Thoughts on the Testing Process

Before I get into laying out the results of the tests and make comparisons for how the optics did I’d like to share some of my thoughts on the testing process, and the strengths and weaknesses of my methodology.  First of all it was a great opportunity to have access to such an array of scopes that I would likely never have access to, but for the thoughtfulness and generosity of my friend at U.S. Optics and Ilya, the optics guru/webmaster at Optics Thoughts.  This turned out to be a lot more than just a chance to get to play with what for me could be viewed as prohibitively priced “toys”, but a chance to learn a great deal about shooting, specifically the seeing part of it.

I tried to approach the tests in a way that I haven’t seen done before.  One of the reasons I started this blog was because I kept looking for information on certain topics that just didn’t seem to be available.  What I tried to do in these tests was evaluate gear not in terms of how neat it was, or how nice a certain facet of it appeared upon examination, but how the product as a whole and total thing affected specific aspects of my shooting.  Evaluating optical clarity or brightness, for example, may be important, and probably do relate to an aspect of work in the field.  But to take an optic see exactly how it performs in relation to other competing optics where the rubber hits the road, and to do it in a carefully measured and analyzed way is not something I have seen before.  This small article explains the strengths and shortcomings of my attempt.

The Bad:

The primary issue with the testing is one of sample size, in the number of shooters participating in the study (n=1).  I could also say that it would be better to have access to more samples of each scope, which it would, but I don’t think that scopes are as variable a good as, say, guitars.  Also, I wasn’t really trying to pick the scopes apart mechanically or optically, just seeing how well their designs and features enabled me to shoot.

With more shooters, the results of the tests would be much more likely to apply to other shooters.  As it is, they relate specifically to me.  That places the burden on me to explain how the subjective interacted with the objective test results.  Luckily, I think my mind is geared towards analyses such as these.  Hopefully I can bring something meaningful out of the results for you.

There were some issues with consistency in methodology.  These were mostly things that couldn’t be avoided.  My trigger broke during optic #2, test #3.  The replacement was quite different.

I wasn’t able to use the same mount for the SR-8c as I was for all the other optics.  I don’t think this turned out to be a big deal, but it was something different, and less ideal.  When I re-tested the Sr-8c there was really no need to re-adapt to it.

One of the major wildcards was me.  Originally my intent was to get up to speed with the AR so that I was at a plateau.  It turned out that I hit that pretty fast, and at a lot lower of skill than I had hoped.  Overall my level of skill was quite stable, with some unintended learning and adaptation going on in test #2, the X-Box drill.

The tests took place over a rather long span of time, probably about two and a half to three months.  I would have liked to have spent a significant amount of time with each optic, because I think that really getting to know the strengths and weaknesses of a system takes a lot of time.  The problem with all that time is that it’s hard to maintain a stagnant level of skill for that long a time.  I did my best, but the subconscious just wants to adapt.

The major differences between testing the optics themselves were that I spent a lot more time with the SR-8c than any other optic, and that the frequency of testing sped up at about the time I tested the SR-4c.  I also spent the week shooting just prior to my test of the SWFA scope, which I’m positive skewed the accuracy numbers favorably for that scope.

I made a few minor shooting errors in testing.  Larger sample sizes of shooters probably would have ironed this problem out.  There are times when I just messed up and, for example, screwed up the hit ratio in the 7 yard testing of the Swarovski Z6i.  I got my hold wrong with the SR-4c.  I used the wrong mark to hold with the SWFA scope.  Test #2 typically had at least one “short circuit” moment with each scope except for the SR-8c.  Some of those were more egregious than others.  I’ll note them in the tests.

Better ammo would have been nice, especially for the 100 yard precision test and the ‘long’ range transitions.  I do think that the XM193 is consistent, especially within the same lot, as I used for the testing.

The Good:

First of all, and most importantly, I think that the tests were valid, except for test #3, DD25.  I just couldn’t shoot it well enough to be consistent.  Otherwise I think the tests essentially got at what I wanted them to get at.  I will re-state the purpose of each test as I cover the results.

The state of the barrel’s cleanliness was extremely consistent, as I cleaned the barrel with Patch Out and Accelerator prior to beginning each round of tests.  By the time I got to the point where precision mattered, the barrel was thoroughly fouled, but not so much as to affect the precision negatively.

The tests were conducted with care to ensure uniformity in the procedure of setup and administration.  The same type of targets were used for each optic.  I shot them in the same places, at the same distances.  The times of day were generally the same.  The conditions didn’t change as much as they might have over such a large span of time.  When they did, such as the grass getting longer, I figured out ways to overcome that without compromising the tests, such as using my vehicle to shoot out of instead of the ground.

One thing I did that I haven’t discussed yet was that I tested the Aimpoint T1 Micro at the first 3 tests as sort of a non-magnified ‘control’ optic.  I also re-tested the SR-8c at the first three tests to see how my skills changed over the course of the testing process.  I’ll bring those results into play as I go over those specific tests.

Finally, for most of the tests I think that my shooting has been consistent enough to see the difference in the optics.  When I was less than consistent I’m at least able to recognize that the testing was essentially invalid, as with DD25, or when it changed, as with the X-Box test.

I realized that I’ve been throwing a lot of densely packed information out, and perhaps in not the most digestible fashion.  I decided to try to take after the format that Cal over at Precision Rifle Blog has been presenting his scope tests, which are done in a much more systematic and rigorous manner by the way.  Hopefully you’ll be able to make sense of the results, which are coming up next.

 

Dr. Scopelove, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love Parallax

 

(From the undiscovered, secret “Art of the Rifle” archive vault of shooting past. I thought I would take a break from the number crunching of scope testing and write about something quick and easy. Apparently I have a mental disorder that compels me to collect and crunch numbers.)

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Parallax seems to be in the mind of more shooters as they are starting to notice that a lot of scopes have side focus knobs. There’s a knob there that says “Parallax” with yard numbers and such, so it has to be a big deal. I must have noticed that knob at some point, as evidenced by this old article on my blog.

Before I entered the abnormal mental state of coming up with numbers to crunch in relation to shot group stats, I had a different abnormal mental state of coming up with creative shooter-related diagnoses for what turned out to be a gun that needed some accuracy work. One of the things I got hung up on was parallax, as my scope on that rifle, formerly the FN PBR-XP, currently the “Mark Deux”, is not equipped with a side focus knob. Sometimes not having the means to adjust something can give one the idea that that lack of that ability is a serious and significant deficiency.

Earlier in the year I was loaned a sample of the upgraded SWFA 3-15×42. Perhaps upgraded is the wrong word, because I don’t know that it’s actually intended to replace the 3-9×42, but it would just make sense. As Nigel might say, “This one goes to fifteen. Well that’s six more, innit?” I thought it would make sense to compare them and see how that turned out.

The newer 3-15×42 has a side focus knob. One of the things I wanted to compare was whether that resulted in better capability for precision. Before I did that, I needed to establish a baseline with my tried and true 3-9×42. What follows is my submission of evidence that I actually made my journey to the dark land of parallax and returned to tell the tale…

Plan A: “No plan survives first contact with the enemy.”

Armed with the On Target TDS program and some of the proprietary targets that go with it, I set out to attempt to induce parallax error at 100 yards. Those of you who are smarter than me (only the 7,000,000,000 who have that distinction) may have already spotted the flaw.

I have to reverse engineer my grand plans to some degree, because this happened a couple months ago, but the plan seems to have been to shoot 3-4 sessions of 12 shot experiments. Each target consisted of three columns of four bulls. For those actually keeping track that’s one shot per bull. Since I had three columns, for the left column I would put my eye as far left in the scope’s eyebox as I could while still being able to see the target. For the center column I carefully aligned my eye in the center. For the right column I moved my eye to the far right. I shot them from left to right, which would mean that each group was formed in a “round robin” fashion to reduce the possibility that something would make one group better than the others due to some outside condition. After a few outings I should have collected large enough sample sizes to be able to tell something.

After shooting the 12 shots I compiled the results into three groups of four shots, one for each column, using On Target TDS. On target allows for precise measurement of group size in extreme spread and mean radius, the location of the exact group center, and the measurement of the distance of the actual group center from the point of aim in terms of horizontal, vertical, and total deviation.

