced the ability of shooters to see and engage their targets at greater range than ever before. There are many aspects to consider when choosing a riflescope. Tube size, glass, lens coatings, focal plane, and magnification are each important to consider. An often-overlooked variable is the ability of a scope to "track" accurately and consistently.
What is Accurate, Consistent, Scope Tracking?
Scope tracking is the ability of a scope's mechanical elevation (up and down) and windage (left and right) adjustments to move the crosshairs precisely where the shooter intends.
The adjustment knobs on a scope (called "turrets") are calibrated to move at precise intervals. Much like the second-hand on an analog watch, each of these intervals (or "clicks") is expected to be the same. Riflescopes are usually calibrated in Minutes of Angle (MOA) or Milliradians (Mils), units used to measure an angle.
Suppose you have a riflescope calibrated in MOA. If your scope has ¼ MOA adjustments, four clicks will equal one MOA, and translate to approximately one inch of bullet impact change at 100 yards, two inches at 200 yards, and so on. If your bullet is impacting one inch high at 100 yards, four clicks down should bring your next shot to the bulls-eye.
Why is Scope Tracking Important?
If your scope does not track properly, you cannot be sure that the adjustments you are making are correct. If you attempt a shot that requires ten MOA of adjustment, 40 clicks of the turret should equal ten MOA. A scope that is not tracking properly may move 38 MOA or 41 MOA instead of 40. This will throw the shot off considerably, resulting in a missed bulls-eye, or possibly a wounded animal.
Poor scope tracking can also affect the scope's ability to return to zero, meaning that the crosshairs won't return to the starting point after an adjustment has been made.
Testing Your Scope for Accurate and Consistent Tracking
Scopes can be tested using several different methods, which range from basic to complicated. The accuracy of these tests depends greatly on the care taken in setting them up and measuring the results. It is important to take as much care as possible.
It is also important to test your scope at least to the outer limits of the distances you will be shooting. If you regularly shoot long-range distances, you need to make sure the scope is tracking accurately throughout its useable range. If you are a hunter who never shoots beyond 200 or 300 yards, testing the extreme range of your scope may not be necessary.
If the scope is new, it is a good idea to make sure the turret knobs are broken in by turning the windage and elevation knobs through their entire range several times. This should ensure that the internal mechanics are working, and that the turrets will perform smoothly during your tests.
A Simple Scope Tracking Test: Shooting the Box
One of the simplest methods for testing the performance of your scope's tracking system is often referred to as "shooting the box" or "the box test."
Set up a target with horizontal and vertical grid lines exactly 100 yards from your shooting position. Use a solid rest on the shooting bench or shoot the prone position with stable support.
1. Shoot the Center
Aim at the center of the target and fire a shot (or a 3-shot group for a more reliable test), which should impact close to your aiming point if the scope is properly sighted in. If it does not, that is ok as long as you continue to aim at the same point throughout the test.
2. Find the Corners
Use the turrets to adjust your crosshairs 20 clicks up and 20 clicks to the right (more clicks may be used if you wish to test the tracking of your scope over a greater distance). Fire a second group, which should impact 5” above, and 5” to the right of your first group (this is assuming that you are using a MOA scope and using 20 clicks. If your Scope is calibrated in Mils the distances will be slightly different). Return both turrets to zero by counting the clicks backward until you are at your starting position.
Continue this process until you have fired 3 more shots or groups. One down and to the right, one down and to the left, and one up and to the left.
3. Back to Zero
Finish the test by firing one more shot or group with your scope set to its starting point. This group should be exactly on top of your first. This will tell you if your scope is returning to zero properly.
If your scope is tracking correctly, all 6 groups on your target should be in the shape of a box, with each corner group being the same distance from the center groups. A scope with tracking issues will change the shape of the box. If this is the case, you may want to shoot through the test again to determine if the results are consistent.
What to do if Your Scope is Not Tracking Properly
If you discover that your scope is not tracking properly, your course will be determined by the severity of the situation. If your numbers are off by 2 or 3%, this is probably within reasonable manufacturing tolerances. If you use ballistic software to make your calculations, small percentages of deviation can be added into the equation, and the computer will factor them into the calculations.
Anything over 5% is probably a serious issue that may need to be corrected by the manufacturer. A call to customer service can help determine if the scope needs to be repaired.
Have Confidence in Your Gear
Modern engineering and advances in technology have created an abundance of riflescopes to fit any need and any budget. Regardless of your experience, knowing your gear and being confident in its performance will only serve to boost your chances of success on the range or in the field.
For high-performing riflescopes, check out our line of Elite Tactical scopes.