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by Ernie Bishop a.k.a. Ernie Last updated: 2008-12-20 15:22:15
A Little History
A little over 20 years ago I was resting my Thompson Center Contender chambered in 222 Remington on the top of my hunting buddy's little Volkswagen Super Beetle with some homemade sandbags, preparing to make a shot on a prairie dog. It was a 10 inch barrel and I was using the 2.5 power scope that came with the barrel. Long shots were impossible given the low magnification, but in spite of that several dogs fell that day at just under 200 yards. That created a desire for greater magnification to be more precise in the field and on the bench. Even though I wanted more magnification, I was not able to think outside the box in the long eye relief scope arena. My long-time friend and hunting partner, Steve Hugel was the one to introduce me to using rifle scopes on specialty handguns for hunting and varminting. Steve used a 4-12 power Bushnell Banner rifle scope in the late 80's that was mounted on a stock 7mm Bench Rest Remington XP-100. He took several large game animals and varmints with that set-up and never got the ocular of the scope in his face, even though there was not a muzzle brake or any type of porting. When he told me what he was doing I thought he was a little off in the head, but I kept those thoughts to myself. Little did I know that he was mentoring me in the use of rifle scopes on specialty handguns. One could say I was a slow learner as I did not use a rifle scope on one of my handguns for over a decade after watching Steve successfully use his in the field.
The first time I used a rifle scope was on my long-time hunting handgun, a 284 Winchester Remington XP-100. That specialty handgun had filled many tags from prairie dogs to elk and never let me down on the bench or in the field. As Burris kept upgrading their scopes to higher magnification variables, I continued to replace my scopes with the latest and greatest. Several years ago, while preparing to attend my second Long-Range Handgun Clinic put on by Don Bower in Northwest Nebraska, I discovered I was short in the scope department. This malady "scope poor" happens to many specialty pistol users who can't seem to get enough handguns. I had a Leupold Vari-X III 6.5-20x handy and put it on the 284 Winchester XP-100. This XP had a 15.75 inch barrel that had been sent to Larry Kelly for a 2 port Mag-Na-Port when it was being customized by Chunk Youngblood of Moliballistics. I kept the magnification at 20 power for the duration of the shoot without any problems. The ability to see better at extended distances was intoxicating, while at the same time increasing my confidence to be more precise, since I never used it under 500 meters at the shoot. Even with this good experience I did not begin to switch over to rifle scopes.
I Wanted More Magnification
I wanted more magnification, but I was not ready to use a rifle scope quite yet. I had heard that there was one man in the land that could give you your cake and let you eat it too. In other words, high magnification combined with long eye relief. Wally Seibert has been around precision shooting for years and has a gift for boosting scope magnifications. He also converts them into long eye relief handgun scopes. He is able to do this process with the 24x and 36x Leupold Benchrest rifle scopes. His conversion would take the 24x scope to approximately 16x and the 36X scope to approximately a 20x. The eye relief on these scopes is the most critical of any scope I have ever used. His conversions were primarily for the silhouette shooters using smaller cartridges than I was considering. I originally thought I could use this scope for a roving tactical field match where I would be engaging targets from 300-1000 yards. I learned that this scope was not designed to work in this way as finding the sight picture was difficult and the field of view small. I still use this scope today, but not for hunting or field shooting. My smallest group at 600 yards and my longest prairie dog connection to this day was accomplished with the use of this scope. For the tactical match (August of 2004) I used one of my trusty Burris LER's in 3-12x, Ballistic Plex reticle, with target turrets that was mounted on my Greg Tannel customized Remington XP-100 chambered in 6.5-284. Two weeks later I removed the Burris and replaced it with the Seibert/Leupold conversion for an IBS 1,000 yard rifle match outside of Pella, IA. Now I was switching scopes back and forth for different uses, but could there be a better way?
The time frame between 2004 and present day has been a big transition for scope use on my specialty handguns. Although I still have and use LER scopes once in awhile, my primary specialty handguns now have rifle scopes mounted on them. These riflescopes work well under a plethora of shooting styles: benchrest shooting out to 1,000 yards, long-range tactical style matches (300-1,000 yards), varminting to beyond 1,700 yards, and big game hunting. What pushed me over the edge to using rifles copes was in the fall of 2005, when Steve and I spent two and a half days dedicated to long-range prairie dog shooting beyond 1,500 yards. We knew that the handgun scopes would not be capable of such distances, with the exception of the Leupold/Seibert conversion. In fact, Leupold's reigned that week, and we were able to make two long range connections at 1590 yards and 1800 yards on dogs. Besides the 20x Leupold/Seibert conversion, two Leupold Mark 4's LR/T 8.5-25x with the TMR reticle and an older Leupold (one inch tube) Vari-X III in 6.5-20 were used.
In the spring of 2006 a long awaited specialty handgun arrived at my door. A fully tricked out center-grip XP-100 chambered in 7mm Dakota. The very first scope I mounted on it was one of the 8.5-25 Leupold Mark 4's I had used for the long-range prairie dog shoot. Almost every shot with this specialty handgun has been at the scope's highest magnification without harm to my face.
You may be thinking, "Who would be crazy enough to use a rifle scope in a handgun with case capacities ranging from 30-06 to larger than the 7mm Weatherby Magnum?" That is a valid question, which will be answered shortly. One is not required to have the desire to have their face re-arranged to use a rifle scope on a specialty handgun. I have heard objections when this topic is brought up, mainly, out of safety for those considering this odd mating. I feel many who have made these objections, did so from an uninformed position. Myself, and others that use rifle scopes on specialty pistols all of the time do not feel that we are endangering ourselves, but we do respect the guns we are using. Using a rifle scope on a specialty pistol is not for everyone. In many scenarios a long eye relief scope or dot scope will serve you better. But, for those who desire more range out of their specialty handguns, a quality rifle scope may just be the ticket for you.
Using a riflescope on a handgun is not new. The metallic silhouette crowd has used riflescopes for years, but typically in cartridges smaller than the 308 Winchester capacities. I am willing to use a rifle scope on just about any cartridge a rifle shooter would consider. The largest cartridge to date that I have personally used has been on a rear grip specialty handgun chambered in the 338 Lapua Improved, shooting 300 grain Sierra Match King's. Premiere Reticle had boosted the Leupold scope to 50x. The owner of this rig, Eric Wallace and I were having fun popping bowling pins at 1,000 yards. Let me emphasize it was a heavy bench specialty pistol with an excellent muzzle brake.
The reason more people are moving to rifle scopes on specialty handguns is because of the limits that handgun scopes inherently possess compared to rifle scopes.
A long eye relief handgun scope of all makes have:
Limited field of view at higher magnifications
Critical sight picture at higher magnifications
Not enough internal adjustment for long-range shooting
Lower quality level of optics compared to what is available in riflescopes
Fewer reticle options than rifle scopes
Poor target turret systems
Not enough magnification for precision shooting at long ranges
For the majority of handgun users these limits may not be good reasons to make the switch. But I have noticed a number of specialty handgun shooters are selling their handgun scopes and are replacing them with riflescopes. The primary disadvantage of using a riflescope is the risk of getting hit in the face, which is certainly a serious matter. Added weight may be a concern for those who want a lightweight specialty pistol. Another negative for some is that one is almost required to use a good muzzle brake to use a rifle scope safely. This adds to the overall cost and it increases noise to the shooter and those in close proximity. I advocate the use of a good muzzle brake if one intends to use a rifle scope on a handgun. For bench shooting any good brake will be sufficient, but if you intend to shoot from the prone position a solid-bottom partition style brake is advised. The largest cartridge I have shot hundreds of times from the bench and field positions with a rifle scope without a muzzle brake is a center-grip Remington XP-100, chambered in 6mm-284, shooting the 115 grain DTAC bullet at just over 2700 feet per second from the muzzle. In the process of writing this article it now has one of Barney Lawton's solid bottom brakes. I have been able to see a full field of view on 25x and even spot some of my own shots at 800 yards. A quality muzzle brake makes all the difference. The solid bottomed partition brakes I use and recommend are: Darrel Holland's Quick Discharge and now his new "Radial Brake" which works even better, Shawn Carlock's Defensive Edge, Rich Mertz's, and Barney Lawton's.
The time you are most likely to make a critical mistake and get kissed by your scope is when you are hunting or when you are excited. By not pulling far enough back or having a lighter hold than normal because of your field position or both can spell a bruise or cut on your face.
For those getting started I would encourage you to not to attempt to see a full FOV even with a brake. There is a natural tendency to want to see a full field of view and therein lies the inherent risk.