The raw targets look like this:

IMG_5854;

Here are the composite groups:

Left:

Parallax Left

Center:

Parallax Center

Right:

Parallax Right

Total:

Parallax Sum

After analyzing my first target I remember being confused. In retrospect I should not have been thinking anything after only four shots on target, but I did not see what I had expected to see, which was three distinct points of impact that correlated directly to the directional change in eye position. Nothing in life ever turns out that perfect.

Later in the day I tried again with exactly the same format. This time I felt like I shot a little better. Note that in this case the group centers were all very similar. There are differences in group size, but I felt that could be easily attributable to having more difficulty with sight picture and eyestrain at the edge of the eyebox.

Left:

PM Parallax Left

Center:

PM Parallax Center

Right:

PM Parallax Right

Total:

PM Total Parallax

You might have noticed little to no shift in the point of impact in the last three shot groups and the composite total.  I noticed that too.  I now had a total of 24 rounds telling me something different than I expected. I started considering something that I should have thought of before shooting. I emailed SWFA and asked them what the parallax was set to in the scope. Skylar answered the same day with the following: “The SS 3-9 has a fixed parallax set at 100 yards. “ Trying to induce parallax error at the precise distance that the scope is set to be parallax free is not a really good idea for those of you that are sane and well-adjusted.

Plan B: Trying to induce parallax at a distance other than the factory setting.

After hearing from Skylar, I set about researching the problem a little more. I found something interesting on the internet here: http://www.longrangehunting.com/forums/f18/parallax-adjustment-scope-57372/ (scroll down to post #6 by LouBoyd).

Using his equation, RT = RS(Dt-Ds)/Ds, I figured out that at 200 yards the possible parallax error was equal to the radius of my objective lens, or approximately 0.827”. I used 200 yards because of my overdue shooting goal, which is to be able to hit a 4” target within that distance under a wide variety of conditions (understated). 0.827” isn’t much, but I decided to test at 200 anyway.

I placed three targets at 200 and shot them in round robin fashion, with 6 shots each. Here you go:

Left:

200 Parallax Left

Center:

200 Parallax Center

Right:

200 Parallax Right;

Here is a composite target of all 18 shots:

Total Parallax 200

Here is a chart of the deviation, in MOA, of each group.

Parallax Chart

Here is a chart of the mean radius if each group, also expressed in MOA:

Mean Radius Parallax Tests

After seeing that the group that should have been pretty good was not, and that the groups that should have not looked as good, but did not, and after not seeing any particular shift in point of impact, and, after seeing that my groups at 200 yards in which I tried to induce parallax were better than the groups I fired at the distance at which my scope is parallax free… I decided the following:

While parallax is a real thing, the importance of it isn’t universal to all shooters. For long range it’s going to be more important. For my purposes, there are more important things to work on, like follow through, which is what I think happened with the “center eye” target at 200. Once again, it comes down to fundamentals.

SWFA 1-6×24 HD Test Results

There were a few issues with the testing of this scope that had nothing to do with the scope.  On Monday of that week I cut my support hand badly.  I had also been doing some specific training the during the week leading up to the tests.  That put me in a time crunch so I couldn’t get stitches for my hand and the wound kept getting reopened during the training.  This training, coincidentally enough, concentrated on hitting small targets at close range.  Misses were heavily discouraged.  It was worth it to take the time to get the hit.  The day prior to the test I practiced field movement with my bolt gun and all my gear leading  up to shots on the 4”ish targets in sub-optimal terrain under time constraints.

All the other tests had nothing much going on before them, so it seems likely that the results may have been affected.  Going into the testing I expected that there could be a difference.

I also had started to shorten up the interval between scope testing at about the time I tested the SR-4c.  This was not really intentional, other than that I started feeling the pressure to get the scopes back to their owners after they were gracious enough to let me try them out and I took way too long.  My expectation going in was increased speed and accuracy on tests #1 and #2

Test 1: Single Shots at 7 Yards

I discovered upon taking sight of the targets after setting them up that I couldn’t see the illumination.  I double checked to see that it was on, which it was.  I could also tell that the reticle took on a slightly crimson hue when the illumination was on, but for all intents and purposes it was worthless.  I ran the tests with it off, which make the optic the only one of the tests to have been officially tested without illumination.  Upon reflection it would have been something worthwhile to include with all the scopes, but that is another time and money thing where a line had to be drawn.  I did shoot this course with the SR-4c without illumination as an unofficial experiment.  I’ll share those results later.

This test had the distinction of being my only completely clean run at it over the duration of all 20 shots.

IMG_6071

Test 1 numbers

In terms of speed, the SWFA 1-6×24 was in between the SR-8c and the Z6i.  The hit ratio was the best out of all the optics tested.  I don’t know how much, if any of that, to ascribe to having had a rifle in my hand for a large portion of the four days preceding the test.  In terms of the scores that factored in time, this scope was on top at that point.

What’s odd to me is that during the test it felt as though I was fighting the reticle, but I ended up shooting more accurately.  I tend to think that my level of skill was “warmer than ambient” due to the work I had done in the preceding days, but I think the only fair way to deal with that is just to take the results as they are.

Test 2: Transitions- the X-Box Drill

IMG_6085

Like test 1, I felt like I was fighting my way through this drill to some degree.  How I think it should work is that both eyes should be open and my eyes should pick up the next target and drive the point of aim to it without losing the scope’s eyebox at any time in the process.  I experienced that to the greatest degree with the Z6i.  I had a hard time maintaining the eyebox in this test.  The other thing was that I ended up shutting my left eye because I felt like I was fighting through too much information.

Test 2 Targets

Test 2 numbers

As with test 1, my hit rate was better than any of the others tested so far.  The hits per second score was 6 thousandths less than the Z6i.  The other scores were below the SR-4c and the Z6i, but above the SR-8c, which had the honor of being tested the first time I shot this drill.

Almost every time I shot this drill, I would have at least one “short circuit” type moment where I suddenly realized I was heading to the wrong target or just forgot where to go next.  This first happened with the Z6i, and I actually went to the trouble of figuring how to ‘correct’ the numbers.  At the end I’m going to leave them as I shot them but point the errors out.  Judging by the times, I had two minor “where am I going” moments that added about a half second each with this scope.  These are not as complicating as the “oh crap I’m heading to the wrong target, which one am I supposed to be going to, am I sure?” type mistakes that can add about a second and a half per mistake.

Test 3: DD25

Test 4 Targets

Test 3 Numbers

This drill was enough to unravel whatever accuracy edge I might have trained in over the course of the week leading up to it.  Again, you can see the trend that I started pushing my times at the expense of accuracy.  Eventually you’ll see a nifty graph that shows this course of fire getting progressively worse with each time I shot it.  This has nothing to do with the scopes, but perhaps something to do with my attempt to keep my skills at all these tests as static as possible in order to keep the results accurate across the board.  What actually happened was that increasing speed was paying off for me in the X-Box test and I tried to do the same thing subconsciously with this one.  This being a different type of shooting altogether, it didn’t pay off to speed up.

Test 4: Groups at 100

This was the big chink in the armor for the SWFA scope.  The target I use for this test is not really too hard to see, as it is made up of a black circle and dot on a white piece of paper.  The problem is that the circle and dot are relatively fine.  The boldness and density of the SWFA reticle made it difficult to discern the target.  This was ironic, because the SWFA’s reticle basically bracketed the target circle perfectly, the circle being 3.5”.  A mil is 3.6” at 100 yards, and factoring in the line thickness it was just about, as Ace Ventura would say, “Like a glove.

Here’s an illustration of what I was up against:

6x view

And just a bit closer to what I see:

IMG_6129
This should really be a double tripod job, one for the scope and one for the camera.  Alas, I have not a single tripod.

In contrast, I happened to have the SR-8c still on hand.  The reticle is a little more sparse, since it lacks the half mil hashes, which are not only unnecessary in my opinion, but detrimental.

