In order to get the full benefit of a riflescope you must know how to adjust it properly. If you’re new to shooting a scoped rifle, you might be wondering about some riflescope adjustment basics like how to zero the scope to your rifle, how to mount your scope to your rifle, and how to adjust your scope for different distances or wind conditions.
However, even if you’re experienced with a scoped rifle, there are some adjustments that you may not know about that will help you be more effective with your riflescope. In fact, some of these are settings that many of my sniper students had adjusted incorrectly. No matter which rifle shooter you are, you’re going to learn all about each of the adjustments on your riflescope and how to use them to turn yourself into a more effective rifle shooter.
In this guide on how to adjust a riflescope we’re going to cover:
- Elevation Adjustments (moving a bullet’s impact up or down)
- Windage Adjustments (moving a bullet’s impact left or right)
- Parallax (Target Focus) Adjustments
- Focusing the Eyepiece
- Magnification Adjustments
- Changing the Brightness on Illuminated Reticles
- Moving the Scope on the Rifle
But first, we need to cover some basic scope parts, terminology, and mechanics.
Basic RifleScope Parts and Terminology
Before we talk about how to make adjustments to certain parts of a scope, we need to know what those parts are (and brief description of what they do). Let’s start from the rear of the scope as it is mounted on your rifle (the part closest to your face) and move forward towards the front of the copes (the side pointing at your target). Here is a diagram from the Long Range Shooting Handbook of a scope’s main parts:
Ocular Lens: The lens closest to your eye when you’re looking through your scope. Do yourself a favor, ALWAYS use scope caps to protect your lenses and keep them clean.
Ocular Housing: The “eye piece” of the scope which houses the ocular lens and, in most cases, the ocular focus adjustment.
Ocular Focus Adjustment: The mechanism responsible for focusing the image of the reticle (crosshairs) inside the scope to your eye. On some scopes the entire ocular housing turns for this adjustment. On others, only the outer section around the ocular lens adjusts.
Magnification Adjustment: On variable power scopes, this mechanism adjusts the magnification power of the scope.
Scope Body: The main part of the scope to which the other parts attach and the tube through which you look when aiming.
Turrets: Knobs that protrude from the scope body used to adjust elevation and windage. These can be exposed (easily grabbed and adjusted) or capped (wherein a cap covers and protects the turret.
Reticle: The “cross-hairs” or reference point in the scope used for aiming. In modern long range shooting scopes, the reticles can be quite busy with references for elevation and windage holds.
Parallax Adjustment / Target Focus: This scope adjustment brings the target image into the same focal plane as the reticle. This ensures that there is no parallax (relative shifting of position between two objects you’re looking at) and that the target image is in focus. On higher end scopes, this is usually a knob on the side of the scope body (these are called “Side focus” or “side parallax” scopes). On other scopes, this can sometimes be found around the objective lens and is adjusted by turning the entire outer ring of the objective-end of the scope (these are called “adjustable objective scopes”).
Objective Lens: This is the lens facing the target and is very often the larger of the two external lenses of a scope. Again, you should always have a scope cap protecting this. Ok, we’ve got the basic parts of a scope covered, let’s dive into how to make adjustments on your scope.
How to Make Elevation ADJUSTMENTS on Your Riflescope
In order to change the impact of the bullet up or down relative to where you are aiming with your scope, you need to make an “elevation” adjustment. Elevation adjustments are made when you are “zeroing” the scope to your rifle or when you are shooting at different distances.
“Zeroing” a scope is ensuring that the point of aim (POA) with the scope on the target is the same as the point of impact (POI) where the bullet actually strikes the target at a baseline distance. When a new scope is mounted on a rifle, it must be “zeroed.” When shooting at distances different than the distance at which you zeroed your scope, the bullet’s impact (POI) will be higher or lower than your point of aim (POA).
This is because bullets fall as soon as they leave the barrel of your rifle and because the barrel is pointed slightly upward to compensate for this drop, your bullet travels in an arc to the target. Quite simply, to move the impact of your bullet up, you turn the elevation turret in the direction of “up” on your scope.
