Fixed or Variable – Advantage Goes To?

| 1 September 2013 | 0 Comments

by Mike Price

I was young and times were tough. Working two jobs and going to school, I didn’t make a lot of money. I was in needed of a new rifle scope that would work in low light and would hold zero. The variable scopes in the price range I could afford, lacked brightness. I remember complaining to an older hunting friend and won’t forget his response. Bob said, “You want a durable and roughed scope that is bright and works good in low light, and will hold zero. Get a fixed power scope.” “A FIXED POWER SCOPE!” was my response. My tone of voice turned Bob off and he was quiet for the rest of the afternoon. That evening I decided to put aside my bias and asked him why a fixed power scope. We talked about scopes for two hours. I was certainly the beneficiary of that conversation.

You want a durable and roughed scope for the money spent? Then get a fixed power scope. They don’t have as many problems as a variable scope has at times. The variable scope has more lenses, an erector guide tube, a cam tube (zoom tube), twin bias spring erector system, along with other moving parts that can create problems. Due to recoil and some other factors, variable scopes have more that can fall out of line. The fixed scope has less moving parts making it stronger and more durable, but this is not all of the advantages in its favour.

The fixed scope has the advantage of better zero retention (the ability of a scope to stay zeroed) and the lens assemblies of variable scopes create a higher risk of becoming misaligned and fall out of zero. All it takes is the slightest motion of an internal part in the wrong direction and alignment is off, creating failed zero retention. The less moving parts you have the better the chances of holding zero.

Most fixed scopes will have very good zero retention. A fixed scope holds zero throughout the range you are shooting, whether up close, longer ranges or at extremely long range. A variable scope will have different bullet impacts for different power settings, much less the fact of moving parts that can cause misalignment. Also, any lens that is not exactly like the other lenses could deflect and scatter light just enough to create a problem. The more lenses the more the manufacture has to deal with cost to get the quality right. The more parts the more attention needs to be given to tolerances and assembly to make sure the parts perform in a smooth and consistent manner. In other words, much more can go wrong with a variable scope than a fixed scope when it comes to the scopes ability to hold zero retention perfectly. To manufacture a variable scope and assemble it well enough to be as consistent as a less expensive fixed scope in holding zero, having good light transmission and clarity, while being able to take hard and tough conditions, will cost you three times as much.

Scope toughness and optical clarity should be a hunter’s main consideration and this is what scope manufacturers try to accomplish. Using various lens and coatings can accomplish the quality needed, but you will pay for good quality when buying a variable scope. If all things are equal and we have two scopes of the same brand name, one a fixed scope and the other a variable for the same price, we need to ask a basic question. How much of the money to produce these two scopes was used on lenses, coatings, part tolerances and assembly? If I have a variable scope that cost 400 dollars to put together and a fixed scope that cost 400 dollars to put together, the fixed scope will be the better built scope and a more precise and roughed tool. With the fixed scope the manufacture won’t have to spend part of he 400 dollars on extra lenses and coatings or on extra parts and assembly time.

In making a fixed scope the manufacturer can put more of their money into fewer lenses and alignment of those lenses along with their preparation and coatings. They will spend less time in assembly using better parts, while spending less time perfecting the tolerance of fewer moving parts. The overall quality of the fixed scope will be better than the overall quality of the variable, if the cost is about the same and all things are equal. That is why fixed scopes that cost much less can compete head to head with more expensive variable scopes in toughness, water proofing, fog proofing and shock proofing – along with brightness, clarity, depth of field, light transmission, consistency of magnification and low light ability. I have fixed rifle scopes that have outperformed or were equal to the variable scopes I owned costing three times as much or more.

When a manufacture has to spend their money on giving you the features of a variable scope, optic clarity will suffer compared to a fixed scope produced by them in the same price range. It is interesting that some 300 to 400 dollar fixed power scopes are getting shining reviews when placed against 1200 dollar variable scopes in the areas of clarity and light transmission. The reason is that the fewer lenses will make it less likely that the image will be distorted. Generally speaking, optical clarity will be greater in a fixed scope. A cheap fixed power scope will keep up with an expensive variable power scope. If you had two guys go to a lenses manufacture and one says, “I want six lenses for 500 dollars” and the other guy says. “I want 12 lenses for 500 dollars.” Which guy is going to have the higher quality lenses to put in his scope?


Light transmission in a fixed scope (all things being equal) is better. Now you can make up for the loss of light transmission in a variable scope, but it is going to cost you a lot more. Budget-wise a fixed scope is definitely superior to a variable scope. So when it comes to brightness, clarity, light transmission, roughed toughness, magnification consistency, the fixed scope does have the upper hand. Now to be fair the variable offers the desirable aspect of being able to adjust the power for different applications. Most hunters prefer to be able to adjust the power of their scope.