At 6x:

 SR-8c at 6x

SR-8c at 6x close up

That’s what an extra $1500 will get you.  Yes the crosshairs do obscure the target center, but I believe that the line thickness may be less, and/or the reticle might not be as dark.  In any event it’s easier to see the target.  At 8x it was significantly easier as can be seen (approximately) below:

SR-8c at 8x close up

Here are the SWFA’s numbers:

 Group 1

Group 2

Group 3

30 Round Group

Test 4 Numbers

Test 5: “Long” Range Transitions

I’ll lay out the procedure for you again.  I have four targets at the following distances: 170, 230, 270, 330.  I have put them in a different order, left to right, for each optic test.  I have shot the same order, left to right, in the same way every time, in a manner that best balances the permutations for each transition.  I have a total of 36 rounds, 18 in two magazines, which gives me a total of 9 shots on each target.  I evaluated the targets in terms of points on target, group size in inches, extreme spread, mean radius, and deviation of the group center from the point of aim (horizontal, vertical, and total).

IMG_6152

IMG_6151

I had hypothesized that this optic would do very well on this test.  I have felt that the reticle is too dense for most applications, but that the density would pay off at longer ranges.  It turned out that it basically held its own against much more expensive scopes.

I made an error with the first four shots, being the first shot on each target.  Although I had known that the reticle had half mil hashes, I still reverted back to reading each has as a mil, causing my holdover to be less than it should have been.  To compensate for this I left the lowest shot from each target out when I plotted them with On Target.  This gives the SWFA scope a bit of an unfair advantage in the extreme spread numbers, but not a huge one.

Where the scope shined was in the precision of the groups.  The spoiler alert is that the SWFA showed the best average extreme spread (by 0.055 MOA) and was a close second in mean radius.  It was consistently last or second to last in terms of deviation though, which put it in third place for points.

170

230

270

330

Here are the numbers.

Test 5 Numbers

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All in all, this was a solid scope held back by a busy, “over bold” (not what happened to Mr. T- that was over gold) reticle.  Upgrading the reticle with something simpler, and daylight bright illumination would very likely put this scope’s performance up there with scopes over double the price.  In my opinion, doing all that and putting the reticle in the second focal plane would put this on my list of scopes I would buy.  Sounds quite similar to the features of the Vortex Razor 1-6, but I wasn’t able to test that scope to say for sure.

Coming up soon I will break down the performance of the scopes in each test for comparison and further analysis so you can see exactly how they compared and maybe get an idea of why.

Test Optic 4: SWFA 1-6×24 HD

IMG_6070

You might be getting sick of the scope reviews. That’s alright, because I talked with Steve and he said he liked them. Steve, if you get a chance email me about 3-Gun stuff. Back to our regularly scheduled programming.

 

I should begin by saying that prior to putting this scope on a rifle, I had been spoiled by scopes that cost $2500 (x2), and $2000. This scope, the SWFA 1-6×24 HD runs at about $1000 and I have seen it on special for about $800. I was very curious to see how it performed in comparison. I go back and forth between wanting the absolute best (typically thinking it must be the most expensive) equipment and thinking I should be able to do more with less, so this was interesting.

I received all of the scopes that I tested within a short time span, probably a few days (it was a while ago). Before I mounted any of them on a rifle I just looked through them at ‘stuff’. At the time I was very impressed with the image quality of the SWFA. Not being an optics guru, I’m not going to try to describe it in more detail than by saying I thought it was nearly the equal of the Swarovski, and noticeably brighter than the USO scopes. Temper that with the admonition that I’m not anywhere near the optics connoisseur as I am a trigger aficionado.

trigger aficionado

In the interim after receiving the scopes and before I mounted the SWFA, I spent months playing with the SR-8c, the Z6i, and the SR-4c. The SR-8c was the first one I mounted and spent the most time with. It basically set the bar, so I think I should try to explain how that bar was set.

My impression of the U.S. Optics scopes is that they are well designed, well executed, and have nothing at all gimmicky about them. I think that they are meant to fulfill the expectations of an end user who knows what he’s doing and who is willing to shell out the mackerels for the best he can get. The only trends they need to worry about are performance related. The Swarovski was similarly lacking in anything other than what would make it functionally excellent in its intended genre.

What all the high priced scopes had in common were relatively minimalistic reticles that stayed out of the way of their daylight bright illumination. It didn’t take much time on the range with these scopes to appreciate the utility of an uncluttered visual workspace. This also had an influence on how I handle mechanical offset. In my mind, having had the chance to try it, the superiority of a single illuminated dot combined with a clean, clear field of view is obvious. I disagree with some other reviewers on this, who feel that reticle trumps illumination. I, of course, am right, no matter how much I may enjoy and learn from their reviews (my wife said to make sure it’s obvious I’m joking so I don’t look like an ass).

The context of where the bar was set led me to an immediate dislike of two of the characteristics of the SWFA 1-6 as soon as I mounted it. The knobs and scope caps are unnecessarily large and the reticle is too busy. I’ll explain.

Big adjustment knobs seem to be part of some trend in the tactical scope market, particularly with precision rifle scopes. I own one of those scopes myself, the Vortex Razor 5-20×50, which practically has a beer can sized knob. I don’t think it’s that big a deal with a long range scope, but in a scope with a minimum power of 1x there are some assumptions about the venue of use, namely, it’s made for use at close range. Close range means that things happen quickly and probably dynamically. Success under those conditions calls for keeping one’s capacity for observation and adaptation so high that Scotty would be telling Captain Kirk that the ship is breaking up (“The visual circuits can’t handle much more of this!).

If for some reason the target is no longer in the field of view by the time the rifle is raised (maybe it has moved), or perhaps a second target is detected, the ability to use vision = field of view inside the scope + field of view outside the scope – field of view obstructed by rifle and scope. Therefore the lower profile the scope can be while still fulfilling its functional requirements the better.

Having said all that, although I saw the large knobs and disliked them, I think they were far enough forward to be out of view. Just to prove I’m still human, I continue to dislike them because I think they were made that way to be trendy. Everyone knows that big knobs are cool (like, duh).

The reticle was a different matter.  This was the scope I wanted to test so badly before I had the opportunity to test any of these because I thought that the reticle design was brilliant.  We’re talking about a first focal plane scope that had a big, obvious circle to line up at close range, where the big circle completely disappears when the scope is dialed up to maximum magnification!!!  The rest of the people in the running for the Nobel Prize might as well forget about it.  That was how certain I was that this was the best answer .

It was a big surprise when I finally mounted the scope on the X-15 and sighted through it. “Dang. It’s kind of hard to see the target.” It’s not precisely correct that it was hard to see a target, it would be more precise to say that there was also a lot of other stuff to see in the scope that was not the target.  I was not prepared for the reticle to come up as part of the vision = field of view inside the scope + field of view outside the scope – the field of view outside the rifle and scope equation.

I also learned something about my reticle preferences for a scope in the 1-?x role.  I don’t like circles.  That’s ironic because I’ve been using an EOTech for about 8 years now.  Having used the single dot, the circle just seems to create visual noise that fulfills no actual function.  I’m not reticle ranging at close range (if ever).  I’m not using reticle holds at close range.  I don’t need to have some magical alignment circle to line up the scope, because the scope is a big circle if I look through it correctly.  All I see is that recoil creates a giant, bright, vibrating ring right smack in my field of view when maintaining a continuous sight picture in rapid fire.  The dot provides perfectly adequate usefulness with little to no uselessness.

The other primary difference with the SWFA is that the illumination isn’t always visible. The term “daylight bright” has been all the hubbub over at the yonder gun forums for a while now, and after all this scope testing I finally can concede that the concept is more than a marketing ploy.

In some situations in daylight the illumination appears to be nice and bright. Other times it just seems to wash out. Ironically, it’s the prominence of the reticle that allows for consistency in performance whether the illumination is visible or not. So in one way, the over-bold reticle can be seen as a design compromise to make up for the lack of a daylight bright dot, which would increase the cost of the scope.

The only other thing that I found even slightly wanting was that I preferred the illumination modules on the other scopes to the conventional knob on the SWFA. I think I killed two 2032 batteries in the short time I was in possession of it. Some people prefer the knob, as something that can be grabbed and turned, rather than toggled or pressed, but I liked the other scopes’ systems better.

I ended up writing about the things I didn’t like about the scope for some reason.  It would only be fair to point out that I’ve recently noticed that the way I perceived these scopes for testing was significantly different than if I had bought it myself.  Ironically I was less willing to accommodate any flaw.

I should point out that, even given the things I don’t like about it (which are also completely subjective), the scope is well made and will likely be able to fulfill the requirements is was made to.  The testing will unravel that bit.

The scope seems to be a quality piece. There were no issues in mounting or setting it up. The build quality seems very good.  Oh, and the knobs clicked like chocolate wafers atop clouds of cotton candy.  There.  No scope review is complete without going into gyrations over clicks.

Test results coming up.

 

 

U.S. Optics SR-4c Test Results

I apologize for taking so long between posts lately.  It’s been busy, and crunching the numbers for these test results is a tedious task.

Test 1: Single shots at 7 yards

IMG_5954

Over 20 shots my average time was 0.9305. This was 0.105 seconds faster than the SR-8 (10.14%) and 0.1545 faster than the Swarovoski Z6i (14.24%). The fastest hit time was 0.75 seconds and the slowest was 1.28 seconds (shot #1- cold). The standard deviation for the times was 0.135 (SR-8c was 0.1415, Z6i was 0.1329). The hit rate was 85%, which was the same as the SR-8c, and just less than the Z6i, which had a hit rate of 95%. I believe that the speed number is more indicative of the performance than the hit rate, as hits are dependent on me not making mistakes. Misses typically occur because of some obvious lapse on my part, but I’ll leave that for you to decide.

The total points over 20 rounds were 95 and the average points per shot was 4.95. The ‘standard’ is 5 points per shot. This was the first optic to fall below that standard.  My standard for scoring is that over half the hole is in the scoring zone.

My hits over time score, what I’m calling “hit factor” was .91. Again, one hit per second would yield a score of 1. My points over time (point factor) was 5.32. Both of these scores were the best out of any of the optics tested so far. This illustrates that by factoring in time, even a slightly worse accuracy score can be overcome with some extra pep in the step.

This optic came out to be what I would consider significantly faster than any of the others so far. I probably collected enough data to see if the difference was actually statistically significant, but I have to confess that I don’t remember enough from one of the only useful classes I took in college.

 

Test 2: X-Box

IMG_5952

I don’t recall that the feeling of shooting with this scope was markedly different than the SR-8, which is similarly laid out, but the proof is in the puddin’. The SR-4c was fast. My average time with the SR-4c was about a second faster than with the Swarovski Z6i, which had been the fastest up to that point.

Total x-box SR-4c

Average transition times for all four runs:

1. 1.22  Upper left (start)
2. 1.26  Upper right (right)
3. 1.10  Lower left (diagonal- down/left)
4. 0.84  Upper left (up)
5. 1.13  Lower right (diagonal- down/right)
6. 1.07  Lower Left (left)
7. 1.30  Upper right (diagonal- up/right)
8. 1.05  Lower right (down)
9. 1.09  Upper Left (diagonal- up/left)

Total Average Time: 10.04 seconds
Total Average Points: 43.25
Average points per shot: 4.81
Average hit rate: 81%
Average hits per second: 0.72
Average points per second: 4.31

While the actual hit rate was lower than the previous two scopes, which were tied at 86.11%, the times, which were again significantly faster more than made up for it according to the scoring system I’ve devised. Both the hits per second and points per second were higher than either of the previously tested scopes.

Test 3: DD25

I’ve determined that for me, at my current skill level, this drill is not a good measure of anything. It seems as though I can be quite consistent in types of shooting that I feel like I have some competence in. My performance in this drill is completely erratic, far beyond any differences that the optics might bring. The only trend I see is that I became quicker and less accurate the more times I shot it. I would need to work at this a lot to gain any competence with it, but part of my testing protocol is that I tried not to work toward improvement that would skew the results. I include the results only for the sake of completeness (and to keep me humble, as is the running theme of this blog).

DD25 SR-4c
Looking at this now I realize how sloppy I’ve gotten at this drill since then. Not good.

I completed 2 runs of this drill. My average raw points were 65 total of the 120 total possible (75 required to pass) . My average time was 27.25 seconds.  My average corrected points after penalties were 48.  My average hit rate was 73.33% (11/15).  My average hits per second were 0.4036697.  My average points per minute were 103.54 of the 300 minimum passing (34.51%).  Again, I shot faster, but this time it wasn’t fast enough to make up for the lower hit rate and points.

The trend with tests #2 and #3 is that I became more willing to take risks to shoot quicker. It seemed to pay off with test #2 but with test #3 being farther out it had the opposite effect. If I really wanted to get better at this I would move the target closer so I could get all my hits and gradually move it back.

Test #4: Groups at 100.

I began to feel a slight disadvantage with the reduction in maximum power in comparison to the other scopes while shooting groups at 100, but like many feelings it wasn’t justified by the results (which is why I’m going to rely on test results rather than fancy pictures and subjective opinion to do most of the talking here). There wasn’t much of a meaningful difference on paper in comparison to the other scopes, other than the extreme spread of the composite 30 round group was larger, which appeared to be caused by a high outlier in the second 10 shot group.  Other than that, some of the individual groups were smaller and some were larger.  The average mean radius was smaller than with the SR-8c, and the total mean radius was almost identical to that scope.  The second focal plane Swarovski Z6i was still the top performer in this category at this point in the testing.

 

Group 1

Group 2

Group3

30 Rounds

 

Group    Extreme Spread    Mean Radius

1.                 2.713                 0.725
2.                 3.639                 0.862
3.                 2.279                 0.662

Average Group

Extreme Spread | Mean Radius
2.849              0.805

Total 30 Round Group

Extreme Spread | Mean Radius
4.357              0.906

 

Test #5: “Long” Range Transitions

IMG_6004
This, unfortunately, is the only photo I took of the rifle with the SR-4c on it.

IMG_6005
A close up of the targets. The order, left to right was 270, 230, 330, 170.

I did not come into this test with any preconceived notions about scope power and performance, but I came out of the test with some ideas about it.

I made a couple mistakes in the test. First, I made a clerical error that led to a holdover error at the closest target (170). I wrote down 0.5 (which I think was the bullet drop in inches) vs. 0.1, which is that actual holdover in mils. Therefore my hold was too high. This shouldn’t have made too much of a difference, only about 2.44 inches if my hold had been perfect, but something else went wrong.  Three of my shots were off paper, and the center of the group that remained was much higher than it should have been.

Interestingly, at the time I was shooting this course of fire I did not expect to have poor results at all. I felt that although it was a little more difficult to see the targets, that I could see them well enough. I also felt as though my holdovers were on and my follow through was as good as it gets with me. When I noticed my mistake with the holdover mid-way through the course of fire, I determined that I should continue with the incorrect hold at 170, and that I could adjust the group down to figure my points. It just didn’t work out quite as well as I thought.

The second issue that popped up in this test was with the iPhone shot timer. I took a brief moment to check my holdover, which necessitated using a different app. I didn’t think that the shot timer would be affected, but it was. Therefore I only have time data for 15 of the 36 shots. At least I can still get an average time per shot.  That was 10.17 seconds, which was faster than any of the previous scopes, but that did not include the reload, which in this case was rather fast and efficient.

LR 170
170

LR 230
230

LR 270
270

LR 330
330

Distance | Extreme Spread (in.) | Extreme Spread (MOA) | Mean Radius (MOA)

170                                              Invalid Sample
230                  7.167″                           2.989                          0.899
270                10.528″                           3.378                          0.933
330                 8.788″                            2.567                          0.760

Distance | Points | Vert. Deviation* | Hor. Deviation | Total Deviation

170            14                           Invalid Sample
230            12              0.832                0.503               0.972
270            14              0.883                0.783               1.180
330              6              1.285                1.391               1.894

*Deviation of group center from intended point of aim (MOA)

I guess I could say that the good new is that some of the group sizes weren’t too bad. Some of the groups were better than with the Swarovski.  In fact, the average mean radius was better with the SR-4c than with the Swaro.  So in terms of precision the SR-4c did as good as can be expected when shooting a 4.2″ target at 4x out to 330 yards with reject military surplus ball ammo.

The bad news would be in the accuracy department (nearness of group center to point of aim).  I used points in this test to indicate the accuracy, and the performance basically fell off the wrong end of the chart in this case.  Even after adjusting my 170 yard target down by the equivalent of my hold error, the total score for all the targets was 46 points, compared with 107 and 102 with the SR-8c and the Z6i respectively.  It wasn’t wind.  It wasn’t mirage.  The earth wasn’t spinning any different than before.  I think I demonstrated my ability to use reticle holdovers in the Z6i test, so I don’t know what really went wrong.

In most respects the maximum 4x of the SR-4c fared pretty well with the requirements I placed upon it. I was quite disappointed when I completed the last test, but the decently sized groups just didn’t quite go in exactly the right place. I suspect that this could be mitigated with some time and training with the scope, but these tests are intended to get an idea of how easy the scopes are to use in comparison with each other. I found out that power matters, and it actually makes a pretty significant difference in how easy the optic is to use.

 

Test Optic #3: U.S. Optics SR-4c

SR-4c
Sadly, I didn’t remember to take a bunch of photos of this optic, and none that show the scale as compared to anything useful.  I was too busy trying to get things done and expedite the actual testing of the optic.

The next optic up is the U.S. Optics SR-4c, 1-4×22.  Like the SR-8c, it has a red dot in the second focal plane and the reticle in the first focal plane.  They call this illumination “dual focal plane”.

The SR-4c is very similar in character to the SR-8c.  They feel very similar.  The controls are nearly identical.  They are styled in the same manner.  The main difference is, as the model designators would indicate, the power range.

The other big differences between the SR-8c and the SR-4c are the size and weight.  The SR-8c is 12” long and 25.6 ounces, while the SR-4c is 9.25” long and 19.8 ounces.  The SR-4c doesn’t seem like it’s that long, as it has a stout, compact appearance.  An additional significant practical difference is that the SR-4c allows for more flexibility in mounting.  I was able to use my Nightforce Unimount, which I like because it is significantly lower than a standard height AR mount.

4x_138_mil_scale Resized

The reticle on the SR-4c, which again is in the front focal plane, is a very simple arrangement.  I have found out in my travels that simple is good.  I have also found out that cramming things up with features is not always good, which I’m happy to report is not the case with this scope.  What I have noticed with these scopes is that at close range and low magnification, what I want to see is the illuminated dot and not much else.  Something else that I’ve found to be the case with these lower power scopes is that when using the reticle to hold for elevation or wind at longer ranges, fine graduations in the reticle can be confusing and seem to be unnecessary, which is also not the case with this scope.

Something I noticed when I first received the scopes was that the SR-4c had a more forgiving eyebox.  I don’t know of a way I could objectively measure this attribute, but as I initially inspected the scopes I had on hand it seemed to me that the SR-4c might have had the easiest eyebox to acquire.  When I mounted the scope to test I did not notice the SR-4c to be different in this attribute from the others.  When one has the ability to take a good position, and is trained to establish a consistent cheekweld, eyebox ease is probably not that noticeable.  We’ll see if the numbers show a difference in performance.

The illumination on these scopes is, in my opinion, the best I have seen.  It’s a clear, bright red dot.  There is no “bloom” to the illumination, as I see in the Aimpoint and EOTech sights.  The dot is about as bright as with the Aimpoint (I actually found that I could see the SR-8c’s dot in snow where the Aimpoint was washed out).  I’ve been told that the U.S. Optics illumination robs the image of brightness, and it is evident that these scopes are both less bright than the other two I tested.  As with the SR-8c, the illumination isn’t visible from the objective end.

Two things come to mind with this scope, one of which will apply to the SR-8c as well.  I wish the turrets, in addition to being finer in adjustment, would have the customary arrow with the “Up” or “Right”, because evidently some people (namely me) get confused on where I am and what direction I’m going.  I turned the knobs the wrong way twice when zeroing this scope, which should have been (and would otherwise have been) a very cut and dried affair.

Secondly, the big advantage of matching turrets was nullified with the maximum of 4 power magnification.  I couldn’t see my hits at 100 to read the reticle and adjust the turret without having to walk downrange.  This meant that I had to actually go back to doing range math.  Not only that, but I had to do it in mils, which adds an extra conversion step for a brain that was trained early on to think in MOA.

I’ll cover the testing process briefly in the next installment, which is coming up shortly.  Thanks for reading.

The Dreadful State of Accuracy Accounting

Warning: Rant Ahead

I’ve pretty much had it with accuracy claims. It’s not just that some of them are extreme examples of cherry picking. It’s exceedingly rare for anyone to even define the basic variables that one would need to get an idea of what is going on.  In an age where anyone has the opportunity to better their own skills through a small amount of diligence and study, continuing on in ignorance for the sake of feeling good about oneself is silly.

First of all, and I’m pretty sure I’ve beaten this one to death already, the ubiquitous 3 round group extreme spread measurement doesn’t tell anyone anything. When I see a three round group I immediately skip it because delving any further would be a waste of time, energy, and would leave me dumber for having looked. It just doesn’t have relevance to the point that the shooter is trying to make. I don’t see 5 round groups as much better.

Secondly, I have noticed a phenomenon of willful perceptual blindness. It goes like this: “These 4 were all in a tight cluster. That’s ¾ MOA! I don’t know what happened to that fifth one over there. I probably pulled that shot.” Here’s the problem: YOU DON’T GET TO PRETEND THAT DIDN’T HAPPEN!!! It did happen, and it actually means something. If you actually know what happened when the shot broke, it may mean something else. If you were in a shooting and that magical mystery bullet hit the wrong person it would be a little harder to pretend it didn’t happen.

I expect this to happen on the internet. Where I have been really frustrated is when I see it after shelling out $8.99 for a magazine. Example: “Sniper” magazine, 2011, “Nighthawk Custom” by J. Guthrie, page 48. 5 group sizes are listed to the thousandths place. He then gives an average of the five group sizes. The load is listed as Federal Gold Medal Match 175 grain. The distance is listed as 100 yards. All that is fine. What I want to know, but can’t tell is how many rounds went into each group? That’s kind of important.  With 10 shot groups, it might be absolutely stupendous.  With a 3 round group, it might be something an average shooter with an average gun could do all damn diddley day long (yes, I said “all damn diddley day long).

It would also be nice to know whether Mr. Guthrie is giving the measurement in inches or minutes, although I can see that’s splitting hairs. He did give us the measurement to the thousandths place, so I think splitting hairs is justified. I know that he is capable of giving a full report, as he did in the 2011 Guns & Ammo Book of the AR15 article on the Les Baer .264 LBC AR, p. 36, which was perfectly adequate.  

In Issue 12 of “Recoil” magazine Erik Lund tests the Lancer L30 .308 Winchester AR. Here’s all we get: “168-grain Federal Gold Medal Match turned in .75-MOA groups—and that accuracy could be likely tightened up with handloads.” While we have no distance for the groups, at least he gives it to us in MOA. The big question, again, is how many shots made up each group? It makes a big difference.

Probably the best example I could find in the magazines I had on hand was in Iain Harrison’s review of the POF Gen 4 carbine in issue 12 of “Recoil”. It is as follows: “After being passed around like a cheap hooker and fed like a stray dog, the gun just kept running no matter what was stuffed in the mag or how fast it was emptied. And it got emptied a lot. Figuring that was enough abuse, with smoke still curling off the barrel’s exterior, I sat down at a bench with a few rounds of 77 grain OTM ammo to learn of the gun could still group. Yep. Still sub-MOA.” Wow. I loved you in Top Shot Iain, but that was not fit to be published. How hard would it have been to be slightly more specific and at least a little classy? I know the season 1 winner could handle that. Someone shopping for a $2600 rifle should probably know more about the piece than how it compares with a prostitute.  I would think that for many of us it’s not even a comparison we could understand.

There is a lot of information to be had in the world right now. There is no reason for shooters to settle for anything less than accurate and complete reporting, especially from media sources who act as de-facto leaders in the shooting community. These guys could do a lot even by picking up the free version of On Target and listing some mean radius numbers, which actually allow an easy apples to apples comparison.  With just a little more work it could be possible for a consumer of information to actually have an idea how a rifle really shoots, rather than hyperbole leading to unrealistic expectations.      

Swarovski Z6i Test Results

I began the scope testing under nearly identical conditions as when I tested the SR-8 (except the grass was longer). I might have been a little more tired. As with the SR-8 testing, I came into the tests “cold” and had not done any special practice in the couple weeks preceding the test- just regular shooting that was not especially similar to the tests. I was a little sore from the Sportsman’s Challenge the previous day.

I won’t be comparing these results directly to the SR-8 in this post, but will wait until all the scopes are done to do an evaluation of each scope’s performance in each test.  Likewise, if you need a description of the testing protocols, you’ll have to click here.

Test 1: Single Shots at 7 Yards

-Scope set at ~1.3x
-Illumination on daytime setting (near or at maximum)

I was surprised to find that I was turning in times that were a bit slower than I’m used to. I had one wild miss due to a trigger control mishap (with the Rock River 2 Stage, for those keeping track [everybody I'm sure]). My hit ratio was actually better than normal.

IMG_5792

The hit ratio was 95% (19/20).  Total points were 115.  The average points per shot were 5.75.  Points per second were ~5.3 (rounded).  Hits (to the black 5 point circle) per second were ~0.88 (rounded).

Test 2: Transitions: the X-Box Drill

-Scope set at ~1.3x
-Illumination on daytime setting (near or at maximum)

IMG_5790

At the beginning of the test I gave myself a couple dry “going through the motions” type runs to get the pattern back, since it’s a little on the complex side. At the time I shot with the SR-8 the pattern was pretty easy for me (fresher in my mind) and I didn’t seem to have any problems, but for whatever reason on the day I tested the Swaro I was a little slow to remember it. This is not a scope related issue, but is a ‘me’ related issue. As with the preceding drill, I felt a little slow, but was surprised to see that I was turning in decent times. I also felt a little wild, but was actually having a little better accuracy. I have noticed that on days that I have noted that I felt “wild”, which I mean as less controlled than seems optimal, I usually have better accuracy and speed results. This is only anecdotal and based only on two occasions.

Xbox
Targets after all 4 runs.

On runs 1 and 2 I turned in good times, but nothing out of the ordinary. Run 3 felt normal but was significantly faster for me. On run 4 I could feel that I was moving at a comparatively smoking hot pace, and on the transition at shot 7, I realized I was heading for the wrong target. Then I had to think about where I was going, wonder if I was correct, then finish the run. I knew I would have a horrible time, somewhere in the 14 second range, but it was actually just over 11 seconds. My botched transition was about a second and a half slower than my average. I think I was going so quickly that my mind being in an overly relaxed state wasn’t keeping up.

Test 3:

-Scope set at ~4x
-Illumination on daytime setting (near or at maximum)

I shot the standing portion, transitioned to kneeling during the reload, went to fire, and found that the trigger didn’t feel right. There was no first stage (or takeup). I thought I might have had a malfunction. I didn’t try a clearance drill because I was curious if I was having my first malfunction with the Noveske upper. The bolt was in battery and I checked to see that I had a round in the chamber, which I did. I checked the trigger again and found that there was still no first stage. I pressed the trigger and the gun went bang. this time there was no first stage again, but no bang. There was a round in the chamber. After clearing the rifle I popped the rear takedown pin and found that there was an “extra” piece of metal in the fire control. Then I noticed a “missing” piece of metal on the hammer. I had finally broken the Rock River 2 Stage. It was almost 2 weeks until I had it replaced with a Geissele SSA-E trigger. Then I needed another day of familiarization with the new trigger as the 2nd stage was significantly lighter.

DD25I still don’t think that for me this test is a valid indicator of what the scope is doing for me.  My performance is too erratic.  Maybe after all of the tests are complete the numbers will show something different.

Test 4:

-Scope set at 6x
-Illumination off

My suspicion was that for group shooting the second focal plane reticle would make my sight picture easier to discern. That was indeed the case. Across the board there was a minor but consistent difference in group size, with the Z6i having a slight edge over the SR-8.

Group 1:

Swaro 10 Shot 1

Group 2:
Swaro 10 Shot 2

Group 3:

Swaro 10 Shot 3

30 Round Composite:

Swaro 30 Shot

The average extreme spread was approximately 0.11 MOA better with the Z6i. The average mean radius for all shot groups was 0.05 MOA better. As for the cumulative group, the extreme spread sizes were basically identical (my notes indicate that the SR-8 was actually 0.04 MOA smaller. The mean radius, which I trust more to mean something, was smaller on the Z6i by 0.08 MOA. Yes, these numbers are minor, but I think the consistency shows that there was something that worked just a bit better (maybe about 9% better?) with the Swaro for this application.

Test 5

-Scope set at 6x
-Illumination off

I hit a complication with this test right off the bat. With the SR-8 I shot this from the ground in bipod prone. A strange phenomenon that occurs in fields is that grass grows. Shocker, huh? Luckily, I have a sweet first gen 4Runner (22RE of course). This accomplishes two things quite handily. When driving out to the fields to put up targets it helps push the grass down a bit so the targets are a little easier to see. Second, when parked in the same spot as I shot from last time, it makes a convenient, self-contained shooting platform.

IMG_5937
Shooting view from the back of the 4Runner.

Test 5 Targets
This was cropped from the previous photo and shows the targets from the shooting location.

This test gave me some results that will take some judgment to interpret. On one hand they were almost astounding and on the other the Z6i couldn’t quite keep up with the SR-8. Why would that be?

I took measurements for time, points on target (performance in relation to my specific goals), accuracy (group location in reference to the target center), and precision (group related stats). Note that the measurement of points is sort of a combined evaluation of both accuracy and precision.

Why were the results so hard to interpret? First of all I’ll note that my only subjective note taken following actually shooting the test was “a little hard to see the bulls at 270 and 330.” That actually did play out in the numbers.

IMG_5941
The ’170′ target, which was actually a couple yards short. No excuse not to have all the shots in the black, except a phenomenon we like to call dispersion.

Swaro LR 168
I think this representation of the hits offers a bit better perspective on the group, the mean point of impact, and other random stuff.

IMG_5943
The 230 target looks better than the 170. Why? Shot groups are random events. That’s about all I can think of.

Swaro LR 229

IMG_5944
The 270 target. You can see that my chances of hitting the primary target (the 5 point black) isn’t all the great (this target would offer a prediction of 2 in 9 shots) from even this modest distance with plain old XM193.

Swaro LR 268
You can compare the numbers and see this group was “less gooder” than the previous two in terms of precision.

IMG_5946
332 yards. It’s getting a lot safer to be a 4.18” ~1.2 MOA) black circle at this distance.

Swaro LR 332
Still not great in terms of size, but centered up well.

The most astounding results from this test were the accuracy numbers. Here are the distances from the exact group centers from the exact center of the point of aim in minutes of angle:

170:         0.1
230:         0.07
270:         0.11
330:         0.12

Average: 0.1 (~.03 mils)

The average for the SR-8 was 0.42 MOA, which would generally seem to me to be a sort of “normal” or “within the margin of error” type number especially taking into account the possibility of user error of repeated estimation of holdovers.

It would not have been possible to adjust the scope’s point of impact via the turrets to improve these numbers even if they had been ¼ MOA adjustments. I interpret this particular result to mean that the reticle on the Z6i is accurate and lends itself to easy use. Another possibility is that it’s because I the 30 round group from the previous test to re-zero the rifle. In this case the grouping at 100 was better with the Swarovski, hence my correction was likely more accurate.

In any event, I would not have expected that I would have the ability to holdover over the course of 36 different shots, under time constraints, with no successive shots at the same distance, with an accuracy of 0.03 mils.  Please take a look again at the reticle and explain why on a short to medium range optic does anyone need half-mil subtentions.

