I have spent the last 90 hours of my life doing an in-depth test between 11 different rifle scopes priced under $500. Each of the scopes have pros and cons, but in the end, I did find what I could reliably call a “winner.” Let’s dive into the testing.
Overall, the best scope under $500 is the Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-16×44 (check the price on Amazon). The best scope I found under $200 was the Burris Fullfield E1 4.5-14x42mm. If you have a little more budget, my favorite hunting scope of all time is the Leupold VX-3HD 4.5-14×42.
How I Tested the Scopes
I wasn’t about to declare a scope Backfire’s “Best Under $500” without some rigorous testing. I put each of the scopes through 9 different tests and compared them on several different factors.
- Water intrusion test (I literally threw them in the pool to make sure they’re waterproof)
- Blind optical quality test (I brought 6 hunters over, covered the brand names, and had them look through each scope to pick which one had the best optical quality)
- Vertical and horizontal tracking test (testing turret accuracy)
- Ability to hold zero (Put it on a rifle and make sure it keeps zero after banging around in my truck for a couple days)
- Reticle comparison (how good is the design of the crosshairs?)
- Low light test (I woke up several mornings really early to compare each scope’s ability to create a bright image even at first light)
- Price comparison (obviously, this is a big one!)
- Zoom range
- Features (parallax, adjustable turrets, zero stop, MOA and MIL offerings, where it’s made, illumination, etc)
The Vortex Diamondback Tactical Won This Challenge: Here’s why.
Overall, the best scope under $500 in my testing was the Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-16×44. It wasn’t the very best scope in many of the categories, but it was very high ranking in every category. It’s just an all-around reliable scope with impressive features for its price.
This is a first focal plane scope, which means the reticle and zoom are adjusted equally when zooming in. That’s a nice feature for long range shooting that few scopes offer in this price point. Watch my video on first focal plane vs second focal plane for more on this topic.
Another major benefit to the Vortex Diamondback Tactical is its weight of just 22.85 ounces. It’s about 4 ounces lighter than most other exposed-turret scopes with a 30mm tube size.
The Vortex offers a really useful zoom range of 4-16×44. This means that it’s wide enough at the low end of magnification to show the entire animal in your scope as close as 35 yards, but has enough magnification to easily allow the shooter to spot an impact on paper at 100 yards.
The scope isn’t perfect, however. I don’t like that this scope is made in China. In this field of very inexpensive scopes, only Leupold manufactures in the USA. I also wish it offered illumination, though that’s not a feature I’ve ever really needed on my scopes.
To be honest, I doubted the Vortex scope would win this challenge. I expected a smaller company with lower marketing/R&D/repair expenses would likely win the challenge given the low price point of this challenge. I was wrong.
|Model||Focal Plane||Where It’s Made||Turret||Weight (Oz)||Tube Size||Illuminated||Price Under $500|
|Vortex Diamondback Tactical 4-16×44||First||China||Exposed||22.85||30mm||No||$$|
|Athlon Talos BTR 4-14×44||First||China||Exposed||24.15||30mm||Yes||$$|
|Primary Arms SLx 3-18×50||First||China||Exposed||26.2||30mm||Yes||$$$|
|Blackhound Genesis 4-14×44||First||China||Exposed||24.75||30mm||Yes||$$|
|Arken SH4 4-16×50 Gen2||First||China||Exposed||37.2||34mm||Yes||$$$|
|Vortex Crossfire II 4-12×44||Second||China||Capped||15.5||1″||No||$$|
|Burris Fullfield E1 4.5-14×42||Second||Philippines||Capped||15.5||1″||No||$|
|Leupold VX Freedom 4-12×40||Second||USA||Capped||12.85||1″||No||$$|
|Sig Whiskey3 3-9×40||Second||Philippines||Capped||16.25||1″||Yes||$|
|Bushnell Nitro 3-12×44||Second||Korea||Capped||21.25||30mm||No||$$$|
Runners Up: Athlon and Primary Arms
Although the Vortex Diamondback got the highest scores in the test and won Backfires “Best Scope Under $500,” there are a couple other great scopes to consider.
Here are the runners up in this test:
- Primary Arms SLx 3-18×50
- Athlon Talos BTR 4-14×44
I liked the Primary Arms scope, and it has some features to consider that might make it a better fit for you over the Vortex. At almost $500 dollars though, it is one of the most expensive scopes we tested.
The SLx has a massive zoom range of 3x to 18x. On paper, this sounds great. But for a scope of this price point, it isn’t realistic to expect it to be optically excellent through the whole range. While good, it fell behind the Vortex Diamondback in both optical quality and size of the eye box.
The turrets are exposed but have a locking feature as they need to be popped up to be adjusted. In practice though, there wasn’t nearly enough resistance to pop them up from the down position. It’s a good idea but poorly implemented.
Primary Arms offers this scope in two Christmas tree pattern reticles of their exceptional ACSS one as well. The optic does have illumination, either of the entire reticle or on the ACSS version, just the center dot and horseshoe.
The popularity of the 4-14x44mm scope for entry-level target shooting cannot be dismissed. This type of scope has been offered over the years by multiple companies.
Like the Primary Arms SLx, I found the Athlon Talos to be an overall good scope but just not as good as the Vortex Diamondback. The Talos though does have a much lower street price of $279, even lower than the Diamondback.