Your focal plane is of the upmost importance if your reticle is in the first focal plane and not in the second, when it comes to precision on long range shooting in a variable scope. It is not as big a factor when it comes to the average distances most hunters take shots. Unless you are an extreme long range shooter and hunter, the focal plane is not as big an issue. Also, in a fixed scope there is another advantage in that the focal plane does not matter where it is place in the scope. The reason a second focal plane in a variable matters is because the image size of your target and the size of your reticle in proportion to the target are going to change. A reticle in the second focal plane is constantly changing size in proportion to your target. This renders your ranging reticle in the second focal plane absolutely useless when it comes to making precision long shots. It will be useless for hold off or wind or other adjustments, because there is only one spot in the magnification range where your reticle will be in the right units of measurements. If the reticle is in the first focal plane the reticle will stay in proportion to the target size as you move in and out with a variable scope. No matter whether you range in or out your reticle will remain the same size, it won’t change size in relation to the target.

I like magnification consistency when in the field, which is another advantage of a fixed power scope. The hunter gets use to what game looks like at different distances and under different conditions. The hunter has a lot on his mind. Everything from trying not to spook game, setting up to take advantage of the wind, maneuvering his body into good shooting positions (whether from a stand or on the ground when doing spot and stalk), to the variety of weather conditions in which he finds himself. Now this is important because you can get real excited and assume the horns on that buck are taller and wider apart than they really are and end up shooting a deer you don’t want. It has happened! In fact, some years back I did just that, because I forgot my scope was set on its highest power after sighting in my rifle. I am sure some of you at one time or another have experienced a like event. If you are used to looking at game at all distances with the same power you are more apt in making the right choice when it is time to pull the trigger.

I hunt with variables and fixed scopes. I just happen to like the magnification consistency of a fixed power scope when hunting. I especially like it when things are moving quickly. I don’t have to wonder what power setting I am on or if I changed it from the last time I moved it. I don’t have to take my eyes off a deer walking that short distance across a gas or power line. I just have to put my scope on the deer and nothing else is there to distract me. A fixed scope establishes a consistent target recognition in your mind that you are used to and removes guessing when time is short. It also removes the chance of not having your variable on max power for proper calculations on long shots, when using an LR duplex or other range finding reticles.

On top of all of this, fixed scopes are going to be a better value dollar for dollar than variable scopes. Oh, but don’t we like our variable scopes and we certainly have been conditioned to believe they are the best choice. In some cases they are a better choice. But the advantages of a fixed scope over a variable scope in the field in my

humble opinion from using both types over the years, are significant. In all but a few ways the fixed has the advantage. I like the Leupold FX-3 6x42mm, the Weaver 6x38mm and the Leupold FX II 6x36mm. The fixed 6x power scopes are my favorite fixed power.

One of the best fixed power rifle scopes for general hunting is the Leupold FX-3 6x42mm and is my favorite. It minimizes the reflections of surrounding light especially from the sky on the outer eyepiece, making the most of the available light. It works extremely well in low light and twilight situations. The lens system of the FX-3 6x42mm places extra emphasis on matching coatings giving the best possible transmission of the blue/violet spectrum, without sacrificing the color balanced light transmission across the visual spectrum of the index matched lens system. It has lead-free lenses of unsurpassed clarity and quality, while being treated with DiamondCoat 2™ (an ion-assist lens coating), for higher light transmission and a high level of abrasion resistance.

The reticle is in the first focal plane. The blackened lens edges reduce unwanted glare and diffusion through the lens edges to provide better resolution, improved contrast and superior optical performance. On top of all of this, it has cryogenically treated adjustment dials that makes adjustments positive and secure. The roughness of the FX-3 6x42mm does not require or need a twin bias spring erector system like variable scopes. The FX-3 6x42mm has second generation argon/krypton gas for more effective resistance against thermal shock (increasing its resistance to sudden changes in temperature) making one tough scope that has an extra strength level of being waterproof, shockproof, and fog proof. Owning a variable scope that would have the light transmission, brightness, clarity, tight tolerances, parts quality and precision, being as tough and roughed as the FX-3 6x42mm – you would have to spend anywhere from 1,000 to 1,500 dollars depending on brand. The value and performance return you receive from fixed scopes is much greater than with variable scopes.

Some hunters might like the fixed 4 power scopes for thick cover and limited ranges. Some might like the fixed 10x for small varmints in open country or long range hunting. Now all of that said, I prefer the six power scope because I have taken deer as close as 10 yards from my tree stand and one out to 618 yards. I also took a small coyote pup at 426 yards with a six power scope. Fixed power scopes are not only roughed, and very bright having great light transmission qualities, but work well in low light on cloudy days and at twilight. They simplify life in the field in those exciting moments when moments count and your focus is only on the target. They truly are a versatile scope.

I love scopes whether fixed or variable. I am a rifle and scope junky always having fun. I have come to the opinion after years in the field, Leupold gives the hunter the best value and performance for the money spent (not to mention the best warranty), whether it is a variable or fixed scope. I am not paid by Leupold to say the above, nor have they ever given me any products to use or test. In fact any rifle, bullet or optic I have written about has always been purchased and used by me in the field – before I draw any final conclusions and write an article. On my hunts Leupold has performed better on average after trying many makes and models of rifle scopes. As I swim against the great “TSUNAMI” in the sea of variable scopes produced to entice and make us spend money, along with enabling our habit and desire to play with power rings while hunting – the advantage in my opinion still goes to that small number of roughed fixed power scopes available today.

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