Modern Varmint and Hold-Over Reticles

Choosing And Using Modern Reticles

By John Barsness
©Copyright 2010, The Varmint Hunters Association, Inc.

Reticles with multiple aiming points were occasionally used long before we ever heard of the Rapid-Z, Ballistic-Plex, Leupold Varmint Reticle, and all their kin. The difference, however, is that back in ancient times, BLRF (Before Laser RangeFinders) the use of different aiming points amounted to guessing, because unless we were shooting on a formal target range, we didn’t really know the distance. We could “eyeball” it, but human eyeballs are too close together to accurately estimate distance much beyond how far a reasonably healthy man can throw a baseball.

While Bushnell’s DOA reticle is actually designed for deer hunting, it also works very well for coyote shooting.

Once laser rangefinders became affordable, however, reticles rapidly sprouted extra dots and crosshairs. This multiplicity of choices naturally brought about not just commercial competition but debates about which reticle works best. This debate is muddled by the mil-dot type of reticle that existed even before laser rangefinders became common.

Support Your Site

Mildot Reticle — The Original Multi-Aimpoint Reticle
The mil-dot reticle was developed by the military as both a multi-point aiming system and as a ranging system. (In fact, some shooters think “mil” is short for military, when it’s actually short for milliradian, a unit of measurement involving the arc of a circle.) Dots that are spaced a precise, known distance apart can be used as fairly precise rangefinders on targets of a known size, such as the average adult human. This can even be done with a standard plex-type reticle, a system I still use on occasion when hunting big game, partly because a laser rangefinder doesn’t always work, and partly because sometimes a nervous deer doesn’t provide enough time for a laser reading.

The Burris Ballistic Plex is a very simple dot reticle that works very well on rimfires and other short-to-medium range rifles.

Many mil-dot type reticles, however, aren’t ideal for a lot of varmint shooting. The dots are usually arrayed along one horizontal and one vertical crosshair. This doesn’t provide a prairie dog shooter much help when holding off for the wind at longer ranges, because there are no reference points on either side of the vertical crosshair.

‘Christmas Tree’ Style Reticles
This weakness in the basic milt-dot type reticle eventually led to the “Christmas tree” reticle, with multiple crosshairs below the primary intersection of crosshairs. The lower crosshairs are longer because at longer ranges bullets drift more in the wind, and as a result the reticle’s profile looks something like a bare conifer. A Christmas tree reticle is useful because at longer ranges we can “slide” one of the lower reticles along the target to compensate for wind drift, instead of just holding a dot somewhere off to the side.

All modern multi-point reticles are some variation of mil-dot and Christmas tree, and often combine the two. Before delving deeper into specific reticles, however, let’s look at some basic optical concepts.

One principle many shooters still don’t understand is that with most scopes any reticle is going to be valid only when the scope is set on a particular magnification. This is because more than 99 percent of variable scopes sold today have the reticle in the second focal plane (SFP), behind the power-change mechanism.

This means that when the magnification is changed, the apparent size of the reticle changes in relationship to the target. Thus our carefully worked-out aiming points for 100, 200, 300, etc. yards are suddenly invalid. This doesn’t matter to prairie dog shooters as much as it does to coyote hunters, because prairie dog shooters often have their scope cranked all the way up, but even PD shooters will sometimes adjust their scope because of mirage conditions.

Many shooters also don’t fully understand that even when their scopes are kept on the same magnification, the various aiming points still won’t necessarily match the trajectory of their rifle’s load. This is partly because so many manufacturers put a handy table in the box with their scopes, detailing exactly how our particular load (or the closest approximation) will match up with the reticle at 100, 200, 300, etc. yards.
Some scope manufacturers finally started to acknowledge the problem of the SFP reticle a few years ago. This took a while because manufacturers always try to make any new product appear as though it’s a simple solution to a complex problem: “Just put this dot on the target and pull the trigger!”

Zeiss was among the first optics companies to make the varying reticle size of second focal-plane reticles a virtue, by offering an on-line computer program to tell shooters the exact magnification where their Rapid-Z reticle would match the ballistics of their rifle.

Zeiss Rapid-Z SFP Reticle
Among the first companies coming to grips with the SFP reticle was Zeiss. They took the magnification-change “problem” and turned it into a virtue, devising a computer program that determined the precise magnification that your particular Zeiss scope should be set on to match the trajectory of your rifle’s load at 100, 200, 300, etc. yards. Then they put this program on their Web site, where anybody with Internet access can use it.

Soon other manufacturers did pretty much the same thing. These programs work well, but do have a couple of problems. First, the prescribed magnification may not be the one a shooter wants to use. It may be not enough for tiny ground squirrels, or it may be too much for today’s heat waves.

Support Our

Also, unless adjusted for elevation, temperature, and barometric pressure, the program won’t be precisely accurate at the longer ranges where it’s really needed. The trajectory figures used to construct most ballistic predictions (whether an on-line computer program or the tables in reloading manuals) are calculated using a set of conditions called Range Standard: sea level, 59 degrees Fahrenheit, a barometer reading of 29.95 inches, and so on. (In fact, these are the standard conditions used in the trajectory tables in every reloading manual, the reason all the manuals are so agreeable.)

Swarovski offers a wide variety of reticles suitable for varmint hunting.

Adapting to the Properties of Second Focal Plane Reticles
This means that unless we use scope rings to put the 6.5-20x on our prairie dog rifle precisely 1.5 inches above the bore (which may not be possible) and do all our prairie dog shooting on a California beach on 59-degree days (blatantly impossible), things aren’t going to work out all that precisely, especially beyond 300 yards. In reality the charts and tables provided by scope companies are entry-level suggestions, much like traffic laws in New York City.