For features, it does offer illumination, but only comes in Mil adjustments. I really wish it was offered in MOA as the shooting public prefers it. It uses a Christmas tree pattern reticle. Overall it’s a solid optic.
With a weight of 23.6 ounces, it is very similar to both the Vortex Diamondback and the Primary Arms SLx.
Waterproofing Test – The Arken Fails
Unfortunately, the Arken scope failed the waterproofing test. Despite Arken advertising the scope as “waterproof” on the box, it immediately had water intrusion when dropped into the pool.
Obviously, most rifle scopes will never be completely immersed in water, so the test is more extreme than is necessary; however, since all of the other scopes were able to pass this test without issue, it’s a notable failure.
I spoke with the good folks at Arken and they replaced the scope immediately and quickly changed how they implemented gaskets in their turrets to fix this problem going forward. That’s a perfect response from a company whose product exhibited an issue.
Optical Quality Test – The Sig Whiskey3 Failed
Optical quality is a very subjective test. I had my personal favorites, but I wanted to see what the average hunter would think of each scope. I invited over a group of shooters to my house, covered up the brand name on each scope, and had them give me their scores on each scope.
The one scope that stood out in this testing was the Sig Whiskey3. This scope has a heavy shadow–or black ring around the image. It made it feel like we were looking through a piece of PVC pipe rather than a clear image. You can see an example of the scope shadow on the Sig in the image below.
Also, the sharpness felt substandard. It just wasn’t comparable to the other scopes in the test, but frankly that’s to be expected because it’s one of the least expensive scopes in the test. I hoped it would punch above its price point, but it really didn’t.
Drop Test – The Blackhound Fails
In order to test the durability of each scope, I dropped them from overhead directly onto grass, and then ran the test again dropping them onto brick. Each scope was dropped to land on the front objective, and then dropped again to land on the top turret.
Unfortunately, the top turret on the Blackhound scope became smashed and badly angled. However, it turns out that this may not have been due to the drop.
I purchased each of the scopes in this test, but the Blackhound scope was not in stock anywhere, so I called the company and asked if they’d send me one so I could include their scope in the review. They were nice enough to do so; however, an employee accidentally shipped me a scope that had been in the return pile instead of a new scope.
It seems that the scope was returned previously, and the messed up turret may have been messed up before the drop test took place, and was just worsened by the test.
Blackhound sent me out a replacement scope without issue. I’ve since tested that scope and had really good results with it. In fact, a brand new shooter used that scope to make a first round impact at 500 yards in one of my Youtube videos.
Price Comparison – The Bushnell Nitro Failed
It isn’t that the Bushnell failed out of this comparison because it’s over $500. It wasn’t even the most expensive scope in the test; however, it’s the price of the Bushnell compared to its features and quality that I just couldn’t justify.
The Bushnell felt like it had a picky eyebox and lost a significant amount of eye relief when zoomed in, the optical quality was only fair, it didn’t have many features like adjustable turrets that many of the other scopes had. I just couldn’t justify the price of the Bushnell compared to the competitive scopes.
Recommended for Target Shooting: Arken 4-16x50mm SH4 Gen II
- Best Target Scope
- All Tests Passed: No (failed submersion test)
- Turrets: Exposed
- Focal Plane: First
- Adjustments: MOA and Mil
- Illuminated: Yes
While the Arken scope has some downsides it’s still a great scope. In both features and optical quality, it feels like a much more expensive scope. The eye box is excellent and the massive turrets adjust well.
It comes with the popular Christmas tree reticle and has an illuminating center crosshair.
With that said, the Arken did fail the submersion test and let water inside while at the bottom of my pool. It was the only scope to fail. Looking beyond that, there are still a few things to think about when buying this scope.
This is a heavy scope at 35.6 ounces. This weight alone should eliminate it for most hunting uses. If you plan on slinging a rifle, I would highly recommend you look at other scopes.
The other is the main body of the scope is 34mm. While not completely uncommon, there will be fewer rings and mounts available when compared to 1” and 30mm bodied scopes.
Recommended as a Lightweight Scope: Burris Fullfield E1 4.5-14x42mm
- Best Light Weight Scope
- All Tests Passed: Yes
- Turrets: Capped
- Focal Plane: Second
- Adjustments: MOA
- Illuminated: No
While a very different scope compared to the ones previously discussed, this scope is aimed at an entirely different market. For the traditional hunter on a budget, the Burris Fullfield checks a lot of boxes.
This scope drops a lot of the features found on the previously recommended scopes. The exposed turrets and elaborate reticles are gone. Instead, this scope is meant to be sighted in at the range and uses a basic BDC reticle for accounting for bullet drop in the field.
It also is lightweight at only 15.3 ounces. This should be a welcome addition for anyone who will walk around while carrying their rifle. Optically it’s good too, especially considering the low price.
Recommended: Leupold VX-Freedom 4-12x40mm
- Runner up for Best Light Weight Scope
- All Tests Passed: Yes
- Turrets: Capped
- Focal Plane: Second
- Adjustments: MOA
- Illuminated: No
The Leupold VX-Freedom is another scope meant for the hunting market. It was the lightest scope we tested at only 13.1 ounces. If you are a hunter who is on a budget and counting every ounce, this scope should be considered.
Optically, the Leupold did well and this scope had a slightly better eye box than the Burris. It was, however, more expensive for a very similar feature set. It also carries the distinction as being the only optic made in the USA, if that is important to you.
Leupold offers this scope in a handful of reticles, based on your needs.