Optics: Tactical vs Hunting

By Mark Butler

Written by Michael Duong

Edited by Mark Butler

There are a few variations between hunting optics and tactical optics. Although they may appear similar, there are subtle differences that shooters, both novice and experienced, should understand. Some long-distance shooters choose accuracy over weight, while others, such as hunters who walk great distances, prefer lighter rifles at the expense of accuracy. Reticle design and magnification can also be different, depending on intended use, but there are overlaps. Obviously, a riflescope that is used for tactical can also be used for hunting, or vice versa, but there are subtle differences and reasons to purchase one over the other. In this blog, we’ll discuss these differences so you can choose the best products for your purpose.

A tactical riflescope, the Sightmark Latitude 6.5-25×56 Riflescope
A hunting riflescope. The Sightmark Core HX 4-16×44

Weight

A major difference between hunting and tactical riflescopes is weight. Many features found on tactical scopes add weight. Tactical riflescopes often have exposed or pop-up turrets for quicker adjustments. These tend to be heavier than capped turrets typically found on scopes used for hunting. Although pop-up turrets can accommodate on-the-fly adjustments, they won’t be as protected from sand, dirt and the elements as capped turrets. Hunters tend to prefer scopes with capped turrets because sometimes they are stalking animals through dense brush which can knock dials off calibration. Hunters also generally don’t need to make rapid adjustments for a follow-up shot. Tactical scopes are usually a bit more rugged when compared to hunting scopes. They are more likely to be dropped or exposed to harsh conditions. Illuminated reticles can contribute to the overall weight of the scope as well. Reticle illumination was traditionally found on tactical scopes due to legal deer hunting hours being daytime hours only, but illuminated reticles are now commonly found on hunting scopes as well because of the increasing popularity of hunting hogs at night.

A Latitude (tactical) reticle. Note the ‘Christmas tree’ appearance.
A Core HX (hunting) reticle. Note the simple crosshair design.

Reticle design

Reticle design is probably the biggest difference between hunting and tactical scopes. Hunters tend to want simple reticles so they can get a good sight picture with no clutter. The most popular reticle in the world is the duplex reticle. It consists of a thin crosshair near the center with thicker posts towards the outer edge which is designed to draw the shooter’s eye towards the middle of the reticle. This reticle is primarily used for hunting because the simplicity enables the shooter to fire quick and precise shots, as long as they have somewhat of an idea of distance to the target. Most hunting reticles are variants of the duplex design.

Tactical reticles can be broken down into two categories: long range and close quarters reticles, sometimes known as “CQB” reticles. Long range tactical reticles tend to include at least some range finding and bullet drop compensating capabilities. Some can be very intricate, like “Christmas tree reticles” such as Sightmark’s TMD reticle, providing advanced ballistic compensation capabilities that assist with shooting at extreme ranges. CQB-style reticles are typically found on low-power variable optics (LPVO), such as 1-4x, 1-6x or 1-8x magnification optics. Since CQB optics are designed in part to be used indoors or in urban environments, their reticles must provide fast target acquisition. LPVO scopes, however, also need to be able to perform at intermediate ranges. The Sightmark AR-223 reticle, for example, consists of a circle dot design for close quarters battle, but also includes bullet drop compensating hash marks for engaging targets at distance. Some hunting reticles feature reticle designs that could also be used in tactical situations. The Sightmark Core HX 4-16x44AOVHR riflescope, has all the features typically found on hunting scopes, such as capped turrets, lightweight design and non-illuminated duplex reticle. However, the duplex reticle found on this scope also includes holdover and ranging capabilities as well. Its close cousin, the Core TX 4-16x44MR Marksman Riflescope, is much more geared towards tactical usage, as it has exposed turrets that are lockable, red/green illumination and the Marksman Reticle, which is incredibly useful for long range shooting.

To learn more about reticles, check out this article from Target Tamers!

Magnification

Although both hunting and tactical riflescopes can be found in almost any magnification range, some are more popular than others. The most popular hunting scope magnification is arguably the 3-9x, which is more than enough magnification to take a shot at a deer from a few hundred yards away. Competitors and tactical shooters often shoot at either extended distances that are sometimes over 1,000-yards away or close engagements inside of 100-yards. Long-distance tactical shooters generally use scopes that max out at 18x, 25x or even 40x and above. They’re usually shooting at targets at distances far greater than most people would when taking an ethical shot at a deer. CQB-style LPVOs can be useful when hunting, but most hunters prefer to use scopes with more magnification than your typical 1-4x, 1-6x or 1-8x LPVO.

Gun Goals has an excellent article to help guide shooters on the appropriate magnification for their purpose.

A hunter using a Latitude

Use What You’re Proficient With

Just because you have a tactical scope doesn’t mean you’re all set up for tactical shooting. Even in the early days of the Marine Scout Sniper program, Marines were issued modified hunting rifles with slightly modified 3-9x hunting scopes mounted on top. Many law enforcement agencies across the country still use basic duplex reticles in their department sniper rifles. At the same time, using a tactical riflescope doesn’t necessarily present a hindrance when it comes to hunting. The best way to become a good shooter is to first get proficient with what you already possess. The scope doesn’t make the shooter. Once you’re a decent marksman, then you can investigate different riflescopes that can possibly enhance your abilities. As always, it’s vitally important to follow basic shooting safety precautions, and if you’re in doubt about your equipment or situation, consult an expert.