For most scopes, this involves rotating the turret counter-clockwise. To lower the bullet’s impact, most scopes require that the elevation turret is turned clockwise. PLEASE CONFIRM ON YOUR PARTICULAR SCOPE. Each “click” of the turret corresponds to an angular measurement. Many hunting scopes adjust in 1/4 MOA (1/4″ per 100 yds). To learn more, check out: Understanding MOA
Pro Tip: If your scope has exposed turrets, you should be able to make elevation adjustments while your head is still in position looking through your scope. As a trick to remember the correct direction, think of the turret as a screw. To raise the screw “up,” you’s unscrew it counter-clockwise. Similarly, to lower the screw “down,” you’d turn it clockwise. Also, if you have capped turrets, don’t forget to put your caps back on when you’re done!
If you’re looking through your scope when you make this adjustment and you see your reticle moving down while e you’re adjusting “up” on your elevations turret, don’t panic. Your scope is not broken. By turning your turret “up,” the reticle must go down inside the scope so that you raise the rifle to get the reticle back on the target. This raising of the rifle, and thereby changing the barrel’s orientation, is what causes the bullet to impact higher. Here’s a video of me demonstrating this concept:
Windage Adjustments (moving a bullet’s impact left or right)
Similar to elevation adjustments on a scope, windage adjustments are for shifting the impact of the bullet when zeroing a scope to a rifle or for adjusting to shooting conditions. However, instead of the elevation turrets Up and down changes, windage turrets adjust the impact of the bullet left or right.
Typically, once my scope is zeroed, I rarely touch the windage turrets. Yes, wind can significantly move a bullet in flight (especially at distance), but I prefer to “hold” left or right (aim to the left or the right of the target – especially helpful with reference marks on the reticle) instead of making a windage adjustment with the windage turret. This is because the wind changes to quickly to re-adjust each time and I might forget to move the windage turret back to “zero.”
Pro Tip: The same tricks can be used to remember which direction the bullet’s impact will move depending on which what you turn the windage turret for most scopes. Another trick is to remember the following mnemonic: “I don’t want to be LEFT OUT so I’ll be RIGHT BACK.” Turning the windage knob away from your, or “out,” moves the bullet left on most scopes and rilling it back towards you moves the bullet right.
Parallax (Target Focus) Adjustments
Parallax is bad. It can cause you to miss a target if your head is not perfectly aligned each time you shoot. Let me explain… As an example, extend your left arm and raise your index finger. Now, with the right index finger, align it halfway between your eye and your left index finger. You should now be looking at two finger tips, at different distances, aligned with each other.
Now, without moving your fingers, move your head slightly from left to right. Notice how your fingers are no loner aligned as you head moves even though they didn’t change position? This relative shift is referred to as parallax. If this happened with your reticle and the target, your misaligned head might cause you to move the rifle to bring the reticle back in line with the target.
By moving the rifle, you’ve changed the orientation of the barrel and thereby the path of the bullet = a miss. If your eye is focused on the reticle (it should be), then you can adjust the target focus to literally move the focal point of the image in the scope to be in line with the reticle. If the target’s image and the reticle are aligned on the same focal plane, not only will they both be in focus (no more straining with your eye to focus on one or the other), there will be no parallax effect. Win/win!
Pro Tip: Many people confuse “adjustable objective” for “adjustable parallax.” Getting scope with an adjustable parallax is desirable. However, having an adjustable parallax scope that has an adjustable objective instead of a side-focus/side-parallax knob is not. Therefore, some people mistakenly search out an “adjustable objective” scope on purpose when they should have been looking for a a side-focus/side-parallax scope but somehow mistook the term “adjustable objective” to refer to all scopes with this adjustment feature.
Focusing the Eyepiece
The number one mistake I see on shooter’s scopes is an incorrectly focused eyepiece. This is because many shooters, even some of my professional sniper students, don’t even know this adjustment exists nor why it is so important to use. This means that there’s a good chance that this setting is wrong on your scope.
I was a special operations sniper in the military and I had the amazing opportunity to attend the Special Operations Target Interdiction Course (SOTIC), now called the Special Forces Sniper Course, the most prestigious sniper training available. This topic wasn’t covered there wen I went through which is likely why none of us as snipers took the time to get this adjustment right and why most of my sniper students when I was a sniper instructor didn’t have it right either.
Thankfully, you’re going to know better and now do it the right way! I know my shooting in the military would have improved, or at least been easier, had I done this. If you’ve ever caught yourself having either a clear reticle and blurry target or a clear target and blurry reticle, then you know the frustration of trying to focus back and forth.
If you tried to adjust the target focus and it didn’t work, you also have likely experienced an improperly adjusted eyepiece. (also, my advice to better shooting is to only focus on the reticle anyway.) It is imperative that your scope is set up ad focused to that your eye can see the reticle clearly without straining. Only then can you bring the target image near the reticle and have both clear (and parallax free).
Steps to Focusing Your Scope’s Eyepiece:
- Once you’ve properly mounted your scope and are sure that it is in the proper position (forward/back) on the rifle, then would should stare at a light colored solid object close to you. This process is MUCH easier with a friend. If you don’t have any friends, stop reading and go find one.
- Get into a comfortable position behind your rifle. If you have to move your head to see through the scope clearly, you haven’t mounted your scope to fit you (see the video below for guidance)
- Have your friend (or person you hired to pretend to be your friend) hold up a white sheet of paper a foot or two in front of your scope for you to look at through the scope.
- Close your eyes and rest them for a few seconds.
- Open your eye(s), look at the reticle and then close them. Two seconds max! If you keep your eye open too long, your eye will strain to bring the reticle in focus and will defeat the purpose of this exercise.
- Have your friend adjust the ocular focus adjustment at least 1/2 revolution in one direction. On some scopes (like the one pictured above and in the video below) the entire ocular housing rotates to adjust the focus and is held in place with a locking ring. Whereas other scopes, like my favorite the Vortex Razor Gen II, there is a special adjustment ring around the ocular lens.
- Open your eye(s) again or only two seconds and simply say whether the image of the reticle looks better or worse.
- Keep repeating the exercise by turning the adjustment in both directions until a “sweet spot” is found where the reticle looks the best.
If you’ve done this correctly, your reticle and scope are now focused to YOUR eye and you will have less strain shooting and an easier time removing parallax errors. PRO TIP: If you’re the friend and the shooter’s answer of better/worse don’t make sense, trick them by not making an adjustment and asking them to look. If they’re not doing it correctly, you might get a different answer even without a change.
If your scope has an adjustable magnification, a ring just forward of the ocular housing is typically what is used to adjust magnification. On some scopes, like Nightforce scopes, the entire ocular housing must be rotated to adjust the magnification (this is one reason I do not like Nightforce scopes). For all adjustable power scopes, the target image will get larger or smaller by changing the magnification. However, on some scopes, the reticle increases in size proportionate to the target image and in other scopes the reticle stays exactly the same size throughout the magnification range.
These two types of scopes are called First Focal Plane (FFP) and Second Focal Plane (SFP).
First Focal Plane: First focal plane riflescopes (FFP) adjust the reticle WITH the target image. This means that you can use any graduated markings on the reticle for measurement at any magnification setting. This is useful for range estimation using Mils. The cons to this feature are that the reticle might be too thick or too thin at the extreme magnification ranges and the cost of the scope will likely be higher. If you’re serious about long distance target shooting, give FFP scopes a look.
Second Focal Plane: Second focal plane (SFP) riflescopes adjust ONLY the target image and the reticle stays the same size. This can be useful for always having a reticle that is just the right size to see and aim with but it can be a problem if you try to use graduated marks on the reticle at the incorrect power setting. For example, if you have Mil or MOA marks on your reticle, in most cases they’ll only actually equate to their true size at full power. If you lower the power setting, the marks stay the same size but the image gets smaller – no good. Of course, you can do the math if you’d like (e.g. half power, marks are twice as big). This is super useful for a hunting scope – SFP are often more robust (less moving parts) and you don’t have to worry about not seeing your reticle in low light and at low power. An exception to the “full power” rule is Nightforce scopes – they sometimes have a random dot on the power ring where the marks are accurate (reason number 2 I don’t like them).
PRO TIP: STOP USING FULL MAGNIFICATION ALL THE TIME!. Very often, you will shoot better at lower magnification because there is less perceived movement and you will have to stare at your reticle (good) instead of a big pretty target (bad). Also, lower magnification makes it easier to find your target.
Changing the Brightness on Illuminated Reticles
If you have a scope with an illuminated reticle, most likely you can also adjust the brightness of the reticle. On most scopes, this adjustment os on the left side of the scope and it differs from scope to scope – you’re going to have to reference your scope’s manual on this one. However, three pieces of advice when it comes to illuminated reticles:
- Always check that you turned it off when you’re done shooting. Although red dots scopes like the Aimpont Comp M series red dot scopes can last for YEARS while on, that technology hasn’t made it to rifle scopes yet and the battery will likely be dead the next time you need it if you leave it on.