Swarovski BRT-I
There is one mil between each point of reference.  Plenty fine.

The next thing to look at is the precision. For three out of four of the targets, the group sizes in this test were worse than with the SR-8, the target at 230 yards being the exception. With the groups averaged, the SR-8 showed an extreme spread 0.1 MOA better than that of the Z6i. The mean radius was approximately 0.11 MOA better with the SR-8 (approximately 13%).

Looking at the points, over the entire 36 round course, the SR-8 bested the Z6i by 5 points. The average points per shot with the SR-8 were approximately 0.15 higher with the SR-8 (4.6%).

The total time for this drill was 424.5 seconds, for an average of 11.79 seconds per shot, which was almost a full second per shot slower than the SR-8. Since I was shooting from inside a super-dooper cool vehicle, I didn’t have the tarp getting in the way as was the case with the SR-8, which cost me a good 10-15 seconds during that test. In fact this test felt like it progressed quite smoothly. The only hitch was that at some point I got a bit distracted by deer running in my field of view about 900 yards away.  Therefore it would seem as though something about the Z6i was inherently slower (again, unless it was just me).  The biggest factor I can think of that would make the Z6i slower is that it has less magnification than the SR-8.

IMG_5939
I’m thinking I saw the deer at about the point I took the time to scrawl the word “deer” near shot 31. Or it could have just been a coincidence.

On one hand it appears that the results are in conflict. The Z6i did amazingly well in one important aspect, yet it would appear that it did worse than the SR-8 overall. If I apply each component of the results to what I think it can explain with any validity, I would say this:

-The reticle on the Z6i provided the ability to hold with exceptional accuracy.

-The zoom ratio on the Z6i put it at a disadvantage in relation to the SR-8 at distances beyond 230 (I would like to be more precise with the exact distance where the Z6i began to waver, but I did not have any target between 230 and 270). I conclude this, especially in light of my notes that the targets at 270 and 330 were “hard to see” and the accordance of this statement with the results.

-The disadvantage in magnification was significant enough, even at relatively modest distances, even considering the almost magical clarity of the scope and the optimum proportions of the second focal plane reticle, to overcome the fact that the group centers were basically the same as the points of aim with the Z6i. This seems to indicate that magnification power is a significant factor as distances increase. This was surprising, but really should not have been.  The old magnification guideline of 1x per 100 yards turns out to be either a major over-generalization or just plain crap.

I would be very interested to test this aspect more, to find if there is some way to predict the optimum maximum distance for precise shooting for a given magnification. I think it could be done with a little more ammo and a little more time.

Test Optic 2: Swarovski Z6i

IMG_5721

I decided that a good second scope to contrast the US Optics SR-8 that I just finished testing would be the Swarovski Z6i 1-6×24. Whereas the US Optics scope is a large, heavy, overbuilt design made to withstand the rigors of extremely hard use, has a front focal plane milliradian based reticle, and is seems to be designed with military, law enforcement, or “other” tactical categories, the Swaro is a light, slim, second focal plane scope, with what is also a mil based reticle, and is very popular as a sporting optic, particularly with competitors. What the scopes have in common is that they both cost approximately $2500.

IMG_5723
I thought this photo was funny. Perhaps this rifle would be ideal to take along when engaging in a certain winter sport…

The first thing I notice with the Swaro pretty much every time is the image. Here’s my totally subjective description that will basically do nothing for you until you look through one: very clear, very bright, and the field of view is amazing. It is apparently 127.5′ at 100 yards at the scope’s minimum power. Adding to the sensation of the wide field of view, the profile of the scope body that surrounds the image is minimal (the turret caps are not the size of prescription bottles as seems to be the trend).

IMG_5925
Just a randomly placed photo (don’t go nuts trying to figure out how it fits with the text- it doesn’t).  The first person to guess the object just below and to the right of the magwell, and by process of deduction the object the rifle sits on will win… the satisfaction of having guess correctly first!!!

The other obvious difference with the US Optics scope is that the Z6i is very slim comparatively and light. The advertised weight of the Z6i is 16.2 ounces, which is approximately 9.6 ounces lighter than the advertized weight of the SR-8. I would expect that the extra weight of the US Optics scope would make it more robust, but I’m not going to torture test them both to find out. I can say that I believe that neither scope has been babied by their owner. The Swaro scope tube is relatively unobstructed and the turret saddle is minimal in comparison to the SR-8. This offers quite a bit more flexibility in mounting than the SR-8.

Speaking of mounting the optic, I was able to use the Nightforce Unimount that I bought in January. I couldn’t use it on the SR-8 because of the peculiarities of that scope, but should be able to use it on the rest of the scopes I have to test on the AR. What that will mean is that my testing protocols won’t exactly be consistent across the board for the scopes I have to test. The SR-8 had a Larue extended cantilever mount with a standard AR sight height (approximately 2.6” over the center of the bore). The Nightforce mount I have is one of the lower cantilever mounts available, and puts the center of the optic approximately 2.3” over the center of the bore. This small amount is an absolutely huge improvement for me. I would like to be a little lower, but I think that if I find a slightly wider stock I might end up about as good as I can hope to be. The increased ease of use with the lower mount for me is likely to skew the results to the detriment of the SR-8.

The turret adjustments are in 0.15 milliradian (0.54 MOA) increments. That’s a real head scratcher for me. As with the SR-8, since the turrets are basically meant to be set and not messed with, I would have preferred finer adjustments so I could really get a perfect zero without having to be lucky (which I may have been in this case).

On the subject of true 1 power

As with the SR-8, it turns out that at most distances zero magnification actually makes for an image smaller as that as seen with the naked eye. It is less so with the Z6i than with the SR-8, I think because of the Swaro’s 6x magnification range as compared to the 8x range of the SR-8. At very close distances, to about 3 yards, 1x seems to actually look like 1x. At about 10 yards the scope needs to be set at about 1.3x to have an unmagnified appearance.

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The barn is probably about 20 yards away. The scope is set at 1x. Notice that outside the scope the barn is larger.  Also notice how little of the field of view is obscured by the profile of the scope.

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Same exact everything, except the scope is cranked up to about 1.3x, which is were I would typically leave it, and I’m a little off center. This whole ‘taking the picture through the scope” thing has a pretty long learning curve for me. A tripod for the camera (and the rifle) would be really, really handy.

The huge field of view combined with the scope being mounted lower mean that the top of my handguard rail is visible approximately 9.2” forward of the upper receiver at 1x. At 1.3x, where I am more likely to keep it set, I can see the top rail approximately 10.5” of the upper receiver. With the SR-8, I placed my thumb at 12 O’clock on the rail. If I do that with the Z6i, my thumb is visible in the lower third of the optic, and is a significant distraction in my field of view (that’s the OCD side of me coming out). This led me to change my thumb position to roughly how I would orient it if I were shooting pistol. This change stuck in less than a day, so no big deal at all.

One thing I was worried about with the lower mount was sufficient clearance for charging handle manipulation. With the Z6i there is no problem whatsoever in this regard. In this case the ocular bell has a “slick” profile and the rear edge is about flush with the rear edge of the charging handle lever. If there were a scope cap I could have an issue.

Reticle

My first thought at seeing the BRT-I reticle in the Swaro was probably something along the lines of, “Whoa. Like, that could be pretty cool.” (I do my best thinking in Keanu Reaves’ voice). There is a simple arrangements of lines and dots below the crosshair intersection, which appear to offer windage as well as elevation holds. My second thought was probably something along the lines of, “I’m… going to need to… know: what are the subtensions???!!!” (I do my second best thinking in James T. Kirk’s voice [William Shatner's Kirk of course]) This was not a search engine friendly piece of information, and I thought Swarovski’s online ballistics calculator was stupid (okay, great, now I know where the holds for 254.86, 287.54, and 5047.25896 yards are!). Some research gave me conflicting information so I had to test it myself. I figured out my target’s scoring ring, designed to be 4 MOA at 100 yards (1.047*4 = 4.188) would be equivalent to one milliradian at 116 yards (4.188”*1000 = 4188”, 4188/3 = 1396′, 1396/12 = 116.3 yards). All of the holdover points matched one mil at 116 yards except for the last one that may or may not be intended to be part of the reticle.