In 2006 my daughter experienced this firsthand when she made a 350-yard shot on a buck whitetail. She was shooting a center-grip Remington XP-100 chambered in 6mm-284 that was non-braked. At the shot she got hit in the nose with the Burris 6-24x Black Diamond scope. She asked me before the shot if she was far enough away, and I said, "Yes!" I was wrong, in that she was holding it lighter than I do and it came back and smacked her. She made an awesome one-shot kill in low light, but she got hit as well. I had no doubt about her ability in the field or on the bench at this distance or even further for that matter. Her field rest was a portable table, Harris BR bi-pod, and a small corn cob media filled leather bag. My mistake which resulted in her sore nose was not considering the difference of the way we grip the handgun. She decided that night she didn't like rifle scopes on specialty handguns although she is proud of her shot. She sort of considered her hit to the nose like a badge of honor, but I felt terrible. Again, let me remind you this was with a non-braked specialty handgun with a case capacity rivaling the venerable 30-06 Springfield. Lesson learned: The distance that is safe for one shooter is not necessarily safe for another.
With a steady position your eye can be just as far away with a rifle scope as you are with a LER scope. You just will NOT see a full field of view. If you see a full field of view at high power your eye/face is in danger with a heavy kicker. Out of countless rounds fired in 284 Winchester class cartridges chambered in specialty handguns I have lightly been kissed on my glasses one or two times. I have used Burris, Bushnell, Leupold, NightForce, Mueller, Sightron and, Huskemaw, Schmidt and Bender rifle scopes in this manner in the 18-32 power range.
What To Consider
What are some crucial things to know when considering using a rifle scope on a specialty pistol?
1. The key to using a rifle scope on a handgun regardless of weight and or recoil is that you do not see a full field of view (FOV).
How much FOV you have is dependent on several things:
The eye relief of the scope you are considering using is key. Leupold, NightForce, Huskemaw, Sightron, Bushnell, and Schmidt and Bender typically have the best/longest eye relief. Other brands of scopes will work well, but these are the optics that has the longest eye relief that I have personally used. My two favorites of the scopes I have used in the field are the Night Force NXS and the Leupold Mark 4 rifle scopes. The Schmidt and Bender optic is spectacular but the cost is too high for me to justify compared to what I can accomplish with the Mark 4 and NXS line of scopes. I am currently using Sightron's new S-3 6x-24x and Husekemaw's 5x-20x and will soon be added to my favorites as well. I just have not had the opportunity to use them as much as Leupold and NightForce. All of these scopes feature 30mm tubes and side focus.
2. The recoil of your handgun and the way you hold it.
When you change your position and have a lighter grip from your practice sessions, you are riding a fine line and may get closer to your scope than you ever intended.
3. Have someone watch you shoot with your typical style and have them measure the average amount of movement you have with the ocular of your scope toward your face over several shots. That will give you a good idea how far it is moving and therefore how close you can SAFELY get. It would be wise to practice from varying stances to get an overall understanding of what constitutes a safe distance for you.
4. You will get used to seeing a partial view.
The trick is, I start off seeing a full Field Of View (FOV), and then back off before I shoot. The KEY is to remember to back off each time.. There is a tendency to want to see a full FOV and slowly begin inching forward-this can cause you pain.
5. Good Muzzle Brakes
I am an advocate of good muzzle brakes for several reasons.
One, it allows just about anyone to shoot my specialty pistols (even my children)..
Two, it allows me to use rifle scopes on my handguns if I so desire (I use both LER's and rifle scopes on mine & switch back and forth depending on the primary task at hand).
Third, some of my handguns would not be enjoyable to shoot otherwise.
Fourth, it would be more difficult to do precision work non-braked with some of my handguns. One more thing about using of muzzle brakes on specialty handguns that I believe is vital, is that you always wear hearing protection, even when hunting.
It Is A Personal Choice
The decision to use a rifle scope on a handgun is a personal one. I can assure you that when I began using specialty handguns, I never would have believed that I would safely shoot cartridges holding from 50-80 grains of powder with a rifle scope magnifications ranging from 20-50 power. I have used rifle scopes on handguns so much for the last two years, that when I shot one of my handguns that has a Burris 3-12 LER, I automatically brought the gun toward me to see a full FOV only to realize I could see nothing. When it dawned on me I was using a LER scope, I am sure I had a sheepish look on face.
I did a non-scientific poll on several web forums about who is using rifle scopes on specialty handguns and I was pleasantly surprised that I had right at 50 responses, with a good number using more than one rifle scope.
If you enjoy short or long-range precision shooting from the bench or in the field a rifle scope may be just the ticket for you to realize the potential of your specialty handgun(s).
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