- Store an extra battery somewhere on or with the rifle. I like to put cheekpiece stock packs on all of my rifles and I store an extra battery there (for reasons from #1 above)
- When trying to shoot accurately, turn the brightness down. When it’s too bright, it can sparkle and make it difficult to be precise.
Moving the Scope on the Rifle
Having your scope properly adjusted on your rifle isn’t really an “adjustment on your scope,” but it is VERY important and should be addressed while mounting your scope on your rifle and before you are worried about making adjustments on your scope.
Your scope and rifle must fit YOU in order to get the best performance out of the system. In my Long Range Shooting Handbook, I make the analogy to a race car driver being expected to drive a regular car well if the seat and mirrors aren’t adjusted to the driver. Sure, they’ll still be better than the average driver, but without the car being set up for them, they won’t get the best possible performance. There are three areas to explore when it comes to the scope’s position on your rifle:
- The height of the scope
- The forward/rearward position of the scope
- The rotational level of your scope
Adjusting the Height of Your Scope
If your scope isn’t the right height on your rifle, you’ll have to lift your head when you shoot. This problem is easy to identify. You should lay the full weight of your head on the cheekiest of your stock with your eyes closed. Once you’re comfortable, open your eyes and see if you can see through the scope.
If you can’t then determine whether you need to raise or lower your head and then you’ll know what adjustment need to make. If your head needs to move up (most common), then you’ll also be able to tell from getting a tired neck from previous range sessions. You can’t shoot well if you’re fatigued. You can either change the height of your scope with different height scope rings (don’t skimp on quality) or by using a cheekpiece stock pack and perhaps adding layers of insulation underneath.
Adjusting the Scope Forward and Rearward
Only after your scope is at the right height, should you worry about the forward/rearward position. Get on your rifle in a comfortable position with your eyes closed. Once set, open your eyes and you should already be at the right height. If you are, move the scope forward and backwards until the image is perfectly clear. If the scope is too far one way or the other, you’ll see a black fuzzy ring around the image called “scope shadow.”
Scope shadow is a GOOD thing – it is what let’s you know that your eye is properly aligned behind the scope. But, you need the scope adjusted so that when you are properly behind the scope, you see zero scope shadow. This is another area where people will move their head to a position that can see clearly through the scope (instead of the other way around) and end up straining their neck. Also, if the scope is too close, you run the risk of smacking your self on the eyebrow and getting a case of “scope bite.”
Don’t do this… it hurts.
Leveling by Rotating the Riflescope
Now that your scope is the right height and the right distance from your eye, you need to confirm that it is level. I don’t buy into using bubble levels to level a scope. I think they give you a false sense of accuracy. And all too often when I find a shooter with a crooked scope, they used bubble levels.
Instead, I like to use a flat bottom of the scope to be mechanical level with the top of the rail. In the video above I use a flat piece of metal. But, that video was a few years ago and since then the idea of using the flat bottom of the scope has really taken off and some cool tools like this one now exist: Scope Leveling Tool If this was around when I made the video, I surely would have used it instead!
Having a level scope is important – you will ensure that your elevation adjustments are actually going straight up and you will have an easier time shooting with your rifle level (canting your rifle can cause you to miss as I demonstrate intros video).
Scope Adjustments Conclusion
We hope that you learned something about how to adjust your riflescope! Now, get your scope set up properly and get out to the range and practice. Please let us know if this info helped in the comments below.
Riflescope Adjustment FAQ
A: The adjustment knobs on the scope are called turrets. The top turret is for elevation adjustments and the side knob is for windage adjustments.
A: It is not possible to know how much a bullet’s impact will move for each click on your scope without knowing your particular scope. Your scope may adjust in MOA or Mil and in different fractions thereof. If you’d like help understanding these angular measurements, check out Understanding MOA
A: The front lens of a scope, the one facing the target, is called the “Objective Lens”.
A: The lens on the eyepiece of your scope is called the ocular lens.
A: No, a higher magnification scope is not always “better.” You should have enough magnification to see the target but too much magnification can hinder your performance.
A: The parallax adjustment on a scope brings the focal point of the target’s image into the same focal plane as the reticle so that the two don’t shift with head position.
A: In First Focal Plane (FFP) scopes, the image AND the reticle grow and shrink together with magnification changes whereas with a Second Focal Plane (SFP) scope, only the image changes
A: Neither a FFP or SFP scope are “better.” If you’re primarily hunting and would like to save some money, get a SFP scope. If you’re getting into precision long range shooting, especially with an advanced reticle, then look for a FFP scope.
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