After spending a lot of time with a first focal plane reticle with the SR-8, the second focal plane reticle in the Z6i seems to make a lot of sense after just a short exposure to it. My suspicion is that if I were in a situation to use the reticle to hold for elevation, I would have it cranked up to 6x anyway. I probably don’t have enough time to spend with this optic to figure out if that is true or not. I can say that the appearance of the reticle at any magnification setting is pleasing to the eye and is especially nice at 6x.

The only downside I can think of is that some times I want to have an idea what my holdover would be on a target of unknown size at closer ranges to compensate for mechanical offset, (say I wanted to shoot a Eurasian Collared Dove in the head), and I have no good point of reference unless I crank the thing all the way up. This bugs me about the second focal plane scope, but I can’t say that it’s a valid beef because it’s so impractical (unless I wanted to serve up doves for dinner).

Swarovski BRT-I
You may or may not be able to deduce why this photo sits between the ‘Reticle’ and ‘Illumination’ subheadings.

Illumination

The illumination on this scope consists of a red dot at the center of the crosshairs, which is the same as the SR-8. While the net effect of the view to the user is very, very similar between these scopes, they are probably more different than alike in terms of how that dot is produced. The US Optics SR-8 illumination, through some black magic, is not visible from the “business end”, whereas the illumination on the Swaro is. This is, in my opinion, indicative of the difference in design philosophies between the two scopes, i.e. “tactical” vs sporting. This is probably not important to a majority of end users, but I could see how it could be very important to those with live targets, especially those that shoot back.

The other big difference in the illumination is how it’s activated. The Swaro has a pretty brilliantly designed three position toggle switch. The center position is off, the left is the “night time” setting and the right is the “day time” setting. Both of the “on” settings are adjustable via a set of buttons acting to increase or decrease the brightness. The scope “remembers” what it is set at the next time it’s activated. I had thought that the only potential disadvantage to this setup in comparison to the US Optics is that it’s possible to forget to turn it off and run the battery down. It inevitably came to pass that I forgot to turn it off one day. The following day I noticed it was switched on and said something like, “%$^%#$%&^%$#%^&**(*&*()(*&^%$$#!!!!!!!” It appeared to be dead. I switched it off and back on, and like magic, it was fine. Apparently it is also child proof.

This is the best illumination control I have seen yet. Refinement, simplicity, ease of use, and being child-proof are some of the things that the big bucks will buy you.

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This is where I lose points for not having a surgically cleaned optic to show off.  I don’t know what to say about that.  At least you know it hasn’t been sitting in a safe.  

I will go ahead and say now that subjectively, from a pure shooting perspective, this scope was the most pleasant for me. That makes no considerations for advantages other scopes in the test may have over it in other aspects, but this was a system that stayed out of the way and let me work.

When the Trigger Not Only Breaks, But is Completely Broken

A rocket in my (shoulder) pocket

Getting back on track, the old trigger, which was a Rock River 2 stage that I bought back in about ’08 or so just broke. Here’s a photo:

Broken RR

I was just going about my business shooting a drill for a scope test when it felt like I had some strange malfunction. There was no first stage to the trigger and it was sufficiently heavy that it felt ‘dead’, so I figured I must have had a double feed or something. I was interested in seeing what malfunction I might have encountered, because so far the gun has run nearly perfectly (I’ve had one failure to lock back which I think was caused by a particular mag and two instances in which I didn’t work the charging handle properly). That is a long-winded way of saying that instead of clearing the malfunction I stopped to investigate, this being an experimental test gun (space plane) and all. I found that the rifle would in fact fire, but that the hammer would not stay cocked for the next round. Opening the rifle up showed my that there seemed to be an ‘extra’ piece of metal in with the fire control.

I had expected this. In those times (pre-Geissele?), the Rock River trigger was the thing, and a specially tuned one was supposed to be even better. Mine was not specially tuned, but stock. In my research I found that it was not unheard of for them to break, and in time everyone was getting Geisseles if they wanted a nice AR trigger that wouldn’t break.

Ch-Ch-Ch-Ch Choices

I thought it would be easy to pick a new trigger, but Geissele makes about a thousand varieties. I had tried the SSA (Super Semi Auto) before and frankly, it didn’t feel like it broke as cleanly as the Rock River. The Geissele triggers I have tried all felt like they had a bit of a rolling break in dry fire, but it can be difficult to tell if that roll is before or after the hammer is released. Interestingly, the trigger pull on the SSA I tried was the same total weight as the Rock River, at about 4.5 pounds, but it felt lighter. I found that it’s because they put more of the total weight on the first stage, whereas the Rock River had a light first stage and a very distinct and crisp second stage.

This would be a good time to point out that it seems I’ve become some sort of trigger aficionado. I can now detect the undertones of fruit and chocolate with a peppery finish. The trigger finger is perhaps overly sensitive, which is to say it is spoiled.

trigger aficionado

There were a few factors that influenced my choice in a new trigger. The first is the FN’s re-worked trigger. It’s about 2.25 pounds. The Remington I shoot is just over 3 pounds. What I have found is that the lighter trigger really does help me shoot better, and all the other people who have said that before I found came to that conclusion were maybe not all just whiners and gear snobs (notice I didn’t say that definitively- I still have to leave room for that possibility).

When I got my FN back it just seemed like when I saw what I wanted to see in my scope, the rifle would ‘go’. There are times with the Remington where it seems like I see what I want to see, begin pressing, and I lose it before the trigger breaks. Or, have you ever felt like you’ve been holding at the bottom of your breath for just a little too long? I don’t like that. Coincidentally I have felt like that many times with the Rock River trigger.

I had my choice narrowed down to either the SSA-E, which is a lighter version of the standard semi auto Geissele, the flat version of that trigger (the name escapes me at the moment), or the 3 gun trigger, which I still find very interesting. People rave about the flat triggers, but I am fine with bowed triggers, and I really didn’t want to alter the distance from grip to trigger, which at the moment I find to be OPTIMUM with the BCM Gunfighter grip. Therefore I got the SSA-E from Joe Bob’s Outfitters (Joe Bob dun saved me $20). I have to say that they were the only ones that had them in stock, the price was great, and the shipping was fast. It got me back on track with my scope testing ASAP.

All the creep is on the left hand side…

What I noticed right away with the trigger was “HOLY CRAP THAT’S LIGHT!!!”. It was actually a little disconcerting. The weight is as advertised at about 3.5 pounds, but most of that is in the first stage. Even after several weeks with it I still have a tendency when I’m shooting quickly to blow right through the second stage. That has some implications. One is that I need to be on target and not just prepping the trigger on the way to the target. Two, I like it (which is not an implication, but rather an oversimplified expression of an opinion).

Once I learned how to stop at the second stage (by being very careful and deliberate) I found that there was some creep prior to the break. It was almost indiscernible, and, I’m not joking or making this up, but it seemed to be on the left hand side. Don’t ask me why I think that. It’s just the trigger connoisseur in me. Also, after about 260 live fire rounds and a few hundred dry fire reps the creep is gone.

Mash that thang!!!

Being able to blow right through the second stage of the trigger is an interesting experience. I have been aware for some time of Rob Leatham’s technique of intentionally “trigger slapping”. I read more about that recently in a magazine interview. What I find interesting about that is that he is pretty much at the top of the heap in what he does, it works for him, and it’s exactly opposite of the conventional wisdom (as was his stance and grip 30 years ago [remember the Weaver stance?]).

I would describe this technique and the feeling of it as “aggressive trigger work”. It goes something like this: “I know I’m not going to flinch. I know I’m not going to disturb the sight picture with my trigger press. The target is relatively close and/or big. The point of aim is currently well within the ‘hit zone’. The shot goes NOW!!!” Having the confidence to allow that decision to happen and be aware of it in relatively instantaneous real time was, as Kevin Costner might put it, neat.

This trigger did throw a slight wrench in the works in terms of the validity of my scope testing. I’ll explain later. Thanks for reading.