One useful first step in using any ballistic reticle is to junk the notion that the dots or cross hairs will correspond precisely to where our bullet lands at 100, 200, 300, etc. yards. Instead we must go out and actually shoot our rifle to see where the bullets actually land. At 300 yards the second dot below the crosshairs (known to optimists as the 300-yard dot) may actually be two inches above where our bullets land.

This is not a disaster, or false advertising. Instead, it’s reality, and there are two ways to cope with it. One is to aim at the top of any prairie dog at 300 yards. Then, by shooting at other ranges we can figure out where the dots are actually sighted-in. They may be right on at 180, 270, and 360 yards, rather than 200, 300 and 400. So what? The readouts in our laser rangefinder aren’t limited to the nearest 100 yards.

Another solution is to adjust our scope three clicks down. With the standard ¼”-at-100-yards clicks, this amounts to 2.25″ at 300 yards, close enough to actually sight-in the 300-yard dot at 300 yards. This obviously will change things at shorter ranges, but only 0.75″ at 100 yards and 1.5″ at 200. It also will probably put the longer-range dots closer to the “right” place.

Support Your Site

The problem of the point of impact varying with every change in magnification is a little more complex. Aside from the obvious solution of leaving your scope on one power all the time, you can figure out how changing the magnification affects the reticle. If, for instance, you have a 6.5-20x scope on your rifle, cranking the magnification ring down to 10x will double the apparent distance between the aiming points. This means the “200-yard dot” is now valid for a longer distance.

In fact, long before the first ballistic reticles started appearing some friends and I used this principle when shooting ground squirrels at longer distance with 22 rimfires. All our scopes had simple plex-type reticles, and we discovered that the tip of the lower post could be a useful aiming point at longer ranges — often much longer than was then (or even now) considered practical for a 22 Long Rifle.

We also discovered that if we turned our scopes down from 9x to 6x, that the tip of the lower post became a precise aiming point at an even longer range. This was before laser rangefinders, but with practice (and there are lots of ground squirrels in certain parts of Montana) we became pretty adept at twisting the power rings on our scopes to shoot a distant gopher. However, a better solution for serious prairie dog shooting would be to create a ballistic chart for our scope at different magnifications.

The Holland ART reticle is a complex combination of extra crosshairs, dots, and numbers. It works extremely well at longer ranges, partly because it’s installed in the first focal plane of Leupold, Nightforce, and Schmidt & Bender scopes.

Another solution is to use a scope with a first focal-plane (FFP) reticle. There are two problems with this: Very few FFP scopes are made, and many of those don’t feature reticles that are useful for varmint shooting. The big exceptions are the Leupold, Nightforce, and Schmidt & Bender scopes offered by Darrell Holland, with his ART reticle installed. I’ve shot a literal ton of prairie dogs with ART scopes over the past few years, and they really work, partly because of the excellent reticle design.

Which brings us back to the reticles themselves. These days there are reticles with everything from a few extra dots along the vertical cross hair to reticles that cover the bottom third of the scope’s field of view, providing an aiming point for every blade of grass in North Dakota. Here we run into the basic fact that simpler reticles are easier to use, if not quite so versatile.

Burris Ballistic Plex

Personally, I particularly like simple reticles in shorter-range varmint rifles, whether rimfires or small centerfires such as the 22 Hornet. These aren’t likely to be used at extended ranges, or in any significant amount of wind. Hence, something like the Burris Ballistic Plex reticle provides about all the information we can realistically use — the reason there are Burris Ballistic Plex scopes on most of my rimfire or small centerfire varmint rifles. The exceptions are scopes with similar reticles, such as the Leupold 3.5-10x scope with a 4-dot version of their Long-Range Duplex on my 221 Fireball.

.221 Fireball

Reticle Design — Simpler May Be Better
More complex reticles are at their best at longer ranges. Once the number of extra aiming points goes beyond four, however, we run into the problem of knowing which one to use. This involves a basic principle of human memory: We can normally remember three or maybe four things quite easily, the reason telephone numbers are broken up into sequences of three and four numerals, even if the entire number contains 10. (This is also the reason that anytime we go to the store to buy more than three or four items, we should make a list, because otherwise we’re sure to forget something.)

Similarly, if the reticle in our scope has more than four aiming points, we end up having to count them just to be sure we’re using the right dot or crosshair. So any complex reticle should have the aiming points numbered in some way, so our eye can instantly find “7” instead of having to count the lines.

Schmidt & Bender’s Varmint reticle is a simple dot-type, but with windage dots on the horizontal crosshair.

Ballistic reticles should be the correct thickness for aiming at our chosen target. When Swarovski introduced their TDS reticle, the first widely-used Christmas tree type, over a decade ago, it was a revelation on a prairie dog town. The only problem was that the crosshairs were too thick for precise aiming at longer ranges. Luckily, we’re almost never placing any ballistic reticle right on a prairie dog at long range. Instead we’re holding off, even if just slightly, so the TDS worked OK. But later Christmas tree varmint reticles offered by various manufacturers (including Swarovski) have featured much thinner crosshairs — though for larger varmints, especially coyotes in dim light, a somewhat heavier crosshair is useful.

No matter what we call them these days — ballistic, ranging, tactical, hold-on/hold-off, multi-point, Christmas tree, or whatever — today’s scope reticles make varmint hunting far more effective than back in the old days when simple cross hairs had us guessing where to hold.

Varmint Hunter Magazine

This article originally appeared in Varmint Hunter Magazine, and appears courtesy the Varmint Hunters Association, Inc. and The VARMINT HUNTER Magazine is an popular publication of the VHA. Each year, the VHA hosts several 600-yard IBS matches, a coyote calling contest, and an annual Jamboree in Fort Pierre, SD. The Jamboree is a week-long shooting event known as “a summer camp for shooters”.

Support Our

Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , ,